Why We Can’t Choose God

In this brief clip from his teaching series Knowing Christ, R.C. Sproul explains why we can’t choose God, even though we have free will.


I was interviewed yesterday for a series of programs that were being presented about Reformed theology, and the person who was running this program asked me what the basic issue was between Augustinian theology or Reformed theology and historic semi-Pelagianism. I said I think it comes down to a different understanding of freedom and of free will. I think the principle problem that people have with divine sovereignty with divine election is immediately they say ‘Well, we believe that man has free will.’ Well, I don’t know any Augustinian in all of church history who didn’t strongly affirm that we have free will. We are volitional creatures. God has given us minds and hearts, and He’s given us wills. And we exercise that will all the time. We make choices every minute of the day, and we choose what we want. We choose freely. Nobody’s coercing us, putting a gun to our head—we’re not robots. Robots don’t have minds. Robots don’t have wills. Robots don’t have hearts. We’re human beings. We make choices. That’s why we’re in trouble with God because the choices that we make in our fallen condition are sinful choices. We choose according to our desires which are only wicked continuously the Bible tells us. That we are as it were, dead in sin and trespasses even though biologically we’re very much alive, and we’re walking according to the course of this world—according to the Prince of the power of the air—fulfilling the lusts of the flesh is what the Bible tells us.

And so, the Bible makes it very clear that we are actively involved in making choices for which we are responsible and which expose us to the judgment of God. And yet at the same time, the Bible teaches us that we’re enslaved. We’re free from coercion, but we don’t have what Augustine called “royal liberty.” We are not free from ourselves. We’re not free from our own sinful inclinations, and our sinful appetites, and our sinful desires. We’re slaves to our sinful impulses. That’s what the Bible teaches us again, and again, and again. The humanist doctrine of free will, the pagan view of free will says that man is free not only from coercion, but man is free in the sense that his will is indifferent. It has no predisposition, or inclination, bias, or bent towards sin because the pagan and the humanist deny the radical character of the fall. But the Bible teaches us that we are fallen creatures who still choose and make decisions, but we make them in the context of our prison of sin. And the only way we can get out of that prison is if God sets us free.

‘Free Will’ – A Beginner’s Guide

john-piperA Beginner’s Guide to ‘Free Will’ – Article by John Piper (original source man was sinless and able not to sin. For God “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But he was also able to sin. For God had said, “In the day that you eat of it [the tree] you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

As soon as Adam fell into sin, human nature was profoundly altered. Now man was not able not to sin. In the fall, human nature lost its freedom not to sin.

Why is man not able not to sin? Because on this side of the fall “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8, my translation). Or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Notice the word cannot twice in Romans 8:7–8, and the words “is not able” in 1 Corinthians 2:14. This is the nature of all human beings when we are born — what Paul calls the “natural person,” and what Jesus calls “born of the flesh.”

Too Rebellious to Submit to God

This means, Paul says, that in this condition we “cannot please God,” or, to put it another way, “we are not able not to sin.” The basic reason is that the natural person prefers his own autonomy and his own glory above the sovereignty and glory of God. This is what Paul means when he says, “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit . . . ”

Glad submission to God’s authority, and to God’s superior value and beauty, is something we are not able to do. This is not because we are kept from doing what we prefer to do. It is because we prefer our own authority, and treasure our own value, above God’s. We cannot prefer God as supremely valuable while preferring ourselves supremely. Continue reading

Man’s Natural Inability

Article: Luther, God’s Law and Uncle Rico Syndrome by Aaron Denlinger (original source who until then had proven reluctant to challenge Martin Luther publically, finally caved to pressure from Rome to employ his literary talent against the impudent German Reformer who had caused, and was still causing, the institutional church of his day such problems. Erasmus chose to attack Luther where he believed the Reformer to be most vulnerable; he chose, that is, to challenge Luther’s assertion that sinful man was wholly unable to contribute anything to his own salvation, and for such required not only Christ’s atoning work on his behalf, but also the Holy Spirit’s work of enabling him to believe in Christ and so appropriate Christ and his benefits.

Erasmus’s defense of human free will — his defense, that is, of man’s innate ability to cooperate with God in his own salvation — employed a well-worn Pelagian argument. The humanist scholar argued that biblical commandments imply an ability on (sinful) man’s part to actually fulfill said commandments. So, for instance, appealing to Gen. 30:19 (“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live”), Erasmus commented: “What could be put more plainly? God shows what is good, [and] what is evil, shows the different rewards of life and death, [and] leaves man free to choose. It would be ridiculous to say, ‘Choose,’ if the power of turning one way or the other were not present, as though one should say to a man standing at a crossroad: ‘You see these two roads, take which you like’ … when only one was open to him!”

To be sure, Erasmus’s argument has a certain logic to it. One would hardly excuse me as a parent if I ordered my three year old daughter Geneva to change the oil in the family car and then punished her when she failed to fulfill the required task(s). Commandments to fulfill impossible tasks, and subsequent consequences for failure to deliver, do seem cruel. Surely, then, God would not order man to “choose life” if such a choice genuinely lay beyond man’s ability.

