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  • The Baptist Confession on Human Freedom

    Human Freedom
    by Robert Gonzales Jr.

    The doctrine of the human will is one of the most important and most debated doctrines in church history. Augustine debated Pelagius over this doctrine. Luther debated Erasmus. Calvinists debated Arminians. According to Greg Nichols, “Freewill is the pivot of all anthropology. Error at this point is fatal.”[1] And not only does the doctrine of freewill affect the doctrine of man, but it also can seriously affect other doctrines of Scripture. The third century theologian Origen illustrates this point. Origen’s doctrine of freewill led him to the conclusion that sinners in hell may still be converted and saints in heaven may yet fall from grace into hell![2] As this example illustrates, the doctrine of freewill is of paramount importance for the rest of our theology and practice.

    Below I’d like to summarize the Bible’s teaching on the doctrine of human freedom, using the Baptist Confession as a guide.

    The Gift of Human Freedom (LBC 9.1)

    1 God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any [‘absolute,’ WCF] necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.

    According to the Confession, God has endowed man with a certain capacity called “natural liberty.” The Baptist Confession adds an explanatory phrase to the Westminster Confession, “and power of acting upon choice.” This “power of acting upon choice” is “free” in at least two senses: first, human freedom is not “forced … to do good or evil.” Neither environment, nor circumstance, nor peer pressure, nor persecution, nor Satan, nor even God can force or coerce a sinner to do good or evil (Isa. 10:7ff.; Matt. 17:12; James 1:14).[3] Second, human freedom is not fixed—”nor [is it] by any necessity of nature deter­mined to do good or evil.” Man’s morality is not determined by his humanity. That is, man’s human nature as such does not in itself determine his moral character or choices.

    Of course, this does not necessarily mean that men can choose to do things outside the limits of their human capacities or moral character. For example, human freedom does not enable a man to leap over a ten-story building or fly like a bird. Nor can man as a mere creature freely chose to exercise the omniscience or omnipotence that belongs to God the Creator. Humans may freely do what humans are capable of doing. Therefore, “freewill” is not the power of omni-choice.

    Furthermore, the Bible indicates that a man’s moral character conditions his choices and actions (Jer. 13:23; Matt. 7:17; 12:33-35). Therefore, “freewill” is not the power of contrary or arbitrary choice. Rather, freewill is best defined as the freedom and ability to choose as one desires within the parame­ters of one’s human nature and ethical character.

    In light of these observations, I want to draw two brief conclusions: first, we must affirm the doctrine of human freedom lest we undermine the doctrine of human responsibility. A wooden puppet cannot be responsible for its actions. Nor is a woman who has been raped against her will guilty of sin. This is because human freedom is partly the basis for human responsibility. Men cannot be responsible unless they are, as human beings, able-to-respond (see qualification under paragraph three). Second, human nature does not by itself determine moral character or choices. In other words, good and evil are not genetically predetermined. Thus, we must reject the popular notion that says, “To err is human.” On the contrary, “To be free is human.”

    The States of Human Freedom (LBC 9.2-5)

    The Confession summarizes four different states of human freedom that are described in Scripture:

    Human freedom in Adam

    2 Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God, but yet was unsta­ble, so that he might fall from it.

    As I argued above, the essence of human freedom does not consist in the power of contrary choice. Rather, it consists in the freedom and ability to choose as one desires within the parameters of one’s human nature and ethical character. Adam and Eve, how­ever, appear to be an exception to this rule. They were created with an upright heart (Eccl. 7:29). They had no built-in proclivity towards sin. Yet they chose to do evil (Gen. 3:6). How do we har­monize this fact with Jesus’ statement that “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17)?

    Our first parents’ choice to sin against God remains in some sense a mystery.[4] As such, we should not deny it. Furthermore, we should remember that Adam and Eve’s psychological and spiritual makeup was unique. They were created “upright.” We were born “sinners.” Therefore, we must beware of using Adam and Eve as a model for defining freewill for sinners or saints. This was the mistake made by Pelagius, and the church rightly condemned it.[5]

    Human freedom in fallen man

    3 Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

    This paragraph presents the “other side of the coin,” what has been called the doctrine of total inability or, perhaps better termed, spiritual inability.[6] In one sense, the Bible speaks of fallen men as possessing “natural liberty” or “freewill” (Isa. 10:7ff.; Matt. 17:10). Yet in another sense, the Bible teaches that fallen man has lost his freedom. Just as a bird with broken wing can fly as a bird, but cannot fly as an injured bird. So too the sinner has the capacity to do good as a human being, but he no longer has the ability to do good as a depraved human being.

