Volume 9, Issue 1: Doctrine 101
A concept prevalent throughout modern Christianity is free will. Free will is often thought of as man's ability to choose whichever way he wants in a given circumstance without any internal or external coercion or influence. If this concept is challenged, most Christians today will scoff at the challenger as incredibly naive or else they will recoil in horror that such an obvious pillar of the faith is being assaulted. Christians, and even unbelievers, are of the strong conviction that people have the undeniable ability to choose according to their own dictates. After all, their own personal experience in life seems to confirm this belief, as do many passages in the Bible.
For example, parents might tell their child something like, "Choose which flavor you want," when they go to the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor. As little Billy is pondering his 31 options with excruciating diligence, Dad or Mom or even the ice cream server isn't following little Billy around saying, "Choose the pistachio-marmalade, . . . choose the pistachio-marmalade!" After little Billy has finally settled on the tutti-frutti, Mom doesn't snuggle up to her little precious and put him in a full-Nelson and warmly say, "You'll take the broccoli-nougat and like it!" And then even after little Billy gets his double scoop of tutti-frutti, takes his first lick, and decides that he really doesn't like it, his parents will graciously remind him, "You chose it, so stop complaining and eat it."
Man is a free moral agent. Man is free to choose. God made man this way. It isn't just an American concept. Even a slave, though legally and maybe physically constrained, is still a free moral agent. We see this concept of free moral agency pictured for us plainly in the Scriptures. "And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15; emphasis mine). Other passages that communicate this same idea are numerous (Deut. 30:19; Prov. 1:29, 8:10, 16:16; Isa. 56:4; Ezek. 33:2; Hos 8:4; Acts 6:3; 2 Cor 12:6; and others). In view of the abundance of such verses and the witness of personal experience, why would there be any question at all over the issue of "free will"?
The question that is often overlooked in the discussion over free will is, "Can man choose whatever he wants?" Some may think this is a silly question in light of the previous paragraphs. They might respond, "Of course he can! Look at all those verses and your example of little Billy." But this begs the issue. The question isn't whether the free moral agency that man uses to choose his favorite flavor of ice cream is the same free moral agency he uses to choose with respect to salvation. It is! The problem isn't one of whether there is free moral agency or not. The real problem is the nature of that free moral agency.
For example, we are all aware that animals may be classified by what they eat. Those that generally eat plants are called herbivores, while those that eat predominantly meat are carnivores. Those that eat both are omnivores. An example of a herbivore is a rabbit. When was the last time you saw a rabbit picking at the remains of some dead carcass squished on the road? You haven't and you won't because it's not in a rabbit's nature. Likewise, an eagle is an example of a carnivore. They eat rabbits, as well as other critters. You won't find an eagle digging up the cabbage in Mr. MacGregor's garden. It's not in an eagle's nature.
In the same way, man, although still a free moral agent, is fallen and sinful. It is not in his nature to choose that which is spiritually good (to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, for example). Just as God by nature is good and can only choose to do that which is good, fallen, unregenerate man is by nature sinful and can only choose to do that which is sinful. Look at Paul's explanation in Romans 6:16, "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slave whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?" A slave doesn't choose his master, but the master chooses his slaves. If a man is a slave to sin, he will choose according to his master, his nature. Man is born into this world enslaved to sin because it is our nature as offspring of Adam's race (Rom. 5:12).
But man in his self-centered and ignorant pride wants to claim that he is the equivalent of a spiritual omnivore, that his free will enables him to choose either for Christ or reject Him. But in light of Paul's argument for the sin-enslaved will, he can't! To be a spiritual omnivore would be the same as having two masters at the same time. Jesus is blunt on this point, "No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other" (Matt. 6:24). Now someone will counter that Jesus was speaking about God and money, not God and sin. Yet any master of our affections other than God is a violation of the first commandment and that is surely sin (Jas. 2:10).
Man is a free moral agent, free to choose according to his nature. But the unregenerate man's will is not free of internal coercion and influence. It is enslaved to sin. Just because man can choose doesn't of necessity mean that he has the ability to choose correctly. And just as rabbits don't hunt eagles for food because it is contrary to their nature, man in his unregenerate state does not, indeed, cannot choose for Christ because it is contrary to his nature (1 Cor. 2:14). To think or teach that he can is unbiblical and is the spiritual equivalent of choosing carrion over tutti-frutti. It's contrary to man's nature.