God’s Will, Man’s Will, and Free Will
Ernest Reisinger (The following article is taken from the opening chapter of a forthcoming book by the author.)
A very important but neglected subject for the modern church is that of free will. It is vital to understand in what sense the will is free and to see how important this issue is to the Christian faith.
Does salvation depend upon man’s willingness to be saved apart from a prior work of the Holy Spirit? No one is saved against his will; however, God changes the willer so as to make the sinner willing. The subject of free-will is at the very heart of Christianity and has a profound effect on our message and method of evangelism. While it is true that “whosoever will may come,” the Bible teaches that salvation depends not on man’s willingness but on God’s willingness, God’s grace, and God’s power. Furthermore, if God did not have power over man’s will the whole world would go to hell. God does not exclude anyone in His invitations; however, sinners do exclude themselves.
Philip P. Bliss wrote a hymn called “Whosoever Will.”
“Whosoever heareth,” shout, shout the sound!
Spread the blessed tidings all the world around;
Tell the joyful news wherever man is found,
“Whosoever will may come.”
Whosoever cometh need not delay,
Now the door is open, enter while you may;
Jesus is the true, the only Living Way:
“Whosoever will may come.”
“Whosoever will” the promise is secure;
“Whosoever will,” forever must endure;
“Whosoever will!” `tis life forever more;
“Whosoever will may come.”
“Whosoever will, whosoever will!”
Send the proclamation over vale and hill
`Tis a loving Father calls the wanderer home:
“Whosoever will may come.”
If you cannot sing this hymn from the heart then you do not understand the biblical teaching on free-will. The song writer was very wise and prudent when he wrote “Whosoever Will” may come. He did not say whosoever will can come.
One of the first questions that faces us in any serious study of the freedom of the will is whether there is power of the will to obey God and to do that which is spiritually good. This question is intimately connected with the subject of man’s spiritual condition before God. We must begin with how man was created and his state as an unregenerated being. It is also necessary to know what ability man possessed before the fall and what ability man lost because of the fall. The doctrine of free-will brings us to a consideration, not of the ability and excellency of man, but to his weakness, misery, and inability to do spiritual good.
No man is saved against his will. No man is pardoned while he hates the thought of forgiveness. No man shall have joy in the Lord if he says, “I do not wish to rejoice in the Lord.” Do not for a moment think that the angels will push anyone into the gates of heaven. We are not saved against our will; nor is the will taken away, but the work of the Spirit of God is to change the human will, and so make men willing in the day of God’s power (Psa. 110:3), working in them to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil 2:13). “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Spirit quickens the soul and makes such revelations of truth to it enabling the soul to see things in a different light from what it ever did before, and then the will cheerfully bows that neck that was once as stiff as iron, and wears the yoke it once despised, and wears it gladly. Man is not acted upon as a machine; he is not polished as a piece of marble; he is not planed as a piece of wood, but his mind is acted upon by the Spirit of Life. Man is made a new creature in Christ Jesus, by the will of God, and his own will is blessedly and sweetly made to yield. If you are willing, depend upon it that God made you willing. If you have one spark of love for Him it is a spark from the fire of His love for you.”We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We bring out the crown and say, “On whose head shall we put it?” Every child of God will say, “Crown Him, He is worthy, He has made us to differ.” “For who makes you to differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you glory as if you had not received it” (1 Cor 4:7).
The subject of man’s will is not a new topic of debate in the Christian church nor among theologians and philosophers. For hundreds of years there have been strong serious debates and discussions on the subject of the freedom of man’s will. As far back as the fifth century one of our heroes, Augustine, debated Pelagius on this subject. It was also one of the key issues of the Reformation.
Martin Luther began the Reformation with a denial of free-will. This was, and is, fundamental to the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.
At the outset of the Reformation, Erasmus, a brilliant scholar, wrote a Diatribe called Discussion on the Freedom of the Will defending the Roman Catholic doctrine. In response to Erasmus’ diatribe, Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will. (Every minister should study this classic.)
When most Christians think of the Reformation, the first thing that comes to their mind is justification by faith alone. There is good reason for that assumption; justification by faith alone was the key doctrine that came out of the Reformation; however, it was not the key issue at the foundation of the Reformation. A careful study of the historical facts will clearly show that the issue of man’s will was at the heart of the theological difference between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church.
To emphasize the importance of this subject it may be appropriate and profitable to quote Dr. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston from their historical and theological introduction to Luther’s masterpiece. Dr. Packer and O.R. Johnston translated The Bondage of the Will from German and Latin to English.
