WCF 9: Of Free Will

Dear Church Family,

A Brief Recommendation: 365 Free eBooks!

A friend recently sent me a link to a resource of 365 free eBooks on theology and the Christian life: https://www.monergism.com/365-free-ebooks-listed-alphabetically-author. There are many classic works available from people like Augustine, John Bunyan, John Calvin, A.A. and Charles Hodge, Martin Luther, John Owen, A.W. Pink, J.C. Ryle, B.B. Warfield – as well as more contemporary works from the likes of Ligon Duncan, J. Gresham Machen, and J.I.  Packer (imagine my surprise to find my own study of the book of Revelation amongst these books!). Additionally, there are systematic and reference works that are available in e-format.

In my cursory perusal of the many solid theological works available for free at this site, I put together a list of those that I am most familiar with and that I can personally recommend. Again, there is so much available here that I’ve only scratched the surface, but here are just a few recommendations:

Berkhof, Louis Systematic Theology
Boettner, Loraine The Reformed Faith
Bridges, Charles Proverbs
Bunyan, John The Pilgrim's Progress
Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion
Dietsch, Peter M. The Book of Revelation - A Study
Fisher, Edward, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (modernized and annotated)
Hodge, A. A. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary
Machen, J. Gresham Christianity and Liberalism
Murray, John The Covenant of Grace
Packer, J. I. Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ
Ryle, J. C. Thoughts for Young Men
Spurgeon, C. H. Lectures to My Students
Warfield, Benjamin Counterfeit Miracles
Watson, Thomas A Body of Divinity
Williamson, G. I. What is the Reformed Faith: The High Points of Calvinism

(Now back to our continuing study of the Westminster Confession of Faith.)

WCF 9: Of Free Will

When speaking to those who deny the sovereignty of God in salvation (i.e., the doctrine of election and predestination), eventually the topic of ‘free will’ will come up. The argument is made: but if God chooses some for salvation and not others, then man’s will cannot be said to be free. In response, we may be tempted to deny the freedom of man’s will since the fall, and argue that because of our sinful condition (total depravity), man no longer has free will. This line of thinking is not entirely off base; it’s a shorthand way of speaking about how man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) and contributes nothing to salvation – it is entirely of the grace of God.

Yet, in chapter nine of the Westminster Confession of Faith that defines and explains the nature of ‘free will,’ the Westminster Divines take a slightly different tact. They different between the ‘will’ of man and the ‘ability’ of man. But first, it begins with a definition of ‘free will.’

The Definition of Free Will (WCF 9.1)

The definition of ‘free will’ is given as follows: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil” (WCF 9.1). It’s important that we recognize that this definition of man’s free will is not dynamic, but static. That is to say, man always has that natural and unforced ability to do good or evil. As we will see in a moment, there’s more to said with respect to man’s ability to act upon his free will. But, consider Chad Van Dixhoorn’s explanation:

…this first paragraph of chapter 9 is not considering human beings only as they were created, or as they are fallen, or as they are redeemed, or as they will be one day in heaven or hell. It is saying something that is true of the will through every stage of history and at any point in our lives in time or eternity. (Confessing the Faith, 137).

 

The Fourfold State of Man

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) described the fourfold state of man in relation to his free will by speaking about his ability or inability to sin:

(1) Pre-Fall: able to sin, able not to sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare)

(2) Post-Fall: not able not to sin (non posse non peccare)

(3) Regenerated: able not to sin (posse non peccare)

(4) Glorified: unable to sin (non posse peccare)

The remaining four paragraphs of the Westminster Confession of Faith – following the categories of Augustine (and others) –  follow this same progression of thought. It’s important to note that the Confession speaks in terms of man’s free will remaining constant, while his ability to exercise his free will changes.

1. The Will of Man in the State of Innocence in the Garden (WCF 9.2)

In man’s original state of innocence in the Garden of Eden (as God created Him), Adam and Eve had the ability to obey God; however, they also had the possibility of losing that ability to obey God. The confession uses the word “mutable” to describe man’s ability to obey God in the Garden. That is to say, his ability could change; he had the power to obey God, but also to disobey God and fall from that state of innocence.

The Preacher succinctly explains: “Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). We previously examined man’s fall into sin when we explored the teachings of chapter six of the confession.

2. The Will of Man after the Fall (WCF 9.3)

After the Fall, man lost all ability to exercise his free will for any spiritual good to be saved. Man became helpless and ungodly (Romans 5:6), unable to submit and obey the law of God (Romans 8:7). The Scriptures plainly teach that in man’s natural fallen condition, no one seeks after God (Romans 3:11) or can come to Christ unless the Father first draws him (John 6:44, 65). We are all born abiding under God’s wrath, following the lusts and desires of our own flesh and perverted minds, willingly submitting ourselves to the ways of the sinful world and the temptations of the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Walter Chantry explains the loss of man’s ability to exercise his free will through the illustration of a hungry lion:

If fresh meat and tossed salad were placed before a hungry lion, he would choose the flesh. This is because his nature dictates the selection. It is just so with man. The will of man is free from outside force but not from the bias of human nature. That bias is against God. Man’s powers of decision are free to choose whatever the human heart dictates; therefore there is no possibility of a man choosing to please God without a prior work of divine grace.

 

You see, while we may speak of man’s will as being free, it is not all powerful or autonomous. There are external and internal forces at work that constrain our free will. Man may exercise his free will by choosing to flap his arms and fly, but is unable to do so because he is constrained by the external laws of gravity and physics. Likewise, man may have free will to obey God, but he is unable to do so because he is constrained by his internal corruption and depraved nature. Therefore, apart from the redeeming grace of God, man will always choose to rebel and disobey Him.

3. The Will of Man after Conversion (WCF 9.4)

When God graciously pours out His Spirit upon a sinner and regenerates him (giving new birth), He removes his bondage to sin such that he is enabled to exercise his will to do that which is spiritually good. Even as everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34), if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36). Having been freed from sin, the one who is born again and trusts in Christ becomes a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18).

This is good news, indeed! Yet, there is still a problem for the one who is born again. Because believers retain the remnants of their corrupt nature, they are still susceptible to temptation and so will fall into sin (choose to disobey God). And, even when they do obey God, the believer’s will to do good is imperfect, mixed with sin and bad motives. We shall have more to say about this internal war of the believer when we come to chapter thirteen of the confession and talk about sanctification.

4. The Will of Man in Glory (WCF 9.5)

In the state of glory those who have been born again will have their wills made perfectly free to do good alone. This state of man’s ability to exercise his will to obey God will be better than that of Adam and Eve in the Garden because it will be immutable (unchangeable).

This state of glory is obtained either at the believer’s death or Christ’s return, whichever comes first. The Scriptures speak of those who have died in the Lord as precious in God’s sight (Psalm 116:15); believers who die before Christ’s return are perfected and holy, “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). And, when Christ appears, all of His people will be made like Him, because we will see Him just as He is! (1 John 3:2)

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch