Tract: Man's Will - Free Yet
By Walter J. Chantry
For more than
fifteen hundred years the Church has engaged in a heated debate over
the freedom of man's will. The major issues came to general attention
in the early fifth century when Augustine and Pelagius did battle on
the subject. Through medieval times the nature of man's freedom
received a great deal of attention. As they studied the Scriptures,
Bernard and Anselm made significant contributions to the doctrine of
the human will. In the sixteenth century the freedom or bondage of the
will was one of the chief issues dividing Reformers and Roman
Catholics. To the mind of Martin Luther, it was the key to his
In the seventeenth century the nature of man's freedom was at the
heart of the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. The conflict
surfaced again in the eighteenth century during the Great Awakening.
Finney's approach to revival in the nineteenth century led the church
astray through a misunderstanding of the human will. So too the nature
of man's will continues to bring intense disagreement between Reformed
and Fundamentalist believers.
A proper understanding of the content of the gospel and the use of
GOD-honoring methods in evangelism are dependent on one's grasp of
Some theologians, both Arminian and Calvinistic, have been quite lucid
in their discussions concerning man's will. Others, for example,
Jonathan Edwards, have soared into the lofty clouds of philosophy
where many a believer faints in the thin air of difficult logic and
complex thought. But none is so refreshingly clear as our holy LORD.
His instruction on the subject is laced with vivid illustrations to
assist our groping minds:
Matthew 12.33-37 says, 'Either make the tree good, and his fruit
good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the
tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being
evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the
mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart
bringeth forth good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure
bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, that every idle word
that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of
judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words
thou shalt be condemned.'
In this passage are three verbal windows through which the light of
Christ's lesson passes. Each presents a familiar scene. (1) A tree
that has fruit - v. 33. (2) A man who brings treasures out of a chest
- v. 35. (3) A stream that overflows from a fountain. This last is
rather more obscure than the first two, but it is suggested by our
LORD's choice of words in v. 34. The word 'abundance' suggests
superfluity or overflow.
I. Man has a will and that will has a certain freedom.
Our LORD clearly teaches that man has a power of choice. It is
important to begin here to disarm opponents of all the foolish
accusations that have been brought against the Biblical doctrine of
man's will. Every man has the ability to choose his own words, to
decide what his actions will be. We have a faculty of
self-determination in the sense that we select our own thoughts,
words, and deeds. Man is free to choose what he prefers, what he
No one ties fruit on a tree's branches, not even GOD. The tree bears
its own fruit. Evil men sin voluntarily; they take evil treasures out
of their chests, that is, evil words and deeds. Righteous men are holy
by choice; they select good treasures, that is, good words and works.
The person who is speaking and acting is completely responsible for
his moral behaviour. This power of the will is a vital part of human
personality. It always exists in you and me and in all to whom we
witness or preach.
GOD never forces men to act against their wills. By workings of
outward providence or of inward grace, the LORD may change men's
minds, but He will not coerce a human being into thoughts, words or
actions. When GOD in His holy wrath sent the Israelites to drive the
Canaanites from their land, He also sent hornets against them. There
is a children's song which tells the story of these hornets stinging
the Canaanites, causing the pagans to flee the land. The chorus then
GOD never compels
us to go, Oh no,
He never compels us to go;
GOD does not compel us to go 'gainst our will,
but He just makes us willing to go.
When Saul was
converted, the LORD did not compel him to edify the church instead of
persecuting it. He added a new factor of inward grace in his soul,
consequently Paul changed his decision. GOD may renew the will but He
never coerces it.
The Westminster Confession is very careful to assert the liberty of
the human will. When it speaks of GOD's eternal decrees, we are told,
'GOD from all eternity did . . . freely and unchangeably ordain
whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is GOD the author
of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is
the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather
established.' When discussing Free Will, the Confession begins, '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.' Neither by creation nor by subsequent acts of GOD are
man's decisions made for him; he is free to choose for himself.
This sort of freedom of the will is essential to responsibility!
