When God redeemed us, He established a new relationship with us (from rebellious to redeemed) and gave us a new identity in Christ. That Christian identity is God’s gift and cannot be obtained in any other way. Everyone has an identity determined by their relationship with God. What different relationships might a person have with God?
Oddly enough, the way to get mental arms around this question is to focus attention on sin. God is holy and sinful people cannot draw near to Him without His intervention. Thus relationship with Him is determined by a person’s condition with regard to sin.
That question involves the related question concerning the role of “free will” in regard to sin. More than 1600 years ago, Augustine wrestled with these questions. Carefully analyzing what Scripture says, he drew conclusions about the possible states of people in relationship to God. In explaining the possible states, he used the concepts of free will, moral liberty, and sin.
Augustine on Free Will
By free will, Augustine means possessing those natural abilities necessary for making choices – the ability to think, feel, desire, to use inputs from the physical senses, etc. In this sense all people have free will. They choose according to their thoughts, emotions, desires, and inputs from the physical senses. Is this the whole story concerning making choices? Augustine’s answer is no.
Decisions are also affected by moral disposition (the state of moral liberty). Is the moral disposition such that righteous decisions can be made or not? Jonathon Edwards’ answer:
Jonathon Edwards “On the Freedom of the Will
Some 1400 years later, Edwards wrestled with the same issue and reached conclusions similar to Augustine’s. But he provided additional insight into the “how” of making choices. He concluded that people always choose “that toward which they are most inclined at the moment of choice.”
Inclinations are affected by natural abilities and moral disposition. Natural ability has to do with the powers of choice possessed by everyone. Those natural abilities have constraints. Just as there are limitations that keep us from having a natural ability to fly or to hibernate without food for months, so also, there are limitations imposed on our thoughts, actions, and speech. If we always choose that which we are most inclined towards at the moment of choice, then making a righteous choice demands we have an inclination toward righteousness. Scripture tells us, that in the fallen state, no one is inclined toward righteousness (e.g., Rm. 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). Everyone falls short of what God requires. For the “fallen” to acquire moral liberty, God must intervene.
Edwards view is that the human will does not operate as an independent neutral faculty and never has. Rather, the will responds to the other faculties of the mind – intellect, affections, imagination, and memory.
The will is much like a balance that weighs desires and inclinations for and against a particular choice. The greatest desire and inclination at the moment of choice determines the decision. This means that every decision is consistent with the desires and inclinations of the decision maker.
Every choice is self-determined. That fact is sufficient to make people accountable for their choices. There is no coercion involved. People weigh the alternatives and their anticipated consequences and then follow their strongest inclination.
Four Possible States of Freedom with Regard to Sin
|Pre-Fall Man||Post-Fall Man||Reborn Man||Glorified Man|
|able to sin||able to sin||able to sin||able to not sin|
|able to not sin||able to not sin||able to not sin||unable to sin|
Pre-fall Identity – Adam & Eve
As originally created, Adam and Eve were “free agents.” They had natural free will and moral liberty. They were “able to choose to not sin” or “able to choose to sin.” Their choices were according to their strongest inclination.
Since, as created, their inclinations were righteous, how then did they fall into sin? It appears the only way Adam and Eve could have fallen into sin was to be inclined toward (or desire) something good in itself but forbidden by God. There was only one thing in the world of their garden that was forbidden to them. That was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge is good in itself, but for Adam and Eve knowledge of evil could only be obtained by disobeying God. We know the story of the serpent’s enticement to choose to disobey God because the fruit of the tree was so desirable. The deed was done. Their innocence was lost forever. All their descendants would be tainted by the consequences of their folly. The change in their relationship to God was dreadful.
After falling into sin, they retained free will but lost moral liberty. They gained a sin nature and a moral disposition inclined toward sin. Their new identity is they are sinners!
