How does Irresistible Grace allow for free will?

This weekend, I’ve come across the concept of ‘irresistible grace’ for the first time whilst reading a book about the Reformation (I feel like I may have lived a very theologically sheltered life, perhaps?!). It is the idea that when God intends to save a person, that person will be unable to resist and refuse to be born again. This idea made it into ‘the 5 points of Calvinism’ after Arminius started teaching some different points about predestination during the early 1600s.

As I’ve never heard this teaching until now, I’m wondering if anyone more familiar with it understands how this teaching allows for the role of free will when a person chooses to follow Jesus, if it’s made impossible to not choose? Also, just wondering how it accounts for those who choose to believe in the resurrection of Jesus because it seems the most reasonable explanation given the evidence, before they experience a supernatural yearning to follow Jesus?


This is a topic that can stir up quest the fuss. It is the I in the TULIP of Calvinism:
T-Total depravity of man
U- unmerited favor of God
L- limited atonement (only for the elect)
I-Irresistible grace of Christ
P-perseverance of the Saints

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this both in and out of the church. For a good while, this doctrine was known to rip apart a number of church fellowships in the SBC.
I have been a TULP and TUP, and now these days I am an UP. :grinning:

(no pun intended)


Love your humor as always! :grinning:


Hi @alison ,

I first got introduced to the concept during our time at a PCA church several years ago. Though I may struggle to defend TULIP myself, what I have loved about the reformed view is a high view of God’s Sovereignity which helps to accept trials in life better and fosters a culture of humility in the church.

The reformed view understands free will a little differently than how we commonly understand the term. It differentiates between free will and free agency. Because we humans are enslaved to our sinful nature, we are not really free to choose what is moral. We need to be set free by Christ to follow the Lord. So in this sense we are not truly free and humans lack true free will according to the reformed view. What we continue to posses despite the fall is free agency, which can be seen as the ability to make voluntary choices following our natural desires.

JI Packer explains it this way -

Free agency is a mark of human beings as such. All humans are free agents in the sense that they make their own decisions as to what they will do, choosing as they please in the light of their sense of right and wrong and the inclinations they feel. Thus they are moral agents, answerable to God and each other for their voluntary choices. So was Adam, both before and after he sinned; so are we now, and so are the glorified saints who are confirmed in grace in such a sense that they no longer have it in them to sin. Inability to sin will be one of the delights and glories of heaven, but it will not terminate anyone’s humanness; glorified saints will still make choices in accordance with their nature, and those choices will not be any the less the product of human free agency just because they will always be good and right.

Free will, however, has been defined by Christian teachers from the second century on as the ability to choose all the moral options that a situation offers, and Augustine affirmed against Pelagius and most of the Greek Fathers that original sin has robbed us of free will in this sense. We have no natural ability to discern and choose God’s way because we have no natural inclination Godward; our hearts are in bondage to sin, and only the grace of regeneration can free us from that slavery. This, for substance, was what Paul taught in Romans 6:16-23; only the freed will (Paul says, the freed person) freely and heartily chooses righteousness. A permanent love of righteousness—that is, an inclination of heart to the way of living that pleases God—is one aspect of the freedom that Christ gives (John 8:34-36; Gal. 5:1, 13).

It is worth observing that will is an abstraction. My will is not a part of me which I choose to move or not to move, like my hand or my foot; it is precisely me choosing to act and then going into action. The truth about free agency, and about Christ freeing sin’s slave from sin’s dominion, can be expressed more clearly if the word will is dropped and each person says: I am the morally responsible free agency; I am the slave of sin whom Christ must liberate; I am the fallen being who only have it in me to choose against God till God renews my heart.

There are different perspectives on this. With the help of evidence, one may intellectually assent but a reformed christian would insist that regeneration of the heart precedes faith. The key verse is - even when we were dead in trespasses, He made us alive together with Christ (by grace have you been saved)" (Eph. 2:5). Basically a dead man does not have the ability to cooperate with God’s grace. Another verse on this point is - natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14). It is God who makes the grace irresistible by regenerating the heart that once resisted grace of God. Steadfast faith is seen as evidence for being born again.

