“… there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”
Early in my study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I had an opportunity to teach this book to two separate groups of people for a week at a time. I covered a large number of Bible doctrines, touching on everything from election to glorification. But in both of those settings the point the listeners kept coming back to in question periods was the matter of the human will and its freedom or bondage.
I had said that if we are as desperately lost in sin as Romans 1:18–3:20 says we are, then, unaided by the Spirit of God, no one can come to God, choose God, or even believe on Jesus Christ and be saved—unless God first makes that person alive in Christ and draws him or her. But this is what troubled many. It did not seem consistent with what they knew of their ability to choose what they wanted to choose or reject what they wanted to reject. What is more, it seemed inconsistent with the many free offers of the gospel found throughout Scripture. What does the Bible mean when it says that we are “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1)? Does that mean that we are really unable to respond to God in any way, even when the gospel is proclaimed to us? Or do we still have at least that ability? If we can respond, what did Jesus mean when he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44a), or “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (John 6:65)? On the other hand, if we cannot respond, what is the meaning of those passages in which the gospel is offered to fallen men and women? For example, the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1). What about such invitations? Furthermore, how can a person be held responsible for failing to believe in Jesus if he or she is unable to do so?
These questions come to us from Romans 3:10–11 because of the words with which Paul sums up man’s spiritual condition. He has said that we are all unrighteous: “ ‘There is no one righteous, not even one.’ ” Now he adds: “ ‘There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.’ ” The way we interpret this verse has a lot to do with how we regard man’s rock-bottom inability (or ability) where spiritual things are concerned.
The Debate in Church History
We might suspect, even if we knew nothing of the past, that a question as important as this must have been discussed often in church history, and this is indeed the case. In fact, the very best way of approaching the subject is through the debates that took place between the theological giants of past days.
The first important debate was between Pelagius and Saint Augustine toward the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. Pelagius argued for free will. He did not want to deny the universality of sin, at least at the beginning. He knew that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23a), and in this he wanted to remain orthodox. But Pelagius could not see how we can be responsible for something if we do not have free will in that matter. If there is an obligation to do something, there must be an ability to do it, he argued. Pelagius believed that the will, rather than being bound by sin, is actually neutral—so that at any moment or in any given situation it is free to choose either good or evil.
This worked itself out in several ways. For one thing, it led to a view of sin as only those deliberate and unrelated acts in which the will actually chooses to do evil. Thus any necessary connection between sins or any hereditary principle of sin within the race was forgotten. Pelagius argued further that:
1. The sin of Adam affected no one but himself, and
2. Those born since Adam have been born into the same condition Adam was in before his fall, that is, into a position of neutrality so far as sin is concerned, and
3. Today human beings are able to live free from sin if they want to.
This is probably the root view of most people today, including many Christians. But it is faulty, because it limits the nature and scope of sin and because it leads to a denial of the necessity for the unmerited grace of God in salvation. Moreover, even when the gospel is preached to a fallen sinner (according to this view), what ultimately determines whether he or she will be saved is not the supernatural working of God through the Holy Spirit, but rather the person’s will, which either receives or rejects the Savior—and this gives human beings glory that ought to go to God.
In his early life Augustine had thought along the same lines. But when he became a Christian and as he studied the Bible, Augustine came to see that Pelagianism does not do justice to either the biblical doctrine of sin or the grace of God in salvation.
Augustine saw that the Bible always speaks of sin as more than mere isolated and individual acts. It speaks of an inherited depravity as a result of which it is simply not possible for the individual to stop sinning. Augustine had a phrase for this fundamental human inability: non posse non peccare. It means “not able not to sin.” That is, unaided by God, a person is just not able to stop sinning and choose God. Augustine said that man, having used his free will badly in the fall, lost both himself and his will. He said that the will is free of righteousness, but it is enslaved to sin. It is free to turn from God, but not to come to him.
As far as grace is concerned, Augustine saw that apart from grace no one can be saved. Moreover, it is a matter of grace from beginning to end, not just of “prevenient” grace or partial grace to which the sinner adds his or her efforts. Otherwise, salvation would not be entirely of God, God’s honor would be diminished, and human beings would be able to boast in heaven. Any view that leads to such consequences must be wrong, for God has declared: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
In defending his views, Augustine won the day, and the church supported him. But Christianity gradually drifted back in the direction of Pelagianism during the Middle Ages.
At the time of the Reformation the battle erupted again, first between Martin Luther and a Dutch humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and then between Jacob Arminius and the followers of John Calvin.
