PREDESTINATION seems to cast a shadow on the very heart of human freedom. If God has decided our destinies from all eternity, that strongly suggests that our free choices are but charades, empty exercises in predetermined playacting. It is as though God wrote the script for us in concrete and we are merely carrying out his scenario.

To get a handle on the puzzling relationship between predestination and free will, we must first define free will. That definition itself is a matter of great debate. Probably the most common definition says free will is the ability to make choices without any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. For the will to be free it must act from a posture of neutrality, with absolutely no bias.

On the surface this is very appealing. There are no elements of coercion, either internal or external, to be found in it. Below the surface, however, lurk two serious problems. On the one hand, if we make our choices strictly from a neutral posture, with no prior inclination, then we make choices for no reason. If we have no reason for our choices, if our choices are utterly spontaneous, then our choices have no moral significance. If a choice just happens—it just pops out, with no rhyme or reason for it—then it cannot be judged good or bad. When God evaluates our choices, he is concerned about our motives.

Consider the case of Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, God’s providence was at work. Years later, when Joseph was reunited with his brothers in Egypt, he declared to them, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Here the motive was the decisive factor determining whether the act was good or evil. God’s involvement in Joseph’s dilemma was good; the brothers’ involvement was evil. There was a reason why Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. They had an evil motivation. Their decision was neither spontaneous nor neutral. They were jealous of their brother. Their choice to sell him was prompted by their evil desires.

The second problem this popular view faces is not so much moral as it is rational. If there is no prior inclination, desire, or bent, no prior motivation or reason for a choice, how can a choice even be made? If the will is totally neutral, why would it choose the right or the left? It is something like the problem encountered by Alice in Wonderland when she came to a fork in the road. She did not know which way to turn. She saw the grinning Cheshire cat in the tree. She asked the cat, “Which way should I turn?” The cat replied, “Where are you going?” Alice answered, “I don’t know.” “Then,” replied the Cheshire cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

Consider Alice’s dilemma. Actually she had four options from which to choose. She could have taken the left fork or the right fork. She also could have chosen to return the way she had come. Or she could have stood fixed at the spot of indecision until she died there. For her to take a step in any direction, she would need some motivation or inclination to do so. Without any motivation, any prior inclination, her only real option would be to stand there and perish.

Another famous illustration of the same problem is found in the story of the neutral-willed mule. The mule had no prior desires, or equal desires in two directions. His owner put a basket of oats to his left and a basket of wheat on his right. If the mule had no desire whatsoever for either oats or wheat he would choose neither and starve. If he had an exactly equal disposition toward oats as he had toward wheat he would still starve. His equal disposition would leave him paralyzed. There would be no motive. Without motive there would be no choice. Without choice there would be no food. Without food soon there would be no mule.

We must reject the neutral-will theory not only because it is irrational but because, as we shall see, it is radically unbiblical.

Christian thinkers have given us two very important definitions of free will. We will consider first the definition offered by Jonathan Edwards in his classic work, On the Freedom of the Will.

Edwards defined the will as “the mind choosing.” Before we ever can make moral choices we must first have some idea of what it is we are choosing. Our selection is then based upon what the mind approves or rejects. Our understanding of values has a crucial role to play in our decision-making. My inclinations and motives as well as my actual choices are shaped by my mind. Again, if the mind is not involved, then the choice is made for no reason and with no reason. It is then an arbitrary and morally meaningless act. Instinct and choice are two different things.

A second definition of free will is “the ability to choose what we want.” This rests on the important foundation of human desire. To have free will is to be able to choose according to our desires. Here desire plays the vital role of providing a motivation or a reason for making a choice.

Now for the tricky part. According to Edwards a human being is not only free to choose what he desires but he must choose what he desires to be able to choose at all. What I call Edwards Law of Choice is this: “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination at the moment.” This means that every choice is free and every choice is determined.

I said it was tricky. This sounds like a blatant contradiction to say that every choice is free and yet every choice is determined. But “determined” here does not mean that some external force coerces the will. Rather it refers to one’s internal motivation or desire. In shorthand the law is this: Our choices are determined by our desires. They remain our choices because they are motivated by our own desires. This is what we call self-determination, which is the essence of freedom.