There are so many questions to consider in the Calvinism - Arminianism debate. Its been a while since I have thought through this subject. I am going to stop here. I may not do justice to the discussion if I discuss at length without spending time studying it. I look forward to reading others replies on this.


Having grown up in Reformed circles, I would say @lakshmi hit the nail on the head. :smile:

‘Irresistible Grace’ is a concept that flows logically from other founding concepts in the Reformed story of Christ’s redemption of humankind…namely, how it is that the undeserving are saved through absolutely no merit of their own…how the whole process of salvation is a work initiated by God.

I often heard it argued that if we had the ability to choose God, then our choice of Him would technically be a ‘work’…and, thus, we would be saved via a work. But, of course, as Paul argues, in Eph. 2:8-9…

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

I’ve also heard Jesus’ words in John gospel used to illustrate the concept of grace being 'irresistible…or, at least, that the call to faith, which is initiated by the Holy Spirit, is ‘effectual’:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. [6:44]

I love that you’re reading about the Reformation, @alison, for the philosophy/theology that underpins our story re. the process of salvation is super important…esp. when it regards the bondage of our human will!


Thank you, everyone! Your responses have shown me there’s a whole world of theology
I’ve not yet discovered!

@jimmy , the TULIP outline is helpful. I certainly don’t mean to stir anything up :slightly_smiling_face:, but my question is genuine. Certainly, @lakshmi 's response also helps me see that there’s a difference in the meaning of terminology that I wasn’t aware of.

I like it! Does this still count as Calvinism?

@lakshmi, @kathleen can I clarify if ‘Reformed theology’ = Calvinism, or is it more nuanced than that? Also, what’s a PCA church? I really appreciate the information you’ve shared here. I will need to take time to consider all this.

This is intriguing. How would James 4:7-8 fit into this? Certainly there seems to be some expectation that we make a move in approaching God, unless this is addressing believers rather than unbelievers? The passage refers to the ‘double-minded’ who I may consider people who have not yet made the choice to follow Christ, but I may be wrong in this.

Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.

I’m realising how simplistic an understanding I had of the Reformation until now. I’ve missed so many details of how these various men moved across Europe to understand scripture that was previously ignored. It’s so exciting to read about :slightly_smiling_face:


It means I bailed on “T”, and “L” . I have never been convinced of irresistible grace even though it would solve a lot of questions that people have asked about Grace.

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How would you respond to someone who argues that from the beginning “according to scripture” man was to control his desire:

7 If you do well ⌊will I not accept you⌋? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. And its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Ge 4:7 LEB)

From a JPS commentary:

The underlying idea is that man is endowed with moral autonomy, with freedom of choice. He can subdue his primitive passions by an act of will; otherwise, they will control him.
Sarna, N. M. (1989). . JPS

Rabbis viewed desire as necessary for the advancement and flourishing of God’s creation.

In their view (some Rabbis), the inclination to sin stands behind people’s desire to improve their own circumstance, to fulfill sexual needs and so to raise families, and to acquire in appropriate ways that which is currently beyond their means. Were it not for such desires, these authorities argued, most productive human activity would cease. The rabbis accordingly saw the inclination to sin—however dangerous and evil—as an important component of the human psyche.

Neusner, J., Avery-Peck, A. J., & Green, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). In The encyclopedia of Judaism (Vol. 3, p. 1326). Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill.


Hi @alison,

After joining the Army, I discovered a need to evaluate the faith I was raised in to make it the faith I truly believed in. This theological question was one of, if not the first, I had to wrestle with, but I didn’t know about TULIP at the time so I didn’t know to call it Irresistible Grace. Instead, I broke it down to a question of either God’s sovereignty or man’s free will. The problem I faced was that those around me leaned heavily on man’s ability to choose the moral right or wrong and that those choices affected one’s standing before God. I remember the Church of God pastor even preaching, “If a man were to offer me a million dollars to take one sip of alcohol, I’d have to say no because what if, at that moment, Jesus were to come back? Then I would go to hell” This type of thinking was shocking to me because I grew up Baptist with the notion of once saved, always saved. Not to mention that my first few months of Army life involved a lot of drinking. The problem though was that I saw both realities in the Bible. God was always calling on humanity to choose, while also taking for granted that God is sovereign.

