Free Will

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The question of freedom of will is concerned with the relationship between God's sovereignty and the exercise of will by men. In particular it raises the question whether or not men have sufficient freedom to affect the course of history or to do that which will bear upon their ultimate salvation or damnation. This issue, which had come to a head early in the fifth century in the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy, was revived in the 16th century when the Protestant reformers espoused the Augustinian viewpoint. Erasmus of Rotterdam, Sebastian Franck, the Anabaptists, and certain other dissenters generally rejected the Augustinian position, but they did not go to the opposite extreme of asserting complete human freedom. They recognized that God controls the possibilities within which the events of history take place and the ultimate goal toward which history is moving. These men held that within certain limits God had granted free will, and that each person may at least either accept or reject divine grace offered to all. Anabaptists and those closely associated with them, however, held varying opinions as to the precise degree of freedom enjoyed by men. Nor did the Anabaptists agree entirely with the position of Erasmus.

Among the earliest Anabaptists to be concerned with the problem was Balthasar Hubmaier, who wrote two small pamphlets on the subject (Von der Freyhait des Willens, and Das ander Biechlen von der Freywilligkeit des Menschens, both published at Nikolsburg in 1527). He distinguished between God's "secret will" (plenary power) and His "revealed will," by which He has mercy on men. According to Hubmaier, God's "revealed will" is composed of an "attracting will" which offers grace and mercy to all, and a "repelling will," or will of judgment and punishment, by which He leaves in blindness and evil those who refuse His grace. With respect to the nature of man, Hubmaier held that originally Adam had been completely free to choose good or evil and that through disobedience Adam had lost this freedom for himself and his descendants. The body became corrupt and sinful; the soul lost its freedom of choice; and the spirit became the helpless prisoner of the body. Through God's grace, however, if the soul receives it, man's freedom is imperfectly restored. Hubmaier understood God's grace to mean that God awakens the soul by His Word, leads it by His Son, and enlightens it by the Holy Ghost. Hubmaier made it clear, however, that such freedom as man possesses in no way conflicts with the sovereignty of God over history. Man may propose, but his will is effective in actual events only to the extent that God wills or permits.

Hubmaier's contemporary, Hans Denck, held a similar point of view. Denck also recognized the omnipotence of God and believed that a divine plan of salvation, coexistent with human freedom, would be fulfilled. Denck thought that man was created primarily to fulfill God's desire for voluntary obedience as opposed to the blind obedience of "a log or a stone." God forces no one. "For the sake of human free will, He must permit sin." Like Hubmaier, Denck believed that only the flesh was corrupted by Adam's fall and that the spirit was made the prisoner of the flesh. Sin, according to Denck, is a kind of sickness. If a man would recover, he must surrender himself to God; only then can the spirit within him dominate the unwilling flesh. Only then is man able to keep the law of love in obedience to God. Thus Denck found the highest fulfillment of human free will in self-surrender to God (see Gelassenheit).

Although the Swiss Brethren were more concerned with practical Christianity than dogmatic theology, the idea of human free will appears now and then in the hymns in the Ausbund (1564, 1583, and later). Rewards and punishments are genuine, the result of voluntary obedience or disobedience. The hymn "Merket auf ihr Menschenkinder" states that God has no pleasure in the destruction of sinners and that He desires repentance; yet He will not leave unpunished the sins of those who refuse to serve Him. The same thought is contained in the hymn "Gross Unbill thut mich zwingen," in which the Biblical examples of the punishment of evil serve as a warning to the "ungodly." In the Last Judgment, "what one sows now, the same shall he reap, be it evil or good."

The South German Anabaptist view of free will is probably best represented by Pilgram Marpeck, who, unlike Hubmaier and Denck, accepted the Augustinian premise of the total depravity of man. Marpeck therefore stressed the atonement of Christ to a greater extent than did Hubmaier, but at the same time he accepted in substance Hubmaier's doctrine of God's attracting and repelling will. Marpeck's Biblical literalism, however, would not permit him to ignore such passages as Romans 8 and Romans 9. He found a solution by subjecting God's foreordination to His prescience, not the reverse. Marpeck also pointed out that God's eternal condemnation must not be confused with manifestations of His wrath in this world, where innocent and guilty may suffer alike. Thus the ultimate destiny of each is still determined by his free choice, even though God may know in advance what that choice will be.

In many respects the Hutterite elder Peter Riedemann was in agreement with Marpeck. With respect to the total depravity of man, the necessity of God's intervention in Jesus Christ, and the consequences of resisting the proffered grace, the views of the two men appear essentially the same. Riedemann, however, placed greater emphasis upon the sovereignty of God over history, and stressed the view that disobedience to God does not establish human independence, but makes the culprit a slave of Satan. Riedemann also stressed the necessity of surrendering oneself completely to God in order that God's grace may operate. Man's actual deeds are immediately determined by the master he serves. Thus Riedemann reduced the scope of human freedom to the choice between obedience to God and the service of Satan, but the responsibility for this choice rests squarely upon man.

