I’ve been seriously contemplating the relationship between the sovereignty of God and free will off and on since my freshman philosophy class in 1994. Is everything that happens in the universe determined in a strict cause and effect relationship where free choice is a mere illusion, or do humans have a genuine capacity for making choices between competing desires? This issue not only involves theology, but it also comes up in philosophy and science apart from questions concerning God. I had a professor in divinity school who was committed to theological and philosophical determinism. She had us read literature in neuroscience that came to the same deterministic conclusion from a scientific viewpoint. This particular professor’s determinism, however, led her to conclude that God would have to save everyone eventually, because it just wouldn’t be right to condemn people who have no real choice, ironically, even though she considered such a choice to be logically impossible.
In theological circles, nonetheless, the debate is sometimes framed strictly in terms of exegesis—that is, faithful interpretation of Scripture. Calvinists see certain passages as teaching a strict determinism. One such passage is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, which they concealed from their father through outright deceit. After Joseph and his brothers are reconciled and after his brothers express contrition for their sinful actions, Joseph forgives them and says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20 ESV). The typical Calvinist sees in this passage a specific statement regarding God’s sovereign direction over all of the events in this story, including the sinful actions of the brothers. Ultimately they did what they did because of God’s decree.
Arminians, on the other hand, believe that God’s grace gives all humans a measure of freedom to freely choose between competing desires. They point to passages like Deuteronomy 30:19-20, which they see as clearly implying such a libertarian freedom, albeit by God’s grace and not by fallen human nature.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Dt 30:19-20
The number of texts that both sides muster in their defense is immense. Both sides claim that Scripture is the ultimate standard for their position. There are texts that seem to support both positions. But there clearly are others issues at work as well. There are also philosophical issues and logic involved in interpreting those texts and deciding which set of texts should take precedence in terms of interpretation of the other set. And the issue of interpretation of language in general is not a simple one. The following are also some of the things that are helpful to know when trying to understand this incredibly complex theological and philosophical issue.
How does God know what will happen in the future?
- The strict determinist says God knows what will happen in the future because he has already predetermined everything that happens ahead of time by his eternal decree. The action and reaction of every human and every molecule (John Piper by way of Charles Spurgeon uses the example of every dust particle) in the universe has been planned in minute detail ahead of time. According to John Calvin, God not only foresaw the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, he decreed it. Not all who would claim the label Calvinist would agree with this entirely, but this is the basic, consistent traditional Calvinist position. God decreed the fall of Adam and the salvation and damnation of every individual thereafter.
- The basic Arminian position is that God knows the future because he clearly foresees it ahead of time, but without predetermining every human decision. Being outside of time, in a way mysterious to us, God sees the past, present, and future simultaneously. In his omniscience, he foresees the faith of individuals and elects this class of believers to salvation. This is not based on works righteousness, which Paul clearly distinguishes from faith (i.e. Rom 3:21-31). Election and salvation are by faith. In the case of the former, it is faith foreseen by, but not predetermined by, God. It is not true as is sometimes supposed—often in Arminian circles— that Arminians don’t believe in predestination and election. They do, but have a different understanding of those terms.
Another issue to understand is the different notions of freedom.
- It is not true that Calvinists do not believe in free will. They do, but they understand freedom differently. For the strict Calvinist, humans freely choose to do what they want to do. But all humans are ultimately slaves to their desires. The type of freedom envisioned by Calvinists is called “compatibilist freedom.” According to this notion of freedom, humans are free to choose according to their desires. But fallen humans only desire sin and rejection of God. Without God intervening to change their hearts and with the corresponding desires, fallen humans are doomed to damnation. But according to his eternal decree, God chose before the foundation of the world to regenerate some humans unconditionally but chose to leave others unregenerate. Although they could not do otherwise, the non-elect, those doomed to eternal damnation, are justly condemned because they freely choose sin and continued rejection of God’s grace. But again, they freely choose to do what they want to do – but – according to this definition of freedom, they cannot choose otherwise.
