Can Free Will Explain the Conversion of Sinners?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “I chose Christ of my own free will”? In many Evangelical circles such a notion is so self-evident as to be proverbial. “Well, of course we must exercise our free will in order to be saved!” So goes the conventional wisdom. Christians sling the phrase free will about with the same ease Tom Brady throws footballs to Rob Gronkowski. But do most really have any idea what they mean when embracing the notions that stand behind these overwrought words? Free will is part of the stock parlance of Arminian theology, and those who employ it with a little sophistication mean something like that which is advanced by philosophers known as libertarianism. And no, we are not talking about Gary Johnson! On the other hand, Calvinists have usually disparaged the use of the term, avoiding it like the scourge of Black Death. But of course Arminianism and its many step-children believe that Calvinism puts the grip of death upon the freedom and responsibility of human beings. In their mind, the dreaded Calvinists would have all humans beings consigned to a vast kingdom of droids.

Is this true?

A modest renaissance of sorts is occurring with a little known brand of Calvinistic thought that, while opposed to the libertarian impulse of Arminianism, embraces a wholly different kind of free agency. It is known as compatibilism and serves as a useful way to frame what the Bible really says about this slippery notion of free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility was most clearly articulated in Jonathan’s Edwards’ magnificent tome Freedom of the Will. Edwards picked up where Luther and Calvin left off in their carefully crafted works on the subject. Of course, they all stood on the shoulders of Augustine as he tried to grapple with the Biblical text.

In what follows, I offer a humble ode to the thinking of these theological giants on the complex issues that surround the sovereignty of God in salvation and what takes places in sinners who are converted to Christ. In order to understand the dynamics of conversion, one must understand the often neglected doctrine of regeneration. I suggest that regeneration is not only ill-conceived in Arminian theology, it bears little consequence for how we make sense of the metamorphic miracle that transpires when a sinner enters the glorious kingdom of Christ. That supernatural transformation can only be explained by the Calvinistic interpretation of the relevant Biblical data. Furthermore, only Calvinistic compatibilism can make sense of the conundrums that have plagued our understanding of the tension that resides between absolute divine sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other.

Let us consider some definitional points first.

Libertarianism and Compatibilism

Libertarianism holds to two basic notions. First, it is adamant that our choices as human beings can in no way be determined by anything outside of the autonomous power of one’s individual will. No outside influences of any kind are allowed to have sufficient determining power so as to cause us to make one choice or another. Not even our inner deliberations, desires, motives, preferences, and what not, are sufficient causes for the choices we make. And of course, God himself cannot interfere with the human will so as to determine any choice we make; otherwise we can be neither free nor responsible in making those choices.

The second fundamental tenet of libertarianism is known as the freedom of contrary choice. This simply means that no matter what choice one makes, in order to be truly free, an alternative choice must be a genuine possibility and able to be made with equal ease. So for example, in order for a person to exercise a free and meaningful choice to believe upon Christ for salvation, he must be able equally to choose not to believe. Without this unhindered equanimity in choosing Arminians believe humans cannot be held responsible for their choices.

There are many serious problems for this notion of free will from a practical, philosophical and especially theological perspective, but I will not canvas those problems here. I direct people to my full length book on the matter, What About Free Will? What I wish to do instead is consider a positive case for an alternate view of free agency based upon a careful inquiry into the Biblical witness. The Bible embraces a view of human choosing that is consummate with compatibilism. A Biblically framed compatibilism holds that free and responsible choices are compatible with a God who also sovereignly determines what we will or will not choose. In other words, there is a dual explanation for every choice we make. God is the primary yet remote cause of our choosing while we humans are the secondary yet proximate cause of our choosing.

Now in case one is not inclined to think that God is meticulously sovereign in all things—well, what page of the Bible do you wish to be referred? I take this as one of the few truly undisputed suppositions in matters that lie before us.

The Three Compatibilist Mechanics of Human Choosing

Before I consider a theology of conversion it is important to understand the notion of choosing from the strictly human side of the compatibilist equation I have stated. This helps define how one’s choices are determined not simply from the divine perspective, but from the temporal, situational, and personal angle of what goes on in our internal faculties. Three important propositions are affirmed by a compatibilist view of human choosing.