To reconcile the apparent contradiction I started to look at how we define God’s sovereignty. It seemed that the view in question had a very deterministic view of sovereignty, meaning that in order to accomplish God’s will and plan for our life God would need to take more of a micro-management role in each individual’s life. This view felt like a very small view of God’s sovereignty. Since God is omnipresent and omniscient, this did not feel like a task beyond God’s ability, but it seemed to violate certain elements of God’s character. So then I started to ask, “what if we all had complete free will to choose and act, yet God still was able to accomplish his will and plan for our life?” This felt like a grander view of God’s sovereignty to me. At a very high level, this is what I still believe today. God’s sovereign ability to accomplish His plans and purposes is absolute and man’s free will is complete.

However, one additional point is to establish where these seemingly contradictory realities intersect in a person’s life. For me, it comes down to how I understand authority. Being an Army guy, I learned that authority is something that is only given and never really taken. Even those that step into an authoritative role without a formal granting of that role, only maintain that authority as long others accept and grant the authority. In terms of God and humanity, authority was given at creation (Genesis 1:28-30) and then given again when Eve listened to the serpent and thereby submitting their authority to the lies of the enemy. Proverbs 3:5-6 seems to reflect this same point of intersection between God’s rule over one’s life and a man’s will to choose. I also see that Jesus lived his life in this model. If you think about it, Jesus went every morning to submit his own life to The Father and then went throughout the day, responding and choosing his actions according to what came along. It wasn’t until after His resurrection did Jesus say that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him.

I don’t really know if my viewpoint is totally defensible as a systematic theology, but then I tend to lean towards a more “scenic” view of theology that allows for more nuance and meaning and doesn’t rely on my ability to constrain the concepts to specific terms. I acknowledge there is the question of predestined and foreknew, but that feels like a very chicken and egg problem that is an argument that only fits within our view of time. I sometimes feel as if I could draw it or act it out with my hands better than I can explain it. Maybe what I’m describing fits into @lakshmi’s explanation of free agency. Maybe I could follow @jimmy’s model and come up with an acronym like SUPP.
S - Sovereign Grace
U - Unconstrained Free Agency
P - Preservation of the Saints
P - Praise God

Maybe then we can use it as a coded greeting by saying, “SUPP?” To which wee can respond by saying, “Not much, SUPP with you?” and convey extra meaning. :grin: (pun is fully intended)

Back to being serious. I wonder how the parables in Mark 4:3-20, 26-29 fit into this discussion. It seems as if the parables can be explained from either a Calvinistic point of view in which God ordained the different soils to have different responses and that the seed grew because of the work of God. While at the same time the different soils are also human responses to the seed that is being sown.

I hope this is helpful to the conversation overall. I for one appreciate the conversation and the knowledge that everyone has shared.


Intriguing, indeed! :smile: I would agree with you that I think a difference here are the audiences for each. James was writing to the divided church; Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees. So, whereas James was warning the church (presumably those who had already be drawn to Christ) that it can just as easily be drawn back by the world, Jesus had just proclaimed that He is the Bread of Life (and the Pharisees grumbled skeptically). In fact, in previous verses, He had referred to those who will come to Him.

37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.…44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

So Jesus seems to be acknowledging here that:

  1. …there are those who are given to Him.
  2. …there are those who come to Him. (Unless they could be understood as the same group of people??)
  3. God also does a work of drawing.

