… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved …. – Romans 10:9
It is commonly believed that man is at liberty to choose between good and evil. He is free to choose right from wrong. Man knows how to make choices that are righteous and holy. Experience and human reason will ultimately guide us to make excellent moral choices. Each person possesses a free will, and his destiny depends on how he uses it. All of these statements are false.
Behind what most people mean by “free will” is a myth that man is by nature impartial and therefore able to choose rightly between good or evil. People genuinely believe that in some way they determine their actions as if they were meant for good. But that is not the case. The entire human race is continually bent toward evil of every kind. Jeremiah asked, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? [i]“ He goes on to answer his own question by stating “[Then] you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” The point being made is that the ability to choose good is impossible with man. It is contrary to our nature. Men desperately need the supernatural conversion of their natures through the power of God to do good, and without Him their wills are enslaved to choosing evil forever.
Man is not free to elect virtue over wickedness; he does however have power to choose between alternatives. We choose actions from a number of options and lesser evils. We certainly have the ability to direct our thoughts, words, and actions. No man is compelled to act contrary to his will, nor forced to say what he does not wish. This does not mean that decision-making is free from all influence.
We make choices based on our emotions, our presuppositions, our tastes, and our cravings. But each one of these internal influences has a corrupting power in and of themselves. Since man’s choices are bound by inner desire (and sometimes ignorance) our propensity to continually sin is compounded. Our unholy passions guide every step of the way. Choices are determined by one’s selfish preferences. Even when man chooses to do something that he considers “good,” this choice is motivated by selfish desire.
The human will is not independent of our sinful choices, but it is the slave of it. Choices do not shape a man’s character, but his character guides his choices. Our free will is therefore overwhelmingly biased. It is restricted by our limited comprehension of the will of God. We make choices based on how we feel at the moment, what hungers us, and the things for which we yearn. A man will ultimately make a decision according to the condition of his heart.
The will of man is the servant of his sinful heart. The human heart is evil: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously [ii]”. “There is none that does good, no, not one[iii].” The descendants of Adam are so evil that they prefer alternatives that do not glorify his Creator. Man will not (because he cannot not) choose God’s good over evil.
All of man’s decisions are justified by human reason, and the Bible says of all men that their hearts are foolish and darkened by sin [iv]. Man can only be righteous when he desires to have fellowship with his Creator, but, no man truly seeks after Him [v]. Our appetites crave sin, and thus cannot choose according to the will of God. To choose God’s good is contrary to human nature. If we chose to obey God, it would be the result of external compulsion.
If fresh meat and tossed salad were placed before a hungry dog, he would choose the meat. The dog makes this choice because his inner desire dictates the selection. Likewise, the will of man is free from outside force, but it is not free from the sinful desire inborn of human nature. The corrupted desires of men are therefore instinctively working against God’s desires. Man’s power of decision is free to choose whatever the sinful human heart dictates; therefore there is no possibility of man choosing to please God without prior work of divine grace. Therefore, man must be reborn by the Spirit of God. If the Spirit converts a man’s will, he is then transferred from the realm of spiritual darkness into spiritual light [vi].
We look around and instinctively assume that good or bad options are determined by good or bad character, and we are able judge these situations accordingly: “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits [vii].” Plants are not free to produce good or bad fruit at random, but are governed by their nature. It is not the goodness of the fruit which causes the goodness of the tree, but the reverse. And according to the parable of Jesus, the same is true of man.
In spite of general acceptance given to “free will,” we have seen that man’s will is not free to choose spiritual good. Man is not free to act contrary to his own immoral nature. Good ethical choices are not formed by human reason; rather, human reason will lead man to make choices that do not lead to Jesus Christ. Man will always choose the path that leads away from God, not to Him.
What is the solution to man’s sinful choices? Since man’s nature and character is so polluted by sin, he cannot work himself free of this predicament. The creative work of God is necessary. The cure is a new life by which man is made alive with Jesus Christ by sharing in His resurrected life, and hence the man can be called a “new creature [viii].“ Man needs to become born anew through the work of the Holy Spirit. This consists in the implanting of a new spiritual life in man – a radical change – insofar that man will begin to move in a Godward direction. This regeneration is an act of God by which an entirely new life is implanted in man, and the inner working of his soul is made holy. When God redeems a person, he redeems the entire person, including the will, which then is liberated to serve God.
If you have questions about what it means to be born again, please call a pastor of a Bible-believing church near you. Click here to find a church in your area.
[i] Jeremiah 13:23
[ii] Genesis 6:5
[iii] Romans 3:12
[iv] Romans 1:21
[v] Romans 3:11
[vi] Ephesians 5: 8
[vii] Matthew 7:18-20
[viii] 2 Corinthians 5:14-18