Reinventing the Will


Becoming a Calvinist wasn’t easy. I didn’t personally know but a handful. Most of the ones with whom I was acquainted were all dead, and the ones who were still alive would’ve had a hard time proving it. It wasn’t yet fashionable to be a Calvinist. My friends didn’t regard it is cool; they saw it as downright cold.

If the Christian life is a journey, then the part where I came into the doctrines of grace is the part of the journey where I fell down the stairs and hit my head on every step on the way down. Although it’s always fun to go downhill at such a rapid pace, there will almost certainly be a few scrapes and bruises. One of the places that was swollen and tender was free will.

The tradition from which I came really believed in it, whatever it was. They believed in it so much that they announced it on the church sign. Whereas a case for God needed to be argued, free will could just be safely assumed.

The more I studied, the more I realized that this popular idea of a particular form of liberty was a novelty that was neither philosophically tenable or biblically credible. We had reinvented the will.

The Reformed faith does not devalue the human will. Interestingly, Calvinism is the only system that can provide a cogent, consistent explanation of free will. Every other theory of liberty turns men into machines, madmen or monsters.

Many of the staunchest advocates of “free will” encounter immediate difficulties when they are asked to explain what they defend — the embarrassment of Erasmus in his debate with Luther may be the archetypal example. Upon any close examination of proposed explanations it soon becomes apparent that “free will” (as commonly understood) is a philosophical chimera — it will be a long time before there is a rigorous apologetic in defense of this, the evanescent god.

Fortunately, the Bible does not leave us without teaching on this important subject of human choices. Jesus explains, in very plain terms, the mechanics of the will — and it is not what many suppose. In Matthew 12:33-37, Christ says:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Christ teaches here that choices come from the heart. The will does not command the heart; rather, the heart commands the will. Consider these key points of Christ’s doctrine:

* Choices and actions are the fruit of our human nature — they are a revelation of that nature. A good nature will result in good choices, and an evil nature will result in evil choices. Good trees produce good fruit, and evil trees produce evil fruit. Our words and actions, therefore, are not determined by an autonomous will, but rather by the nature of the tree.

* Consequently, Jesus says, someone with an evil nature is incapable of speaking good things. But this inability, this bondage, is caused by the nature of his own heart. He is bound by what he wants; it is a self-limitation. It is not external compulsion. Evil men are therefore free to do what they want, but they are not free to do what they should.

* Moreover, the fact that our choices proceed from our hearts does not limit our responsibility before God in the slightest. Our words are determined by our hearts, and we will be judged on the basis of our words. Indeed, we are judged on the basis of our words because they proceed straight from our hearts.

Suppose I offered a man a bowl of cockroaches to eat, and he refused. Why did he refuse? Because he didn’t want them. Suppose further that I therefore accused him of having an enslaved will. He wonders why I think this. I reply that I think he is enslaved because he didn’t use his will to decide to eat the cockroaches. He replies, quite justly, that his will is working perfectly well. The will chose just what the man wanted, and he didn’t want a cockroach.

Jesus used another example besides that of fruit-bearing trees. If a man were to reach into a chest, he could only bring out what was already inside the chest. Different chests contain different things, and consequently, different things are brought out. Different hearts contain different things, and consequently, different choices are made. The will is simply the arm God has given us to reach into our treasure chest (our heart), in order to bring out the contents. The will has no power to determine the contents of the chest; it only has the power to reveal the contents, and this it does very well.

When God saves a man, He does not give him a new will. There is no need; the old will works just fine in doing what wills were meant by God to do — which is to bring out the contents of the heart. What God does in salvation is this: He gives us new hearts. As a result, the new Christian begins making new choices.

No man is capable of making a choice contrary to the strongest desire of his heart. This is an inexorable law; there are no exceptions — even God’s choices proceed from His immutable and holy nature. A person may certainly has other desires, and they may be very strong desires (Romans 7:18-23). But what he finally does is what he wanted to do most, and he is therefore responsible for the choice.

If the choice were not his strongest desire, he would not have chosen it. Let us return to our example of the bowl of cockroaches for a moment. Suppose a man said, in order to refute this teaching, that he didn’t want to eat a cockroach, but that he was going to do so anyway — so there. Is this a refutation? Not at all. It simply means that his will acted on the basis of his strongest desire, which is now to win the debate.

If we take these factors together, we see that it is nonsense to talk of a free will, as though there were this autonomous thing inside of us, capable of acting in any direction, regardless of the motives of the heart. If there could be such a thing — a creature who made choices not determined by the desires of its heart — we would not applaud this creature as a paragon of free will, but would rather pity it as a collection of random, arbitrary, insane choices. Such a creature would not be, and could not be, a free and responsible agent. We would recoil in horror from an exhibition of such autonomous free will. Choices made apart from the desires of the heart? They would be an exhibition, not of freedom, but of insanity. “Why did you throw the cat against the wall?” “Because I wanted to go for a walk.”

So a far more Biblical way of speaking is to speak of free men, and not of free will. And what is a free man? He is someone who is free from external compulsion and is consequently at liberty to do what his heart desires. This is a natural liberty, and all men are in possession of it. It is the only kind of liberty possible for us, and it is a gift to us from God. Under the superintendence of God, all men, Christian and non-Christian, have the freedom to turn left or right, to choose chocolate or vanilla, or to move to this city or that one — depending entirely upon what they want to do. The foreordination of God does not violate this; it is the cause of this — but more on this in a moment.

