Human Freedom and the Sovereignty of God

Scripture surely teaches both human freedom and the sovereignty of God.  However, it does not technically define what kind of human freedom or sovereignty is in view.  For this, one’s biblical understanding is developed through a process of learning about ourselves and about God via his written Word (Romans 12:2), together with some philosophical discussion about the ways in which these subjects can be understood.

The terms indeterminism, determinism and compatibilism are often used in discussions about human freedom.  From a theological perspective, Arminians and religious humanists believe in autonomous man, libertarian freedom, and thus incorporate some form of indeterminism.  Calvinists, Reformed, and others who hold to sovereign grace hold to forms of determinism.  In today’s modernistic society, indeterminists outnumber determinists by a wide margin.  So what do these terms mean?

INDETERMINISM: This view claims that an individual’s acts are free only if that person could always have chosen to do otherwise. They typically deny that there is anything which causes a person to have to act in one way rather than another. Causal conditions (one's ontological nature, forces, or influences) may push or incline the will, but the individual can always choose contrary to them. While choices are made for a reason, the indeterminist cannot provide a causal explanation why an individual would act according to one particular reason or another.  Herein lies the root of all forms of humanism and the illusion of autonomy.

DETERMINISM: By contrast, the determinist claims that with every decision a person makes, there are causal conditions (inclinations) playing upon his or her will so as to incline it decisively and sufficiently in one direction rather than another. Given prevailing causal influences and without mitigating forces, it is impossible for an individual to choose otherwise. What is true of God (that He acts according to His nature) is also true of his creatures.

However, keep in mind there is no such thing as the definition of indeterminism or the definition of determinism.  There exists subtle differences amongst both groups.  One form of determinism which appears consistent with Scripture and is best able to reconcile the truths of human freedom, responsibility, and the sovereignty of God is called compatibilism.

COMPATIBILISM is the belief (presuppositional tenet), held by many Bible-believing Christians, which asserts that mankind possess enough freedom of will (volition) to make him an active participant in the drama of redemption, but not so much that we need to redefine or place limitations on God’s sovereignty.  This position distinguishes two kinds of causes which influence and determine actions—constraining and nonconstraining. Constraining causes force an individual to act against his will.   Example 1: I order you to behave in a certain way and threaten you with physical harm if you don't comply.  By comparison, nonconstraining causes are sufficient to bring about a determined action, but they do not force persons to act against their will, desires or wishes.  Example 2: I encourage you to behave in the same way as in Example 1, but now present an irresistible argument that effectively connects in a positive way with the source of your motivation.  Your will and desire are brought into conformance with my will.  Thus, under compatibilism the will is considered "free" since the forces are nonconstraining, but the will is still causally determined.  These concepts should immediately make sense to anyone who has raised children or have managed employees in the workplace.  What of Scriptural examples?  There are numerous verses from Genesis to Revelation that reflect compatibilism.

For example, Acts 2:23 reads:

This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing Him to the cross.

And Peter and John's prayer to God in Acts 4:27, 28 is also instructive:

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom You [Sovereign Father] anointed.  They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

And further, in Acts 13:48, we read:

...and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

These verses clearly teaches the compatibilist concept of determinism.  Herod and Pilate were not forced into their evil conspiracy; rather their sinful dispositions (nature) and inclination was allowed to run its course.  The Father’s providential control of circumstances brought about His predestined event of the Son's death at Calvary.  Further, it is not necessary for Herod or Pilate to have been able to have choosen contrary to be held responsible for there actions. If I owe a debt and am legally responsible for repayment of the debt, my ability or inability to repay has no bearing upon whether I am or am not responsible.

While this would appear to be the normal mode for God’s dealing with men, it does not preclude actions which mysteriously resemble constraining causes. The Acts 9 account of Saul’s conversion documents a supernatural change of mind and heart for the Jewish zealot.  Did not God’s intervention violate Saul’s so-called "free-will" decision to persecute the Church? Certainly it did!


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Sovereignty, Responsibility, and Free Will:  Books and articles listed below include determinist and compatibilist authors and resources--both dispensational and covenant.  All believe in the sovereignty of God and reject the sovereignty of man.   Books and articles are listed in alphabetical order by the author's name.

  • W. E. Best, Free Grace Versus Free Will  (Baker Book House, 1977).  Dr. Best was pastor at South Belt Grace Church in Houston, Texas for several years.  See our article Free Will vs. Volition.

  • John Nelson Darby, The Collected Writings of... and Letters (Various reprints).  Comments by the 'father' of modern-day dispensationalism clearly reflect his compatibilist viewpoint. 

  • John S. Feinberg, God Ordains All Things, PREDESTINATION & FREE WILL - Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom (InterVarsity Press, 1986).  Dr. Feinberg's article is a comprehensive introduction to the moderate Calvinist position and philosophic compatibilism.

  • John Gill, The Cause of God & Truth (Baker Book House,1980).  An exhaustive refutation of Christian humanism using copious scriptural references and citations from the early church fathers.

  • John Hendyrx, 'Just Because' - Eleven (11) Reasons to Reject Libertarian Free Will   John is the creator of the Calvinist/Reformed resource warehouse - monergism.com

  • R. A. Huebner, God's Sovereignty and Glory in the Election and Salvation of Lost Men (Bible Truth Publishers, 2003)  This is by far the finest presentation of the biblical view of human responsibility from the dispensational perspective.  A must read!

  • Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Fleming H Revell Company, 1957).  Originally written in Latin, Luther captures the quintessential difference between the Reformation and all forms of Christian humanism and in particular--Roman Catholicism.   This translation includes the excellent 60+ page Historical and Theological Introduction by J. I. Packer and O. J. Johnston.  Important historical reading!

  • Miles J. Stanford, From Arminius, to Calvin, to Paul (Colorado Springs, CO).  Classic MJS contrasting Arminianism with Covenant Calvinism, and then offering a complete Pauline soteriology based on the compatibilist view of the will.     

  • Robert K. McGregor Wright, NO PLACE for SOVEREIGNTY - What's Wrong with Freewill Theism (InterVarsity Press, 1996).  Bob Wright's book is an good short overview of the Covenant Calvinist landscape and the Reformation viewpoint.

  • Paul Wilson, ARMINIANISM versus CALVINISM.  This short booklet (first appeared in Christian Truth magazine; later reprinted by Bible Truth Publishers) is an introduction to J. N. Darby's biblical views.  He was neither Arminian nor Calvinist.  Back before the great inflation of the '70s, Miles Stanford mailed this booklet (then 35) to many of his correspondents.  Of those Arminian-bent believers who claim to have known and appreciate Miles Stanford, I often wonder if they failed to receive a copy.

Within the context of a normal literal hermeneutic, we believe a compatibilist understanding of the will combined with a Pauline dispensational approach to Scripture best harmonizes the entire Bible.   We recommend all the works of Miles Stanford, who advocated sovereign grace-oriented Pauline dispensationalism and a compatibilistic view of the will.  

The Problem of Evil:

  • John S. Feinberg, THE MANY FACES OF EVIL - Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Zondervan Publishing House, 1979, 1994).  Dr. Feinberg's scholarly thesis on the subject which as evolved over several decades.  Deep reading only for those who have mastered and are comfortable with the materials listed above.

The following is a partial list of writer/theologians advocating various forms of indeterminism and therefore cannot be recommended:

 

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