If people go to hell, isn’t it their fault because God gave them free will and they rejected him?
Free will a misnomer
The use of free will is a misnomer in spiritual matters. Adam and Eve were created with free will to choose either good or evil. They were able not to sin. After the fall into sin, humanity lost that free will along with the image of God. Now our natural condition is hostile to God (Romans 8:7), we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), and every inclination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5). People are only “free” to sin in any way they please. We are not able not to sin. If you doubt it, go one day without sinning to prove it. Not one of us could!
When God worked faith in our hearts, God’s image and our free will were partially restored. God placed the new man of faith in our hearts. The apostle Paul encourages us to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). However, because of our old Adam, our lives of thanks to God will always be imperfect until he takes us to heaven. There, our will is perfectly free because we will be free of our old Adam. We will not be able to sin.
“Free” will in spiritual matters
There have been attempts to use human reason throughout church history to answer the question “Why are some saved but not others?”
The 16th-century French theologian John Calvin rightly recognized that we are born dead in sin and have no free will in spiritual matters. Unfortunately, he taught that the difference between the saved and the damned is found in God. He taught that God chose some to be saved and others to be damned. It may make sense, but it is not what Scripture teaches.
The Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius rightly recognized that those who go to hell would do so by their own fault. Unfortunately, he taught that the difference between the saved and the damned is found in man. He taught that people have a partially free will to choose to believe in Jesus and apply themselves to grace. It may make sense, but it is not what Scripture teaches.
Based on Scripture, Martin Luther recognized that the question is actually two questions. All people are equally depraved, and God wants all to be saved. Therefore, why are some saved? It’s entirely by God’s grace. Why are some damned? It’s entirely their own fault. This biblical teaching goes beyond our reason, but we believe it because it is the clear teaching of Scripture.
Free will in externals
While we do not have free will in spiritual matters, one can speak of free will in external matters (i.e., matters pertaining to our lives here on earth). We have the freedom to choose where to eat, what job to take, who to marry, as well as many other choices.
The old Adam still binds our will in spiritual matters, and that will remain with us until Jesus takes us home to heaven. The struggle between our new man and old Adam daily exhausts us. We cry out with the apostle Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Always remember the comfort of his answer, which relies entirely on God for salvation: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24,25).
Have a question, ask it here!
Author: David Scharf
Volume 109, Number 05
Issue: May 2022
- Q&A: Is anger sinful? - 2023/05/31
- Q&A: How can parents encourage adult children who wander from the faith? - 2023/04/30
- Q&A: Does the doxology belong in the Lord’s Prayer? - 2023/03/31