Think for a minute about your own choices. How and why are they made? At this very instant you are reading the pages of this book. Why? Did you pick up this book because you have an interest in the subject of predestination, a desire to learn more about this complex subject? Perhaps. Maybe this book has been given to you to read as an assignment. Perhaps you are thinking, “I have no desire to read this whatsoever. I have to read it, and I am grimly wading through it to fulfill somebody else’s desire that I read it. All things being equal I would never choose to read this book.”

But all things are not equal, are they? If you are reading this out of some kind of duty or to fulfill a requirement, you still had to make a decision about fulfilling the requirement or not fulfilling the requirement. You obviously decided that it was better or more desirable for you to read this than to leave it unread. Of that much I am sure, or you would not be reading it right now.

Every decision you make is made for a reason. The next time you go into a public place and choose a seat (in a theater, a classroom, a church building), ask yourself why you are sitting where you are sitting. Perhaps it is the only seat available and you prefer to sit rather than to stand. Perhaps you discover that there is an almost unconscious pattern emerging in your seating decisions. Maybe you discover that whenever possible you sit toward the front of the room or toward the rear. Why? Maybe it has something to do with your eyesight. Perhaps you are shy or gregarious. You may think that you sit where you sit for no reason, but the seat that you choose will always be chosen by the strongest inclination you have at the moment of decision. That inclination may merely be that the seat closest to you is free and that you don’t like to walk long distances to find a place to sit down.

Decision-making is a complex matter because the options we encounter are often varied and many. Add to that that we are creatures with many and varied desires. We have different, often even conflicting, motivations.

Consider the matter of ice cream cones. Oh, do I have trouble with ice cream cones and ice cream sundaes. I love ice cream. If it is possible to be addicted to ice cream then I must be classified as an ice cream addict. I am at least fifteen pounds overweight, and I am sure that at least twenty of the pounds that make up my body are there because of ice cream. Ice cream proves the adage to me, “A second on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.” And, “Those who indulge bulge.” Because of ice cream I have to buy my shirts with a bump in them.

Now, all things being equal, I would like to have a slim, trim body. I don’t like squeezing into my suits and having little old ladies pat me on the tummy. Tummy-patting seems to be an irresistible temptation for some folks. I know what I have to do to get rid of those excess pounds. I have to stop eating ice cream. So I go on a diet. I go on the diet because I want to go on the diet. I want to lose weight. I desire to look better. Everything is fine until someone invites me to Swenson’s. Swenson’s makes the greatest “Super Sundaes” in the world. I know I shouldn’t go to Swenson’s. But I like to go to Swenson’s. When the moment of decision comes I am faced with conflicting desires. I have a desire to be thin and I have a desire for a Super Sundae. Whichever desire is greater at the time of decision is the desire I will choose. It’s that simple.

Now consider my wife. As we prepare to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary I am aware that she is exactly the same weight as she was the day we were married. Her wedding gown still fits her perfectly. She has no great problem with ice cream. Most eating establishments only carry vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Any of those make my mouth water, but they offer no enticement to my wife. Aha! But there is Baskin Robbins. They have pralines and cream ice cream. When we go to the mall and pass a Baskin Robbins my wife goes through a strange transformation. Her pace decelerates, her hands get clammy, and I can almost detect the beginning of salivation. (That’s salivation, not salvation.) Now she experiences the conflict of desires that assaults me daily.

We always choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment. Even external acts of coercion cannot totally take away our freedom. Coercion involves acting with some kind of force, imposing choices upon people that, if left to themselves, they would not choose. I certainly have no desire to pay the kind of income taxes that the government makes me pay. I can refuse to pay them, but the consequences are less desirable than paying them. By threatening me with jail the government is able to impose its will upon me to pay taxes.

Or consider the case of armed robbery. A gunman steps up to me and says, “Your money or your life.” He has just restricted my options to two. All things being equal I have no desire to donate my money to him. There are far more worthy charities than he. But suddenly my desires have changed as a result of his act of external coercion. He is using force to provoke certain desires within me. Now I must choose between my desire to live and my desire to give him my money. I might as well give him the money because if he kills me he will take my money anyway. Some people might choose to refuse, saying, “I would rather die than choose to hand this gunman my money. He’ll have to take it from my dead body.”

