“For more than fifteen hundred years the Church has engaged in a heated debate over the freedom of man’s will. The major issues came to general attention in the early fifth century when Augustine and Pelagius did battle on the subject.
Through medieval times the nature of man’s freedom received a great deal of attention. As they studied the Scriptures, Bernard and Anselm made significant contributions to the doctrine of the human will. In the sixteenth century the freedom or bondage of the will was one of the chief issues dividing Reformers and Roman Catholics. To the mind of Martin Luther, it was the key to his dispute with Rome.
In the seventeenth century the nature of man’s freedom was at the heart of the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. The conflict surfaced again in the eighteenth century during the Great Awakening. Finney’s approach to revival in the nineteenth century led the church astray through a misunderstanding of the human will. So too the nature of man’s will continues to bring intense disagreement between Reformed and Fundamentalist believers. A proper understanding of the content of the gospel and the use of GOD-honouring methods in evangelism are dependent on one’s grasp of this issue.
I. Man has a will and that will has a certain freedom. Our LORD clearly teaches that man has a power of choice. It is important to begin here to disarm opponents of all the foolish accusations that have been brought against the Biblical doctrine of man’s will. Every man has the ability to choose his own words, to decide what his actions will be. We have a faculty of self-determination in the sense that we select our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Man is free to choose what he prefers, what he desires.
II. Man’s Will is not a Sovereign Faculty. Although man does have a will, it is neither independent of all influences nor supreme over all other parts of his personality. This is the next point to be seen in our LORD’s teaching.
It will be noted that our Master taught that the human will is not free from the other faculties of the heart. Far from the will reigning over a man, the will is determined by the man’s own character. It is not raised to a position of dominance over the entire man.
Man is like a tree. His heart, not his will alone, is the root. There is no possible way by which the will can choose to produce fruit contrary to the character of the root. If the root is bad, the tree is bound by its very nature to produce evil fruit. Man is like a person standing alongside his treasure chest. There is no possibility of bringing pure gold out of a box filled only with rusty steel. The contents of the heart determine what words and deeds may be brought out. Far from being neutral, the will must reach into the heart for its choices. Every thought, word and deed will partake of the nature of the treasure within. Man is like a stream which cannot rise above its source. If the fountain is polluted, the outflow will be evil. If the source be sweet, the stream will not be bitter and cannot choose to be so.
These three illustrations alike contain the same lesson. What a man is determines what he chooses. Choices of the will always reveal the character of the heart, because the heart determines the choices. Men are not sinners because they choose to sin; they choose to sin because they are sinners. If this were not so, we could never know a tree by its fruits, nor could we judge a man’s character by his acts.
III. Man’s Will is in Bondage to Sin. The chains which bind a man’s will to sin do not result from the actions of the Omnipotent GOD. The binding chains are the man’s own depraved faculties. The prison is his own nature.
Our LORD’s rhetorical question in verse 34 brings this home with force: ‘O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things ?’ Our wise LORD is suggesting that a man must speak as he does because of what he is. To sinners He was saying ‘You are unable to choose good words because you possess an evil heart. If the tree is bad, if the treasure chest is filled with evil things alone, if the fountain is bitter, your will cannot produce good words [fruits, treasures, overflow].’
At this point there are very many scriptures which attest to a man’s bondage to sin by his own nature. To mention but a few – Jeremiah 13.23: ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil;’ John 6.44: ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him;’ Romans 8.7: ‘The carnal mind . . . is not subject to the law of GOD, neither indeed can be.’
Lazarus in his tomb had no ability to respond when our LORD commanded, ‘Come forth.’ The man who had been impotent for 38 years had no native ability to obey when Jesus commanded him to take up his bed and walk. Nor have modern sinners ability to believe when we preach. ‘This is his commandment, that we believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ’ [I John 3.23].
When a sinner refuses to come to Christ, he is guilty because he has made a free choice. It reflects his own state of mind, feeling and attitude toward GOD and His Son. He has acted voluntarily without coercion. It is his decision. But the poor sinner, dead in trespasses and sins, could not do otherwise, being evil. It is not necessary for him to have a neutral will, or the ability to do both good and evil, for his action to be held accountable before the Judge of all hearts.
IV. Man’s Will is not his Hope. Our LORD has taught that the tree must be made good. Man must be renewed in his entire character. He must have a new heart to bring forth good fruit; the will cannot make the tree good; it may only exercise liberty to be what the tree already is. The will cannot reload the treasure chest with a new kind of goods; it may only freely bring forth what is there. The will cannot cleanse the fountainhead; it may overflow only with the waters available in the soul.
Any gospel preaching that relies upon an act of the human will for the conversion of sinners has missed the mark. Any sinner who supposes that his will has the strength to do any good accompanying salvation is greatly deluded and far from the kingdom. We are cast back upon the regenerating work of the Spirit of the living GOD to make the tree good. Unless GOD does something in the sinner, unless GOD creates a clean heart and renews a right spirit within man, there is no hope of a saving change.
While we address the wills of men in gospel preaching, they are wills bound in the grave clothes of an evil heart. But as we speak, and the LORD owns His word, sinners are quickened to life by divine power. His people are made willing in the day of His power [Psa 110.3]. All who are adopted as sons of GOD were ‘born not of the will of man, but of GOD.’ [John 1. 13] We stand to preach with no power to make the tree good. The ‘trees’ before us cannot make themselves good, so no gimmicks or policies of men can persuade them to make the change. But our glorious GOD, by inward, secret, transforming power, can make the tree good, the treasures good, the fountain good. Thus all glory be to GOD and to the Lamb! Salvation is of the LORD!
– from THE BANNER OF TRUTH magazine, Issue 140, May 1975.