BIBLICAL COMPATIBILISM | How Does Human Freedom & God’s Sovereignty Fit Together?

Apologetics | Theology

Published on January 29, 2022

You can listen to an audio version of the first two articles in this series here.

In our first article, we introduced the topic of God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. These two truths in Scripture seem to pose a conundrum for us to understand – how do these two things work together? We also took a look at the understanding of Libertarian Free Will which is ascribed to by many Arminians and saw how it does not hold up logically. Now as we continue this series, we’ll be taking a look at the Calvinistic, and I believe Biblical way of understanding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.

Biblical Compatibilism

The theological term we will be using to describe the relationship between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility is called ‘compatibilism’.

Compatibilism simply means that these two truths are not in disagreement or at odds with each other, but rather are compatible.

“Biblical compatibilism says that our choices proceed from the most compelling motives and desires we have, which in turn is conditioned on our base nature, whether good or evil. The more voluntarily and unconstrainedly our choices are made, the more freedom and responsibility we have in making them.” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p. 6)

A. What It Is NOT

Sometimes, it is useful to define what you are not saying – especially when there are common misunderstandings or presuppositions on a topic. So, we will start off briefly by defining what we’re NOT saying.

I. Compatibilism is NOT Fatalism

We are NOT teaching fatalism or what is otherwise called ‘hard determinism’.

One question I’ve received on this topic is:

“Does the doctrine of Predestination align with the secular Philosophy of Determinism?”

This teaching comes from pagan thought where blind, indifferent, impersonal fate directs the destinies of people. There is nothing that the person can do to avoid this fate. No matter what course of action they take, they end up at their fate – and so the validity of human choices and responsibility are destroyed.

The classic example is that of the tragic Greek myth of Oedipus:

Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Upon his birth, an oracle was given that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The king wished to thwart the prophecy, so he sent a shepherd-servant to leave Oedipus to die on a mountainside. However, the shepherd took pity on the baby and passed him to another shepherd who gave Oedipus to King Polybus and Queen Merope to raise as their own. Oedipus learned about the prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. However, he was unaware of his true parentage, and so believed he was fated to murder Polybus and marry Merope, so he left for Thebes.

On his way, he met an older man and killed him in a quarrel. Continuing on to Thebes, he found that the king of the city (Laius) had been recently killed and that the city was at the mercy of a monster. Oedipus defeated the monster and won the throne of the dead king – and the hand in marriage of the king’s widow, who was also (unbeknownst to him) his mother Jocasta.

Years later, Oedipus finds out he had killed his father, Laius. Jocasta, upon realizing that she had married her own son, hanged herself. Oedipus then seized two pins from her dress and blinded himself with them.

Terrible story and there are many other pagan myths like it, but it represents the pagan form of fatalism. No matter how the king, queen and Oedipus tried, they could not thwart their fate. Their choices didn’t matter. It is like the pagan saying, “Que sera, sera” – whatever will be, will be. We reject this form of determinism, and this is not the teaching of compatibilism or the bible, but rather a distortion of it.

The Bible’s teaching of compatibilism between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is not about blind, cold fate or simply the product of material processes like secular determinism asserts. Instead it is the relationship of a Personal and loving God with His finite and created creatures. Instead of being fated to whatever is either blindly determined by fate or one’s genes, Biblical compatibilism affirms the necessity and importance of choices and the reality of their consequences within the framework of the loving, wise and sovereign plan of God.

II. Compatibilism is NOT God forcing someone against their will

This is often a misunderstanding of libertarians, that compatibilists believe God is forcing someone to do something against their will—that God forces otherwise good people to do bad things. However, this is not at all what biblical compatibilism teaches.

Biblical compatibilism teaches that every person always acts in accordance with their highest motive and desires in accordance with their nature. The problem is that since the Fall, our nature is fallen and our desires are sinful. So, God does not force anyone to sin, but rather we are lured away by our own sinful desires (see James 1:13-15).

Conversely, when God brings someone to Himself, He is not dragging them kicking and screaming against their will. Scripture teaches that God gives us a new nature that desires the things of God. This is the new birth, and the reason why we come to Him. We cannot produce the new nature in ourselves, it is given to us by God. Furthermore, God gives us His Spirit living in us that testifies to truth and to our adoption in Christ. It is by the Spirit that God’s people live lives that are pleasing to Him.

We see this clearly in Philippians 2:12-13 where Paul tells believers to:

“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

God supplies the will and power to do His good pleasure in believers – this is the basis upon which they work out their salvation.

