Repentance, Impenitence, Faith & Unbelief
Are Free Will Choices of Men
By Jesse Morrell
An excerpt from, “The Natural Ability of Man: A Study on Free Will & Human Nature.” pages 308-337 To Order: Click Here
Repentance Is Man’s Choice
The first public message that Jesus heralded in public was “repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This was a command to men. Jesus didn’t say that God would repent and believe for them. Jesus didn’t say, wait for God to give you the ability to repent and believe. Jesus commanded them to simply repent and believe immediately. He preached in such a way that we can logically conclude that he assumed that they were capable of doing this.
Jesus said that he came to call sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13). This implies that repentance is a sinner’s choice. If repentance was not their choice, calling them to repent would make no sense. Repentance is not merely feeling bad, since we do not have direct control over what feelings we have. But repentance is the choice of the will to stop sinning, since we do have direct control over our choices. Sin is man’s choice; and therefore, repentance from sin is man’s choice.
In light of this, it makes perfect sense for Jesus to call sinners to repentance. They are the ones who are choosing to sin. Therefore, they are the ones who must choose to stop sinning.
While I was open air preaching at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, a large crowd had gathered. Many of them were very open about their sin and were completely unashamed. I called them to repentance and warned them that without choosing to repent, they would perish.
One woman came out of the crowd, claimed she was an ordained minister, and mockingly told the crowd, “I repent on behalf of all your sins. You are all forgiven now.” The crowd yelled and cheered, thinking that technically they were right with God now, even though they were planning on continuing in their sins.
I responded to all of this by saying that one person cannot repent for the sins of another person. Sins are personal and, therefore, repentance must be personal. I told the crowd that not even God can repent for your sins. There are some things which even omnipotence cannot do! Omnipotence cannot perform intrinsic contradictions. Repentance is a free will choice, a voluntary determination of the heart not to continue in the sins that have been committed, and therefore, nobody but the sinner himself can repent of his sins.
A. W. Tozer said, “…we must of our own free will repent toward God and believe in Jesus Christ. This the Bible plainly teaches; this experience abundantly supports. Repentance involves moral reformation. The wrong practices are on man’s part, and only man can correct them. Lying, for instance, is an act of man and one for which he must accept full responsibility. When he repents he will quit lying. God will not quit for him; he will quit for himself.”3 He also said, “God cannot do our repenting for us. In our efforts to magnify grace we have so preached the truth as to convey the impression that repentance is a work of God. This is a grave mistake, and one which is taking a frightful toll among Christians everywhere. God has commanded all men to repent. It is a work which only they can do. It is morally impossible for one person to repent for another. Even Christ could not do this. He could die for us, but He cannot do our repenting for us.”4
God said, “Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions, so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die” (Eze. 18:30-31). And also, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7) God “commandeth all men everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17:30).
All throughout the Bible we see that God commands men to repent. This means that repentance is man’s own free choice. What does God command if He is not commanding our will or choices? A command is a declaration of what type of choice you should or shouldn’t make. It is the will which is the subject of a command. God’s command to repent implies that repentance is man’s choice.
God does not force us to repent through some irresistible means, as if we were machines. Rather, He calls and commands us to repent because we are free moral agents whose decisions of will are self-determined (Matt. 9:13; Acts 17:30-31). Jesus said that he came to “call” sinners to repent (Lk. 5:42). The Greek word used for call means to “invite”5 or to “bid.”6 God calls, but we must answer. He invites, but we must accept.
The Bible says that God “leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). God leads, but we must follow. We are “taught of God to love one another” (1 Thes. 4:9), but we are not forced by God to love one another because love cannot be forced. We are “called… unto holiness” (1 Thes. 4:7), but we are not forced to be holy because that would be an intrinsic contradiction. Calling, entreating, and beseeching sinners to repent and be holy takes for granted that repentance unto holiness is their choice that they can and must make.
Some object to the idea that repentance from sin is man’s choice which they are capable of making because the Bible says, “Esau, who for one morsal of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16-17). Does that mean that Esau wanted to repent of selling his birthright but he couldn’t? The answer is no. If Esau had tears over selling his birthright, it is clear that he already repented of selling it.
This passage means that Esau sought his father with tears to repent of the pronounced blessing which Jacob stole, but his father did not repent. He sought repentance from his father with tears. But despite the pleading and tears of Esau, Jacob his father did not change his mind about rejecting him from inheriting the blessing which Jacob had stolen. It is not Esau who is doing the repenting. It is Esau who sought repentance from his father.