    I draw the following summary of the biblical evidence from Sam Waldron’s exposition of the Baptist Confession with a few modifications of language:[7]

    1. The Bible portrays sinners as slaves (John 8:31-34; Rom. 6:16, 20), blind (2 Cor. 3:14), and dead (Eph. 2:1), which are pictures of inabil­ity.
    2. The Bible explicitly teaches that sinners have lost the moral ability to please God (Jer. 10:23; Matt. 7:17-18; 12:33-37; Luke 6:43-45; John 3:3, 5; 6:44; Rom. 7:18; 8:7-8; 1 Cor. 2:14).
    3. The Bible teaches that sinners are not willing to come to Christ apart from God’s drawing influence (John 5:40; 6:37, 39, 40, 44, 45, 65; Acts 7:51; Rom. 3:10-12).
    4. The Bible describes God’s will not man’s will as the source or ultimate determining factor in the application of salvation (John 1:12-13; Rom. 9:16-18; James 1:18).
    5. The Bible depicts the human responses of “faith” and “repentance” as gifts from God (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:25-26).

    This is the doctrine of total or spiritual inability. According to the Bible, man’s will is in bondage to sin though he remains a free and responsible agent. Admittedly, these two truths appear paradoxical. Nevertheless, the Scriptures do sometimes view the unregenerate man from two perspectives.[8]

    Despite the biblical evidence, certain objections have been raised against the doctrine of spiritual inability. In the first place, some argue that the doctrine of spiritual inability undermines human responsibility since responsibility assumes ability to respond. Spiritual inability, however, does not deny the sinner’s ability to respond as a human being. Ontologically and constitutionally, he is able. Rather, total inability only denies the sinner’s ability to do spiritual good. Morally and spiritually, he is unable. Thus, responsibility remains intact.

    Second, some argue that the doctrine of spiritual inability breeds passivity and despondency among sinners. If I cannot come to Christ in faith, then why should I even bother to try believing? However, as Sam Waldron notes,

    Despair of human resources is, in fact, the necessary preparation for the gospel. It is the opposite doctrine of human sufficiency, which is the true hindrance…. The doctrine of inability is calculated to produce urgency, not indifference, in any sinner who cares.[9]

    Third, some argue that the doctrine of spiritual inability in incompatible with the free offer of the gospel. How can we genu­inely invite those who are unable to come? In response, it should be noted that Jesus Himself sometimes preached spiritual inability to lost sinners whom He invited to believe in Him (John 6:44, 65). Therefore, it cannot be “incompatible” with inviting sinners to Christ. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Thus, the free offer of the gospel is the instrument God uses to awaken the sin­ner and to incline his heart to trust in Christ.

    Human freedom in the believer

    4 When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritu­ally good; yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.

    When God saves a man, He gives him a new heart (Jer. 31:33; 32:40; Ezek. 36:26; Titus 3:5). This new heart enables the sinner both to desire and to perform that which is well-pleasing in God’s sight (Phil. 2:13; Heb. 13:21; 1 John 3:22). Yet, God does not remove all the corruption from his heart. Consequently, the saved sinner still may choose evil even though he now has the ability to do good (Rom. 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17).

    This paragraph reminds us that sin no longer reigns in our heart. As born-again believers we now have the ability to please God with our attitudes and actions. Thus, there is no place for an inordinate “worm-theology.” On the other hand, the paragraph also reminds us that sin still remains in our heart. Therefore, let us walk humbly and, by God’s grace, strive to mortify the remaining deeds of the flesh.

