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 The Principles of Theology - Article 10

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< The History of the Article

Part 3. The Question Stated

There are few things on which clearness is more needed than on the subject of free will. For our present purpose it does not mean the absence of restraint from without, or perfect freedom of action, nor does it refer to the liberty of the believer, his freedom in Christ (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 5:1). In the present connection it means the power of choice which enables a man to determine the course of his action. Man sees certain ends and chooses between them. Motives impel, but do not compel. The man selects what he desires, so that he is free to use his liberty aright, and the abuse of his freedom constitutes a sin. There are two functions of the will: (a) choice, and (b) volition. The former refers to selection, and by itself accomplishes nothing; the latter refers to energy, by which the thing selected is accomplished. Human freedom belongs primarily to choice, because volition may be impracticable, yet even so choice has its limitations and loss. Freedom does not mean ability to choose anything at any time. Free will therefore means the freedom of the soul in choosing, enabling it to determine conscious action. The doctrine of the will as to the choosing is equivalent to the doctrine of the man. In this sense our freedom is real and the Fall has not affected it. We are conscious of it by our sense of responsibility. All denial of free will in this meaning must lead either to fatalism, which ends in materialism, or to an extreme mysticism, which involves such a contemplation of God as to leave for self a sort of Christian pantheism, or absorption into God. Fallen man has the faculty of will, as he has other faculties, and if he is free from external compulsion he must will what he pleases to do. But this does not prove that he has the power to do anything and everything that comes before him. Man’s receptivity is real, but it needs to be purified and quickened by grace before it can fully discharge its functions. We have a capacity for redemption, but not the capability to redeem ourselves. It is not the bare capacity to receive, but the positive desire to do so that is needed. Freedom is thus opposed to servitude and implies the apprehension of various courses of action. It consists in choosing between possible alternative acts. Reason is, therefore, at the root of liberty, and as far as the reason discerns the good (or what is thought good) the will by nature chooses it. Volo ergo sum, “I will, therefore I am,” is decidedly truer than cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Freedom is thus an ultimate fact.

“Freedom is a point upon which we can allow no shuffling or juggling in argument. It is unique, but it is self-evident; and every attempt to explain it away can be shown to involve a petitio principii.” [1]

Our full freedom is limited to a few cases. There seem to be three main choices: (1) ultimate choice, the selection of an end which becomes permanent for life; (2) subordinate choice, the choice of means towards ends; (3) supreme choice, the choice of the highest ultimate, either God or self. Freedom is exerted mainly in regard to the first and third of these. To the first belongs character, which introduces the element of fixity into human life. It is in our character that our sins are rooted.

And yet will is not self-originating, but only chooses what it thinks is good and possible. It only reflects the το αὐτεξούσιον of the Creator, and it was in this respect that the Reformers felt led to deny freedom. Free will is a mode, not a source of action. [2] Behind the will is the nature, and as is the nature so is the will. Moral inability is thus due to the corruption of nature. Yet even so, on these motives, the will has certain powers of self-determination, and it is this that makes corruption possible. This corruption may be (1) the obscuration of the reasonable apprehension of good; (2) the succession of acts which tend to establish habit.

It is, of course, a great mystery how God knows and orders everything and yet leaves man free. These, however, are the two facts which need to be emphasised and kept ever in view even though they cannot be reconciled. Meanwhile, because of the provision of Christ there is no moral injustice, since Divine grace more than meets human weakness and inability.

Grace is perhaps the greatest word of the New Testament and of God’s revelation in Christ, because it is the most truly expressive of God’s character and attitude in relation to man. The root seems to mean “to give pleasure,” and then it branches out comprehensively in two directions: one in relation to the Giver; the other in relation to the receiver of the pleasure. Grace is, first, a quality of graciousness in the Giver, and then, a quality of gratitude in the recipient, which in turn makes him gracious to those around.

But the idea has two distinct yet connected aspects even when applied only to God the Giver.

1. It expresses the Divine attitude to man as guilty and condemned. Grace means God’s favour and good will towards us (Luke 1:30). So the Mother of our Lord is described as “permanently favoured” (“graced,” Luke 1:28). This favour is manifested without any regard to merit; indeed, grace and merit are entire opposites. Grace is thus spontaneous (not prompted from outside); free (no conditions are required); generous (no stint is shown); and abiding (no cessation is experienced). It is also (as favour) opposed to “wrath,” which means judicial displeasure against sin. Further, it must be distinguished from mercy, even though mercy is one of the methods of its expression. Mercy is related to misery, and to those who are (negatively) non-deserving. Grace is related to redemption and to those who are (positively) undeserving.

