Institutes of the Christian Religion: Grace and Free Will

The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
They have all turned aside,
They have together become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
No, not one.
Psalm 14:2-3

Calvin inherits Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, which teaches that, subsequent to his infidelity and disobedience against God in the Garden of Eden, Man’s nature, including his reason and will, became corrupted and bound by sin and death. He cannot choose to be good, let alone do good works, any more than he can choose to be born. “We are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags”. Salvation is the work of God alone, by grace through faith, faith itself being authored by God.

Concerning the relation between grace and free will, Calvin seems to be more extreme than Augustine intended. Adam was created with free will, and he fell into sin. Calvin concludes that the only way for man not to sin is to cease altogether to will or work, but be passively guided by God (2.5).” The grace of God is the rule of the Spirit”, who “cannot govern without moving, impelling, urging, and restraining” our mind and will. In addition, Calvin seems to believe in the exclusivity of glory, viz. that the relationship between the glory of God and the glory of man is zero-sum, and if man can choose God of his own free will, he can then claim merit and glory for himself, and the glory of God would be diminished. So in his zeal for the glory of God, he abolishes the free will of man entirely.

If I understand Augustine correctly, the relation between grace and freewill is not either/or, but both or none. In other words, grace is both the necessary and the sufficient cause of free will.

First, it is by God’s will and grace in creation that the first man Adam became a living being with free will and crowned with glory and honor. So the free will and glory of man in no way diminishes the grace and glory of God, on the contrary, man is “the image and glory of God”. There is no ground for man to boast in himself, however, seeing that his being and his free will, all that he is and all that he has, are derived from and sustained by God.

Second, free will is a theme that runs through the Scripture. Adam was given a choice to obey or disobey; so were the people of Israel, who received the Law by the hand of Moses, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live”; Christians received the same exhortations and warnings, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

I don’t object to the doctrine of Original Sin (there are two types of people, those who acknowledge Original Sin, and liars), but I disagree with Calvin whether, through the regeneration, God restores to man the free will that Adam possessed before the Fall. If grace is “irresistible” in the sense that the regenerated man is so passively governed by God that he cannot sin, why didn’t He so govern Adam and prevent him from sinning in the first place? It seems more reasonable to think that He values free will in man, so much that he would allow the possibility of abuse rather than withhold the gift.

Third, Apostle John writes,”Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” The context suggests that John is alluding to the mystery of the Triune God, who is Love, and a child of God is so perfected in Love that he cannot and does not sin, because it is against his nature, just as it is against the nature of God Himself to sin. A passive will is inconsistent with Love, which requires the active participation of all one’s being.

Christ reconciles man to God in and through Himself, who is fully man and fully God. His life and testimony on earth gives us a glimpse of that life which God has prepared for His children, and which they possess partly in this age, but fully in the age to come. God’s Love and grace underlies the very nature and life of a Christian, is also evident from the testimony of Apostle Paul.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

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2 thoughts on “Institutes of the Christian Religion: Grace and Free Will

  1. I wonder if some of this doesn’t lie behind the concern of many Protestants to be ‘in the will’ of God, spending a lot of time discerning what ‘God’s will is’ and suchlike — desiring to be passively led by Grace rather than freely choosing.

    1. The Christian life can be compared to marriage. When a person is single, he is free to choose and do whatever and whenever he likes, when he is in a loving relationship, he is also free, to choose whatever is best for him and his better half. The latter comes with personal experience and spiritual growth, and cannot be effected by catechism alone. I’m not sure if that addresses your concern, but that’s one way to look at it.

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