Having a will is a necessary ingredient to being morally accountable.
This is clearly implied in our LORD's words in verses 36 and 37: 'I
say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall
give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou
shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.' A man
can be condemned only because the words are his own. He was free to
bring them out of his treasure chest. They were the overflow of the
fountain of his own heart. They are the fruits of his own tree of
nature. No one imposed the words on his lips. He chose them. Society,
companions, parents cannot be blamed. Idle words are the product of
the man's own will.
It is vital for every minister to appreciate the importance of man's
will. For in evangelism the will must be addressed. In preaching the
gospel we are not only to shine the light of truth upon darkened
minds. We are also to appeal to men's perverted wills to choose
Christ. Faith is as much an act of the will as it is of the mind. When
by the Spirit a mind understands essential truths, by the same Spirit
the will must trust Christ. Repentance is a selecting of good and a
refusing of evil. Volition is central to faith and repentance.
Indeed, in conversion, a man must make a decision. We shy away from
that term because in modern jargon a 'decision' has come to be
identified with an outward expression, such as raising the hand or
going forward to the front. While such external acts have nothing to
do with forgiveness of sins, the heart must make a decision to be
When Christ stood to cry 'If any man thirst, let him come unto me and
drink,' He was soliciting a willing choice of Himself as satisfying
drink for the soul. GOD urges all sinners to come just because they
may come. And it is our duty to inform the sinner that he has a
warrant, a right to choose Christ. Beyond this, we must assure him
that he has a positive duty to embrace the Savior.
The great guilt of sinners under the gospel is that they will not
come. Christ complained in John
5.40: 'Ye will
not come to me that ye might have life.' And to Jerusalem He
sobbed, 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy
children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her
wings and ye would not !' There is in the unregenerate hearer
of the gospel an obstinate, willful choice not to come. Hence it is
that in flaming fire Christ will come to take vengeance on them that
obey not the gospel [2 Thess 1.8]. In the free exercise
of their uncoerced wills men have rejected the Son of GOD.
In speaking of responsibility we have implied nothing regarding
ability, as will be seen below. But the point is that men have wills
which must be addressed as powerfully and directly as their minds and
emotions in gospel preaching. Men must be confronted with their
responsibility. 'This is the work of GOD, that ye believe into Him
whom He hath sent' [John 6.29].
II. Man's Will is not a Sovereign Faculty. Although man
does have a will, it is neither independent of all influences nor
supreme over all other parts of his personality. This is the next
point to be seen in our LORD's teaching.
Pelagians, Roman Catholics, Arminians and Finneyites have all held one
common view of the nature of man. They suggest that the will of man is
in some way neutral, that it exists in a state of moral suspension. It
is their understanding that with equal ease the will can choose good
or evil; it can receive or reject Christ. With only degrees of
difference and variety of explanation, this is their common opinion.
Pelagians have taught that the will is neutral because man's heart is
morally neutral. Arminians, on the other hand, acknowledge the human
heart to be evil. But they suggest that prevenient grace has hung the
will upon a 'sky hook' of neutrality from which it can swing either to
receive or to reject the gospel. The common ground, however, is this
idea of neutrality. The will, they tell us, is disinterested.
Ultimately this controls their entire view of conversion and of
It will be noted that our Master taught that the human will is not
free from the other faculties of the heart. Far from the will reigning
over a man, the will is determined by the man's own character. It is
not raised to a position of dominance over the entire man.
Man is like a tree. His heart, not his will alone, is the root. There
is no possible way by which the will can choose to produce fruit
contrary to the character of the root. If the root is bad, the tree is
bound by its very nature to produce evil fruit. Man is like a person
standing alongside his treasure chest. There is no possibility of
bringing pure gold out of a box filled only with rusty steel. The
contents of the heart determine what words and deeds may be brought
out. Far from being neutral, the will must reach into the heart for
its choices. Every thought, word and deed will partake of the nature
of the treasure within. Man is like a stream which cannot rise above
its source. If the fountain is polluted, the outflow will be evil. If
the source be sweet, the stream will not be bitter and cannot choose
to be so.
