9.3 Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation:1 so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good,2 and dead in sin,3 is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.4Rom 5:6; 8:7; Jn 15:5; 2 Rom 3:10, 12; 3 Eph 2:1, 5. Col. 2:13; 4 Jn 6:44, 65; Eph 2:2–5; 1 Cor 2:14; Tit. 3:13, 4–5.
In the previous paragraph, we looked at the wills of Adam and Eve in their state of innocency and how they had the perfect, untainted ability and propensity to choose what is good and pleasing to God, but how they were, nevertheless, also posse peccare—able to fall from that state by sinning against the clear commandment of God, which they freely chose to do when tempted by the devil.
While the fall did not take away man’s will, it did completely alter its nature. The fallen man in this state of sin is described by God in the Bible as “without strength” (Rom 5:6), hostile towards God, and unable to be subject to His law (Rom 8:7). As far as the ability to do that which is good and pleasing to God, man is now as “good” as dead (Eph 2:1; Col 2 13). He is non posse non peccare, not able to not sin, or able only to sin. Christ Himself says that, apart from him, we can do nothing except that which will cause God to cast us into the fire to be burned (John 15:5–6) and that no man can come to him on his own accord, but only those who the Father draws to him (John 6:44).
This is not to say that sinful man no longer has free will, but simply that he has the free will of a sinner. We do not say that a fish is not free if it cannot choose to fly, because it is not in the nature of a fish to be able to fly, only to swim. Likewise, it is the nature of sinners to sin and that we do most freely every day, but to do good is above the ability of the sinful and unregenerate will. That may not seem to be true if we judge according to our own standards of what is acceptable, but God’s verdict is clear: there is none who does good, no, not one (Ps. 14:3, 53:1, Rom. 3:12). The natural man cannot even receive or know the spiritual things of God (1 Cor 2:14). In that sense, the Bible speaks of the fallen man as indeed a slave of sin and free from righteousness (Rom 6:20). But, as Calvin points out, we are “willing slaves” who do our wickedness necessarily but, nonetheless, willingly and not by compulsion (Inst. 2.1.7).
Of all the paragraphs in this chapter, it is this subject of the fallen will which has generated the most controversy. It is here that the Reformation theologians took a strong and decisive stand against the Romanists (and vice versa), but also where (unsurprisingly, given the wiles of the devil) there is still the most ignorance and confusion. Evangelicals today have largely returned to Rome’s semi-Pelagianism, denying the clear teaching of Christ himself and believing that the unregenerate man is able, on his own, to will and to do what is good before God, even that greatest good which is most conducive to his own salvation—to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus! What else can the unbeliever not be capable of?
While we want to be gentle and winsome in reaching out with the truth to the ignorant and deceived, we must not pretend that this is not a serious error that cuts deep to the core of the Gospel and, if brought to its logical conclusion, constitutes an outright denial of God’s grace. It has happened over and over again. The Roman Catholic Church has itself gone down that path of denying that one actually needs to know Christ to be saved. Ultimately, if man is freely able to do good apart from grace, then man does not need grace and Christ died for nothing.
Here then, we confess with the Holy Scriptures that our salvation is “not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 9:16)—that we are of ourselves completely unable to know, choose, or do anything which will save us from our sin and from God’s judgement for it. God must change us or we will perish. God must, not by our free will, but by his free grace give us a new heart before we can even be willing to understand how weak and wicked we are and to turn to Christ alone for salvation. Praise the Lord that he does not leave the eternity of your soul up to your willingness!
This is the third 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.