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Do we have free will? Occasionally the question is answered in this way: Calvinists don’t believe in free will, while Arminians affirm free will.

Well, I am a Calvinist, and I think we do have freewill. I am not alone. The early and orthodox reformed would agree. But perhaps I am mistaken. After all, Martin Luther wrote a treatise on the Bondage of the Will!

Yes, he did. And in it, he argued that we cannot do works of righteousness. And the title of the work—De Servo arbitrio—better translates as the “bounded choice.” This title refers to our inability to choose the good so that God rewards us with salvation. The debate, as Richard Muller explains, centred “on the ability of the fallen will in matters of salvation” (Providence 15). In this specific case, we have no freedom of choice.

That said, Luther makes characteristic overstatements in De Servo arbitrio. And if I were to solely identify the reformed view of freedom by this treatise, then my argument might be a hard sell.

But one man—even Luther—does not represent the reformed view of the will. A whole host of pastors and theologians sought to answer this question. And they eventually settled on something like a consensus.

In this article, I want to point to one of those reformed theologians, Peter Vermigli (1499–1562). Vermigli well represents early reformed thinking on the freedom of the will. He also has the added benefit of being an influential theologian in Italy, Strasbourg, England, and Zürich. He was well respected across the spectrum of reformed churches.

Vermigli also had the theological skill to provide a detailed view of human freedom. Historian Richard Muller writes, “Vermigli stands out among the Reformed writers of his generation as the author of the clearest and most nuanced presentation of the doctrines of human freedom and divine concurrence” (Providence 51).

Vermigli affirmed freedoms of will and choice

At a basic level, Vermigli affirmed that fallen people still retain some freedoms. He writes: “First, they are free from coercion. Next, they are able to do many things in accord with their free judgment in moral and civil actions. Finally, they enjoy some choice among sins themselves and now take up this sin, now that one, as they so choose.”

But such freedom has its limits: “However, their freedom does not extend to doing the things that please God. Also, they are subject, whether they like it or not, to the hardship and catastrophes of this life” (Common Places 2.22, p 54).

Everyone has the power to choose one thing or the other; and everyone has the power of judgment when it comes to moral and civil actions. Yet before faith, all acts have the corruption of sin. Even a good work cannot be meritorious before God since doing good may, for example, accompany pride while doing that good. So Vermigli speaks of choosing among sins.

We also cannot please God before the Holy Spirit works faith in us: “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6). This is because, among other things, a truly good work occurs for the glory of God (e.g., 1 Cor 10:31). Unbelievers can do an externally good work, of course; but it cannot be a work of condign merit.

What was the free will debate about?

If Vermigli and other reformed theologians believed in these kinds of freedom, then why do we sometimes assume Calvinists denied free will? I am not sure I can spell out all the reasons. But to be clear, the early reformed did in fact disagree with many Roman theologians over the nature of the will, but the debate was more nuanced than we are used to.

Historian Richard Muller explains the nature of the debate:

“The issues addressed by both Luther and Calvin was not the general predetermination of human willing but the very specific problem of the limiting character of human nature itself on the choices that an individual can be said legitimately to make, and that problem in turn was governed not by broad issues of choice in general but by the particular question of the increased limitation placed on the power of choice by sin” (Providence 15).


Clear now?

What Muller means is this: Reformed thinkers said human nature was so sinful that it was not free to do works that pleased God. We cannot choose to do true and genuine good works that tend to God’s glory. We cannot merit salvation by our works. We have no free will in this sense.

Some thinkers, like Gabriel Biel (d. 1495), argued that God agreed by covenant to accept our imperfect works. God would then infuse grace into the sinner, enabling him to cooperate with the Spirit to do works of condign merit. Others made arguments to similar effect.

But this implies that we contribute something to our salvation. If grace is free, if God is truly free to grant grace, then he does it not because of any reason in us—covenantal obedience or otherwise. We lack the ability to make any free choice towards meritorious good. Our will to choose, as Luther would argue, is bound to sin.

This specific debate over the limits of choice due to sin does not require or imply that we do not have general freedoms of choice, like deciding between blue or red; nor does it imply that we are robots without genuine freedom in our choices. It means we have a specific limit before grace: we are bound to sin. As Jesus says, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Rom 8:34).

If God knows the future, then can we have free will?  

Like Martin Luther, Vermigli denies we have the freedom to will acts of condign merit, which God must reward. But when it comes to more general acts (not salvific ones), the reformed can say with Vermigli: “God foreknows everything and our freedom of will is retained” (Common Places 2.33).

Yet if God knows the future, then aren’t our actions necessary? And if necessary, are they really free? Well, Jesus says of himself, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). It was necessary, yet Christ also says that he chooses to lay down his own life: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).

The point here is that not all kinds of necessity mean we lack freedom. Even if God knows the future, why must that restrict our freedom? And given God’s timelessness—past, present, and future are present to him—the fact that he knows the past and present should be just as restricting as his knowing the future; yet we don’t intuit the problem in these two cases.

God’s timeless nature and different order of being help to make sense of how God can both ordain all things (“was it not necessary”) while we still make meaningfully free choices (“I lay it down of my own accord”).

