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Andrew C. Thompson ~ Our Sort-Of Free Will: How Relationship with God Happens

I wake up on a Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out and flowers are in bloom. Should I go to the zoo and watch the animals, or would I rather work in my garden? Am I even free to decide?

Most people would say, “Yes, of course you are free to decide.” And I am. In fact, I’ve got more freedom than the freedom of choosing between the zoo and the garden. I could choose to do something else entirely. I could even choose to lie in bed all day with the curtains drawn—as wasteful as that might seem.

But what if the choice is on a different level entirely? How about if the choice is whether or not to love God? To believe in Jesus Christ?

Do we have the ability to choose our salvation?

That is a much trickier question. Christian theology has traditionally approached it by considering the character and abilities of the human will. At issue is whether our will is free, and if so, to what degree. You can think about this on a spectrum. On one pole is the view that the will is entirely constrained and unfree. This view is sometimes called predeterminism, and it is akin to the idea that we are all like marionette puppets dangling from a set of strings. Every action we take—even simple ones like whether to go to the zoo or work in the garden—is decided by a power beyond ourselves.

The opposite pole would be the position of radical free will. According to this view, human beings have complete moral autonomy with the ability to choose freely whatever they judge to be right. On the radical free will view, human beings can choose anything—including salvation. This view rests on the larger understanding there is really nothing in the human condition to prevent a person’s moral discernment and action. And that is as true from choosing the zoo on a Saturday morning to choosing salvation for all eternity.

Two primary factors affect how we understand the degree of freedom human beings enjoy. First, how do we understand God’s sovereignty over the world? Does God’s position as Lord of creation mean that his will controls everything? If not, to what extent does God allow freedom to his creatures, and how compatible is that freedom with God’s will?

The second factor has to do with the influence of sin upon the created order—and especially upon mankind. How constrained are we by the corrupting influence of sin? To what extent does sin impede the human ability to choose, to act, or to love?

The Work of Grace in a Calvinist View

In a Christian worldview, the questions about God’s sovereignty and human moral freedom must be engaged with reference to the nature and work of God’s grace.

John Calvin was one of the greatest Christian theologians ever to put pen to paper on the subject of the depravity of the will due to sin and the need for God’s grace. Calvin points to the words of Jesus Christ in John 8:34 (“Truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”) and concludes, “We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man lies under the power of sin, surely it is necessary that the will, which is its chief seat, be restrained by the stoutest bonds” (Institutes 2.2.27).

For Calvin we do have some limited freedom of action even in the face of sin’s depravations (e.g., I really can choose between a trip to the zoo or a day in my garden). This is because all human beings are the beneficiaries of common grace, or what Calvin calls “the general grace of God” (Institutes 2.2.17). Common grace is what explains how we manage to build houses and learn Spanish, to train horses and do algebra.

Yet Calvin is unwilling to admit that our will—even regenerated by grace—has any real power to cooperate with the Holy Spirit at work within us. We have no ability (even a grace-enabled ability) to actively love God. Calvin rather insists that “believers act passively…seeing that capacity is supplied from heaven, that they may claim nothing at all for themselves” (Institutes 2.5.11). The technical term for this view is monergism, and it is characteristic of the Calvinist understanding of how God’s grace works.

The view Calvin holds about the powerlessness of the human will is a testament to both his view of God’s sovereignty and his understanding of the depravity of the human condition as a result of sin. He wants to reserve all of the glory of salvation for God alone. In the Reformed tradition, the view that grace works irresistibly and independently of human cooperation is considered to be necessary to preserve the majesty of God. This is part, though not all, of what is meant by predestination as Calvinists use that term. It isn’t the same thing as predeterminism, but it shares some significant characteristics with it.

The Work of Grace in a Wesleyan View

Is it possible, though, that there is a way to understand that God and God alone is the author of all salvation while retaining a role for meaningful human participation in God’s work?

There is, in fact, such a view. It is the view that God’s grace works to heal the human will to the point that a meaningful response to that grace is enabled. On this view, faith is made possible by grace and amounts to the response to that grace by a person whose capacity for relationship with God has been (and is being) restored. One figure who taught this view of a grace-empowered cooperation with grace was John Wesley.

For Wesley, a key passage is Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” How we understand the regeneration of the will is related to the meaning of the phrase, “it is God that work is in you, both to will and to do…” Those verbs “to will” and “to do” are, for Wesley, references to moral thought (or feeling) and the action that follows subsequently. As he puts it in the sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” “‘to will’ may imply every good desire, ‘to do’ whatever results therefrom” (¶I.2).

