Article 18: Free Will (or not?)
Everyone has free will, right? You chose to wear the clothes you’re wearing. You chose to get a summer job, or to play basketball, or which colleges to apply to. You chose to click on the link that brought you to this article. And you will choose to accept what it says as either true or false. Right? On the other hand, perhaps it was all fate, all predestined, and you’re just acting out the inevitable. Perhaps free will is just an illusion.
The topic of free will is a difficult one for Christians, especially with respect to salvation. If you have free will, then it’s up to you to save yourself or else send yourself to hell. If you don’t have free will, then God is the One who decides who’s saved and who’s not. You’re just a pawn in God’s divine game.
To deal with the topic of free will, the Lutheran Confessions introduce a very important distinction.
Of Free Will they teach that man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness, and to work things subject to reason. But it has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness; since the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 2:14; but this righteousness is wrought in the heart when the Holy Ghost is received through the Word. (Augsburg Confession XVIII.1-4).
With respect to civil righteousness, there is some amount of freedom to choose this or that. This means that in things that are beneath you, in things that are subject to reason, you have free will. You can choose to have Cheerios or yogurt for breakfast, to wear green shorts or a corduroy skirt on Wednesday, to get a job in lawn care or delivering papers for the summer, to play basketball or run track or to play in the marching band. It also includes things of more significance, like choosing which colleges to apply to, what girl to date (and marry!), where to live. On the other hand, it’s also possible to choose bad things, such as skipping church or choosing a false religion, or committing adultery or murder. Even though God knows in advance the choices you will make, this is different than Him having a script of your life that you are forced to act out against free will.
But because your will is free in matters in which it is free doesn’t mean that it is absolutely free. In matters of spiritual righteousness, there is no freedom of the will. The fact that you have a choice in things beneath you does not mean that you have a choice in higher things, in things that pertain to eternal salvation. And because of sin, your will is bound—bound to sin. You cannot choose the good no matter how much will you exert.
In higher things—the righteousness of Christ, forgiveness, eternal salvation—you need God’s choice. And that choice is found in Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, the choice is only sin, death, and eternal damnation. But in Christ you find God’s resounding “Yes!” He has made the choice by His holy incarnation, by His innocent suffering and death, and by His victorious resurrection. And in Him the choice is given to you. In Christ you bondage to sin is broken, and your will is bound to Christ.
You can read the Book of Concord at http://www.bookofconcord.org
“Concord” is a weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions, where we will take up a topic from the Book of Concord and reflect on what we believe, teach, and confess in the Lutheran Church. The purpose of this series is to deepen readers’ knowledge and appreciation for the confessions of the Lutheran Church, and to unite them “with one heart” to confess the teachings of Holy Scripture.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard serves as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.