Luther’s response in his 1525 Bondage of the Will takes cognizance of how high Scripture actually sets the bar for man’s moral conduct (“You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Matt. 5.48) as well as rather clear biblical statements that reflect man’s spiritual depravity and (hence) inability to clear that bar (“Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” John 8.34). The Reformer’s response also, however, employs a very careful explanation for why God apparently commands sinful man to do things that sinful man has no ability to do.

That explanation begins with recognition that one critical component of natural man’s perverse disposition and enslavement to sin is natural man’s deluded perception of his own freedom and, if not moral achievements, at least ability to produce such achievements should he put his mind and energies to the task. “Man,” Luther notes, “is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. […] Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told.”

In Luther’s estimation man suffers from a spiritual version of Uncle Rico Syndrome. Uncle Rico, a character in the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, is a man utterly convinced of both his past and present abilities on the football field. In one memorable speech delivered in the film, Uncle Rico affirms his ability in earlier days to “throw a pigskin a quarter mile.” After subsequently demonstrating his skills by hurling an overcooked steak at his bike-riding nephew Napoleon’s head, Uncle Rico looks wistfully at the mountain range several miles distant and asks: “How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?”

Rico is seriously deluded about his own abilities. But how might one best go about disabusing Rico of his delusion? One could, of course, reason with him about the actual distance of those mountains, the average distance that even professional quarterbacks can throw a ball, etc. A much quicker solution, however, would be to simply hand Rico a football and issue him a command: “Do it.”

This, according to Luther, is essentially how God deals with natural man’s delusion regarding his freedom and abilities in Scripture. Faced with sinful man’s persuasion that he can, at any time he chooses, perform the works necessary to merit eternal life, God essentially tells man: “Do it.” Luther explains: “Human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything; and for this pride and blindness God has no readier remedy than the propounding of his law.” God’s command to “choose life,” then, implies no ability to do so. “By this and similar expressions man is warned of his impotence, which in his ignorance and pride, without these divine warnings, he would neither acknowledge nor be aware of.”

Thus Luther undermines Erasmus’s claim that commandments are somehow cruel if issued to persons incapable of fulfilling them. A commandment to Geneva to change the oil in the car, for instance, assumes a different character when one knows my daughter, a three year old possessed of more than her share of self-confidence. Geneva’s favorite words at present are “I can do it myself.” I have more than once in the last several weeks invited Geneva to do exactly what she claims herself capable of purely in the interest of disabusing her of her inflated confidence and guiding her towards the humble art of asking for (daddy’s) help. I’ve not, to be sure, asked her to change the oil in the car. But on the off chance she tells me tomorrow that she’s capable of doing so, I may very well invite her to do so, simply to rein in her perspective on her own innate abilities.
Similarly, divine commandments that are not actually matched by (fallen) man’s ability reflect no cruelty on God’s part. They are, rather, instances of divine kindness. It would be cruel for God to leave man in his state of delusion regarding his own freedom and abilities. It is kindness to lead man experientially to a knowledge of his inability and (hence) dire state, and so ultimately to lead man to seek salvation not in himself but in the work of Christ on his behalf. In Luther’s words: “The work of Moses or a lawgiver is … to make man’s plight plain to him by means of the law and thus to break and confound him by self-knowledge, so as to prepare him for grace and send him to Christ that he may be saved.” We’re all born with spiritual Uncle Rico syndrome, and to varying degrees we suffer from it until the day we die. One function of God’s law is to (kindly) disabuse us of our confidence in our ability to throw moral footballs over metaphorical mountains, and so to lead us to place our confidence and hope wholly in him who not only could but did

Is God Sovereign over My Free Will? (John Piper)

Piper_bwIs God Sovereign over My Free Will? (original source when our free will is in place? In other words, will God use His sovereignty to overwrite our free will at times to exemplify His perfect will. And if so, do we truly have free will?” Pastor John how would you explain it?

I am not sure what Tyson means by free will. And so I may not be able to answer the question if he means something by free will that I don’t believe in. So let’s try out a definition and let the Scriptures shed light on this problem. I think Tyson will get the answer he is after, at least the best I can give it.

The technical definition of free will that creates the controversies with those like me who believe in the sovereignty of God over the human will, not just a general statement about the sovereignty of God, but God’s sovereignty over the human will, that definition is this: Man’s will is free if he has the power of ultimate self-determination.

What I mean by ultimate self-determination is that no power outside of man himself has ultimate or decisive control over what a man chooses, at least not when he is acting as a moral agent who must give an account to God. Neither other people, nor influences, nor God himself has decisive control over a person’s choices. God and man and nature may have some influence, but this influence cannot be decisive. They may have a kind of causality, but not ultimate causality or decisive causality. Otherwise, the man would not be free on this definition that I am unfolding.

