The Bonds of Freedom
Not all Christians believe in free will. Luther certainly didn't! But that's not the point here. My point is simply that whether or not one believes in free will, true freedom is something else. It doesn't contradict free will; it transcends it.
All Christians agree that true freedom, the freedom of obedience to Christ and conformity to his image, is a gift of God's grace that we will fully enjoy only in our heavenly glorification. That is the point of Paul's confession in Romans 7—here on earth, we struggle in a war between the "flesh" (fallen nature) and the Spirit, God's gracious gift of dwelling within us. In the meantime, as we await our full glorification, we grow in freedom only by exchanging an attitude of grudging submission to the law for a new heart that delights in obeying Christ. By God's grace, and with the aid of his Spirit, we can realize ever increasing freedom from sin and death. But freedom in its fullness comes only after our resurrection.
Theologians call the gradual process of experiencing true freedom before death "sanctification." We debate about how intense and whole that freedom can be before our resurrection. But we agree that real freedom is an unfolding gift that, by degrees, we receive.
Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, "[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (NRSV). Salvation, in other words, is both gift and task. Paul's "for" indicates that the gift surrounds and underlies the task. But our "work" of obedience and servanthood is truly ours; we are called, by an exercise of free will, to embrace it. We don't sit back and wait for it to "just happen."
On the other hand, whenever we experience that greater freedom of real obedience, being conformed to the character of Christ and true servanthood, we acknowledge that it is all due to God's work in us. That is the "paradox of grace and free will."
Another homey analogy might help make the point.
Every summer, I struggle to water the numerous bushes and flowers that thirstily surround our house in the dry heat of central Texas. I turn on the outdoor faucet with the hose attached and the spray nozzle on its end. Then I drag the 100-foot hose way out to the far corner of the yard, point the spray nozzle at a bush, and press the trigger. Usually, nothing comes out. So, I trudge back around the house to the faucet to see if it's really turned on. It usually is. Why, then, is no water spraying?
Experience has told me that somewhere along the length of that garden hose there's a kink. I may have to hunt for it. When I find it and finally straighten it (or them) out, the water that was there all along can finally quench the thirst of the bush.
God's grace for our freedom is always there—completely—from the moment of conversion. There is no lack of grace or need for grace boosters. But there can be grace blockers—wrong attitudes and habits, hidden resentments and selfish motives. My "job," as it were, is to find them—with the Spirit's help, of course—and work them out through a process of repentance and submission. Free will is a necessary precondition in that process, but not the end result. The process leads not to absolute autonomy, but rather, in increasing measure, to freedom from bondage to sin and death. I'm already free from the law and from condemnation; freedom to become what God designed me to be is God's work and mine together. His work surrounds and enables mine. He gets all the glory. But unlike conversion, it's a process.