I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.
These words are frequently made use of by the patrons of free-will, in favor of it, and its power, to do that which is spiritually good. I shall briefly consider this so-much-controverted subject, by considering the following things:
I. What free-will is, or what is the nature of the liberty of the human will.
1. The will of man, though it is free, yet not independently and absolutely so; it is dependent on God, both in its being and acting; it is subject to his authority and command, and controllable by his power. The King’s heart (Prov. 21:1), and so every other man’s, is in the hand of the Lord: as the rivers of waters, he turneth it whithersoever he will. The will of God is only free in this sense; he is not subject to a superior being, and therefore acts without control, according to his will, in the armies of the heavens, and among the inhabitants of the earth: hence those great swelling words of vanity, aujtexousion, liberum arbitrium, which carry in them the sense of self-sufficiency, despotic, arbitrary liberty, are improperly given to the human will, though agreeable enough to the language of some free-willers; such as Pharaoh, who said, Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice, to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go (Ex. 5:2). Others have said, Our lips are our own; who is Lord over us? (Ps.12:4).
2. The liberty of the will does not consist in an indifference to good and evil, or in an indetermination to either; otherwise the will of no being would be free; for God, as he is essentially and naturally good, his will is determined only to that which is so; nor does he nor can he do anything evil; and yet in all he does, acts with the utmost freedom and liberty of his will. The will of the good angels, though in their state of probation, was left mutable and liable to change; yet in their confirmed state, is impeccable, wholly turned unto and bent upon that which is good, and yet all the services they perform to God and man, are done with the greatest readiness, cheerfulness, and willingness, without any force or compulsion. The will of the devil is biased only to that which is evil, without the least inclination to that which is good; and yet moves freely in the highest acts of sin and malice. The will of man, considered in every state he has been, is, or shall be in, is determined to good or evil, and does not stand in equilibrio, in an indifference to either. The will of man, in a state of innocence, was indeed mutable, and capable of being wrought upon and inclined to evil, as the event shows; yet during that state, was entirely bent on that which is good, and acted freely, and without any co-action, in obedience to the commands of God. The will of man, in his fallen state, is wholly addicted to sinful lusts, and in the fulfilling of them takes the utmost delight and pleasure. Man, in his regenerate state, though he is inclined both to good and evil which arises from the two different principles of corruption and grace in him; yet both move freely, though determined to their several objects. The flesh, or corrupt part, is solely determined to that which is evil; grace, or the new creature, to that which is spiritually good; so that with the flesh, the regenerate man serves the law of sin, and with his mind the law of God. The will of the glorified saints in heaven is wholly given up to spiritual and divine things, nor can it be moved to that which is sinful; and yet as they serve the Lord constantly, so with all freedom and liberty. Consider, therefore, the will in very rank of beings, its liberty does not consist in an indifference or indetermination to good and evil.
3. The liberty of the will is consistent with some kind of necessity. God necessarily, and yet freely, hates that which is evil, and loves that which is good. Christ, as man, was under some kind of necessity of fulfilling all righteousness, and yet performed it voluntarily. The will of man is free from a physical or natural necessity; it does not act and move by a necessity of nature, as many creatures do. So the sun, moon, and stars, move in their course; fire, by a physical necessity, burns; light things ascend upwards, and heavy bodies move downwards. Moreover, it is free from a necessity of co-action or force; the will cannot be forced; nor is it even by the powerful, efficacious, and unfrustrable operation of God’s grace in conversion; for though before, it; is unwilling to submit to Christ, and his way of salvation, yet it is made willing in the day of his power, without offering the least violence to it; God working upon it, as Austin says, cum suavi omnipotentia et omnipotenti suavitate, with a sweet omnipotence, and an omnipotent sweetness: but then the will of man is not free from a necessity of obligation; it is bound to act in obedience to the divine will; though it is free, it is not free to act at pleasure, without control; though the sinful, corrupt will of man, breaks out in despite of the laws of God, and chooses its own ways, and delights in its abominations; yet this is not properly liberty, but licentiousness. And though a good man looks upon himself under a necessary obligation to act agreeable to the will of God, yet this necessity is act contrary to the liberty of his will; for he delights in the law of God after the inner man. Moreover, there is a kind of necessity which the school-men call a necessity of immutability; which respects the divine decrees, and their necessary, unchangeable, and certain events, that is consistent with the liberty of man’s will: for though the decrees of God are necessarily fulfilled, yet these do not infringe nor hinder the liberty of the creature in acting; for instance, the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites, by whom he was brought to Egypt, was according to the decree and purpose of God, who sent him thither, and designed it for the good of others, and yet his brethren in the whole of that affair, acted with the utmost deliberation, choice, and freedom of their wills imaginable. Nothing was more peremptorily decreed and determined by God than the crucifixion of Christ, and yet men never acted more freely, as well as more wickedly, than the Jews did in all the parts and circumstances of that tragical scene. So that the liberty of the will is consistent with some kind of necessity, yea, even with some kind of servitude. A servant may serve his master freely and voluntarily, as the Hebrew servant who was unwilling to part from his master when his time of servitude was expired. A wicked man, who commits sin, gives up himself wholly to it, is a servant of it, yet acts freely in all his shameful and sinful services; even at the same time he is a slave to those lusts and pleasures he chooses and delights in; which made Luther call free-will servum arbitrium.