Consider this example: a lion will not eat a plate of vegetables no matter how appealing you try to make it to him. This is because it is not in his nature to desire that, and he will always devour a steak because that is in his nature to desire. The only way to change that would be to change the lion’s nature. This is what happens to us in salvation—God gives us a new nature to desire the things that please Him. If God did not give us a new nature, we could not do anything but what was consistent with our old sinful nature.

Compatibilists believe in biblical free will—that is, that we always will act freely according to our compelling motives and desires of our heart based on our nature and character. The will is constrained by our nature of necessity.

Thus, God so acts through the will and desire of a person’s nature (whether good or evil) so that they freely and willingly do that which He has purposed to come to pass.

III. Compatibilism is NOT a case of Either/Or

The truth that the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is not a case of either one or the other. It is not that people who believe in God’s sovereignty have their set of verses, and people who believe in human responsibility have their set of verses. The Bible is a complete whole and cannot be ripped apart like that. God’s word teaches both concepts, and sometimes even in the same verses and passages as we will see.

R.C. Sproul in the book Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will said:

“Though the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom may be mysterious, they are by no means contradictory. The antithesis to divine sovereignty is not human freedom, but human autonomy. Autonomy represents a degree of freedom that is unlimited by any higher authority or power. If God is sovereign, then man cannot be autonomous. Conversely, if man is autonomous, then God cannot be sovereign. The two are mutually exclusive concepts. Some argue that God’s sovereignty is limited by human freedom. If this were the case, then man, not God, would be sovereign. God would always be limited by human decisions and would be lacking in the power or authority to exercise his will over against the creature’s.”

So, to quote a verse out of context, ‘what God has joined together, let no one tear asunder!’

B. What It IS

I. A Display of Divine Order and Glory

Perhaps helpful to clarify what is meant by Divine Sovereignty is the historic formulation of this doctrine from the Reformation, here taken from the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession:

“God has decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor has fellowship with any in sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.” (See Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17; Romans 9:15, 18; James 1:13; 1 John 1:5; Acts 4:27, 28; John 19:11; Numbers 23:19; Ephesians 1:3-5)

Loraine Boettner said that, “Order is heaven’s first law.” From God’s point of view, He has decreed an unbroken order and progress of things from the beginning of creation to the end and consummation of all things in glory. His divine purpose and plan is nowhere defeated nor interrupted and what which seems to be defeat to us only seems that way because of our limitedness in wisdom and time. Boettner comments that,

“It is unthinkable that a God of infinite wisdom and power would create a world without a definite plan for that world. And because God is thus infinite His plan must extend to every detail of the world’s existence.”

Even we, as finite humans, develop a plan before we act. If someone doesn’t develop a plan before acting and think through all of its implications, it is a sign of that person’s foolishness not their wisdom. How much more so for the One who is infinitely wise? So, regardless of how people might oppose predestination in theory, we all operate as practical predestinarians in our everyday lives! The greater the task to be undertaken, the more important it is that we should plan out the details meticulously to ensure its accomplishment. How much more so for God’s ultimate goal – the glory of His Name!?

II. BOTH the End AND the Means

But how does the truth of God’s ordering of all of time and the universe relate to the fact that we experience our lives as rational beings making choices, and we see a world in which there are immediate cause and effect? How can it be that God orders and decrees all things, but it also seems that things have a ‘natural’ explanation of causes?

We see this in scriptures that show us God’s desired end and also His enactment of the means to accomplish that end. For example, Leviticus 20:7-8 says, “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” God commands His people to be holy and keep His, but then also says that He is the Lord who makes them holy. God gives to them the means by which He will work in them to accomplish His appointed end. This was indeed how Jesus taught us to pray in praying, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10) We pray that God would accomplish His will in and through us. Paul said that he worked harder than any, but it was ultimately not him, but the grace of God working through him (1 Cor. 15:10). He says similarly that he toiled and struggled with all God’s energy that He powerfully worked in him (see Col. 1:29 & Eph. 3:20).

God’s sovereignty does not allow us to be passive in our obedience, but rather, our active obedience is empowered by God’s work in and through us. We are not to “let go and let God” as if God will do all the work without our effort. Rather, we work 100% and God works 100%. We don’t work like an Arminian and pray like a Calvinist. Rather, a consistent Calvinist works and prays like a Calvinist because he/she knows that God’s means of sanctification is their Spirit-empowered diligent self-discipline and obedience. We don’t get to blame God for our laziness, stupidity or inactivity because we neglected His prescribed means of spiritual growth. But likewise, we don’t get to boast in any of our accomplishments because we know it is God working in and through us, and apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

God decrees not only the end but also the means by which He will accomplish that end.

