One of the biggest issues that people have to face when they get into discussions about predestination and election is what does the Bible have to say about free will. As soon as the topic of predestination comes up, someone almost immediately asks the question: “What about free will?”
And at that point things go in a very predictable way. The person who believes in a Calvinist or Lutheran view of predestination, which says that the ultimate reason why a person is saved and will persevere to the end is because God chose them to be saved before the foundation of the world, will say, “Well, the Bible is pretty clear that we as human beings don’t have free will.” And the person they’re speaking with says, “That’s absolutely ridiculous! Of course we have free will!”
In my experience, when most people end up in conversations like this, neither side really understands what the term “free will” when it comes to this topic. And I have to admit that I’ve been pretty bad in explaining what the term free will means in this context. Part of the reason, of course, has to do with the way that free will is often explained: most explanations that I’ve heard are either way too complicated or they’re just plain confusing. But the main reason is that the term “free will” is used in a very specialized way when it comes to the topic of predestination – you can’t just look up the word in a dictionary and expect to find what it means in this context.
What Does Free Will Mean?
So what does the term “free will” actually mean in this context? Well, here is a very simple explanation:
The issue of freewill has to do with whether or not a person can come to saving faith in Christ on their own apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. If you say that a person can come to saving faith in Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, you believe in free will; if you say that a person can’t come to saving faith in Christ apart from the Holy Spirit, you don’t believe in free will.
And that’s all that’s meant by the term “free will” when it comes to salvation: the issue is whether or not the Holy Spirit is necessary to bring someone to saving faith in Christ.
When the issue is understood in that way, it’s pretty clear that the Bible says that we as human beings don’t have free will, at least not in this very specific sense – we need the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts before we can come to saving faith in Christ. Let me give you a couple of examples:
(a) John 6:44 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him and I will raise him up at the last day. (NIV)
In this case we can assume that the Father draws people through the Holy Spirit. Either way, a person isn’t coming to saving faith in Christ on their own.
(b) Romans 8:7 – The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (NIV)
This is talking about a person who isn’t saved, a person who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit, a person who is still ruled by the sinful nature. That’s the contrast that’s being made in this passage. Unless the Holy Spirit does something to change this, the person won’t submit their lives to God.
(c) 1 Corinthians 2:14 – The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (NIV)
In this case “the man without the Spirit” is the person whose heart hasn’t been opened up by the Holy Spirit. To them the message of the cross is foolishness – unless the Holy Spirit does something to change that.
And we could go on to other passages as well.
But these passages make it clear that we as human beings are spiritually dead, that we have hard hearts, and that we are in rebellion against God. When left to ourselves we won’t accept the message of the gospel and we can’t accept the message of the gospel – unless the Holy Spirit does something to change our hearts.
This is something that every Christian should believe regardless of what they believe about predestination or election – if you don’t believe this, you don’t believe what the Bible has to say about human beings. This is something that Calvinists, confessional Lutherans, and Arminians all believe. Arminians are often accused of believing in free will. But real Arminians who know their theology actually agree with Calvinists and confessional Lutherans on this issue: real Arminians don’t believe in free will either. Roger Olson, for example, prefers to use the term “freed will,” which is a much better way of describing the Arminian position on this issue.
The Real Areas of Disagreement
So what are the real areas of disagreement when it comes to the issue of free will? Let me suggest two areas:
(1) How far does the Holy Spirit open up a person’s heart? Does he only open up a person’s heart part of the way so they can make a free choice one way or the other or does he open up a person’s heart all of the way and guarantee that they will come to saving faith in Christ?
(2) And the second issue is this: Does the Holy Spirit do this for only some people or for everyone who hears the message of the gospel? How this question is answered will depend on how the first question is answered.
So does the Bible teach free will? No – the Holy Spirit has to work on a person’s heart and draw them to Christ, otherwise they won’t come to saving faith in Christ. If more people understood what the term free will really means in discussions like this, we might save a lot of time arguing about something we should all actually agree with and be able to deal with the real differences when it comes to these issues.
 Rom. 8:29-30; 9:1-29; 11:1-6; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Eph. 1:4-12; 1 Thess. 1:4-5.