It was not over the selling of the birthright that Esau repented, but over the loss of the blessing which Esau sought his father to repent of. There are two different events mentioned in Genesis and in Hebrews regarding this. The one was the birthright, the other was the blessing. After Esau sold his birthright to Jacob his brother, Jacob also stole Esau’s blessing from his father Isaac. The birthright and the blessing were two different things.
The birthright, or “the right of the first born,” was a “double portion” of the father’s goods (Deut. 21:17). But the blessing was a pronouncement of blessing from the father (Gen. 27:1-41). Notice the distinction between the birthright and the blessing, “Esau, who for one morsal of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16-17). Albert Barnes said, “The ‘blessing’ here referred to was not that of the birth-right, which he knew he could not regain, but that pronounced by the father Isaac on him whom he regarded as his first-born son…”7
It was the loss of the blessing, not the birthright, which gave Esau tears. This is what Genesis records, “And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, bless me, even me also, O my father” (Gen. 27:34). “Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?” (Gen. 27:36) “And Esau said unto his father, hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept” (Gen. 27:38). Esau sought repentance from his father with tears, but the answer he received was, “thy brother came with subtlety and hath taken away thy blessing” (Gen. 27:35). In this way, “he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:17). It was his father which he “sought” to repent “with tears.”
Clearly, the repentance mentioned is not in reference to the selling of the birthright, which Esau lost by choice, but in reference to receiving the blessing from his father, which Jacob stole by trickery. And the “tears” of Esau mentioned in Hebrews is in reference to the blessing not the birthright. Genesis does not record Esau weeping over the loss of his birthright which he willingly sold, but it does record Esau weeping over the loss of his blessing which was taken against his will.
Since repentance is a change of mind about a choice which you have made, Esau could not repent of losing his blessing because he never chose to lose his blessing. He could only repent of selling his birthright because that was his choice. Whether Esau ever repented of selling his birthright, the Scriptures do not say either in Genesis or anywhere else. But we do know that Isaac did not repent of giving the blessing to Jacob, even though Esau sought him with tears to repent. It is not that Esau could not repent of selling his birthright, but that Esau could not persuade his father to repent about the stolen blessing given to Jacob.
Adam Clarke said about the repentance mentioned in Hebrews 12:17 that “the word does not refer here to Esau at all, but to his father, whom Esau could not, with all his tears and entreaties, persuade to reverse what he had done.”8 Albert Barnes said, “Way to change his mind,’ That is, no place for repentance ‘in the mind of Isaac,’ or no way to change his mind. It does not mean that Esau earnestly sought to repent and could not, but that when once the blessing had passed the lips of his father, he found it impossible to change it.”9
The whole point of this passage in Hebrews is that we must be careful and take heed, to “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness spring up and trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsal of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 14:14-17).
The usage of the story of Esau, when looked at in context, is to illustrate how we must not forfeit our own blessing to indulge our flesh because there will come a day when we may seek that blessing from God and cannot persuade Him to give it, just as Esau sold his birthright to indulge his flesh and then afterwards could not persuade his father to give him the blessing. It is not a perfect analogy, since Esau choosing to indulge his flesh was not directly associated with the loss of his father’s blessing, since the birthright was sold by choice and the blessing was stolen by deception. Still, the point the writer of Hebrews is making is that we can lose our blessing by indulging our flesh, and a day will come when God’s mind will not be changed.
This passage does not teach that repentance is not within man’s control. And to use it to teach that man’s repentance is without the realm of his control is to misuse and misunderstand this passage entirely. It would contradict all the many other passages in the Bible which clearly teach that repentance is in fact within man’s power.
It is also important to reemphasis here the distinction between the occasion of repentance and the cause of repentance. God is the occasion of our repentance because He gives us the opportunity, time, and influence to repent. The Bible says that God gives us the opportunity to repent when it says “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). The Bible says that God gives the time to repent when it says, “And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not” (Rev. 2:21). And the Bible says that God gives sinners the influence to repent by instructing them in the truth through preachers when it says, “In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
But while God gives us the opportunity, time, and influence to repent, we ourselves must do the actual repenting (Eze. 18:30-32; Acts 17:30). We choose to repent out of our own free will, but we do so under the influence of God. The influence of God is the occasion of our repentance but our own will is the cause of our repentance. God influences us but we must respond. God calls us but we must answer. God commands us but we must obey. Both God and man have their role. God said, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well… Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord… ” (Isa. 1:16-18). God reasons with us but we must make the reasonable choice to repent.
