Free will. It's like butterfly wings: once touched, they never get off the ground.
A question that comes up often has to do with "free will." Do humans have a free will? What does that mean?
Cliff's Notes version: Yes ... and No.
Yes, if by a free will one means the capacity to make choices or to choose what one wants.
No, if by a free will one means the capacity to make choices free of propensity or influence.
Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will says it best, but I also love Martin Luther's Bondage of the Will. Though the titles sounds diametrically opposed, they essentially say the same thing. I recommend both, but suggest Luther first, being the more accessible to the common man, like me.
To "sum up" Edwards (in all humility, an impossibility), a person is free to choose that which he or she wants. However, he or she must choose that which he or she wants. In other words, the person's choices are limited and the person must choose that which is the strongest inclination at the time of decision.
"A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires contrary to his will."
-Edwards, Freedom of the Will
An illustration ...
If I'm on the Atkins diet again tomorrow I will be faced with a decision when I notice that 1/2 gallon of Bluebell Cookies & Cream in the freezer. Whether I go hungry or enjoy the best ice cream in the country is a choice I make. But it's a determined choice. It's determined by my strongest inclination at the moment of decision. If my desire to drop some weight is stronger, I close the door. If my affection for ice cream wins out, then I make a dent in the carton.
A depraved and unregenerate person's problem is not the will per se, which is just the decision-making faculty, but rather the heart is the problem. Because the heart is evil, it will only choose evil.
Because people love the darkness (John 3:19-20), they will only have the (moral) ability to choose the darkness and they won't come to Christ because He is not perceived as lovely, for they hate the light.
When we share Christ with someone, we give them an option, someone in whom to believe, but they will not really be free to embrace that option until they have been regenerated to have a new heart that loves God and hates sin.
Long my imprisoned spirit layThis is the nature of depravity and the reason God must give "eyes to see" and "ears to hear," for people in a natural state cannot (i.e., ability) understand the things of the Spirit. (1 Cor 2:14) Until that time, Christianity looks foolish and Christ is not perceived as worthy of faith & trust.
fast bound in sin and nature's night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke. The dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off.
My heart was free.
I rose, went forth,
and followed Thee.
-Charles Wesley, "And Can It Be?"
Again, an illustration ...
In my present state there is no desire to eat green beans. They appear repulsive and I can barely tolerate to have them in my presence. They are clearly made of Kryptonite. Now, on the one hand, I have the natural ability to eat green beans, but I will never do so because I don't want to. Since I don't want to, in that sense I cannot. It would take a tongue transplant and perhaps a brain transplant to really put green beans in the realm of realistic options for me. My taste buds and food processing faculties would need to be regenerated.
So, in one sense the will is free. God's not doing anything to the will of those who reject Christ. They reject Him ... willingly. At the same time, those who come to Christ do so not out of compulsion as though they were forced, but because they desire to do so after having their eyes opened to see the beauty & majesty of the Lord.
Until a new heart is given (Ezek 36:26-27), they will always willingly reject Christ (though they might be persuaded to do some outward act of acquiescence like walking an aisle or raising a hand, etc.).
In that sense, the will is not free because the creature will not choose Christ, hence he/she cannot choose Christ. Because they do not want Him, they will not choose Him.
There is a cause to each effect and there cannot be a causeless cause. Which means there's a reason (at least one) for every decision made and no decisions are made apart from influence.
Incidentally, this is why we can say that every choice is determined, but also that every choice is freely made. It's determined by the heart (which can be guided by God as He wills (Prov 21:1), but made by the creature as a result.
"The choice of the mind never departs from that which, at that time, and with respect to the direct and immediate objects of that decision of the mind, appears most agreeable and pleasing, all things considered."Thus, the myth of free will is that humans can come to Christ on their own accord, by their own desire. They cannot (John 6:44). They cannot because they will not because they have no desire to do so.
-Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will
Consequently, we labor in love for people to respond to Christ, but we humbly rely on the Spirit to enable them to see Christ as He is revealed to be altogether lovely in the Gospel, and worthy of faith, love, and obedient devotion.
When I Survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died.
My richest gain, I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all!