In my previous article, I discussed the theology of free will. I pointed out that God did not tell Adam that his will was free – the serpent told him. Adam had will, but it was not free. God placed restrictions and limitations on Adam’s will through commandments. [i]
God is the only one with free will, because He is infinite, eternal, sovereign, and self-directing. The serpent told the woman that once she ate of the fruit of the TOTKOGE, she would be like God, including possession of a will that was free – without limitations or restrictions (Genesis 3:4). Since it appears that the man was there with her when she surrendered to temptation, we might assume that the man heard the same words from the serpent (Genesis 3:6).
Perfectly aware of the consequences of his actions (1 Timothy 2:14), Adam expressed his newly-discovered free will, ignoring the commandments of God, choosing disobedience over obedience. As a result, he faced certain death and brought the same penalty upon all of humankind (Romans 5:12).
Having expressed his will freely in the realm of unrighteousness, Adam forfeited the ability to express his will in the realm of righteousness. He could no longer choose righteousness, because he could no longer see righteousness, having been cut off from the Tree of Life. From the point of his rebellion, all of his decisions would be made in the context of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (TOTKOGE) – decisions that, good or bad, would ultimately lead to death.
The previous article ended with a question: “If man’s will is so absolutely corrupt, and if man cannot see righteousness, and if he is unable to seek after God, then how can a person come to choose Christ?”
The short answer is that man cannot and will not seek after righteousness and cannot come to Christ until God, by grace and by His own will, first reveals himself to that man (Matthew 11:27; John 3:3) and calls him into the kingdom (John 6:44).
This will require some explanation.
Because of his fallen nature, man does not have the ability to express his will in favor of righteousness, because he is blinded to righteousness as a consequence of his sinful nature. That does not mean that man does not or cannot seek to be good, or that he does not seek somehow to fill the void left by Adam’s rebellion against God. He may seek to fill that void with benevolence and altruism or with evil and wickedness. No matter which route he travels – whether good or evil – in his own power and by his own will, he will always be unsuccessful. He cannot choose what he cannot see as a choice.
By the decree of God, man’s way is blocked to the Tree of Life until, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, man is given life and the ability once again to see the Tree of Life. That is what Jesus meant when he said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
This is what Jesus meant when He explained that He had come into the world to recover the sight of the blind (Luke 4:18), so that whoever believes in Him would not remain in darkness (John 12:46), and so that those who do not see might see” (John 9:39. That’s what Peter meant when he wrote about the Christ “who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Being born again is not dependent upon man’s choice any more than his first birth was a matter of his choice. Man’s first birth is the decision of his parents. His second birth is the decision of the Holy Spirit (John 3.7-8). It is the gift of God.
Paul succinctly outlined the process of being born again in his letter to the church at Ephesus: “Wake up, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14) The Holy Spirit awakens those who are dead in trespasses and sin, raises the out of darkness, and births them into the light of Christ.
Man has the ability to make a decision for righteousness – and the ability to acknowledge Christ as Lord for the purpose of salvation – only after he is empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit at the discretion of the Father. (Compare Romans 10. 9 with 1 Corinthians 12.3.) By giving life to a man dead in sin, the Spirit restores his ability to see the kingdom and to choose righteousness.
Once he is born again, he becomes as Adam was before he chose to disobey God’s command. That is, he can see both choices – righteousness as well as unrighteousness. And because of God’s grace, he will choose righteousness.
Read the words of Watchman Nee:
Since the day that Adam took the fruit of the tree of knowledge, man has been engaged in deciding what is good and what is evil. The natural man has worked out his own standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and striven to live by them. Of course as Christians we are different. Yes, but in what way are we different? Since we were converted a new sense of righteousness has been developed in us, with the result that we too are, quite rightly, occupied with the question of good and evil. But have we realised that for us the starting point is a different one? Christ is for us the Tree of Life. We do not begin from the matter of ethical right and wrong. We do not start from that other tree. We begin from Him; and the whole question for us is one of Life. [ii]
Man is only able to make a decision for righteousness when he is overcome by an infinite grace that is irresistible to the continued defiance of man’s will – thus, irresistible grace and irrevocable atonement.
Irresistible grace does not mean that God chooses a man and bowls him over with grace against the man’s will, but that God is persistent in applying infinite and perfect grace toward the finite and defective will of man until God’s grace, by its very definition overcomes man’s ability to resist. Would it be logical for Christ to say to Peter (Matthew 16.18) that the gates of hell itself cannot prevail against saving faith if one man’s will can prevail against it?
Here is where evangelism comes into the picture. Here is where there is room for preaching and persuasion. The fact that God’s grace is irresistible once it is applied should prompt every Christian to a renewed effort at reaching out to lost people.
If He wanted to, God could speak a word and every person would be saved, but God does not work that way in the plan of redemption. God works through people. God brings one person to salvation by the hearing of the Word from another person who already knows Christ as Lord.
Rom. 10.17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
A person cannot choose righteousness until he is enabled to see that righteousness is a choice. That ability – most commonly referred to as believing, which is the exercising of faith – is gifted to him by the proclamation of God’s word.
Our persistence in sharing the Gospel with a lost person equates to the grace of God bearing more and more weight of grace against the resistance that is natural to man’s being until that person can no longer naturally resist.
Once God enables a person to see the kingdom of God – more specifically, the person of Christ – he is then able to choose something that he never had the ability to choose before – righteousness!
By God’s gift of faith that now becomes effective in his heart (Ephesians 2.8), he can no longer resist plunging full-depth into the previously unperceived riches of the grace of God’s redemption and is immediately baptized into the spiritual realm of eternal blessing and the presence of God.
Then with Paul, the redeemed person begins to sing, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11.33)
[i] Picture credit: pxhere.com Public Domain. Free for personal and commercial use. No attribution required.
[ii] Nee, Watchman. Sit, Walk, Stand. Christian Literature Crusade: Ft. Washington, PA, 1972, p. 25.