We know from the story of Nineveh that repentance is not something God will do for us, but something that we must do for ourselves. God was planning on destroying Nineveh but they repented. Therefore, God changed His mind or altered His plans in light of their repentance. “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:9-10). It says that “God saw their works, that they turned,” which is their own activity, and then “God repented…” Both God and man had a role. God did His part by warning them. Then they did their part by turning from their sins. And then God did His part by turning away from His wrath and anger. God influenced them by presenting truth to their minds through preaching. And then they repented by changing the choices of their wills. And then God forgave them and altered the course of their future by changing His plans.
While it was the message God gave Jonah that brought them to repentance, their repentance was their own free choice. We know that repentance was not something that God did for them because it resulted in God changing His plans. If their repentance was a certainty because it was going to be brought about by God’s irresistible will, instead of a contingency because it was caused by their free will, God’s plan would not have been altered or changed at all.
It doesn’t help the dilemma for a Calvinist to say, “God was never really planning on destroying Nineveh in ninety days,” because God specifically said that He was going to destroy them then (Jonah 3:1-5). And God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2). God specifically said that He did not do what He said He was going to. “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10). God genuinely changed His plans when He saw how they repented. This must mean that their repentance was an uncertainty or a contingency, that it was their own free choice, and that it originated with them.
God elsewhere says that if He plans on destroying a city, if they repent, He will change His plans about destroying them. “At what instance I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jer. 18:7-8). This shows that repentance is their free choice which they themselves originate and not something brought about by His irresistible and eternal plan. Otherwise, man’s repentance would be no occasion for God to change His plans.
The power of the human will, in creating and originating new choices, actually creates and originates new facts to add to reality. These new choices actually create or originate new knowledge that did not previously exist because such choices did not previously exist. The knowledge of the existence of these choices is new because the existence of these choices is new.
Reality is actually in the process of developing and is progressively unfolding. Reality is progressing and forming in a linear or sequential manner. The free choices of moral beings are determining the course and direction of the future. The Bible explicitly says that certain actions and events were decided or “determined” by men (1 Sam. 20:7, 20:9; 20:33; 25:17; 13:32; 2 Chron. 2:1; Est. 7:7; Acts 11:29; 15:2; 15:37; 20:16; 25:25; 27:1; 1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Cor. 2:1; Titus 3:12). “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea” (Acts 11:29). “For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16). Paul said, “But I have determined this with myself…” (2 Cor. 2:1) That means that he determined it of his own volition or free will. Clearly, God does not predetermine all of the choices of men but men themselves have the power of self-determination.
Therefore, the course of the future is not a foregone conclusion as if it was eternally fixed and certain. The future is presently flexible and changeable (Isa. 38:5; Matt. 26:53). God’s plans are not all eternal. The future and some of God’s plans are in the process of development and are subject to change as new choices are originated by the wills of moral beings.
When Nineveh repented, this new knowledge or these new considerations were immediately or intuitively brought to the mind of God. He changed the decisions of His will as necessary in correspondence with these new choices or new facts that were presented to Him. As He observes these new activities occurring, these new developments result in Him making new plans.
The new thoughts or considerations in man’s mind (like truth from preaching) can result in new choices in man’s will (like repentance), which would result in new thoughts or observations in God’s mind (seeing their repentance), which results in new choices in God’s will (turning from His wrath).
God said “if” they “turn from their evil,” then He will change what He “thought to do” (Jer. 18:8), speaking of what may or may not happen. This is because such a change in their choice is a contingency which may or may not become a reality. It is a possibility which might or might not become an actuality. It is clear that these new developments are caused by their own free will, not caused by some irresistible or eternal plan of God, since God’s plans change in light of them. If God planned their repentance, their repentance would not result in any change of plans on His part. But the plans of God do change in correspondence with the repentance of man, therefore the repentance of man must be caused by the freedom of their will, something which they themselves originate and bring to reality.
God said that they must “turn from their evil” because it is something that only they can do. Then God said “I will repent” which means He will alter or change His plans which he “thought to do…” The prophet Joel said the same thing, “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2:13).
The nature of repentance necessitates that it be caused by the individual who is repenting. Repentance is a moral change in man and, therefore, it must be man’s choice or caused by man’s will. If repentance was not caused by man, it would not be a moral change within man. If someone else caused their repentance, it wouldn’t truly be their repentance. Their repentance could only reflect a change of character in them if it reflects a change of choice made by them. A change of character is a change of choice.
Repentance, therefore, is not a choice that God can make for us. If man’s repentance was God’s choice, not man’s choice, God would be responsible for all of the impenitence of the world. The reason that men would be impenitent is because God has not caused them to repent. But the Bible teaches that repentance is man’s own choice, which is why Jesus rebuked men for not repenting. “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because thy repented not” (Matt. 11:20).