First, we always choose what we want to choose. Nobody ever makes a choice they don’t want to make. This is axiomatic. But immediately some will raise a question here. Don’t we in fact sometimes choose things we don’t want to choose? Little Billy sometimes cleans his room even though he doesn’t like to. Incredibly, he can and does often do what he doesn’t want to do. Would we not agree there is some truth here? But doesn’t this show that libertarian notions of contrary choosing win the day? Not quite. When you examine the matter closer, you discover that there are determinative reasons why one make choices they otherwise would not. We never stand at a fork in the road and choose one direction or the other without some particular reason, even if those reasons are not particularly strong. This is not what libertarians and Arminians would have us believe, but I think it is easy to show they are mistaken. In little Billy’s case of the messy room, perhaps good ole dad stood behind him with threats of the woodshed; and so the properly fearful lad had a compelling reason to pick up those errant Legos. Billy wanted to clean his room because he didn’t want the alternative!

Let us put the matter another way. You can analyze every choice you make and you will discover that you always choose that which you perceive to be in your best interest at the moment of choosing. Go ahead! Think of something. We never choose things we think will harm us. Blaise Pascal said it well:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Even people who choose suicide are deluded in thinking at that tragic moment that self-inflicted death is the best choice for them. They think it will benefit them. Of course it will not benefit them, but we are often deluded about what really benefits us. Sin, temptation, and deception hold hands very tightly.

This principle of self-interest is embedded in the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself. In making this statement (and others like it), the Bible assumes that we have a natural love for ourselves—a natural interest in our own happiness and in making choices that we believe to be to our benefit. Of course, in principle there is nothing wrong with this so long as our choices truly are in our best interest. Only God can define the choices that are in our best interest. We do not retain that prerogative. What brings glory to him is always what brings the greatest benefit and subsequent happiness to ourselves. When we are deluded by what brings glory to ourselves (the true definition of selfishness) is when we are truly harmed by our choices.

Secondly, compatibilism says that all of our choices are determined by whatever our motives and desires are. Now there are many conditions, external and internal to ourselves, that can influence our motives and desires, but when all is said and done we never act against those motives—in particular, the strongest ones. If a contrary choice presents itself it will always have its own particular compelling reasons. Humans don’t do random. Even if we analyze the so-called willy-nilly things we do we find that there is some hidden dormant factor that sufficiently explains the direction we take. For the better part of the day we are barely conscious of the reasons that drive most of our choices. But let us reconsider Billy. The reason why he cleans his room when he otherwise hates to is because he is motivated by the threat of punishment if he doesn’t. Of course, maybe he is brave enough to test his dad’s resolve, but that would simply point to another set of sufficient reasons for doing so. Every boy now and then thinks he can get away with murder in a messy bedroom. Bravery can be a stubborn thing. The point is, you can analyze all your choices by what motivates you. The strongest motives that underpin the perception of what is in your best interest at the moment of choosing are what determines the choices you make.

But there is a third very crucial component here. And in this case, we are particularly concerned about our moral and spiritual choices. This is what the Bible is primarily concerned about and so this is where we must pay closest attention. What is it that motivates us to make moral and spiritual choices? Where do the motives for these choices come from? They proceed from our fundamental nature as human beings. In this regard, when the Bible uses the word “heart” it often has reference to our fundamental moral and spiritual disposition as human beings. Solomon says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). The heart here represents our core nature. It is our mission control central; and from the heart flow the course of decisions that we make about life.

The Fallen Nature of Humanity

But what is the condition of our heart? The Apostle Paul tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). This means a fundamentally corrupted heart. Consider what the Bible says here: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Paul instructs the Ephesians believers to “walk no longer just as the Gentiles [unbelievers] also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17). Notice not only is the heart hardened here wherein our basic affections and desires lie; but our core nature includes our minds that operate in futility, emptiness, and uselessness in regard to spiritual things. This is the default mode of every human being who lives apart from the holy well-springs of the life of God.

