We’ve covered a lot in this series of articles. We’ve looked at the conundrum of reconciling the truths of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility - considering the Arminian concept of Libertarian Free Will and the Calvinistic doctrine of Biblical Compatibilism. Next we considered Romans 8-10 and what they teach us on God’s sovereignty in salvation. We also took a look at God’s sovereignty over who comes to Him in salvation and over evil. In this last article, we’ll be looking at some implications of this doctrine, some further objections and I’ll end with a few suggested resources for those who would like to dig deeper.
The Challenge of Fully Grasping this Doctrine
God’s Word clearly tells us these two truths; however, it does not tell us the mechanics of how they work together. Loraine Boettner, in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, is worth quoting at length here:
“But while the Bible repeatedly teaches that this providential control is universal, Powerful, wise, and holy, it nowhere attempts to inform us how it is to be reconciled with man's free agency. All that we need to know is that God does govern His creatures and that His control over them is such that no violence is done to their natures. Perhaps the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom can best be summed up in these words: God so presents the outside inducements that man acts in accordance with his own nature, yet does exactly what God has planned for him to do.” “Much of the difficulty in regard to the doctrine of Predestination is due to the finite character of our mind, which can grasp only a few details at a time, and which understands only a part of the relations between these. We are creatures of time, and often fail to take into consideration the fact that God is not limited as we are. That which appears to us as "past," "present," and "future," is all "present" to His mind. It is an eternal "now." He is "the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity," Isaiah 57:15. "A thousands years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night," Psalm 90:4. Hence the events which we see coming to pass in time are only the events which He appointed and set before Him from eternity. Time is a property of the finite creation and is objective to God. He is above it and sees it, but is not conditioned by it. He is also independent of space, which is another property of the finite creation. Just as He sees at one glance a road leading from New York to San Francisco, while we see only a small portion of it as we pass over it, so He sees all events in history, past, present, and future at one glance.”
All of this to say that our appropriate response to the clear teaching of scripture on this doctrine shouldn’t primarily be to try to fully comprehend it—our finite minds cannot contain the infinite—but rather to be in awe and wonder of our much bigger our God is than we sometimes realize.
Application and Pastoral Considerations
Some of the resentment attached to this doctrine of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility has to do with the way some have used it to beat down others who think differently. However, properly understood, this doctrine is not a hammer to smash people with, but rather a glorious truth to cling to in hard times and cause us to be in awe of our God. This doctrine, rightly understood, increases our worship of God and humbles us. Questions surrounding this doctrine often are not just intellectual, but especially as it pertains to the issue of pain and evil in this world, are also exceptionally personal. So, answering these questions of suffering and the sovereignty of God is not devoid of emotional weight and sensitivity.
Sovereign and Good
A scene from C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, reads:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh," said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr. Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
Is this not a beautiful image of our God? He is the Lord, the uncontested Sovereign of the universe - unmatched in power - and that makes Him dangerous! Like a wild lion, He’s uncontrollable - uncaged. We cannot contain Him or manipulate Him for He has said, “my purposes shall stand and none can thwart them.” (cf. Isa. 14:27; 46:10; Job 42:2) However, this very same Sovereign Lord is also good. And this is Good News!
If He were only all-powerful and sovereign without His goodness - He would potentially be a tyrant ruler. We could not trust that His purposes were good and beautiful. We could have no confidence that His plans are for a greater good than we can sometimes fathom. We’d have no reason to trust Him but rather would cower in fear of what malicious misfortunes He could send upon us, like a wicked child burning ants with a magnifying glass.
