When Voluntary is not free? Faith and Will in salvation

What is freedom? Is there a distinction between a “voluntary” action and a free action? I examine these questions in the light of how one comes to faith.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus wrote his “On the Freedom of the will” (1524) where he defines free will as “a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation or turn away from them.” Erasmus, like a good Arminian, says that this does not mean that man contributes to his salvation but merely cooperates with God in salvation, which an Arminian, like the Calvinist, would say is 100% of the Lord. In response to Erasmus, Luther wrote “The Bondage of the will (1525), which was later accepted by all the main Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli. Calvin stands out among the reformers.

Calvinism for the average person as well as for the average Arminian is this: “Calvinism designs men to perdition no matter what they do” (Cornelius Van Til, “An introduction to Systematic Theology, ed. William Edgar, P&R Publishing, Second Edition, p. 294).

With regard to the terms “cooperation” and “contribution,” the Calvinist goes further than the Arminian by stating that man does not even cooperate with God in salvation. In other words, the Arminian holds a synergistic (cooperation) view of salvation, while the Calvinist holds a monergistic (God does it all) view of salvation. In both Arminianism and Calvinism, though, the believer responds to God’s call. The difference between the Arminianism and Calvinist response is that in the former the response is the cause of regeneration (being born again, “made alive”), whereas in Calvinism the response is the effect of regeneration.

We “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, 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…” (Ephesians 2:3-5). (See the Arminian claim that it is not synergistic).

From the Calvinist perspective, the best treatise on the will is Jonathan Edwards’ “Freedom of the will,” which can be summed up in Edwards’ words, “we are free to choose that which we most desire.” His argument is this:

The natural man is dead to the commandments of God, and thus dead in sin. Human beings are “by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil of which they are the subjects, and the afflictive evil to which they are exposed, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other.” (Jonathan Edwards, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 10th ed., 2 vols. (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth, 1979, 1:1).

So, from the biblical view, sin is man’s best friend, while freedom is his greatest enemy. The will is mistakenly taken to be a thing – a faculty – like the mind. In fact, the will is not a noun but a verb; the will is “the mind choosing” (Edwards).

“The human will is not free” means that it’s freedom is determined by the heart’s desire to do what it wants, which is not to obey God. Most professing Christians believe that they cooperate with God in their salvation. Jesus is standing outside, knocking at the door of whosoever’s heart offering salvation, where the handle is on the inside of the door.

  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Yes, says John Stott, Jesus Christ says he is standing at the door of our lives, waiting.” (Stott is talking to the unsaved, those who are dead in sin – Ephesians 2:1-10). Stott continues, “He (Christ) is the landlord; he bought it with his life-blood. He could command us to open to Him; instead, he merely invites us to do so. He will not force and entry into anybody’s life. He says (verse 18) ‘I counsel you.’ he could issue orders; he is content to give advice. Such are his condescension and humility, and the freedom he has given us” (John Stott, “Basic Christianity,” Intervarsity Press, 1958, p. 124).

According to Stott’s Arminian view, the sinner is free to choose reconciliation/salvation or remain unreconciled to God. The Calvinist view, which is the same as that of the original Anglican Westminster Confession, is that man is not free to choose salvation, or anything “good.” The reason is NOT that he is a robot, but that he is dead to the good; his heart’s desire is to do his own will, that is, to choose only what is not good, where “good” is what God wills. According to the Calvinist view, man does what he wants; he follows the desire of his heart. Owing to the fact that man is unable to choose good he is not free to choose good.