However, it seems if one were to concur wholly with the concept of IG, then that would mean that God was not drawing the Pharisees, but instead, like Pharaoh before them, their hearts were being hardened…whether by God directly or by a God-Pharisee combo. (See Rom. 9 for Paul’s reasoning)

Having been raised in the Presbyterian church (PCA refers to the denomination The Presbyterian Church in America), I used to believe this is true. And it may be, but I have begun to question the understanding more. Are all human hearts the same? @chris brought up the Parable of the Soils, and I am inclined to believe now that the condition of the human heart has something to do with what we perceive to be resistibility/irresistibility. So as the sower scatters the seed on all soils – and even on the path – so God’s grace is liberally scattered on all. A work of drawing is done, which can be resisted with varying degrees of ease depending upon one’s heart.

However, it could also be argued that it’s God’s work in the preparation of the soils! So that when the seed finally lands in ‘good’ soil, it can flourish appropriately.

As I understand it, Calvin’s thought is included in Reformed Theology but is not the whole substance. He is certainly one of the most influential philosophical theologians in that theological system!


Please cite Packer’s work from which you are quoting.

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Hi @jimmy ,

I was not quite sure how to link your question to JI Packer’s definitions on Free will and Free agency from his article, " The distinction between Free Will and Free Agency". You are probably more aware of the philosophical issues around the discussion of free will than I am. I had to do some reading for definitions of different concepts of free will that JI Packer was referring to for more clarity -

Free will, however, has been defined by Christian teachers from the second century on as the ability to choose all the moral options that a situation offers, and Augustine affirmed against Pelagius and most of the Greek Fathers that original sin has robbed us of free will in this sense

The concept of free will held by Pelagius and Greek Fathers is what theologians call, Libertarianism, a freedom that is determined by human free will alone, independent of our natural desires or divine causes. Libertarians argue moral responsibility needs a free will because choices would be meaningless if they are are pre-determined. A truly free person must be able to rise above their desires and nature and even may go against it.

Augustine on the other hand argued for a compatibilist concept of free will in which God’s pre-determination and and man’s freedom are “compatible” with one another. God ultimate determines the choices that are made but he brings it through secondary means without direct coercion by influencing human desires, natures and motives. A truly free person is not one who is not influenced at all by even his own desires but one who is set free from the corrupt sinful nature that influences his desires. Choices are never arbitrary as man always follows his strongest motives.

JPS seems to argue for free will based on this verse. This is God’s instruction to Cain after the fall. This is after our desires came under the bondage of sinful nature scripturally. Cain could have exerted his will to control his passions but what God seeks in us scripturally is not just control of passions by ourselves but a righteousness that comes by faith in God. We dont have a freedom that can set us free from our sinful nature in ourselves and thanks be to God that we have it in Jesus ( John 8: 32 - 36).

As I think about the Rabbi’s comments, I think they are describing man’s search for liberation from the impact of sin. Romans 2:14-15 seems to describe some of this phenomenon of human productivity. But the problem is that in our human limitations we are always partially blind to what is truly good.

I found John Frame’s article on , “Free will and moral responsibility”, helpful in understanding Reformed theology. Some points he makes that may be relevant here -

According to Westminster Confession of Faith* , 3.1 “God did… ordain whatsoever comes to pass,” but also says in 9.1 that man’s will “is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil” (compare 5.2)

Reformed theology recognizes that all people have freedom in the compatibilist sense. Adam before the Fall acted according to his desires, which then were godly. After the fall, sinners still act according to their desires, but those desires are sinful. The redeemed are enabled by God’s grace, and progressively, to desire things which are excellent; and they are free to act according to those desires. The glorified saints in heaven will have only pure desires, and they will act in accordance with those.

libertarianism, rather than guaranteeing moral responsibility, actually destroys it. How can we be held responsible for decisions, if those decisions are “psychological accidents,” unconnected with any of our desires?

Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense (freedom from God’s decree). But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall. …Our choices are not coerced …i.e. we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God’s sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass (Eph 1:11)

Jimmy, I am not sure I understood your question correctly, but hopefully some of this is helpful. These theological concepts are new to me and difficult to grasp but hopefully with more participation understanding will come.


I appreciate these responses, for a topic that is taking me some time to understand.

