The Bondage of the Will

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  • The Bondage of the Will

    From Foundations of the Christian Faith by James Montgomery Boice

    AFTER HAVING DESCRIBED THE NATURE OF SIN AND ITS RADICAL AND PERVASIVE effects upon the race, it is still necessary to discuss the bondage of the will. At that point the sharpest disagreements come and the results of sin are most clearly exposed.

    Luther recognized the importance of the issue. At the end of his monumental defense of the will's bondage, after demolishing the arguments of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Luther turned to Erasmus and complimented his writings for at least focusing on the crucial issue. Luther wrote, "I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further accountthat you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue."' Similarly, Emil Brunner speaks of the understanding of freedom and "unfreedom" as "the decisive point" for understanding man and man's sin.2

    How far did man fall when he sinned? Did he merely stumble? Did he fall part way, but nevertheless not so far as to render himself hopeless? Or did he fall totally, so far that he cannot even will to seek God or obey him? What does the Bible mean when it says that we are "dead in trespasses and sins"? Does it mean that we really are dead so far as any ability to respond to God or to choose God is concerned? Or do we still have the ability at least to respond to God when the offer of salvation is made to us? If we can respond, what does Paul mean when he says that "no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:11)? What does Jesus mean when he says that "no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (Jn. 6:44)? On the other hand, if we cannot respond, what is the meaning of those many passages in which the gospel is offered to fallen men and women? How is a person to be held responsible for failing to believe in Jesus if he or she is unable to do it?

    Such questions suggest the importance of the will's bondage. They indicate how the doctrines of sin and depravity, election, grace and human responsibility flow from it.

    The History of the Debate

    The importance of determining whether the will is bound or free is also forced on us by the history of Christian dogma. Significant theological debates in the history of the church have centered on the issue. In the early years of the church the majority of theologians seemed to endorse free will; they were concerned to overcome the entrenched determinism of the Greek and Roman world. On one level they were right. Determinism is not the Christian view, nor does it excuse human responsibility for sin. The early fathers-Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome and others-were right to oppose it. In opposing determinism, however, they slipped by varying degrees into a kind of unbiblical exaltation of human ability that prevented them from seeing the true depths of human sin and guilt. Augustine of Hippo rose to challenge that position and to argue fiercely for the bondage of the will, at that time largely against Pelagius, his most outspoken opponent.

    It was not the intention of Pelagius to deny the universality of sin, at least at the beginning. In that, he wished to remain orthodox. But he was unable to see how responsibility could reside in us without free will. Ability must be present if there is to be obligation, he argued. If I ought to do something, I can. Pelagius argued that the will, rather than being bound over to sin, is actually neutral-so that at any given moment or in any situation it is free to choose the good and do it.

    In his approach sin became only those deliberate and unrelated acts in which the will chooses to do evil, and any necessary connection between sins or any hereditary principle of sin within the race was forgotten. Pelagius further stated that: first, the sin of Adam affected no one but himself; second, those who have been born since Adam have been born into the condition Adam possessed before his fall, that is, into a position of neutrality so far as sin is concerned; and third, human beings are able to live free from sin if they desire to do so, and they can do so even without an awareness of the work of Christ and the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit.

    Pelagius's position greatly limited the true scope of sin and inevitably led to a denial of the absolute need for the unmerited grace of God in salvation. Moreover, even where the gospel of grace is freely preached to the sinner, what ultimately determines whether he or she will be saved is not the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit within but the person's will which either receives or rejects the Savior.

    Early in his life Augustine had thought along similar lines. But he had come to see that the view did not do justice either to the biblical doctrine of sin, always portrayed as far more than mere individual and isolated acts, or to the grace of God, ultimately the only fully determining element in salvation. Augustine argued that there is an inherited depravity as the result of which it is simply not possible for the individual to stop sinning. His key phrase was non posse non peccare. It means that a person is not able to choose God. Augustine said that man, having used his free will badly in the Fall, lost both himself and his will. He said that the will has been so enslaved that it can have no power for righteousness. He said that the will is indeed free-of righteousness-but enslaved to sin. He said that the will is free to turn from God, but not to come to him.

