What Do Calvinists Believe about Free Will?

Calvinists* get a lot of flack. Sometimes this is for good reasons because many are in their cage stage. I once was; I can go back into it sometimes. But many times, we get flack because we are misunderstood. We hear almost incessant caricatures. It’s not fair, truly. We all need to be people who attempt to understand other’s beliefs correctly.

One of the major objections is that we don’t believe in free will. Well, to say it simply, Yes, we believe in free will–just not the way many Christians do.

What I’d like to do with this post is clear up any confusion. May there be no more room for caricatures, misunderstandings, and the like. I promise: you can know what Calvinists really believe about free will.

Let’s Talk about Free Will

Free will is a tough thing to talk about because there’s a lot of nuance and confusion can happen quickly. We have to be careful in how we convey what we believe.

Many times, the charge is made against Calvinists that we don’t believe in free will. People say we believe we’re robots; that is certainly not true. Any well-meaning person who wants to understand Calvinistic/Reformed theology would not make that accusation.

Well, the question naturally arises: What do you mean by free will? That is not a cop-out question, but a desire to set definitions so we can at the very least understand positions. For many non-Calvinistic* Christians, when they refer to free will, they mean what is academically called “libertarian free will.”

RC Sproul explains:

This understanding of human freedom says that we have the ability to make spontaneous choices contrary to our dispositions and inclinations. Nothing determines our choices. We are always able to choose good or evil. Our wills are wholly neutral. (1)

This, I believe, is what most biblical Christians believe. They believe that man’s will before Christ is not hindered; they believe a person is able to freely choose good or evil. Nothing stands in our way. But that is certainly not the way Calvinists would define free will.

So how do we define it?

Choosing Based on Desire

Calvinists don’t deny the real, active choice people make to repent of their sins and believe in the gospel. That’s real. That’s genuine. There was a day when you decided to repent of your sins and place your faith in Christ. You did that.

Calvinists simply say you only did that because God worked in you before that.

We simply don’t believe the definition given above by Sproul. To put it concisely, Calvinists believe people have free will in the sense that we choose what we desire. Nothing is stopping you from choosing what you naturally want to do.

The only issue, though, is that humans naturally don’t want to choose Christ.

However, there pops up an issue when we have this conversation as it relates to salvation. Calvinists say that, because man is dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), we can’t choose Christ nor do we want to. Before Christ, you will always choose evil; therefore, you won’t choose Christ because you do not desire Him. Man only begins to desire Christ after God regenerates his heart (John 6:44; 1 John 5:1).

Non-Calvinistic Christians don’t believe that. They believe man is able to choose Christ or not choose Christ in his natural, unconverted state. To put it frank: I believe that ignores the multitude of biblical texts that say otherwise.

Let me point you to a verse that gets overlooked. In John 6:44, Jesus says this:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

There are many things to go over here, but let me focus in one word. Can.

Ability, not Permission

Do you remember that time in elementary school when you’d ask your teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” And they ever-so-annoyingly retorted with, “I know you can, but may you?”

Of course, we know they are just making the differentiation between the words can and may. This is the same thing with choosing Christ–it has to do with ability.

When Jesus tells us that “nobody can come to me,” He is not saying you have to ask for permission first. He is saying that you don’t have the ability to choose Him unless the Father draws you to Him. God is the one who initiates salvation and the one who finishes it. And that’s what Calvinists believe. We don’t not believe in free will. We simply believe that man doesn’t have a truly free will before Christ.

Let’s Understand Each Other

So, again, let’s make the habit of hearing people out. Even if they are done talking and we still sharply disagree–so be it, at least we know what they are trying to convey. To non-Calvinists: we believe in free will. People are able to choose what they want to choose, we simply don’t believe people, before salvation, are able to choose anything. Man is not neutral before salvation, but a dead-in-sin, hating-God sinner.

Above all else, let’s come to this point: we both glory in the cross! We may disagree on different points of secondary doctrines, but we hold to the essentials of the faith. Let’s be unified!

Soli Deo Gloria

1. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/what-free-will/

*I put an asterisk by Calvinist because, quite frankly, I’m not a huge fan of using the term. But I used the term for the sake of the discussion.

*I say “non-Calvinistic” Christians because some Christians aren’t straightforward Arminians.

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