4. The consideration of the will of man in the several states of innocence, the fall, regeneration, and glorification, serves much to lead us into the true nature and notion of the liberty and power of it. Man, in his state of innocence, had both a power and will to do that which was naturally and morally good; though his will was left mutable, and so through temptation might be inclined to evil, at which door came in the sin and fall of man. Man, in his fallen state, is wholly under the power and dominion of sin, is a captive under it, and a slave unto it, and has neither a power nor will to that which is spiritually good. Man, in a state of regeneration, is freed from the dominion of sin, though not from the being of it; his will is sweetly and powerfully wrought upon, and inclined to what is spiritually good, though he finds a body of sin and death about him, which much distresses and hinders him in the performance of it. The saints in heaven are freed both from the being and dominion of sin; and as they have a will solely inclined, so they have full power, to serve the Lord without ceasing.
5. The distinction between the natural and moral liberty of the will is of great service in this controversy; though these two are artfully confounded together; and because the one is denied by us, it is concluded that the other is also; whereas we affirm, that the natural liberty of the will is essential to it, and always abides with it in every action and in every state of life. A wicked man, in the highest degree of servitude to sin, his will acts as freely in this state of bondage as Adam’s will did in obedience to God, in a state of innocence; but the moral liberty of the will is not essential to it, though it adds to the glory and excellency of it; and therefore may and may not be with it, without any violation to, or destruction of, the natural liberty of the will. The moral liberty of the will to that; which is good was with Adam in a state of innocence; this was lost by the fall; hence man in a state of corruption and unregencracy is destitute of it; in the regenerate state it is implanted in the will by the Spirit and grace of God, and in the state of glorification will be in its full perfection; so that the controversy ought to be not about the natural, but moral liberty of the will, and not so much about free-will itself, as the strength and power of it; which leads me to the consideration of the next inquiry, which is,
II. What is the strength and power of man’s free-will; or what it is that the will of man itself can will or nill, choose or refuse, effect and perform.
1. It will be allowed that the human will has a power and liberty of acting, in things natural or in things respecting the natural and animal life; such as eating, drinking, sitting, standing, rising, walking, etc. The external parts, actions, and motions of the body, generally speaking, are subject to, and controllable by the will; though the internal parts, motions, and actions of it, are not so, such as digestion of food, secretion of it to various purposes and uses, nutrition and accretion of the several parts of the body, circulation of the blood, etc., all which are performed without the consent of the will.
2. The will of man has a liberty and power of acting in things civil, such as relate to the good of societies, in kingdoms, cities, towns, and families; as obedience to magistrates, lawful marriage, education of children, cultivation of arts and sciences, exercise and improvement of trades and manufactures, and every thing else that contributes to the good, pleasure, and advantage of civil life.
3. Man has also a power of performing the external, parts of religion, such as praying, singing praise of God, reading the scriptures, hearing the word of God, and attending on all public ordinances. So Herod heard John gladly, and did many things in a religious way, externally. Men. may also give to every one their own, do justice between man and man, love such as love them, live inoffensively in the world, appear outwardly righteous before men, and do many things which have the show of moral good, as did the heathen and publicans, and the apostle Paul before conversion.
