Is The Holy Spirit Necessary for Willpower?
There is a myth circulating among New Calvinists that in order to perform acts which have a high willpower cost, the Holy Spirit is necessary. Attempts to build character, overcome bad habits, and cultivate virtue are rendered impossible without supernatural assistance. A culture steeped in Abraham Kuyper’s creed—there is no square inch in all creation over which Christ does not declare “mine!”— has taken this mantra as license to copy and paste their soteriology into every other area of life. Consequently, Calvinists are in the odd habit of trying to spiritualize the cause and cure for every struggle in life, as if a powerlifting program intended to build strength could substitute its 5x5 repetition routine for the five solas of the Reformation.
It is commonsense to anyone who has made a significant life change that there are resources independent of the saving work of God which make possible significant, lasting, meaningful behavioral and emotional change. And yet, well-meaning New Calvinist pastors are telling their congregants that is impossible to overcome pornography addiction without the saving work of Christ, as John Piper has said. They will say that it is wrong to speak about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps because that compromises the supremacy of Christ in salvation.
These are lies.
These are falsehoods.
Here, I’m going to definitively end this line of inquiry with a simple answer by exploring what the Reformers thought of this issue, how we ought to conceive the human will, and what are the practical steps forward for Christians seeking to change themselves.
Actions Have Two Qualities—Soteric and Secular
The reason that people conflate sanctification with common attempts to change oneself that have a high willpower cost is because that’s how human experience works. We experience everything at once, or in sequence, through a certain lens. A single human act may have a soteric quality and a non-soteric quality. Take indulgence in pornography, for instance. There is a sense in which indulgence in pornography is a sin, which is to say that it alienates a person from God. There is another sense in which indulgence in pornography is merely a vice—it is a sin against the self which is wrong in its own right. A Christian will experience both of those aspects simultaneously as a single phenomenological event. Because of the unity of the experience, and because of the tendency among New Calvinists to spiritualize issues beyond the spiritual, the New Calvinist might fail to distinguish between those two aspects of an act.
Using this same example, let’s say that a Christian chooses successfully to overcome his pornography addiction. Let’s say that simultaneously, his non-Christian neighbor successfully overcomes his pornography addiction as well. What’s the difference? Was one a farce? Is one change more suspicious than the other? Most likely not. And the Reformers acknowledged this first fly in the ointment of the New Calvinist over-spiritualization of domains outside the spiritual before it even existed.
When Martin Luther, for instance, argues in his treatise The Bondage of the Will, he distinguishes between free will in salvation, which he rejects because the will is bonded by sin not to look to Christ for salvation, and free will in life, which he admits produces “the most exalted men, who were endowed with the law, righteousness, wisdom, and all the virtues.” Even though Luther’s argument is that they cannot convert what he calls wisdom, righteousness, virtues, and exaltation into salvific benefits, Luther still admits they we must acknowledge the existence of what some theologians have called civic good, or formal good—of which we now speak as a strength of will.
Calvin likewise makes this distinction, but his exposition of the concept is muddied by his rhetoric—Calvin was too embroiled in conflict too often, and wore his heart on his sleeve too explicitly, to clearly communicate the truth he held just as he conceived it. Unfortunately, many Calvinists who read Calvin take his rhetoric as the substance of his teachings and leave with a fervor for combat, but a shallow conception of the balance behind all of Calvin’s vitriol toward his enemies. But Calvin does communicate this: “Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature.” And when he writes: “that the flesh has no capacity for such sublime wisdom as to apprehend God, and the things of God, unless illuminate by the Spirit,” he is speaking of salvation, not of what he calls the “many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature.”
Oftentimes, Calvin’s rhetoric is charged so that he exaggerates his actual view of the effects of total depravity in order to forcefully assert the totality of sin’s effects in occluding each man’s mind’s eye from looking to God for salvation. And it is likewise important to recognize that Calvin distinguishes between the effects of depravity, and depravity per se. Depravity is the actual ethical occlusion of man from God in the spiritual aspect of his being; the effects of depravity are all the fallout from Adam’s original sin, which include existence within broken social systems, an exaggeration of our loss of intelligence relative to what it could have been if Adam had succeeded in probation, and physical death itself. Christ was sinless in that he was not depraved per se, but he still suffered the same effects of depravity under which we all suffer, as Luke writes in the book of Hebrews: Christ has “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin: (Hebrews 4:15).