Here is how. God, in his eternal present, is the first cause of all things. But as the first cause of everything, God—being of a different order than human beings—allows genuine freedom for creatures (secondary causes).

As Vermigli explains: “For, even if a definite configuration of causes is established, it does not follow that there cannot be found among those causes some that are able to retain their freedom (or, as they say, their contingency).” Vermigli’s point in this rather dense sentence is this: even though God causes everything (divine freedom), humans still retain freedom in the realm of secondary causality (creaturely freedom).

In his commentary on 2 Samuel 16:22, he makes the point crystal clear: “our will effects all, and God effects all: but one is the first cause and the other secondary” (cited in Muller, Providence, 40). Vermigli here makes an important distinction between first and second causes.

How do first and second causes differ?

A first cause does not refer to a cause prior in time to a second cause. Instead, it speaks of divine causality (the kind that only God has)—it speaks of an entirely different ordering of causality because God’s existence is of an entirely different order than ours. Secondary causes refer to creaturely causality and so human choice.

When Vermigli and other theologians speak about the first cause and secondary causes, they do not mean sequences in time. They refer to two orders of causality:

  1. Divine (first cause);
  2. Creaturely (second or contingent causes).

Thomas Aquinas hundreds of years before Vermigli made the same point. Aquinas speaks of differing orders of causation: human and divine.

God, the First Agent, operates at a level different than human agency: “One action does not proceed from two agents of the same order. But nothing hinders the same action from proceeding from a primary and a secondary agent” (ST, Ia, q. 105, art 5, ad obj. 2.).

Just before this, Aquinas notes, “God works sufficiently in things as First Agent, but it does not follow from this that the operation of secondary agents is superfluous” (ST, Ia, q. 105, art 5, ad obj. 1.). In other words, human agents act as secondary agents in ways that are not superfluous.

Despite the rather complicated language, the point Vermigli makes is similar (maybe even identical) to Aquinas’s argument: “our will effects all, and God effects all: but one is the first cause and the other secondary.”

Somehow in God’s divine mode of being, while seeing all things as eternally present before him, he foreknows and predestines all as the first cause. This order of causality, rather than eliminating free choice, enables free choice at the level of temporal causes, of free choice.

Put in more formal language, Richard Muller writes:

“Arguably, what [Vermigli] insists on is a Thomistic conception of dual causality, divine and human, namely, the ultimate primary causality of God as first mover and the free self-motion of the will in the order of second causes, as illustrated in daily, mundane matters. God’s providential prior motion, as eternal, is not temporally prior to the will’s own free motion, but it is prior in the sense that the divine primary causality is necessary to the operation of the free secondary causality. It is an infallible, noncoercive willing that enables the will to act freely according to its nature even as it includes the free act of the will in the achievement of God’s ends.” (Providence, 46–7).

Obviously, if we could perfectly figure out how that works we’d have to be God. This position retains the mystery of faith, while trying to honour what the Bible says about God’s Providence and our responsibility. Even so, we still have some words to use when it comes to this great mystery, especially because it appears that our acts are both contingent (free) and necessary.

How can our acts be both contingent and necessary?

Vermigli speaks of the notion of hypothetical necessity to make sense of this relationship. By hypothetical necessity, he seems to mean that passages like Luke 24:26, which say it was necessary for Christ to suffer, do not gainsay the freedom of Christ’s will. Even though the consequence (suffering) would happen, Christ freely chose to suffer for our sake. And he retained all the powers of choice in getting to that point.

Vermigli illustrates this dynamic by thinking about players in a game. If we watch players play, say, Hockey, then we might say they are necessarily playing hockey in the present. Yes, but no hockey player would say that they are coerced into it. They chose to play and they are necessarily playing.

Since God sees everything in an eternal present—past, present, and future are always present to him— Vermigli thinks the sport analogy works at least at a basic level. He warns us not to think of God’s foreknowledge like a human might foreknow something as we have different natures. But the analogy is there to help make sense of everything.

Vermigli then affirms the Lord’s words, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” while also affirming that Christ did so voluntarily, by choice, freely.


In continuity with Vermigli, the reformed orthodox would later work out a full view of divine and human concurrence such as is found in William Perkins, namely, that God’s will and human will concur. Divine freedom provides the context for human freedom.

Some readers will notice that I omitted a lot of details. Others will have heads awhirl with details. Still others will wonder why I did not cite the Bible more often! My goal was to write an article that simply showed how reformed thinkers affirmed free will. Vermigli was a Bible commentator and frequently referred to the text.

Working out the right language to name the biblical truths that God created and oversees all things, while humans still retain responsibility for their choices takes some deep thinking. Hopefully, this article will help you as work these ideas out yourself.

As a simple summary, Peter Martyr Vermigli affirms our creaturely freedom by asserting that we have the power of contrary choice (free choice) and have the power of free will since secondary causes retain contingency (freedom) even when divine causality is prior to it logically. He denies the freedom to please God and so merit our salvation.

Were I to make a checklist of the freedoms of fallen people, I would say:

Free to please God? No.

Free to choose between options? Yes.

Free in a general sense, not a robot? Yes.


Further Resources:

See my review of Richard Muller’s work on William Perkins and Human Freedom.

See also my Into Theology podcast on John Calvin and free will.