4. Man has neither will nor power to act of himself in things spiritually good, or in such as relate to his spiritual and eternal welfare; as conversion, regeneration, faith, repentance, and the like. Conversion is not the work of a creature, but of God, even a work of his almighty power; by which men are turned from sin and Satan to him, are delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom of his dear Son. Regeneration, or a being born again, is expressly denied to be of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, and is ascribed to God himself. All men have not faith in Christ; and such who have it, have it not of themselves; it is the gift of God, the operation of his Spirit, the fruit and effect of electing and efficacious grace. Evangelical repentance, which is unto life, is not in the power of man; man, in a state of nature, has no true sense of his sins; nor will any means of themselves bring him to repentance for them, without the efficacious grace of God. True evangelical repentance is God’s free-grace gift.
5. That there is no power naturally in the will of man, to will, choose, and effect things spiritually good, does not only appear from all experience of human nature, but also from all those scriptures which represent men as polluted, wholly carnal, given up to sin, slaves unto it, and dead in it; and not only impotent unto, but under an impossibility to do that which is good; and from all those scriptures which declare the understanding, judgment, and affections, to be corrupt, by which the will is greatly influenced and directed; and from all such scriptures which intimate that every good gift and spiritual blessing come from God, and that the saints themselves only will and act through the power, and under the influence of the grace of God; who works in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure. I proceed,
III. To inquire whether the words of the text under consideration assert the power and liberty of the will of man in choosing that which is spiritually good. To which I answer,
1. Supposing what is here proposed to be chosen is spiritually good, and what to be refused is spiritually evil; it does not follow from hence that man has a power to choose the one and refuse the other; for, as Luther says, "The words are imperative, they assert nothing but what ought to be done; for Moses does not say, thou hast a power of choosing, but choose, keep, do. He delivers precepts, of doing, but does not describe the power of man."
2. Life and death, blessing and cursing, are to be taken in a civil sense, and design the external dispensations of God’s providence, with respect to temporal good or evil, which should befall the people of Israel, according to their civil behavior. That people were under the immediate government of God; he was their political king and head. Moses, from him, gave a system of laws to them as a body politic; according to their obedience to which laws, they and their seed were to live and dwell in and enjoy all the temporal blessings of the land of Canaan, as appears from verses 16, 20; but if they disobeyed, they were to expect cursing and death, captivity and the sword, and not prolong their days in the land they were going to possess, as is evident from verses 17, 18. Therefore Moses advises them to choose life, that is, to behave according to those laws given them as a commonwealth; that so they, under the happy government they were, might comfortably live, and they and their posterity enjoy all the blessings of a civil life in the land of promise. What comes nearer to such a case, and may serve to illustrate it, is as if a person should represent the wholesome constitution laws of Great Britain, preserved under the government of his majesty king George, with all the consequent blessing and happiness thereof, and also, the sad and miserable condition it would be in under a popish Pretender; and then observe that it would be most desirable, advisable, and eligible peaceably to continue under the government of the one, than to receive the yoke of the other. To choose the one is to choose liberty and property, blessing and life, and everything, that is valuable, in a civil sense; to choose the other, is to choose slavery and arbitrary power, cursing and death, and everything that is miserable and destructive. Now it is allowed that man has a power of willing and nilling, choosing and refusing, acting and not acting, in things of a civil nature; therefore these words can be of no service, nor ought they to have a place or concern in the controversy about the power and liberty of the will in things spiritual.
 Erasmus in Luther. de Selvo Arbitr. c. 95 and 97, pp. 145, 148;Curcellaei Institut. Rel. Christian. I. 6, c. 13, sect. 2, p. 400: Limborch. Theolog. Christ. I. 4, c. 13, sect. 22, p. 376, Whitby, pp. 317. 318; ed. 2. 309, 310.
 Vide Gale’s Court of the Gentiles, part 4. b. 3, c 1, sect. 4, pp. 13, 14.
 Verba adducta sunt imperativa; nihil dicunt, nisi quid fieri debeat; neque enim Moses dicit. eligendi habes vim, vel virtutem; sed elige, serva fac, Praecepta faciendi tradil non autem describit hominis facultatem. — Luther, de serv. arbitr, e. 97, p. 148.