Does Man Have Free Will? We Distinguish (Pictet)

Christian Theology Do humans after the fall have free will?  Reformed theology has generally made a distinction when answering this question.  On the one hand, humans have natural liberty.  This means we can freely chose when to eat, drink, sleep, travel, etc.  However, because of Adam’s sin and our own corruption, we have wholly lost the ability to do any spiritual good.  Therefore, we cannot convert ourselves or prepare ourselves for conversion (see WCF ch. 9).  Speaking of the bondage of the will, I appreciate how Swiss Reformed theologian Benedict Pictet (d. 1724)  explained this from Scripture.

“…With regard to moral and spiritual good, we consider that man is so corrupt of his own nature, that he can do nothing acceptable in the sight of God. Now this is proved by many testimonies of Scripture. First, from those passages in which ability or power is expressly declared not to be in man, as when it is said that he ‘cannot know the things of God, cannot subject himself to the law of God, can do nothing without Christ, nothing of himself, cannot bring forth good fruit,’ etc. (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 8:7; John 15:5; 2 Cor. 3:5; Matt. 7:18.).”

“There are passages, also, which represent man as a servant of sin and of the devil, such a servant as is bound with the chains of his lusts, the ‘servant of corruption,’ (2 Pet. 2:19,) who cannot be set at liberty except by Christ; now servitude or slavery implies, both a perpetual necessity of obligation, till deliverance takes place, and the devoting of every work and action to the service of the master. It appears, then, that the sinner has no moral power to deliver himself from this slavery, or to do any thing in which he is not wholly subject to the master whom he serves, namely, sin.”

“There are passages also in which man’s understanding is described as blind, darkened, nay darkness itself, (Eph. 5:8,) his heart deceitful and desperately wicked, (Jer. 17:9;) hard as adamant, (Zech. 7:12;) stony, (Ezek. 36:26.) Now what do these expressions denote, but that he has no strength for heavenly things, either in his understanding, or in his will; and that he can neither understand nor do good without divine aid; for a stony heart can convey no other idea than that of a heart insensible, inflexible, earthly, destitute of life.”

Pictet then discusses Ephesians 2, which says man is “dead” in sin: “It is plain that a sinner has no more power to convert himself, than a dead man has to raise himself to life.”  Here’s an excellent paragraph full of biblical imagery:

“The truth is further established by joining together all the expressions already brought forward, and others of the same import, which will give the force of a demonstration. The Scripture, then, calls the sinner a slave, but a slave who cannot escape by flight, because he is a captive, a captive who cannot pay the price of his ransom, because he is a debtor, a debtor, who has not become so by misfortune, but from guilt, for he is a criminal, but not only a criminal, who may be in good health and at ease, but also a sick or diseased person, not, however, such a sick man as can call in the aid of a physician, but one who is sunk into a deep sleep, yet not so that he can presently awake, for he is also dead; and not like a dead man who can do no harm, but one who is an enemy and a rebel against God. We may, finally, adduce all those expressions which the Scripture makes use of to describe the work of conversion, calling it a creation, a resurrection, a regeneration, the producing of a new heart; all which most clearly imply the entire inability of the sinner to contribute any thing at all to this new creation, or resurrection of himself.”

This truth of the bondage of the will shouldn’t make us despair about our sinfulness or the salvation of others who are stuck in sin.  It should make us run to the grace of God, who in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, powerfully gives life to cold, dead hearts!  In other words, the doctrine of the bondage of the will leads us by the hand to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in regeneration.

The above quotes are found in Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology, trans. Frederick Reyroux (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, n.d.), 199.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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