A few days ago, one of the parishioners of the church I serve, called me with an interesting question. At the time he called, I was unable to answer my phone, so he left a message on my voice mail. He said: “Hey Pastor! I was just calling you with a question: Where is it in the Bible where it talks about man having free will?” Well, as I listened to his message, I asked myself: Is there any scripture in the Bible that speaks to the issue of man having free will?
The Bible indicates that there once was a time in the beginning, when man ‘had’ limited free will! Before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they had the ability to freely choose to obey or disobey God. However, Adam and Eve were the only humans created with that limited free will! When Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God, sin entered into the world and consequently, the limited free will that Adam and Eve had was lost! The Bible teaches that all who were born after sin entered into the world, were and are, born with a sinful nature and a natural propensity to sin.
Now, I don’t know where it came from, but I grew up believing we had the absolute freedom to choose good or evil. I onced believed we came into this world innocent and neutral and the ultimate decision was to choose righteousness and goodness or sin and evil before we died! But, that is not the case at all! According to the Bible, we were all; born with a sinful disposition! We were not born neutral; we were born sinners! Apparently, the ancient King David recognized this fact because he wrote in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” There are some who are suggesting today, that their sinful disposition should be excused and affirmed because they were “born that way!” But, is the fact that all of us were born in sin a legitimate excuse to remain in sin? None of us had a choice in the matter, we were all born sinners, with a natural propensity or tendency to sin! Have you ever noticed the fact that you really don’t have to teach a child to do wrong? They are born with a natural tendency to try to lie, steal, and cheat!
And are we to blame God and say it’s all right for them to lie, steal and cheat, simply because they didn’t have a choice in the matter because they were born that way? Of course not! Our original parents were not forced to disobey God, they made a choice to disobey God and as a consequence, all of their offspring are born with a sinful disposition. Therefore, we teach, encourage, and train our children not to lie, steal, and cheat, although doing so, is in a sense, unnatural to their natural disposition! We do this because of the existence of a moral code, the ignoring or violation of which, causes society to sink into moral degradation and chaos! We teach them to do right, although it is against their nature to do right!
Now, the inability to exercise free will presents a moral dilemma! How can man be expected to do the right thing when he does not have the freedom to choose right? The Apostle Paul gives voice to this dilemma in Romans 7:15-25, he writes: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, bin my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (ESV) The Good News of the Gospel is that through acceptance of and faith in the sacrificial, atoning work of Jesus on Calvary’s cross and God subsequently raising him from the dead, we can be set free from the power of sin! Paul Achtemeier writes of those who are believers: “Because of Christ, we have, for the first time, a real choice: For the first time, we can choose not to sin! For the first time, it is possible that exhortations to good can be followed. . . The enslaving power of sin no longer rules us.”
Achtemeier further asserts:
“The power of sin has been broken. The Christian is no longer enslaved to it. After dying with Christ in baptism, the Christians are free from the lordship of sin. For the first time, they can do something other than sin. . .Free to do what is good, not what sin forces them to do. They are now free to do what God wants them to do. And right there is the problem. As human creatures, Christians are free only within the framework of some lordship, either of God or of sin. There is for human being whether baptized into Christ or not, no neutral ground. Human beings are creatures, not gods. It is precisely the search for that ‘neutral ground’ that search to be gods for themselves, that got human beings into enslavement to sin in the first place. So the choice is not slavery or freedom in some absolute sense. The choice is, rather, slavery to which lord, to which ruling power?”
Achtemeier’s last point brings us full circle back to our original premise; the question of free will. Absolute free will is a fallacy because we are human beings and not gods. Free will within the constraints of humanity outside of a relationship with God through Christ is a fallacy because the person who has no relationship with God through Christ is under the bondage of sin. Sinners sin because they can’t help themselves! It’s their nature! Sin is their master and they have no choice! The Christian has, to some extent, free will, because the Christian can choose not to sin and to obey God. However, even the Christian does not have absolute free will because, he is human and not a god. It is because Christian is redeemed that the Christian has the freedom to choose which master he will serve!
 Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans (Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching), Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1985, 105.
 Achtemeier, 109.