III. Concurrence: Dual Agency

There is perhaps a word that would help us in our discussion of the Biblical teaching regarding the relationship between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. That word is “concurrence.”

Concurrence simply means that the decisions and actions of created beings and the plans and decrees of God happen concurrently – or at the same time together.

So, natural laws and the actions of created beings happen to bring about situations, and also at the same time God brings about these situations. They are the means by which He brings it about. God is the primary but remote cause, while the created beings are the secondary but proximate (immediate/close) cause. We see this clearly in passages such as Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes/directs his steps.”

Wayne Grudem defines concurrence as:

“God cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 317)

Concurrence extends to:

  • Inanimate creation – fire, hail, snow, wind, etc fulfill God’s command (Psa. 135:6-7; 148:8 & Job 37:6-13). Jesus says that it is God who makes the sun to rise and rain to fall on both the evil and good (Matt. 5:45).
  • Animals – scripture says God ‘feeds’ the wild animals (Psa. 104:27-29; Job 38:39-41) and Jesus says that not even a sparrow falls without the Father’s will (Matt. 10:29).
  • Seemingly random events – like the roll of a dice or the casing of a lot – “the lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord.” (Prov. 16:33)
  • People & the affairs of nations – God “makes nations great and he destroys them” (Job 12:23), He rules over the nations (Psa. 22:28), He writes all the days of our lives even when we were not yet (Psa. 139:16), He determines and numbers our days (Job 14:5), and sets us apart before we were born for His purposes (Gal. 1:15; Jer. 1:5) and orders our steps (Prov. 20:24).
  • Everything – God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (see Eph. 1:11; Isa. 14:23 & 46:10; Job 23:13)

R.C. Sproul, in his book, Chosen By God: Know God’s Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children said that,

“If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”

But wait – doesn’t this mean that everything is rigged and that these choices don’t really matter? Wayne Grudem warns us,

“…we must guard against misunderstanding. Here also, as with the lower creation, God’s providential direction as an unseen, behind-the-scenes, ‘primary cause,’ should not lead us to deny the reality of our choices and actions. Again and again, Scripture affirms that we really do cause events to happen. We are significant and we are responsible. We do have choices, and these are real choices that bring about real results… Just as a rock is really hard because God has made it with the property of hardness, just as water is really wet because God has made it with the property of wetness… so our choices are real choices and do have significant effects because God has made us in such a wonderful way that He has endowed us with the property of willing choice.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 321)

Just because the divine and natural causes of events happen concurrently does not mean that either is any less real. The divine cause is actually the basis upon which the reality of the ‘natural’ causes rest!

The Analogy of the Inspiration of Scripture

There is a ready analogy for this doctrine to us. It is the inspiration of scripture itself.

We believe that God is the Author of scripture. The scriptures are ‘God-breathed’—the product of Divine expiration (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17). However, we also affirm that God used people to write the scriptures and that in writing them, their personalities, style of writing and thinking were all preserved. They did not write like a sort of robotic dictation machine in a trance. God used their distinct personalities and skills, carrying them along by His Spirit to produce scripture which is a product of both Divine Sovereign direction and Human action and will (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Scripture was freely written by the human authors, yet Divinely superintended so that the final product was exactly what He wanted it to be—so much so that Jesus could affirm every ‘jot and tittle’ (cf. Matt. 5:18 & Luke 16:17)

If we do not believe in concurrence, we cannot logically affirm this orthodox view of scripture.

Two Clear Truths in Tension | One Ultimate Purpose

The doctrines of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two clear truths in scripture which are held in tension together. They don’t contradict each other or cancel one another out, but rather, they happen concurrently and cooperatively.

Ultimately, the purpose of all things is the glory of God, not the glory of man, or any other created thing. God is the One by whom, and for whom all things were made – and His purpose in creation is His self-exaltation and praise because He is the highest object of praise. He says, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other…” (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). This is good news for us, because if God is so passionate and undeterred about His own glory, He will let nothing get in the way of accomplishing His good plans which are for His glory primarily, and our good as a result of that.

In our next article, we will turn to some key texts of scripture to see what the Bible plainly says about these truths – particularly as it relates to God’s sovereignty in our salvation.

Read the other articles in this series:

  2. BIBLICAL COMPATIBILISM | How Does Human Freedom & God’s Sovereignty Fit Together?
  3. GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IN SALVATION – An Exposition of Romans 8-10
  4. GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY | Over Who Comes to Faith and Over Evil
  5. GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY & MAN’S RESPONSIBILITY | Implications, Objections & Resources

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