I must admit I’m still trying to get my head round this one. As far as I can figure out, the non reformed view (what do people prefer to call this?) is that we’re set free from our sins, whereas the reformed view is that we’re set free to follow the Lord, and consequently we’re also set free from sin. Is this a fair interpretation?
@lakshmi you have given so much useful material, thank you! I’m going to have to take more time to understand it all and I’m sure I’ll come back to you on it.

This certainly is more how I understand things, and is a helpful way to include God’s sovereignty in explaining man’s ability and responsibility to choose the moral options. Likewise, I am trying not to focus too much on the predestination issue yet, as I think that might confuse the issue for me, although I accept it is a big part of the concept of regeneration.

I just need to check I’m not getting all my terms and concepts confused. This is how I’ve understood it so far; please let me know if I’m on the right lines or not :thinking::slightly_smiling_face:. Going with the idea of regeneration in the reformed view, they would say that a person must be regenerated before they can accept the gospel, right? And that happens when God draws them to Him, which is what irresistible grace is. Is drawing understood as the equivalent of regeneration or does drawing happen before regeneration, making the sequence: drawing - regneration - faith - salvation?

But is it possible that God is drawing every single person? As in 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. Likewise, Romans 1 shows us how God has been drawing us because He has displayed Himself through creation. This applies to everyone. But not everyone accepts him, and God is not also regenerating every single person as we see this from the fruit of their lives (Matthew 7:17). So I then go back full circle to think that faith must precede regneration and therefore I still don’t understand Irresistible Grace :joy:.


I don’t doubt the statement (“Free will, however, has been defined by Christian teachers from the second century on”); however it does beg the question, what about ‘free will” in the previous 1500 years? Was it even a topic? I believe that this is best understood in how the “scriptures” dealt with what Western Christendom calls the “fall.” A few points to ponder:

  1. How often was the “fall” or original sin referred to in the OT?
    Gerhard von Rad, observed this omission in the Old Testament: “The contents of Gen. ch. 2, and especially ch. 3 are conspicuously isolated in the Old Testament. No prophet, psalm, or narrator makes any recognizable reference to the story of the Fall.” Other important biblical scholars agree. The great biblical theologian Brevard S. Childs wrote: “It is striking that the ‘fall tradition’ plays virtually no role in the rest of the Hebrew Bible until it was revived in the Hellenistic period (e.g., IV Ezra).” More recently, the learned historian of biblical religion Ziony Zevit has offered a similar assessment: “What is not reflected in the Hebrew Bible and what was not known in ancient Israel was a Garden story that expressed the myth of a Fall.”

Smith, M. S. (2019). The Genesis of Good and Evil: The Fall(out) and Original Sin in the Bible (First edition, p. 15). Westminster John Knox Press.

  1. The use of the word inclination (yetser) in Genesis 6:5, 8:21, and Dt 31:21 could shed some light on this subject. From these verses, it certainly sounds like evil is part of being human, in my mind baked in.
    This noun is often translated “inclination” or the like. While the translation “inclination” for yetser has become common, it is not quite right. The root of the noun, *ytsr, means more specifically to “fashion, form,” and it denotes what the human person “forms” or “designs.”

Smith, M. S. (2019). The Genesis of Good and Evil: The Fall(out) and Original Sin in the Bible (First edition, p. 76). Westminster John Knox Press.

  1. …in the Babylonian Talmud. In recounting the creation of humanity in Genesis 2, the Talmudic tractate Berakhot cites Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi: “Woe is me, because of my Creator [yotsri]! Woe is me, because of my evil inclination [yitsri]!” The first sentence alludes to Genesis 2:7 and the second to Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. In the case of Genesis 2:7 and 6:5 and 8:21, the “design” or “inclination” of the human creature is tied to the divine creator of Genesis 2. Beyond recognizing the creator as the ultimate cause, the text does not explain this dimension of the human person.

Smith, M. S. (2019). The Genesis of Good and Evil: The Fall(out) and Original Sin in the Bible (First edition, p. 77). Westminster John Knox Press.