    Augustine was concerned to stress that grace is an absolute necessity; apart from it no one can be saved. Moreover, it is a matter of grace from beginning to end, not just of "prevenient" grace or partial grace to which the sinner adds his own efforts. Otherwise, salvation would not be entirely of God, God's honor would be diminished, and man would have room for boasting in heaven. In defending such views Augustine won the day, and the church supported him. But the church increasingly drifted back toward Pelagianism during the Middle Ages.

    Later, at the time of the Reformation, the same battle erupted again on several fronts. One direct confrontation was the exchange between Erasmus and Luther. Erasmus had been sympathetic to the Reformation in its early stages, for he saw the corruptions of the medieval church and longed for their correction. But Erasmus, without Luther's deep spiritual undergirdings, was eventually prevailed upon to challenge him. Erasmus said that the will must be free, for reasons much like those given by Pelagius. It was not a subject for which Erasmus had great interest, however, so he counseled moderation even though he opposed Luther.

    It was no small matter to Luther. Luther plunged into the subject zealously, viewing it as an issue upon which the very truth of God depended. Luther, of course, did acknowledge the psychological fact that men and women make choices. That is so obvious that no one can really deny it. But in the specific area of an individual's choice of God or failure to choose God, Luther denied the freedom of the will as much as Erasmus affirmed it. We are wholly given over to sin, said Luther. Therefore, our only proper role is humbly to acknowledge that sin, confess our blindness and acknowledge that we can no more choose God by our enslaved wills than we can please him by our sullied moral acts. Our sole role is to admit our sin and call upon the eternal God for mercy, knowing even as we seek to do so that we cannot do it unless God is first of all active in us to convict us of sin and lead our wills to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.

    John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and all the other leading Protestant Reformers were one with Luther in these convictions. In reaction to the Reformation, however, the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent took a semi-Pelagian position, in which the human will cooperates with unmerited divine assistance in believing. Later, in Holland, Jacob Arminius and the more radical Remonstrant Arminians revived the concerns of Pelagius in different forms. Today probably the majority of Christians from all denominations and many theological traditions are Pelagian, though they would not recognize their beliefs by that word. Are they right? Or are Augustine and the leaders of the Reformation right? Is man totally ruined by his fall into sin? Or did he fall only part way?

    Edwards's "Freedom of the Will"

    Before we answer those questions directly it is important to look at one other theological contribution to this debate, perhaps the most significant of all. It is that of the American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards. So far as his main thrust was concerned, Edwards wanted to say the same things as Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But it is an interesting feature of his treatise that it does not have the title of Martin Luther's great study, The Bondage of the Will, but rather what seems to be at a first glance the exact opposite: "The Freedom of the Will."3

    That requires some explanation. It is to be found in Edwards's unique contributions to the subject. The first significant thing Edwards did was to define the will, which nobody had done previously. Everybody had operated on the assumption that we all know what the will is. We call the will that thing in us that makes choices. Edwards defined the will as "that by which the mind chooses any thing." In other words, what we choose is determined (according to Edwards) not by the will itself but by the mind. Our choices are determined by what we think is the most desirable course of action.