- Arminians have a libertarian view of freedom. This is the notion that God’s grace enables humans to choose between competing demands to accept or reject God’s grace. For traditional Arminians, this would involve only the limited ability, restored to all by God’s prevenient grace, to accept or reject God’s grace in terms of justification, new birth, and sanctification. As to how exactly the future is clearly present to God without it being predetermined, ultimately this type of freedom is much more mysterious than the more straightforward compatibilist notion of freedom. That doesn’t make it right. It’s just an acknowledgment that in terms of our ability to comprehend, it is more mysterious to fathom how we would choose between competing desires, if some of those desires are stronger than others. But Scripture does seem to warn and encourage believers to choose between competing desires, as with the passage from Deuteronomy above. But the choice does seem to be limited to receiving God’s gracious help to overcome sinful desires though his power and not our own.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. ~ Gal 5:16-17
Of course, there are many other things to consider. This is one of the most complex and ultimately mysterious issues in all of theology and philosophy. Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only options to consider in terms of Christian theology, and neither of these traditions are monoliths. There’s also Molinism and Open Theism to name two more. The relationship between the knowledge of a sovereign God and human freedom is impossible for us to fully comprehend. Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright argues that both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian debate have probably tried to explain too much. In these debates, it’s also easy to get lost, and not just intellectually.
Faithful Christians committed to the authority of Scripture have come down on different sides of this debate. In my own Methodist tradition, we have the relationship between John Wesley, an Arminian, and George Whitefield, a Calvinist. While their differences did cause some tension between them and interfered with them being able to fully cooperate together in ministry, they both maintained admiration and respect for each other as brothers in Christ. By request of Whitefield himself, John Wesley preached at his funeral service. Today we can see a staunch Calvinist like James White and a committed Arminian like Michael Brown debate those issues vigorously while recognizing each other as brothers in Christ and partnering in ministry together in other areas where they share agreement. Whitefield and Wesley did the same, and providentially, in spite of some hindrances, their respective ministries and gifts complemented each other for fruit for the kingdom and the glory of God (Read interview of J.D. Walsh).
This is not to dismiss the need for further dialogue and debate. It’s also not to dismiss the seriousness of the implications over the disagreements. Both sides want to preserve something they see as vital in the way we talk about these things. Calvinists want to preserve 100% of the glory for God in the salvation of souls. Arminians like me don’t see that allowing for a graciously God-given ability just to receive or reject God’s gift for every person detracts from God’s glory, but I think we can understand the concern. Arminians are also concerned that genuine human responsibility for sin should involve a real possibility for acceptance or rejection of God’s grace. But this is not primarily over a concern about human freedom, but a concern over the character of God. It should be understandable why we would have such concerns.
What does it say about the character of God if he condemns people for sin that he himself predetermined, especially when the Bible says God calls all to repentance and that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:8-10; cf Ezk 18:23, & 33:11)? We believe that when Paul in Romans 11:32 says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all,” the last “all” includes every individual just like the first “all” does. Just as Rom 3:9 says “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” is qualified by the, “no not one” that follows in verse 10, which is a quote from Psalms, so also, no one is excluded from the mercy of God available in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we believe truly all are enabled to accept or reject the mercy of God and thus to be judged accordingly.
I’ve revealed my leanings. At times, however, I’ve leaned in the other direction. I believe Wesley was right to say he was within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism. I believe God has graciously created space for a limited libertarian freedom. Nevertheless, I realize the difficulty of speaking of freedom within a specific set of limited predetermined parameters. It is easy to get lost intellectually in terms of the paradoxes and mystery involved in all of this.
But the worst way to get lost is to think that having the correct theory of how someone gets saved is more important than preaching the Gospel that Jesus saves. As Whitefield put it by employing a quote from John Bradford, “Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.” Calvinists and Arminians, alike, can agree that the call to repentance and the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God available through faith in Jesus Christ is the means God has ordained that will lead to souls being saved. On Calvinist or Arminian terms, God already knows the elect – those who will be saved – and the non-elect, who will not; but we do not know either. And either way, God has called us to preach the Gospel to the world, elect or not. On that, we should be able to agree and work together for the salvation of souls to the glory of God!
For Further Study:
For Calvinsim (2010) by Michael Horton
Against Calvinsism (2011) by Roger Olson
Why I am Not a Calvinist (2004) by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell
Debate between two Calvinist professors , Bruce Ware and Tom Schreiner, and two Wesleyan scholars, Joe Dongell and Jerry Walls