The discussion of man’s free will and how sovereign God is (or chooses to be) has been a debate that has raged for thousands of years. It is one that is extremely important, core and foundational to so many other doctrines of the Christian faith that, to misunderstand it significantly enough can lead to heresy and apostasy. The doctrines of soteriology, eschatology, prophecy are deeply affected by the position held on this important issue. This argument will propose that these doctrines are most consistently understood in the light of a sovereign God.
The Spectrum of Freedom
There is a range of theological understanding regarding the interaction between God and man in relation to the exercise of man’s will. We will only evaluate theistic approaches in answering the question of whether or not man’s will is free or fettered. This is to say, we will assume the existence of God. And that He is interested in us. These range from determinism (God has total control of everything and man is a robot) all the way to process theism where God is completely unable to know the future and is unable to alter its course. On the human side of things, man has absolutely no free will on one end of the spectrum and total libertarian free will on the other end. It is a continuum of restriction on either one party or the other. As man becomes freer, God becomes more restricted and vice versa. In the middle of the range we find compatibilism, Arminianism, open theism, middle knowledge, etc. These form a spectrum. As we move along in our investigation of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, we will be focusing on two of the most widely held views, Compatiblistic and Libertarian Free Will.
Specific and General Sovereignty Models
We have touched upon God’s freedom vs. man’s freedom along the continuum and made a connection between the two and demonstrated that they are linked together. If that is the case, it is appropriate to talk about the sovereignty of God everywhere in relation to man’s freedom. The freer we make man, the more we limit God’s sovereignty. There are two basic types of models of God’s sovereignty and they are “General Sovereignty” and “Specific Sovereignty” models. They each have their strengths and weakness.
General Sovereignty Models
The first sovereignty model I shall address is “General Sovereignty.” This view holds that God has limited Himself in such a way as to give man complete “libertarian” free will. Libertarianism is the view that man can choose this way or that totally without any external control or influence and that he could always have chosen otherwise. That is to say that an action is free if there is nothing that decisively inclines the will in one direction or the other. Man is given the ultimate authority of being able to choose between good and evil and anything less would not be considered “free will.”
Generally, these views of unfettered will are adopted as a response to the problem of evil. Man does not want to make God the author of sin, so the argument by necessity must include this libertarian free will. Dave Hunt in the book Debating Calvinism unabashedly puts forth this argument: “By not allowing God to grant mankind the power of choice, the Calvinist limits God and makes him the cause of sin.”1
Other arguments include “we have to have libertarian free will to love and worship God properly and that if we did not have it we would merely be robots.” John M. Frame in his book The Doctrine of God states “Libertarians say ‘we always have the freedom to choose contrary to our character and desires, however strong.’ Libertarians maintain that only if we have this kind of radical freedom can we be held responsible for our actions.”2
There are different flavors of “General Sovereignty Models” and God’s power seems to deteriorate and become eroded in each subsequent step. Arminianism, which tends to be the most popular flavor contends that God knows everything that is going to happen with His free creatures and He knows how they will choose and His entire plan is built around that. Arminians do believe that God is sovereign to a degree, but not when it comes to salvation, in particular. In this case man has the ultimate authority in his own destiny. Open Theism is a belief that, because man’s will is completely libertarian, God cannot possibly know the future. He has a general plan and God has to occasionally sovereignly intervene directly and overide man’s will to set things straight. Process theism is even further deteriorated from that. God waits to see what will happen and then, if He wants to change anything at all, he has to “woo” creation into doing it. It seems as we progress down this slope, the theology appears to become more and more man-centered. God has less and less power and man has more and more.
