The Intersection of Free Will and Total Depravity

How we define and qualify free will is of utmost importance. By "free will" some may think Arminians promote the notion as "the freest of free will." I have never heard nor read that libertarian free will is defined by Arminians as "the freest of free will," i.e., that there is nothing to persuade the will toward evil, such as inherent depravity, or to persuade our choices toward the good, such as the Person of the Holy Spirit. Prior to the Fall, both Adam and Eve experienced free will, at least to a greater degree than do we today; but I know of no fallen human being since then to have experienced "the freest of free will," not even Jesus, not even His Father or the Spirit, since the Trinity is not free to perform any action contrary to the divine nature, which is holy and just. Naming free will as "the freest of free will" is a myth, for most of us at least, exempting perhaps Pelagians.

In their book The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn misrepresent Arminianism on the subject of total depravity and free will, stating that Arminians teach: "Although human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom."1 Whatever theological or philosophical system the authors just described, it has nothing to do with the Arminianism of Jacob Arminius, the Remonstrants, or classical Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians today.

Arminius and the Remonstrants did not teach that "God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe," since their view was that, only through the gospel and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit could anyone be enabled to repent and believe. Moreover, they never suggested -- nor would any Arminian today suggest -- that God "does not interfere with man's freedom." That is a ludicrous statement, and I am embarrassed for the Calvinist authors and their Calvinist Publisher, P&R Publishing, who wrote such nonsense. If God did not "interfere" with man's so-called freedom by the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11) then no one could be saved. Such caricaturing and construction of straw men, sadly, flourishes in much of Calvinist publishing.

We must be careful not to abuse, misunderstand, misapply or misrepresent the phrase free will. Stanford grants a very basic definition of free will as "a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives." (link) (emphasis added) When Arminians dialogue concerning free will, they are specifically referencing this very basic definition of choosing from among alternatives, or choosing the contrary.

More particularly, they are not insisting that anyone can inherently choose to believe in Christ whensoever he or she wishes, desires, decides. That concept is not indicative of Arminianism. Calvinists who continue to suggest otherwise are misrepresenting Arminian theology. Nor are Arminians referring to the contexts of free will within neuroscience, emotions, trauma, deception, cognitive psychology or other intra-psychological components of the mind; though, certainly, such elements deserve a treatment when considering the influences of such on the will. (link) Our view of the will typically references a response to God's grace toward salvation, and the part human beings play in the framework of sin; i.e., we sin not by God's decree but by our own choice.

Does God have free will? We cannot admit that God is free to act contrary to His nature, as mentioned above, and hence God does not possess absolute free will (e.g., He cannot will Himself ontologically contrary to His own reality or nature). Nor can fallen human beings freely will themselves ontologically contrary to their (fallen) nature. Hence, when we discuss free will, we do not mean that humans possess the innate ability to do anything imaginable. Again, we restrict our language regarding free will to everyday matters, not salvation.

According to nineteenth-century Wesleyan theologian Daniel D. Whedon (1805-1885), freedom of the will is exemption, "Either it is exemption from some impediment to the performance of some act, which is a freedom to the act; or it is an exemption from a limitation, confinement, or compulsion to perform the act; and this is a freedom in direction from the act."2 Often this definition is coupled with the affirmation of contrary choice, meaning, when an individual makes a decision, he or she has more than one option from which to consider.