Paul puts this another way when he says: “The mind set on the flesh [sinful nature] is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7). The sin nature is hostile toward God and the things of God. It does not want to obey God’s moral imperatives in a way that brings him glory alone (Rom. 3:23). Thus we cannot please God in our natural sinful state. In fact, Paul says we are not even able to do so. As sinners infected by the curse of Adam we are unwilling and unable to do anything that pleases and glorifies God. All of our best attempts at goodness are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), tainted by every dark hue of sin our hearts can devise.

Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to alter our desperate condition. The prophet says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). Jesus says the same thing employing some other color metaphors:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt. 12:33-35)

Jesus uses the idea of a tree to represent the basic nature of human beings. There are either good trees or bad trees. There are either trees that are poisonous and produce poisonous fruit or there are good trees that produce good, nutritious fruit. In order for a tree to produce good fruit it must be made good. It must undergo a radical transformation. The heart is either full of good treasure or evil treasure. Jesus is summarizing what a Biblically oriented compatibilist view of the human will tells us. If you have a corrupted nature then you will only have corrupted desires and motives which produce corrupted choices.

So the question of crucial importance here is this: what must happen in order for the tree to be made good?

The Need for Regenerated Natures

We have a need for regenerated natures. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes very graphically the transformation that takes place in the sinner who is changed into a Christ follower. He begins by depicting the pre-Christian state of his readers.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

The unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins. Spiritual silence—stone cold death. They are dominated by the dark designs of the flesh—the sin nature we inherited from Adam and in which we freely and gladly indulged. Yes, Satan, the prince of the power of the air, has a powerful grip upon sinners, but every sinner willingly (freely we might add) follows after the devil’s sinister plots of provoking humans unto disobedience to the moral will of God. They can do no other despite the protests of Arminians who espouse an illusory freedom of contrary choice. What we might regard as average people who go about the normal routines of life have no inclination to spiritual things, rather they are by nature children of divine wrath. All people are born children of wrath and immediately enslaved to their sin nature (Psa. 51:5; John 8:34). Spiritual stillbirths litter the whole landscape.

With this framework of human depravity in mind, consider the following question. Could any person repent of their sin and believe upon Christ while being enslaved to this condition? Many Arminians like to think that our condition as unbelievers is not spiritual death but spiritual weakness or sickness. Within our sickly condition we still have a spark of spirituality in our souls. We can still reach out to Christ for salvation, however feebly. To be sure, divine grace is necessary in this scheme, but it is not sufficient for salvation to obtain. That rests with the libertarian free will of man.

But this scenario simply does not comport with the picture of our human depravity. The desperate catalog of our condition in Romans 3:9-18 says otherwise. No one who lives under the curse of sin is good or righteous (vss. 10, 12). No one has a capacity or a set of motives whereby they seek the true God (vs. 11). They have all turned from him to paths of self-destruction (vss. 12, 16). The sinner has no regard for a holy God (vs. 18). Such persons are in no condition to repent of their sins or to exercise faith in Christ. We might indeed say they are free, but they are clearly in bondage at the same time. They freely choose according to the corrupt desires of their corrupted nature, and can do no other. They cannot defy their nature, but it is important to note that they don’t want to defy their nature. This is why freedom of the will must be defined no more broadly than choosing according to one’s most compelling desires. The unbeliever has no desires for anything other than what their sinful nature dictates.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. Why is it that some people believe the gospel and others do not? Would we not say that faith and repentance are morally good and God glorifying actions? In fact, would we not say that these actions represent the climax of morally good choices? What could be better than falling upon your knees before a holy God in brokenness and utter contrition; of humbly acknowledging the depth of your depravity; and of seeing that faith in the wondrous Christ, who offered his life as an atoning sacrifice to pardon such depravity, is your only hope? Likewise, would we not say that to hear the clear and powerful message of the gospel and of the mercy of God and of forgiveness of sins and then to turn away from this message in unbelief—is this not tantamount to the most egregious of sins? But what causes a person to repent of their sins and trust Christ for pardon? Is it something that proceeds from one’s own good nature? Of course not, unless we want to deny the inherent sinfulness of human beings as the Bible so clearly describes it. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit. Something has to change. Something radical has to take place; something that results in the virtuous actions of repenting of sin and entrusting one’s desires and affections to a glorious Savior. A radical transformation of our nature must take place before such choices can be made. This leads us to the lynchpin of conversion, the doctrine of regeneration.

