Doctrine of Man (Part 27): The Catholic View of Freedom of the Will

July 22, 2020

The Catholic View of Freedom of the Will

We’ve been talking about the freedom of the will. The operative question is whether human beings in their sinful and fallen state have the freedom to respond to God’s grace. Last time we reviewed the view of the Protestant Reformers which is the bondage of the will. Today we want to look at the Roman Catholic view as expressed at the Council of Trent.

In contrast to the Reformers’ view stands the Roman Catholic view that was enunciated at the Council of Trent following the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent was held over many years and in many sessions between the years 1545 and 1563. It was, as it were, the Catholic response to the Reformation. It epitomized the beliefs and teaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the Reformers’ doctrine.

The doctrine promulgated at Trent affirms freedom of the will in contrast to the doctrine of the Reformers. According to Trent, the process of salvation has several steps, or stages as it were, in which God and man each plays his part:

1. God’s prevenient grace. This first step is from God’s side. Against Pelagius the Council of Trent held that no one approaches God, saying “Oh, God, I need you. I want you. I have this God-shaped vacuum in my heart and therefore I am turning to you for salvation.” No, God’s grace comes first – it is prevenient. God’s grace first seeks you out. For sinful, fallen, corrupted, natural man does not seek the things of the Spirit of God. So the first step must come entirely from the divine side. It is God’s initiative in salvation to seek out sinful persons.

2. Preparation of the heart for the receiving of God’s grace. This step comes from the human side. This is the human response to God’s prevenient grace, which is drawing you to himself. This is the point at which freedom of the will enters in. The bestowal of God’s grace is not a unilateral process. It requires some sort of human response in return.

3. Justification. Here, in response to the human preparation of the heart, God infuses his grace into the individual believer. So in the first step we have God acting, then in the second step the human response, and now thirdly God again with his justifying grace.

4. Human beings are enabled to perform good works which God’s grace works in you. We are back again to the human response: filled with God’s grace – in the power of God’s grace – we are enabled to do good works.

5. The merit of the good works that you perform then win your salvation. So the final step in the process is eternal life which, through the merit of the good works that God’s grace has enabled you to perform, you find heaven.

So I think you can see that the Catholic view is a blend of both divine and human factors in salvation. From God’s side we have prevenient grace, his infusion of justifying grace, and his bestowal of eternal life; but from the human side we have the response of the heart to God’s prevenient grace and then the performance of good works through the power of God’s grace working in you that then merit the eternal life that God bestows.

Let’s now turn to an evaluation of these attempts to systematize the biblical data concerning freedom of the will. By way of review, we’ve seen that for the Reformers like Luther and Calvin there is no freedom of the will with respect to the reception of God’s grace or finding salvation. We are dead in sin, slaves to sin, bound in sin and darkness, and it is only by God’s grace that anyone can be saved. The initiative in salvation comes entirely from God’s side, and his grace is irresistible. He freely selects certain persons to be recipients of that grace and then irresistibly wins the consent of the creaturely will so as to achieve a person’s salvation. So freedom of the will is excluded.

By contrast, we saw that on the Roman Catholic view as enunciated at the Council of Trent both God and man play a role in the process of salvation. (1) First is God’s role in providing prevenient grace. Then (2) there is the preparation of the human heart as we respond to that prevenient grace of God. For those who respond affirmatively to God’s grace, then (3) God infuses justifying grace, so that they are now justified before God by his grace. (4) Through the inner grace of God empowering us and filling us, we are then enabled to perform good works which then merit salvation. The result is finally, (5) eternal life.

How might we evaluate these competing views? Protestants and Catholics agree on the first step – the necessity of God’s prevenient grace in the process of salvation, and rightly so, I think. The natural man left to himself does not seek God. So apart from the prevenient grace of God, no one would ever be saved. God must take the initiative in convicting of sin and drawing persons to himself.

But then it seems at some point along the line human beings do have the freedom either to accede to that drawing of God’s grace or to resist it and push back and refuse to receive God’s grace of salvation. We need not think of this as even the ability to receive God’s grace but merely to quit resisting it. Thus, human free will does enter the process at this point.

Someone might say, but doesn’t Romans 9 teach that human beings are completely inert in the process of salvation? That it belongs entirely to God’s will who is elect and who is reprobate and left unsaved. Doesn’t Romans 9 teach a strong doctrine of predestination and irresistible grace that excludes any sort of human role in terms of a free response such as I have suggested? I would like to suggest for your consideration a very different reading of Romans 9 than the one that we so often hear. Typically, people think of Romans 9 as God’s narrowing down the scope of election to just those few people that he wants to save. He passes over the broad mass of humanity to selectively save those few that he has picked out. I want to suggest that Paul’s burden in Romans 9 is exactly the opposite. What Paul wants to do here is to broaden the scope of salvation, not to narrow it down to a select few. He wants to broaden it as wide as possible.

The problem that Paul is dealing with in Romans 9 concerns Jewish persons who think that because of their Jewish ethnicity they have a sort of leg up on salvation by God. Those who were ethnically Jewish found it unthinkable that God would reject his chosen people Israel and instead allow these execrable Gentiles to go into the Kingdom of God rather than his own people. How God could prefer over the Jews these Gentile dogs and save them and pass over the Jews was just unthinkable for these Jewish people. So what Paul wants to emphasize in Romans 9 is God’s sovereignty in electing and saving whomever he wants regardless of their ethnic background. Whether Jew or Gentile, it is God’s choice as to who will be saved.

So you notice at the beginning of chapter 9 Paul expresses his anguish concerning those Israelites to whom all of the promises of the old covenant belong but who are not believers in Christ. He says in verse 6 that it is not as though God’s Word has failed. Rather he says that not everyone who is descended from Israel belongs to Israel. Not everybody is a real child of Abraham just because they are his physical descendant. Just because you are ethnically Jewish doesn’t mean that you have some sort of a favored status with God. Rather, as Paul illustrates with the story of Jacob and Esau, God has the freedom to choose whom he wills to be saved. Just being descended from Abraham physically is no guarantee.

So in verses 6-24, Paul says God is free to save whomever he wants and that no one can call into question God’s choice. No one has the right to talk back to God; no one has the right to say that God has to prefer his own people Israel over these Gentiles. If God wants to broaden the scope of salvation to include Gentiles in addition to and even instead of his chosen people, the ethnic Jews, then no one can talk back to God. It is God who has mercy upon whom he has mercy and has compassion upon whom he has compassion.

So here is the key question: Who is it, then, according to Romans 9, that God has chosen to elect if it is not those who are ethnically Jewish? The answer is: those who have faith in Christ Jesus. Those are the ones that he has chosen to elect and save. So in verse 30 he writes,

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works.

So what God has done is that he has decided to save all those who have faith in Christ Jesus – whether Jew or Gentile it doesn’t matter. It is those who have faith in Christ Jesus whom God has elected. Therefore, given God’s sovereign choice, ethnically Jewish people cannot complain if God has preferred to save certain Gentiles over certain Jewish persons.

This is all based upon the principle of faith that Paul explains back in Romans 3 and 4 with respect to Abraham himself. In Romans 3:21ff, Paul writes:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

In verse 27 Paul says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Then he asks specifically, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.”

So it is through faith that one becomes a true child of Abraham, a member of that elect body that will inherit the Kingdom of God.

Next time we’ll see how this doctrine works itself out in Romans 10. Until that time, have a great week.[1]


[1]           [1]Total Running Time: 18:08 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)