Melito said, “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner to life, because you are a free man.”10 C. S. Lewis said, “we are… rebels who must lay down our arms.”11 George Otis Jr. said that our “entire personality is involved in the act of repentance. Our minds, enlightened through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, are able to perceive sin stripped of all pretenses. Emotionally we respond to this understanding with considerable revulsion, pain and sorrow. But the final and crucial stage involves our will in the actual severance and forsaking of sin. This stage will always follow if repentance is genuine.”12
To command men, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8; Matt. 3:8), and to tell them to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20), both implies that it is man’s choice, man’s responsibility, and within man’s ability or control to repent and bring forth fruits from that repentance. If it were not, it would make no sense to command them to do so.
Catherine Booth said, “But then another difficulty comes in, and people say, ‘I have not the power to repent.’ Oh! yes you have. There is a grand mistake. You have the power, or God would not command it. You can repent. You can. This moment lift up your eyes to Heaven, and say, with the Prodigal, “Father, I have sinned, and I renounce my sin… God ‘now commandeth all men everywhere to repent,’ and to believe the gospel. What a tyrant He must be if He commands that and yet He knows you have not the power.”13
The disciples of the Lord “went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). This takes for granted that repentance is a choice, specifically man’s choice, and that man can make that choice. God’s invitation to come is for all men (Matt. 11:28). As the Bible says “Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage” (Matt. 22:9). Jesus also said to the Church, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Why should we preach the gospel to all men, commanding them to repent and believe, unless all men are capable of this? It would be a waste of time and energy to call and command men to do that which they cannot do.
Apart from an understanding of free will, evangelism would seem like a vain activity. Evangelism, or calling all men to repentance, is only rational if all men can repent. To offer them hope through the gospel, when they cannot obey the gospel, is an offer that is nothing but a mockery! God would be insincere in commanding all to repent and believe unless they all could do it. God would be insincere in offering eternal life to all or in inviting all men to Heaven unless they could receive His offer and accept His invitation.
Why would God want all of the unsaved to hear the gospel unless once they hear it, they are capable of obeying it and being saved through it? If the call to obey the gospel does not imply that man can obey the gospel, then what in the entire Bible could ever imply that men could obey it? If the command does not presuppose ability, what text ever could presuppose ability? Nothing could imply the ability to repent and believe more than the commands to do so.
Irenaeus said, “If then, it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason did the Apostle have, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things, and to abstain from others? But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will (in whom likeness man was created), advice is always given to him…”14
The gospel requires that men give up their sins in order to be pardoned by God through Jesus Christ. Sin is the choice to violate God’s law. Since we have already established that the moral law is not impossible but that sin is avoidable, then we can logically conclude that men are capable of obeying the gospel since they are able to give up their sins or capable of repenting as the gospel demands. Since sin is not unavoidable, repentance is not impossible; and therefore, man is able to obey the command to repent.
We can also conclude that since God wants all men to be saved, and men can only be saved by obeying the gospel, that God gives men the ability necessary in order for them to do that. Since God wants all to be saved through the atonement by repenting of their sins, why wouldn’t God give all the ability to repent of their sins so that they could be saved through the atonement? If God truly wants all men to be saved, He would make it possible for all men to be saved.
That is why the atonement has been made for all, why God is calling all men to repent, and why God sent the Church to take the gospel to everyone. God’s command for the Church to preach the gospel to all people would be a useless command unless the hearers of the gospel were able to obey it. Preaching the gospel is pointless unless the hearers of the Word are able to be doers of the Word. The command to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22), presupposes that those who hear the Word are able to obey it. That men are commanded to be doers and not hearers only implies that it is their choice to make or that it is up to them. Since men cannot do what they are not capable of doing, the evidence that the gospel can be obeyed from the heart is the mere fact that men have obeyed it from the heart (Rom. 6:17). Therefore, the repentance which the gospel requires is not impossible at all for men.
Impenitence is Man’s Choice
The gospel requires repentance and faith from men. Repentance is the hearts choice to turn from sin and obey God. Faith is the hearts choice to embrace the truth and trust in Christ. Both repentance and faith are states of the will. Therefore, the gospel requires states of the will.
Under a good government, the command implies ability. Only under tyranny is this not true. God’s government is good and, therefore, in God’s government the command implies ability. We can conclude then that what the gospel requires of men, men are capable of doing. A sinner is capable of remaining in a disobedient state of mind or of having an obedient state of mind through repentance. A sinner is capable of rejecting the truth and not trusting in Christ, or of embracing the truth and trusting in Christ. If men were not capable of it, they would not be commanded to do it.
• The command of a good ruler implies the ability of the subjects.