Specific Sovereignty Models
Another group of views of God’s sovereignty are” Specific Sovereignty Models.” These models incorporate free will as well, but it is called “compatibilism” or “concurrence.” These models purport that God has a will and a plan and He will accomplish that plan and no one can thwart that plan. These positions seem to me to be the most consistent with biblical data and biblically sound. Compatibilistic freedom is called that because it is compatible with determinism, or the belief that things are predetermined to occur. Compatibilistic freedom states that there are reasons outside of us that determine an action, but as long as those reasons do not coerce the agent, the agent is free. It puts forth the idea that we always act in accordance with our nature, desires or will. God sovereignly plans our free actions as a means to an end. We choose as God wishes, in accordance with our nature, to accomplish His purposes. The most general school of thought that embraces this type of thought is called Calvinism. Some pseudonyms for these theological positions are reformed theology or thought and the “Doctrines of Grace.” John Frame states “For the most
part, the Bible sets forth God’s involvement in everything and affirms the responsibility of all moral agents, without suggesting that there is any conflict between these two teachings.”3 I find this to be true as I search the Scriptures myself.
Compatibilism is a fairly popular approach to looking at human freedom, especially in the reformed tradition of theology. When examining all the biblical data faithfully, I believe it is hard to come up with another position. The reality of the situation is that the bible teaches both man’s choice and God’s sovereignty. Wayne Grudem in his systematic theology believes “the doctrine of concurrence affirms that God directs and works through, the distinctive properties of each created thing, so that these things themselves bring about the results that we see. In this way it is possible to affirm that in one sense events are fully (100 percent) caused by God and fully (100 percent) caused by the creature as well.”4 Somehow the involvement of both parties must be true. The Scriptures are replete with the urging and pleading of God to repent and to believe and to follow the law, yet it says man is dead in trespasses and sin and that he can not come unless the Father draws him. Grudem goes on to state "Exactly how God combines his providential control with our willing and significant choices, Scripture does
not explain to us. But rather than deny one aspect or the other (simply because we cannot explain how both can be true), we should accept both in an attempt to be faithful to the teaching of all of Scripture."5 This is wise advice. We must always turn to Scripture as our final authority and be careful never to ignore what Scripture says even though it does not agree with our theology. Scripture should dictate our theology and we must not become blind to Scriptures we don’t like.
Problems With Libertarian Free Will
There are a number of problems with libertarian free will. Though it does tend to get God off the hook with respect to the problem of evil, it comes at a very high price. First of all it poses some serious threats to the sovereignty of God. It can lead to, at minimum, serious questions as to whether or not God will accomplish all that He wants to accomplish. How is it that God will be able to accomplish his will if all of His creation is always completely free to choose otherwise?
If one holds to libertarian free will, how do we deal with the word in the bible “predestinated” or explain prophecy? How then could Christ have died “at the right time” as it states in Romans 5:6? Before the Last Supper, how in Matthew could Jesus have said “a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters.” If this man had decided he was too tired to carry the pitcher would the entire plan have been delayed until God found someone else willing to carry the pitcher? For that matter, how can any prophecy occur? In his book The Mystery of Providence Puritan John Flavel refers to prophecy and states, "If these things (prophetic events) are merely accidental how is it that they square and agree so exactly with the Scripture in all particulars?"6 Martin Luther in The Bondage of The Will boldly asserts “…if you doubt or disdain to know that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe confidently, trust and depend upon, His promises?"7
Additionally, libertarian free will is a serious problem when discussing the doctrine of election that most compatibilists and determinists hold. The bible has clear teaching that God has a chosen people, an elect, and God will give those elect to Christ and they will be saved. Ephesians 1:3-12 and Romans 8:28-30 are just two examples of God’s election and predestination to salvation. Their explanation of the word “foreknew” is that He looked down the corridors of time and saw how people would choose and then elected them to salvation. That is not a very satisfactory answer for a number of reasons.
If God just merely knows how we will choose in the future, how does that really solve any problems? The future is already determined. God knows what we are going to be doing ten years from today so, in essence, I can not avoid this future fate, can I? If God actually knows what will (not just might) occur in the future, the future must be set. It is true in this scenario that God’s knowledge is not the cause of the future, but it still guarantees that what God knows must occur, regardless of how it is brought about. If we truly had libertarian free will in a way that I could always choose differently, how could God have divine foreknowledge?