These three illustrations alike contain the same lesson. What a man is
determines what he chooses. Choices of the will always reveal the
character of the heart, because the heart determines the choices. Men
are not sinners because they choose to sin; they choose to sin because
they are sinners. If this were not so, we could never know a tree by
its fruits, nor could we judge a man's character by his acts.
In modern times we observe rockets fired so that they escape from the
earth's gravity. To accomplish this there is a great complex of
electrical wires all woven into one control centre, called in the
According to the Bible, the heart is the Mission Control of a man's
life. The heart is the motivational complex of a man, the basic
disposition, the entire bent of character, the moral inclination. The
mind, emotions, desires, and will are all wires which we observe; none
is independent but all are welded into a common circuit. If mission
control is wired for evil, the will cannot make the rockets of life
travel on the path of righteousness. The will cannot escape the
direction of thoughts, feelings, longings and habits to produce
behavior of an opposite moral quality. 'Will' may be the button which
launches the spacecraft. But the launching button does not determine
the direction. Direction is dependent upon the complex wiring system.
If the will were able to make decisions contrary to reason, and to the
likes and desires of the heart, it would be a monster. You would find
yourself in a restaurant ordering all the foods you detest. You would
find yourself selecting the company you loathe. But the will is not a
monster. It cannot choose without consulting your intelligence,
reflecting your feelings, and taking account of your desires. You are
free to be yourself. The will cannot transform you into someone else.
This is most profoundly true in the moral and religious realms. When
the mind is at war with GOD, denying His truth; when the emotions hate
Christ His Son; when the desires wish GOD's law and gospel were
exterminated from the earth; the will cannot be in a position to
choose Christ. If it were, a man would not be truly free to be
himself. Here is the tragic truth about man's will. While free from
outward coercion, it is in a state of bondage. It is not in a stated
neutrality. It is not a lever with which to move a man's personality
from sin to righteousness, from unbelief to faith. This brings us to
the third element in Christ's words.
III. Man's Will is in Bondage to Sin. The chains which
bind a man's will to sin do not result from the actions of the
Omnipotent GOD. The binding chains are the man's own depraved
faculties. The prison is his own nature.
Our LORD's rhetorical question in verse 34 brings this home with
force: 'O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good
things ?' Our wise LORD is suggesting that a man must speak as he does
because of what he is. To sinners He was saying 'You are unable to
choose good words because you possess an evil heart. If the tree is
bad, if the treasure chest is filled with evil things alone, if the
fountain is bitter, your will cannot produce good words [fruits,
At this point there are very many scriptures which attest to a man's
bondage to sin by his own nature. To mention but a few - Jeremiah
13.23: 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?
Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil;' John 6.44:
'No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw
him;' Romans 8.7: 'The carnal mind . . . is not subject to the law of
GOD, neither indeed can be.'
Pelagian, Arminian and modern Fundamentalist support for the moral and
spiritual freedom of the will usually centres on one point. We have
admitted that man has a responsible freedom. He is free to be himself.
He is held accountable for his words and deeds, especially for his
receiving or rejecting Christ. On all of this we agree. They use this
toehold to argue that the will is not in bondage to sin but has the
power of contrary choice. It can do either good or evil, at least when
confronted with the gospel. They insist that the responsibility of the
will to choose Christ implies ability of the will to choose Christ.
There is no scriptural defence of this belief, none that I have ever
seen in print. The argument is completely philosophical. It runs as
follows: If a man cannot do good, it would be unjust to punish him as
evil. Furthermore, if a sinner cannot repent, it would be foolish to
command all men everywhere to repent. GOD is not foolish and He has
commanded repentance. Therefore men are able to repent.
We can only reply that those who applaud the powers of the will with
such arguments have not read the Bible very carefully. To maintain
their philosophical premises they will have to argue with Christ their
LORD. For our Prophet tells us in verses 36 and 37 of our text that in
the day of judgment men will be held responsible for their evil words.