Man cannot overcome moral depravity per se without saving grace, but he can overcome the effects of depravity on his consciousness. Calvin makes this point almost as if it were common sense. Calvin’s evidence for claiming that humans can overcome the effects of depravity to a degree is simply “From a general survey of the human race.”
So, for both Calvin and Luther, anyone who appeals to “total depravity” or soteriology to insist on the soteric activity of the Holy Spirit in order to achieve personal discipline over one’s willpower is, at least, at odds with the tradition.
It is important here to explain how the Reformers, and theologians since, are utilizing these terms “intellect” and “will.” These words come from “faculty psychology,” which was the way the medievals understood how the human mind worked. Each “faculty” was a distinct power of the mind—it was an operation of the human consciousness. The intellect was a faculty, as were the imagination, the appetites, and the will.
For example, one might designate the power the mind possesses to perform syllogisms “the intellect,” and the power to make morally significant choices “the will.” Because this notion was codified and popularized by Aristotle, and later nuanced by medieval scholastics, the concept in its inception is studded with allusions to “the soul” as that which possesses the powers. The notion of mental faculties arises from the need to postulate, as Jerry Fodor, philosophy professor at Rutgers, puts It, “fundamentally different kinds of psychological mechanisms … in order to explain the facts of mental life.”
The distinction between faculties has become foundational for competing views about the mechanics of personhood. For example, the distinction between the two primary perspectives on the nature of human will presuppose a hierarchy of faculties: intellectualism (a prioritization of the intellect over the will) and voluntarism (a prioritization of the will over the intellect). Thomas Aquinas is an intellectualist because he argues that “choice of a particular thing” is performed “as the conclusion of a syllogism.” Conversely, Aurthur Schopenhauer represents voluntarism—he states: “Knowledge is completely the servant of the will.”
Metaphysical Chotomism vs. Aspectival Partitism
We should also make use here of the distinction between metaphysical dichotomy and aspectival partitism. This distinction enables us to better ask about the powers of the human individual without becoming embroiled in questions of human constitution—namely, the dichotomy/trichotomy debate. Instead of arguing about dichotomy and trichotomy—which wrangles over whether human beings are composed of two or three parts—aspectival partitism inquires what are the various aspects of human psychology. In other words, instead of asking, “How many parts is the human individual composed of?” we can ask, “What are the fundamental operations which make a human’s individual experience possible?”
In this way, we can distinguish between the intellect, will, imagination, and appetites as faculties without getting caught up in questions of how to cut the anthropological pie, metaphysically speaking.
Sarkikal (σαρξ) Existence vs. Psychical (ψυχικόν) Existence
In this regard, it’s very important to make a distinction between two ways that the Apostle Paul conceives the relationship between the spiritual and the bodily. The first way is aeonic—that is, it is a morally charged antagonism between what he calls the spiritual and the fleshly. This is exemplified in Romans 6, in which Paul says: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). In this construal, the spirit and flesh are antagonistic toward one another: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for they are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:16-18).
What do all of these passages have in common? They are all talking about the law. Paul is arguing exclusively and compellingly against a meritocratic conception of salvation with God in light of the resurrection.
But there is another way that Paul construes the relationship between the spirit and the body—not as πνευμα and σαρξ, but as σῶμα ψυχικόν (natural body) and σῶμα πνευματικόν (spiritual body). Paul writes, “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’’ the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. … Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:44-47, 49). The “natural” person isn’t able to save himself, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, but he is able to become wise and powerful. Paul demonstrates a strict division between the two domains—the natural and the spiritual—when he explains that God’s spiritual activity in the mind of the believer is necessary for understanding spiritual truths: “interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13).
Again, Paul is caught up, like Luther and Calvin, in these soteriological controversies, so his language is oriented toward resolving questions about the relationship between faith and works in garnering soteric favor with God. But we can see, operating clearly in their theologies, a distinction between the domain of the spiritual and a domain of the natural. Now, what exactly is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and willpower?
It is this: it is only by the saving grace of the Holy Spirit that the will and intellect are turned toward Christ, even though the Spirit does not itself add any potency to the will or intellect per se. The Spirit enlivens the individual’s heart to Christ, which thereby accommodates the redirection of the mind, will, and appetites toward Christ, though imperfectly.
Some people have naturally strong wills, and others are naturally weak-willed. Some people have very strong intellects, and others are very weak-minded. When the spirit regenerates your heart, he does not add any potency to the will, the proof being, as Calvin might say, “from a survey of the peoples.” An individual with a strong will, upon encountering Christ, will be a strong-willed Christian. A person with a very weak intellect will, upon encountering Christ, become a Christian who has a weak intellect. The Christian lives his entire life in the σῶμα ψυχικόν. One day, when he has received a σῶμα πνευματικόν, his will may be stronger. But in this life, it is only as strong as he makes it.
