THE INCOMPATIBILITY OF FREEWILL AND THE NEW BIRTH

Professors who proudly proclaim themselves "fundamentalists" put a very high premium on "being born again." To them it is more than a doctrine; it is also something a sinner must do in order to be saved. Steps the sinner must take in order to have the new birth include recognizing one is a sinner in the first place, then repenting of sin, and then accepting the gift of life Jesus Christ offers to the sinner. Wham! If a person is willing to follow these steps he will be born again. It's as simple as that. Anyone can do it. In the course of dialogue on this subject, whether the conversation leads to an introduction of the term or not it becomes quite clear that the underlying assumption is that a man has freewill. Regeneration and freewill are seen as inseparable. The steps a person must take to be born again go hand in hand with his freewill ability.

It never seems to occur to fundamentalists how incompatible freewill and regeneration are to one another. Let me explain.

Christ introduced in conversation with Nicodemus terminology that had never been used before. He said: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God;" and again, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3.3,5). Further, He stated: "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again" (verse 7). Three places during this dialogue He spoke of being born again (or, more accurately translated, born from above). Observe that in none of the three places did Christ command a man to get born again. Rather, He taught that for a person to see or enter into God's kingdom, something must happen. He must be born from above. This is a statement of fact. It is not a command.

People who develop theologies that lay out steps unregenerate souls must follow can rightly be charged with "getting the cart before the horse." They refer to fruits produced by God's Spirit and make them the rules that must be followed in order to become born again. I'll illustrate. One of the steps often cited that a person must take in order to have the new birth is he must believe. However, when Paul listed the fruits of the Spirit, he cited faith as one of those fruits (Galatians 5.22). In short, faith is not something a person does to get the Spirit. Faith is something a person has as a result of the Spirit. To make faith the producer of the new birth is to get the whole thing backward. The new birth is actually what produces faith. For example, an apple is a fruit that grows from a tree, but whoever heard of a tree growing from an apple? One may as well believe a tree grows from an apple as to believe faith produces the Spirit.

Jesus drew a clear division between two different sorts of births: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3.6). Paul described the distinctive nature of the two as well: "they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8.5).

What is born of flesh results from the life a person has in Adam. It should be clear from scripture that this birth is insufficient to make a person fit to enter into God's kingdom. Listen to scripture. By the one man, Adam, "sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." Through him came the judgment to condemnation, and though his disobedience his posterity was made sinners (Romans 5.12, 18, 19). So, David acknowledged what the birth of the flesh meant when he wrote: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51.5).

Here is the result of being formed and conceived in sin: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like, and Paul declared "that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5.19-21). Further, Paul cited an Old Testament passage to prove the point, that, whether Jew or Gentile, "There is none righteous, no, not one," and from that one verse, he proceeded to refer to other texts that proved men in nature neither understand nor seek God; they go astray; they are unprofitable; none do good; their speech is unclean, deceitful, poisonous, and full of cursing and bitterness; they are violent, destructive, and engage in strife; and finally, they have no fear of God (Romans 3.9-18). Still further, Paul labeled our sinful condition as "dead in trespasses and sins" and described this condition in this manner: "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others" (Ephesians 2.1-4). Therefore, it is no wonder the Bible describes the state of man's nature as a state of alienation and enmity against God (Colossians 1.21). As such, the biblical doctrine of man's depravity is completely contrary to the doctrine of free will. Consider the following two verses: "the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8.7-8), and "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Corinthians 2.14). These two texts leave only the conclusion that if a person could do the good he would not and if he would do the good he could not. If his will is so free as is often supposed, let him change from his ungodly state of nature to a godly state by an act of will. Let him choose to do what the scriptures say he does not and cannot do. Let him choose to seek and understand God. Let him redirect his course so that he is no longer unprofitable or gone astray. Let him clean up the way he talks. Let him follow the path of peace. Let him gain the fear of God. Let him not follow after the course of this world. While in the flesh, let him abandon minding the things of the flesh and start minding the things of the Spirit. Let his carnal mind no longer be at enmity against God, and rather than seeing spiritual things as foolishness, let him receive them. Let him do all of these things by an act of will, but note this, if he does so he will be acting completely contrary to his own sinful nature.

Suppose for a moment man's will is free. What purpose then is served by the heavenly birth? He should not need to be born again. He should be able to see and enter the heavenly kingdom by virtue of the choices he makes. If it is reckoned an unregenerate person can turn about to hate sin to the point where he seeks God, chooses Him, loves Him, and trusts Him, has he not at that same point ceased to be alienated against God? Yet, those who combine freewill with the new birth are teaching that a person can choose God and be alienated against Him at the same time. The doctrine of scripture teaches none seek God; the doctrine of free will teaches men can. The doctrine of scripture teaches the carnal mind is an enemy of God; the doctrine of freewill teaches men with carnal minds can submit to the law of God. The doctrine of scripture teaches they that are in the flesh cannot please God; the doctrine of freewill argues they can. The doctrine of scripture teaches the natural man neither does nor can know the things of God's Spirit; the doctrine of freewill teaches that if he tries he surely can.

