Does Man Have a Free Will?

The Four States of Man’s Free Will

This has been the subject of much debate throughout church history. Heresies have been crafted and proclaimed on the basis of a wrong view of this critical doctrine. It would be an understatement to say, “This is an important doctrine.” No, this is a really important doctrine, and it is important that we are grounded in a biblical view of free will.

Man’s free will is often looked at in four states. The first one, which is discussed in paragraph 2 of the confession, is free will in the state of innocence. Man in that state (before the Fall) was able to will and obey God. Yet the confession affirms that it “was unstable, so that he might fall from it.” In other words, man was not only able to will and to do God’s will, but was also able to will and to disobey what God had commanded, which they did. 

The second one, which is discussed in paragraph 3, is the state of depravity, the state of the unregenerate man. In this state he “hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.” At this point, there are many who say, “It is unfair that God requires men to repent and believe, knowing that they cannot.” No, it is not unfair. Scripture commands all men to repent and believe, and it also declares that they are unable to do so unless God does a work in their hearts. 

We have to make the distinction between: natural ability and moral ability. Man has a heart, emotions, and a will (they have the natural ability to do so); but, they are in rebellion to God (Rom. 8:7), and thus they do not want to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (they do not have the moral ability to do so). It is not like asking someone to long jump over the pacific ocean (which is naturally impossible), rather it is, as Dr. Samuel Waldron put it, “more like asking someone who hates you to do a favour for you. He hates you and so cannot.” 

The third one, which is discussed in paragraph 4, is the state after conversion. By the grace of God, the sinner who is saved is now able to will and do “that which is spiritually good.” It is not of their own strength, but “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” It is also important to remember the doctrine of indwelling sin: we are not perfect. Even though by the grace of God we will and do that which is pleasing to God, we still have to battle the old man, and as a result we do still sin. 

The last paragraph speaks of free will in the state of glory. When we are glorified in the presence of God, we are free from the presence of sin! In that state, and only in that state, our wills will be made “perfectly and immutably free to good alone.” 

There are many other facets and issues that are contained within this critical doctrine, which we do not have time here to discuss. I would encourage you to download the next lecture from our video series Family Foundations in Sound Doctrine. In this lecture, Dan Horn, Jason Dohm, and I discuss this chapter of the confession and how it applies to churches and families. 

1. Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1999), 143.