Calvinism and Free Will

Personal Note [added in 2014]: This is one of the first essays I wrote for this web site, originally sketched out in 2001 and later filled out in much more detail in 2005. At that time I was largely in agreement with the basic tenets of Calvinism, as the essay makes clear. I assumed, along with most Calvinists (as well as most other evangelical Christians), that only those people who believe in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity would be saved, and the rest would be damned to hell. I also assumed that the Bible was the literal word of God and so had to be absolutely free of error. I no longer hold to these views of what “salvation” and the Bible are all about, which means I no longer consider myself a Calvinist and I no longer stand behind much of what I assumed in this essay. The main point of the essay, however, was not to defend these background beliefs but rather to examine the different concepts of free will (compatibilistic vs. libertarian) that the debate over Calvinism requires an understanding of, and I think this examination is largely still valid.

I may eventually find the time to bring the essay up-to-date with my current beliefs, but until then I am keeping it on my web site as originally written for the sake of the discussion about these various conceptions of free will. I think anyone interested in the subject of Calvinism (whether pro or con) should be aware of these distinctions in how free will is conceived by the various sides. For the present I am also keeping a related essay entitled Does God Sovereignly Ordain Evil?, which supplements this one by giving further evidence that most of the Biblical authors believed God’s sovereignty is such that he ultimately ordains all that happens, including even the evil choices people make of their own free will. I think it is important for believers in Christianity to recognize that this is what the original founders of their religion fairly consistently assumed.

(See My Theological Pigeonhole for further details on my current beliefs.)

Part 1: Background and Definitions

Overview of the Meaning of Calvinism

In any meaningful discussion of a subject like Calvinism and free will, it is critically important to carefully define one’s terms. In this paper, I will start with the term Calvinism. Although this is actually relatively well defined in theological circles, and almost all evangelical Christians have heard of it and have some concept of what it means, many would be surprised to learn that some still use it differently than others.

For example, some Christians (possibly following the example of Norman Geisler in his book Chosen but Free—see Appendix 2) think of “moderate Calvinism” as the belief that God elects people ultimately on the basis of His foreknowledge of their choices. But this is actually virtually identical to what the Arminian view holds. Others go the opposite direction and think of Calvinism in terms of being a complete disciple of John Calvin. These Christians are often understandably shocked and dismayed that any Bible-believing Christian would call himself a Calvinist, for the Bible clearly teaches that our allegiance is to be to Christ, not to any man. However, what both of these groups apparently fail to realize is that their definitions of the term Calvinism are very different from what most people understand it to mean.

This paper uses the term Calvinism as I believe it is most commonly used, which is to mean belief in a certain set of five interrelated doctrinal points, famously abbreviated TULIP. Briefly stated, these five points of Calvinism are as follows:

T stands for Total depravity. This is the doctrine that unsaved man apart from God is totally depraved, or corrupted, and in complete rebellion against God. This does not mean that every act of unsaved man is totally evil, because God does exert some positive influence (called “common grace”) even over unbelievers, thereby enabling them to do some good things. But apart from God, every act of unsaved man would be totally evil. One Scripture that demonstrates this is Rom. 8:7 - “The fleshly mind is at enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can it be.” Of particular significance to Calvinism, the doctrine of total depravity says that unsaved man is so depraved that he cannot even choose to receive Christ of his own accord, but only if God steps in and enables him. “No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

U stands for Unconditional election. This means God makes a sovereign choice to elect (choose) certain people to save them. Actually, He made that choice before the foundation of the world, as Eph. 1:4 makes clear. The choice had to be unconditional because of what we know from the doctrine of total depravity, that everyone is equally and totally opposed to God apart from His drawing. So it is not that God chooses people on the basis of who will choose Him; rather none of us would choose God at all unless He had first chosen us and therefore softened our hearts and made us willing to receive Christ. As Jesus put it, “You did not choose Me, but I chose You...” (John 15:16). Note that Calvinists believe unconditional election works both ways: If God sovereignly determines who will be saved, then logically He also sovereignly determines who will be lost. (This idea is sometimes called “double predestination,” in contrast to “single predestination,” which is the idea that God only determines who will be saved and not who will be lost.) God’s sovereign determination of who will be lost is called “reprobation.” Reprobation is not necessarily taken to be the exact opposite of election to salvation, as though there is a perfect symmetry between the two ideas, or that both concepts glorify and please God in exactly the same way. Rather, God seems to take pleasure in His election to salvation in a much different and higher sense than He takes pleasure in accomplishing many other parts of His sovereign will, such as His reprobation, which actually brings Him a form of displeasure. Nevertheless, several Scriptures do seem to affirm that it is perfectly accurate to view God as in some sense predestining the lost as well as the saved (e.g., John 12:40, Rom. 9:18, 2 Thess. 2:11, 1 Pet. 2:8).

L stands for Limited atonement. This is the doctrine that Christ’s death on the cross did not pay for the sins of the whole world, but only for the sins of the elect. Unfortunately, this concept is a little ambiguous in my opinion. In fact, I believe 1 John 2:2 (“He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also those of the whole world”) shows that this doctrine is not completely true, or at least not when stated so broadly. I am more comfortable with another term that is sometimes used to describe this point, namely particular redemption. This emphasizes that God’s purpose in Christ’s atoning sacrifice was to redeem a particular people, namely the elect, which is to my way of thinking a more accurate way of putting it. He came to save “His people” (Matt. 1:21). He gave His life as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Through His death He paid for the sins of the elect in a substitutionary sense, as a ransom, bearing them away and guaranteeing that the elect will not be judged for or have to pay for those sins themselves. He did not pay for the sins of the non-elect in quite this same sense, for indeed the non-elect will ultimately be judged for and have to pay for their sins.

