Is it possible for Man to achieve salvation through his own actions and will after the Fall? This question is one that has significant importance in theological discussions, in particular in regards to understandings related to God’s providence and sovereignty and the extent of Man’s role in salvation. The question of free will captivates our discussions but is not a new one. It has been discussed most famously since Augustine, wrangled over by Martin Luther and Erasmus, been the center of Reformation debate, and recently under-girded the basic assumptions involved in Open Theism and Progressive Theism systematic theologies.
Free will discussions rightly start in the Garden of Eden at the first violation of God’s command. God had given to Adam the command “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) In that command is the effect promised by God for the violation, ” you shall surely die.” This should be the fulcrum for all free will debates.
It must be realized that at the moment Adam took the fruit from Eve and ate of it his spiritual death occurred. It must also be realized that Adam started to die physically as well. Augustine observed this when he said, “Human beings were created perfectly by God and established in a happy life, so that it is by their own will that they have fallen from happiness into the hardships of mortal life.” He also says, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God.” To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “Adam was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that…Adam was as dead as a door-nail.”
Paul said the same thing in his epistle to the church at Ephesus. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…” (Ephesians 2:1-2a) Obviously, Paul was not addressing being dead physically since he expected people to hold, read, hear, and listen to his letter. Paul was addressing the spiritual condition – the audience is dead spiritually. It must be noted that the same characteristics that hold to the physical realm are also observable in the spiritual realm. Death for a spiritual body is as real as death is for a physical body. Free will should be understood from this perspective.
Erasmus, as quoted by Martin Luther, does not think so. He says free will is, “a power of the human will by which a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from the same.” Luther said, “This is my absolute opinion: he that will maintain that man’s free-will is able to do or work anything in spiritual cases be they never so small, denies Christ.” For Luther, the free will to obtain salvation was absurd. He saw any attempt on one’s own effort as being against the very work of Jesus Christ. Gehard Forde observed about the Luther-Erasmus discourse that Luther took the correct understanding. “If salvation is reportedly given entirely by grace and one tries to work in a little bit of ‘free choice’ then everything, absolutely everything, will depend on that little bit. It cannot escape being salvation by works alone.”
The idea that free will revolves around Man providing a means unto his own salvation has since been the fulcrum of the debate. John Calvin, stating what has become a classic Reformed theological position in his Institutes says, “[Man] is so enslaved by the yoke of sin, that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit…” Whereas Ignatius says, “…In our discourse we ought not to emphasize the doctrine that would destroy free will. We may therefore speak of faith and grace to the extent that God enables us to do so…it must not be done in a such a way that good works or free will suffer any detriment or be considered worthless.”
John Wesley put forth the question, “May not men have some reason left, which in some measure discerns good from evil and yet be deeply fallen, even as to their understanding, as well as their will and affections.” “I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which ‘lightens every man that cometh into the world’.” Thomas Schreiner rightly critiques Wesley’s theology. He says the logic is coherent but the conclusion is not true. In Wesley’s theology, there is an element that has come to be known as prevenient grace where God restores some ability to follow His commands. Schreiner states, “Unbelievers are morally unable to keep God’s commands in the sense that they have no desire to obey all of his commandments.”
Southern Baptist theologians Herschel Hobbs and E. Y. Mullins went further than Wesley did. They said, “God respected man’s freedom. No gardener with a passionate love for growing things ever dealt so gently and skillfully with a delicate vine in training it to climb its trellis as God deals with the human will. But despite all that God has done for man’s salvation and redemption of life, man still has the awesome power to say yes or no to God.” Now Man has power beyond even that which God would give him in the Wesleyan system. This foundation can be seen in Open Theism as well and is seen in the pen of the open theist Clark Pennock, “we uphold…human freedom and the idea of cooperation with God’s will.” Free will has moved beyond the need to have God helping man obtain salvation. Now, Man is on equal par with God and can affect God’s own will.
J. I. Packer says, “No human performance is ever good enough, for there are always wrong desires in the heart, along with a lack of right ones, regardless of how correct one’s outward motions, and it is at the heart that God looks first.” This starts to lead back to a more correct view of free will in Man to salvation. In fact, Karl Barth rightly observes, “Sin certainly results when anyone plans a systematic justification and sanctification of himself by his own actions.” “There is no line which start with ‘I’ and finishes somewhere with salvation and liberty.”
Barth’s understanding is the closest approximation to understanding correctly the correlation between man’s free will and salvation. We read from his Church Dogmatics:
If this is to take place in the Christian community and Christian faith, if man is to will what of himself he cannot will and do what of himself he cannot do, then it must be on the basis of a particular address and gift, in virtue of a particular awakening power of God, by which he is born again to this will and ability, to the freedom of this action, and under the lordship and impulse of which he is another man in defiance of his being and status as a sinner. God in this particular address and gift, God in this awakening power, God as the Creator of this other man, is the Holy Spirit….Man, however, is not of himself open or ready or willing for a profitable, a living knowledge of this objective realization and therefore for its subjective realization. He can only be amazed at himself when he finds himself caught up in it, when he can count on the fact that the verdict pronounced in Jesus Christ applies to himself with everyone else, that the justification of sinful man accomplished in Him is his justification and that of all men. He can never understand this is any way but that God has opened his eyes to this knowledge, that God has made him free and ready for it, that a miracle has taken place in him. He will not claim it as his own conversion, but maintain it only as God’s own converting of him to Himself.
