The Battle of the Will

The state of the human will, after the Fall of Adam, has been hotly contested for centuries. That battle can be said to be reflected primarily by four different ‘debates’, if you will, between four sets of ‘sparring partners’: Pelagius and Augustine in the 4th & 5th Centuries, Luther and Erasmus in the 16th Century, Arminianism and the Synod of Dort in the 17th Century, and finally, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards in the 18th Century. An introduction and summary of each one of those ‘debates’ are provided below: More detail is provided for each, and can be accessed at the links provided for each of the four parts.

Regardless of what you personally believe concerning the state of the human will, these summaries present an accurate picture of both sides of the centuries old debate. I trust you will enjoy reading both the summaries and the complete essays from which they were extracted courtesy of The Gospel Coalition.

The Battle of the Will, Part 1: Pelagius and Augustine

AN ESSAY BY Matthew Barrett

The Battle of the Will, Part 1: Pelagius and Augustine – The Gospel Coalition


The debate over the will between Augustine and Pelagius focused mainly on the doctrine of original sin and the nature of the grace needed for humans to lead lives of faith and holiness.


Pelagius and Augustine were two of the first figures in early Christianity to debate the nature of the human will after the fall of Adam and Eve and the nature of the grace needed to allow humans to exercise faith. Pelagius argued that the sin of Adam, called original sin, was in no way passed down or imputed to the rest of the human race. Adam and Eve simply provided a bad example that was followed by all of their offspring. Because of this belief, Pelagius believed that grace simply helped humans to know what to do to live holy lives and that humans were completely capable of following these commands. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that the sin of Adam affected the will of every human who followed, rendering them incapable of following God’s commands or loving God. Because of this, the grace of God is not simply illuminatory but liberates the will and enables it to love and obey God.

One of the most important debates in church history is that between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. As you might have guessed, these labels represent two figures: Pelagius and Augustine, both of whom lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. The debate was complex and, much like an onion, had layer upon layer. But its main facets concerned the nature of man and the necessity of divine grace.

The Battle of the Will, Part 2: Luther and Erasmus

AN ESSAY BY Matthew Barrett

The Battle of the Will, Part 2: Luther and Erasmus – The Gospel Coalition


The debate over the will between Luther and Erasmus focused on the ability of the will to cooperate with the grace of God in salvation; Luther argued that the will was incapable of such necessary cooperation, and Erasmus argued that the will must cooperate with the grace of God.


Although the debate over the ability of the will does not receive as much attention as other Reformation debates, this issue was at the root of many of the disagreements between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Erasmus, a Catholic humanist and respected linguist, argued that the will is free to resist or cooperate with divine grace, even after the fall and affected by original sin. Thus, the will can turn away from the grace of God, and his grace is not irresistible. Luther, on the other hand, argued that man’s will could not be free and autonomous in this manner for multiple reasons. First, God foreknows everything, so the will cannot be able to choose autonomously and not based on God’s foreknowledge. Second, God wills everything that he knows, so everything that we choose he first wills. Thirdly, apart from Christ, our will is in bondage to sin, and only guilt and corruption are attributed to us. Therefore, a grace that liberates our will and restores in us the capacity to love and obey is necessary for our faith. This grace is not coercive but gently restores in us the ability to love what is truly lovely.

When the sixteenth century Reformation is discussed, doctrines like sola scriptura and justification sola fide get all the attention. There is good reason for this, since these issues were central to the divide with Rome. But underneath the surface was another debate, one Luther said was at the heart of the divide, the very meat of the nut itself. It was the debate over free will and it occurred early on, in the 1520s, defining the Reformation over against those who still held to an optimistic view of man’s abilities in salvation. The representatives in the debate were two of the most influential and formidable figures of the day: Erasmus, the humanist and Greek scholar, versus Martin Luther, the German reformer.

The Battle of the Will, Part 3: Arminianism and the Synod of Dort

AN ESSAY BY Matthew Barrett

The Battle of the Will, Part 3: Arminianism and the Synod of Dort – The Gospel Coalition


The debate over the will between Calvinists and Arminians focused on whether fundamentals of Christian theology, such as regeneration and election, are dependent on the free choice of man or whether they are dependent wholly on the freely given grace of God apart from any works of man.