I stands for Irresistible grace. This is the doctrine that all the elect (meaning, in this context, those predestined for salvation) will in fact receive Christ. None of them will ultimately “resist” the call and refuse to believe. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37). And Romans 8:30 speaks of all those who were predestined and called as also justified and glorified. In other words, it’s a done deal; there is no uncertainty about it. If God has chosen you, then He will see to it that you will receive Him (though not against your will; He will work in your will to make you willing, as will be discussed later in this paper).

P stands for Perseverance of the saints. This is also called “eternal security.” It means that you cannot lose your salvation. It is not that you keep yourself saved, of course, but God keeps you. If God has chosen you and saved you, then He will also see to it that you will never completely lose your faith and reject Him. Calvinists do not deny that there are apostates (people who seem to believe but then later reject the faith), for example Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8. But according to this doctrine, these people were never truly saved to begin with.

Note that this summary has been necessarily brief as it is beyond the scope of this paper to give a complete Biblical defense of each of these five points of Calvinism. In fact, I do not even hold completely to the point on limited atonement myself, except when carefully qualified as I have attempted to do above. (See also Appendix 1.) At any rate, there are plenty of good Calvinistic books and other resources available for anyone who is interested in a more complete defense. I will instead press on to the subject of free will.

Overview of the Meaning of Free Will

If the ambiguity in the term Calvinism causes some confusion in many discussions on this topic, that is almost a drop in the bucket compared to the ambiguity in the term free will. Free will is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Though we all have some idea of what we think it means, these ideas are not easy to put into precise language. However, if we want to have a meaningful discussion about this subject, we absolutely must expend the effort to carefully analyze and explain what we really mean by it.

I believe our concepts of free will can roughly be broken down into two or three categories, which I will label as follows:

1) Absolute free will (sometimes called “libertarian” free will)
This refers to the idea that man’s choices are his alone, and not ultimately controlled or determined by God. It is sometimes popularly described as “the power to choose or choose otherwise.” It can be further broken down into two subcategories:

1a) Open absolute free will
This refers to the idea that until a particular choice is made, that choice is completely “open,” meaning there is a real possibility for it to go either way. This implies that man’s choices are inherently “unknowable.” Not even God can know beforehand with absolute certainty what man will choose to do (although His knowledge of human nature gives Him the ability to make extremely accurate guesses). The reason for this is that if God infallibly knew in advance that some person would choose A instead of B, then that person’s choice would be inevitable and therefore not really “open.”

1b) Non-open absolute free will
This refers to the idea that God can foreknow exactly what choices man will make, and thus man’s choices are admittedly inevitable rather than “open,” yet man’s choices are still absolutely free in the sense that God can only foreknow them and influence them, but not ultimately determine them.

2) Compatibilistic free will
This refers to the idea that man’s choices are ultimately within the bounds of God’s sovereign control, yet they are free in the sense that God does not coerce man to choose against his will, but rather sovereignly determines what man wills in the first place. In other words, if some person chooses A instead of B, it was ultimately God’s decision that he would make that choice, and yet the choice was still free because the person made it willingly, not being coerced against his will. God made Him willing to make that choice.

In any discussion of free will, it is important to always identify which of these broad kinds of free will is being discussed, and not to ambiguously meander from category to category, or else the discussion will be meaningless. For example, Calvinist literature sometimes seems to both affirm and deny that man has free will, and unless we understand which kind of free will is being affirmed and which kind is being denied, this will seem contradictory.

Generally speaking, then, Calvinists affirm that man has compatibilistic free will, but deny that man has absolute free will. Arminians and most other non-Calvinist believers affirm that man has absolute free will in the non-open sense, but deny that he has absolute free will in the open sense. And recently there has also been a rise in the popularity of certain decidedly unbiblical theologies such as Open Theism and Process Theology which affirm that man has absolute free will in the open sense.

Implications on the Sovereignty of God

The general systems of belief regarding free will as discussed above also necessarily lead to differing views of the sovereignty of God. In broad terms, the sovereignty of God refers to His control over His creation. Events unfold according to His preordained plan. But while virtually all Christians verbally affirm the sovereignty of God, what they mean by this is almost completely dependent on their view of free will. I will label these differing views of God’s sovereignty as follows:

1) Relative Sovereignty
Those who affirm absolute free will in the open sense (e.g., open theists) have an extremely limited view of the sovereignty of God. In this view, God is really only relatively sovereign, something like an angelic being could hypothetically be if he was powerful enough. God can sovereignly control circumstances to try to achieve His plan, and by doing so He can also certainly exert some powerful influence on man’s choices, but ultimately He cannot guarantee that His plan will be achieved in each and every detail. He must rather react to man’s choices and in some cases modify His plan after these choices are made. But He is somehow able to do this in such a way that “the big picture” of His plan is guaranteed.

