The theologians behind the Westminster Confession said something that was curious, and it was this: They did not want to say that God’s absolute sovereignty was merely consistent with the liberty of creaturely will, but rather that God’s sovereignty was what established the liberty of that will. God does not offer violence to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (WCF 3.1).
In order to understand this rightly, we have to be careful to define our terms carefully. What do we mean by the freedom of the will exactly?
“Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matt. 12:33-35).
Summary of the Text
Jesus begins by noting that the nature of the tree determines the nature of the fruit. Good tree > good fruit. In the same way, if the tree is corrupt, then it follows that the fruit will be corrupt as well. Bad tree > bad fruit. Because this is the case, we are encouraged to reason from the fruit to the tree. The Lord then calls them a generation of vipers, poisonous snakes, and says that what comes out of their fangs will be venom and not sweet water. In this first comparison, the words a man speaks are the fruit, and the heart of that same man is the tree. The contents of the heart determine the contents of the speech. The Lord then switches to a third example. You can only take out of a chest that which was already in the chest. A good man has a good treasure chest for a heart, and consequently good choices come out. A bad man has evil treasure, and this is what determines what can be taken out.
In evangelical circles, there are two differing definitions of freedom that are common. One definition says that free will is the “power of contrary choice.” In other words, take that moment when you were standing at the crossroads, deciding whether to go right or to go left. This definition says that at two different times, with all the antecedent circumstances being the identical, you had the full and complete ability to go either right or to go left.
The other view—and incidentally, the one the Lord was assuming in the text—is that a man is free to choose whatever his heart wants. He is free when he is not externally constrained. You choose what it was that you wanted, and what you wanted was determined by your nature. There are complicated examples of this principle, but there are also very simple examples.
If Smith points a gun at Jones and tells him to take the road to the right, then Jones is not free. But if Jones goes down that road because he loves the view that way, and detests the view on the other way, and has loved and detested them for as long as he can remember, his choice being constrained by nothing other than his desires, then we would say that his choice is unconstrained.
Now if you were to hold your breath right now, and were to do so for over a minute, would you want to breathe? Would the fact that God created your lungs and gave them to you keep that desire to breathe from being yours? Not a bit of it. You choose to breathe, and you choose to breathe because you want to. You want to because that innate desire was a gift to you from God. Some people reason that this desire couldn’t really be yours if it was given to you by God. Others, and we should be among them, should reason that if God gave it to us, then it must be ours.
The Metal Hand Will
So picture one of those games at the fair where a glass bin is full of not very expensive teddy bears, and there is a metal hand there, a metal grappling hook, that the carnie will let you manipulate for fifty cents. The human will is that grappling hook. It has no power to determine or alter the contents of the bin. Its only power is that of identifying “the largest teddy bear.”
Our choices do not decide for us. Our choices reveal us. If what they reveal is unsavory or unflattering, then we are driven to turn to the only one who can do anything to help us.
Think About It for Another Moment
Suppose the elders were to confront a straying member who was getting drunk every weekend. They asked him to explain his behavior, and suppose that he said that every weekend, his strongest desire was to read his Bible and go to church. Instead “mysterious forces” would land him in the bars. But he should not be faulted because what he really wanted to do was study Leviticus.
The reply would be that his will revealed what his strongest desire was. The ability to choose contrary to what you want is not liberty, but rather insanity. “Why did you throw the vase against the wall?” “Because I wanted to go for a walk in the garden.”
Transformation occurs when the contents of the heart are changed. Transformation across a series of decisions occurs when we do things that the Holy Spirit uses to alter the contents of our hearts. He alters it radically in conversion, and then steadily over the course of our sanctification through the various means of grace that He has appointed.
The Plain Necessity of the New Birth
If you could repent and believe with your old heart, then you would not really need a new heart. If you could love Jesus with your old heart, then you didn’t really need for Jesus to give you a new heart.
Our foundational problem, apart from Christ, is therefore not what we do, but rather what we are. What we do does matter, but in the sense that our actions reveal what we are. And this should drive us to adore God’s kindness, for we know that we have no control over our nature. Apart from Christ, we think we have full control over our actions, like the kid playing with a plastic steering wheel in the back of a shopping cart.
God gives us new eyes and then we see. God gives us ears, and it is then that we begin to hear. God gives us a heart that loves Him, and so we turn away from sin in disgust, and toward Him with true affection.