William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

The Idol of Free-Will

by John Owen

Our next task is to take a view of the idol himself, of this great
deity of FREE-WI LL, whose original being not well known. He is
pretended, like the Ephesian image of Diana[1], to have fallen down
from heaven and to have his endowments from above. But yet
considering what a nothing he was a this first discovery in
comparison of that vast giant-like hugeness to which now he is
grown, we may say of him as the painter said of his monstrous
picture, which he had mended or rather marred according to every
one's fancy, It is the issue[2] of the people's brain. Origen[3]
is supposed to have brought him first into the church; but among
those many sincere worshippers of divine grace, this setter forth of
new demons found but little entertainment. It was looked upon but
like the stump of Dagon with his head and hands laid down before the
ark of God without whose help he could neither know nor do that
which is good in any kind, still accounted but a fig - tree log, an
unprofitable piece of wood. The fathers of the succeeding ages had
much debate to what use they should put it, and though some exalted
it a degree or two above its merits, yet the most concluded to keep
it a block still until at length there arose a stout champion,[4]
challenging on his behalf the whole church of God, and like a
knight-errant,[5] wandered from the west to the east to grapple with
any that should oppose his idol; who, though he met with divers
adversaries, one especially,[6] who in the behalf of the grace of
God continually foiled him and cast him to the ground, and that in
the judgment of all the lawful judges assembled in councils and in
the opinion of most of the Christian bystanders. Yet by his cunning
insinuation,[7] he planted such an opinion of his idol's deity and
self-sufficiency in the hearts of divers[8] that to this day it
could never be rooted out.

Now after the decease of his Pelagian worshippers, some of the
corrupter schoolmen,[9] seeing him thus from his birth exposed
without shelter to wind and weather, to all assaults, out of mere
charity and self-love built him a temple and adorned it with natural
lights, merits, uncontrolled independent operations, [and] many
other gay attendances. But in the beginning of the Reformationthat
fatal time for idolatry and superstition together with abbeys and
monasteriesthe zeal and learning of our forefathers with the help
of God's Word demolished this temple and brake this building down to
the ground. In the rubbish whereof we well hoped the idol himself
had been so deeply buried as that his head should never more have
been exalted to the trouble of the church of God, until not long
since some curious wits, whose weak stomachs were clogged with manna
and loathed the sincere milk of the word, raking all dunghills for
novelties, lighted unhappily upon this idol, and presently with no
less joy than did the mathematician at the discovery of a new
geometrical proportion exclaim, We have found it! We have found
it! And without more ado, up they erected a shrine, and until this
day continue offering of praise and thanks for all the good they do
to this work of their own hands.[10]

And that the idol may be free from ruin, to which in himself they
have found by experience that he is subject, they have matched him
to contingency,[11] a new goddess of their own creation, who having
proved very fruitful in monstrous births upon their
conjunctions,[12] they nothing doubt they shall never [lack] one to
set on the throne and make president of all human actions. So that
after he hath, with various success at least twelve hundred years,
contended with the providence and grace of God, he boasteth now as
if he had obtained a total victory. But yet all his prevailing is to
be attributed to the diligence and varnish of his new abettors[13]
withto our shame be it spoken!the negligence of his adversaries.
In him and his cause there is no more real worth than was when by
the ancient fathers he was exploded and cursed out of the church. So
that they, who can attain, through the many winding labyrinths of
curious distinctions to look upon the thing itself, shall find that
they have been like Egyptian novices, brought, through many stately
frontispieces[14] and goodly fabrics with much show of zeal and
devotion, to the image of an ugly ape.

Yet here observe, that we do not absolutely oppose free-will, as if
it were a mere figment [or as if] there is no such thing in the
world, but only in that sense the Pelagians and Arminians[15] do
assert it. About words we will not contend. We grant man in the
substance of all his actions as much power, liberty, and freedom as
a mere created nature is capable of. We grant him to be free in his
choice from all outward coaction[16] or inward natural necessity to
work according to [choice] and deliberation, spontaneously embracing
what seemeth good unto him. Now call this power free-will or what
you please, [as long as] you make it not supreme, independent, and
boundless, we are not at all troubled. The imposition of names
depends upon the discretion of their inventers.

Again, even in spiritual things, we deny that our wills are at all
debarred[17] or deprived of their proper liberty. But here we say,
indeed, that we are not properly free until the Son makes us free .
. .we do not claim such a liberty as should make us despise the
grace of God, whereby we may attain true liberty indeed, which
addeth to, but taketh nothing from our original freedom. But of
this, after I have showed what an idol the Arminians make of
free-will. Only take notice in the entrance that we speak of it now,
not as it was at first by God created, but as it is now by sin
corrupted; yet being considered in that estate also, they ascribe
more unto it than it was ever capable of.