    Edwards's second contribution concerned "motives." He asked, Why is it that the mind chooses any one thing and not another? He answered that "the mind chooses as it does because of motives." That is, the mind chooses what it thinks is best. Edwards makes this point over many pages, and it is hard to condense his arguments. But I can make his point quickly by quoting from a small primer on free will by John Gerstner. Gerstner addresses the reader:

    Your choices, as a rational person, are always based on various considerations or motives that are before you at the time. Those motives have a certain weight with you, and the motives for and against reading a book [for example] are weighed in the balance of your mind; the motives which outweigh all others are what you, indeed, choose to follow. You, being a rational person, will always choose what seems to you to be the right thing, the wise thing, the advisable thing to do. If you choose not to do the right thing, the advisable thing, the thing that you are inclined to do, you would, of course, be insane. You would be choosing something which you didn't choose. You would find something preferable which you didn't prefer. But you, being a rational and sane person, choose something because it seems to you the right, proper, good, advantageous thing to do.4

    I can put the matter negatively. Suppose that when you are confronted by a certain choice no motive whatever enters into the choice. It would then follow, would it not, that the choice would be impossible for you and a decision would not be made? Suppose there is a donkey standing in the middle of the room. To the right of the donkey there is a bunch of carrots precisely matched (in the mind of the donkey) with a bunch of carrots placed on the left. How can the donkey choose between those bunches? If one bunch of carrots is exactly the same as the other and no motives whatever for choosing one rather than the other enter into the picture, what is going to happen to the donkey? The donkey is going to starve standing between the two bunches of carrots! There is nothing to incline it one way or the other. So if he does go one way or the other, it is because for some reason (unknown to us but certainly clear in the mind of the donkey) one choice or the other is preferable. When you and I make a choice it is on that same basis. For whatever reason, one thing seems good to us, and because it seems good it is the thing we choose.

    The third thing Edwards dealt with was the matter of responsibility, the issue that had troubled Pelagius so profoundly. What Edwards did here, and did very wisely, was to distinguish between what he called "natural" and what he called "moral" inability. Let me give three illustrations of this distinction; first, my own; second, one from the writings of Arthur W. Pink; and third, one from Edwards himself.

    In the animal world there are animals which eat nothing but meat: carnivores. There are other animals which eat nothing but grass or plants: herbivores. Imagine then that we have a lion, who is a carnivore, and place a beautiful bundle of hay or a trough of oats before him. He will not eat the hay or the oats. Why not? Is it because he is physically unable? No. Physically, he could easily begin to munch on this food and swallow it. Then why does he not eat it? The answer is that it is not in his nature to do so. Moreover, if it were possible to ask the lion why he will not eat the herbivore's meal and if he could answer, he would say, "I can't eat this food; I hate it; I will eat nothing but meat." We are speaking in a similar way when we say that the natural man cannot respond to or choose God in salvation. Physically he is able, but spiritually he is not. He cannot come because he will not come. He will not because he really hates God.

    Arthur W. Pink turns to Scripture to illustrate the distinction. In 1 Kings 14:4 ("Now Ahijah could not see, for his eyes were dim because of his age") and Jonah 1:13 ("The men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous") it is natural inability that is in view. No guilt is attached to it. On the other hand, in Genesis 37:4 we read, "When his brothers saw that their father loved him [Josephs more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him." This is a spiritual or moral inability. For this they were guilty, which the passage indicates by explaining their inability to speak kindly to Joseph by their hatred of him.s

    Now I come to Edwards's illustration. He is talking about Arminians who claim that the Calvinistic position is unreasonable. No, he says, they are the unreasonable ones.

    Let common sense determine whether there be not a great difference between these two cases: the one, that of a man who has offended his prince, and is cast into prison; and after he has lain there a while, the king comes to him, calls him to come forth; and tells him, that if he will do so, and will fall down before him and humbly beg his pardon, he shall be forgiven, and set at liberty, and also be greatly enriched, and advanced to honour: the prisoner heartily repents of the folly and wickedness of his offence against his prince, is thoroughly disposed to abase himself, and accept of the king's offer; but is confined by strong walls, with gates of brass, and bars of iron. The other case is, that of a man who is of a very unreasonable spirit, of a haughty, ungrateful, willful disposition; and moreover, has been brought up in traitorous principles; and has his heart possessed with an extreme and inveterate enmity to his lawful sovereign; and for his rebellion is cast into prison, and lies long there, loaded with heavy chains, and in miserable circumstances. At length the compassionate prince comes to the prison, orders his chains to be knocked off, and his prison doors to be set wide open; calls to him and tells him, if he will come forth to him, and fall down before him, acknowledge that he has treated him unworthily, and ask his forgiveness; he shall be forgiven, set at liberty, and set in a place of great dignity and profit in his court. But he is so stout, and full of haughty malignity, that he cannot be willing to accept the offer; his rooted strong pride and malice have perfect power over him, and as it were bind him, by binding his heart: the opposition of his heart has the mastery over him, having an influence on his mind far superior to the king's grace and condescension, and to all his kind offers and promises. Now, is it agreeable to common sense, to assert and stand to it, that there is no difference between these two cases, as to any worthiness of blame in the prisoners?'