These debates were carried out after the death of Calvin between various Calvinist theologians and Jacobus Arminius and those who sided with him, notably leading to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants, as they were called, denied that God’s grace was given based on God’s unconditional election of individuals to salvation. Instead, election was based upon God’s foreknowledge of what choice man would freely make, ultimately making regeneration contingent on man’s decision. Calvinists, on the other hand, taught that God chose those to whom he would give faith in eternity past, rather than foreseeing who would have faith on their own. Therefore, spiritual regeneration preceded the choice of the will for the Calvinist, while for the Remonstrant, the choice of the will in faith preceded the benefits of salvation.

It is often assumed that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians was a 16th century debate between John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Many are surprised when they discover that Arminius was only a small child when Calvin died. The debate between Calvinists and Arminians took place at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century, and it did not merely concern Arminius but certain Remonstrants (objectors, protestors) and the reaction of the Synod of Dort.

The Battle of the Will, Part 4: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards

AN ESSAY BY Matthew Barrett

The Battle of the Will, Part 4: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards – The Gospel Coalition


The disagreement over the will continued on into the 18th century between figures such as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards: Wesley held, as an Arminian, that the will was granted a previenient grace that allowed it to choose to follow Christ freely; Edwards, on the other hand, argued that the desires of the heart were, at the bottom level, given to it by God or the sinful nature of man and, therefore, God was sovereign over the choices of man while allowing men to choose according to their desires, which is what human freedom is for Edwards.


The disagreement over the role of the will in salvation continued on into the 18th century and can be seen clearly by juxtaposing the theology of two prominent theologians and pastors: John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. John Wesley held, as an Arminian, that the will was granted a previenient grace that allowed it to choose to follow Christ freely. This meant that every person was able to choose to follow Christ or not freely, but it also meant that they could lose their salvation. In addition to this, Wesley believed in a level of Christian perfection that included the Christian being free from all conscious sin. Jonathan Edwards, on the other hand, as someone in the Calvinist tradition, argued that the desires of the heart were, at the bottom level, given to it by God or determined by the sinful nature of fallen humanity. This protected both God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, and the gracious nature of salvation. While man’s desires, or inclinations, are determined, humans always act freely according to their desires, so the free nature of man’s will is also protected in Edwards’s argument.

John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards were two of the most significant Christian preachers of the eighteenth century. Their respective ministries and writings not only influenced Christians and churches across continents, but their legacy was inherited by the generations that followed. Nevertheless, while both men were committed to preaching and teaching the same gospel, their stories differ, and so do their theologies.

Be Blessed!


If nothing else, our hope is that you have benefited from these essays and are better equipped to enter the debate, should you desire to do so!

Romans 8:6-10 & 1 Corinthians 2:14: A Tale of Two Minds

Romans 8:6-10 (ESV)

6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV)

14 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.

In these few verses addressed to believers in Rome and Corinth, the Apostle Paul describes and contrasts two types of human thinking, two mindsets or worldviews, if you will.

In our Romans passage, Paul speaks of ‘the mind set on the flesh’ and ‘the mind set on the Spirit’. He contrasts the old ‘natural’ mental state of the unregenerate (unbelievers) with the ‘new ’natural’ state of born-again believers in Christ. I use the term ‘new’ natural in reference to believers because while we are still capable of carnal/fleshly thoughts, our new nature in Christ changes our thought lives. You might say that believers are capable of being ‘double’ minded, while unbelievers, without the Spirit of God, are very ‘single’ minded and completely incapable of understanding spiritual truths (1 Cor 2:14). In fact, a carnal mind (the only one available to the unregenerate) cannot please God (Rom 8:8)!

Some Logical Implications:

1. It takes a supernatural act of God to raise a spiritually dead (carnally minded) person to spiritual life capable of spiritual understanding.

2. Spiritual understanding is necessary to comprehending the gospel message that Christ died for the sins of his people.

3. Free will decisions of unregenerate people don’t please God because unregenerate people cannot please him.

4. Regeneration necessarily precedes genuine saving faith, which pleases God.

So how is anyone saved?

Romans 8:29-30 (ESV)

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Those whom are foreknown by God WILL be brought to glorification by the same God.

