Man’s free moral agency suggests that a person is free to make their own choices. Specifically, they are free to make their own decisions about what’s right and wrong. Free moral agency implies or assumes that:

  1. A “free moral agent” understands the difference between right and wrong and has the mental capacity to make a choice.
  2. A person operating under free moral agency is accountable for their choices.
  3. There is no other “agent” or higher power that is forcing the free moral agent to make certain choices. To say that one has “free moral agency” is the same as saying that one has free will – something the Bible clearly teaches.

However, are there conditions that could lead to man’s free moral agency being lost? After all, God is sovereign and desires that all be saved.

How Scripture answers "Can our free moral agency be lost?"

Our free moral agency is progressively compromised through a “searing” of the conscience9 or a “hardness of heart”4,14 that can occur in one’s life. This is true even for a Christian’s1,3,5,6,9,12,14, or from the Old Covenant, one of God’s chosen1,8,13,15! Often, the Bible talks of this regression as being enslaved to sin2,3,5,9,10,11. There is a depravity1,10,11 and a craving for the carnal2,4 that can overcome someone to a point that God will essentially “call it”10, ending one’s chance to repent1,6.

Like alcohol or drug addiction, the web of sin can become a habit we can’t break6. However, from God’s perspective, it’s never too late to repent11,12,15, as we see in even extreme cases like Manasseh8. Through His word, He encourages that we instead be enslaved to righteousness5,7, or doing good. This is true freedom2,7, when one “knows God” and is “known by God”3,13 – the remedy for being enslaved to sin.

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Make sure that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.  Take care not to let bitterness grows to make you defiled, or that you become sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who was shortsighted in selling his birthright for a meal, since later, when he was sorrowful when realized his mistake, he was rejected and found no more opportunity to repent.

The writer’s summation (chapters 12-13) of a letter dedicated to encouraging Christians to “hold fast” to their faith and “run with endurance the race” that is before them (vs 1).  He implores them to strive for holiness since “without which no one will see the Lord” (vs 14) and concludes with two examples from the Old Testament.

The first reference is the “root of bitterness” which comes from Deut 29:18-19 where the children of Israel are being warned about hearing God’s word but pridefully saying to themselves, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” The second example is Esau and him selling his birthright to his brother Jacob for a pot of stew (Gen 25) and later regretting it when his blessing from Issac was irredeemable (Gen 27).

Scripture-block application to this question

Esau found himself with “no chance to repent”, even though there was a point at which he wished he could have changed things.

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The point of the Hebrew writer is clear given the context of the entire book. It is an urgent plea to Hebrew Christians not to fall away6,14.

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.

These [those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority – vs 10] are worthless springs and like mist in a storm. For them the despair of utter darkness is waiting. With foolish boasting they use fleshly sensuality to lure back those that have just barely escaped those living in sin. They promise them freedom but are themselves enslaved to corruption, for people are slaves to whatever masters them.

Peter is concluding a lengthy instruction/warning about false teachers (2:1) rising up among them. He embarks on a treatise about the danger of coming to a “swift destruction” (vs 1) and how “the way of truth will be blasphemed” (vs 2). He provides examples including some illuminating information re: angels (vs 4) and several more from the Old Testament including Noah (vs 5), Sodom and Gomorrah (vs 6), and Balaam (vs 15).

This section closely parallels Jude 1 and Peter relates this process of one’s descent to spiritual destruction with Proverbs 26:11, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.”

Scripture-block application to this question

Whatever a person succumbs to or willfully chooses to practice is what will enslave them. Specifically, Peter speaks about a carnal, fleshly depravity that presents as “freedom” but is only a “slave of corruption.”

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Peter, like Jude13, is addressing false teachers among them, but the warning stands for anyone.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

Before when you did not know God, you were beholden to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know Him – or be known by Him – how can you turn back to those natural gods that are weak and worthless worldly principles?

Paul’s letter to the Christians throughout Galatia, converted during his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14).  He is confronting a persistent effort by Jewish Christians to continue in and bind on Gentile Christians customs and practices from the Old Law.