In the Netherlands, Menno Simons and his followers continually stressed the responsibility which men and nations must bear for their own misdeeds. Although Menno saw a cosmic struggle between the attempts of Satan to lead men astray on the one hand and God's redeeming love and mercy on the other, he believed that each person might choose whether to follow the enticements of Satan or to obey the commands of God. The course of history is fixed, but the will of the individual is free. Menno's writings are filled with examples of the punishment of those who permitted themselves to be beguiled by Satan and refused to heed the warnings and promises of God.

In the debate with Reformed preachers at Emden in 1578, two Mennonite representatives, Peter of Cologne and Brixius Gerritts, claimed that God's promise of salvation extends to all men who have not forfeited it by their own direct and actual sins, that is, by willful disobedience. In support of their position Peter and Brixius cited Genesis 4:7 and Genesis 6:3. These arguments were repeated in substance in the debate at Leeuwarden in 1596; and the Mennonite confessions of faith of 1600 and 1630 take the same position. This must not be confused, however, with a Pelagian denial of the corruption of human nature. Only because of God's pardon and through divine grace, not from any human merit, are men permitted to exercise free will. But this grace can be rejected; hence men are responsible for their own destruction. Mennonite confessions of 1627 and 1632 imply such limited freedom, although they do not deal directly with the question.  The author of the confession of 1600, like Marpeck, used the semi-Pelagian device of ascribing divine predestination to divine prescience in order to reconcile God's foreordination with human free will.

The erstwhile Anabaptist David Joris attributed even greater importance to the freedom of the human will. Joris recognized no independent existence to the freedom of the human will. Joris recognized no independent existence of Satan; the devil is simply the sinful flesh, the temporal corrupt being, which, when it dominates the human will, introduces evil into the world. Thus the betrayal of man was self-betrayal. But God, through the example and power of Christ, has broken the power of the flesh. For salvation to be effective, however, man must take the initiative. He must first repent in order to be renewed through God's grace. Joris reconciled human freedom with God's sovereignty by recognizing that the consequences of man's disobedience spring from God's law, and that God withholds His hands for the time being.

The revolutionary branch of Anabaptism, on the other hand, follows more closely the familiar interpretations. Melchior Hoffman, like Marpeck, declared that man had completely fallen and could be saved only by God's grace. Yet grace, according to Hoffman, makes salvation possible; God does not force one to receive it. Like Denck, Hoffman emphasized God's desire for a "voluntary sacrifice," a "willing bride" for His Son Jesus Christ.

Bernhard Rothmann of Münster pictured the history of the world as a continual abuse of free will by human beings. God created man for righteousness; He gave him a knowledge of right and wrong; but man chooses whether or not he will obey. The way of obedience is open to all, for God wishes all men to be saved; but each man chooses the way he shall go. The emphasis upon human responsibility for the failure to obey God is increased in Rothmann's later works by attributing disobedience to human wisdom, reason, and levity instead of the enticements of the devil. Rothmann, as other Anabaptists, retained the sovereignty of God by placing human freedom within limits set by God. Like Hubmaier, he distinguishes between the will and the deed. With respect to predestination, Rothmann at one point based God's foreordination on His foreknowledge. At another point Rothmann reverted to the Lutheran device of the paradox beyond human wisdom to unravel. At another time he fell back, in substance, upon Hubmaier's explanation of God's will. In any case, Rothmann and his coreligionists at Münster called men to repentance" and preached the imminent doom of those who refused the last chance which God would offer them.

Two Mennonite discussions of free will in the 17th century deserve to be mentioned. Jan de Buyser's Christelijck Huisboeck of 1643 contains a long chapter on this subject by Vincent de Hondt. Georg Hansen, a noted elder in Danzig (died 1703), also discussed it in his book of 1671, Ein Glaubens-Bericht (Friedmann, Mennonite Piety, 131 f.).

In general, Anabaptist concern with the problem of free will appears to have been motivated by three considerations.  In the first place, God is righteous; therefore, He can in no way be responsible for evil. Secondly, without free will there can be no real repentance, which for Anabaptists was an indispensable element in entering the Christian life. Thirdly, without free will there can be no real commitment to discipleship.


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Author(s) Frank J Wray
Date Published 1956

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Wray, Frank J. "Free Will." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 29 Nov 2022.

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Wray, Frank J. (1956). Free Will. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 November 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 387-389. All rights reserved.

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