QUESTION: Has sin totally corrupted us? What about our free will? Are we not able to choose between good and evil?
Icannot answer your three questions in this short column. In fact, the topics of the effect of sin on us and the nature of free will have been studied and discussed for centuries, with no unanimity of thinking. I will share some thoughts to stimulate your thinking. Let me begin with a paradox: The Bible assumes that we have free will but teaches that we are en-slaved by sin. Hold on to that paradox and think about it.
1. Enslaved by Sin: The fall of Adam and Eve into sin radically altered human nature. The very rational and volitional center of the human being, the heart, was corrupted: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9, NIV).* The damage is irreparable; humans are not only incapable of understanding themselves, they also deceive themselves. No dimension of human nature is untouched by sin; therefore no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10) or by nature seeks God (Ps. 53:2, 3; Eph. 2:1-3). Sin is a human condition. Isaiah wrote: “All of us have become like one who is unclean [this is our natural condition], and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags [our actions]” (64:6, NIV); even the best of them are contaminated by our sinful condition. There is a natural enmity in the human heart against God that incapacitates us from seeking and doing good, or submitting to His will (Rom. 8:7). We are controlled by the selfish sinful desires of our fallen nature (verses 6-8). The situation is desperate because there’s nothing we can do to change it (Jer. 13:23). Humans exist under the lordship of sin, ruled by a despot and unable to do what, perhaps, they would like to do (Rom. 6:16; cf. 7:18-23). Free will?
2. Condition of the Free Will: Let me give you a working definition of free will (don’t take it to the bank!): Free will is the power to choose, independent of internal or external forces or conditions, that which we cannot control. If it’s true that we are enslaved by sin, then it’s difficult to speak about freedom of the will. But if that’s truly the case, it would be impossible to speak about our accountability for our actions. Yet the biblical doctrine of judgment and retribution assumes that we have free will.
We can argue that sin did not obliterate the image of God in us and that, therefore, we do have free will (Rom 3:23). If it’s part of God’s image and of our humanness, then we still have it. But this has to be properly understood. We have free will in a damaged or corrupted condition. The question is How damaged is it?
Let me make a suggestion: Sin redirected the function of the free will from selfless decisions that would benefit others to self-preservation. The situation is such that there is nothing we can do about it. Free will is still under the power of sin!
3. God With Us: If free will is a tool to actualize my selfishness, my corruption, then it’s not free at all, and therefore the question of our accountability has not been resolved. How do we get out of this dilemma? “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25, NIV).
After the Fall, the Son of God did not abandon us (Rev. 13:8). From that moment God has been working in the human heart, calling every individual to true freedom from the power of sin. Through the work of the Spirit, God has been creating in human hearts the desire and willingness to choose the good. This divine common grace engulfs the planet, takes the initiative, touches every individual (John 1:9), and awakens free will, enabling humans to choose Christ or to persist in their enslavement to sin, which is their natural condition. This silent work of the Spirit makes us responsible for our decisions.