Scripture-block application to this question

Christians, if they are not careful, can become enslaved to sin or “turn back again”, which is the state they were in before becoming Christians.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

Therefore, I say with God’s authority, that you are to no longer behave as the Gentiles do in their foolishness. Their understanding is distorted. They are strangers to a life of God due to ignorance, which is due to their stubbornness. As a result, they are numb and have turned themselves over to carnal passions and a lust to practice every kind of sin.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, has just used a body metaphorically to describe the church.  He transitions to encourage them as to how they are to behave by putting off their “old self” (vs 22).
Scripture-block application to this question

Paul, just as he warned the Galatian Christians3, is encouraging Christians in Asia Minor not to fall back to being enslaved to sin like Gentiles who “have given themselves up to” a “practice of every kind of impurity”.

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

So then are we to sin because we are not under law [of Moses] but under grace [New Covenant]? Not at all! Rather, you should know that whoever you willfully obey, it is to them that you enslaved. So either you are a slave to sin leading to death, or a slave of obedience leading to righteousness.

Paul is making the broader point of the richness and fullness of God’s grace toward sinful man (chap 5) before turning to man’s response (and responsibility) for salvation.  He states the absurdity of continuing “in sin” (vs 1) because they killed off their old self through baptism (vs 3), and uses the very real master/slave (“human terms” as Paul puts it in vs 19) relationship to illustrate.

Scripture-block application to this question

Man is a slave to whoever/whatever he allows to be his master. There are two choices: being a slave to sin leading to [spiritual] death or being a slave to obedience [the Gospel] leading to righteousness [eternal life].

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

It’s impossible to restore to repentance those that have fallen away after coming to understand and experience salvation – having shared in the Holy Spirit and the goodness of God’s word and the power to come – since they crucify all over the Son of God, putting him to public shame to their own harm.

The Hebrews writer is arguing the “better” things in Christ, contrasting with things from the Old Law these Hebrew Christians had turned from, but apparently were at risk to turn back.  He is chastising them for having become “dull of hearing” (5:11) and requiring someone to still need to teach them these “basic principles” (5:12).
Scripture-block application to this question

The Hebrews writer describes a state in which a Christian finds it “impossible” to repent.

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This is essentially the same point the writer makes when using Esau as an example1, and indeed, the theme of the entire letter14.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Brethern, you were called to freedom so don’t use it as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another in love.

Paul is making the argument that the Christian is freed from fleshly, carnal living because of their relationship in Christ (vs 1).  He illustrates this with their need to no longer be circumcised, which was a fleshly designation of the Old Law.  Instead, the Christian is to live/walk by the Spirit (vs 25).

Scripture-block application to this question

A Christian’s calling is one of true freedom, if they remain faithful and do not allow the deeds of the flesh to overcome them.

And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.

When he was in distress, Manasseh petitioned God’s and His grace and became humble before Him. He prayed to God, who was moved by his entreaty and caused him to be brought back to Jerusalem and his kingdom. It was then that Manasseh finally acknowledged that God as his Lord and Master.

The accounts of the Kings of Judah, the southern kingdom.  Israel, the northern kingdom, has already been swept away by the Assyrians.  Now about 150 years later, God has exhausted His patience with Judah’s unrighteousness and they will be swept away by the Babylonians. Manasseh’s wickedness and unrighteousness (vss 2-9) during 55 years of political leadership are the final straw.
Scripture-block application to this question

They don’t get much worse than Manasseh in the Bible, yet he was able to overcome a lifetime of depravity and still turn to God before it was too late.

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While Manasseh was able to repent before it was too late, the consequence of his evil leadership over the people of Judah still resulted in the exhaustion of God’s patience and His justice (e.g. being taken captive by Babylon). The people, as free moral agents themselves, were still responsible for their sins.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
The Holy Spirit instructs that in the latter times some will leave the faith by loving false spirits and demon teaching offered up by liars with seared consciences, who forbid marriage and require food be avoided that God never required for those that believe and know the truth.

Paul’s letter to a young preacher, Timothy.  Throughout the letter, Paul’s instructions have to do with Timothy’s activities and relationship with the brethren there with Timothy (the church).

Scripture-block application to this question

One’s conscience can become “seared”, which implies a state of conscience that is dead or at least less aware than it once was.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Those refusing to acknowledge God, He gives way for them to do the unrighteousness of their depraved mind.

