Jabez Burns, “Conversation on the Freedom of the Human Will”

, posted by K.W. Leslie

This comes from Jabez Burns’s 1849 book Doctrinal Conversations.

INQUIRER. “What do we understand by ‘free will’?”

MINISTER. “A will that can determine for or against what is proposed to it. The opposite of a will (if the thing is not a contradiction in terms) which is under the necessity of acting only in one given way.”

INQUIRER. “What illustrations can you give for better understanding this doctrine?”

MINISTER. “When we look at the physical universe, we perceive that inanimate matter is inert and unconscious, and is acted upon by physical laws, and cannot resist the influence of those laws.

“We perceive that the inferior creatures are governed by instinct, and are ever obedient to its laws. But man, invested with reason, has the power or faculty of choice, and can obey or disobey the moral laws when propounded to him.”

INQUIRER. “But can man’s will act independently of God’s will—and in opposition to it?”

MINISTER. “Most assuredly. Or there could be no sin in the world. All sin is the contravening of God’s will, and disobedience to it. God’s laws are the reflections of his holy, just, and good mind. Sin is the violation of these laws, and therefore must be opposed to God’s mind and will.”

INQUIRER. “But supposing our first parents to have had freedom of will—has not sin destroyed that power in their depraved posterity?”

MINISTER. “If so, it has destroyed their responsibility. Now observe: Our first parents were holy, yet they had power to will evil, and did so; and thus fell from their first estate of dignity and bliss. Now what reason have we to suppose that after the fall they did not repent, and will a humble return to God, and faith in the provided remedy for their sin? It is clear that Abel did so will, and equally clear Cain might have done so.” [Gen 4.2–7]

INQUIRER. “But is not the will always governed by the most powerful motives presented to it?”

MINISTER. “No; for if so, the motive God presented to our first parents was vastly more powerful than the one suggested by Satan. And in all cases surely the motive of eternal salvation is more powerful than the mere present pleasures of sin; and yet how men are governed by the latter, and not by the former.”

INQUIRER. “But is it not inconsistent to suppose there to be more than one absolutely free will in the universe—that of God, and that of his creatures?”

MINISTER. “Not at all—if God permits it to be so. Is it not equally inconsistent that there should be sin and holiness, evil and good? Besides, we know for certainty that what devils and fallen men will, is opposed to what the pure and blessed God wills; and therefore two opposite wills do exist in the universe.”

INQUIRER. “Yes, perhaps that is true… but can the sinner will otherwise than evil?”

MINISTER. “When truth is brought to bear on his understanding and judgment, and motives presented to his conscience and affections, he evidently can.”

INQUIRER. “What proof have you of this, unless God by his almighty power renew his will?—in other words, make him willing?”

MINISTER. “God always addresses men as having this power. ‘I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.’ [Deut 30.19] This passage is only one of a multitude of scriptures conveying the same clear and distinct ideas of the freedom of the human will. [See Deut 11.26-28, 30.15-16, Psa 81.13, Isa 48.18, Matt 23.37, John 5.40.] God’s commands, exhortations, entreaties, and expostulations mean nothing at all unless man’s conduct may be influenced by them. From God’s essential unchanging nature he can only will holiness, as that is in perfect harmony with his nature. Devils, so far as we know, having no motives for repentance but being justly left to the choice of evil they made, can only will evil. But man, who is still on probation, and has both evil and good presented to him, can will either. He can choose rebellion and death—or repentance and life. Hence God affectionately says, ‘Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, for why will ye die?’ [Eze 33.11]

“Now if God must exercise irresistibly on the mind before the sinner can turn, then the sinner is a mere machine and not a free agent; and as there is no virtue in such an act performed upon him, so neither can there be any sin in not repenting when the compelling power is withheld.”

INQUIRER. “What other arguments can you advance to support the freedom of the will?”

MINISTER. “First, man’s consciousness. All men feel that they are free. Hence there is inward self-condemnation when evil is chosen rather than good.

“Secondly men treat each other as free. They never allow men to plead the law of necessity for their evil conduct. All laws therefore, whether divine or human, proceed on the assumed freedom of man’s will.

“Thirdly, it is this that invests the future judgment with all its solemnity. Men feel and conclude that they will then be treated as responsible persons, who could have done good and avoided the evil. And therefore their final condemnation and punishment will meet with the distinct assent of their own consciences.

“Fourthly if men are not free then all men are just, and equally doing neither more nor less than what God has resolved they shall do—a conclusion at once subversive of all morality, accountability, and religion.”

INQUIRER. “But does not the doctrine of free will invalidate the doctrine of divine grace?”

MINISTER. “Not in the least, but is in perfect agreement with it. For unless God had in his rich mercy provided for man’s restoration, his condition would have been as hopeless as that of the fallen angels. Unless God brings the truth to bear on man’s mind, he can never choose between truth and error. Unless God warns and invites the sinner, he can never avoid evil, nor determine on the good. The capacity to will is conferred by God. Being placed in a state of probation, in which the will can be exercised, is the result of God’s longsuffering and forbearance towards us. So that God’s glory is in nowise, nor in any degree impugned, by the doctrine of the freedom of the human will.

“On the other hand the doctrine of a necessitated will, seems alike at variance with the divine equity, goodness, and moral government; and altogether opposed to man’s responsible character. It is clear that, whenever the gospel is preached, whosoever will may hear, and hearing may understand God’s mind as thus revealed. That whosoever will may repent and turn from sin. Whosoever will may receive the pardoning mercy of God, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And thus, that whosoever will need not perish, but have everlasting life.

“In the last great day, God will not punish the ungodly because they could not, but because they would not come to him and have life.

INQUIRER. “I am forcibly impressed by the statements you have now made, but how is it so many great and learned men—such for instance as the gigantic Jonathan Edwards and a host of others—should have held the doctrine of a necessitated will?”

MINISTER. “That may be a very difficult question, and will equally apply to every controverted truth, for I am not aware of any doctrine connected with Christianity which cannot muster an array of learned names, both for and against. But if you would desire to see more on this question, I advise you to read a most complete vindication of the freedom of the will, by Professor Mahan of Oberlin, United States; and a sermon by Rev. Eli Noyes, M.A., of Boston, U.S. […] Thoroughly investigate this subject and make yourself master of it, and all your anxieties produced by Calvinian influences will be permanently removed.”