I was in a Bible study recently and some were saying people aren’t robots or puppets, therefore, it follows that Calvinism and its teaching about people’s will is wrong. How would you respond?


This is a common charge against those who misunderstand Reformed Theology. When properly understood, it can be seen Calvinism doesn’t teach that people are mere "puppets on a string" or that God made us just human robots. Such charges fail to understand that while Calvinists believe in irresistible grace, it is a loving gift God gives to us. This grace flows from within and is not coerced from without. So, God’s will changes a person from the inside out. His will precedes and renews our will, but it does not destroy our will. There are no outward strings or robotic remote controls involved. Grace alone is all that is needed.

With the Fall, man did not lose his will or intellect. But his will did fall along with the rest of his person. He didn’t just become sick, he became spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3), is hostile to God, and does not submit to God's law; indeed, he cannot submit to God's law or please God (Rom. 8:7-8). The Holy Spirit keeps the lost from being as evil as they could be, but they still do not seek God’s glory in all they say or do; they are sinners (Rom. 3:23). Something needs to happen to a person before being willing to accept Christ. God irresistibly calls (John 6:44, 65) and regenerates them (John 3:1-7). Regeneration is an act of God within a person where they are spiritually revived, healed, reformed, and made alive by grace alone. Once regenerated they are no longer dead and they are able and willing to confess their sin and believe in Jesus. The confession of sin and exercise of faith is called conversion.

Stating it in another way, there is an "order of salvation" — predestination/election, irresistible calling, regeneration (born-again), and then conversion (faith repentance). After a person is lovingly called, God sovereignly renews their hearts (regeneration – John 3:1-7). After God renews their heart, they become willing to choose what God has predestined before the foundation of the world to his glory (Eph. 1:3-4). Therefore, after regeneration they willingly repent and choose Christ by faith (conversion – Rom. 10:9-10). So, in reference to the will, once again we observe a work of the Holy Spirit from within as opposed to a compulsion from without.

This is biblical and what true Calvinism has always taught. The Canons of Dort written in 1618-19 highlight this truth:

Article 16 - Man’s Will Not Taken Away but Made Alive

Man through his fall did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will; and sin, which has pervaded the whole human race, did not deprive man of his human nature, but brought upon him depravity and spiritual death. (Rom 8:2; Eph 2:1) So also this divine grace of regeneration does not act upon men as if they were blocks and stones and does not take away the will and its properties, or violently coerce it, but makes the will spiritually alive, heals it, corrects it, pleasantly and at the same time powerfully bends it. (Ps 51:12; Phil 2:13) As a result, where formerly the rebellion and resistance of the flesh fully dominated, now a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit begins to prevail, in which the true, spiritual renewal and freedom of our will consists. And if the wonderful Maker of all good did not deal with us in this way, man would have no hope of rising from his fall through this free will, by which he, when he was still standing, plunged himself into ruin.

A charge that Reformed Theology teaches a puppet or robot theology is false. It misunderstands the doctrines of salvation, man’s will, and predestination.

This said, we have to be careful about the use of the term “free-will.” In my experience, most understand the term to mean that man, in and of himself, has an absolute will to do whatever he desires. This simply isn’t true. For instance, you can’t become God just by willing it. And with regards to salvation, one can’t will to be saved without God doing his inward work first. As Paul wrote, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

To avoid confusion, instead of "free will" I use the term “free-agency,” meaning man’s will can only will those things that are consistent with his nature. (Please see “Do human beings have free-will?” below.) Man is made in God’s image. But even God’s will is limited by his holy nature. By virtue of being God, he can’t will to sin, die, or make a rock so big that he can’t move as none of these things are consistent with his nature. (Please see “Things God Can't Do?” below.)

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Do human beings have free-will?
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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).