This definition, however, does not advocate an inherent power or ability to do or accomplish anything imaginable, for Whedon admits that freedom "is not identical with power. The freedom and the power are different, and either may be antecedent condition to the other."3 Humans are functionally capable to perform volitional acts, for example, but this does not mean that they are always volitionally capable of fully performing all acts imaginable. "A man possesses liberty indeed . . . but not liberty in the Will, or of the Will, but liberty of the muscular power."4 Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) concurs, stating that liberty, when attributed to the Will, is properly an affection
of the Will, though it has its root in the understanding and reason. Generally considered, it is various: (1.) It is a freedom from . . . the control or jurisdiction of one who commands [a personal being], and from an obligation to render obedience. (2.) From the inspection, care, and government of a Superior. (3.) It is also a Freedom from necessity, whether this proceeds from an external cause compelling, or from a nature inwardly determining absolutely to one thing. (4.) It is a Freedom from sin and its dominion. (5.) And a Freedom from misery.5
Arminius admits that the first two are reserved for God alone, and the last two are impossible for fallen creatures, but will be their reality when finally redeemed. Nevertheless, he insists that the third point, freedom from necessity, is "by nature situated in the will, as its proper attribute, so that there cannot be any will if it be not free [from deterministic necessity]."6 In other words, no one commits a sin, by way of example, strictly because God has foreordained or decreed or rendered necessary for him or her to commit that sin. Moreover, fallen human beings do not possess free will with regard to freedom from misery due to sin, from sin itself and its dominion, from God's providence and sovereignty, or from responsibility to obey His commands. Our freedom from misery will be restored one day, when Christ shall translate our "body and soul into celestial blessedness."7

Concerning Arminius's views on total depravity and total inability, Calvinist R.C. Sproul admits that the "language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius."8 Sproul, naturally, disagrees with Arminius and the Arminian's solution to the problem of the doctrines of total depravity and total inability, and how it liberates human beings from their bondage to sin; but he, nevertheless, acknowledges that Arminius "affirms the ruination of the will [as do all classical Arminians], which is left in a state of captivity and can avail nothing apart from the grace of God."9 Does this mean, then, that fallen people cannot perform a good act? No, for Jesus confesses that evil people know how to give good gifts to those they love (Matt. 7:11; Luke 11:13). Does this mean, then, that fallen people cannot do anything savingly good (i.e., meritorious)? Yes.

Arminius and all Arminians affirm that, due to our fallen nature and the lost state of free will toward all spiritual good, due to the darkness of our mind, which is "destitute of the saving knowledge of God,"10 and due to the perverseness of the once good affections of the heart, succeeds to the utter weakness of all the powers or ability to "perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause."11 This fact is supported by various scriptures, notably, a "corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit" (Matt. 12:18); we that are evil, how can we speak good? (Matt. 12:34); we cannot come to Christ Jesus except when drawn by the Father (John 6:44); the unregenerate mind is not subject to the law of God, nor has it the innate ability to do so (Rom. 8:7); and we have no innate interest into spiritual realities (1 Cor. 2:6-14): "To the same purpose are all those passages in which the man existing in this state is said to be under the power of sin and Satan, reduced to the condition of a slave, and 'taken captive by the Devil' (Rom. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:26)."12 In this state, then, we are held under bondage.

So, then, how do we reconcile Libertarian Free Will with total depravity and total inability? First, all who hold to the biblical teaching of total depravity and totally inability do not suggest that fallen human beings are as bad as they could be, by the grace of God. We simply mean that humanity has been affected by the effects of the Fall, in both its physical and metaphysical composition, in every (total) component of one's being. Second, fallen mortals cannot be good enough nor do enough good deeds to merit the favor, love, or grace of God. All of our righteous deeds are filthy before God (Isa. 64:6); we can do no savingly good act. Apart from God's grace, and mercy, we have no hope. Third, though our will toward spiritual issues was lost in the Fall, we still retain certain abilities, even though they are hampered by the effects of sin -- abilities such as reason, thought, and volition.

Our reason remains, though it is darkened by sin; our ability to think remains, though it is tainted by sin; our volition remains, though it has been affected by sin. If an unregenerate individual is to trust in Christ, such ability must be granted to her (cf. John 6:65; Phil. 1:29). Though this ability can be resisted, it is still a sufficient means for enacting faith in Christ. Note that coming to and believing in Christ -- something which an individual does -- depends upon the drawing of the Father (John 6:44); though the text does not teach that all who are drawn will by necessity come to and believe in Christ. Such a view has less relation to cause and effect than to influence and response.

