Chapter 9: Of Free Will
The topic of free will has been misunderstood and misrepresented throughout history, and it often justifies good or bad behavior. Perhaps, part of the misunderstanding of free will is man’s inability to think clearly and rightly about biblical topics outside of regeneration and a new life in Christ. One other possibility is that it contradicts their theology. Mankind tends to hold himself up as an example of goodness and overestimates his abilities. The writers of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith recognized free will as a tricky topic or one to be held in tension. How much free will does man have compared to what God grants him? With these issues in mind, it is the goal to examine Chapter 9, Of Free Will, to exposit what God and the writers of the Confession teach about this important topic.
1. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil. 1
1. Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19
The first thing to notice about Chapter 9, Paragraph 1 is that God is the first cause of man’s ability to do anything. He, being the Creator, has created man and provided man with a will. Here we see man created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). The modern version of the Confession substitutes endued with the word given, meaning God has given to mankind everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). The ability that God has provided is what the Confession calls natural liberty and the power of acting upon choice.
Natural liberty and the power of acting upon choice need to be defined. It is imperative to define free will and what free will is not.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides this:
- : voluntary choice or decision
- : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
Most people understand they can do or avoid what they want. To have the ability to cross the street or stay put, run a red light, stop at a red light, wear blue jeans, or wear shorts. Human beings can make these natural choices without any spiritual or moral consequences. In this sense, man can make a free-will choice, and while God is sovereign over all things, He allows these choices.
Sam Waldron clarifies, “The human will is not subject to any physical necessity. Men are free. Their choices are not determined by factors external to their free, personal identities and moral natures. There could not be the human responsibility and accountability the Bible clearly teaches, unless this were the case (Proverbs 1:24 – 33; John 3:18, 19).”
The Bible rejects the teaching of determinism. Britannica defines determinism this way.
determinism, in philosophy and science, the thesis that all events in the universe, including human decisions and actions, are causally inevitable. Determinism entails that, in a situation in which a person makes a certain decision or performs a certain action, it is impossible that he or she could have made any other decision or performed any other action. In other words, it is never true that people could have decided or acted otherwise than they actually did.
In His wisdom, God has provided mankind with decision-making abilities and the freedom to choose certain things, and in God’s wisdom, man is also responsible for his rejection of God. He is not forced to choose or reject God; instead, God changes the heart of men so that they willingly and freely choose Him (Ez. 36:26).
There are multiple facets to God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and both are at play. Waldron defines it well when he says, “Divine freedom (God’s sovereign, decretive will) and human freedom are not in conflict. Rather, it is only because our wills are made in the image of the freedom of God’s supreme will that our derivative wills are free. Human freedom is rooted in God’s sovereign freedom.”
It is also essential to understand that free will is not libertarian or that man is autonomous. While some believe they have autonomy, it is easy to prove they do not. As an example, a person must eat to sustain their life. They must work to provide a home or attend a class on time to achieve a grade. Nobody is without responsibility. Even those that reject authority and the idea of being accountable to anyone need necessities to survive, so their will is not wholly free.
Lastly, these choices are not forced or bound by nature to do good or evil. These choices are legitimate. They are not predetermined as determinism defines them, nor are they without consequence. The choice to commit an evil act land squarely on the shoulders of the one who made it. While the old statement, “The devil made me do it,” has some validity, since mankind’s natural inclinations are bent toward evil, it does not relieve them of responsibility.
2. Ecclesiastes 7:29 3. Genesis 3:6
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16—17).
God’s command to Adam was clear. Adam lacked for nothing. God provided all of Adam’s needs and only gave one regulation. He was forbidden from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Is it reasonable to believe that God had equipped Adam with the ability to obey? In paragraph 1, the Confession states that mankind is not forced to do good or evil. God provided Adam with an opportunity. Do this, and you will live. Do this, and you will die.
K.A. Matthews provides clarity,
“The prohibition against eating the fruit of the “tree of knowledge” gave Adam opportunity to worship God through loyal devotion. Luther likened the tree to “Adam’s church, altar, and pulpit. Here he was to yield to God the obedience he owed, give recognition to the Word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation.”
