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Does Man Have Free Will? The Doctrine of Total Depravity

There is a debate that runs among some Christian circles about the concept of free will. This debate is one part of the disagreement between people who are Calvinistic in their view of God and salvation, and those who are not. The Calvinist believes in a doctrine called “total depravity”, which teaches that men are born in sin, under the curse of sin, and are sinners by the mere fact that they are humans. Because of this sin nature, inherited from Adam, the Calvinist believes that men cannot exercise their own will to do anything pleasing to God. In other words, they have no ability to “choose Jesus”, they are by nature opposed to God. Some Christians have devised numerous ways to get around this doctrine, among them is the concept of “free will.”

Robots, Fatalism!
The argument that many free will advocates put forth asks “How can men be held accountable for sin if they have no free will to do otherwise?” This is a reasonable question. Paul asks this question rhetorically in [esvignore]Romans 9:19[/esvignore]. The free will advocate says men without free will are merely robots, puppets or machines; they are pre-programmed to sin. They state that if men have no free will of their own, then God is unjust and unfair when He condemns a sinner to Hell who never had a free chance at choosing Christ. Some free will champions say Calvinists believe in the ancient pagan philosophy of fatalism, which is the idea that cold-hearted fate has pre-determined everything such that man has no responsibility. This is an un-biblical position, of course, but that’s what Calvinists are occasionally charged with.

The advocate of free will, on the other hand, believes in some level of the depravity of man, but not total depravity. He says that men are not necessarily dead to Christ, not necessarily dead in their sins and trespasses, not necessarily in bondage to sin. The free will advocate must – if he is consistent – say that man is not totally dead in trespasses and sin as [esvignore]Ephesians 2:1[/esvignore] says, but must say with Miracle Max of Princess Bride fame, he’s just “mostly dead.”

Dead Men Don’t Talk

The Calvinist believes that men are spiritually dead like a stone ([esvignore]Ezekiel 36:26-27[/esvignore]). This is shown to us all through the Bible. We point to verses like [esvignore]Ephesians 2:1-10[/esvignore] to show that we are completely incapable of responding to Jesus Christ unless God first changes us by grace into living men. We call this change regeneration. It is the new life. We are transformed by the Holy Spirit from being totally unable and unwilling to respond to Jesus in a positive manner, to being able AND willing to respond.

The key idea is that our will was changed along with that which ruled our will. We speak of this in terms of our “nature.” Speaking of “the nature of man” is an ontological way of expressing what we are. For example, a dog barks because it is a dog, it cannot chirp because it is the nature of dogs to bark. If a dog chirped like a bird, or a cat brayed like a mule, or a fish talked, it would be acting contrary it its nature. It is impossible and absurd to speak in such terms. Likewise, a man sins because he is – by nature – a sinner from conception ([esvignore]Ephesians 2:3[/esvignore]). He is not a sinner because at some point in his life he happens to commit a sin. David confesses this truth in [esvignore]Psalm 51:5[/esvignore] when he declares “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” [esvignore]Romans 5:12-17[/esvignore] teaches clearly that sin and death are common to all men because we are by nature sons of Adam. We cannot escape our nature, and our wills cannot act contrary to our nature.

Bondage of the Will
Men have a will. They have the ability to choose things. They are even commanded to “choose you this day who you will serve” in [esvignore]Joshua 24:15[/esvignore]. We do not deny men must exercise will and choose between good and evil. What we deny is that men’s will is free. We deny that men operate with a will that is not governed by anything.

Men are born with a will. But that will is ruled. All men are governed by something. Since the Bible says we are born in sin, we are governed by sin. In [esvignore]John 3:6-8[/esvignore], Jesus peaks to Nicodemus about these very concepts. He says “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” A person who is born of the flesh (that is, all of us) needs to be “born again”, but this time we need to be born of the Spirit. Why? Because our initial birth is of a nature that is incompatible with that of spiritual things. We are born of the flesh, when we need to be born of the Spirit. Two natures, each incompatible with the other.

Because of this, our will is certainly not “free”. We exercise our will according to our nature. Martin Luther called this the “bondage of the will” and an old Lutheran liturgy humbly declares “we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” This is the essence of all men’s plight. They have a will, but that will is governed by that which rules them.

Dry Bones and Smelly Tombs
There is another way to look at this idea of “born dead in sin” or “born of the flesh”. God gives us a very profound illustration as we examine the dry bones of the valley in [esvignore]Ezekiel 37[/esvignore]. God asked the prophet “Can these bones live?” On their own, of course not. You can’t go to a cemetery and preach the gospel and expect the dead to listen. In Ezekiel, the Spirit of God had to blow upon the bones in order to bring new life to them. This is the same “wind” that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about in [esvignore]John 3:6-8[/esvignore]. In the Ezekiel story, God says to the bones “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” The bones did not hear the preaching, they were dead! It was the Spirit of God, the wind of God blowing, that made the bones live, and this is the picture of our own salvation. When they were regenerated by the supernatural work of God, then preaching transformed the bones into “an exceedingly great army.”