In either case, a choice is made. And it is made according to the strongest inclination at the moment. Think, if you can, of any choice you have ever made that was not according to the strongest inclination you had at the moment of decision. What about sin? Every Christian has some desire in his heart to obey Christ. We love Christ and we want to please him. Yet every Christian sins. The hard truth is that at the moment of our sin we desire the sin more strongly than we desire to obey Christ. If we always desired to obey Christ more than we desired to sin, we would never sin.

Does not the Apostle Paul teach otherwise? Does he not recount for us a situation in which he acts against his desires? He says in Romans, “The good that I would, I do not, and that which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19, KJV). Here it sounds as if, under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, Paul is teaching clearly that there are times in which he acts against his strongest inclination.

It is extremely unlikely that the apostle is here giving us a revelation about the technical operation of the will. Rather, he is stating plainly what every one of us has experienced. We all have a desire to flee from sin. The “all things being equal” syndrome is in view here. All things being equal, I would like to be perfect. I would like to be rid of sin, just as I would like to be rid of my excess weight. But my desires do not remain constant. They fluctuate. When my stomach is full it is easy to go on a diet. When my stomach is empty my desire level changes. Temptations arise with the changing of my desires and appetites. Then I do things that, all things being equal, I would not want to do.

Paul sets before us the very real conflict of human desires, desires that yield evil choices. The Christian lives within a battlefield of conflicting desires. Christian growth involves the strengthening of desires to please Christ accompanied by the weakening of desires to sin. Paul called it the warfare between the flesh and the Spirit.

To say that we always choose according to our strongest inclination at the moment is to say that we always choose what we want. At every point of choice we are free and self-determined. To be self-determined is not the same thing as determinism. Determinism means that we are forced or coerced to do things by external forces. External forces can, as we have seen, severely limit our options, but they cannot destroy choice altogether. They cannot impose delight in things we hate. When that happens, when hatred turns to delight, it is a matter of persuasion, not coercion. I cannot be forced to do what I take delight in doing already.

The neutral view of free will is impossible. It involves choice without desire. That is like having an effect without a cause. It is something from nothing, which is irrational. The Bible makes it clear that we choose out of our desires. A wicked desire produces wicked choices and wicked actions. A godly desire produces godly deeds. Jesus spoke in terms of corrupt trees producing corrupt fruit. A fig tree does not yield apples and an apple tree produces no figs. So righteous desires produce righteous choices and evil desires produce evil choices.

Moral and Natural Ability

Jonathan Edwards made another distinction that is helpful in understanding the biblical concept of free will. He distinguished between natural ability and moral ability. Natural ability has to do with the powers we receive as natural human beings. As a human being I have the natural ability to think, to walk, to talk, to see, to hear, and above all, to make choices. There are certain natural abilities that I lack. Other creatures may possess the ability to fly unaided by machines. I do not have that natural ability. I may desire to soar through the air like Superman, but I do not have this ability. The reason I cannot fly is not due to a moral deficiency in my character, but because my Creator has not given me the natural equipment necessary to fly. I have no wings.

The will is a natural ability given to us by God. We have all the natural faculties necessary to make choices. We have a mind and we have a will. We have the natural ability to choose what we desire. What, then, is our problem? According to the Bible the location of our problem is clear. It is with the nature of our desires. This is the focal point of our fallenness. Scripture declares that the heart of fallen man continually harbors desires that are only wicked (Gen. 6:5).

The Bible has much to say about the heart of man. In Scripture the heart refers not so much to an organ that pumps blood throughout the body as it does to the core of the soul, the deepest seat of human affections. Jesus saw a close connection between the location of man’s treasures and the desires of his heart. Find a man’s treasure map and you have the highway of his heart.

Edwards declared that man’s problem with sin lies with his moral ability, or lack thereof. Before a person can make a choice which is pleasing to God, he must first have a desire to please God. Before we can find God, we must first desire to seek him. Before we can choose the good, we must first have a desire for the good. Before we can choose Christ, we must first have a desire for Christ. The sum and substance of the whole debate on predestination rests squarely at this point: Does fallen man, in and of himself, have a natural desire for Christ?

