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.WCF 9.1
One accusation that has very often been leveled against the Reformed church is that we do not believe in the “free will” of man since everything has already been predetermined by God, including the certainty of the salvation of those for whom Christ has purchased redemption. In chapter 9 of the Westminster Confession, we have an entire chapter devoted to answering this objection which opens with a clear and unequivocal affirmation that “God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty.” “Natural liberty” is further defined for us in two related negations:
First, this “natural liberty” is not forced, that is, it is not compelled from the outside. There are times when we are influenced or pressured by others to perform certain actions we would rather not do under other circumstances, but strictly speaking, we never act “unwillingly” because the will itself cannot be controlled by others like a puppet on a string. One who shoots an innocent person because a gun was pointed to his own head has made a free choice to kill rather than not to kill (and be killed). He may not have had other more preferable options open to him, but he was not forced to choose one or the other. The fact of the matter is that we hardly ever get to choose our circumstances in life and thus the options we have (from when or where we were born to when and how we will die). However, we are free to choose from among the options that God gives us and are morally responsible for those choices.
Second, our wills are also not determined by “any absolute necessity of nature.” In other words, the fact that we have made a certain choice is not the unavoidable result of how God created us. For example, it would not work for one to blame his genes for his drunkenness. Such is the often-heard excuse, “That is just the way I am.” Bodily make-up may make one more susceptible to certain temptations, but each decision to give in to a temptation and embark on a sinful course of action is not already determined by our nature. Rather, it is a free choice that flows from our will.
The phrase “necessity of nature” is also used here in distinction from the necessity of God’s decree (cf. WCF 3.1; 5.2). It is true that whatever God has ordained that we will choose, we will necessarily (but not unwillingly) choose. Yet, this necessity of the decree does not do violence to our wills, or take away from the freedom of our choices because it does not involve any kind of “stacking the cards” on the part of God. God does not (and does not have to) rig the system such that we will have no choice but to choose what he has ordained that we will do. The nature of things (apart from our wills) does not make inevitable our choice to perform any particular action over another physically possible alternative.
God’s sovereignty and omnipotence is seen not only in his ability to ordain all things that come pass and to execute them exactly as he has planned, but also that he can and has ordained do so while giving us all the freedom of will to choose for ourselves (see WCF 3.1). This is part of God’s grand and unsearchable wisdom that we can never comprehend in our finite minds because we are not God.
Perhaps the clearest example of this necessary-yet-contingent dynamic is the very crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ who, the Apostle Peter says, was “delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” Yet, in the very same sentence, Peter says to the Jews that they were guilty of having taken Jesus “by lawless hands, crucified, and put [him] to death(Acts 2:23).” If anything was fixed and predetermined from the very beginning by the immutable decree of God, it was Christ’s death as a sacrifice for our sins. Yet, nothing compelled those who committed that most vile of sins to the act of it. They acted freely by their own wills, being drawn away by their own evil desires (James 1:14).
So bear in mind that there will be very important choices that you will have to make in your life, especially in those seemingly insignificant moments each day and week as you encounter God’s word in your own reading of the Bible or during the hearing of sermons. Will you pay close attention, or allow yourself to be distracted? Will you listen humbly to what God has to say to you and examine your life before the mirror of his perfect law of liberty (James 1:25), or will you harden your heart in unbelief and provoke him to anger against you (Psalm 95:7–8; Hebrews 3:7ff.)? Each time you are faced with a decision whether or not to obey God, you will have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing (Deuteronomy 30:19). Choose life!
This is the first in a series of five articles written on each of the paragraphs in Chapter 9 of the Westminster Confession of Faith “Of Free Will”. These articles were originally written to be read before worship services.