When the question of free will arises, it is imperative that we define our terms very carefully. By “free,” do we simply mean that we make real choices apart from external coercion, or do we mean that we can choose any theoretically possible option, without being necessarily constrained by our natural inclinations, prejudices, and desires? If we mean the former, then the term “free” is unnecessary and misleading, for real choice without external coercion is part of the very definition of “will”. If I make any choice at all, I do so willingly, because it is what I want to do; I am not constrained from the outside, and therefore, I cannot say in my defense, “Something took control of my body and forced me to do what I didn't want to do – I'm not to blame!”. No, whatever I have done, I have done willingly, and I am responsible to God for my actions.
But if we mean the latter, that we have the power to choose to do good or evil, to obey God or not to obey him, or at least to believe or disbelieve his gospel, as many people intend to suggest by the term “free will,” then we are in direct contradiction to many scriptures. We are “free” to do what we want to do, but we are bound in what we want by our evil nature and desires. We may do as we please, but we cannot please as we please. We cannot use our will to shape our natures, but rather, our natures determine how we will use our wills. Thus, the bible says very often, and in many different ways, that we are utterly bound in sin. In our flesh, we cannot please God (Rom. 8:5-8), we cannot understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14; John 3:3, 10-13; 14:17), we cannot seek God (Rom. 3:11), we cannot believe in God (John 6:44, 65; 10:26; 12:37-41), we cannot do anything good at all (Job 15:14-16; Prov. 20:9; Jer 13:23; Rom. 3:10-18). We are utterly captive to sin (John 8:34; Rom. 6:20; Tit. 3:3), we are prisoners of the devil and constrained to do his desires (John 8:43-45, 2 Tim. 2:25-26; 1 John 5:19), every impulse of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil continually (Gen. 6:5), and so every action we perform, no matter how “good” we think it is, is actually evil, nothing but “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Ever since the fall, we are not free to do anything good whatsoever; and we can only begin to do good as the Spirit gives us a new nature (Ezek. 36:26-27). We are only free when the Son sets us free (John 8:36).
John Calvin has very adeptly expressed these truths in his treatise on the Bondage and Liberation of the Will:
"...we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man's innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined." John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70