2) Constrained Sovereignty
Those who affirm absolute free will in the non-open sense (e.g., Arminians) have a much stronger view of the sovereignty of God. They acknowledge that God’s plan will inevitably be accomplished in every detail, for God knows the future with absolute certainty. In addition, they generally affirm that God not only knows what choices man will make in the future, He also knows what choices man would make in the future if the circumstances were different. This is sometimes referred to as God’s “middle knowledge.” Thus, God is viewed as sovereignly controlling the future by arranging the circumstances in such a way that man’s choices will be made in accordance with His sovereign plan, and He can achieve this because He knows what man’s choices will be for every possible set of circumstances. (Those who view God’s sovereignty as operating in this fashion are sometimes called Molinists, after the 16th century Jesuit, Luis de Molina.) Nevertheless, this view of God’s sovereignty is still limited in that God’s sovereign plan is ultimately constrained by man’s free choices. In other words, God cannot come up with a sovereign plan that accomplishes all He would like to do, but only one that maximizes His accomplishments in accordance with what is possible given man’s future choices. For example, although God desires the salvation of all men, He can only sovereignly arrange the circumstances to maximize the number who will believe, and in this sense He sovereignly carries out His plan with absolute inevitability, but His plan itself is still ultimately constrained to some degree by man’s absolute free will.

3) Absolute Sovereignty
Those who affirm free will in the compatibilistic sense only (e.g., Calvinists) have the strongest view of the sovereignty of God. In this view, God’s sovereignty is absolute. God is not only able to carry out His plan with absolute certainty in every detail, but also God’s plan itself is perfect in every way and not constrained by human choices. Everything that happens is ultimately because God willed it to happen for His own good purposes. He did not will it to happen merely because it was the best of all the alternatives He could foresee given what man would freely choose to do in each circumstance; He rather willed it absolutely and unconditionally.

Part 2: Analysis

Does Scripture Teach Absolute Free Will?

There can be no doubt that Scripture unequivocally teaches that man has free will in at least the compatibilistic sense. God does not coerce man to choose against his will. Unsaved people cannot truthfully say that God forced them to reject Him against their will. Conversely, saved people cannot truthfully say that they were saved against their will. God only saves those who are willing to come (Rev. 22:17).

But the question of absolute free will cannot be so easily affirmed. Absolute free will does not limit itself to the idea that man is free to choose as he wills, but rather attempts to address the idea of the source or impetus behind the willing choice of man. Putting this in the context of salvation, absolute free will does not limit itself to the idea that man can freely accept Christ if he wills, but rather attempts to make a philosophical statement regarding why it is that we will the choice to either accept or reject Him.

However, the question of why we will the way we do, or what is the impetus behind the will of some to come and others to turn away, is not something so straightforward as to merit such a philosophical explanation or presupposition. Philosophically, I believe a full understanding of this impetus behind our wills is beyond our comprehension. I don’t think we can explain our wills, at the deepest level, in philosophical terms. I can’t tell you why my desires run one way and yours another, or why I want to engage in certain kinds of activities and you prefer others, or why I hunger for certain kinds of foods and you like others. Whether or not I engage in a certain activity is a matter of choice, but whether or not I will to do it is not so easily explained.

To say that our wills are simply a matter of our own free choice does not really even address the issue, but simply pushes it a step backward and begs the same question. For in the final analysis, the question of why we will the things we will cannot be reduced to a choice on our part, since that choice is itself a result of our will to make that choice. Thus, in the ultimate sense, our wills are not really driven by choice, but rather our choices are driven by our wills. On a superficial level, it may seem like we simply choose what to will. For example, when we get up on a Monday morning and want to spend the day outdoors, we can choose to go to work instead, superficially altering our will. But that choice was really driven by our deeper will to maintain a good standing with our employer. So in the final analysis, our wills are ultimately what drive our choices, not the other way around.

So what is the impetus behind our wills, if it is not our choice? I believe we must turn to Scripture, not philosophy, for the answer to this question. And as it turns out, Scripture answers it very clearly:

“For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” – Phi. 2:13

This is a direct contradiction to the philosophical presupposition of absolute free will. For here God is clearly seen as the ultimate impetus behind our wills. He works in us to will according to His good pleasure. When we will to receive Christ, it is only because He made us willing to do that. Scripture teaches that man does not have the ability to will to receive Christ outside of this sovereign work of God. Natural man is at enmity against God (Rom. 8:7). He can will to do certain good works (which are but filthy rags, according to Isa. 64:6), and he certainly wills to avoid hell, but outside of God's grace he cannot will to have saving faith. Only when God works in us to will for His good pleasure do we finally will to believe in Him.

Thus, Scripture teaches that man does not in fact have absolute free will. Man’s free choice or free will is in the compatibilistic sense of the term, not in the absolute sense of having a free impetus behind the will.

Does Human Responsibility Imply Absolute Free Will?

Those who insist on absolute free will often do so on the basis of another simple philosophical assumption, namely that without the ability of man to will as he chooses, outside of God’s sovereign determination, man would not be responsible for his actions. In other words, he would be neither good nor evil. He would simply be a brute animal. But while this certainly seems like a natural assumption on the surface, I believe it is a false assumption, and one that we make simply because in our limited human experience we really do not have a clear concept of a sovereign God.