Yet in verse 34 our Teacher tells the very same men that they cannot
speak good words because they are bound by their evil character.
Lazarus in his tomb had no ability to respond when our LORD commanded,
'Come forth.' The man who had been impotent for 38 years had no native
ability to obey when Jesus commanded him to take up his bed and walk.
Nor have modern sinners ability to believe when we preach. 'This is
his commandment, that we believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ'
[I John 3.23].
When a sinner refuses to come to Christ, he is guilty because he has
made a free choice. It reflects his own state of mind, feeling and
attitude toward GOD and His Son. He has acted voluntarily without
coercion. It is his decision. But the poor sinner, dead in trespasses
and sins, could not do otherwise, being evil. It is not necessary for
him to have a neutral will, or the ability to do both good and evil,
for his action to be held accountable before the Judge of all hearts.
Anselm is very helpful on this matter. This medieval theologian points
out that if ability to sin is necessary to true liberty or
responsibility, then GOD is neither free nor praiseworthy. For the
scriptures teach us that GOD cannot lie. Similarly, saints in glory
will be neither free nor responsible; for in eternity the LORD's
people have confirmed righteousness. Anselm goes on to show the
Biblical emphasis of freedom. True liberty rests in the ability to do
good whereas he that does sin is the slave of sin. If true
liberty rests in the ability to do good in GOD's sight, then the
highest liberty rests in the inability to do otherwise. This highest
freedom belongs to the sons of GOD in glory. How Biblical were
No doubt Anselm's thinking has influenced the Westminster Confession's
wording in the chapter 'Of Free Will.' For it says that Adam 'had
freedom and power to will and to do that which is good and well
pleasing to GOD.' Yet this freedom was mutable, subject to change. Man
could and did lose his liberty in the sense of being able to do good.
This is not the same as a man's liberty to be himself. 'Man, by his
fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any
spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being
altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his
own strength, to convert himself, or prepare himself thereto.'
Bernard was very near the truth when he wrote of our condition in
Adam: 'The soul, in some strange and evil way, is held under this kind
of voluntary, yet sadly free necessity, both bond and free; bond in
respect of necessity, free in respect of will: and what is still more
strange, and still more miserable, it is guilty because free, and
enslaved because guilty, and therefore enslaved because free.'
We have seen that man is free to be himself and therefore is enslaved
to sin by a wicked heart. And this brings us to the most profound
truth regarding the salvation of souls. It is crucial to our
preaching. It is vital to saving impressions in our hearers.
IV. Man's Will is not his Hope. Our LORD has taught that
the tree must be made good. Man must be renewed in his entire
character. He must have a new heart to bring forth good fruit; the
will cannot make the tree good; it may only exercise liberty to be
what the tree already is. The will cannot reload the treasure chest
with a new kind of goods; it may only freely bring forth what is
there. The will cannot cleanse the fountainhead; it may overflow only
with the waters available in the soul.
Any gospel preaching that relies upon an act of the human will for the
conversion of sinners has missed the mark. Any sinner who supposes
that his will has the strength to do any good accompanying salvation
is greatly deluded and far from the kingdom. We are cast back upon the
regenerating work of the Spirit of the living GOD to make the tree
good. Unless GOD does something in the sinner, unless GOD creates a
clean heart and renews a right spirit within man, there is no hope of
a saving change.
While we address the wills of men in gospel preaching, they are wills
bound in the grave clothes of an evil heart. But as we speak, and the
LORD owns His word, sinners are quickened to life by divine power. His
people are made willing in the day of His power [Psm. 110.3]. All who
are adopted as sons of GOD were 'born not of the will of man, but of
GOD.' [John 1. 13] We stand to preach with no power to make the tree
good. The 'trees' before us cannot make themselves good, so no
gimmicks or policies of men can persuade them to make the change. But
our glorious GOD, by inward, secret, transforming power, can make the
tree good, the treasures good, the fountain good. Thus all glory be to
GOD and to the Lamb! Salvation is of the LORD!