Do we have free will to choose God, believe Jesus, and understand the Gospel?
The Yes, No, or Both answer
The concept of “Biblical free will” has been debated for centuries. While it is not explicitly worded in the scriptures, free will is evident when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. It is taught among Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians but conflicts with strong Calvinists.
1. Yes, we have “limited free will”
We have “free will,” but that freedom is constricted by fear of consequence. For example, we’re free to disobey God but careful to displease Him. Remove consequences, and man will choose things that please him—not what pleases God. [Sin disables]
- To say that we do NOT have free will to believe God (unless God elects us) falls flat against Gospel apologetics.
- Adam and Eve had a choice whether to eat the fruit or not; that’s free will even before the fall of man.
- Satan turned against God, and a third of the angels chose to join him; that’s free will in heaven. (Isaiah 14:12; Hebrews 12:22)
- After the fall, man can distinguish good and evil, but they choose the latter. And so, God flooded the earth. Noah was spared, for he chose what was righteous. (Genesis 6:9)
“Anyone who chooses to do the will of God….”
“It is with your heart that you believe and is justified…”
2. No, we don’t have free will: A person “dead to sin can’t respond to God
Deuteronomy 30:19: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live.” This verse implies that humans have the ability to choose between life and death, suggesting the existence of free will.
However, the Bible also emphasizes God’s sovereignty and predestination in various passages, such as in Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:4-5, which discuss God’s foreknowledge and predestining of believers.
- We’re dead in our sins and objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3). We are destined for hell because God is just. He won’t let sin go unpunished. (Proverbs 11:21)
- A reprobate may know about God but will not choose to follow Him. They will not understand the gospel unless God regenerates their heart. (Romans 1:21)
- Believing and repentance go together. You may believe, but the willingness to repent comes from God. He granted (Give: δοῦναι; dounai) repentance to the chosen people and to Gentiles (Acts 5:31; 11:18).
- Out of God’s love, He regenerates our sinful and “dead hearts” to see the truth, believe, and obey Him. “Regeneration is something that is accomplished by God. A dead man cannot raise himself from the dead.” – R.C. Sproul
“When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions…”
3. Yes and No: We are free to believe, but our nature is to disobey
- Choosing to believe is easy, but the will to obey is impossible because man is born selfish. An infant cries for attention and as we grow older, we want more.
- The moral law and social constraints restrain us from choosing fully to satisfy our sinful nature. (Genesis 6:5)
- There is no mention of “free will” in the Bible. Instead, God causes us to draw near Jesus and have faith. [Strong Calvinism]
“The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth.”
“… death spread to all men because all sinned.”
1 John 1:8
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
4. No, it’s not up to us: God chooses who He will save
God is ‘just’ and will not violate one’s “free will.” But then, God is also sovereign that He can override our “free will” so He can save us. But who He chooses is not up to us.
- God can make the Gospel irresistible and change the heart of the hardest criminal. In short, God can override our free will in order to submit to the Lordship of Jesus. (John 6:44)
- Our “will” to obey God is out of fear of hell or punishment. God created hell, and He offers no apologies for it. Thus, God causes fear to help change our mindset, which influences our will.
- The Doctrine of Election presupposes that God has already chosen who will enter His kingdom.
“People cannot come to me unless the Father who sent me brings them to me. I will bring these people back to life on the last day.”
5. Yes and No: God’s sovereignty
Yes, ultimately, God has the final say on who He wants to save or not. After all, He is the author of faith. Therefore, Christ’s sacrifice “for all” refers to all God already foreknew because He is sovereign.
However, out of God’s sovereignty, we can also say that He allows men to make a choice. That does not make Him less sovereign.
This privilege is only given to humankind out of His sovereign love. Demons also believe in who Jesus is, but they will still go to hell. (Mark 1:23-24)
6. No, Salvation is God’s work alone
Yes, we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but God can also work in us “to do His will” through the powers of the Holy Spirit for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12).
In short, we do not contribute to salvation even though we have to “work it out.” Our part is to accept the gift, but “accepting” is meaningless unless repentance occurs.
- When someone gives us a gift, we don’t pay it back. Hence, “accepting a gift” is not work but a choice we’re free to make.
- We can accept or reject God’s gift. We didn’t pay for it, but Jesus alone did. (Ephesians 2:1-9)
- Apart from Jesus, our faith will not be complete, and neither can we bear fruit. (John 15)
- For us to believe, we must first hear. Faith comes by hearing God’s words. (2 Cor 5:17)
“…fixing our eyes to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…”
God can override our free will.
Bottom line, rejecting Jesus is man’s choice—just as Adam and Eve chose to disobey God
Jesus said, “It is finished.” We can accept or reject Him as our Savior. Even if God chooses who to save—the gospel must still be heard because God offers it to everyone.
“The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”