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THEOLOGY > Sin > The Character of Sin > Loss of Freedom 


Two words, will and freedom, must be defined: will is simple the capacity to act, and freedom is the ability to do good.

The question is how each of these words is to be understood in terms of man’s state of depravity (see: Depravity). Is man free since the Fall in the absolute sense of the word—does man have the ability of contrary choice—or is he bound by his sinful nature and, therefore, can only do that which is consistent with such a nature? With man’s descent into evil was there an accompanying loss of freedom?

Simply stated, man does have within him the capacity to decide, to make decisions, or the ability to act; but man does not have within him the inclination or the competence to do that which is right.

One conception needs to be clarified. In the popular mind freedom is the ability to do whatever you desire, but in the Biblical teaching freedom is the ability to deny self in order to serve God. Freedom is always in terms of goodness, free to do good or not free to do good; freedom has nothing to do with the ability of contrary choice, or a supposed autonomous freedom that is necessary for man to be man. Being a creature does not entitle man with the right to possess a will that is free in the absolute sense of the word.

Man’s will is conditioned by his finiteness and his fallenness. This affirms that the following facts relate to the question of his freedom, or inherent ability: man is a creature (finite), and he is a sinful creature (fallen).

Man still has volitional ability, the ability to act, but the actions are determined to be consistently evil because of the depraved state that is true of man subsequent to the Fall. In one sense man is free to act, he does have volitional ability, but in another sense man is not free to act, because his actions cannot be contrary to what he is. Thus, the definition of freedom determines whether man can be thought of as having freedom. At this site freedom is defined as the ability and the proclivity to do good.

Man has a will, the capacity to make decisions, but his nature determines that the decisions are evil because they spring from an evil nature and, therefore, can be nothing but evil. A polluted spring cannot yield good water. Only three options are possible:

1. Man is fully free - he is capable of choosing the good or the evil and does not need supernatural assistance; man has true free will (liberum arbitrium). This is the Pelagian view, for Pelagius stressed the sufficiency of the will.

2. Man is partially free - he is affected by Fall but with help from the Spirit can still choose the good, for his ability to choose has been impacted but not destroyed—man’s ability has been weakened but not destroyed. Once man is assisted by God he cooperates with God via his voluntary act of responding; this is the Arminian View (Semi-Pelagian).

3. Man is not free - he is so affected by the Fall that he has no ability to choose the good and, therefore, cannot do the good; to choose the good man must be enabled to choose the good by God’s grace, because man is spiritually dead and must be given spiritual life before he can decide for the good. Man cannot extricate himself from his state of alienation from God which exists because the natural man has no spiritual life in him. In the work of salvation man is passive—he is the recipient of what God does. And then, once he is made alive, the individual responds to God in repentance and faith; this is the Augustinian View.

Inability, or loss of freedom, means that man is not free not to sin; in other words, he is bound by sin and can do no good.

Hodge: “The penitent and believing soul comes to Christ willingly, He wills to come. But this does not imply that he can of himself produce that willingness” (ST, II, 268).

As stated above the will is simply the ability to act, to decide, or to make decisions; and in this sense man is free—he is free to act, free because he has a will that can act. So man can act; therefore, a certain liberty of action can be predicated of him. Hodge asserted:

He is free because he determines his own acts. Every volition is an act of free self-determination . . . That a man is in such a state that he uniformly prefers and chooses evil instead of good, as do the fallen angels, is no more inconsistent with his free moral agency than his being in such a state as that he prefers and chooses good with the same uniformity that the holy angels do (ST, II, 260-61).

Man is characterized by self-determination, not by compulsion. Man is not immune from outside influences such as heredity, events, and environment; these do impact decisions, but the choices man makes arise from within—the meaning of self-determination—not from without man and are not forced upon man from an exterior source. Man’s choices are man’s choices.

Even if man was confirmed in holiness, he would still be free; for God cannot sin and yet He is free. God’s acts are Self-determined and are eternally righteous, but He is still free. Total freedom is total goodness.

But more has to be affirmed. Not only is man capable of acting because he has a will, but the acts can only be consistent with man’s nature. And since man is a sinner, he can only act sinfully. In his acts, man cannot violate his nature nor act inconsistently with his nature. A fish can only swim, a bird can only fly, a beast can only walk; none of these creatures can act in a manner inconsistent with what they are. So it is with man; he sins of necessity (his nature, derived from Adam, can do no other).