    When we read an illustration like that, our first instinct is to claim that while the doctrine of depravity may be true in that particular example, it is not true of us because, so we say, we are not that haughty or prideful or set against the majesty of God. But, of course, that is precisely what the Bible tells us we are like. We are so set against God that when the offer of the gospel is presented to us, we do not receive it-not because in a natural sense we cannot receive it-but because the motives that operate in us are hostile to God.

    As we judge the matter, coming to a God like the one presented in the Bible is the very thing we do not want to do. That God is a sovereign God; if we come to him, we must acknowledge his sovereignty over our lives. We do not want to do that. Coming to a God like the one presented in the Bible means coming to one who is holy; if we come to a holy God, we must acknowledge his holiness and confess our sin. We do not want to do that either. Again, if we come to God, we must admit his omniscience, and we do not want to do that. If we would come to God, we must acknowledge his immutability, because any God worthy of the name does not change in any of his attributes. God is sovereign, and he will always be sovereign. God is holy, and he will always be holy. God is omniscient, and he will always be omniscient. That is the very God we do not want. So we will not come. Indeed, we cannot come until God by grace does what can only properly be described as a miracle in our sinful lives.

    Someone who does not hold to reformed doctrine might say, "But surely the Bible teaches that anyone who will come to Christ may come to him? Jesus himself said that if we come he will not cast us out." The answer is that, of course, this is true. But it is not the point. Certainly, anyone who wills may come. It is this that makes our refusal to come so unreasonable and increases our guilt. But who wills to come? The answer is, no one, except those in whom the Holy Spirit has already performed the entirely irresistible work of the new birth so that, as the result of this miracle, the spiritually blind eyes of the natural man are opened to see God's truth and the totally depraved mind of the sinner is renewed to embrace Jesus Christ as Savior.

    No New Doctrine

    Is this new teaching? Not at all. It is merely the purest and most basic form of that doctrine of man embraced by most Protestants and even (privately) by some Catholics. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England say, "The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [that is, being with us beforehand to motivate us], that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that will" (Article 10).

    The Westminster Larger Catechism declares, "The sinfulness of that state whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the wont of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually" (Answer to Question 25).

    An understanding of the will's bondage is important for every person, for it is only in such understanding that sinful human beings learn how desper ate their situation is and how absolutely essential is God's grace. If we are hanging onto some confidence in our own spiritual ability, no matter how small, then we will never worry seriously about our condition. We may know that we need to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, but there will be no sense of urgency. Life is long. There will be time to believe later. We can bring ourselves to believe when we want to, perhaps on our deathbed after we have done what we wish with our lives. At least we can take a chance on that possibility. On the other hand, if we are truly dead in our sin, as the Bible indicates, and if that involves our will as well as all other parts of our physical and psychological make-up, then we will find ourselves in despair. We will see our state as hopeless apart from the supernatural and totally unmerited workings of the grace of God.

    That is what God requires if we would be saved from our sin and come to him. He will not have us boasting even of the smallest human contribution in the matter of salvation. But if we will renounce all thoughts of such ability, he will show us the way of salvation through Christ and lead us to him.
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