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.
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!