The Doctrine of Regeneration and Conversion

This is precisely what Paul has in mind as we further consider his flow of thought in Ephesians 2. After describing the pre-Christian state of human beings (vss. 1-3), he goes on to outline this glorious transformation of regeneration:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

The believer in Christ went from death to life. How did this happen? Was it because sinners had the good sense to take their dead souls and infuse new life into them? No. People couldn’t do that even if they had the desire to do so. It was the sovereign God’s mercy toward vile dead sinners. It was the magnificence of his love for his elect even as they remained dead in sin, in an unperturbed state of constantly turning away from God, despising his moral imperatives, walking in their own way, and indulging in the corrupted desires of their hearts. God in his rich mercy and great love arrested appointed sinners in their tracks and he infused new life in them.

Paul says elsewhere: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5). Peter rejoices with similar words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). We did not cause ourselves to be born again, God did. No one causes their own birth. And yet without this new life we could not have the living hope Peter and Paul speak of. More importantly, for our purposes, we could not choose to repent and believe.

Remember our basic thesis about the mechanics of choosing. We always choose what we want to choose, and what we want to choose is what we believe to be in our best interest. Furthermore, the moral and spiritual actions we want to choose are rooted in our most compelling desires and motives. But these are inextricably tied to our basic spiritual nature. If we have a spiritually dead, intractable corrupted nature, then we will only have corrupted motives that produce corrupted choices. In order to make good, God pleasing, God glorifying moral and spiritual choices we must have a new nature implanted within us. As God tells Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)

God does this out the grace that flows from his own sovereign freedom. To be sure, we repent of our sin and trust Christ as an act of our own choice, freely and willingly. But we would never do so unless a change in our natures took place. That is something we cannot do. We are wholly passive as God replaces our heart of stone with a soft, pliable, pure, good heart that then suddenly develops desires for salvation it never had before. Our renewed heart then actively chooses salvation in response to those new desires; free of divine coercion, unhindered in any way, made completely voluntarily and yet in full concert with a sovereign God who made his choice first.

And this returns us to our compatibilistic equation. God is the primary cause of our actions, no less in the normal routines of life, but particularly as it concerns our spiritual transformation. But this does not somehow dismantle our responsible and freely made choices. Divine sovereignty is never to be equated to fatalism—a distinctly pagan notion. We are not lifeless marionettes dangling from the Master Puppeteer’s strings. We are responsible creatures who participate in his story in a necessary nexus of cause and effect. Regeneration is the supernatural side of the coin that initiates the work of salvation—the cause. Conversion is the effect—the natural and human side of the coin whereby we respond in faith and repentance to the effectual calling of the Spirit (John 6:44; 2 Tim. 1:9). Thus, the saving grace inherent in regeneration must precede faith.

In regeneration our wills are passive. In conversion they are active. Put another way, regeneration is the primary cause of our coming to Christ. Conversion is the secondary cause. God’s work of transforming our natures and infusing them with new life is largely silent and imperceptible, whereas our response in conversion is obviously tangible and self-conscious. The priority of regeneration is the only way to make sense of the gracious nature of salvation. It is the only way that prevents us from boasting and taking credit where no credit is due (1 Cor. 1:26-31). The honor and the praise are reserved for God alone. But what a privilege he has afforded us in having this strangely unique, personal, and beautiful part in the wonder of salvation. It is pure joy to be an actor in the divine Playwright’s grand story of redemption.

There are many questions this understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility raises—maters that go far beyond the conversion of sinners. This dual matrix for explaining divine and human action pervades the whole of Scripture and touches upon matters like sanctification, prayer, evangelism, the problem of evil, and more. I encourage you to investigate these issues more fully in my book What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.