So Wesleyans and Arminians insist that for a person to believe on Christ and be saved divine influence is, indeed, necessary. They call it prevenient grace: grace that has come before our faith and, thus, influences us toward Christ. But this influence on the Wesleyan and Arminian understanding cannot be decisive. The final and decisive and ultimate cause of our believing Christ is not the Holy Spirit. It is not divine grace. It is our own input. God may get the process of conversion started, but the decisive influence is provided by ourselves. This is what is meant by free will on this definition. It is ultimate or decisive self-determination.

Now if that is what Tyson means in his question, I can’t answer his question because I don’t think such a thing exists anywhere in the universe except in the will of God. Only God has free will in the sense of ultimate self-determination. And here are a few of the reasons why I think that, because I don’t know whether Tyson agrees with that or not.

Jesus talked about why Judas did not believe on him. John 6:64–65 says, “(Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’” In other words, no one can come to Jesus, that is, no one can believe unless God grants him the faith. Judas did not come to Jesus decisively, fully, savingly because it was not granted to him, Jesus says, by the Father. And Jesus takes the truth and generalizes it to all of us and says in this very verse: “No one” — not just Judas — “can come to me unless it is granted” — unless the decisive coming is granted — “by the Father.” No one has the power of ultimate self-determination to get themselves to God. God gives or withholds the power to come. Nudges to come will not save anybody. What is given by God is the coming.

Another reason I don’t think ultimate self-determination exists in human beings is 2 Timothy 2:24–25, where Paul says that the Lord’s servant should correct “his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” So repentance — it is the flip side of the coin of faith, with faith on the other side of the coin and faith embraces Christ — repentance turns from embracing other false reliances. The gift of repentance is the gift of the coin. It is the gift of rejecting self-reliance and embracing Christ. It is a gift of salvation. And without the gift of God to cause us to repent and believe, none of us would be saved.

Another reason is that John says in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Self-willed faith does not bring about the new birth. Just the opposite. The new birth brings about faith. Faith is, therefore, not the result of human self-determination but of the new birth.

One more reason among many, many more: Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” No king anywhere on earth has the power of ultimate self-determination. So I don’t think such a thing exists except in God. God is ultimately self-determining, but man is not ultimately and decisively self-determining.

Nevertheless — and I think this gets at what Tyson is asking about — nevertheless, we are responsible, accountable for our preferences and our choices. If God is sovereign over the human will, are we responsible? Yes, we are. And the Bible says so over and over again. Our choices are our choices. They are true choices. We have a will. Our will is active. We are genuine moral agents.

We will, as Jesus says, “give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36). Indeed, all of our preferences and choices and behavior, according to Romans 14:12, we will give an account of. Each of us will give an account of himself to God. Human beings do not have ultimate self-determination and we will all give an account to God for our preferences and our choices.

So instead of speaking of the will as free or not, I prefer to speak of people as free or not, because that is the way the Bible does. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul says in Galatians 5:1. Christians are free from the bondage to sin and from the oppressive demand of having to perform our own salvation.

Maybe the best way to end would be to quote this great liberation from Romans 6:17–18: “Thanks be to God.” That is so important. And that is the way we should live as believers, with a heart brimming like this. “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

I don’t want free will

“I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want “free-will” to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavour after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground ; but because even were there no dangers. I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success. But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. Furthermore, I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favour promised to me; so that, if I work too little, or badly, He does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better. This is the glorying of all the saints in their God.”

– Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 313-314

The “Free Will” Song

The “Joy Quartet” at Pensacola Christian College teach us about the Arminian doctrine of free will. Actually, it may even be the Pelagian doctrine.

I must say, my “free will” did not get me past the first 90 seconds!

Here is a short article I wrote on the subject of the will which is followed by a lively discussion in the comment section.

HT: Justin Edwards

Sovereign Election, Human Responsibility, Evangelism and the Gospel

These two messages by Dr. John MacArthur are exceptional. Taken from the recent the two sessions I make mention of here seek to provide biblical answers to questions such as “How are we to harmonize divine sovereignty with human responsibility? How can we understand that salvation is a matter of God’s will and God’s choice and God’s purpose, and God’s timing, and at the same time, make man in any sense responsible for what happens? How do we harmonize the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility with our evangelistic duty.”

I am delighted that these teaching sessions have now been made available in this way and I hope a great many people take the time to watch them. Get ready for deep insights into God’s word, the fruit of a lifetime of service from Dr. MacArthur.

As each of us learn and inwardly digest the contents, I am confident that the biblical truths learned here will have deep and profound effects as to how each of us conduct Christian ministry helping us become more informed and effective servants of Christ. I cannot recommend these videos highly enough.

Part 1 – An Introduction to the Sovereign Gospel (44 minutes) – found here.

Part 2 – An Explanation of the Sovereign Gospel (45 minutes) – found here.

(Full transcripts of the messages are available at the above links also)