An important point: both the Arminian and the Calvinist agree that the will is not autonomous (neutral). In other words, what the heart chooses (dictates!), it will necessarily do. The process of choosing may involve deciding which of two or more options is the best, but whatever the number of options, it is the mind/heart that inwardly determines the option finally chosen. None of these options, of course, involve moving towards Christ. John Gerstner explains:

“Your choices as a rational person are always based on various considerations or motives that are before you at the time. Those motives have a certain weight with you, and the motives for and against reading a book, for example, are weighed in the balance of your mind; the motives that outweigh all others are what you, indeed, choose to follow. You, being a rational person, will always choose what seems to you to be the right thing, the wise thing, the most advisable thing to do. If you choose not to do the right thing, the advisable thing, the thing that you are inclined to do, you would, of course, be insane. You would be choosing something that you did not choose. You would find something preferable that you did not prefer. But you, being a rational and sane person choose something because it seems to you the right, proper, good, advantageous thing to do.”

(John H. Gerstner, A Primer on Free Will (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1982, p.4-5). (See  W. Tullian Tchividjianan Jonathan Edwards’ “Freedom of the will”).

If you asked an unregenerate person whether his heart forced him to choose something, he’ll look at you funny. In his book, not the Bible, of course – the unregenerate actions are voluntary. So, if you tell him he’s a robot for allowing his mind/heart to “force” itself on his will, you could end up on the floor.

In sum, the heart dictates (internally determines) a person to reject God (good), and so the person does so voluntarily. Owing to the fact that a person is unable – he thinks, of course, he’s free – to choose God/Christ, he is not really free, for only those who are free are able to choose between good and evil. As Paul Helm puts it:

Normal human activity is not forced or coerced; insofar as it proceeds from fallen human nature it is not free because a person with a fallen nature does not have the power to choose what is good. Nonetheless, where a person is not forced, but makes a contribution to his action, and is not acting out of ignorance, he is acting voluntarily, and is responsible for what he does.”

The Calvinst’s view of Augustine of Hippo  is that he was a monergist, whereas the Roman Catholic view of Augustine was that he was a synergist. The following from Augustine shows clearly that he was a monergist:

”It is not enough simply to have choice of will, which is freely turned in this direction and that, and belongs among those natural gifts which a bad person may use badly. We must also have a good will, which belongs among those gifts which it is impossible to use badly. This impossibility is given to us by God; otherwise I do not know how to defend what Scripture says: ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Cor.4:7) For if God gives us a free will, which may still be either good or bad, but a good will comes from ourselves, then what comes from ourselves is better than what comes from God! But it is the height of absurdity to say this. So the Pelagians ought to acknowledge that we obtain from God even a good will.”

”It would indeed be a strange thing if the will could stand in some no-man’s-land, where it was neither good nor bad. For we either love righteousness, and this is good; and if we love it more, this is better. If we love it less, this is less good; or if we do not love righteousness at all, it is not good. And who can hesitate to affirm that, when the will does not love righteousness in any way at all, it is not only a bad will, but even a totally depraved will? Since therefore the will is either good or bad, and since of course we do not derive the bad will from God, it remains that we derive from God a good will. Otherwise, since our justification proceeds from a good will, I do not know what other gift of God we ought to rejoice in. That, I suppose, is why it is written, ‘The will is prepared by the Lord’ (Prov.8:35, Septuagint). And in the Psalms, ‘The steps of a man will be rightly ordered by the Lord, and His way will be the choice of his will’ (Ps.37:23). And what the apostle says, ‘For it is God Who works in you both to will and to do of His own good pleasure’ (Phil.2:13).”

(Augustine – On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, 2:30),

Now, if someone (non-“Reformed”, naturally) asks me: What about, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live?” Deuteronomy, 30:19)?, I shall ask: just because God commands doesn’t mean that we are able to do so? What, God commands what we are unable to do! Yes. How else is He going to convey his commands to his elect?

Furthermore, “I can only ‘run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!’” (Psalm 119:32).

When the Bible says that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9),  “[w]e are to understand by this that the whole of the work whereby men are saved from their natural estate of sin and ruin, and are translated into the kingdom of God and made heirs of eternal happiness, is of God, and of him only. “Salvation is of the Lord.” (Charles Spurgeon)


Normal human activity is not forced or coerced; insofar as it proceeds from fallen human nature it is not free because a person with a fallen nature does not have the power to choose what is good. Nonetheless, where a person is not forced, but makes a contribution to his action, and is not acting out of ignorance, he is acting voluntarily, and is responsible for what he does.”