Does this mean that there are those who are not foreknown in the same way who will die in their sins? That is an inescapable conclusion, dear friend. And while we don’t know who they are, we are called to share Jesus with all whom we meet. Not only did God decree and bring to pass the salvation of his remnant people, he also decreed the means by which he would save his elect – the preaching of the gospel, That is our great privilege.

God gives life to cold dead sinners, and like Lydia in Acts 16, opens their hearts to heed the message of the gospel that we bring!


"The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17 ESV)

The Way We Were

The above passage merely states that the consequence of disobeying God would be death. The generally accepted assumption is that both physical and spiritual death is in view. In speaking to believers in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, described spiritual death in rather stark terms:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

If Paul’s words cause you to think of “The Night of the Living Dead”, or some other popular zombie movie or television series, don’t be alarmed. Paul described dead folks walking around as if they were really alive, going about their ‘stinking’ business, driven along by a rebellious spirit, controlled by their own sinful passions and desires, and the very objects of God’s holy wrath against sin. What a far cry from how much of today’s church and modern day preachers describe fallen men!

"And that is the subject of this post – the true condition of fallen men. We will make no dogmatic assertions or advocate for any particular doctrine formulated by men. We will simply ask a few questions and allow scripture to speak to them.

What is the natural disposition of man toward God?

  • John 3:20 – “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
  • Romans 8:7-8 – For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God
  • Colossians 1:21 – And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds

Are natural men at least seeking God?

  • Psalm 10:4 – In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
  • Isaiah 65:1 – “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
  • Isaiah 64:7There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
  • John 3:20 – “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
  • Romans 3:10-12 – “no one seeks for God.”

Can the natural man comprehend the gospel or come to saving knowledge of God on his own?

  • 1 Corinthians 2:14 – 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.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-4our gospel is veiled… to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:18,21-24 – For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles
  • Deuteronomy 29:2-4 – And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”
  • Matthew 11:27 – “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Are people good deep down? What about the mind and heart?

  • Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
  • Titus 1:15-16 – to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.
  • Ecclesiastes 9:3 – Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
  • Romans 1:28-31 – And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were… foolish
  • Ephesians 4:17-18 – you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
  • Jeremiah 10:7-8,14 – among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you. They are both stupid and foolish… Every man is stupid and without knowledge
  • Matthew 15:19 – “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (c.f. Mark 7:21-23)
  • Genesis 6:5 & 8:21 – The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually… from his youth.
  • Proverbs 10:20 – the heart of the wicked is of little worth.
  • Proverbs 28:26 – Whoever trusts in his own [heart] is a fool
  • Mark 7:21-23 – “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (c.f. Matthew 15:19)
  • Psalm 5:9 – For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.

Just how morally ‘free’ is the natural man?

  • John 8:34 – Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
  • 2 Peter 2:19 – They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.
  • Titus 3:3 – For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
    • Galatians 4:8-9 – Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
    • Romans 6:6,16,17,19,20 – We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey…? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed… For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
    • Romans 7:14 – For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

I pray that the above has been profitable to you. If current assumptions concerning the state of fallen men have been crushed, bury them and leave them be.  I firmly believe that if we understand what scripture has to say about the true state of fallen men, some of the things we believers tend to debate about with each other would simply vanish

Eisegesis Unplugged – Joshua 24:15

Eisegesis is the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s own ideas, reading into the text. Eisegesis isn’t always a bad, because one’s own ideas might be a reasonable interpretation, or logical and otherwise biblically sound inference.

The Passage

“. . . choose this day whom you will serve. . .”– Joshua 24:15

Faced with all of the ‘things’ in our lives we can give greater importance to than humbly serving God, Joshua’s command to the Israelites certainly has relevance for us today! The list of ‘things’ is rather long and includes everything from great salaries and careers, to sports and entertainment, to cars, boats and other expensive ‘toys’. Even our most valued relationships can appear on that list.

We ask those to whom we share the gospel to choose between serving God and man with that passage in mind. ‘Choose this day whom you will serve’ is often used to prove inherent ;free will;, since we assume that the command itself necessitates the natural ability to choose between wholeheartedly serving God and all the other things we ‘serve’. After all, wasn’t that what Joshua was telling the Israelites to do, choose between the one true God and other false gods?

What’s the rest of the story?