When we as natural human beings read Scriptures that speak of God being in control of man’s will, it sounds to us like coercion. And we rightly object to the idea of man being held responsible for choices that he was coerced to make against his will. But in fact there is nothing in the Bible to imply that God coerces man to make choices against his will. Rather, as we have seen, man’s free will is compatibilistic, and God is seen in Scripture as the one who sovereignly works in us to will as He desires. Again, we don’t really have any concept of how this could happen, because among creatures it cannot. But God is not a creature; He is the creator. And so it is very dangerous to apply human philosophical assumptions to Him.

The idea that a person cannot be held responsible for a choice as long as that choice is predetermined is not an easy one to abandon, but I suggest one way to help us work through it is to ask the question, “Could Christ have sinned?” Obviously, for orthodox Christians the answer is a resounding “No!” It was a foregone conclusion that He would always do the will of His Father. It could not possibly be otherwise, for although He certainly had the physical ability to do sinful acts, by nature He did not have the moral ability. But certainly this does not imply that Christ was a brute animal who was coerced into His actions! On the contrary, He is rightly to be praised for His perfect life even though it was predetermined.

In a similar sense, man is also morally responsible for his choices even though from God’s perspective they are predetermined. Thus, human responsibility does not logically demand absolute free will, but rather only compatibilistic free will. Again, this is because man is not coerced by God against his will, but God rather operates in such a way that man makes his predetermined choices willingly. Man has no excuse for his choices; he makes them just as he wills.

Is Compatibilistic Free Will Real?

A similar objection by many who reject Calvinism or the doctrine of predestination in general is that they believe this doctrine to be incompatible with real human choice. They do not agree with the idea of compatibilistic free will, for they see that as reducing the status of human beings to that of mere puppets on a string. They correctly point out that we, unlike puppets, do have real choices, including the real choice of whether or not to receive the Lord Jesus in order to become sons of God.

The compatibilistic idea of free will does indeed view God rather than man as having the ultimate choice. Jesus Himself said, “you did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). But this does not mean that the choices we make are somehow not “real.”

This is probably impossible to explain in terms of our strictly human experiences. We cannot absolutely control what another person will choose except by coercing the other person and thereby robbing him of a real choice. But God is sovereign. And I believe Scripture indicates that He can and does absolutely control our choices without robbing us of the reality of those choices.

God is not subject to creation’s laws like we are. He is Lord over and beyond creation. However, interestingly enough, He generally seems to choose to operate within and through the laws of His creation, even when He is working to achieve a miraculous result. For example, God is absolutely in control of the outcome of random events such as throwing dice and casting lots (Prov. 16:4). But these things are governed by the laws of probability. God does not need to break the laws of probability in order to be in control of what will result. Rather, as Lord over the law of probablility, He was in control of what outcome would result from this law all along.

Similarly, I believe God does not need to break the reality of human choice in order to be in absolute sovereign control of what choices we make. As Lord over His creation, He preordains what our choices will be, even while genuinely allowing us to make those choices.

One of the clearest manifestations of this idea is in the inspiration of Scripture. The Bible is very clear that all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). The human authors wrote exactly what God chose for them to write (2 Pet. 1:21). But the human authors did not therefore view themselves as simply puppets in the process. They made real choices regarding what to write. Or at least that seems to be the most straightforward way of reading their many explanations as to why they chose to write one thing or another. For example:

“It seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus...” – Luke 1:3

“I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice.” – 2 Cor. 2:3

“Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.” – 2 Cor. 12:6

“Although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” – Jude 3

The point is that the human authors of Scripture had real choices regarding what they wrote even though God was ultimately in control of what they ended up choosing. Similarly, we have real choices in our lives, including the all-important choice of whether or not to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, even though God ultimately predetermines who will end up choosing what. The doctrine of predestination and the denial of absolute free will do not strip the reality out of human choice.

Tough Questions for Those who Believe in Absolute Free Will

I think many people who believe in absolute free will have not logically thought out their position. For example, many people who believe in absolute free will nevertheless also hold to the doctrine of eternal security (though true Arminians do not). But if man’s will was absolutely free, then not even God could positively prevent him from changing his mind. Therefore, in this view, there is a real possibility that someone might get saved and then willingly reject Christ at a later time. Yet they say that this person is eternally secure, which implies that God actually keeps him saved against his will in this view. In other words, God coerces him. Strangely enough, this doctrine that posited that man starts out with free will in the absolute sense is now seen to hold that after his salvation man actually loses his free will even in the compatibilistic sense! It is difficult to understand why these people believe it is so important to have absolute free will before salvation if it is not important to have even compatibilistic free will after salvation. Certainly they cannot logically argue (though many do illogically argue) that absolute free will is an essential component of what it means to be human, for clearly we do in fact remain human even after we are saved. Of course, if we recognize the absolute sovereignty of God, and that it is He, rather than self, who is at work behind our wills, and if we understand that our wills are therefore free in the compatibilistic sense (both before and after salvation), then this logical inconsistency disappears, since God will never change the will of a truly saved person to then reject Him.

A related issue for those who see absolute free will as being essential to the human condition is the question of the status of our wills after we get to heaven. Clearly there will be no possibility of us making sinful choices up there. And I cannot imagine anyone explaining this by saying that God will coerce us to be righteous against our wills. Thus, the only kind of free will that we can possibly have in glory will be compatibilistic free will. But if absolute free will is not a necessary component of our humanity in heaven, on what basis can we insist that it is a necessary component on earth?