Adam’s choices were real choices. He has been given God’s command not to eat of this one tree, and as Matthews articulates, he can call upon God to help in his temptation. If Adam had rejected the serpent’s lies and confronted his wife, he would have pleased God. God provided the testing of his faith, but Adam failed the test.
It is also significant to understand that Adam’s world was good and very good (Gen. 1:31). In other words, the world had not yet experienced sin. Adam holds a unique position in humanity as the first human being and the first in a state of innocence, as the Confession says. He was uncorrupted by sin but not incorruptible. As humanity’s federal head, Adam would represent all of mankind and his posterity. Paul summarizes this in Romans 5.
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Rom. 5:12).
Adam’s act of rebellion ushered sin into the world, and with the entrance of sin, God’s words, “you shall surely die,” echoed forth.
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18—19).
God’s testing period for Adam ended in failure. His trespass condemned the whole human race under sin, yet God promised a Redeemer. His obedience and righteous acts will save sinners from their sins.
Adam proved his instability by failing to keep the command, and just as the Confession states, he fell from this state of innocence and became a transgressor of the law. Adam had the power to choose good, but instead, he chose evil.
3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; 4 so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, 5 is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. 6
4. Romans 5:6, 8:7 5. Ephesians 2:1, 5 6. Titus 3:3-5; John 6:44
While it is clear from the Confessions’ first two paragraphs on free will that mankind makes legitimate choices in life, these choices are without coercion. What is the difference between man’s “morally neutral” decisions and the free will decision to follow the Lord? There is no relationship. Paragraph three transitions to a post-fall condition and sets up a clear dividing line between everyday decisions and the decision to follow Christ.
It all begins with a promise from God to Adam that if he remains obedient, he will live, but should he disobey God’s commands he will surely die (Gen. 2:17). As the narrative of Genesis progresses to Adam’s rebellion, the immediate consequence of his disobedience appears. God pronounces curses upon him and the woman, but Adam does not drop dead.
It is worth a short detour to look at how Adam did indeed die, but not in the immediate. The Confession lays out free will in a progressive manner. Waldron says, “The first paragraph defines free will. Paragraphs 2 – 5 deal with the different states in which it exists. These move from the state of innocency, where it is marked by instability, to the state of glory, where it is marked by immutability. As finite, ethical beings we do undergo a moral and ethical development.”
What sort of death occurred in Adam and all his posterity? Matthew Henry remarks on one way in which Adam died,
Thou shalt become mortal and capable of dying; the grant of immortality shall be recalled, and that defence shall depart from thee. Thou shalt become obnoxious to death, like a condemned malefactor that is dead in the law” (only, because Adam was to be the root of mankind, he was reprieved); “nay, the harbingers and forerunners of death shall immediately seize thee, and thy life, thenceforward, shall be a dying life: and this, surely; it is a settled rule, the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
Of course, Adam eventually died in the flesh, but a spiritual death occurred within Adam and all his posterity. The doctrine of original sin. Paul writes in Romans 5 as one of the proof texts the Confession provides, but a few verses later describe this death that passes to all.
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
Paragraph 3 provides the proof texts that indicate this spiritual death. Ephesians 2:1 is a prime example stating mankind is dead in his sins and transgressions. In this deadness, the Confessions states mankind is without any power to convert himself. He has not had the free will to will himself to God. Romans 3:11 says, “no one understand; no one seeks for God.” The simplicity of this statement is evident. The Spirit of God must move and draw, or man stays dead in his sin.
The quotation of John 6:44 is appropriate as Jesus said, “unless the Father draws him.” The drawing is never forced or compulsory; it is a work of the Spirit that makes a man willing. Calvin provides a succinct view.
“True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant.”
While it is essential to understand the inability to respond to God without God’s help, it is equally important to realize this does not provide man with a pass should he never come to Christ. The gospel invitation is a sincere invitation for all to come to Christ. Those that remain in their sin and rebellion do it willingly, which is the topic of paragraph 4.
