There is a proverbial statement that sin is a child which no one wants to claim. No person in his state of depravity wants to admit that the child is his own. Men are anxious to commit sin, but they are reluctant to acknowledge that they either conceived or gave birth to it.
Everything decreed does come to pass in time, but God’s foreknowledge of an action does not necessitate the action. Whatever man does, good or bad, he does with as much willingness as though his will were really free. Foreknowledge of an action does not actively influence the action itself. God remains omniscient, and He knows every deed that every man will perform. Nevertheless, we must distinguish between God’s foreknowledge of a thing and the activity of the foreknown thing.
Neither are providence, the times, people, and circumstances the causes of sin. They are only the occasions for sinning. Those are all indirect ways by which men charge God with their own sin. A man denies his responsibility for sin when he blames something or someone for his own sin. Christians refuse to attribute their sin to God. When God’s providence placed Bathsheba before David’s eyes, David did not charge God with his sin of adultery. The providence of God placed a boat at Jonah’s disposal, but Jonah did not accuse God with his sin of fleeing on the boat and seeking to avoid fulfilling God’s commission to him. The corruption of the times serves only as an occasion to bring forth the manifestation of the depraved wills of lost men.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). All evil proceeds from the heart: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man…” (Matt. 15:18-20). The actual committing of acts of sin does not cause a person’s guilt for those acts. Rather, the determination of man’s will makes him an alcoholic, an adulterer, a thief, or a liar: “Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children” (II Peter 2:14).
Man is depraved—enslaved to sin. If man has a free will to choose good or evil, why do men universally choose evil? The reason is that their depravity reaches even to their wills: “…ye will not come to me, that ye, might have life” (John 5:40). Men love darkness because their deeds are evil. They hate the light and will not come to it because they do not want their deeds exposed (John 3:19-21).
Depraved man is worse than a puppet or a robot. A puppet is guided by the skillful hand of the puppeteer, but the unsaved man is guided by the depravity of his own enslaved will. Man is a free agent in that he is not forced from without; but he does not have free will because he is bound within. Man’s faculty of will was affected in the fall. He is able to reason and understand natural things, but he is unable to understand spiritual things: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).
Freedom from coercion is one thing, but freedom from within is another. Fallen man is devoid of spiritual power, and spiritual death is written over every person. Like Nicodemus, man is shut up to the new birth (John 3:1-18); and like the leper, he is shut up to the will of God (Luke 5:12). The Bible holds man responsible, but it also strips fallen man of spiritual power. All boasting is thereby excluded, and all glory is accorded to the sovereign God (Rom. 3:26-28).
A person’s natural ability enables him to attend the place where the Word of God is proclaimed. Lydia’s natural ability gave her power to go to the place where she heard Paul expound the word of God. However, it was an act of the sovereign God that opened her heart to understand the proclamation by Paul (Acts 16:13, 14). An individual’s natural ability makes him responsible for his sin, but his depravity renders him spiritually unable to come to Christ. The depravity of the will is due to sin, and sin is the cause of man’s lust. There is no hope for anyone apart from the grace of God.
Wilbern Elias Best (1919-2007) was the pastor of Kingwood Assembly of Christ in Texas until his death last year. The quotes above are from his book called FREE GRACE VERSUS FREE WILL. Every sentence in the book is full of substance and yet the ideas flow with ease. Do read the whole book if you can.