Does Scripture Teach God’s Absolute Sovereignty?

Since the affirmation of absolute free will is logically tantamount to a denial of God’s absolute sovereignty in favor of a constrained form of His sovereignty, we can also approach the issue of free will from the perspective of what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty. In fact, Scripture clearly affirms that God’s sovereignty is not constrained by human will. Whatever God pleases, He will accomplish (Ps. 135:6, Isa. 46:10). Nothing is too difficult for Him; with Him, all things are possible (Jer. 32:17, Matt. 19:26). This does not mean that God can do things that are contrary to His own nature (Tit. 1:2), but it certainly implies that He is not constrained by human free will. He works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11), not the will of man.

Besides such summary statements of God’s sovereignty in Scripture, it is also instructive to examine some specific reaches to which His sovereignty is explicitly said to extend. God sovereignly ordains the times and boundaries of nations (Acts 17:26). This certainly involves His sovereign control over the choices made by kings and others in positions of power, as is explicitly stated in Prov. 21:1 - “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.” Scripture records numerous instances where God is said to have ordained what was in the king’s heart (e.g., Ezra 7:27). The intended truth is surely not that God is in sovereign control of only kings and not ordinary people, but rather that His sovereign control is so absolute that it extends even to kings (who have a tendency to think too highly of their own power). This was a hard lesson for Nebuchadnezzar to learn, but once he had learned it, he summarized the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty quite eloquently:

“He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” – Dan. 4:35

God is seen as both opening the hearts of the elect to receive the gospel (Acts 16:14) and hardening the hearts of the rest to believe a lie (Rom. 9:18, 2 Thess. 2:11, Rev. 17:17). In the case of Romans 9, Paul goes on to address the objections of those who think this is not fair: “Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom. 9:21). If Paul was not here teaching God’s absolute sovereignty, but only a limited kind of sovereignty, constrained by human free will as the Arminians believe, then I cannot see any way to follow his argument, let alone his initial claim back in verse 18.

The truth is, God’s absolute sovereignty is assumed and taught throughout all of Scripture, and this demonstrates beyond reasonable dispute that man does not have free will in the absolute sense, but only in the compatibilistic sense.

God’s Sovereignty Over Evil

Many Christians who acknowledge God’s sovereignty in predestinating His elect people are nevertheless still opposed to the idea that God is absolutely sovereign. In particular, they would deny that God sovereignly ordains even the bad things that happen in life, or the evil choices that men make. This is a very touchy subject, and perhaps not something that we should expect to feel completely comfortable with. But the Bible does not seem to shirk from it, and so neither should we.

Scripture is very clear that God is not evil and that he does not tempt men to do evil (James 1:13). And yet it also seems to indicate that we can legitimately see God’s sovereign hand and plan behind all that happens, even evil things (which is what makes this subject so tricky). I suppose a full understanding of it is beyond human comprehension, but I think what little we can understand should actually inspire in us a real sense of awe and wonder.

This is particularly true in the case of the crucifixion, which is surely the greatest Biblical example where God’s sovereign hand can be clearly seen behind even the evil things that happen. The events surrounding the crucifixion were not just unfortunate accidents. Rather, they were clearly the results of evil choices on the part of Judas, the Roman soldiers, Herod, Caiaphas, the Jewish Sanhedrin, and even the multitude of people who picked Barabbas over Jesus. But the Bible assures us in no uncertain terms that God’s hand was absolutely behind these evil happenings:

“For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. – Acts 4:27-28

We must not deny the truth of this passage, no matter how hard it is to understand. Of course, we must not read too much into it either. Specifically, the passage does not say that Pilate and Herod and the rest were simply pawns in God’s hand, carrying out His evil plans. First of all, God’s plans are not evil, even though they may indeed incorporate the evil actions of man. Second, the evil choices these people made were totally willing choices. God did not force them to carry out His plan against their wills. They are justly accountable for their actions.

Also, the fact that God predestines such evil things to occur does not mean that He is pleased with them or that He desires them, at least not in the same sense that He desires our obedience. In this way these evil things are most definitely not in accordance with His will. His ultimate plan is to do away with such things. But the word will has various shades of meaning. God apparently does will evil things to happen in the sense that He predestines them in accordance with His will for the time being, until sin and death are finally abolished.

I believe the proper attitude towards these difficult things is beautifully illustrated in the example of Job. Job suffered greatly at the hands of evil men, Sabeans and Chaldeans who stole his livestock and killed his servants. He also lost his children in a disaster that was apparently caused by Satan. Job did not conclude from these things that God was evil. But he also clearly recognized that God’s hand was indeed behind it all. He could say, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). He did not say God merely allowed Satan to take away; he said God Himself had taken away. And yet, “Through all this Job did not sin nor did He blame God” (Job 1:22).

So the example of Job proves that it is possible and right to see God’s sovereign hand behind everything that happens, including evil actions by men and Satan, and yet to not blame God or ascribe evil to Him. We must realize that God’s ways are higher than our ways. We cannot legitimately form good plans that make use of evil actions by others, but who are we to tell God that He can’t? He created us, He is sovereign, He is in control, He has the ability to work everything for good, and He is clearly not subject to the same rules that we are.