We have been considering what it is to be born of the flesh as Christ spoke and what it is to mind the things of the flesh as Paul wrote. When one seriously considers what comes from the fleshly birth it should be evident that it is contradictory to hold that freewill and the new birth go hand in hand.

Now, let's consider what fruits the Spirit produces. Paul gave a listing of these fruits: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Galatians 5.22-23). If freewill can produce in the natural man any of these fruits, let it do so, but mark again, if the natural man can produce these fruits on his own, there will be no need for the new birth.

Also consider, if freewill be true the Old Covenant, with its grand promises, would still reign. The Israelites were given the promise of life (Leviticus 18.5). The nation was promised greatness above all of the nations. It would be prosperous and safe from all its enemies (Deuteronomy 28.1-12). However, this covenant had two major flaws. One, the people to whom this covenant was given was a part of the Adamic, sinful race. Two, the same people had to meet conditions in order to receive these promises, and yes, that required them to make choices. Before Moses died the people were told: "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" (Deuteronomy 30.19). This text is often quoted to support the freewill notion that God has laid before men conditions they must meet in order to receive God's blessings. I reckon this is a good text for anyone holding this view to use. I will not argue the point that this is what Israel was told. What I find interesting is that in using this text in this way it is tantamount to taking a person back to the same law that was abandoned by the Spirit-taught apostles of Christ. Peter said it well when those in the early church insisted the Gentiles disciples keep the law. He said: "why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they" (Acts 15.10-11). Mark this. The Gentiles could not be saved by meeting conditions given by Moses no more than the Jews could. Herein is the problem. Neither Jews nor Gentiles, due to their natural state of enmity against God, can satisfy God by meeting conditions, so, human compliance shall never result in receiving God's grand promises. Those who today want to use what was set before Israel as a choice between life and death, blessing and cursing are really going back to the same Law the early Church rejected as the way of salvation. In fact, Deuteronomy 30.19 should be seen by Christians in the light of Paul's words: "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster" (Galatians 3.24-25). One should count the Law as something God imposed upon a people for a season to prove it had no saving force, and, therefore, should be abandoned for something better.

Even in the midst of the conditions under the first covenant something different, consistent with the internal work of the new birth, was proclaimed: "the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live" (Deuteronomy 30.6). Notice love results from this internal work. Jeremiah spoke in the same manner when he referred to another covenant that was different from the one Israel broke. It had these provisions: "I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31.31-34). Notice now God's laws were not written upon tables of stone for the people to follow or reject, but now the laws were within the heart to ensure they would be followed. Ezekiel echoed the same truth: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them" (Ezekiel 36.25-27). Notice obedience springs from this inner cleansing.

The language of Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel is consistent with the work that occurs inwardly in the child of God. Under terms of this covenant the people are obedient not because they meet conditions but because God works within them. Man's free choices were not spoken of as the basis for this internal work. The wordings are consistent with the New Testament doctrine of the new birth.

To ensure that we do not disallow Gentiles from this internal work, let us cite Paul's words: "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Romans 3.28-29). In short, all persons who have the Spirit's internal work, whether Jew or Gentile, are among those who have the work of grace.

Mankind's so-called freewill cannot and does not accomplish what the Lord achieves when He quickens an alien sinner while he is dead in sins, saves him by grace, provides him with the gift of faith, and makes him "his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that" he "should walk in them" (Ephesians 2.1,5,8, 10).

Mark the fact we are created in Christ Jesus. This same Jesus came into the world that He had made but notice the irony: "the world knew him not." Notice further: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." So, whether Gentile or Jew, they had this in common. They had nothing to do with the One who made the world. Notice further: "But as many as received him." Here, John restates the case. There were some who did receive Him. What about them? "To them gave he power to become the sons of GOD." They are manifest in this way: "even to them that believe on his name." To read the whole text one cannot rightly surmise that believers received Him by freewill. Rather they received Him (past tense) because (past tense) He had already given them power to become children of God. They came to Him in that power. Notice further how this work resulted from the will of God, not from the will of man: "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1.10-13).

The new birth is a work that is completely in the Lord's good hands. It's like the wind. We don't control it. It blows wherever it wills, and we cannot keep it from blowing or make it blow, or direct it where we want it to blow. With this in mind, remember what Jesus had said to Nicodemus: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3.8).

Old School Baptists may have heard this line so many times it may seem a bit trite to repeat but it remains nonetheless true. As one has nothing to do with his natural birth, it is just as true he has nothing to do with his spiritual birth. We'll leave the matter there and reject the notion freewill and the new birth are compatible.

David K. Mattingly
April 2005