Joshua 24 begins with his summoning the tribes of Israel to Shechem, along with the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel, to present themselves before God (v.1). When they had all gathered together, Joshua presents a ‘Thus saith the Lord” history lesson in which God speaks to the people in the first person, reminding them of all he had done for them, from calling and blessing Abraham to crossing the Jordan and inheriting the land (vv.2-13).

Joshua then speaks directly to the people and says:

“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.” (v.14)

Joshua did in fact challenge the gathered Israelites to serve the Lord, telling them to put away the false gods of their fathers. Then notice our passage in its natural context:

“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (v.15)

Since throughout their wanderings, the Israelites are on record as having frequently returning to the false gods of their fathers, Joshua tells them to choose between a previous set of false gods and the gods of the peoples with whom they now dwelt,

The people responded:

“Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” (vv.16-18)

Then we have in vv. 19-23 an interesting conclusion:

“But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” (vv.19-20)

Joshua, in what sounds like a chiding manner, tells them ‘You can’t do it!’, pointing out their inability and insufficiency of themselves to perform service acceptable to God.

And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” (v. 21)

Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” (v.22)

And they (the people) said, “We are witnesses.” (v.23)

Joshua told them, in effect, ‘I think that’s gonna come back to bite ya, for sure’, yet they still promised.

If we have read the rest of the Old Testament, we know that the Israelites indeed failed to keep their promise, in spite of warnings from prophets, deliverance from enemies by judges and kings, and even in spite of hard bondage. In fact there was a period of several hundred years when there was no prophet in the land. God ceased speaking to his chosen people and left them to their own desires.

What’s the point?

If we use Joshua’s ‘choose this day whom you will serve’ command as a reminder to check for idols we have not abused the text. However, if we use Joshua’s command as proof of man’s natural ability to choose Christ, are we being faithful to the original context? And speaking of the original context, it is in that context, ‘the rest of the story’ as Paul Harvey would say that we find the bigger lesson.

The short episode in Joshua, chapter 24, near the end of Josha’s life, after deliverance from bondage in Egypt, desert wanderings, entering the promised land, miracles and fierce battles is part of a grand pageant that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation! It’s the story of the creation, fall and redemption of the people of God – a people created for the glory of His Name who by way of the first Adam fell into such darkness and depravity that they became the objects of the creator’s wrath.

The Apostle Paul provides an excellent summary:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:1-8)

So here’s the point. While we certainly ought to take to heart lessons from scripture that apply to us today, we need to pay attention to ‘the rest of the story’!




by W. Tullian Tchividjian


Is the human will bound or free? Can man choose freely between each and every option presented to him? Is man’s will neutral or has it been internally affected in such a way so as to influence his choices? How far did man fall when he sinned? Was it a mere stumble, or was it total? If it was total and we are unable to incline ourselves toward anything righteous, then how can we be responsible for our unrighteousness? In my opinion, there is no better theological contribution to this issue than that of Jonathan Edwards. His rigorous yet clear articulation of the issue sheds tremendous light on a thorny and controversial topic. It is his contribution that I want to briefly reflect on. But before I do, I want to take a brief look at how this issue first arose in its most prominent form.

A Brief History

There does not seem to be any record of a major controversy concerning man’s freedom in the decision-making process prior to the Pelagian controversy of the 5th century. To be sure, there were debates concerning “free will” prior to the Pelagian controversy (Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome, and others opposed determinism), but none that took center stage the way the Pelagian controversy did.

Pelagius, a British-born monk who resided in Rome before it fell in 410, was “roused to anger by an inert Christendom, that excused itself by pleading the frailty of the flesh and the impossibility of fulfilling the grievous commandments of God. [Pelagius] preached that God commanded nothing impossible, that man possessed the power of doing the good if only he willed, and that the weakness of the flesh was merely a pretext".1 This frustration with the church of his day led Pelagius to the conclusion that man’s chief problem is not his inability to do what God commands in and of himself, but rather his refusal to do that which he is capable of doing, namely, righteous works. Man can achieve in and of himself, according to Pelagius, whatever is required of him in morality and religion. Human nature remains uncorrupted and the natural will free to do all good. He was unable to see how responsibility could reside in us without free will. In fact, for Pelagius, there is no need for a Redeemer-Christ, for what is it that we need redemption from if we can do all things righteous on our own? This position led Pelagius to eventually deny the universality of sin, for which he was condemned in 418 AD at the Council of Carthage.

