First, we need to define what we mean by “free will.” Here’s one definition: free will noun 1: voluntary choice or decision “I do this of my own free will” 2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention ("free will." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 3 August 2009 ) I would contend that the Bible teaches that, by the first definition, man does have free will, but man does not have free will by the second.
It is clear from the Bible that we all make the choices we make of our own volition, but it is also clear that our very nature makes it impossible for us to make choices other than the ones we make. Our sin nature would be classified as a “prior cause” under this definition. The Bible teaches that we have a will, but it is a will enslaved to sin, and this concept is found clearly in Romans 6.
But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Romans 6:17-22)
In this passage, Paul, clearly identifies the unregenerate (and the regenerate prior salvation) as being in a condition of enslavement to sin. What does it mean to be enslaved to sin? In his commentary on Romans, John MacArthur puts it this way:
“(T)he unregenerate person is under the continual, unbroken slavery of sin. That is the universal position of the natural man, with no exceptions. No matter how outwardly moral, upright, or benevolent an unsaved person’s life may be, all that he thinks, says, and does emanates from a proud, sinful, ungodly heart. Quoting from Psalm 14, Paul had already made that truth clear. ‘As it is written, “there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for god; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good there is not even one”’ (Romans 3:10-12)” (MacArthur, John. Romans [volume 1]. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991. Page 346)
So the unregenerate will is unable to do good, nor is it able to change itself from bad to good. As it says in Jeremiah 13:23, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin Or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good Who are accustomed to doing evil.” That seems to be a pretty clear declaration that we are unable to change ourselves. Do you see how clearly this fits with the Ephesians 2 concept of being “dead in our trespasses and sins”?
Unfortunately, while grappling with this issue, many people erroneously reach the conclusion that Biblical predestination is deterministic fatalism. However, this is not the case. You see, the Scriptures make two things very clear; 1) God is a personal God, and not an impersonal force. He takes a personal interest in guiding and watching over each and every one of us. And 2) man is never portrayed as a robot, but as a being freely choosing his actions, and fully deserving the consequences of his actions. The invitation of the gospel is truly offered to all men. The problem is that all men, each and every one of us, would, if left on our own, freely reject that offer.
Fatalism also carries with it the idea that, no matter what we do, our actions cannot affect the predetermined outcome. But on the contrary, the Bible teaches that we are real people making real choices that do indeed affect the outcome. Our choices have consequences.
The Bible teaches that man has a will; it just is not a free will. In fact, you might say that man’s willfulness is a big part of man’s sinfulness. We are willfully disobedient to God. So where did this idea of a free will come from? The answer seems to lie more in philosophy than in Scripture. The idea goes something like this, “God gives a command | God holds man responsible for obeying the command | Therefore man must have the ability to obey the command in order to be held responsible for it.” Neat idea, but it isn’t found in the Bible.
The problem with this argument is that man is capable of understanding God’s commands; he simply chooses not to obey. This can be easily demonstrated by taking any group of people through a detailed study of the 10 Commandments. Everybody in the group, Baring severe physiological mental incapacity, will understand that stealing is wrong, yet all in the group will have willfully taken something at some time that they knew was not theirs. And, truthfully, the same can be demonstrated for the other nine commandments as well.
John Macarthur puts it this way, “the unsaved person is not free to do good or evil as he chooses. He is bound and enslave to sin, and the only thing he can do is to sin. His only choices have to do with when, how, why, and to what degree he will sin.” (MacArthur. Romans. Page 344)
Let’s be honest, the truth is that without God’s gracious restraint imposed upon us, we would all be much, much worse than we are.
So, in a nutshell, what the Bible says is this: that man is sinful, lost, and hell bound, and there is nothing he can do about it. This is the bad news that makes the Gospel truly the “good news” that it really is! And until and unless we can truly convey this lostness to the people we are evangelizing, they will not accept just how in need of help they really are.