• God, who is a good ruler, commands all men to obey the gospel when they hear it.
• Therefore, all men are able to obey the gospel when they hear it.
Men are even commanded to circumcise their own hearts (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4). Since they are commanded to do so, this means that it is their own responsibility and choice. To circumcise your heart means to repent or put off your sins (Col. 2:11). Therefore, to circumcise your heart means to repent of your sins but to have an uncircumcised heart is to have an impenitent heart.
When Stephen was open air preaching, he said to the crowd “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do ye” (Acts 7:51). Stephen was rebuking them for disobeying a specific commandment, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deut. 10:16).
Why would Stephen rebuke them for being uncircumcised in their heart unless they were capable of circumcising their hearts? Why rebuke them for breaking a commandment unless they were capable of obeying the commandment? Why rebuke them for having uncircumcised hearts unless having such hearts was their own free choice? Why would he rebuke them for resisting the Holy Spirit unless they were capable of yielding to the Holy Spirit? Unless they were capable of doing these things, why rebuke them for not doing these things?
Stephen seemed to take for granted or assume the ability of his audience. He blamed them for their impenitence which must mean that their impenitence was their own free choice. You cannot rebuke a man for something which is not his choice. A man cannot be blamed for that which is beyond his control or for what he cannot help.
As we have already seen, after preaching repentance and working miracles, Jesus began “to upbraid the cities wherein most of his might works were done, because they repented not” (Matt. 11:20). Jesus did not upbraid God because sinners did not repent, but Jesus upbraided sinners because they did not repent. That is because their impenitence was their will, not God’s will.
If their impenitence was not their own choice but was the Sovereign will of God, why be upset with them and blame them? Why would Jesus be frustrated with them for not repenting if they were not even capable of repenting? Unless they had the power of choosing to repent, and were freely refusing to repent, why would Jesus rebuke them? His frustration could only be logical, reasonable, or justified if they were capable of fulfilling His expectations but they were freely choosing not to. Jesus here assumed that they could have repented but simply didn’t want to. As Michael Pearl said, “When you are angry towards a man for his degrading or offensive behavior, you are assuming he could have acted differently.”15
Jesus said, “And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not” (Rev. 2:21). Why would God give her time to repent, if she doesn’t even have the ability to repent? Is it not clear that her impenitence was not God’s fault, but her own fault? If God created her with the inability to repent, her impenitence would be His fault. But if God created her with the ability to repent, then her impenitence is her own fault. The blame of impenitence in this passage is clearly put upon her.
If God makes all men incapable of repenting and obeying, by either removing free will when Adam sinned or by withholding free will when He forms us, then God and not man is responsible for the disobedience and impenitence of the world. Either man is capable of repenting and obeying or else God is the ultimate reason for the impenitence and disobedience of the world.
However, God wants all men to repent (2 Pet. 3:9), He calls all men to repent (Acts 17:30-31), and He blames them if they do not repent (Matt. 11:20; 23:37; Mk. 6:6; Lk. 7:30; 13:34; 14:17-18; 19:14; 19:27; Jn. 5:40; Rev. 2:21). This presupposes that they have the ability to repent. You cannot blame a man for being that which he hasn’t chosen to be, or for doing that which he hasn’t chosen to do. Men are blamed for impenitence because the impenitent freely choose to be in such a state when they are free to be repentant if they wanted to be.
This is implied by the fact that those who refuse to repent of their sins will have to face the wrath of God. “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). To be “impenitent” means to be unrepentant. Just as those who repent change their mind about sinning, those who are impenitent still have a carnal mind. Their mind is still determined to sin. Impenitence is not a passive state but an active state. It is the wills active hostility or enmity against God. It is the will’s active embrace of a sinful life. The reason that the wrath of God comes upon the impenitent is because they are capable of choosing to repent, but are instead choosing to be impenitent. They are justly accountable and punishable for their choice. How unjust it would be to punish men with eternal hell-fire for being impenitent if they were not freely choosing to be impenitent and had no power at all to repent!
Consider how God treats those who disobey the gospel. “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Pet. 4:17). Paul answers that question, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thes. 1:8).
Why would God punish men, for not obeying the gospel, unless they were capable of obeying it? Is God cruel and unjust as to command of them the impossible, only to punish them eternally in the lake of fire for their failure to do what He created them incapable of doing?
In a good government, not only does the command imply ability, but punishment for failure to obey commands implies man’s ability. God is just, good, reasonable, and loving. Therefore, He commands what is possible and only punishes men for doing what was avoidable. Since God punishes those who do not repent (Eze. 20:8; Rom. 2:5), repentance must be within man’s power and, therefore, impenitence must be a man’s choice!