4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin, 7 and by His grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; 8 yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he does not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but does also will that which is evil. 9
7. Colossians 1:13; John 8:36 8. Philippians 2:13 9. Romans 7:15, 18-19, 21, 23
Paragraph 4 is a progressive step in Chapter 9 that relates to post-conversion. God converts a sinner. He takes him from his sin and moves him out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). There is a full-on change to him or her; they are now children of God. They have been justified and sanctified by the blood of Christ.
Where he once was enslaved to sin (John 8:34), he now becomes a slave to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). The natural inclination or proclivity toward sin has now been radically altered toward godliness. The sinner has now become a saint and begins to live in the light of the gospel.
Ezekiel prophesied this new reality in chapter 36.
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26—27).
The change wrought by God in the heart gives a new attitude, affection, and an entirely new perspective. The outward evidence is obedience to the commandments of God. It does not mean perfection, for that would be impossible (1 John 1:8), and as the Confession continues to expand, evil still resides in the heart of the converted.
In many fundamental or strict orthodox circles, obedience tends to mark the status of justification. Mercifully, the Lord has provided a clear revelation that faith is never dependent upon works, but works will proceed from faith. The recent rise of Federal Vision Theology has reignited the debate about the law and gospel distinction. It can create confusion in the minds of many, especially in churches where overly zealous pastors attempt to assist the Holy Spirit in His work of sanctification toward the people. The tendency is to make judgments regarding salvation purely based on external measures. The Confession addresses this concern in Chapter 17, paragraph 3.
In summary, the paragraph states that believers can fall into grievous sins for a time, but God will renew and preserve them in Christ to the end. Here is a powerful statement about the Divine grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Man looks on the outside, but God looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).
Caution must be extended toward those acting in rebellion. The state of their salvation should be a two-way street. Dr. Brian Borgman preached an excellent sermon on not being overly righteous or overly wicked, providing context to the balance that needs to be maintained. The ditches are steep on both sides of the narrow path. Avoiding licentiousness is just as important as avoiding legalism; they are both wrong and dangerous. The Confession addresses these concerns and provides the right balance if understood correctly.
True disciples, followers, and believers in the Lord Jesus Christ look forward to the day they are free from sin and the troubles of this present world, and that is the topic of the final paragraph of Chapter 9.
5. This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only. 10
10. Ephesians 4:13
Ongoing sin will continue within the life of a believer. Paul spent a good portion of Romans chapter 7 relaying how this internal battle continues to rage. There will be no ultimate peace until glorification or the act of being perfected after physical death in this world.
The Confession writers tell us that man’s will is made perfectly and immutably free. The struggling believer is made whole. As the believer once saw dimly, he will now see clearly. The rags of sin are exchanged for those final garments of white that are perfect, in Christ, and unchangeable. Sin reigns no more. It is finally and totally eradicated in glorification. It is the ultimate consummation of the beauty in Christ.
Christians have a calling to do good in this world. They are to be light in a dark place and impact the society around them. Throughout history, Christians have sought to help the sick and indigent free slaves and stand against the horrors of abortion. The good done by Christians in these contexts are imperfect, and God only recognizes their good works as works done through Christ (Matt. 25:40). Works outside of Christ carry no eternal merit because it is impossible to please God outside of faith (Heb. 11:6).
Once the believer departs the present world and enters the kingdom of heaven, there will be no more pain, no more suffering, and no more struggle with sin. The will of the glorified believer will entirely focus on worshipping the redeemed Savior. They will forever be in the image of Christ as sons and daughters.
As John describes the final victory scene in Revelation, he says there be no more pain, no more tears, and no more death. Sin is the cause of all these, and when sin is vanquished, only beauty remains, and man’s free will has been wholly created new in Christ and glorification.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
 For ease, the term “man” will be substituted for mankind or used interchangeably. The term includes male and female.
Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 166.
 Ibid., 166.
 K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 210–211.
 Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 2016), 166—167.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 9.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 257.
 Sanctification has an immediate effect (1 Cor. 6:11) but will also be ongoing (Heb. 10:14) in a progressive fashion, so this is not to say the sinner is fully sanctified.
 3. And though they may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein, 9 whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit, 10 come to have their graces and comforts impaired, 11 have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, 12 hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves, 13 yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end. 14