2. It then expresses the Divine action to man as needy and helpless. Grace means not merely favour, but also help; not only benevolence, but also benefaction; not simply feeling, but also force; not solely good will, but also good work. It is Divine favour expressed in and proved by His gift; attitude shown by action. Thus from grace comes gift, which invariably implies a gift of or by grace (Rom. 5:15; 1 Cor. 4:6; Rom. 12:6).

These two ideas are thus connected and united as Cause and Effect. They tell of God’s Heart and God’s Hand. Etymologically, therefore, Grace is a term that refers to the beautiful, which gives delight. Theologically, it means God’s favour as seen in His gift. Practically, it implies God’s presence and redemptive power in human life. Blending all these aspects we may think of Grace as God’s spontaneous gift, which causes pleasure and produces blessing. Hort defines grace as “free bounty,” and, as such, it produces “joy and is the cause of actual power in daily living.”

In relation to the will, grace implies (1) the illumination of the moral nature; (2) a counteractive power against habit; (3) new motives; (4) by contact, healing, and strength. It is at this point that we may perhaps regret the omission of the Tenth Article of 1553, “Of Grace,” which was omitted in 1563, as presumably not required. But it may be well, however, to quote it in order to see more definitely what grace does in relation to the human will.

Of Grace
The grace of Christ, or the Holy Ghost by Him given doth take away the stony heart, and giveth an heart of flesh. And although, those that have no will to good things, He maketh them to will, and those that would evil things, He maketh them not to will the same: yet nevertheless He enforceth not the will. And therefore no man when he sinneth can excuse himself, as not worthy to be blamed or condemned, by alleging that he sinned unwillingly or by compulsion.
De Gratia
Gratia Christi, seu Spiritus Sanctus qui per eundem datur, cor lapideum aufert, et dat cor carneum. Atque licet ex nolentibus quæ recta sunt volentes faciat, et ex volentibus prava, nolentes reddat, voluntati nihilominus violentiam nullam infert. Et nemo hac de causa cum peccaverit, seipsum excusare potest, quasi nolens aut coactus peccaverit, ut eam ob causam accusari non mereatur aut damnari.

The question of the relation of the human will to the Divine is one of great difficulty and profound mystery, but the following points seem to be fairly clear: (1) God at the beginning created man and endowed him with a will, so that although man acts as a “first cause” he is not one absolutely, for he is a first cause only in a secondary way. (2) God created man a holy being and with a will inclined to Him only. Then the weakness of a finite nature rendered man fallible, and under the influence of temptation Adam fell from his estate of holiness, sinfulness thus entering the world as the perversion of a life originally upright. (3) While Divine grace never compels souls, it frequently changes them for the better, for God creates man anew in righteousness. Such a transformation is altogether consistent with free agency, because it does not destroy, but only renews and thereby aids man’s will.

This question of grace in relation to human life is of particular importance today, because from two separate quarters its need and power tend to be questioned and even denied. On the one hand, science tends to deny the possibility of grace. On the other, fiction either idealises human life or else leads men to despair by emphasising the impossibility of forgiveness. So that emphasis on grace is of special value against science with its teaching of a gradual evolution and improvement of human nature, and also against fiction, which idealises human nature and thereby denies the needs of grace. In reality modern thought can find no fault with the teaching of this Article, since everything tends to show the continuity of individual life and to lay stress on the importance of heredity. The Article is of particular value in opposition to the really shallow conception that “a man can reform himself at any time if he will only make up his mind.” To say this is to ignore some of the plainest facts of human experience, and in particular the real power of habit. The statement sometimes made that a child just entering upon a vague sense of right and wrong is able to stem the current of his innate impulses is not worthy of serious consideration. Everything tends to show that the doctrine of original sin has a solid foundation in the facts of human nature. There is in every human being a tendency to sin antecedent to the act of the conscious and mature man. It is at this point that Christianity comes in with its message of grace, and it is that the Article emphasises both in regard to what is called “pre-venient grace” and “co-operating grace.” Whatever mystery there may be in theories and philosophies, when we approach the subject through personal experience we see abundant evidence of the truth of those statements, already quoted from our Collects, that “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves,” and for this reason “without Thee we are not able to please Thee.”


>> Introduction to Article 11 (to be added)




[1] Illingworth, Personality Human and Divine, p. 107.
[2] “Since the Fall, man is free to choose, and for that reason is accountable. … He is free to choose, in so far as no foreign will can irresistibly constrain him to will against his own will. He is not free, in so far as within his own personality the sin which has been allowed by himself rules and enslaves his will (Delitzsch, Biblical Psychology, p. 193).



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Article 10

>> Introduction

>> The Teaching of the Article

>> The History of the Article

>> The Question Stated

Content of The Principles

>> Index

>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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