Weak-Willed Unbelievers Are Weak-Willed Believers
Can conversion to Christianity compel a weak-minded person to strengthen their intellect? Very much so. In fact, the only way that the will and intellect grow in strength is through their use and cultivation. However, it is very possible to grow the fortitude of one’s willpower and intellect outside of Christ. Take Navy Seals going through Hell week. They have more discipline than 99.9% of Christians who have the Holy Spirit. And remember: the purpose here isn’t to point out differences between believers and unbelievers in how they operate willpower, but rather to highlight that the task of cultivating the will occurs independently of, and in concert with, one’s faith or lack thereof.
Anthropologically speaking, the Holy Spirit does not add any horsepower to your willpower engine. But he enlivens your heart toward Christ and makes Christ the object of your mind, will, and affections. This is a gift that can be cultivated toward strength or stagnated and atrophied through negligence.
Whether one has faith is a matter that strongly involves the divine will. But whether one has a weak will or strong will, or a weak intellect vs. a strong intellect, or worthwhile affections vs. heinous affections, has everything to do with the effort one puts into cultivating their will, intellect, affections, and imagination. Unbelievers do an outstanding job at this—often much better than Christians. And Christians have the Spirit, who empowers them to seek the ideals of Christianity even more than unbelievers—which has been twisted by New Calvinist culture into an excuse for failure, instead of an impetus to be better.
What’s the takeaway here? Build a stronger will. Become smarter. Cultivate affections and appetites for better things. Stop eating candy. Stop looking at porn. Stop losing your soul in the bottom of a bottle. Stop meandering around life aimlessly. Don’t wait for the Holy Spirit. Ask for help, and then get to work. Read Jordan Peterson. Find an ideal worth striving for, and strive for it. Dig deep from within. Tighten your own muscles. Feel the burn and emptiness and despair that comes from hitting your own limits. Start sweating every day from exercise. Start thinking better. Stop taking out your frustrations on your wife. Stop blaming other people for the way you feel. Start taking ownership and responsibility for things that you can fix, even if no one is asking you to do it.
Push your body. Eat healthy. Cut out sugar and processed food. Stop feeding it to your kids. Stop accepting excuses from yourself that better people in this world do not accept from themselves. Stop accepting excuses from yourself period. Be better. Train. Push yourself. Be stronger. Stop being a victim. Stop pushing the spiritual button expecting psychological results. They’re not going to come. Personal piety is not your own personal can of discipline nitric oxide. In fact, your twisted, monstrous, malformed version of monergism is probably the very thing that’s keeping you addicted to porn, fat, lazy, making excuses, and exhausted.
Cast yourself on the mercies of God, make a plea for his sovereign help, and then work your butt off as if it all depends on your work—because as far as you’re concerned, it is. And any way in which the invisible God makes his unsearchable providence known to you is just gravy. But don’t live waiting for the gravy of insight into divine sovereignty. Just go and work out. Help yourself. Change yourself. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It has nothing to do with how God regenerated you, and yet it has everything to do with helping yourself.
Depend on God for the renewal of your heart. Depend on yourself, and dig deep for the guts of steel you need to get into the gym, get out into the world, sit down at your study, throw the junk food in the trash, prepare your chicken and broccoli for the week, count your calories, set your goals, track everything, and get to work. It’s not “the law.” It’s just life.
The Apostle Paul writes: “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Tim. 4:7-8)
Paul isn’t arguing that spiritual disciplines are more important than physical disciplines. He’s arguing that since you train your body, you ought also to train your spirit. The two aren’t in competition, but cooperation. The unique gift of a Christian theology of the body is that it dignifies the body—it makes it something worth caring about. Paul himself says that he trains his body: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).
In this same passage, Paul argues that those who are stronger ought to make accommodations for those who are weaker. He doesn’t propose a spiritual hierarchy between those who have stronger self-control and those whose consciences are, as Paul puts it: “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). The Corinthian error was in making one kind of personality more spiritual or less spiritual—violating abolished religious norms was a way of flaunting Christian liberty and freedom, because they took it as diagnostic of spiritual maturity. Paul argues here that weakness or strength of conscience doesn’t have anything to do with your spiritual status. If it did, and those who violated cultural norms were more holy because of their elastic consciences, Paul would have called the weak to repentance—he would have called the spiritually lesser to a spiritually greater ideal. But he doesn’t. In fact, he does the opposite—those with strong consciences ought to accommodate the weak.
