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Freedom of the Will?

Category Articles
Date October 2, 2007

…and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things. Ephesians 3:9

The 16th century Reformation, which brought so much good to Europe, which delivered people from ignorance, poverty, superstition, and the darkness of paganism and idolatry, had a catch phrase to summarize the movement – post tenebras lux, meaning after the darkness light. Indeed a people who had generally been in the darkness of unbelief for a millennium now had seen a great light, the gospel of grace through Jesus Christ.

By the mid-18th century, however, the light of the doctrines of grace was beginning to wane in the west, due largely to a new philosophy which was invading theology. Sceptics like David Hume, who denied the possibility of the verification of truth, scoffed at the Calvinistic doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s total depravity. Calvinism teaches that the sovereign God requires of man total obedience to his law, while at the same time saying that man is unable to obey what God commands, thus necessitating his need for a Saviour. To men like Hume, this was plainly ridiculous.

The new philosophy taught that man is a free moral agent, that he is totally free to do as he pleases. John Locke, for example, put forth rules by which individuals could rationally evaluate their beliefs and commitments, fostering the idea of self-responsible independence. This was the invention of the modern self, man possessing an unfettered free will.

Jonathan Edwards, by 1752, was preaching and writing in Stockbridge, MA, and in his prescience saw the inherent dangers of this philosophy/theology, what he called Arminianism. If this took hold, then men would become absorbed with what we now call self-actualization, self-esteem, and man being the measure of all things. In light of this Edwards wrote his masterful treatise against the freedom of the will and its full title summarizes its context, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame.1 He saw this idea of man’s self-determination of the will as ‘almost inconceivably pernicious.’ He sought to prove the impossibility of man’s free moral agency by saying that no one does anything without being influenced by something which came before that action of the will. He sought to prove that the will does not have some hidden power of free choice.

You may be saying, ‘Okay, that’s real nice, but I can’t really follow it, and so what? How does that impact me today?’ Here’s how. We have been so affected by this belief in man’s inherent free moral agency that the practical implications of man’s total inability or total depravity, the fact that his heart, soul, mind, and will are so corrupted by sin and unbelief that the typical way we do church does not and will not work. It will not address the depth of need in our own lives, let alone that of those unbelievers living and working around us.

Follow this – if man is a free moral agent to do as he pleases, then the underlying assumption is that he has a spark of righteousness (moral virtue) within him, and thus he can decide on his own free will to make himself better. This leads to various forms of moralism, even within the church. Thus we have, ‘Follow the teaching of Jesus … be like Jesus … model your life after Jesus’ sacrificial kingdom perspective … go to a therapist … take drugs for depression … get off drugs, alcohol, and racial bigotry by checking into a rehabilitation centre for a month, then all will be well.’

But these approaches deny the utter depravity and lost condition of mankind. Man is not merely sick. Man is not a free moral agent. He is so corrupted by the fall into sin, so much in darkness that something utterly radical, utterly transforming must happen to him. He must be brought out, by a sovereign work of God’s grace (because he cannot work it up himself), of darkness, out of slavery to sin.

Paul is taking up this glorious truth in Ephesians 3:9, saying that he has been set apart by God to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and to bring to light the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption which for many ages had been hidden. The people around us who do not know Christ are not merely in need of a month in rehab. They think they can see but they are blind. They think they can hear but they are deaf. They think they can walk but they are lame. They think they are alive but they are dead. They think they are rich and have need of nothing, but they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.

But the pernicious nature of Arminianism is not felt only by unbelievers. It has deeply affected believers as well. So, now our tendency is to focus on our individual sins, sometimes feeling guilty for them, but lightly dismissing them, seldom seeing the deceptive nature of indwelling sin, seldom dealing with our sin at its root. So we deal with our guilt and shame, our recurring sin, our sense of paralysis, anger, and resentment over the sin of our loved ones by telling them/ourselves, ‘To suck it up, try harder, go to rehab., take a drug, do these three, quick, easy steps, take an aspirin, and call me in the morning.’

The glorious truth, dear Christian, is that God has delivered you from the domain of darkness and transferred you into the kingdom of his beloved Son. You who were dwelling in darkness have seen a great light. You are now a new creation in Christ Jesus. The body of sin is being rendered powerless. You are no longer a slave to sin. You need to step back from the fray of your battle with sin, and take a panoramic view of the administration of God’s mystery. You have been brought from darkness to light. You were blind, but now you see. You were lame but now you can walk. You were dead but now you are alive. You were destined for hell but now you are on the road to heaven. You were poor but now you are rich.

If someone deposits $10 million into my savings account, everything about my financial status changes. I may think, feel, or act like I have little money. I may worry about paying my bills, but such things are totally untrue concerning my real condition. I would be wealthy and therefore it would make sense for me to act like it. Never forget the wonder of your eternal salvation. Never forget who you are in Christ. Focus, not on the specific sins of your daily existence; but rather focus on the big picture – that you who once was a rebellious, hell-bound sinner who was totally oblivious to your condition, has been put into the light of new life in Christ. See – doctrine really is practically important.


  1. Edwards’ treatise can be found in Volume 1 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), pp. 1-93.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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