Are we born with the ability to choose God? This has historically been a contentious issue within the church. Some, claiming that we are not born with this ability, appeal to Augustine. However, Augustine has written overwhelmingly in support of freewill:
- There are, however, persons who attempt to find excuse for themselves even from God. The Apostle James says to such: "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempts He any man. But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then, when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death." James 1:13-15 Solomon, too, in his book of Proverbs, has this answer for such as wish to find an excuse for themselves from God Himself: "The folly of a man spoils his ways; but he blames God in his heart." Proverbs 19:3 And in the book of Ecclesiasticus we read: "Say not, It is through the Lord that I fell away; for you ought not to do the things that He hates: nor say, He has caused me to err; for He has no need of the sinful man. The Lord hates all abomination, and they that fear God love it not. He Himself made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of His counsel. If you be willing, you shall keep His commandments, and perform true fidelity. He has set fire and water before you: stretch forth your hand unto whether you will. Before man is life and death, and whichsoever pleases him shall be given to him." Sirach 15:11-17 Observe how very plainly is set before our view the free choice of the human will. (On Grace and Free Will)
Although we are children of the Fall, there is a lot of biblical evidence that we still bear the image of God and, consequently, have freewill.
BEARING THE IMAGE OF GOD EVEN AFTER THE FALL
Although this image has been defaced, we remain in the image of God:
- And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind. (Genesis 9:5-6)
- With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. (James 3:9)
- When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me [by implanting an evil desire].” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)
Therefore, we cannot blame God, society, or our parents for our sins. Instead, we have to take full responsibility for giving into our evil desires. Nor can we justify our sins by claiming, "The Devil made me do it," or "The Fall deprived me of the will to do good."
Therefore, we have no excuses for our rejection of God:
- The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)
Likewise, Jesus affirmed that we have no excuse in rejecting Him:
- If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:22)
We therefore cannot justify our rejection of God by claiming that the Fall deprived us of the freewill to choose God. Instead, we are "without excuse." Had we lost our ability to choose God, we'd have a perfect excuse for rejecting Him. However, both Jesus and Paul eliminate this as a possible excuse!
Once again, Paul declares humanity to be "without excuse":
- You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things... But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:1, 5)
Evidently, the sinner could not claim that he lacked the freewill to resist sin. Instead, he had "no excuse." Rather, Paul identifies the problem as willful "stubbornness," and not God depriving the human race of freewill or the ability to choose Him.
Nor did Cain use the excuse that he lacked the freewill for his disobedience:
- Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
God informed Cain that he had the ability to obey God. He could have done otherwise! Without freewill, Cain could have legitimately responded, "I lack freewill and cannot do otherwise." Besides, if anyone had knowledge of the deleterious effects of the Fall and could have used it as an excuse, it was Cain. However, he did not!
Instead, humanity “deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water” (2 Peter 3:5). Peter cites rebellion as the cause of God’s wrath and not the Fall.
God declared that He has given to Israel everything that they needed. However, Israel rebelled:
- “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard [Israel] than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?" (Isaiah 5:3-4)
God had given Israel everything they needed to be faithful. Had He not given Israel freewill, these verses would have been wrong.
- “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved. (Hosea 9:10)
Israel hadn’t been born “vile.” Israel had been a delight, but then they had willingly gone bad. It wasn't that God had deprived them of the freewill at the Fall to follow Him. Instead, all the blame was to be assumed by Israel. This been been Solomon's verdict:
- This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)
This was also God's verdict:
- This is what the Lord says: “Remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest." (Jeremiah 2:2-3 NIV)
Clearly, there was a time when Israel followed the Lord, in spite of the Fall. Consequently, their rebellion was their own doing, not the result of lacking freewill.
- "Jeshurun [Israel] grew fat and kicked; filled with food, they became heavy and sleek. They abandoned the God who made them and rejected the Rock their Savior."(Deuteronomy 32:15)
The biblical message is entirely consistent. The fault for our sin and rebellion belongs entirely to us and not to God, as He so often charged:
- This is what the Lord says: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.” (Jeremiah 2:5)
Israel rationalized their sin in many ways. However, they never dreamed of replying, "You deprived us of our freewill to choose You. Therefore, it is You who are at fault, not us." Such a charge was evidently unthinkable. They knew that they had the ability to confess and repent of their sins. So did their God:
- This is what the Lord says: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves… I had planted you [Israel] like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine? Although you wash yourself with soap and use an abundance of cleansing powder, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Sovereign Lord. (Jeremiah 2:5, 21-22)
God had made Israel into a "choice vine." So what went wrong? Israel had corrupted themselves! The fault was Israel's alone.
- “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
As Jesus had understood, our problem is not fundamentally one of ability but one of will. It wasn't that Israel had been unable to come, suggesting that, in some way, God was at fault, but that Israel was unwilling.
However, there are also numerous verses declaring that we can't come to God, because we are even enemies of God. For example:
- “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:44)
Why is it that we cannot come "unless the Father who sent me draws?" The easiest way to explain this (and the many other verses that cite human inability) is to return to Romans 1. As we continue to harden our heart against God and turn from Him, He turns from us, leaving us to our own growing perversions:
- Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another... Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. (Romans 1:24, 26 NIV)
As God surrenders us to our own heart, we harden and lose our God-given ability to come to Him. Humanity starts out with an unwilling heart and soon it also becomes an unable heart - a heart that can no longer choose Him, like the heroin addict who can no longer stop thinking about his next fix. We then become enemies of the light (John 3:19-21). We refuse to come to the light, not because we were born that way but because our “deeds are evil.”
What was the understanding of the early Church Fathers regarding freewill? Overwhelmingly, they believed in both freewill and human culpability. Here is a small sampling from earlychurch.com:
- Justin Martyr made this argument to the Romans: “We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man's actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it is predestined that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions—whatever they may be.... For neither would a man be worthy of reward or praise if he did not of himself choose the good, but was merely created for that end. Likewise, if a man were evil, he would not deserve punishment, since he was not evil of himself, being unable to do anything else than what he was made for.”
- Archelaus, writing a few decades later, repeated the same understanding: “All the creatures that God made, He made very good. And He gave to every individual the sense of free will, by which standard He also instituted the law of judgment.... And certainly whoever will, may keep the commandments. Whoever despises them and turns aside to what is contrary to them, shall yet without doubt have to face this law of judgment.... There can be no doubt that every individual, in using his own proper power of will, may shape his course in whatever direction he pleases.”
- Methodius, a Christian martyr who lived near the end of the third century, wrote similarly, “Those [pagans] who decide that man does not have free will, but say that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate, are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils.”
Why is this issue so important? For one thing, denying that we have freewill also denies that we are responsible for our conduct. However, this understanding is entirely incompatible with the teachings of the Bible. It is also incompatible with a saving relationship with God, who requires that we judge ourselves lest we be judged.
Denying that God has given us freewill also erroneously and unbiblically places blame upon God, in whom there is no darkness at all, and portrays Him as unjust. How? By sending the message that God has not given us the ability to come to Him, and yet will send us to hell when we fail to come! Such an understanding can only serve to undermine an intimate relationship with Him. After all, how can we confidently draw close to Him if we believe that He is unjust? And how can we adore an unjust God! Besides, this theology heaps disrepute upon our God among the unbelievers.
It gets even worse. Our Lord not only wants us to worship Him [in spirit and] in truth (John 4:22-24), He also requires us to speak of Him in truth. He had been angry with Job's three friends because they hadn't spoken accurately about Him:
- "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." (Job 42:7-8)
We too must speak accurately of Him.