Man has a necessity for evil; but man sins willingly, just as God willingly does good (in fact, God can only do good); the necessity is because of what man is; there is no compulsion from without causing him to sin; that which arises from within is said to come freely and is therefore voluntary; thus man freely, willingly, and voluntarily sins. Man can only do evil.

Though God is Sovereign (see: God is Sovereign), sin belongs to man. In response to Augustine’s thoughts on sin, Hodge refers to what he describes as an “old Augustinian illustration” in which a man strikes the cords of an unturned harp, thereby making him the cause of the sound but not of the discord. Such is man in his sinful state; Hodge concludes: “So God is the cause of the sinner’s activity but not of the discordance between his acts and the laws of eternal truth and right” (ST, II, 159).

The will does not have absolute freedom, or, as could be described, the power of contrary choice; rather, the choices of the will are determined by the state of the person and the reasoning of the mind. This means that the acts of the will are guided by the intellectual nature or state of the individual. “Man sins of necessity, but without compulsion” (Calvin, Institutes, II, Ch. 3, 4).

Numerous passages speak of man’s deadness and his inability to do good or to please God:

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away (Isa. 64:6);

Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jo. 3:3);

I say to you: "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jo. 3:5);

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him (Jo. 6:44);

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (Jo. 8:34);

Apart from Me you can do nothing (Jo. 15:5);

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8);

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14);

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:3);

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked (Eph. 2:1-2);

No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (Jas. 3:8).

With man being in such a state, the question of accountability must be considered. Accountability is not predicated on an absolute freedom that man does not possess but on the fact of self-determination that man does possess, that is, man’s attitude and actions arise from within and not from without. Man’s self-determination insures that his deeds are his own, but does not imply nor require that he can alter or change the state out of which the actions arise. Self-determination means that actions flow from the will, not from some source outside of man; but, to stress the point again, it does not imply an absolute freedom of the will. It simply means that actions arise from and flow from the will; actions originate in the will. And the actions reveal and are limited to the nature.

Man has the responsibility to obey God’s laws and is held accountable for not obeying them, but that does not mean that man has the capacity to obey them; in fact, “spiritual death” means that man does not have the ability. Responsibility does not imply ability.

“Can is no necessary result of ought” was the statement of Luther.

“What man, as man, must do is what man, as sinner, cannot do” (Whale, The Protestant Era, 26).

Augustine took this same position: “A man may be gifted with the knowledge which tells him what he ought to do; it doesn’t follow that he will also be gifted with the grace enabling him to do it” (On the Grace of Christ, xxxiii, 36).

Thoughts and questions on the concept of absolute freewill:

Will man be free in eternity?

If free in this life, why not free in eternity?

If free in eternity, will man be free to sin?

If freewill is of such importance in the present life, must it not continue in eternity?

If man is totally free, how can God guarantee the triumph of good over evil?

If man is free in the absolute sense in eternity, what guarantee that man will not sin?


Regarding the term “free will” Calvin commented: “But I hold that because it cannot be retained without great peril, it will, on the contrary, be a great boon for the church if it be abolished. I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it” (Calvin, Institutes, II, Ch. 2, 8).

The testimonies of Scripture “compel us to subordinate decision itself to the special impulse of God” (Calvin, Institutes, II, Ch. 4, 6).

In regard to freewill Calvin stated in one of his sermons on Job: “Here is the greatest difference which we have with the papists” (Opera, xxxiii, 526).

“God, whenever he wills to make way for his providence, bends and turns men’s wills even in external things; nor are they so free to choose that God’s will does not rule over their freedom. Whether you will or not, daily experience compels you to realize that your mind is guided by God’s prompting rather than by your own freedom” (Calvin, Institutes, II, Ch. 4, 7).

The loss of freedom is the point of Luther’s famous book: The Bondage of the Will; Luther wrote in reference to Erasmus: “I cannot praise you enough that you alone have attacked the essential thing, the real knotty problem; instead of pestering me with tiresome trifles about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences and other futilities of the same order. You have truly seized me by the throat.”

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