Paul admits here an anthropological distinction—that one’s level of spiritual maturity cannot be diagnosed by strength of conscience, will, intellect, or imagination. Spirituality is a domain in itself that is indicated by faith. This faith is not the engine of strength of will, intellect, conscience, or imagination—faith points these faculties toward God.
Even Herman Bavinck says that grace does not add anything new or alien to the person, but rather restores that which was lost. Bavinck writes:
“Regeneration, in a word, does not remove anything from us other than what, if all were well, we should do without, and it restores to us what we, in keeping with the design of our being, should have but lost as a result of sin.”
In other words, the Spirit does for us spiritually what we could never do for ourselves—but we should not extend this to become a promise that God never made for Christians, nor a requirement for explicit spiritual dependence for the sake of willpower cultivation that God never set.
Paul says it well. “Train yourself.” Train yourself. That’s a reflexive. Train. Are you training? Are you even trying? Because if you don’t train yourself, you’re only ever going to be untrained. You’re going to stay immature. You’re going to stay, as Paul puts it, “of the flesh.” If you train your willpower to be stronger by becoming disciplined, this will have payoff for your spiritual life. What do you think training is? It’s going through the same rote, boring motions every single day. It’s putting in hours of mindless work to strengthen the fortitude of your own character—to turn your willpower into an iron will—that will be an immeasurable aid to your spiritual life, and to your sanctification.
The New Calvinist compulsion to cast everything as a spiritual issue has created a myth that all actions with high willpower cost must be accomplished by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. John Piper has repeatedly said that the only conceivable way of achieving lasting behavioral change is through delight in God. This is demonstrably false. The Holy Spirit is not necessary for discipline. The Holy Spirit is not necessary for overcoming pornography addiction, or drinking addiction. The Holy Spirit is not necessary to overcome bad lifestyle habits.
The belief that discipline is a fundamentally spiritual issue—and more than that, that the spiritual disciplines are more important than the physical disciplines—has created a culture among New Calvinists that is more akin to a beta male culture than a truly masculine culture. If you look at most Christian leaders, most of them are out of shape. Most of them are fat. Most of them don’t take their bodies seriously. And what they don’t realize is that most men look at them and wonder: “Why should I take you seriously when you clearly don’t take care of yourself?” When I look at most Christian leaders—even New Calvinist leaders—I think, “I don’t want to be you, so why should I listen to you?”
The reason many Christians are so bad at discipline isn’t because they’re under spiritual attack—it’s because they attribute all their willpower shortcomings to spiritual shortcomings. This attribution is false, and it creates a myth about becoming disciplined that requires inefficient and ineffective means of making lifestyle changes.
You don’t need the Holy Spirit to stop eating donuts. You don’t need the Holy Spirit to increase your squat. You don’t need the Holy Spirit to wake up at 4 a.m. You can do it by yourself.
Jerry A. Fodor, The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1983), 1.
See Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socratic Moral Psychology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Volume I-Part I (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 441 (1.86.1). Cf. Tobias Hoffman, “Aquinas and Intellectual Determinism: The Test Case of Angelic Sin,” Archive für Geschichte der Philosophie 89 (2007): 122-156.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World As Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1969), 1:176 (§33). Schopenhauer further insists: “What in the Kantian philosophy is called the thing-in-itself … [is] nothing but the will. … the will is the thing-in-itself” (ibid., 1:170 [§31]). I use Schopenhauer here rather than Duns Scotus as an example of voluntarism, who would seem a more fitting corollary for Aquinas, because Scotus’s voluntarism was weaved so inextricably with the divine will—which is not the subject of the present section—that he does not really present a true corollary to Aquinas.
 Even Herman Ridderbos proposes a version of this aspectival way of thinking about the human individual—even the metaphysical language Paul uses to describe man’s sinful self in combat with his regenerated self: “No general anthropological conclusions are to be drawn from this, however, e.g., of a dualistic man consisting of two ‘parts,’ or of a more or less ‘real’ or ‘essential’ part of man. Rather, the complete description—outward and inward ‘man’—points in another direction; man does not only ‘have’ an outward and inward side, but is a man both ‘outward’ and ‘inward,’ exists both in the one way and in the other…The expression ‘outward and inward man’ is to be taken only as a general, ‘coarse’ distinction.” Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. J. Richard DeWitt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 155.