Liberty and Ability of the Will in the Westminster Confession of Faith

One common criticism leveled against Calvinism is that its teaching of predestination and original sin undermines human freedom and responsibility. A two-fold response is required to set aside this deeply entrenched misconception. First, we are mindful that the best apologetic is a rigorous dogmatics. In this regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) is more than able in defending itself. Chapter 9 of the WCF, “Free Will”, comprises a series of affirmations which together presents a dynamic and coherent view of freedom and human nature in its fourfold state (Pre-Fall innocence, Post-Fall depravity, Regenerate man, Glorified man). A closer reading this chapter clearly shows that the criticism against Calvinism is misguided as it is based on an inadequate, one-dimensional and static concept of human freedom. Second, we need to demonstrate that the Reformed teaching of freedom is coherent (cf. Michael Preciado and Guillaume Bignon on compatibilism) and that predestination (rightly understood) does not undermine human responsibility (cf. John Martin Fisher-Mark Ravizza on responsibility and control). [We will post expositions of the works of these thinkers if the discussion subsequent to this post requires it]. But let us begin with a simple explanation of the Reformed understanding of freedom in layman’s terms.

The Westminster Confession of Faith: CHAPTER 9


1. God has endowed the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.

2. Man, in his state of innocence, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God, but yet, alternatively, so that he might fall from it.

3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether adverse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself for salvation.

4. When God coverts a sinner, and brings him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, because of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.

5. The will of man is made perfectly and unchangeably free to do good alone in the state of glory alone.

A. Essential to distinguish liberty from ability
We begin with the truism that the will is free insofar as it is not coerced or forced by some external forces which compel a man to do something which he does not want to do. “According to Calvinists, the liberty of a moral agent consists in the power of acting according to a choice; and those actions are free which are performed without any external compulsion or restraint, in consequence of the determinations of his own mind…The necessity of man’s willing and acting in conformity to his apprehensions and disposition, is, in their opinion, fully consistent with all the liberty which can belong to a rational nature…The very essence of its liberty lies in acting consciously, choosing or refusing without any external compulsion or constraint, but according to inward principles of rational apprehension and natural disposition.” [Robert Shaw, Reformed Faith: Exposition of WCF, p. 162 ]

Each man is free to do what he wants to do within the limits of his ability. It should be noted that liberty is not the same with ability. G. I Williamson observes, “Many people really mean ability when they say liberty. They speak of man being free to do good or evil when they really mean to say that men are able to do good or evil. In this they seriously err. For the Bible clearly and consistently teaches (1) that man is free to do good or evil, that he is at liberty to do either, but (2) that he is able to do only evil because of his fallen condition (Deut. 30:19, John 6:44).” [G.I. Williamson, WCF For Study Classes, p. 112]

B. Fallen humanity retains liberty and power of the will even though it is in bondage of sin
Fallen man retains the liberty and power of the will. But the human will is not an independent agent, it is only a power of the human soul which makes choices according to its prevailing moral disposition. Hence, Jesus teaches that while a good tree bears good fruit, a bad tree can only bear bad fruit. If a man becomes spiritually corrupt, then the consequence is his soul’s total inability to do good (measured by God’s standards of holiness and goodness). In contrast, if a man is regenerate (made spiritually alive by the grace of God), he possesses the same liberty and power of the will enjoyed by Adam had before the Fall, the same liberty and power which also remains with sinners after the Fall. Both the regenerate man and the unregenerate man possess the same liberty, but not the same ability. Both have the liberty to do good, but only the regenerate man has the ability to will and to do what is good by virtue of God’s grace.

Finally, man in his final state of glorification possesses the same liberty and power of the will which he now has. The difference is because he is endowed with the holiness of God in his glorified state, he possesses the total ability to reject the slightest suggestion to do evil and instead, do only what is good and pleasing to God.

Put in theological terms, the dynamics between liberty and ability of the will is aptly summarized in the following diagram.

Compared to other theological systems, it is arguable that Reformed theology, by setting human nature in a dynamic, salvation-historical framework, enables it to capture the various nuances of human liberty and ability and to provide the best safeguards which maintain the integrity and balance between freedom and responsibility.

C. Summary by J.V. Fesko
“In the garden Adam was free to sin and not to sin, but once he sinned, he plunged himself and all of his progeny into bondage. The nature of the bondage, however, is important to note; while fallen humanity is unable to do any spiritual good, this does not mean people have lost freedom of choice. The Reformers make a common distinction between what Martin Luther (1483–1546) famously called the bondage of the will (voluntas) and free choice (liberum arbitrium).

The human will is bound to sin, but our choices are free and not forced upon us. Even though God decrees whatsoever comes to pass, people freely make their own choices. God is not the author of sin and offers no violence to the will of creatures—they freely choose sin. Only through the grace of the gospel does fallen humanity freely choose what is spiritually good, though we are still hampered by the abiding presence of sin. When sinners are converted and ultimately glorified, they are completely freed from sin and immutably able freely to choose good. The question naturally arises, whom does God free from the bondage of sin?” [J.V. Fesko, Theology of Westminster Standards, p. 111]

The Confessions of Our Faith: The Fortress Edition (Tanglewood Pub. 2012).
J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Crossway, 2014).
A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Commentary (Banner of Truth, 1958, 2013).
Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Rev. Ed. (Christian Heritage, 1845, 2008).
G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes (Presb. & Reformed, 1964, 2004).

Related Posts

Self-Determination, Freedom, and Choice of the Will in Calvinist-Arminian Debate

The Providence of God – Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 1/7

Reformed Compatibilist Freedom. Part 1. Critique of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities by Harry Frankfurt

Models of Divine and Human Action in Providence – Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 2/7

Compatibilism: Divine Permission and Human Action– Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 3/7



3 thoughts on “Liberty and Ability of the Will in the Westminster Confession of Faith”

  1. Hi Phil,
    Ya, a diagram is not good if it needs further explanation. Admittedly it is confusing. Considering modifying the diagram.

    Basically, each column (blue & white) represents two possibilities for each state of man.
    Pre-Fall man (Adam) was both “able to sin” and “able not to sin.”
    After the Fall, man is both “able to sin” and “unable not to sin.”

    The blue section refers to liberty, & the bottom section refers to ability

    The thought was originally from Augustine:
    These four states, which are derived from the Scripture, correspond to the four states of man in relation to sin: 1) able to sin, able not to sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare); 2) not able not to sin (non posse non peccare); 3) able not to sin (posse non peccare); and 4) unable to sin (non posse peccare). The first state corresponds to the state of man in innocency, before the Fall; the second the state of the natural man after the Fall; the third the state of the regenerate man; and the fourth the glorified man.

    It was given its classic exposition in Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State (Banner of Truth, 1793, 1964)

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