Herein, saith Arminius, consisteth the liberty of the will, that
all things required to enable it to will anything being
accomplished, it still remains indifferent[18] to will or not. And
all of them at the Synod:[19] There is, say they, accompanying
the will of man an inseparable property, which we call liberty, from
whence the will is termed a power, which when all things prerequired
as necessary to operation are fulfilled, may will anything or not
will it. That is, our free-wills have such an absolute and
uncontrollable power in the territory of all human actions, that no
influence of God's providence, no certainty of His decree, no
unchangeableness of His purpose can sway it at all in its free
determinations or have any power with His highness to cause him to
will or resolve on any such act as God by him intendeth to produce!
Take an instance in the great work of our conversion. All
unregenerate men saith Arminius, have by virtue of their free-will
a power of resisting the Holy Spirit, of rejecting the offered grace
of God, of contemning[20] the counsel of God concerning themselves,
of refusing the gospel of grace, of not opening the heart to him
that knocketh. What a stout idol is this, whom neither the Holy
Spirit, the grace and counsel of God, the calling of the gospel, the
knocking at the door of the heart, can move at all, or in the least
measure prevail against him! Woe be unto us then, if when God calls
us, our free-will be not in good temper and well disposed to hearken
unto Him! For it seems there is no dealing with it by any other
ways, though powerful and almighty. For grant saith Corvinus,[21]
all the operations of grace which God can use in our conversion,
yet conversion remaineth so in our own free power that we can be not
converted; that is, we can either turn or not turn ourselves, where
the idol plainly challengeth the Lord to work His utmost and tells
Him that after He hath so done, he will do what he please. His
infallible prescience,[22] His powerful predetermination, the moral
efficacy of the gospel, the infusion of grace, the effectual
operation of the Holy Spirit, all are nothing, not at all available
in helping or furthering our independent wills in their proceedings.
Well, then in what estate will you have the idol placed?
In such a one wherein he may be suffered to sin or to do well at
his pleasure as the same author intimates. It seems then as to sin,
so nothing is required for him to be able to do good but God's
permission? No! For the Remonstrants[23] do always suppose a free
power of obeying or not obeying, as well in those who do obey as in
those who do not obeywhere all the praise of our obedience,
whereby we are made to differ from others, is ascribed to ourselves
alone, and that free power that is in us.

Now, this they mean not of any one act of obedience, but of faith
itself, and the whole consummation thereof. For if a man should
say, that every man in the world hath a power of believing if he
will, and of attaining salvation, and that this power is settled in
his nature, what argument have you to confute[24] him? saith
Arminius triumphantly to Perkins,[25] where the sophistical
innovator[26] as plainly confounds grace and nature as ever did
Pelagius. That, then, which the Arminians claim here in behalf of
their free-will is, an absolute independence of God's providence in
doing anything, and of His grace in doing that which is gooda
self-sufficiency in all its operations, a plenary indifferency[27]
of doing what we will, this or that, as being neither determined to
the one nor inclined to the other by any overruling influence from
heaven. So that the good acts of our wills have no dependence on
God's providence as they are acts or on His grace as they are good,
but in both regards proceed from such a principle within us as is no
way moved by any superior agent.

Now, the first of these we deny unto our wills because they are
created; and the second because they are corrupted. Their creation
hinders them from doing anything of themselves without the
assistance of God's providence; and their corruption from doing
anything that is good without His grace. A selfsufficiency for
operation without the effectual motion of Almighty God, the first
cause of all things, we can allow neither to men nor angels unless
we intend to make them gods. And a power of doing good equal unto
that they have of doing evil, we must not grant to man by nature
unless we will deny the fall of Adam and fancy ourselves still in

Endued we are with such a liberty of will as is free from all
outward compulsion and inward necessity, having an elective faculty
of applying itself unto that which seems good unto it, in which it
is a free choice. Notwithstanding, it is subservient to the decree
of God, as I showed before. Most free it is in all its acts, both in
regard of the object it chooseth and in regard of that vital power
and faculty whereby it worketh, infallibly complying with God's
providence and working by virtue of the motion thereof. But surely
to assert such a supreme independency and every way unbounded
indifferency as the Arminians claim, whereby, all other things
requisite being presupposed, it should remain absolutely in our own
power to will or not to will, to do anything or not to do it, is
plainly to deny that our wills are subject to the rule of the Most
High...against its exaltation to this height of independency, I

First, Everything that is independent of any else in operation is
purely active, and so consequently a god; for nothing but a divine
will can be a pure act, possessing such a liberty by virtue of its
own essence. Every created will must have a liberty by
participation, which includeth such an imperfect potentiality as
cannot be brought into act without some pre-motion[28] of a superior
agent. Neither doth this motion being extrinsical[29] at all
prejudice the true liberty of the will, which requireth indeed that
the internal principle of operation be active and free, but not that
that principle be not moved to that operation by an outward superior
agent. Nothing in this sense can have an independent principle of
operation which hath not an independent being.