5 thoughts on “When Voluntary is not free? Faith and Will in salvation

  1. What about atheists who firmly don’t believe in God or they can’t believe in God, and are anyway able to choose good, many times better that believers? I know some of them and they are quite outstanding in their ethical behavior, unconditionally chosen.

  2. Maria, God rains his earthly (which includes ethical) blessings on both the saved and the unsaved. These blessings are referred to a ”common (to all) grace.” There are many good. kind people in the world who hate ignore/hate the Gospel of Jesus Christ; they are very upstanding people: they provide for their families and do all kinds of good works. BUTgood works do not save. Only God’s saving grace saves, which is a gift from God, and – here’s the crunch where you and I will probably differ – this gift is given to whom God chooses to give it. Not fair! you may say. The Apostle Paul says this on the matter:

    Romans 9
    10 …Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,

    “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

    16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

    22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

    • What a cruel picture you have of our loving G-d, bog. He doesn’t hate His creations, and He didn’t create them so that they’d, in the main, go to hell.

      G-d gave us His commandments and the free will with which to choose good or evil. He advised us to choose life, and He promised to reward us for our good deeds.

      You have the ability to save yourself through repentance; He gave it to you. And here’s a hint: you won’t succeed in that endeavor by clinging to a fictitious dead person in contravention of the First Commandment.

      No one died for your sins, and no one is ever going to. Thank G-d, we have a fair, just G-d Who loves the innocent too much to punish them. Just imagine for a second what a hideously cruel god G-d would have been had He mated with a woman and produced a “son” who was perfectly innocent, and then tortured him to death in order to benefit undeserving strangers.

      • Anon, re: your comment on my “cruel” God:

        How did the Son of God, for whom is all creation and by whom is all created, become the Captain of my salvation, the Captain of my soul? Not through my suffering but through his. He – the Eternal, the Invincible, emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-11) and made Himself vulnerable (Latin: vulnis ”wound”), made himself the vincible, the victim; the victim not of the ”clutch of circumstance” and of ”the bludgeoning of chance,” No. He made Himself a victim for my soul.  Oh, how the world, and even many Christians, find insufferable the notion that the Son had to suffer the Father’s wrath on behalf of those the Father gave to the Son (John 6:37-44).


      • Don’t kid yourself, bog: missionaries are by no means saddened at what you say they feel is “insufferable”. They love to imagine that they are emancipated from personal responsibility for their own conduct by the machinations of uninvolved third parties.

        The irony is that missionaries don’t, in the main, blame “the Father” for Jesus’ fictitious demise, nor are the Roman antagonists who actually perpetrated the crucifixion the party condemned in Matt. 27. They laud “the Father” for cutting down his innocent son. Rather, of all candidates for villainy, it is the Jews whom your religion blames for…doing you a big favor. After all, by your reckoning, Jesus came to this world in order to expunge your sins by dying on the cross (funny how Matt. 27:46 reveals that Jesus wasn’t in on his own plan). So if the Jews had orchestrated Jesus’ death, you ought to be thanking them for it since you claim that was G-d’s twisted plan all along, and since you consider yourself the counter-moral beneficiary of Rome’s brutality against Jesus. And yet you run around with a “testament” that portrays the Jews as eternally doomed, “onedaring”, in punishment for what you deem their role in absolving you of any responsibility to take command of your totally depraved self.

        bog, instead of steering the conversation off topic into a losing argument about how you think our fair and loving G-d would forgive evildoers and instead punish the innocent, why don’t you come back down to Earth to complete our discussion about Num. 23:19 (“G-d is not a man”), and how you can spin that passage as buttressing your belief that G-d is a man.

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