  1. If we jump to the NT James chapter 4, we see yester again.

    The relationship between the way James speaks of desire and the Jewish concept of “yetser” is what makes these verses noteworthy. Yetser is a Hebrew word that typically refers to desire, longing or inclination. It comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to form inwardly” or “to fashion.” In Jewish thinking, every human person is born with a yetser, and the way that desire or inclination is shaped determines a person’s spiritual destiny. Shaping the inclinations—the yetser—toward God and His ways is choosing the way of wisdom and peace. Allowing the inclinations to be formed according to sinful desire is choosing the way of destruction and death.

Walters, J. M. (1997). James: a Bible commentary in the Wesleyan tradition (p. 159). Wesleyan Publishing House.

I have always thought that James was a very Jewish book; in some quarters, it is viewed as a book that stresses works over faith. I don’t believe that it is a stretch to say that James’ instruction on Grace does not differ much from what Saul would have preached (pre Damascus road), except that James believes in and invokes the name of Jesus.

  1. The single most revealing use of the term in the Old Testament is likely in Genesis, which gives God’s reason for the destruction of mankind by the flood: “Every inclination [yetser] of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5b). This suggests that while God has created us with a yetser, it is something that is “formed” or “takes its shape” from us—for example, by our thoughts or willful acts. To the rabbis, the yetser is God’s creation, but we are responsible for the evil it produces in us. Its activity leads to such sins as sexual lu$t and indiscretion, anger and greed, and results in what the rabbis termed, significantly, “double-heartedness,” surely akin to what James terms “double-mindedness.”
    The important truth for our purposes is that the desire—the yetser—is clearly the responsibility and liability of the individual person. Many of the Old Testament usages of the word affirm this idea of intention and the human role in forming and shaping our inclinations. Psalm 103:14 demonstrates this in the psalmist’s note that God “knows how we are formed [yetser], he remembers that we are dust.”

Walters, J. M. (1997). James: a Bible commentary in the Wesleyan tradition (p. 160). Wesleyan Publishing House.

In short, I have wondered why we bookmark “the first sin” when the text would suggest otherwise by that I mean if we want to call it that the fall happened over a period of time. To be clear, I am not arguing for the idea that man can reconcile himself to God through any other means than the Cross and the finished work of the Messiah, Jesus.

I will stop here before turning this into a more confusing explanation than my previous post.


Hello! Sorry for the delay in response. I needed to find a chunk of time to be able to consider it all! :slight_smile:

As I understand the stance, yes, that is correct. Any true profession of faith (which is what brings salvation) is understood to be preceded by a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of that man or woman.

I think the sequence you have there is correct, though, I understand IG to be a part of regeneration rather than drawing…because I believe that many “Reformed” folks would also say that God’s invitation extends to all, like you mentioned. However, it is regeneration that belongs only to the “elect”.

Another concept to consider in all this – and I think I mentioned it in another post – is the idea of “effectual calling” (two words, two prongs). This idea is that God cannot do an ineffectual work. Everything he sets his hand to, he will accomplish. If a person cannot/will not come to God of his/her own accord, then God must do a work…and that work will not fail. Therefore, any work of saving faith is thought of as being preceded by an ‘irresistible’ work of God.

And actually, as I’ve been writing this all out, I’m now trying to decide if we need to add “invitation” to the very beginning of your sequence. For if anything is general/for all, it is the call or invitation to come to Him. As I understand it, “drawing” is considered by Reformed theologians to be a work of God, therefore it cannot be ineffectual. So, though see in Scripture that an invitation can be (and often is!) refused, the work of God will prevail despite man’s best efforts to the contrary.

This is interesting to me, and I’m glad you’ve put it like that because it’s helping me make sense of my last 6 years in an FIEC church there in the UK…and of my experience of more generally evangelical thought. Evangelicals focus so much on being set free from our “sins” whereas the Reformed world seems to be more focused on being set free from “the dominion of sin”. Now those two things might be the exact same, but they do seem to be slightly different approaches.

And as far as “set free from” vs. “set free to” – it seems like a chicken-egg argument. Which comes first?? I have no idea! :laughing: But they seem to exist in both views.

Have I sufficiently muddied the water yet?? :wink: