This is the work of God—that you believe in Christ Jesus. We freely choose to believe only because God has changed our nature by regeneration—new creation—such that our desires are now inclined toward God instead of toward sin.
It is quite common for both Christians and non-Christians to point out their free will. But how free are we? Are we free to do anything? Why don’t believers use their free will to freely choose never to sin again? Why does no one do that? We do have free will—no disagreement here—but maybe it’s not that simple.
After explaining to Timothy how to teach and correct opponents, Paul then explains how God works:
God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 25-26)
Paul encourages Timothy by reminding him that he cannot convince a person into the kingdom of God. Before God acts, a person is held captive by the devil, and being held captive a person cannot, of his own free will, free himself from the snare of the devil by deciding for himself what is true. Like Timothy, we are to be kind teachers who correct with gentleness, remembering that it is God who may grant repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.
But what about free will?
Some Christians believe God only made it possible for humans to be saved—it’s up to us, exercising our free will, to choose the offered salvation; then God will regenerate us. Others believe humans are so blind, deaf, spiritually dead, and enslaved to sin that they are unable to turn to Christ Jesus unless God first regenerates them—God takes the initiative and a person freely responds.
There is disagreement, but part of the problem may be oversimplification—a tendency to believe there are only two alternatives—we are either completely free or we are completely determined. But what does Scripture teach us? Perhaps we need to go a little bit deeper into the nature of our choices—addressing both what we freely will and why we freely will as we do.
What is free will?
The will is the faculty of a person’s mind involved in choosing what a person desires. The human will is free in that it chooses voluntarily and is undetermined by anything other than itself.
Do humans have free will?
Yes, humans after the fall of Adam still have natural liberty, meaning they are not forced to choose either good or evil. Humans have the power of self-decision according to what pleases them, what they desire.
In other words, humans freely choose what they desire—their will is not forced by anything outside of themselves—what they most desire is what they freely choose. Consider for example, James 1:14 which speaks of how a person’s own desires affect his or her choices of will.
Does humanity’s fall into sin affect free will?
Sinful humans still retain their free will—they still freely choose according to what they desire, according to their sinful nature.
Scripture teaches us that the nature of fallen humans is that they are spiritually dead and incapable of any spiritual good toward salvation. Paul writes in Romans 8:7-8 that the carnal mind is hostile to God. The word of God does not say that the carnal mind is passive but rather that sinful unconverted persons have an active hostility (enmity) toward God.
Ephesians 2:1-3 (see also Col. 2:13) teaches that fallen humans are dead in their sin, carrying out the desires (i.e., will) of body and mind. They are by nature children of wrath. Elsewhere Scripture describes humanity’s condition as spiritual blindness and deafness (see Deut. 29:4; Matt. 13:13; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; 2 Cor. 4:4). God also describes the nature of fallen humans as being in slavery to sin and corruption (Rom. 6:17; Titus 3:3; 2 Pet. 2:19).
The unregenerate set their minds on fleshly things.
Returning to Romans 8, Paul writes that those who are in the flesh—those not regenerated by the Holy Spirit to be a new spiritual creature (see John 3:3; 2 Cor. 5:17; Tit. 3:5)—do not set their minds on spiritual things, but only on fleshly things. As a result, they have no ability to please God (Rom. 8:5-8). There are no righteous humans, there is no one who understands, and there is no one who seeks for God. No one does good—there is no fear of God in their eyes (Rom. 3:10-18 quoting Psalms 5, 14, 36, 53, 140; Isa. 59:7).
So what do sinful, unregenerate, unconverted, human beings desire—what do they freely will?
The unregenerate use their free will to choose what they desire: to sin.
Prior to the flood, God saw that every intention of the thoughts of a person’s heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). Long after the flood the psalmist points out there are none who do good (Ps. 14). Isaiah 59 teaches how the sinful think only of iniquity. The heart of fallen humans is deceitful above everything (Jer. 17:5) The spiritually dead yield to the passions of the flesh and the sinful desires of the body (Eph. 2:1-3).