The Bible contains many other examples of God sovereignly ordaining and using evil actions by created beings to accomplish His plan. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph ultimately said, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:8). 1 Kings 22:20-23 contains the remarkable account of God sending a deceiving spirit into the mouths of the prophets, in order to entice Ahab to go to battle and be destroyed. The wicked nation of Assyria is described as the rod of God’s anger who He sends against Israel (Isa. 10:5-6), and even more graphically as an axe that is used by God Himself to chop with (verse 15).

The account of David and the census is especially revealing, as it is recorded from two different perspectives. From the more direct perspective, “Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1). But this action by Satan was all part of God’s plan, as seen in the parallel passage, which seems to be from the more abstract perspective of God’s ultimate purposes. “The anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’” (2 Sam. 24:1). The only way I can see to harmonize these two perspectives is to see Satan as a tool in God’s plan, where Satan was the one who carried out the temptation, but God was the one who ultimately decided that the temptation should occur.

The temptation of Jesus was also ultimately planned by God, though carried out by Satan, as we should be careful to see. “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). In this case we can understand God’s design to prove that Jesus would not succumb to the temptation by Satan. In David’s case (and often in ours, no doubt), perhaps God’s design was partly to show him that he actually would succumb to the temptation by Satan, and therefore that he needed to learn to rely more on God instead of self. Peter certainly had to learn this lesson the hard way, as the Lord told specifically told him he would (Luke 22:34). But the Lord also prayed for him that his faith would not fail, and told him that afterwards he would be able to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32). I believe we can take great comfort in that the tests we go through are ultimately designed by God for the purpose of strengthening us and others, not weakening us.

The Comfort of God’s Absolute Sovereignty

We have seen that God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, including even the evil choices of man, can be a great comfort to those who are His. This is a point that is worth dwelling on. Not only does God work all things “after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), but He also works all things “together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). Whatever happens to us, it is a comfort to know that this was not simply something that God allowed to happen, perhaps as an unavoidable result of someone else’s free will, but rather it was actually exactly what a loving God designed for our good. Nothing is more reassuring in times of trial or difficulty than the peace that comes from knowing that God is in absolute control. We can rest in this because we know God is the one whom we can trust to do everything right. We don’t have to worry that the will of man might ultimately thwart even the smallest detail of the perfect plan of God.

Those who believe in absolute free will cannot really have this assurance, because in their view, God’s plan is in fact conditioned on His foreknowledge of human choices that He is not able to control, and therefore may not really be perfect. As an example of this distinction, consider the fact that, humanly speaking, every day of our lives we face the possibility that someone might choose to do us harm, or might make some foolish choice that will unintentionally do us harm, or even kill us. If people had free will in the sense that not even God could always prevent them from willing to make such choices, then in essence we’d all ultimately be in the cruel hands of fate, rather than in the loving hands of God. Perhaps God in His mercy would sometimes supernaturally step in and prevent people’s choices from having their natural consequences, but we know that in practice such choices often do have their natural consequences.

In contrast to this view, I am convinced that no one will make such a choice unless or until God sovereignly ordains it. Therefore, I can rest in the loving hands of God, who I know is working all things together for good. So if someone chooses to come across the median and hit my car head on and send me to the hospital or worse, I don’t have to say how unlucky for me that he chose to do that, and that I chose to be driving my car at the wrong place at the wrong time. I can instead be confident in the knowledge that God ordained this for my ultimate good. I may not understand how, but I know I can still trust Him. That’s what I believe God is like.

Does God Love Everyone and Want them to be Saved?

A final very difficult issue that needs to be grappled with in conjunction with any thorough consideration of Calvinism and the Calvinistic doctrine of compatibilistic free will is the question of if or how God really loves everyone and sincerely desires them to be saved. But this is actually a question that all orthodox Christians (as opposed to universalists) have to work through, not just Calvinists. Many Arminians fail to see this, because they think of God as one who tries His very best to save everyone, but some resist and there’s nothing He can do about it in spite of the fact that He ultimately wants to. However, when pressed on this issue they would have to admit that actually God could save everyone if that really was His ultimate desire. That is, He could save people against their wills if He really wanted to. But they believe His desire for everyone to be saved is counteracted by His stronger desire for everyone to have absolute free will. So in reality, His ultimate desire is actually not for everyone to be saved.

I do not see how this position is fundamentally any stronger on this point than the Calvinist position. Although some Calvinists deny that there is any sense in which God desires all to be saved, this is not really a fundamental tenet of the position. I agree with the Arminians that God does indeed have a real love even for the non-elect, and a real desire that they would be saved. That is how I interpret such Scriptures as Ezek. 18:23. But this desire is not His ultimate desire. Scripture does not explain the mystery of God’s will to us in this area in very much detail, so it is probably better not to speculate too much on just why God’s ultimate desire is that so many not be saved. For this reason, I am not entirely comfortable with the standard explanation that God’s purpose in creating the non-elect is to glorify His holiness and justice through their eternal judgment. I acknowledge that this is at least partly the case; I just don’t think we can know whether or not it is the whole story. But one thing we do know is that we can trust that His plan is perfect and that it is ultimately to His praise and glory, whether or not we understand how.

True Freedom

As fascinating as the subject of what freedom of the will means, the concept of freedom that is really more important from a Scriptural point of view is actually a different thing altogether. In John 8:36 Jesus said, “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” True freedom of this kind does not belong to man naturally, but is only the result of salvation. And this freedom does not mean freedom to choose good or evil, but rather freedom from the bondage of slavery to sin.