It was St. Augustine who, at this time, rose to challenge the position of Pelagius and argued fiercely for the bondage of the will. Augustine was undoubtedly Pelagius’ most outspoken opponent and he stressed that grace is an absolute necessity from beginning to end. Sin has, according to Augustine, so affected our nature that we are naturally inclined toward sin and sin only. “It was by the evil use of his free will that man destroyed both it and himself”, said Augustine. Man is truly “dead in his trespasses and sins”, and in a desperate situation. Apart from grace, according to Augustine, no one can be saved, much less, do that which is righteous before God. For Augustine, it was an undermining of the gospel to say that man has the power in and of himself to incline himself godward. Justification is entirely of God.

In defending these views, it was Augustine who won the day, but the issue did not go away. It comes up again and again throughout church history. In 1525, Martin Luther wrote Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus’ book entitled Diatribe Concerning Free Will. Luther echoed Augustine by asserting that if one holds to a view that sees the will as completely free and able, in and of itself, to choose that which is righteous, then man is able to take partial credit for his salvation. Does God get all the glory or just some of it? Luther vehemently argues that unless sovereign grace intervenes we can do nothing righteous before God in and of ourselves. We are hopeless!

The other Reformers (Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Knox) were one with Luther in these convictions and went on themselves to articulate it further, most notably Calvin in his Institutes. And while many of the Puritans, one and two hundred years later, agreed with and held to the view that man’s will is bound by sin so that sin affects his decisions, there was none who articulated it better than Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards’ Background

Born in 1703 into a pioneer family on the frontier of East Windsor, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards was the only son of twelve children. His father, Timothy, was a pastor. At the age of thirteen, Edwards went to Yale College and graduated in 1720. After a few years of teaching in New York and at Yale, he became an assistant pastor to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, at a Congregational Church in Northampton. After Stoddard died, Edwards became the pastor. A series of conversions took place at his church, which coincided with the conversions taking place under the preaching of George Whitefield, an English evangelist, in the same area. Conversions began to sweep the area and a spiritual revival like none other took place. We know it today as the First Great Awakening.

It has been said of Jonathan Edwards that he produced one of the most thorough and compelling bodies of theological writing in the history of America. More commonly asserted is the statement that Edwards was “the greatest intellect that America has ever produced”. Perhaps this is seen best in his book Freedom of the Will.

Freedom of the Will

A glancing at the title might lead some to think that Edwards and Luther differed. This is not so, essentially. The title illustrates Edwards’ thesis that we are free to choose that which we most desire. The truth, though, according to Edwards, is that because by nature we are dead in our trespasses and sins, we desire only sin. Our natural inclination is not toward righteousness, but toward sin. All mankind, according to Edwards, are “by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil of which they are the subjects, and the afflictive evil to which they are exposed, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other”.2

According to Edwards, proof of original sin is easily demonstrated. Aside from the supernatural biblical proof found in Romans 1, 3, 5 and Ephesians 2, there is plenty of natural proof as well: All people sin! All of human history testifies to this. And we have more proof today, following two World Wars and one Cold War, than Edwards had in his day. Because we are free to choose that which we most desire, and because what we most desire is to destroy ourselves, it is our freedom that turns out to be our greatest enemy.

The Will as the Mind Choosing

Edwards defines the will as “the mind choosing”. This is unique for the simple reason that up until this point, nobody had bothered to refine a careful definition of the will. Everyone assumed that “will” was self-defining. Our choices, according to Edwards, are not determined by the will itself but by the mind. Our choices are determined by what we think is most desirable at any given moment. But why does the mind choose one thing over another? This is where Edwards introduces the idea of “motives”. We choose one thing over another because our mind chooses what it thinks is best. John Gerstner sums up Edwards’ point well:

Your choices as a rational person are always based on various considerations or motives that are before you at the time. Those motives have a certain weight with you, and the motives for and against reading a book, for example, are weighed in the balance of your mind; the motives that outweigh all others are what you, indeed, choose to follow. You, being a rational person, will always choose what seems to you to be the right thing, the wise thing, the most advisable thing to do. If you choose not to do the right thing, the advisable thing, the thing that you are inclined to do, you would, of coarse, be insane. You would be choosing something that you did not choose. You would find something preferable that you did not prefer. But you, being a rational and sane person choose something because it seems to you the right, proper, good, advantageous thing to do.3