The miraculous working of God that Barth writes about is the essence of free will. It must be remembered that in the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, death was brought on all mankind. It was spiritual death immediately and physical death gradually. In this comes then the quickening, using the King James Bible vernacular, which makes us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:4)
Man indeed has the ability to make cognitive decisions. Contrary to what some would say, Man is not a robot or puppet that God controls to entertain Himself. We are expected to be wise in our daily lives in our family relations, our work ethic, political thoughts, and even our thoughts known only to ourselves. As the effect of free will unfolds, the mistake most make is to endow our free will to act with the power to save our depraved sinful selves from judgment.
God is sovereign. This means He is the supreme ruler over all creation, the world, and the universe. By virtue of His sovereignty, He created us. He therefore exercises His authority as creator. Man by contrast is created thereby making him lower than God is.
This creator/created relationship establishes that God then rules over His creation. He is able to do as He wills with it to whatever purpose He ordains. Man by virtue of being created is ruled over by God. It must be stressed that man does not rule over God in any form, whether by persuasion or coercion.
It is because God is sovereign over His creation that He is able to judge its worthiness. He examines each part looking for corruption to His holiness and destroys that which is imperfect due to that corruption. Put differently, God judges the sin in Man and brings death to him. Man is the chief object of this judgment due to the fall – Adam’s transgression of God’s first command to not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God judges man.
Free will therefore must be understood properly in the context of unconditional election. As iterated in Ephesians 1:4 “[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” This presupposes that God had in mind the salvation of the elect before He even created the world. How then could anyone make a free will based decision affecting his salvation? He cannot, as it has already been determined.
The elect are part of fallen mankind. Sin has caused our nature, just as the nature of the non-elect, to become totally depraved, making us to condemn ourselves because we practice the very things the world practices (see Romans 2:1). Death reigns even among the elect as a result of original sin (Romans 5:14). A restoration to the perfect creation (Genesis 1:31) and the relationship intended between God and Man (Genesis 2) must be made. Paul again iterates the point “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) The elect become the new creation. The non-elect remain the old creation
Death is a peculiar state. A person that is dead is incapable of doing anything. He can neither lift a hand nor stand. It is not possible for a dead man to will himself back to life. Since the physical and spiritual aspects of life carry the same parallel circumstances spiritual death (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22) means that the spirit is dead as well. It cannot be willed to do something other than remain dead. In terms of our sin nature and salvation, “we can will to sin or to sin differently.”
When a dead person in the bible has been brought back to physical life (i.e. by Elijah, Elisha, Paul, Jesus) there has always been the common denominator. God has always been the one to whom credit has been given or in whose service the resurrection occurred. So it is in spiritual death.
Returning then to Ephesians 2:1-10, we read that we are dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked. Being dead, we cannot do anything on our own to affect that and change our condition to being alive – or obtain salvation. Only by a supernatural event can the dead live. Verse 4 practically shouts out “But God.” This phrase interrupts the sin and death of the spiritually dead. He in mercy, “even when we were dead,” made the spiritually dead to live. He “made us alive together with Christ.” By our own free will, we have done nothing. “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Though spiritually dead and only able to live by the decree of God, we still have physical bodies in which we go about this earthly existence. As such, we are given responsibilities regardless of our place in salvation. Man is to have dominion over the creation (Genesis 1:26). Man is to behave in accordance to God’s law. (Exodus 20:1-21). Indeed, much of the record of the Old Testament shows how Man, living according to his own free will, diverged from God’s will. In this irresponsibility, Man is still held accountable. This rebellion sets the stage for the appearance of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and second person in the Godhead. At the hands of sinful men, He was crucified for the sins of Adam’s race. It is the action of God to save the elect.
Throughout history, the issue of free will has been discussed. How much free will does Man have? Can Man save himself through his own free will? Does God interfere with our free will? The biblical data, even briefly examined, shows that only God can save a person. Therefore, it is not possible to obtain salvation by free will.
 Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will(Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 1.
 Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, 18.
 Martin Luther De Servo Arbitrio,trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnson, under the title Martin Luther on the Bondage of the Will(Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957), 137.
 Luther. The Table Talk of Martin Luther, trans. William Hazlitt[CD-ROM, Wordsearch, 2004] (Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society), CCLXII paragraph 5.
 Gehard Forde, The Captivation the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage, ed. James A. Nestingen (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, U. K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 58.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [CD-ROM Wordsearch, 2007] Book Second, Chapter 4, Section 1.
 Ignatius Loyola, “Rules for Thinking with the Church” Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2 ed. William C. Placher (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988) 49.
 Irwin W. Reist, “John Wesley’s View of Man: Versus Free Will Wesley Center Online: Wesley Center for Applied Theology [onl-line]; accessed 14 April 2007; available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/06-10/07-3.htm; Internet. Reist quotes from the Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n. d. )293.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, Still Sovereign [CD-ROM, Wordsearch download] Chapter 18.
 Hershel Hobbs and E.Y. Mullins. The Axioms of Religion, Revised Edition. (Nashville: Broadman, 1978), 113.
 Clark H. Pennock, “Open Theism: An Answer to My Critics” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 44 (2005) 238.
 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, [CD-ROM Wordsearch, 2007] (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.)
 Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans. (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press) 86.
 Ibid. 87.
 Idem. Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part One,ed. G. W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrence (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956), 645ff.
 Attributed to Augustine