The most interesting debate was between Luther and Erasmus. The latter had been sympathetic to the Reformation in its early stages because, like most wise people of the time, he saw that the church badly needed to be reformed. But Erasmus did not have Luther’s spiritual undergirdings, and at last he was prevailed upon to challenge the reformer. Erasmus chose to write on the freedom of the will. He said that the will must be free—for reasons very much like those given by Pelagius. Still, the subject did not mean a great deal to Erasmus, and he counseled moderation, no doubt hoping that Luther would do likewise.
It was no small matter to Luther, however, and he did not approach the subject with detached moderation. Luther approached the matter zealously, viewing it as an issue upon which the very truth of God depended. In one place, in the midst of demolishing the Dutch humanist’s views, Luther wrote: “I give you hearty praise and commendation on this … account—that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the central issue.”
In this work, The Bondage of the Will, which Luther considered his greatest theological writing, the reformer did not deny the psychological fact that men and women do make choices. This is so obvious that no one can really deny it. What Luther affirmed was that in the specific area of an individual’s choice of God or failure to choose God, the will is impotent. In this area Luther was as determined to deny the will’s freedom as Erasmus was determined to affirm it. We are wholly given over to sin, said Luther. Therefore, our only proper role is humbly to acknowledge our sin, confess our blindness, and admit that we can no more choose God by our enslaved wills than we can please him by our sullied moral acts. All we can do is call on God for mercy, knowing even as we seek to do so that we cannot even call for mercy unless God is first active to convict us of sin and lead us to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.
In trying to convey Luther’s thought, I used to say that although we have free will in many areas, we do not have free will in all areas. That is, we can choose what we want in some things—little things like what we will select from a menu, what color tie we will put on, what job we will take. But we do not have free will in the important areas. If I have an intelligence quotient of 120, I cannot make it 140 just by the exercise of my free will. Unless I am an Olympic-class athlete, I cannot choose to run a mile in four minutes or the hundred-yard dash in nine seconds. I used to say that in exactly the same way, none of us can choose God by the mere exercise of our will.
Edwards’s “Freedom of the Will”
I do not present the matter that way anymore, however, and the reason I do not is that in the meantime I have read Jonathan Edwards’s treatise on the freedom of the will and now think differently. Not on the basic issue or in my conclusions—but in the way I define the will.
Let me explain.
It can hardly escape anyone who looks at Edwards’s treatise that at least on the surface Edwards seemed to be saying the exact opposite of what Saint Augustine and Martin Luther had said. Luther titled his study The Bondage of the Will, in opposition to Erasmus’s Freedom of the Will, whereas Jonathan Edwards’s treatise is titled “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will.” The title does not specifically state that Edwards was asserting the will’s “freedom,” only that he was going to investigate the prevailing ideas about it, but, it is not by chance that Edwards used words opposite to Luther’s. In the end, Edwards came out on the same side as Luther and of all the great biblical theologians before him. But along the way he made a unique contribution to the subject for which the idea of the “freedom” of the will was appropriate.
In this important work the first thing Edwards did was to define the will. Strangely, no one had done this previously. Everyone had operated on the assumption that we all know what the will is. We call the will that mechanism in us that makes choices. Edwards saw that this was not accurate and instead defined the will as “that by which the mind chooses anything.” That may not seem to be much of a difference, but it is a major one. It means, according to Edwards, that what we choose is not determined by the will itself (as if it were an entity to itself) but by the mind, which means that our choices are determined by what we think is the most desirable course of action.
important contribution was in the treatment of what he termed “motives.” He asked, “Why is it that the mind chooses one thing rather than another?” His answer: The mind chooses as it does because of motives. That is, the mind is not neutral. It thinks some things are better than other things, and because it thinks that way it always chooses the “better” things. If a person thought one course of action was better than another and yet chose the less desirable alternative, the person would be acting irrationally or, to use other language, he would be insane.
Does this mean that the will is bound, then? Quite the contrary. It means that the will is free. It is always free. That is, it is free to choose (and always will choose) what the mind thinks is best.
But what does the mind think is best? Here we get to the heart of the problem as it involves choosing God. When confronted with God, the mind of a sinner never thinks that the way of God is a good course. The will is free to choose God; nothing is stopping it. But the mind does not regard submission to God and serving God as being desirable. Therefore, it turns from God, even when the gospel is most winsomely presented. It turns from God because of what we saw in Romans 1. The mind does not want God to be sovereign. It does not consider the righteousness of God to be the way to personal fulfillment or happiness. It does not want its true sinful nature exposed. The mind is wrong in its judgments, of course. The way it chooses is actually the way of alienation and misery, the end of which is death. But human beings think sin to be the best way. Therefore, unless God changes the way we think—which he does in some by the miracle of the new birth—our minds always tell us to turn from God. And so we do turn from him.