John Fletcher said, “It is offering an insult to the only wise God to suppose . . . that he gave them the gospel, without giving them power to believe it . . . With regards to repentance, ‘Then he began,’ says St. Matthew, ‘to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not.’ Merciful Savior, forgive us! We have insulted thy meek wisdom, by representing thee as cruelly upbraiding the lame for not running, the blind for not seeing, and the dumb for not speaking! . . . Suppose a schoolmaster said to his English scholars ‘Except you instantly speak Greek you shall all be severely whipped.’ You would wonder at the injustice of the school tyrant. But would not the wretch be merciful in comparison of a Savior, (so called) who is supposed to say to myriads of men, that can no more repent than ice can burn, ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all perish?’” 16
Faith is Man’s Choice
The gospel is not merely truth to be believed with the mind, but it is truth to be obeyed with the heart. The Bible says that those who “obey not the gospel” will perish (2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17). This implies that those who are saved are those who obey the gospel. Obedience and disobedience are not states of the intellect but states of the will. Therefore, salvation requires a state of the will because salvation requires obedience to the gospel.
Obeying the gospel consists of turning from sin and putting your faith in Jesus Christ. No man can be saved without faith and faith is a personal choice. Faith is not merely a passive state of the mind; it is an active state of the heart. The devil himself believes in his mind but he rebels in his heart (Jas. 2:9). To believe with the mind but not to obey with the heart is nothing more than the devil’s faith! Saving faith is the wills embrace of that which the mind affirms. Biblical faith is not only the assent of the mind to the truths of the gospel but also the consent of the will to the demands of the gospel. Gordon C. Olson said, “Saving faith is not merely an intellectual state… Saving faith is an act of the will in total commitment… Saving faith is always our own act…”17 Faith is the hearts active embrace and compliance with the truth.
Paul said, “… let us hold fast our profession” (Heb. 4:14). And he said, “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering” (Heb. 10:23). The command to “let us” indicates our own role, activity, or choice. Clearly, faith is deliberate. Believing is a deliberation of the heart. It is a personal volition of the will.
All throughout the Bible the word “heart” is commonly used as a metaphor to refer to a man’s will. Heart is figurative or symbolic for a man’s inner commitments, intentions, and choices. And the Bible says it is with the heart that men believe. “If thou believest with all thine heart” (Acts 8:37), and “believe in thine heart… for with the heart man believeth” (Rom. 10:9-10). To believe with your heart is not merely when your mind conceives the truth, but when your will complies with the truth. It is when your will embraces and obeys it. Faith is the inner trust and commitment of a man to be faithful and loyal to God. Faith, therefore, is a man’s own choice.
Jesus commanded men not only to repent, but to “repent and believe” (Mk. 1:15). This means that believing is a person’s choice just as repenting is a person’s choice. A command is a declaration of what you should or shouldn’t choose. Telling men to “repent and believe” is nonsense unless repenting and believing is their choice. “Jesus answering saith unto them, have faith in God” (Mk. 11:22). Unless faith in God was man’s choice, telling men to have faith in God is nonsense because it would be pointless and useless if it is not even up to them. Jesus charged his audience to “believe the works” that he performed so that they might believe in his relationship with the Father (Jn. 10:38; 14:11). Jesus told his hearers to “believe on the light” or the illumination which he had given them (Jn. 12:36). Paul told the jailer in Philippi to “believe on the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31).
Irenaeus said, “all such expressions shew that man is in his own power with respect to faith”18 All of these examples show that believing is man’s choice and that it is within man’s ability to believe. To speak to men in this way or manner takes for granted that faith is a choice. If faith was not their choice, or if they were not capable of believing, commanding them to believe would be nonsense. To tell a man to believe presupposes that faith is a choice which they can make.
The fact that Paul “reasoned” with men and “persuaded” them to believe in Jesus (Acts 13:43; 17:2; 18:4; 18:19; 19:26; 24:25) further testifies to the fact that it is man’s own personal choice to make. If man had no role or choice in the matter, reasoning with him or seeking to persuade him in evangelism would make no sense at all. If the whole matter was “all of God,” it is not man that needs to be reasoned with or persuaded, but it is God Himself.
A Calvinist might say, “These are the means that God has ordained to save His elect.” But reasoning with men and persuading them to believe in Jesus Christ only makes sense, as the means God uses to save souls, if men have free will. This is because such means directly address them as free moral agents with the power of self-determination. It assumes that it is within their power to believe. Such efforts are direct appeals to their will; and therefore, faith is man’s own free choice.
