“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15)
As people begin to study and become more familiar with the Holy Scriptures, inevitably, they are confronted with the question of the human will. Most people start with an assumption of human freedom, and the God-given ability to do as we desire. Then they come across a passage like the one above, where the Apostle Paul confesses that he is unable to do what he wants. By this, he is referring to his inability to do what is right. Paul wants to avoid sin and obey the will of God, but finds that he is unable. He understands the he is in bondage to sin and cannot free himself.
Likewise, I’ve noticed when people begin to mature in their theology and learn more about Martin Luther, they are often surprised to hear that Luther was not a big fan of the idea of human free will. Early in his career, Luther wrote that “free-will after the fall exists in name only.”* Luther later went on to write what many consider to be his greatest book: “On the Bondage of the Will.” Luther did not believe that humans have a free will.
But here I must be clear. Luther did believe that human beings have a will. All human beings have desires — things that we “will” or want to happen. Luther also acknowledged that human beings have a limited ability to choose. Indeed, we face numerous choices every day, from the moment we wake up. “What slippers shall I put on? What shall I have for breakfast.” Luther did not deny our ability to make such choices. What he did call into question is how “free” those choices really are. One cannot “choose” to eat Corn Flakes for breakfast, if all you have are Cheerios.
As Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate”(Romans 7:15). Paul goes on in the next verses to confess, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)
Paul recognized the will and desire to do what is right, but he also confessed that he was not able to act upon that choice. His sin kept him bound. He could not free himself.
Most of us are not so honest. We like to think that we are free to do as we please. Many Christians speak of free will as the “gift” of God — as if from the beginning, God wanted human beings to be able to choose and decide between good and evil for ourselves. But those who know Scripture know that God expressly forbid Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God did not want human beings to choose for themselves; he wanted humans to trust and obey the one true God.
If human beings ended up with a will that is free from God, it was not because God gave it to them as a gift, it was because they stole that ability to decide for themselves, against the wishes of God.
There is a very common word in Scripture to describe the human act of choosing apart from, or over against, God. The Bible calls that Sin. There is also a biblical word to describe the human will and desire to have what God does not want us to have. That word is Coveting.
God begins the Ten Commandments with the call to “have no other gods” before him. The first and most important commandment is to let God be God — to trust and obey God as the Lord of our lives. As Jesus showed us in his own perfect obedience, the prayer of the faithful to our Father is this: “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:39). All the other commandments flow from this one.
Ironically, by the time we reach the end on the Ten Commandments, we return again to the subject of the human will. When God says, “you shall not covet,” he is saying that we should not desire or wish to have what does not belong to us. We are not to yearn for things we have no right to. This includes not wanting to have what belongs to God alone.
Adam and Eve fell to the temptation that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good Evil – if they gave in to the temptation of being able to choose for themselves – they would “become like God” (Genesis 3:5). That was the lie that the snake told them, and it is the lie we have been telling ourselves ever since. In our effort to become the god of our own lives, we have raised up “coveting” as the highest virtue, and have given it the grand and glorious title of “free will.” We tell ourselves that the ability to pursue our personal desires is the highest good – a human right that not even the Lord himself would dare get in the way of.
But Scripture says this desire is just another example of sin. To covet the freedom that belongs to God alone is the very root of sin and the power that keeps us bound. As Paul confessed on behalf of us all:
“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25)
Paul recognized that his hope did not rest in the freedom of his human will, but in the promise of Christ. Only in him are we saved from the sin of what we covet for ourselves, and brought to the faith that is able to say, “Not my will, but your will be done.”
— Pastor Steven E. King
*from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations, 1518 AD