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It depends what you mean by free will. When people hear, for example, about Martin Luther writing The Bondage of the Will, they will quickly think: “That cannot be true, because I do what I want. I act according to what I want to do, therefore, obviously, I have free will.” If that is what you mean by free will, Luther would say, “Absolutely, you do what you want.” But his point in The Bondage of the Will was to say, “Yes, but you do not choose what to want.” So, you go through life acting according to your desires, but your problem is that you have your desires bent in a particular direction, and you do not naturally love God.

So, we walk according to the desires of the flesh (Eph. 2:1–3), and we find that desire naturally gives birth to sin (James 1:14–15). Therefore, while sinners go through the world and their lives happily saying, “I’m doing whatever I want to do,” that is true, but they only want to pursue the flesh; they never want God.

The point of Luther’s argument in The Bondage of the Will is to say, “You cannot simply tell people to behave better, because the grain of their heart is oriented towards the flesh and sin and not toward loving God.” The only thing that can change that is the preaching of God’s Word and the gospel being preached. As a preacher, I can harangue people and tell people to behave better, and I can potentially achieve behavior change. What I cannot achieve—and what only the gospel can achieve—is heart change. When the gospel of Christ is proclaimed, then hearts turn for the very first time from a love for sin to a miraculous, Spirit-born love for God. That’s why heirs of the Reformation have happily always stood with Luther in talking about the bondage of the will.

This means that, in pastoring, I need to recognize that people can’t simply improve their behavior; I need to preach the gospel to them. I’m going to be a cruel pastor to them if I think they have free will in the sense that they can always choose to act in a holy way on the basis of their own abilities—they don’t. They need to have the gospel so their hearts are changed. A belief in the bondage of the will can sound like bad news, but it is the key to compassionate pastoring because only when I see that people are naturally floundering and helpless in their sin do I find my compassion leaping forward. I see what they need is not me telling them to do better; what they need is the gospel—they need Christ, a Savior.

This is a transcript of Michael Reeves’ answer given during our After Darkness, Light: 2018 Regional Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.