God's Will and Man's Will


One of the hotly debated doctrines among professed Christians is the doctrine of free will. One of the reasons that this topic continues to be debated is that not everyone means the same thing by the word “freewill.” For most people, the idea of freewill means nothing more than the freedom of a person to choose what he wants. For example, if he is going down the line of a buffet, he freely selects the things he wants. Such a view of freewill, when applied to salvation, states that a person is permitted freely to call upon the name of the Lord for salvation, and if he does so, he will be saved. The Scriptures do not speak out against this version of “freewill,” for indeed, if any person wants God’s salvation, he may have it.

But, in the context of theological debate, the idea of freewill (or the lack of it) goes to a deeper issue, for it addresses, not only what a person is allowed to do, but what he is able to do. Many who believe in the freewill of man find it to be incompatible with the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereign control over all things, including salvation. They reject the doctrine often called unconditional election for they believe that it does not allow a man to do as he pleases when it comes to salvation. But this is not the case, for, with respect to God’s sovereign control, every person is as free to choose whether or not he calls upon the name of the Lord as he is free to choose whether he takes the green beans or the broccoli as he goes down the buffet. Most people would have no problem believing that God has sovereignly determined whether an individual will choose green beans or broccoli, and they see no violation of the free will of man in God’s sovereign decree that determined ahead of time which vegetable the person will choose. The same is true with respect to a person’s choice to trust in Christ or to go His own way: God has already determined what the person will do, but there is no more violation of the man’s will in this than there is a violation of his will in the buffet line.

The real issue with regard to the freedom of the human will does not lie in what he has the right or authority to do, but in what he has the power to do. Everyone has permission, warrant, right, or authority to come to Christ. (All of those words share a great deal of linguistic or semantic territory; that is why I listed them all.) But the point is, that non-election of an individual does not prevent him from doing something he wants to do, nor does election force a man to do what he does not want to do. In truth, in salvation, everyone does exactly what they want to do.

So, as we deal with the issue of freewill, it might be better if we changed the terminology we use, for much of the debate comes from a misunderstanding of what is meant in the theological debate over freewill. When addressing the nature of the will of man, instead of dealing with whether it is free, it would be better to deal with whether it is independent.  There are at least two things from which a man’s will can never be independent:  

Man’s will does not and, indeed, cannot operate independent of God’s will any more than the will of a character in a book can operate independently of the will of the author who wrote the book.  Romeo willed to kill himself precisely because Shakespeare willed it.  Every man has a will, to be sure; but man's will always chooses what God has ordained for the man to do.  Does Pharaoh harden his heart?  Yes he does, with purpose and determination.  But it is equally true that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 8.15, 9.12, 10.27, 10.20, 11.10, 14.4).  Does Saul of Tarsus repent and believe the gospel of the Lord Jesus?  Yes, he does, with purpose and determination.  Yet it was God’s will that created Saul’s will, and so we say that before Saul ever chose to trust Christ, God chose to save Saul, and Saul’s choice was just the outworking of God’s choice.

Nor can man’s will act independent of his nature; he always chooses what is consistent with his nature.  In fact, man’s will is nothing more or less than the expression of his nature.  He does not always choose to do everything he desires, for he has competing desires that cannot all be fulfilled; but he always chooses that which advances what he wants the most. 

Man’s greatest desire is self-glory which makes it utterly impossible for him to choose God’s way of salvation.  He may choose a perverted version of God’s gospel, or he may choose to “accept” certain aspects of the gospel. He can certainly choose heaven over hell. But the one thing he cannot choose is to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ” (Matthew 16.24).  It is impossible for a natural man (a man who has not been born again) to abandon all hope in himself and trust the care of his soul to Christ and Christ alone. Such an act is diametrically opposed to all that man desires. His pride will not allow such confession of sinfulness and need. If a man is to choose such a course, it is necessary that there be a change of his nature, and it must be a wholesale change, not a mere alteration. 

That is exactly what happens in the New Birth – a man’s God-hating, rebellious nature is changed - more, created new - so that he is a submissive and loving person in things pertaining to God.  Therefore, he chooses to follow Christ, not because an act of God has merely made it possible for him to do so, but because this act of God (the New Birth) makes it necessary for him to do so.  The born-again man is no more free of his nature than the spiritually dead man.  He chooses to follow Christ because his nature compels him to do so just as, in former times, he rejected Christ because his nature compelled him to do so.

No man’s will is independent: it is merely the performing of the will of God ordained before time, and is always the expression of the nature of the man.