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A Letter on Free Will

John Nelson Darby

This fresh breaking out of the doctrine of the free-will ministers to the pretension of the natural man not to be entirely lost, for that is just what it amounts to. All who have never been deeply convicted of sin, all those with whom this conviction is based on gross and outward sins, believe more or less in free-will. You know that it is the dogma of the Wesleyans and all reasoners, of all philosophers; but it completely changes the whole idea of Christianity and entirely perverts it.

If Christ came to save that which is lost, free-will had no more place. Not that God prevents man from receiving Christ, far from it. But when God employs all possible motives, everything that is capable of exerting influence over the heart of man, it only serves to prove that man will have none of it, that his heart is so corrupt, and his will so determined not to submit to God (however much it may be of the devil who encourages him in sin), that nothing can induce him to receive the Lord, and to forsake sin. If, by liberty of man, they mean that no one forces him to reject the Lord, this liberty exists in full. But if it is implied that, on account of the dominion of sin of which he is the slave, and that voluntarily, he cannot escape from his condition, and choose the good—even while acknowledging it to be good, and approving of it—then he has no liberty whatever. He is not subject to the law, neither indeed can be, so that, they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

And this is where we touch most closely on the root of the question. Is it the old man that is changed, instructed and sanctified, or do we, in order to be saved receive a new nature? The universal character of the unbelief of the present day is this: not formally denying Christianity, as in former times, or rejecting Christ openly, but receiving Him as a Person—they will even say divine, inspired (but as a matter of degree)—who re-establishes man in his position as a child of God. The Wesleyans as far as taught of God, do not say that; faith makes them feel that without Christ they are lost, and that it is a question of salvation. Only their fear with regard to pure grace, their desire to gain men, a mixture of charity and of the spirit of man, in a word their confidence in their own strength makes confusion in their teaching, and leads them not to recognize the total ruin of man.

As for me, I see in the Word, and I recognize in myself, the total ruin of man. I see that the cross is the end of all the means that God had employed to gain the heart of man, and consequently, that it proves the thing to be impossible. God has exhausted all His resources; man has shown that he was wicked beyond recovery; the Cross of Christ condemns man—sin in the flesh. But this condemnation having been expressed in that another has undergone it, it is the absolute salvation of those who believe, for condemnation, the judgment of sin is behind us; life came out of it in resurrection. We are dead to sin, and alive to God, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Redemption, the very word, loses its force when we entertain these ideas of the old man. It becomes an amelioration, a practical deliverance from a moral state, and not a redeeming by the finished work of another. Christianity teaches the death of the old man and his just condemnation, then redemption accomplished by Christ, and a new life, eternal life, come down from heaven in His Person, and which is communicated to us when Christ enters into us by the Word. Arminianism, or rather Pelagianism, pretends that man can choose, and that thus the old man is ameliorated by the thing that it has accepted. The first step is made without grace, and it is the first step which truly costs in this case.

I believe that we ought to keep to the Word; but philosophically and morally speaking, free-will is a false and absurd theory. Free-will is a state of sin. Man ought not to have to choose, as being outside of good. Why is he in that state? He ought not to have a will, any choice to make—he ought to obey, and enjoy in peace. If he has to choose good, then he has not got it yet. He is without that which is good in himself, at any rate, since he is not decided. But, in fact, man is disposed to follow that which is evil. What cruelty to propose a duty to man who is already turned to evil. Moreover, philosophically speaking, to choose, he must be indifferent, otherwise he has already chosen as to his will—he must then be absolutely indifferent. Now, if he is absolutely indifferent, what is to decide his choice? A creature must have a motive; but he has none, since he is indifferent; if he is not, he has chosen.

But in fact, it is not so; man has a conscience, but he has a will and lusts, and they lead him. Man was free in paradise, but then he was in the enjoyment of good. He made use of his free-will, and consequently he is a sinner. To leave him to his free-will, now that he is disposed to do evil, would be cruelty. God has presented to him the choice, but it was to convince the conscience of the fact that, in any case, man would have neither good nor God. That people should believe that God loves the world is all right; but that they should not believe that man is in himself wicked beyond remedy (and notwithstanding the remedy) is very bad. They know not themselves and they know not God.

The Lord is coming, the time for the world is passing away. What a blessing! May God find us watching, and thinking only of one thing—of Him about whom God thinks—Jesus, our precious Saviour."