Edwards answers this question with an emphatic “No!” He insists that, in the Fall, man lost his original desire for God. When he lost that desire, something happened to his freedom. He lost the moral ability to choose Christ. In order to choose Christ, the sinner must first have a desire to choose Christ. Either he has that desire already within him or he must receive that desire from God. Edwards and all who embrace the Reformed view of predestination agree that if God does not plant that desire in the human heart nobody, left to themselves, will ever freely choose Christ. They will always and everywhere reject the gospel, precisely because they do not desire the gospel. They will always and everywhere reject Christ because they do not desire Christ. They will freely reject Christ in the sense that they will act according to their desires.

At this point I am not trying to prove the truth of Edwards’s view. To do that requires a close look at the biblical view of man’s moral ability or inability. We shall do that later. We must also answer the question, “If man lacks the moral ability to choose Christ, how can God ever hold him responsible to choose Christ? If man is born in a state of moral inability, with no desire for Christ, is it not then God’s fault that men do not choose Christ?” Again I beg the reader for patience, with the promise that I will take up these very important questions soon.

St. Augustines View of Ability

Just as Edwards made a crucial distinction between natural ability and moral ability, so Augustine before him made a similar distinction. Augustine got at the problem by saying that fallen man has a free will but lacks liberty. On the surface it seems like a strange distinction. How could anyone have a free will and still not have liberty?

Augustine was getting at the same thing that Edwards was. Fallen man has not lost his ability to make choices. The sinner still is able to choose what he wants; he can still act according to his desires. Yet, because his desires are corrupt he does not have the royal liberty of those set free unto righteousness. Fallen man is in a serious state of moral bondage. That state of bondage is called original sin.

Original sin is a very difficult subject that virtually every Christian denomination has had to face. The fall of man is so clearly taught in Scripture that we cannot construct a view of man without taking it into consideration. There are few, if any, Christians who argue that man is not fallen. Without acknowledging that we are fallen, we cannot acknowledge that we are sinners. If we do not acknowledge that we are sinners, we can hardly flee to Christ as our Savior. Admitting our fallenness is a prerequisite for coming to Christ.

It is possible to admit that we are fallen without embracing some doctrine of original sin, but only with severe difficulties in the process. It is no accident that almost every Christian body has formulated some doctrine of original sin.

At this point multitudes of Christians disagree. We agree that we must have a doctrine of original sin, but there remains great disagreement as to the concept of original sin and its extent.

Let us begin by stating what original sin is not. Original sin is not the first sin. Original sin does not refer specifically to the sin of Adam and Eve. Original sin refers to the result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Original sin is the punishment God gives for the first sin. It goes something like this: Adam and Eve sinned. That is the first sin. As a result of their sin humanity was plunged into moral ruin. Human nature underwent a moral fall. Things changed for us after the first sin was committed. The human race became corrupt. This subsequent corruption is what the church calls original sin.

Original sin is not a specific act of sin. It is a condition of sin. Original sin refers to a sin nature out of which particular sinful acts flow. Again, we commit sins because it is our nature to sin. It was not man’s original nature to sin but, after the Fall, his moral nature changed. Now, because of original sin, we have a fallen and corrupt nature.

Fallen man, as the Bible declares, is born in sin. He is “under” sin. By nature we are children of wrath. We are not born in a state of innocence.

John Gerstner was once invited to preach at a local Presbyterian church. He was greeted at the door by the elders of the church, who explained that the order of worship for the day called for the administration of the sacrament of infant baptism. Dr. Gerstner agreed to perform the service. Then one of the elders explained a special tradition of the church. He asked Dr. Gerstner to present a white rose to each infant’s parents before the baptism. Dr. Gerstner inquired about the meaning of the white rose. The elder replied, “We present the white rose as a symbol of the infant’s innocence before God.”

“I see,” replied Dr. Gerstner. “And what does the water symbolize?”

Imagine the consternation of the elder when he tried to explain the symbolic purpose of washing away the sin of innocent babies. The confusion of this congregation is not unique. When we acknowledge that infants are not guilty of committing specific acts of sin it is easy to jump to the conclusion that they are therefore innocent. This is a theological broad jump into a pile of swords. Though the infant is innocent of specific acts of sin he is still guilty of original sin.

To understand the Reformed view of predestination it is absolutely necessary to understand the Reformed view of original sin. The two matters stand or fall (no pun intended) together.

The Reformed view follows the thinking of Augustine. Augustine spells out the state of Adam before the Fall and the state of mankind after the Fall. Before the Fall Adam was endowed with two possibilities: He had the ability to sin and the ability not to sin. After the Fall Adam had the ability to sin and the inability to not sin. The idea of the “inability to not” is a bit confusing to us because in English it’s a double negative. Augustine’s Latin formula was non posse non peccare. Stated another way, it means that after the Fall man was morally incapable of living without sin. The ability to live without sin was lost in the Fall. This moral inability is the essence of what we call original sin.

When we are born again, our bondage to sin is relieved. After we are made alive in Christ, we once again have the ability to sin and the ability to not sin. In heaven we will have the inability to sin.

Let’s look at this with a chart:

Pre-Fall Man
Post-Fall Man
Reborn Man
Glorified Man
able to sin
able to sin
able to sin
able to not sin
able to not sin
able to not sin
unable to not sin
unable to sin

Sproul, R. C. (1996, c1986). Chosen by God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.

The chart shows that man before the Fall, after the Fall, and after being reborn is able to sin. Before the Fall he is able to not sin. This ability, the ability to not sin, is lost in the Fall. It is restored when a person is born again and continues in heaven. In creation man did not suffer from moral inability. Moral inability is a result of the Fall. To state it another way, before the Fall man was able to refrain from sinning; after the Fall man is no longer able to refrain from sinning. That is what we call original sin. This moral inability or moral bondage is overcome by spiritual rebirth. Rebirth liberates us from original sin. Before rebirth we still have a free will but we do not have this liberation from the power of sin, what Augustine called “liberty.”

The person who is reborn can still sin. The ability to sin is not removed until we are glorified in heaven. We have the ability to sin but we are no longer under the bondage of original sin. We have been set free. This of course does not mean that now we live perfect lives. We still sin. But we can never say that we sin because that is all our fallen natures have the power to do.

Jesus’ View of Moral Ability

We have made a brief sketch of the views of Jonathan Edwards and St. Augustine on the matter of moral inability. I think they are helpful and I am also persuaded that they are correct. Yet in spite of their authority as great theologians, neither of them can command from us our absolute submission to their teaching. They are both fallible. For the Christian, the teaching of Jesus is another matter. For us, and for anybody else as well if indeed Jesus is the Son of God, the teaching of Jesus must bind our consciences. His teaching on the question of man’s moral ability is definitive.

One of the most important teachings of Jesus on this matter is found in the Gospel of John. “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father” (John 6:65).

Let us look closely at this verse. The first element of this teaching is a universal negative. The words “No one” are all-inclusive. They allow for no exception apart from the exceptions Jesus adds. The next word is crucial. It is the word can. This has to do with ability, not permission.

Who has not been corrected by a schoolteacher for confusing the words can and may? I used to have a teacher who never missed an opportunity to drill this point home. If I raised my hand and said, “Can I sharpen my pencil?” the response was always the same. She would smile and say, “I am sure that you can. You also may sharpen your pencil.” The word can refers to ability; the word may refers to permission.

In this passage Jesus is not saying, “No one is allowed to come to me… .” He is saying, “No one is able to come to me… .”

The next word in the passage is also vital. “Unless” refers to what we call a necessary condition. A necessary condition refers to something that must happen before something else can happen.

The meaning of Jesus’ words is clear. No human being can possibly come to Christ unless something happens that makes it possible for him to come. That necessary condition Jesus declares is that “it has been granted to him by the Father.” Jesus is saying here that the ability to come to him is a gift from God. Man does not have the ability in and of himself to come to Christ. God must do something first.

The passage teaches at least this much: It is not within fallen man’s natural ability to come to Christ on his own, without some kind of divine assistance. To this extent at least, Edwards and Augustine are in solid agreement with the teaching of our Lord. The question that remains is this: Does God give the ability to come to Jesus to all men? The Reformed view of predestination says no. Some other views of predestination say yes. But one thing is certain; man cannot do it on his own steam without some kind of help from God.

What kind of help is required? How far must God go to overcome our natural inability to come to Christ? A clue is found elsewhere in this same chapter. In fact, there are two other statements by Jesus that have direct bearing on this question.

Earlier in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel Jesus makes a similar statement. He says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). The key word here is draw. What does it mean for the Father to draw people to Christ? I have often heard this text explained to mean that the Father must woo or entice men to Christ. Unless this wooing takes place, no man will come to Christ. However, man has the ability to resist this wooing and to refuse the enticement. The wooing, though it is necessary, is not compelling. In philosophical language that would mean that the drawing of God is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition to bring men to Christ. In simpler language it means that we cannot come to Christ without the wooing, but the wooing does not guarantee that we will, in fact, come to Christ.

I am persuaded that the above explanation, which is so widespread, is incorrect. It does violence to the text of Scripture, particularly to the biblical meaning of the word draw. The Greek word used here is elk̃. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it to mean to compel by irresistible superiority. Linguistically and lexicographically, the word means “to compel.”

To compel is a much more forceful concept than to woo. To see this more clearly, let us look for a moment at two other passages in the New Testament where the same Greek word is used. In James 2:6 we read: “But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?” Guess which word in this passage is the same Greek word that elsewhere is translated by the English word draw. It is the word drag. Let us now substitute the word woo in the text. It would then read: “Do not the rich oppress you and woo you into the courts?”

The same word occurs in Acts 16:19. “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.” Again, try substituting the word woo for the word drag. Paul and Silas were not seized and then wooed into the marketplace.

I once was asked to debate the doctrine of predestination in a public forum at an Arminian seminary. My opponent was the head of the New Testament department of the seminary. At a crucial point in the debate we fixed our attention on the passage about the Father’s drawing people. My opponent was the one who brought up the passage as a proof text to support his claim that God never forces anyone or compels them to come to Christ. He insisted that the divine influence on fallen man was restricted to drawing, which he interpreted to mean wooing.

At that point in the debate I quickly referred him to Kittel and to the other passages in the New Testament that translate the word drag. I was sure I had him. I was sure that he had walked into an insoluble difficulty for his own position. But he surprised me. He caught me completely off guard. I will never forget that agonizing moment when he cited a reference from an obscure Greek poet in which the same Greek word was used to describe the action of drawing water from a well. He looked at me and said, “Well, Professor Sproul, does one drag water from a well?” Instantly the audience burst into laughter at this startling revelation of the alternate meaning of the Greek word. I stood there looking rather silly. When the laughter died down I replied, “No sir. I have to admit that we do not drag water from a well. But, how do we get water from a well? Do we woo it? Do we stand at the top of the well and cry, ‘Here, water, water, water’?” It is as necessary for God to come into our hearts to turn us to Christ as it is for us to put the bucket in the water and pull it out if we want anything to drink. The water simply will not come on its own, responding to a mere external invitation.

As crucial as these passages from John’s Gospel are, they do not surpass in importance another teaching of Jesus in the same Gospel with respect to man’s moral inability. I am thinking of the famous discussion that Jesus had with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Two verses later Jesus repeats the teaching: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Once again we encounter the pivotal word unless. Jesus is stating an emphatic necessary precondition for any human being’s ability to see and to enter the kingdom of God. That emphatic precondition is spiritual rebirth. The Reformed view of predestination teaches that before a person can choose Christ his heart must be changed. He must be born again. Non-Reformed views have fallen people first choosing Christ and then being born again. Here we find unregenerate people seeing and entering the kingdom of God. The moment a person receives Christ he is in the kingdom. One does not first believe, then become reborn, and then be ushered into the kingdom. How can a man choose a kingdom he cannot see? How can a man enter the kingdom without being first reborn? Jesus was pointing out Nicodemus’s need to be born of the Spirit. He was still in the flesh. The flesh yields only flesh. The flesh, Jesus said, profits nothing. As Luther argued, “That does not mean a little something.” Non-Reformed views have people responding to Christ who are not reborn. They are still in the flesh. For non-Reformed views the flesh not only profits something, it profits the most important thing a person could ever gain—entrance into the kingdom by believing on Christ. If a person who is still in the flesh, who is not yet reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit, can incline or dispose himself to Christ, what good is rebirth? This is the fatal flaw of non-Reformed views. They fail to take seriously man’s moral inability, the moral impotency of the flesh.

A cardinal point of Reformed theology is the maxim: “Regeneration precedes faith.” Our nature is so corrupt, the power of sin is so great, that unless God does a supernatural work in our souls we will never choose Christ. We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order that we may believe.

It is ironic that in the same chapter, indeed in the same context, in which our Lord teaches the utter necessity of rebirth to even see the kingdom, let alone choose it, non-Reformed views find one of their main proof texts to argue that fallen man retains a small island of ability to choose Christ. It is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

What does this famous verse teach about fallen man’s ability to choose Christ? The answer, simply, is nothing. The argument used by non-Reformed people is that the text teaches that everybody in the world has it in their power to accept or reject Christ. A careful look at the text reveals, however, that it teaches nothing of the kind. What the text teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved. Whoever does A (believes) will receive B (everlasting life). The text says nothing, absolutely nothing, about who will ever believe. It says nothing about fallen man’s natural moral ability. Reformed people and non-Reformed people both heartily agree that all who believe will be saved. They heartily disagree about who has the ability to believe.

Some may reply, “All right. The text does not explicitly teach that fallen men have the ability to choose Christ without being reborn first, but it certainly implies that.” I am not willing to grant that the text even implies such a thing. However, even if it did it would make no difference in the debate. Why not? Our rule of interpreting Scripture is that implications drawn from the Scripture must always be subordinate to the explicit teaching of Scripture. We must never, never, never reverse this to subordinate the explicit teaching of Scripture to possible implications drawn from Scripture. This rule is shared by both Reformed and non-Reformed thinkers.

If John 3:16 implied a universal natural human ability of fallen men to choose Christ, then that implication would be wiped out by Jesus’ explicit teaching to the contrary. We have already shown that Jesus explicitly and unambiguously taught that no man has the ability to come to him without God doing something to give him that ability, namely drawing him.

Fallen man is flesh. In the flesh he can do nothing to please God. Paul declares, “The fleshly mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7, 8).

We ask, then, “Who are those who are ‘in the flesh’?” Paul goes on to declare: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9). The crucial word here is if. What distinguishes those who are in the flesh from those who are not is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No one who is not reborn is indwelt by God the Holy Spirit. People who are in the flesh have not been reborn. Unless they are first reborn, born of the Holy Spirit, they cannot be subject to the law of God. They cannot please God.

God commands us to believe in Christ. He is pleased by those who choose Christ. If unregenerate people could choose Christ, then they could be subject to at least one of God’s commands and they could at least do something that is pleasing to God. If that is so, then the apostle has erred here in insisting that those who are in the flesh can neither be subject to God nor please him.

We conclude that fallen man is still free to choose what he desires, but because his desires are only wicked he lacks the moral ability to come to Christ. As long as he remains in the flesh, unregenerate, he will never choose Christ. He cannot choose Christ precisely because he cannot act against his own will. He has no desire for Christ. He cannot choose what he does not desire. His fall is great. It is so great that only the effectual grace of God working in his heart can bring him to faith.


1. Free will is defined as “the ability to make choices according to our desires.”

2. The concept of a “neutral free will,” a will without prior disposition or inclination, is a false view of free will. It is both irrational and unbiblical.

3. True free will involves a kind of self-determination, which differs from coercion from an external force.

4. We struggle with choices, in part because we live with conflicting and changing desires.

5. Fallen man has the natural ability to make choices but lacks the moral ability to make godly choices.

6. Fallen man, as St. Augustine said, has “free will” but lacks “liberty.”

7. Original sin is not the first sin but the sinful condition that is the result of Adam’s and Eve’s sin.

8. Fallen man is “unable to not sin.”

9. Jesus taught that man is powerless to come to him without divine aid.

10. Before a person will ever choose Jesus, he must first be born again.

Sproul, R. C. (1996, c1986). Chosen by God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.