If men were totally free, how can the bible be the inerrant Word of God? This is something that in my opinion is a huge point of contention. If we support libertarian free will then we run into the problem of defending the bible from the deconstructionists and moral relativists out there that want to ascribe cultural ignorance or personal bias on the part of the biblical authors when writing critical moral expectations in the bible. We are now greatly compromised and the bible is much weaker from attacks on its authority as the Word of God. Once we lose the authority of the Bible, we are in deep trouble.
Yet another disturbing argument is brought up when we begin looking at what truly defines a “free choice.” If having freedom must include the ability to in an unfettered way either choose good or evil, then we have a problem explaining our state of existence when we reach glorification in heaven. The bible tells us we will be unable to sin, that there will be no evil. Will we then not be free? Wayne Grudem takes the argument one step further by proposing that, “If real choices have to allow for the possibility of choosing evil, then (1) God’s choices are not real, since he cannot choose evil, or (2) God’s choices are real, and there is the genuine possibility that God might someday choose to do evil– perhaps a little, and perhaps a great deal. If we ponder the second implication it becomes terrifying.”8 I agree with him wholeheartedly.
So, we see that there are still stumbling blocks and libertarian free will is not as clean of a solution as it seems to appear on the surface. Good academic practice should responsibly lead us to ask more questions and delve deeper.
Compatibilism and Divine Tension
Divine tension is at the heart of nearly every major biblical teaching. Realistically if we are honest, we will see it everywhere. Consider some of the questions: Was the author of the bible God or man? Was Jesus Christ a man or was He God? Was Jesus Christ both? Who lives our Christian life for us? Is it us or the Holy Spirit living in us? Is God three persons yet one single God? If one is honest they will concede the Bible is full of teaching like this, not to mention questions like should we judge or not judge others? Just look at Phillipians 2:12-13 and John 1:12-13 where they state we do something, but yet it is God that does it.
Biblical doctrines are full of divine tension. There is something about the divine tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s “free will” that gets people so angry and threatened. My personal feeling is that the tendency to cling to a notion of libertarian free will is somehow tied to the sin of pride. Man wants to believe that he has at least enough good in him to be able to make at least one good choice and that is to follow God. A necessary evil with this position is that it makes God into a robot and man’s debtor. This view tends to push God closer and closer to becoming a salvation-dispensing machine. Man provides all the right inputs and God has to save us because of the promises He has made in the bible. But consider the words of Jesus: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Scripture is where we have to go to find the truth, even if we don’t understand it all. We have to come up with answers that are faithful to biblical data. Dave Hunt states “If God… foreordained every thought, word, and deed of mankind, He is the instigator and perpetrator of evil, His commands and judgment are merely a pretense, and man is blameless. If God causes all, how can He be righteous and a man guilty of the wickedness God causes him to do?”9 This sure sounds really familiar to me. Perhaps that is because it is exactly like the strawman argument Paul defends against in Romans 9:19-20 “You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it?” Paul dealt with this two thousand years ago in Romans 9. The biblical data is overwhelming and according to Grudem "the number of passages that affirm this providential control of God is so considerable, and the difficulties involved in giving them some other interpretation are so formidable, that it does not seem to me that this can be the right approach to them."10
The bible is clear that in our unregenerate state we are slaves to sin. Compatibilistic free will maintains that we are free to do what it is we are inclined to do. That is to say we are free to do that which our corrupt nature wants to do. Jonathan Edwards in Freedom of the Will believed that a “man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires or desires anything contrary to his will.”11 God forces us to do nothing. We do what we most want to do, and therefore we are indeed free and not coerced. A.W. Pink put it well; “The sinner is free, but free in one direction only free to fall, free to sin. As the Word expresses it "for when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness (Rom 6:20) … but his pleasure is to sin.”12 A dog faced with a choice between a bowl of meat or a bowl of brussel sprouts will “freely” choose the meat every time. The dog’s will is bound by his nature and that is the extent of his freedom.