We do not deny that God could have established humanity's salvation as cause and effect; but we deny that Scripture teaches salvation in such a manner. No one is justified and therefore saved apart from personal and continued faith in Christ Jesus. Hence no one is elected or saved unconditionally. This truth concerns the doctrine of election as well (i.e., those whom God has chosen to save, 1 Cor. 1:21), and leads classical Arminian scholar F. Leroy Forlines to comment: 
The question that I am concerned about is not whether some constraint is imposed on God outside His will. I do not believe that is the case either. The question is whether His own holy nature forbids him to choose anyone for salvation apart from Christ. Does not His own holy nature forbid Him to choose a person for salvation apart from the application of atonement? Will not His holy nature forbid Him from performing a redemptive act on a person before the death and righteousness of Christ is imputed to him? I think it will.13
Again, if someone is to trust in Christ, such gracious ability must first be granted to the individual. Only then can someone freely choose to believe. The choice is said to be free because the Spirit of God frees the will from its bondage to sin in order for her to freely choose to believe. The Holy Spirit is not freeing the individual from one's bondage to sin so that he or she may overcome sin in one's life. He is merely enabling the individual to do that which he could not previously do: i.e., believe in Jesus Christ. Since this gracious ability is resistible, a person may, for whatever reason, choose not to believe -- choose to reject this proffered grace and enabling gift of rightly responding in faith.

I think what would be more appropriate to confess is that Arminians believe primarily in freed will more so than free will, with regard to believing in Christ, by the gracious enablement of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11) through the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17; 2:4). (See the FACTS regarding the doctrines of grace on the Society of Evangelical Arminians site: "Freed to Believe in God's Grace.") If one admits that God has already predetermined all of our decisions, then we cannot speak of free will in any manner whatsoever, at least, not if words still carry any meaning. We can then only concede to what Wayne Grudem refers to as "the error of fatalism or determinism" (though he consistently maintains that error) and thus conclude that "our choices do not matter or that we cannot really make willing choices" -- quite ironic summations given his view that God has predetermined every minutiae of our reality here on earth -- including what we, allegedly, choose.14

Will sin affect what choices we make? That is a possibility, as are chemicals, toxins, emotions, peer pressure, etc. In whatsoever manner the effects of sin may influence our decisions, they do not always, by necessity, determine our decisions, by God's grace: influence and determination are not synonymous terms and concepts. If the contrary were true, then there could be no semblance of good in the world: people would only choose evil, and fallen human beings would be as bad as they could be. This is not, however, reality. Evil people civilly choose to perform good acts, by God's grace. Moreover, more often than not, people make decisions based upon more than one option; they possess the libertarian freedom to choose between more than one option. Sometimes they choose poorly and others reap the negative and unwanted consequences.

However, with regard to sin, which is the chief Arminian concern in the debate between determinism and libertarianism, if God has predetermined by decree an individual to commit sin, giving him or her no other option but to sin -- which is merely consistent Calvinism -- then I find charging God as being the worst and only sinner in the universe the only consistent option. Which conclusion grants us one viable answer between two choices (discounting Open Theism and Molinism): either God has decreed by necessity all that we choose, and experience, or we maintain some semblance of free will to make our own choices -- the choice to trust in Jesus, again, being a a gracious response initiated by the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Christ, and not an ability inherent in our fallen nature.


1 David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, updated and expanded (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 5.

2 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 11.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 15.

5 James Arminius, "On the Free Will of Man and its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:190.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 126.

9 Ibid. Sproul, again, although disagreeing with Arminius' solution to the problem of depravity, continues: "Arminius not only affirms the bondage of the will, but insists that natural man, being dead in sin, exists in a state of moral inability or impotence. What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian? Arminius then declares that the only remedy for man's fallen condition is the gracious operation of God's Spirit. The will of man is not free to do any good unless it is made free or liberated by the Son of God through the Spirit of God." (128) Jesus states, "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

10 Arminius, Works, 2:192.

11 Ibid., 2:193.

12 Ibid., 2:193-94.

13 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2001), 263.

14 Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 151.