The story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead includes a rather off-putting little detail to drive this point home. Recall in [esvignore]John 11[/esvignore], Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus had become ill and died. Lazarus’ sister Martha is rather appalled at the idea of rolling the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb. In verse 39, she says “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Why did John include this gruesome detail? So that we know that Lazarus – like the dry bones – is dead. All the way dead. Rotten dead. Not mostly dead. He had to be made living, uncorrupted, and awakened by supernatural power before he could hear Jesus calling him out of the bonds of death..

It should be clear that spiritually dead men, like rotting corpses and exceedingly dry bones, do not have the ability to act differently than dead men. It is absurd to speak in any other terms. So the person born as a human, born of the flesh, having a nature that is in bondage to sin, who is dead in his trespasses, and who is unable to please God, is like just Lazarus. He cannot respond to God of his own free will. His nature will not allow it ([esvignore]Romans 8:8[/esvignore]). Thus we say men are all totally depraved, not mostly depraved. In terms of their salvation and their ability to choose Jesus, they can will all they want, but because of their nature, their will is not free, it always chooses that which is not pleasing to God.

What does this mean for me?
It means, if you are a believer, that your salvation is totally a God-wrought work of grace. And as such, it should be truly and immensely treasured as the greatest, most un-merited, most stunning gift anyone could possibly receive. It should cause you, believer, to lay aside any pride, any boasting, and any claim to your own holiness. You ought to be stirred up to praise God even more fervently, because He had mercy on you. You revel in the amazing truth that Peter marvels at in [esvignore]1 Peter 2:10[/esvignore] “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” You do not boast in your salvation, for you did nothing to earn, merit or bargain for it. It is a gift. Or as Paul asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast?” You worship the Lord with even more gratitude. Thanksgiving and humility become your banner. You recognize your utter dependence upon Him – not only for the new life He gave you, but for the daily life He enables in you.

And you keep on preaching the good news that there is life in Christ. You keep preaching repentance from sin, obedience to the Gospel, and you keep calling people to faith in Jesus. You see, we do not know who among all the people of earth are the dry bones. We don’t know who is a Lazarus among us. We cannot tell for whom Christ died. All we know is that He had mercy on us, and gives us the privilege to tell others of such grace. We plead anyway, Calvinists or not. People may ask, “If the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t change how we go about doing evangelism, why make a big deal out of it?” The fact is, it changes us. It makes us much more focused on who God is and who man is. We see how great a salvation we really have, and how truly great and loving our God is. We see much more clearly the immensity of Christ’s work on the cross, and much more profoundly how evil sin really is. It changes everything when we realize and affirm with Paul that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” ([esvignore]Philippians 2:13[/esvignore]) It keeps us from a cheap and easy view of God. It keeps us from reducing God to a mere choice. It keeps us from binding God Almighty to the sinful will of men.

We can then agree with Peter, that we have not worked for nor merited our salvation, but that “He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” and that such a gift is “more precious than gold” ([esvignore]1 Peter 1:3-7[/esvignore])

There is much more to this idea of total depravity. It has greater implications. People often ask why such doctrinal study is important. After all, isn’t it just hair splitting? We contend it is not. Sound doctrine has practical benefits for daily living. For example, the doctrine of total depravity has real, down to earth comforts for those who preach the gospel. If we understand that men are utterly incapable of responding to God’s Word apart from a supernatural work of the Spirit, then we are loosed from the pressure of trying to argue and manipulate men into the Kingdom. We merely need to be faithful to go and preach the fullness of the Word of God and plead with men to repent and obey the gospel. But we do not need to devise methods above and beyond the Bible to “get people saved.” The pressure is off, we don’t have to get out there and perform. We just need to be faithful to sound Biblical doctrine.

Further, the doctrine of total depravity gives boldness to the gospel preacher and the evangelist. He does not need to feel like HE has offended the unregenerate man by his preaching. Instead, he knows the unregenerate man is offended at the Lord because he has no free will in him to choose Christ. Instead, the evangelist knows that men are in bondage to sin, slaves to the flesh, and they hate God – just like we all did. Instead of being personally offended at those who spit upon us and revile us, we can find compassion for them. That compassion keeps us motivated and we go on preaching truth in hopes that the sheep will hear their Master’s voice. Imagine the implications for our own households, for our children? Imagine the implications for our relations with our neighbors and co-workers?

This doctrine is Biblical, important and powerfully liberating. When you give up free will, an idea foreign to the Bible, you are agreeing with God that His ways are higher than our ways. You are fostering a very high view of God and an appropriately low view of man. For the believer, it is enlightening and gives us a more accurate picture of both God and men.


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