Human Will and Choosing to Obey God

How “freely” do men choose to obey God?

Consider these three basic positions on the will of man in relationship to ability to choose to obey God:

  1. Famous 19th century evangelist Charles Finney taught that humans are fully able to obey God without any special work of grace. The mere presence of a command from God, they say, requires the reality of free will ability to comply. that position, called Pelagianism, actually goes all the way back to the 5th century and an ascetic named Pelagius, who denied the doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine of Hippo, and was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage.
  2. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that without prevenient grace, man would not be able to respond freely to the call to believe; but that God has already provided such grace to all humans. “Prevenient” is an old English term that means “to go before.” The semi-Pelagian view is also “synergistic”—meaning that salvation and sanctification are a cooperative effort between God and man.
  3. Luther and the other reformers taught the bondage of the will. This position, anathematized by Rome in several canons on justification, was that all fallen sinners are in bondage to their own sin so much so that they will not submit to God without a prior sovereign work of God’s grace. This became the Reformation doctrine of “grace alone,” also called “monergism.” By this thinking salvation is an act of God alone.

This Topic is Complex

This a complex topic because the relative freedom or bondage of the will is different for different types of people addressed in the Bible. Adam and Eve were certainly created by God with a level of freedom of will – they had the ability to choose based on the nature God gave them. The Fall impacted that freedom of the will, and the human will of every human being born thereafter. Therefore the freedom of will, or lack thereof, is different for people born with a sin nature after the Fall.

Also, the relative freedom of will experienced by a regenerate person differs from an unregenerate sinner. A person cannot believe in and trust in Christ for salvation without an effect on human will and its freedom to obey God.

Furthermore, consider the uniqueness of freedom for the redeemed in heaven. Clearly these differences are important to any discussion of the freedom or bondage of the will as the case may be. Whatever definition of free will we defend should account for these cases.

Further posts will discuss problems inherent to the understanding of free will.


Adapted from Critical Issues Commentary, Issue 92 – January / February 2006

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s