It is an Arminian (and therefore humanistic) idea that we cannot be held responsible if we are unable to respond. Libertarian thinkers maintain that if God holds man responsible, he must be free to choose the good as well as the bad, otherwise it “wouldn’t be fair.” The bible in Romans 9 and many other great theologians disagree with this logic. In his systematic theology, Charles Hodge explains:
“The Bible especially declares that the free acts of men are decreed beforehand… The Scriptures teach that sinful acts, as well as such as are holy, are foreordained… The whole course of history is represented as the development of the plan and purposes of God; and yet human history is little else than the history of sin.”13
The key concept here is “fairness.” Our definition of fair is based on what we know from our own humanity. I do not believe that man is the measure of all things. I believe God is the measure of all things and He knows more than we do. If He says that man is unable to respond properly without His help, but if he do not respond he is held responsible for turning his back on Him then that is the way that it is. God is not on trial, man is.
Some are even bolder than others. Martin Luther was not unclear where he stood on the matter when he said, “ ‘Free Will’ is a downright lie; and that, like the woman in the gospel, the more it is taken in hand by physicians the worse it is made.”14 Furthermore, Luther states:
"This, therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know; that God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, "Free Will" is thrown prostrate and utterly dashed to pieces."15
There is no question where Martin Luther stands. On the issue and he certainly is not the only one. J. I. Packer echoes this sentiment when he said, “…though God uses men as means for achieving His purposes, in the last analysis nothing depends on man; everything depends, rather on the God who raises men up to do His will.”16 There is no doubt, though, that this leave us with the question of God’s relationship to evil. Louis Berkhof is succinct in his observation that “…the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”17
What About the Cross?
What does the crucifixion of Christ tell us about the tension between “free will” and divine providence? Well, first off, the striking detailed accounts of Christ’s crucifixion laid out in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:14-18 and their subsequent fulfillment in the New Testament are more than enough to convince this writer that somehow God has normal complete control over all things, including our free choices. Second, there is another mystery that is laid out:
Acts 2:22-23 “ “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know– this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Does this passage clearly infer man’s “free will” when it states that Christ was crucified “by the hands of godless men?” Does it not also clearly state God was in complete control of the show? Was not God the author of the passion play? What about Christ? Did not the Messiah go to His crucifixion willingly? Do we not see this in His prayer in the garden at Gethsemane “…not as I will, but as You will?” Yes, He did go willingly and yet Scripture is clear; God foreordained it. It did not make His action any less free. We should ponder this well and never assume that because God brings about something to pass that it necessary violates our will. My God is big enough to be able to do both, perfectly, sovereignly and in perfect wisdom.
1Dave Hunt, James White. Debating Calvinism (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2004), 113-14.
2John M. Frame The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 138
4Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Great Britain and Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press and Zondervan, 1994), 319.
6John Flavel. The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh and Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 38.
7Martin Luther. The Bondage of The Will (Greenville and Belfast: Ambassador International, 2007), 44.
8Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 349.
9Hunt, Debating Calvinism, 49-50.
10Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 321.
11Jonathan Edwards. Freedom of the Will (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 4.
12A.W. Pink. The Sovereignty of God. (Edinburgh and Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 101.
13Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology. Vol. II. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940) [on-line]; Available from http://www.ccel.org; Internet, 543-44
14Luther. The Bondage of The Will, 17.
16J. I. Packer. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 31.
17Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology (Edinburgh and Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 175.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Edinburgh and Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005
Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of the Will. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007
Flavel, John. The Mystery of Providence. Edinburgh and Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006
Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Great Britain and Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press and Zondervan, 1994Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. II. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940. [on-line]; Accessed 19 November 2008; Available from http://www.ccel.org; Internet
Hunt, Dave, James White. Debating Calvinism. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2004
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of The Will. Greenville and Belfast: Ambassador International, 2007
Pink, A.W. The Sovereignty of God. Edinburgh and Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004
Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991