Secondly, if the free acts of our wills are so subservient to the
providence of God as that He useth them to what end He will and by
them effecteth many of His purposes, then they cannot of themselves
be so absolutely independent as to have in their own power every
necessary circumstance and condition, that they may use or not use
at their pleasure. Now the former is proved by all those reasons and
texts of Scripture I before produced to show that the providence of
God overruleth the actions and determineth the wills of men freely
to do that which He hath appointed. And, truly, were it otherwise,
God's dominion over the most things that are in the world [would be]
quite excluded: He had not power to determine that any one thing
should ever come to pass which hath any reference to the wills of

Thirdly, all the acts of the will being positive entities, were it
not previously moved by God Himself, in whom we live, move, and
have our being, must needs have their essence and existence solely
from the will itself; which is thereby made a first and supreme
cause, endued with an underived30] being.
Let us now, in the second place, look upon the power of our freewill
in doing that which is morally good, where we shall find not only an
essential imperfection, inasmuch as it is created, but also a
contracted effect, inasmuch as it is corrupted. The ability which
the Arminians ascribe unto it in this kindof doing that which is
morally and spiritually goodis as large as themselves will confess
to be competent unto it in the state of innocency, even a power of
believing and a power of resisting the gospel, of obeying and not
obeying, of turning or of not being converted.

The Scripture, as I observed before, hath no such term at all or
anything equivalent unto it. But the expressions it useth concerning
our nature and all the faculties thereof in this state of sin and
unregeneration seem to imply the quite contrary: as that we are in
bondage (Heb 2:15); dead in sins (Eph 2:1); and so free from
righteousness (Rom 6:20); servants of sin (v. 17); under the
reign and dominion thereof, (vv. 12, 14); all our members being
instruments of unrighteousness (v. 13); not free indeed until
the Son make us free (Joh 8:36); so that this idol of FREE-WILL,
in respect of spiritual things, is not one whit better than the
other idols of the heathen.

1 Diana Acts 19:24-35 Greek goddess of the moon; her temple at
Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
2 issue the flowing out, therefore, the product.
3 Origen (c. 185-c. 254) theologian and Biblical scholar of the
early Greek Church.
4 Pelagius (c. 354-c. 420) British monk, who argued for a totally
free human will to do good and held that divine grace was bestowed
in relation to human merit. His views were condemned as heresy by
the Council of Ephesus (431).
5 knight-errant a wondering knight; a knight who traveled in
search of adventures for the purpose of exhibiting military skill,
prowess, and generosity.
6 Augustine of Hippo (354-430) early church theologian born in
Tagaste, North Africa. Known by many as the father of orthodox
theology; taught the depravity of man and the grace of God in
7 insinuation to work one's self into favor subtly; to introduce
gradually and by clever means.
8 divers several; more than one but not a great number.
9 schoolmen a term for the teachers of philosophy and theology in
the Middle Ages. Also known as scholastics, examples would be Thomas
Aquinas (1225-74) and John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308).
10 A reference to the followers of Arminius.
11 contingency the absence of necessity; something that occurs
only as a result of something else.
12 conjunctions joining together, meaning the union of free-will
and contingency.
13 abettors to encourage, support, or assist in a criminal act.
14 frontispiece the ornamental faade or face of a building.
15 Arminians/Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) Dutch theologian, born
in Oudewater, The Netherlands. He rejected the Reformers'
understanding of predestination, teaching instead that God's
predestination of individuals was based on His foreknowledge of
their accepting or rejecting Christ by their own free will.
16 coaction force; urging to action by moral pressure.
17 debarred hindered or prevented.
18 indifferent impartial.
19 Synod of Dort (1618-19) a synod is an assembly of church
officials. Such was the gathering of Reformed theologians at
Dordrecht (Dort) in The Netherlands to counter and condemn the
teachings of Jacobus Arminius and his followers (Remonstrants).
20 contemn to treat as despicable; to reject as disdained.
21 Johannes Arnoldus Corvinus supporter of Arminius and signer of
the Remonstrance.
22 prescience knowledge of actions or events before they occur.
23 Remonstrants a remonstrant is one who protests or rejects. The
Dutch Remonstrants were the followers of Jacobus Arminius who
rejected the teaching of the Reformed churches and provoked the
Synod of Dort.
24 confute refute decisively.
25 William Perkins (1558-1602) influential English Puritan
theologian. Referred to by some as the principle architect of
Elizabethan Puritanism.
26 Sophistical innovator one who introduces something new with
elaborate and devious arguments. The reference is to Arminius.
27 plenary indifferency a full, a complete impartiality or
28 pre-motion a previous motion or excitement to action.
29 extrinsical external; outward.
30 underived not obtained from another source.
From A Display of Arminianism, in The Works of John Owen, Vol X,
reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust.


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