Notice that this natural liberty is not the same thing as the freedom from sin, i.e. moral liberty. In Romans 6:20-22, Paul makes the distinction between natural liberty and moral liberty. He says:

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from righteousness… But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.”

Slavery to sin is true slavery, but even sin does not negate natural liberty — the slave to sin is free from righteousness, but is still not free from his own desires. This slave to sin is one who loves sin, and consequently obeys it. As a creature, he is free to do what he wants, which is to continue in sin. But he is not free to desire righteousness. Why is he not free to do right? Because his sinful heart does not love what is right. Like all men, he is not free to choose what is repulsive to him, and true godliness is repulsive to him. So in the realm of morality, he is therefore free in a limited sense — free from the control of righteousness. When God, by grace, liberates him from the bondage of his own sin-loving heart, he is then a slave to God. As a slave to righteousness, the Christian freely, out of a new heart, follows Christ.

Here’s a bold claim for you: foreordination is the ground of free will.

Some people almost automatically yet mistakenly conclude that any assertion of foreordination along with any clarification of “free will” implies that human beings have no true freedom at all. This is quite false, and can easily be shown to be false. For example, when the Westminster divines affirmed the sovereignty of God’s eternal decree, they went on, in the same breath, to say this: “…nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Now the writers of the Confession were not merely saying that creaturely liberty was consistent with the Bible’s teaching regarding God’s sovereignty (although it certainly is), but rather that the Biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty was the foundation for human liberty. Consequently, according to this view, those Christians who dispute the doctrine of divine sovereignty are attacking more than God’s sovereignty; they are attacking the only ground and foundation of true human liberty. So the debate is not between those Christians who want to affirm the liberty and responsibility of creatures, and those who do not. It is between those who consistently ground the liberty of creatures in the strength and power of God, and those who inconsistently ground it in the strength and power of man.

I have been in discussions where this affirmation of creaturely liberty was dismissed as something “tacked on” to the Biblical position — as sort of a wink and nod to common sense. It is important to note the word “dismissed,” and remember that it is not a synonym for “argued.” The reason it is dismissed is because it is easy to assume that divine sovereignty is inconsistent with true human responsibility — but to argue for it is ultimately impossible.

For example, I have been told that to assert divine sovereignty and true human freedom is “illogical.” There is a very simple answer to this: If this is illogical, then what is the name of the fallacy? Hmm? There is a vast difference between logical contradictions and those high mysteries which must necessarily be contained in the infinite wisdom of God.

It is true that this sort of objection is quite a natural mistake to make, and people have been making it since the time of Paul at least (Rom. 9:19). When we consider the relationship of the infinite Creator to the finite creature, we do have a problem understanding how true natural liberty can coexist with a sovereign God superintending all events in the universe. But the reconciliation of these two Biblical truths is ultimately to be found in the mind of God; it is not a problem that is keeping Him up nights, and we must recognize that our finite minds are not capable of penetrating the glories of the infinite. The sovereign prerogatives of the Creator, and the natural liberty and true responsibility of creatures are not inconsistent. How could they be? The Bible teaches them both, sometimes in the same verse.

We can, however, approach the subject obliquely. Instead of demonstrating that human liberty and divine sovereignty are consistent, it would be far more fruitful to show that all denials of divine sovereignty destroy true human liberty. In other words, it can be shown that the only hope for any kind of true human liberty is in the exhaustive sovereignty of the living God.

Earlier I argued that choices proceed from our hearts. It is impossible for a true choice to be autonomous in the sense of being independent of our heart desires. If there were a choice for which no reason at all could be given, we could no longer call it a choice. We would have to say it was a random event — John random-evented chocolate instead of vanilla. To say “autonomous choice” is as contradictory as to say “round square.”

Now because all the influence is from the heart to the will, and not the other way around, the question is now this: since the will does not determine the direction of the heart, what does? The Bible teaches that God superintends the choices made by men. He may do so immediately through providential intervention or mediately through the use of secondary agents. What is the alternative to God’s sovereignty over all events?

We have already shown that a man cannot autonomously choose to push his heart in a certain direction. And if we remove, for the sake of argument, God’s personal and loving sovereignty from the one choosing, what is left? Only a blind, rigorous, inexorable, deterministic fatalism.

Picture cupped hands around a flickering candle in a strong wind. This candle flame is the human will. The wind is the typhoon of the world around us. The cupped hands are the Lord’s. Within Christianity, advocates of “free will” want the Lord to remove His hands so that the candle may burn more brightly. The history of modern philosophy should teach us better than this. Those who begin these optimistic crusades in the name of free will always end up in the fever swamps of blind behaviorism and determinism. The candle is out.

An old catechetical song sheds light on this difficult subject, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” Why do they do that? Because the man on the bus is driving them. Man, as creature, is free to do just as he pleases and only as he pleases. He has this freedom because God grants, sustains, and perfectly controls it–with no strings attached.



  1. Your first paragraph is interesting. I grew up in an area where there were nothing but Calvinists. Recently I looked up information on Sioux County Iowa and the recent survey showed 80% of the population were Reformed. About 67 % belonged to the 2 largest reformed denominations.
    As a Calvinist do you agree what he said in his institutes about infant (Covenant) baptism and the sacraments? To me that is quite basic to the Reformed faith.

    1. Marvin, thanks for taking time to read the article. I don’t have any real substantial disagreements with Calvin’s view of the sacraments, though I might admit of a few points where a more nuanced approach might be beneficial.

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