The third great contribution Edwards made to understanding why the will never chooses God, although it is free, concerns responsibility, the matter that had troubled Pelagius so profoundly. Here Edwards wisely distinguished between what he called “natural” inability and what he termed “moral” inability. Let me give a simple illustration.
In the natural world there are animals that eat nothing but meat. They are called carnivores from caro, carnis, which means “meat.” There are other animals that eat nothing but grass or plants. They are called herbivores from herba, which means vegetation. Imagine that we have captured a lion, a carnivore, and that we place a bundle of hay or a trough of oats before him. He will not eat the hay or oats. Why not? Is it because he is physically, or naturally, unable to eat them? No. Physically he could munch on the oats and swallow them. But he does not and will not, because it is not in his nature to eat this kind of food. Moreover, if we could ask why he will not eat the herbivore’s meal and the lion could answer, he would say, “I cannot eat this food, because I hate it. I will only eat meat.”
Now think of the verse that says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8a) or of Jesus’ saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever …” (John 6:51). Why will a sinful man or woman not “taste and see that the Lord is good” or feed upon Jesus as “the living bread”? To use the lion’s words, it is because that person “hates” such food. The sinner will not come to Christ—because he does not want to. It is not because he cannot come physically.
Someone who does not hold to this teaching (there are many today) might say, “But surely the Bible says that anyone who will come to Christ may come to him. Didn’t Jesus invite us to come? Didn’t he say, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ ” (John 6:37b)? The answer is yes, that is exactly what Jesus said. But it is beside the point. Certainly anyone who wants to come to Christ may come to him. That is why Jonathan Edwards insisted that the will is not bound. The fact that we may come is what makes our refusal to seek God so unreasonable and increases our guilt. But who is it who wills to come? The answer is: No one, except those in whom the Holy Spirit has already performed the entirely irresistible work of the new birth so that, as a result of this miracle, the spiritually blind eyes of the natural man are opened to see God’s truth, and the totally depraved mind of the sinner, which in itself has no spiritual understanding, is renewed to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.
Old and Practical Doctrine
This is not new teaching, of course, although it seems new to many who hear it in our own quite superficial age. It is merely the purest and most basic form of the doctrine of man embraced by most Protestants and even (privately) by many Catholics. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England say: “The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith, and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [that is, being present beforehand to motivate us], that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that will” (Article 10).
In the same way the Westminster Larger Catechism states, “The sinfulness of that state whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually” (Answer to Question 25).
I suppose that at this point there are people who are willing to agree, somewhat reluctantly, that the inability of the will to choose God or believe on Christ is the prevailing doctrine of the church and perhaps even the teaching of the Bible. But they are still not certain of this teaching’s value and may even consider it harmful. They ask, “If we teach that men and women cannot choose God (even if this is true), don’t we destroy the main impetus to evangelism and undercut the missionary enterprise? Isn’t it better just to keep quiet about it?”
It should be a sufficient answer to this worry to say that the very person who gave us the Great Commission said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
But let me answer instead by saying that, contrary to this doctrine being a hindrance to evangelism, it is actually the greatest possible motivation for spreading the gospel. If it is true that the sinner, left alone, never naturally seeks out God, how is that individual ever going to find God unless other people, sent by God, carry the gospel to him (or her). “Ah, but even then the person cannot respond,” says the objector. True enough. Not by himself. But it is through the preaching and teaching of the gospel that God chooses to call people to faith, and anyone who obeys God and takes the gospel to the lost can be encouraged to know that God will work through this means. Moreover, the evangelist will pray for the sinner, since nothing but the work of God—certainly not the eloquence or charm of man—can save him.
“But surely you must not tell the sinner that he cannot respond unless God first does a work of regeneration in him?” argues a skeptic. On the contrary, that is exactly what the sinner needs to know. For it is only in such understanding that sinful human beings learn how desperate their situation is and how absolutely essential is God’s grace. If we are hanging on to some confidence in our own spiritual ability, no matter how small, we will never seriously worry about our condition. There will be no sense of urgency. “Life is long. There will be time to believe later,” we say, as if we can bring ourselves to believe when we want to, perhaps on our deathbed after we have done what we wish with our lives. At least we are ready to take a chance on it. But if we are truly dead in sin, as Paul says we are, and if that involves our will as well as all other parts of our psychological and spiritual makeup, we will find ourselves in near despair. We will see our state as hopeless apart from the supernatural and totally unmerited workings of the grace of God.
And that is what God wants! He will not have us boasting of even the smallest human contribution to salvation. It is only as we renounce all such vain possibilities that he will show us the way of salvation through Christ and lead us to him.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 297–304). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.