Moreover, since it is God “that worketh in you” both for the motivation of the will and the action of the body, this means that God alone is responsible for “that energy which works in us every right disposition, and then furnishes us for every good work and work” (¶I.3) Wesley drives this point home with the language of breath that is so often connected to the work of the Holy Spirit: “God breathes into us every good desire, and brings every good desire to good effect” (¶I.2).

The significance of this dynamic view of God’s grace, as present and active at every stage of the moral life, cannot be overestimated. Whether we are responding in love to our neighbor or whether we are responding in love to God, it is the power of God’s grace that enables the thought, word, or action itself. This is not a free will so much as it is a regenerated will—and, of course, a regeneration that must be continually fueled by fresh infusions of grace.

Yet note the important difference in the way that regeneration is treated by Wesley (as opposed to Calvin). Just because God is at work in us, it does not follow that we are passive instruments of God’s will. God does not love himself through us; rather, God heals our hearts to the point that we can truly respond to God in love through a grace-empowered movement of our own wills. Wesley makes this point with reference to Scripture:

We know indeed that word of his to be absolutely true, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ But on the other hand we know, every believer can say, ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me’ (¶III.5).

There is thus a certain dynamic always present in the Christian life—the knowledge that we are powerless to work absent God’s grace but powerful indeed to work when animated and guided by that grace.

In addition, Wesley argues that the presence of grace within one’s life multiplies with use. He uses a memorable aphorism to describe this aspect of the work of grace: “Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace” (¶III.6). God’s grace burns like the coals of a campfire that has been tended for hours; it lies at the fire’s heart and is the force for combustion each time fuel is added anew. And when that fuel is added (or when the “spark of grace” is stirred), the power represented by that grace is grown and magnified. Loving God turns out to be a progressive experience whereby our communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gains in depth and breadth over time. The relationship described here is the very essence of sanctification.

Interpreting the Biblical Witness

The Wesleyan view of the interaction of grace and the will offers an insightful interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on how grace works in human life. It also helps us to avoid two extreme positions mentioned earlier—both of which are fraught with problems. On the one hand, there is the position of predeterminism that would treat human beings as puppets on a string. Aside from simply disregarding the clear teaching of Scripture that human moral choices really do have meaning, the predeterministic view suffers from a fundamental flaw: it makes no room for the actual reality of love, which requires a relationship of two parties where one gives and the other receives (and vice versa). Puppeteers may enjoy performing with their puppets, but they don’t have true relationships with them.

While the Calvinist position of predestination does not go nearly so far as predeterminism, it suffers from a version of the same flaw. At its heart, predestination does not conceive of a meaningful part for human beings to play in their own salvation. If God’s grace acts unconditionally and irresistibly, then we are truly passive participants in the experience of salvation. That view of salvation contradicts the plain sense of Scripture at numerous points and also runs counter to lived experience. Where it comes closest to the errors of predeterminism is in its bizarre, one-direction view of love. God loves us, but we only love God in return insofar as God’s grace forces us to love. The problem, of course, is that love can never coerce or manipulate in this way. It must be freely given, freely received, and freely returned.

The other extreme position we charted earlier is the radical free will position, which holds to the view that we are the primary actors in salvation. Here the agency at work is just the opposite of that in predeterminism. We choose to believe, thereby obligating God to scribble our names down in the Book of Life. On this view, it is God that is passive while we bear sole responsibility for getting ourselves saved. It must be said that this view is one to which some Methodists have tended to fall prey throughout history, though it is every bit as out of step with biblical teaching as the Calvinist position. If both predeterminism and predestination fail to understand the character of grace as God’s love for us, then the radical free will position fails to understand the depths of depravity that sin leaves us in (with the corresponding need to be healed before we can grow into relationship with God). Ultimately faith is not a choice we make but rather a response to what God has done for us and in us.

Can I choose to either go to the zoo or stay at home to work in my garden? Sure I can. Can I choose to love God? I can respond in love to God, yes, but only after God has initiated a relationship with me first. “We love because he first loved us,” the Apostle John tells us (1 John 4:19). Grace is given freely to us by God; it heals us and thereby enables us to freely love God in return. Salvation is thus a relationship—a communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit made possible by the triune God’s boundless love for us.