If it really is a person’s own free choice to believe the gospel or not, why does the Bible say “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48)? This is a common proof-text of Calvinists who say that it is not man’s choice to believe but that God predetermines who believes and who doesn’t.
The Greek word used here for “ordained” however “includes no idea of pre-ordination or pre-destination of any kind”19 according to Adam Clarke. John Wesley said, “St. Luke does not say fore – ordained. He is not speaking of what was done from eternity, but of what was then done, through the preaching of the gospel.”20
The word which is translated as “ordained” in this passage simply means “disposed.”21 Therefore this verse is saying “as many as were disposed or had such a disposition to eternal life believed.” As Adam Clarke said, it teaches the “disposition or readiness of mind of several persons in the congregation…”22 Their disposition to receive the gospel is contrasted with the disposition of the Jews just two verses before. We read, “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, it was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
The meaning of the word used in verse 48 and the context of verse 46 helps us to properly exegetically interpret verse 48 consistently with the rules of hermeneutics, namely, interpreting a passage based upon the meaning of the original language and in light of the immediate context.
In light of this, this passage means that those who “judge” themselves “unworthy of everlasting life” did not believe, but those who “disposed” themselves “to eternal life believed.” Whether they believed or not depended on whether their heart rejected or accepted the gospel which was preached to them. Those who hardened their hearts did not believe, but those who softened their hearts did believe. What made the difference was the disposition which they choose to have in response to the message that was preached. Therefore, this passage should not be used to teach that it is not man’s free choice to believe, as it is implied all throughout the Bible that it is man’s choice to believe or not.
Still, Calvinists say that faith is a gift from God in such a way that it is not man’s free choice. This would make God responsible for all of the unbelief of the world. Unbelief would not be man’s fault because he doesn’t have the ability to believe and has no free choice in the matter. Augustine even admitted that God was responsible for the unbelief of the world because he believed that faith was God’s gift, not man’s choice. Augustine said, “Faith then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God’s gift… this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given.”23 Man’s faith is not God’s to give, but Martin Luther said, “For as no one can give himself faith, neither can he take away his own unbelief. How, then, will he take away a single sin, even the very smallest?”24 A. W. Pink said, “Faith is God’s gift, and the purpose to give it only to some, involves the purpose not to give it to others. Without faith there is no salvation… hence if there were some of Adam’s descendants to whom He purposes not to give faith, it must because He ordained that they should be damned.”25
In the Bible we see that God calls all men to believe the gospel and He blames them if they do not. If faith was God’s gift, not man’s choice, then all men would believe and God would not blame men for their unbelief. To teach that faith is God’s gift is to accuse God of being partial instead of benevolent. And it is to accuse Him of being a tyrant instead of a reasonable and just Ruler, since you would accuse Him of withholding faith from most men because He doesn’t want them to be saved, and then He blames and punishes them for not believing! It would be the height of unreasonableness, injustice, and cruelty to blame a man for that which was not his fault, or for that which he could not have avoided. Nothing could be conceived of as being more partial and unloving than to damn men that you could have saved if you wanted to.
Calvinists use Eph. 2:8-9 to support their doctrine that faith is not man’s choice but is rather God’s gift. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” Referring to this passage, John Piper said, “Faith is a gift from God.”26
This verse, however, is not saying that faith is a gift and that it is not of ourselves, but that salvation is a gift and not of ourselves. Salvation is not something that we earn by our works but something we receive by a living and obedient faith. Paul is saying that we cannot boast since salvation is unmerited and undeserved; it is by grace. Even John Calvin did not interpret the “gift” of this passage as “faith” but as “salvation” in his epistle on Ephesians.27
Since we already saw that men are commanded to believe, and this command implies that it is their choice to believe or not, it is therefore contrary to sound hermeneutics to interpret Eph. 2:8-9 in such a way as to say that faith is not man’s choice, since that would contradict other plain passages which teach that it is.
God gives the gift of salvation to those who choose to believe. Salvation, as in forgiveness and acceptance through Jesus Christ, is God’s gift; but faith itself is our free choice. God inspires faith within us by giving us all the reasons necessary to believe. In this way he “helps” our “unbelief” (Mk. 9:24), but we ourselves must do the believing. He helps our unbelief but He does not irresistibly force us to believe. He presents the truth to our minds but we ourselves must yield to the truth and embrace it, we ourselves must choose to believe.
Jesus was once asked, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (Jn. 6:28-29). To “believe on him” is something that “we do.” This is what is pleasing to God, that is, this is the “works of God” which He accepts from us.