    Human freedom in the glorified saint

    5 This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only.

    According to the Scripture, the glorified saint will attain a state of perfection in which he is no longer capable of sinning (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:4, 27; 22:3), and thus he will remain forever with the Lord (1 Thes. 4:17). This wonderful reality, which all evangelicals affirm, refutes the notion that human freedom must consist in the power of contrary choice. Glorified saints will never, ever be able to choose evil again. Yet they shall experience a true freedom like that of God Himself—the freedom to do only and always that which glorifies God.

    Dr. Robert R. Gonzales Jr., Ph.D, has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of RBS since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. Dr Gonzales is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his wife, Becky, reside in Sacramento, California. (from rbseminary.org)

    More Resources

    [1] Unpublished lectures on the “Doctrine of Man,” Lecture 14, p. 2.

    [2] Origen expresses this view when he writes, “It seems a possible thing that rational natures, from whom the faculty of free will is never taken away, may be again subjected to movements of some kind.” Cited by David Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Hendrickson, 1998), 289. By “movement” Origen is referring to transition from a condition of salvation to perdition or vise versa. See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (Harper & Row, 1978), 180ff.; Reinhold Seeberg, Textbook of the History of Doctrines, trans. Charles E. Hay (Baker Book House, 1956), 152-60.

    [3] Of course, I affirm that God’s sovereign plan embraces every historical event and contingency, including human choices. Yet I don’t believe the Scriptures portray God as coercing humans to act apart from their own self-determination. For a lengthy discussion of God’s relationship to human choices, particularly, to human choices that are evil, see John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 174-82.

    [4] John Murray refers to this mystery as “The Psychogenetic Problem.” “The Fall of Man,” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:75-76.

    [5] For the Pelagian controversy, see Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (repr., Eerdmans, 1987), 3:783-850.

    [6] I follow Anthony Hoekema in preferring the phrase “spiritual inability” to “total inability” since the latter is subject to misunderstanding. Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 152-54.

    [7] A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd ed. (Evangelical Press, 1995), 142. I’ve added the word “moral” before “ability” to the second assertion because I do affirm man’s human ability to please God. That is, when viewed purely (and abstractly) in terms of his humanity, man was made with the God-given ability to please God. See Jonathan Edwards, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (1834; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 2:3-12; Andrew Fuller, “Reply to Philanthropos” and “Miscellanies” in The Works of Andrew Fuller, 3 vols. (1820; reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 2:472-83; 3:768-69; Archibald Alexander, “The Inability of Sinners,” in Theological Essays (New York & London: Wiley and Putnam, 1846). I’ve also added the word “ultimate” before “deter­mining factor” because I do believe it is correct to view the sinner’s will as a determining factor, though secondary to God’s will.

    [8] The following examples should suffice: on the one hand, the Bible still views unregenerate man as the image of God and as therefore having intrinsic value (Gen. 5:1-3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9). On the other hand, the Bible views the unregenerate man as a marred image of God, utterly depraved and corrupt (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 1:21-32; 7:24). On the one hand, the unregenerate man is said to “know God” (Rom. 1:18-21, 25, 28-32; 2:14-15). On the other hand, unregenerate man is ignorant of God and His will (John 8:19; 17:3; 2 Thes. 1:8). On the one hand, unregenerate man can still recognize God’s voice in creation, providence, conscience, and Scripture (Gen. 3:8; Matt. 11:21ff.; Luke 16:27ff.; Rom. 1:18-21, 32; 2:14-15). On the other hand, unregenerate man is not able to recognize and respond to God’s voice properly (Rom. 1:21-23, 28; 1 Cor. 2:14). On the one hand, unregenerate man has free will by virtue of his humanity (Josh. 24:14-15; Luke 13:24; Rev. 22:17). On the other hand, unregenerate man’s will is in bondage to sin and no longer free in a moral sense (John 8:31-34; Rom. 8:5-8; Eph. 2:1). On the one hand, unregenerate man can still perform “good works” (1 Kings 21:27-29; 2 Kings 10:30-31; Rom. 2:14). On the other hand, unregenerate man cannot perform works that are truly pleasing to God (Isa. 64:6; Rom. 3:10ff.; Prov. 21:4).

    [9] Modern Exposition, 145. Waldron uses the illustration of a man in a burn­ing house who realizes that he does not possess a key to get out. In such a case of hopeless desperation, the man is likely to start crying out for help.