Every descendant of Adam and Eve to this day inherits their fallen sinful condition. That inherited sin nature of their natural fallen state causes them to be “unable to not sin.” This does not imply that fallen people are unable to do things we call good – like kindness and generosity. God in His common grace keeps people from being as bad as they might be and enables every person to do good things. If God “gives a person over” to their own desires with no restraint, the consequences as Paul elaborates in Romans 1 are dreadful.
Even with common grace, a fallen person’s abilities as a free agent are sharply constrained. They have free will (the ability to choose according to their strongest desire at the moment of choice), but they do not have moral liberty (the inclination toward righteousness). Thus all are enslaved, each to their own sin nature. For various reasons they may choose to do good deeds, but they don’t have moral liberty that inclines them toward God’s righteousness. They are free to choose according to their strongest desire, but that desire will not be turned toward God and His righteousness. The image of God in their nature is distorted and damaged.
Earthly life for the fallen and the redeemed will end in mortal death. The fallen have no access to God unless He intervenes. The Fall changed human dominion over the earth and its creatures drastically. So drastically that nature imposes punitive difficulties and constraints on human activities.
When God intervenes giving personal redemption to individuals, the redeemed are “able to not sin” or “able to sin.” They have both a free will and moral liberty. But moral liberty is opposed by remnants of the old sin nature which keeps the redeemed from being fully inclined toward God and His righteousness until they are glorified (i.e., made completely holy).
- God in His grace had mercy on Adam and Eve and their descendants and covenanted to provide for their redemption from their fallen estate. Between the initial fall and Christ’s death and resurrection – God chose a people (the Jews) and provided limited access to Himself through priests and sacrifices. Sacrifices recognized God’s majesty and glory. Commandments and rules to be followed by the people demonstrated recognition of God’s sovereignty over them. Access to the presence of God was severely limited.
- Christ’s sacrificial death and his resurrection put an end to the need for priests and the sacrificial system. God chose to send His Holy Spirit to indwell those He was calling into His holy nation. As He indwells individuals, the Holy Spirit works directly to transform them into a character-likeness of Christ. In that way the moral image of God in humans, distorted in the fall, begins to be reconstructed. The redeemed are given a “new heart” which makes it possible once more to choose to not sin. However, their sin nature remains and battles against the redeemed moral nature. A redeemed person is able both to choose to not sin or to sin. For the redeemed, the work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit restored Adam and Eve’s direct access to God. The effects of the Fall on the earth itself have not yet been removed. The punitive difficulties and constraints imposed by nature continue. Spiritual life is restored to the redeemed, but mortal physical death continues. Resurrection of the body and dwelling in eternity in God’s presence will be realized for the redeemed at the end of time.
When their sanctification is completed, the redeemed will stand perfected in God’s presence and “unable to sin.” They will be like Christ (in moral nature and in other ways). The glorified cannot sin for they no longer have a sin nature. They have direct access to God, indeed will live in His presence. There will be a new earth undefiled by human sin having no punitive difficulties imposed by nature.
On Libertarian Free Will
Some people insist that all people have Libertarian Free Will. The human will is understood to be that faculty or principle of mind by which the mind chooses. Their view is no one can be held responsible for their choices unless their will is “free” in a libertarian sense.
Libertarian free will means the will functions as an independent neutral faculty of the mind making autonomous choices – choices free from prior prejudice, inclination, disposition, or constraint from God. They say without “libertarian free will” – there can be “no human responsibility.” This is a non-negotiable presupposition for some.
It means that every fact must be interpreted such that it is consistent with that presupposition. God’s sovereignty must be envisioned (and restricted) in such a way that human libertarian free will is a reality.
Reformed denominations do not accept this position. They accept Augustine and Jonathon Edwards position. God’s sovereignty is recognized. Natural free will is believed to be constrained by moral disposition, either fallen, redeemed, or glorified. Moral liberty (the freedom to choose righteousness) was lost in the Fall and is restored to the redeemed.