Catherine Booth said, “Faith is a voluntary thing. It is a thing you can do or leave undone, or God must have been unjust to have made a man’s everlasting salvation or damnation to depend on what he has no power to do. You have not absolute power over your intellect, but you have power over your will.”28
A. W. Tozer said, “The day when it is once more understood that God will not be responsible for our sin and unbelief will be a glad one for the Church of Christ. The realization that we are personally responsible for our individual sins may be a shock to our hearts, but it will clear the air and remove the uncertainty. Returning sinners waste their time begging God to perform the very acts He has sternly commanded them to do.”29
The Apostle Paul said, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:13-15). While it is God who presents the truths of the gospel to sinners by sending them a preacher, they themselves must do the believing. Paul’s whole line of reasoning, that man cannot believe the gospel unless he first hears it, presupposes that faith is a man’s choice to embrace the truth of the gospel when it is encountered and presented.
The very reason that I travel the nation preaching the gospel to sinners on the streets and on universities is because of my presupposition that they are capable of believing the gospel, or embracing it in their hearts, when it is perceived by their minds. If man’s faith was God’s choice, instead of man’s choice, it would make more sense to ask God to give them faith than to ask man to believe. But you never see anyone in the Bible asking God to give faith to others, but you see lots of examples of men in the Bible telling sinners to believe.
Unbelief is Man’s Choice
Like faith, unbelief is also a personal choice of the will. Unbelief is a sinners own fault, which he is to be blamed for. Unbelief is not merely a passive state of the mind. Unbelief is an active state of the heart. Unbelief is the hearts active rejection of the truth. Unbelief is the hostility of a person’s will towards the truth that his mind perceives and affirms.
The Bible tells us to “take heed… lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12). “Take heed” implies choice and “evil heart of unbelief” means that unbelief is not merely of the mind but is of the will. Unbelief is described as being deliberate. “For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (Matt. 13:15; Acts 28:27). This shows their personal and intentional choice. Their unbelief was volitional. Men purposely turn their ears away from the truth. The Bible says, “They…stopped their ears” (Acts 7:57). And it says, “…they shall turn away their ears from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:4). Unbelievers are those who “loved darkness rather than light” (Jn. 3:19). Unbelief is the wills active state of suppressing and rejecting the truth. Unbelievers are those who “hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).
The Bible says, “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb. 3:15; 4:7). This command implies that a man chooses to harden his heart or not. It is a matter of our own personal choice whether we reject the word of God by hardening our hearts or if we receive the word of God by obeying in our hearts. It is something that we determine, which we have control over, which is why it is commanded of us not to harden our hearts.
We are also told in the Bible that men refused to believe in Jesus Christ. “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner” (Ps. 118:22; Matt. 21:42; Mk. 12:10; Lk. 20:17). That means that they deliberately rejected Jesus Christ in their hearts. They decided not to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ. Just as faithfulness is obedience, faithlessness is disobedience. The Scriptures even contrast disobedience with believing. “Unto you therefore which believe he is precious, but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner” (1 Pet. 2:7). An unbelieving heart is a disobedient heart. It is the wills rejection of the truth that is revealed to the mind.
Jesus was frustrated with the world because of their unbelief. “He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?” (Mk. 9:19) Why be frustrated with men for not doing what they cannot do? Why blame them for doing what they could not avoid, or blame them for not doing what cannot be done? Jesus’ frustration with that generation is justified and rational, if and only if they were capable of being a faithful generation but were choosing not to be.
Jesus even rebuked men for not believing, which implies that it is their choice to believe or not. Jesus “upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not…” (Mk. 16:14). Jesus blamed them for their unbelief, which means that it was their own fault! And if it was their own fault, it therefore was their own free choice! It is a self-evident truth that they could not be blamed if it was not their own fault or free choice.
The Bible also says about Jesus, “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Lk. 24:25). Again, it would make no sense to rebuke men for not believing, unless faith and unbelief is their free choice. Their unbelief was their own deliberate choice, as implied in the rebuke “slow of heart to believe…” Jesus did not look at them in their unbelief and think, “Poor men. God has not yet granted them the gift of faith.” He knew that their unbelief was their own fault, not God’s fault.
We are told that Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief” (Mk. 6:6). If they were incapable of believing, or if God simply did not grant them faith, Jesus would not have marveled. There would be nothing to marvel at. Jesus marveled because they could have and should have believed, but they didn’t. Jesus even commanded men, “be not faithless, but believing” (Jn. 20:27). Therefore, it is our choice to be faithless or believing. Whether we believe or whether we are faithless depends upon us.
This is an excerpt from:
The Natural Ability of Man: A Study On Free Will & Human Nature by Jesse Morrell
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