Paul’s letter to the Christians living in Rome expressing his eagerness to come there and preach (vs 15).  He praises them for their faith being “proclaimed in all the world” (vs 8) and contrasts living by faith (vs 17) with those that know God but have not honored him as God (vs 21).
Scripture-block application to this question

God will, at some point, turn people over to their self-determined path of sinful behavior.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
For we were at one time foolish, disobedient, let astray and enslaved to our passions and pleasures, passing our days in hatred and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

Paul’s letter of encouragement to a young preacher Titus. Much like his letters to Timothy, Paul instructs Titus regarding the different churches “in every town” (1:5) to which he was ministering. Also, like Timothy, he encourages Titus to “let no one [in the church] disregard” him (2:15).

Scripture-block application to this question

A Christian repents (turns) from their sinful ways and behavior that is described here in the most base and carnal ways.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

If sinners draw near to God, He will near to them, and requires cleansing themselves (spiritually) and being single-minded in their focus to serve and obey God.

James practical words to Christians on how to live faithfully.  In chapter four, he focuses on humility and single-mindedness.
Scripture-block application to this question

James describes the single-minded focus that’s required for a sinner to turn to God and remain obedient.

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He has just chastised them for being “adulterous people” and reminds them that they can’t be “friends” with both the world and God (vs 4). It’s one or the other!

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

They [false teachers] are cursed since they act like Cain did (Genesis 4) and lose control of themselves for greed like Balaam (Numbers 16) and perish in their pride like Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 22-24, 31). They are hidden dangers as they worship and commune with you, fearlessly serving themselves. They are nothing but wisps of smoke carried here and there, unproductive trees in decline and twice dead without foundation. They are boisterous but expose their own shame, wandering about while their place of destruction and condemnation awaits.

Jude is writing a brief, but stern letter of warning “to those who are called” (vs 1) to “contend for the faith” (vs 3) and remaining obedient. He also warns about false teachers that apparently appear like great Christians since they have “crept in unnoticed” (vs 4). Jude proceeds to give several examples from the Old Testament of those that did not remain faithful (for various reasons) and were condemned as a result.

It is these false teachers and generally those “following their own sinful desires” (vs 16) that Jude says Enoch was prophesying about in his statement of judgment for their “deeds of ungodliness” (vs 15).

Scripture-block application to this question

Jude excoriates a type of “Christian” that is completely driven by pride (Cain/Korah example) and greed (Balaam example). There is only “utter darkness…forever” (e.g. Hell) awaiting them.

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We know these are individuals wearing the name Christian, as they have “crept in unnoticed” (vs 4) among the brethren to whom Jude is writing.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Brethern, take great care in case any of you might have an evil, unbelieving heart/mind that leads you to fall away from the living God.  Avoid being hardened by sins deceit by encouraging each other every day, as long as you draw breath.

Letter to Jewish Christians that is calling on them to “hold fast” in spite of persecution.  The main argument is the “better” things that exist for them through Christ Jesus. Chapter three deals specifically with Jesus’ superiority to Moses himself (vss 1-6) and goes on to compare the followers of Moses to those of Jesus.

The writer quotes from Psalms 95:7-11 (vss 7-11) where the writer there uses an even more ancient example from Numbers 14:22 and the wilderness wanderings. He goes on to explain (interpret) those who rebelled (vss 16-19) as those that followed Moses from Egypt but “provoked” God and “sinned”, thereby dying in the wilderness (vss 16-17).  As a result, they did not “enter his rest” since they were “disobedient” (vs 18), which is the same as “unbelief” (vs 19).

Scripture-block application to this question

Christians can become “hardened” by the allure of sin so they should encourage each other every day against this threat.

Yet even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.

But even now, God says it’s not too late to return to Him begin single-minded and demonstrating your devotion with fasting and sorrow. Your repentance must be sincere and not for show. Return to God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to be angry and overflowing with love for you, often turning from exercising condemnation.

Not much is known about the prophet Joel. He was probably one of the earlier prophets (maybe around 8-900 BC). Some believe he was a priest because of his many statements to/about priests. Many believe he lived in Jerusalem and his primary audience was the southern nation of Judah (if he lived during the divided kingdom years).

The book of Joel is poignant given his vision of devastating locusts that completely devour the land. Throughout, he calls the people to repent before this “great and awesome day of the Lord” (vs 31).

Scripture-block application to this question

God is always ready to receive those who truly turn from their wicked ways and humbly repent8.

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Treen

My heart has literally been hardened by sin, but how do I know if like Esau if I’m past the point of repentance?