When we Christians choose to sin, it is not because we want to do so (Rom. 7:15) in our new, innermost selves, but rather because our old, sinful, enslaved nature wants to do so, and we have not yet attained to the resurrection from the dead. But when we reckon ourselves dead to sin (and we are only able to do so by God’s grace–we are powerless in and of ourselves), then we are truly free, and we have no free will to choose to sin, even as God has no free will to choose to sin.

I think the attitude that this concept results in is key to overcoming sin and being used by God. When our approach to temptation is to focus on our own choice to resist, then we are putting confidence in our own free will and ultimately in our own flesh (which is bad–see Phi. 3:3), and we find ourselves utterly unable to carry through with the resistance, just as a sinner is utterly unable to choose God outside of sovereign grace. We may be able resist outwardly in some cases, just as many unbelievers do in fact live outwardly righteous lives, but we are still often conscious of defeat in the eyes of God. But when our approach to temptation is to instead focus on God and His grace, truly delighting ourselves in the Lord, then we are no longer trying to resist by our own power and free will, but instead I think we begin to experience Christ living in and through us, controlling our hearts and desires. As Titus 2:11-12 says, it is God’s grace (not our own free will) that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires. One hymn-writer expressed it as follows:

The grace that sought and found me
Alone can keep me clean.

This should not inspire us to give up and stop caring about temptation, but to draw closer to the Lord, in worship and adoration. Our salvation from the penalty of sin is all of Him, not of ourselves, and so is our salvation from the power of sin. We glory in this truth. That’s what true freedom is all about.

“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority before all time and now and forever. Amen.” – Jude 24-25

Appendix 1: Clarification on Limited Atonement

I believe the Calvinist position is basically correct, but, at least in many statements of it, rather narrow and extreme regarding the point known as limited atonement. This is partly a matter of defining terms. In my view, the word atonement is rather broad; it encompasses the concepts of propitiation, substitution, justification, reconciliation, and a host of other things. All these are accomplished by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. Some of these aspects of atonement may indeed be “limited” to the elect, but I believe there are also some aspects of it that are not limited. In other words, some aspects of atonement have application to unbelievers as well as believers. For example, when it says “He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2), I believe this literally includes the sins of all people.

To see why the propitiation aspect of atonement is unlimited, remember that propitiation is not about justifying man; it is about demonstrating the righteousness of God. This is explained in Romans:

“[Christ Jesus], whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” – Rom. 3:25

What does it mean that God, in His forbearance, “passed over” the sins previously committed? The primary application would be to the sins of people like Abraham, Moses, and David, who were all saved by faith in spite of the fact that they sinned. But I think there is a secondary application even to the sins of unrepentant unbelievers like Pharaoh and Jezebel. Such people will suffer eternal punishment in hell, but it is still true that God “passed over” their sins temporarily, if only in the sense of letting them continue on for as long as He did.

How could a holy and righteous sovereign God permit a person like Hitler to slaughter millions of people for no reason? How could He allow any of His creatures to sin at all, without striking them down instantly, on the spot, if His righteousness is really as high as He says it is? It seems to me that in this sense God “passes over” sins all the time, including the sins of unbelievers, even though in their case it will only be for a finite amount of time. It is only because of His mercy that we are not consumed (Lam. 3:22).

I believe it is Christ’s work on the cross that allows God to be longsuffering and merciful without making Him unrighteous. I think Rom. 3:25 implies at least indirectly that Christ had to die for the sins of everyone, even those who refuse salvation, in order to be displayed as a propitiation for those sins. In other words, He had to endure God’s holy judgment for those sins in order to prove, perhaps in some way that we can’t fully comprehend, that God is completely righteous in spite of the fact that He temporarily allows people to commit those sins. He has every reason to prove His righteousness by destroying us all on the spot when we sin, but instead He chooses to prove it through the cross, thus allowing Him to “endure with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22). And He chooses this “in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy” (Rom. 9:23).

So in this respect, at least, Christ paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world, not just the elect. He did not take away the sins of unbelievers; they still ultimately have to pay the consequences of their sins in hell. But the punishment of hell does not serve as the propitiation for those sins. Only Christ could take care of that. That is all part of the glory of the cross.

Appendix 2: Selected Other Views on Calvinism and Free Will

Norman Geisler
Chosen But Free, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2001)

In this popular book, Norman Geisler propounds a view that he terms “moderate Calvinism,” in which he argues for both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. His insistence that these two concepts are not logically incompatible is correct, except for the fact that he does not clearly identify what kind of sovereignty and what kind of free will he is talking about. His descriptions of these concepts are very often so ambiguous that it is almost impossible to know. But it appears to me that he actually falters between the alternatives, sometimes employing language that seems to indicate God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s compatibilistic free will, but more often stating things in a way that seems to imply man’s absolute free will, along with the corresponding constraints on God’s sovereignty.

