Bible Answer

Where in the Bible does the teaching on “free will” originate?

I know from your studies that the Bible teaches God is sovereign in the salvation of humanity, but where do free will teachers find Biblical support for their views?

"Free will" theology is the view that faith in the Gospel is a matter of personal choice unrelated to the work of God in the heart. Free will believes that nothing is required to cause faith in the Gospel other than a person's choice to believe.

This is not the teaching of the Bible. Apart from Adam and Woman (and Christ), no human being has been born with a truly free will. On the contrary, Paul says all men since Adam are born ensalved to sin and cannot choose nor please God by their fallen nature. At the moment the Lord acts to bring faith, the person is born again by the Spirit and is made a slave to Christ. [For helpful background on what the Bible teaches concerning saving faith, please read Wrestling With God.]

Our prideful nature assumes (and prefers to believe) that we played a part, however small, in our own salvation. We point to our decision to believe in the Gospel as the moment we "chose" Christ, yet the Bible says plainly that He chose us:

Eph. 1:3  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 
Eph. 1:4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love
Eph. 1:5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, 
Eph. 1:6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 

The false teaching that salvation is a product of man's "free" will is nothing new within the Church. Even in Paul's day men were confused and misled over the origins of their faith and the manner of salvation.

For example, Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth begins with a teaching on the sovereignty of God in choosing believers from among the lessor classes of society to shame the strong and powerful. Paul wrote this chapter to dispell the myth in Corinth that men were coming to faith in the Lord because of their associations with the "right" teacher (i.e., Paul vs. Apollos), which was a type of free will heresy:

1Cor. 1:26  For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;
1Cor. 1:27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of  the world to shame the things which are strong,
1Cor. 1:28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,
1Cor. 1:29 so that no man may boast before God.
1Cor. 1:30 But  by His doing you are in  Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and  sanctification, and redemption,
1Cor. 1:31 so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” 

Notice Paul says in v.30 that the believers in Corinth were "in Christ Jesus" (i.e., they were believers) not because of Paul's doing or even their own free will, but by "His doing" they were believers. It was Christ's doing that caused the men in Corinth to accept the Gospel. Their faith was not a result of each man's own will; it came as a matter of God's will.

Paul taught this same principle in Romans, when he says:

Rom. 9:16  So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

In the context of Romans 9, Paul is talking about how men receive God's mercy. Paul says God's mercy doesn't depend on a man's will, nor does it depend on how a man "runs," which refers to his life's works. Rather, it depends entirely on God, the One Who extends mercy according to His will.

Furthermore, Paul taught the church in Corinth that men are not naturally receptive to the Gospel message:

1Cor. 1:18  For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Men do not accept the Gospel by their will because our fallen nature is spiritually opposed to God and therefore can never seek for God:

Rom. 3:10 as it is written,

Since men lack the capacity to seek God and accept the Gospel, God must initiate faith in the heart to bring men to Himself, as Paul explains in Ephesians:

Eph. 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
Eph. 2:9  not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Eph. 2:10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

We can only assume this false doctrine (like all false teaching) originated with Satan, since "free will" salvation is a teaching that mirrors the first lie told in the Garden. Just as Woman and Adam were called to "be like God" and to determine the course of their own future independent of God's will, likewise the enemy is determined to corrupt the Church with a message of self-reliance and independence from God, even in the matter of grace and salvation.

Many Biblical references are cited by those advocating free will salvation, but these citations are always taken out of context, misinterpreted and misapplied. We could show many examples, but let's examine one of the most common. John 3:16 is commonly cited as "proof" of free will salvation and the opportunity for every person to believe if they choose:

John 3:16  “For God so  loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

To the ears of a free will advocate, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation is equally possible for every person, but this interpretation does not fit Jesus' words, especially in the context of John 3 overall. In 3:16 Jesus declares that the means of salvation is belief in Him, and the outcome of belief is eternal life, so that anyone who takes the step of believing will be saved. We couldn't agree more. Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ is saved by their faith.

But the question remains...what causes someone to believe in Jesus? Does God bring us to faith or do we choose to believe by our own will? John 3:16 offers nothing on that question. That verse does not enter into the question of what motivates a person to believe. It merely states the obvious truth that God's love provided a way of salvation for all who believe in Jesus. 

Free will teachers have made the (false) assumption that Jesus indicates that all have equal ability to believe in the Gospel, but that is simply not the context of John 3. On the contrary, the context of John 3 is exactly the opposite of such teaching. Earlier Jesus taught Nicodemus that only those who are born again will be saved, and being born again is a work of the Spirit of God, which is accomplished through our faith (not by our faith), as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8.  

In reality, Jesus was speaking only about the manner of our salvation (i.e., salvation is by faith in Christ). Jesus' statement has nothing to teach regarding what leads a person to believe so as to be saved. In fact, if we simply read a little further in the same chapter, we find Jesus teaching that saving faith is a consequence of God's choice not man's will. Two verses later, Jesus states this:

John 3:17 “For God  did not send the Son into the world  to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
John 3:18 “ He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Jesus says saving faith is evidence that God has chosen to open the heart of the person and appoint the person to eternal life. Conversely, when faith does not come, it is evidence that the person has been judged by God already. Jesus is expanding on His early statement in John 3:16 by reminding us that those who do not believe are showing evidence that they have been "judged already" by God. Therefore according to Jesus, the inclination to believe (or not believe) is a reflection of the Father's sovereign will for that individual.

We could point to numerous other scripture references commonly cited to support free will teaching and uncover in a similar fashion how each is misapplied and misinterpreted out of context to support a free will viewpoint, but time does not permit such an exhaustive examination. We trust the Holy Spirit will reveal the truth of these matters to you in the course of your personal studies.

To fully appreciate this difficult topic, we highly recommend you listen to our Romans Bible study, where Paul deals with these issues in detail.