“I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. HE WAS MASTER OF HIS OWN WILL AND POWER…for a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will…Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance” (Tertullian, c.207, W, 3.300, 301; from “A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs,” page 288).
According to Tertullian, man has been given free will; and his free will is the thing that holds him accountable for his sin.
His statement that “he[man] was MASTER OF HIS OWN WILL” can be seen in Genesis 4 regarding Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous and envied the fact that his brother’s offering was accepted. Read the Lord’s words to Cain:
“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you furious? And why are you downcast? If you do right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do right, SIN IS CROUCHING AT THE DOOR. Its desire is for you, BUT YOU MUST MASTER IT” (Genesis 4:6-7, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
The Lord told Cain that he needed to “master” sin—in other words, gain control of his anger and WILL himself to make the right choice.
Let’s look at the actual verses in the Septuagint (LXX, Greek Old Testament:
“kai eipen kurios ho theos tow Kain ‘hina ti perilupos egenou, kai hina ti sunepesen to prosopon sou; ouk, ean orthos prosenegkes, orthos de me dieles, hemartes; hesuxason. Pros se he apostrophe autou, kai su arxseis autou.”
Translated into English, the above Greek reads:
“And the Lord God said to Cain, “For what [reason] have you become grieved, and for what [reason] has your face fallen? Unless you bear [it] well (rightly); but if you do not bear it well, sin? Be silent: It [sin] is to turn you away, but you will rule it.”
The word here for “rule” is “arxseis,” which comes from the parent word “arxo,” meaning “to be chief, to lead, to rule, to be FIRST; to reign or rule over.”
So when the Lord tells Cain that sin is there to turn him away from doing right, He is telling Cain that he can RULE OVER his emotions and choose to do that which is right. Doesn’t this seem to show us Arminianism, that, in every situation, man can choose AGAINST his inclinations, IN SPITE of them? Contra Bruce Ware, man really can go against his strongest desires (even if those desires are evil).
But we see something else with the text of Genesis 4: we find the Lord exhorting Cain to RESIST the tendency to do evil in his heart, which shows that God NEVER INTENDS for anyone to do evil.
Tertullian’s quote above shows us that, because man CAN choose AGAINST his inclinations (can do the right thing), that man is to be judged when he does that which is wrong. It turns out, then, that man truly is MASTER of his own will: he can will to do good, or to do evil; as Tertullian said, “Man is free, with either a will for OBEDIENCE or RESISTANCE…”