The Bondage of the Will is the greatest piece of theological writing that ever came from Luther’s pen. This was his own opinion. Writing to Capito on July 9th, 1537, with reference to a suggested complete edition of his works, he roundly affirmed that none of them deserved preservation save the little children’s Catechism and The Bondage of the Will; for only they, in their different departments, were `right’ (justum). Others have agreed with Luther in giving this treatise pride of place among his theological productions. B. B. Warfield, for instance, endorsing the description of it as a `dialectic and polemic masterpiece,’ styles it `the embodiment of Luther’s reformation conceptions, the nearest thing to a systematic statement of them that he ever made…it is…in a true sense the manifesto of the Reformation.’ And Professor Rupp quotes with approval the description of the book as `the finest and most powerful Soli Deo Gloria to be sung in the whole period of the Reformation.’ In its fertility of thought, its vigour of language, its profound theological grasp, its sustained strength of argument and the grand sweep of its exposition, it stands unsurpassed among Luther’s writings. It is the worthiest representative of his mature thought that he has left us, and is a far finer memorial of his theological prowess than are the smaller tracts of the preceding years, which are so much better known.
Its character stands out in relief when we compare it with the booklet to which it is a reply. Erasmus’ Diatribe is elegant and gracefully written, but for all that it is by no means a significant production. There is ample evidence, as we have seen, that Erasmus had no desire to write it and no particular interest in its subject. His book suggests as much. It exhibits much learning but little insight. It makes plain what its author would not have been concerned to deny–that Erasmus of Rotterdam, the learned biblical scholar, was no theologian. It is brief and superficial. Erasmus is deliberately noncommittal on the question which he discusses. He writes on the `free-will’ debate, so he tells us, as a commentator and critic rather than as a contributor to it. His chief point is that it is not a very significant issue, one way or the other; and his main complaint against Luther is simply that the latter shows a defective sense of proportion in laying so much stress on an opinion which is extreme and improbable in itself and relates to a subject which is both obscure and unimportant. The Bondage of the Will, on the other hand, is a major treatment of what Luther saw as the very heart of the gospel. It was no mere pot-boiler, written to order; Luther welcomed the opportunity which the appearance of the Diatribe afforded for a full written discussion of those parts of his teaching which to his mind really mattered, and plunged into his subject with zest. `You alone,’ he tells Erasmus, `have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not worried me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like–trifles, rather than issues–in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood…you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot. For that I heartily thank you; for it is more gratifying to me to deal with this issue…’ `Free-will’ was no academic question to Luther; the whole gospel of the grace of God, he held, was bound up with it, and stood or fell according to the way one decided it. In The Bondage of the Will, therefore, Luther believes himself to be fighting for the truth of God, the only hope of man; and his earnestness and energy in prosecuting the argument bear witness to the strength of his conviction that the faith once delivered to the saints, and in consequence the salvation of precious souls, is here at stake. `As to my having argued somewhat vigourously,’ he writes, `I acknowledge my fault, if it is a fault–but no; I have wondrous joy that this witness is borne in the world of my conduct in the cause of God. May God Himself confirm this witness in the last day!’ It is not a part of a true theologian, Luther holds, to be unconcerned, or to pretend to be unconcerned, when the gospel is in danger. This is the explanation of what Warfield calls `the amazing vigour’ of Luther’s language. The gospel of God is in jeopardy; the springs of Luther’s religion are touched; the man is moved; the volcano erupts; argument pours out of him white-hot. Nowhere does Luther come closer, either in spirit or in substance, to the Paul of Romans and Galatians than in The Bondage of the Will.
Why did Erasmus and Luther approach the discussion of `free-will’ in such contrasting attitudes of mind? The answer is not far to seek. Their divergent attitudes sprang from two divergent conceptions of Christianity. Erasmus held that matters of doctrine were all comparatively unimportant, and that the issue as to whether a man’s will was or was not free was more unimportant than most. Luther, on the other hand, held that doctrines were essential to, and constitutive of, the Christian religion, and that the doctrine of the bondage of the will in particular was the corner-stone of the gospel and the very foundation of faith….
This issue came very much alive in the eighteenth century during the Great Awakening. The subject of free-will was also at the bottom of Charles Finney’s theological error and unbiblical evangelistic methods. The battle still exists between Reformed and Fundamentalist believers and their respective methods and message of evangelism.
Every serious student of Scripture should understand how vitally important our subject in relation to other important doctrines of the Christian faith, such as, Total Depravity, Election, and Effectual Calling. A right view of free will profoundly effects your methods of evangelism.