This is precisely the point that Edwards makes with regard to motives. We choose according to that which we desire most. The problem, however, as we noted earlier, is that because the fall was total and not partial, and as a result we are all dead in our trespasses and sins desiring only sin by nature, what seems to us to be right, proper, and good is often wrong, improper, and bad. Sin has made us God-haters at the core of our souls so that we are all by nature at enmity with God. In order for us to do what God would have us to do, we need to be who God wants us to be. And in order for us to be who God wants us to be, we need new natures. And because we cannot change our own nature, no more than we can push a bus while we are riding in it, we are in need of the sovereign hand of grace to change it for us. We cannot do what pleases God because we will not do what pleases God. And the reason we will not is because we don’t want to

“Natural Inability” and “Moral Inability”

We remember that what plagued Pelagius was the paradox of human responsibility to follow God’s holy commands and human inability. According to Pelagius, the fact that God commands us to obey him implies that we are able to obey him. If inability reigns, than God would be unjust to command our obedience. This problem, as we have seen, eventually led Pelagius to deny the universality of sin. He was unable to deal with the paradox. Edwards’ contribution to this issue is perhaps his most profound. Edwards distinguished between what he referred to as “natural inability” and “moral inability”. “We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we can’t do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature doesn’t allow it… Moral inability consists in the opposition or want of inclination”.4 In other words, I am said to be naturally unable to do a thing, no matter how hard I desire it, if nature doesn’t allow it, such as flying or walking on water. In this sense, we are all naturally able to do what is right. After all, we have all of the natural capacities to understand the law of God. We have a mouth that is physically capable of uttering praises to God. We have a will that enables us to choose to do what we want to do. Original sin does not eradicate our humanity or ability to make choices. The natural ability remains intact. God has endowed us with the natural ability to do what he requires of us. What we lack, however, is the moral ability. What was lost in the fall is the want or inclination to do that which is righteous. We have no desire to obey God. We have, in fact, no desire for God at all. Fallen man has the natural ability to choose God but he lacks the moral ability to do so. For this reason, God can justly command our obedience (because we have the necessary faculties of choice), and at the same time hold us responsible for the choices we make. A.W. Pink says, “By nature [man] possesses natural ability but lacks moral and spiritual ability. The fact that he does not possess the latter does not destroy his responsibility, because his responsibility rests upon the fact that he does possess the former”.5 Without a righteous inclination to do good, no one can choose good. Our decisions follow our inclinations. Sin has rendered us hopeless, according to Edwards, but this is precisely what makes the gospel so great.

The Greatness of the Gospel

“For Edwards, the greatness of the gospel is visible only when viewed against the backdrop of the greatness of the ruin into which we have been plunged by the fall. The greatness of the disease requires the greatness of the remedy”.6 As someone once said, “The worst word about us as sinners is not the last word”. It was the gospel that Edwards was interested in, not some theoretical debate. He knew that what made good news good was that it was preceded by bad news. Our fallen nature due to sin is bad news. Our natural inclination to sin is bad news. Our inability to incline ourselves godward is bad news. Our self-destruction as a result of our sin is bad news. The grace of God in redeeming man from this desperate state and changing his nature so that he will be free to serve God is not just good news, it’s great news


In summary of Edwards’ view of free will, he believes that man is free in that he can and does choose according to his strongest inclinations — his desires. But because of original sin and the resulting corruption of humanity, no one is naturally inclined godward. In fact, we hate God by nature. We have the natural ability to please him but we lack the moral ability. Our nature has to be changed if we are to seek God and do what he pleases. And only God can liberate the sinner from his captivity to that which is destroying him, namely, his freedom! This is nothing more and nothing less than the gospel that Edwards so committed his life to.

1. Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma, part 2, book 2 trans. James Millar (1898; New York: Dover, 1961), pg. 174

2. Jonathan Edwards, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 10th ed., 2 vols. (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth, 1979, 1:1)

3. John H. Gerstner, A Primer on Free Will (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1982) p.4-5
4. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, pg.159 as quoted in Sproul, Willing to Believe, pg.162
5. A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984) pg. 154
6. R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997) pg. 148