Geisler’s core definition of his “moderate Calvinism” is laid out on page 53, where he asserts that God’s predetermination is in accord with His foreknowledge. This is presented as being in contrast to what he calls “extreme Calvinism,” in which God’s predetermination is independent of His foreknowledge, and to Arminianism, in which God’s predetermination is based on His foreknowledge. Geisler goes on to explain the implications of this on the same page:

According to the moderate Calvinist’s view, whatever God forechooses cannot be based on what He foreknows. Nor can what He foreknows be based on what He forechose. Both must be simultaneous, eternal, and coordinate acts of God. Thus, our moral actions are truly free, and God determined that they would be such. God is totally sovereign in the sense of actually determining what occurs, and yet man is completely free and responsible for what He chooses.

On the surface, this might actually sound like a reasonable facsimile of the compatibilistic free will view that I and most Calvinists advance. But the problem is that it is very difficult to offer a concrete evaluation of this view because it is just so ambiguous. What does Geisler mean by God’s determination being in accord with His foreknowledge, as opposed to being either independent of it or else based on it? If a thing is not at least partly dependent on something else, then by definition it is actually independent of that something else. So how is it even possible to make sense of a view that says God’s determination of an event is neither based on nor independent of His foreknowledge of that event? If Geisler does have some actually meaningful position in mind here, he certainly fails to make it clear.

Unfortunately, although his phraseology denies it, what Geisler actually seems to believe about this issue most often in practice is that God’s predetermination is at least in part logically based on His foreknowledge of what man chooses with absolutely free will. For example, on page 44 he describes how it is that a person comes to accept Christ as follows:

(1) God knows all things.
(2) Whatever God knows must come to pass (i.e., is predetermined).
(3) God foreknew the apostle John would accept Christ.
(4) Therefore, it had to come to pass (as predetermined) that John would accept Christ.

The way Geisler describes this is virtually identical to the Arminian viewpoint on it, namely that God’s predetermination is logically preceded by and based on His foreknowledge, and His sovereignty is thus constrained to some degree by man’s absolute free will. Thus, I believe Geisler’s view does not hold much water.

Millard J. Erickson
Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998)

In this text, Millard Erickson offers a slight variation of the view that I have been advancing, a variation that might possibly even seem to allow man an absolute form of free will, though perhaps at the cost of being slightly deistic or even materialistic. On page 383, Erickson acknowledges that Scripture seems to teach that God’s sovereign determination is not based on His foreknowledge: “We must conclude that the plan of God is unconditional rather than conditioned on foreseen human actions.” He then goes on to describe free will in what seems to be a very compatibilistic sense. However, he apparently sees God’s sovereign determination not so much as actively working in man’s will in an ongoing fashion, but rather as setting up man’s will at his creation, as explained on page 384:

Whenever a child is conceived, there are an infinite number of possibilities. A countless variety of genetic combinations may emerge out of the union of sperm and ovum. We do not know why a particular combination actually results. But now, for the sake of argument, let us consider the possibility of an individual whose genetic combination differs infinitesimally from my own. He is identical to me in every respect; in every situation of life he responds as I do. But at one particular point he will choose to move his finger to the left whereas I will move mine to the right. I am not compelled to move my finger to the right, but I freely choose to do so. Now by making sure that it was I, and not my hypothetical double, who came into existence, and setting the circumstances of my life, God rendered it certain that at one particular point I would freely move my finger to the right.

This view of God’s sovereign determination strikes me as being somewhat reminiscent of Molinism, but with one important difference. In Molinism, God can sovereignly arrange circumstances to ensure that a given person will make a given choice with his absolute free will, but only if there actually is a set of circumstances for which that person will actually make that choice. So God’s sovereign plan is necessarily constrained in some cases by human free will, since it is conditional on what given people will choose in various circumstances. Erickson’s view is much more Biblical and realistic in that it grants God absolute sovereignty not only to arrange circumstances, but also to create people who will freely choose exactly what God unconditionally plans for them to choose.

Since this variation of the Calvinist position seemingly removes the element of God actively controlling our wills in time, it may seem to grant man a stronger form of free will. However, I would argue that the form of free will this view allows is still fundamentally compatibilistic rather than absolute in nature. God is still the one who ultimately predetermines what man wills, whether He accomplishes this by simply creating man in such a way that he will autonomously will in accordance with God’s plan (i.e., Erickson’s view), or whether He accomplishes it in a more ongoing fashion.

I think Erickson’s view has much to commend it and may be in large part correct. However, I shy away from what might be considered an element of deism within it. Scripture presents God as actively controlling the events of the universe in an ongoing manner, not simply by winding everything up and letting it go, so to speak. No doubt many things in this universe are governed by physical laws and initial conditions that God set in place from the beginning, but the Heisenberg uncertainty principle seems to indicate that this idea only goes so far—the future is apparently not totally determined by the present. Similarly, when it comes to man’s choices, we simply have no way of knowing philosophically whether our choices are solely a function of our physical bodies and how we are created. But one thing we do know is that Scripture presents God as being actively behind our choices, choices which we freely will in a compatibilistic sense. For example, Scripture does not describe God as merely creating believers in such a way that they will will as He pleases; He rather works in us to will as He pleases (Phi. 2:13). And on the other side, God did not merely tell Moses that He created Pharaoh in such a way that his will would be hardened; God rather said He would harden Pharaoh’s will (Ex. 4:21). So it seems to me that Erickson’s perspective is not entirely accurate, or at least certainly not the full story.

This page copyright © 2001 Edward A. Morris.  Created May 6, 2001.  Last updated February 18, 2005.

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