Does Man Have Free Will to Choose Christ? Not So Fast!
A recent article highlighted once again just how dangerous it is to take part of a verse or a single verse out of its context and attempt to make it bend to our predetermined thought. This has been done for centuries and, I suspect, will continue to happen. After all, what would the prosperity preachers preach if they could not utilize this tactic?
For those of us seeking to be faithful disciples and followers of Jesus however, cherry-picking Scripture is to be avoided at all times.
John Hendryx, writing at Monergism.com, responds to a commenter that cites Scripture in his opposition to the “biblical view that, due to a corruption of nature, fallen man has no free will to come to Christ.”
The view concerning man’s will is one of debate among Arminians and Reformed theologians. Arminians believe that man has the ability, the free will, to choose Christ. Reformed theologians believe that due to the bondage of the will to sin, man does not have the ability to choose Christ without the regenerating work and effectual calling of the Holy Spirit. This distinction has been the source of much debate between these two theological groups.
Before moving forward, it is important to understand that it is a universally agreed upon fact that man has a will and can make choices based upon that will. However, what is not true is that man has the ability to freely choose Christ based solely upon his own free will. Let me explain the difference.
Man’s free will extends to the daily choices he makes, such as what time to wake up in the morning, what to eat, and what to watch on television. All these choices are based upon man’s free will. But, these choices are also based upon man’s bondage to sin. This does not mean that because someone chose to eat waffles and drink coffee this morning that those things are sinful and that person sinned in doing so. Rather, it means that the choices man makes are bound by his sin nature. In this we understand that because man’s will is held in bondage to sin he is not able to freely choose Christ unless the Holy Spirit first calls him and performs his work of regeneration in the life and heart of that man.
In John Hendryx’s article, he responds to criticism of the belief that man does not have the ability to freely choose Christ. The critic attempted to cite numerous Bible verses purporting to show that man does have a free will. But, as you will see in the article, the critic cherry-picked those verses and ignored their context. This resulted in using these verses in such a way as to distort their meaning and attempting to make them mean something they clearly do not. For example…
The critic cited Philemon 14: “but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own Free Will.”
But Hendryx corrects the error here:
“First of all. We affirm that man has a will and he makes voluntary choices, regardless of what state he is in (pre-fall, post-fall, regenerate, glorified). But here, who is this text aimed at? According to the context (we should always look at context) it is aimed at regenerate believers, brothers in Christ, the church. In other words these persons have already been set free from sin’s bondage and are therefore no longer slaves to it. In relation to sin they are free (able not to sin) and so, having been redeemed, they can now make choices which are actually good choices.”
The critic then turns to Joshua 24:15: “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, CHOOSE for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
But, Hendryx pulls in the larger context to correct this error:
“Please go back read the passage in context. Four verses later after the people agree to choose God ‘Joshua immediately said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.’’ Joshua 24:19. Both in the Old Testament and the new, people do not just serve God with the grit and power of their own native ability. Just declaring they will serve a holy God is something impossible for man apart from grace. Only God can change their hearts (Deut 29:4, 30:6; Ezek 36:26) so they will want to believe and obey. Furthermore, ‘choose this day’ this is an imperative. It simply tells us what we OUGHT to do, but says nothing about our ability to do it. And as you can see, Joshua points out their inability to do so regardless of their protestations otherwise.”
The critic also cited Romans 10:9-10: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
But Hendryx masterfully explained how this verse explains the Gospel, not man’s ability to choose Christ:
“When we preach the gospel to our friends and family we call people everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. We get the message to their ears, God alone can get it to their heart. We plant and water, God causes the growth. Calling people to repent and believe the gospel does not assume ability … it is just a summons … If a man rejects it, it is not because God holds him back. He does so willfully. Now this summons may bring a man to lose all hope in himself as the Holy Spirit enables him to see he is unable to do as commanded. Then stripped of all hope in his own righteousness he will, by grace, flee to Christ. The Holy Spirit convicts, regenerates and converts a person. Salvation is by grace through faith and this is not of ourselves but is a gift of God (Eph 2:8). Grace always taking the lead. And what does that grace look like? 3 verses before Paul said, “While we were still dead in sin, He made us alive (quickened us) (Eph 2:5). There is that word again which we know is apart from the will of the flesh.”
In many of the other verses cited by the critic it was painfully apparent that he (or she) was grasping at straws. The verses were pulled so far out of context that it was hard to believe any serious disciple would be willing to make such erroneous claims. But Hendryx does a great job of carefully explaining the error with each verse cited. It’s certainly worth reading.
As we can see, the idea that man, by his own free will can choose Christ has no biblical basis. Man’s will is so captive to sin that unless an external force, namely the Holy Spirit, performs a divine work upon that will, there is no hope that man could ever be saved. However, when the Holy Spirit begins to call the soul of man, and performs His work of regeneration in the heart and soul of that man, he is given the ability to choose Christ in faith.
The effectual calling by the Holy Spirit is a critical part of this process. What is “effectual calling”? The Reformation Study Bible explains:
“What is described here is the process of Christian conversion, involving illumination, regeneration, and the transformation of the will. It is a sovereign work of God, ‘effectually’ (that is, effectively) performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine corresponds to Paul’s use of the word ‘call’ in the sense of ‘to bring to faith,’ and his use of ‘called’ to mean ‘converted’ (Rom. 1:6; 8:28, 30; 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:9, 24, 26; 7:18, 21; Gal. 1:15; Eph. 4:1-4; 2 Thess. 2:14). This calling is different from the general invitation, as described in Jesus; explanation of the parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22:14). The general, external invitation can fail to be answered, but the effectual calling is a particular act of God resulting in regeneration. It cannot be refused (John 10:3, 4).”
The picture is clear now: man’s will is hopelessly bound by sin and unable to choose Christ due to its bondage to sin. The Holy Spirit must perform his work of regeneration in the heart and soul of a person before he is able to turn to Christ in faith. That process starts with “effectual calling” during which the Holy Spirit calls, draws a person to Christ through conviction of sin. Then the Holy Spirit regenerates the dead heart and soul and frees the will from the bondage of sin so that the person is now able to choose Christ by faith. Now that the person has chosen Christ by faith and salvation has come, the process of sanctification can begin.
The bondage of the will must be properly understood in order to understand the process of salvation. A short, concise explanation of the will of man by John Calvin can be found here. Calvin states plainly; “We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil.” The rest of his statement is worth reading.
I hope now you have a greater understanding of just how enslaved to sin man really is. So enslaved that man has no ability to choose Christ, the only source of freedom. But, we praise God for the work of the Holy Spirit in calling and regenerating man so that he may choose Christ and be set free from sin.