But our God is GOOD! Infinitely good! All His works are good because all His plans and purposes are good and flow out of His infinite perfection and goodness. To be under the rule of a wicked tyrant is a terror, but to be under the loving rule of an Infinitely Good King is a blessing to those in His Kingdom! We know that anything which comes to pass is within His omnipotent control and His all-wise plan - even the things we don’t understand and the difficulties we face - they are from the nail-scarred hands of a Loving Lord who has objectively shown us the extent of His love on the Cross when He stretched out His hands and said, “it is finished.” Boettner comments,
“Although the sovereignty of God is universal and absolute, it is not the sovereignty of blind power. It is coupled with infinite wisdom, holiness and love. And this doctrine, when properly understood, is a most comforting and reassuring one. Who would not prefer to have his affairs in the hands of a God of infinite power, wisdom, holiness and love, rather than to have them left to fate, or chance, or irrevocable natural law, or to short-sighted and perverted self? Those who reject God's sovereignty should consider what alternatives they have left.”
Truths to hold in your heart
1. God is Good
This is perhaps one of the most important truths to remember as we struggle with this doctrine of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
2. God is Sovereign, Evil is not
“The calamities which befell Job, as seen from the human viewpoint appear to be mere misfortunes, accidents, chance happenings. But with further knowledge we see God behind it all, exercising complete control, giving the Devil permission to afflict so far but no farther, designing the events for the development of Job's patience and character, and using even the seemingly meaningless waste of the storm to fulfill His high and loving purposes.” (Loraine Boettner)
3. We are responsible, but not in absolute control
Although we do not have Libertarian Free Will, we do have creaturely free will and are commanded to make responsible, wise decisions to the best of our abilities.
4. Because God is sovereign, He will accomplish His good plan
Charles Spurgeon once said in a sermon on the sovereignty of God: “There is no attribute of God more comforting to his children than the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe troubles, they believe that Sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children of God ought more earnestly to contend than the dominion of their Master over all creation—the kingship of God over all the works of his own hands—the throne of God, and his right to sit upon that throne.” (Spurgeon, C.H., 1856. Divine Sovereignty. In The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons. London: Passmore & Alabaster, p. 185.)
5. God’s sovereignty is the basis for our effort and confidence of final victory
Augustine of Hippo prayed, “Lord command what you will and grant what you command!” This is entirely Biblical: “Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, For I delight in it.” (Psa. 119:35 NASB) God’s sovereignty is the only confidence we have for our continued sanctification and final glorification (cf. Phil. 1:6 & Rom. 8:30).
The truth is that on the surface, libertarian free will seems appealing – however, when we think it through biblically, we realize that we don't really want a God who is handicapped in His sovereignty. For then what reason would we have to pray if God were not actually sovereign to accomplish it? Why pray for the salvation of those we love if God could not actually change their hearts? What security would we have of our ultimate hope that God will set all things right? What confidence would we have that we would not fall away either now, or even in the age to come if it were not God Himself who holds us within His mighty hand?
A mentor of mine shared a quote with me this week from his late pastor. He said, “We should not let the things we don’t know about God (a lot!) confuse us about the things we do know about God.”
We know that God loves us - “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) And so we can take great comfort in the Cross as the demonstration of love well beyond what we’re capable of fully understanding. This same great love also undergirds the whole topic of the sovereignty of God.
If we miss that, we’ve totally missed the mark of how this doctrine should be understood and how it is applicable to us. God’s sovereignty increases our awe, worship and trust of God. Human responsibility increases our care of how we are to act and think in accordance with ALL that God has revealed in His Word. Our choices matter because God has determined not only the end, but the means by which He will attain that end. These two truths together embolden and encourage the Christian.
Here are a few objections/questions which were emailed to me on this topic which I provide some short responses from various authors.
What about scriptures that seem to talk about outcomes that are dependent on the actions of people?
Loraine Boettner answers this well in his book:
The fact that the Scriptures often speak of one purpose of God as dependent on the outcome of another or on the actions of men, is no objection against this doctrine. The Scriptures are written in the every-day language of men, and they often describe an act or a thing as it appears to be, rather than as it really is. The Bible speaks of "the four corners of the earth," Isaiah 11:12, and of "the foundations of the earth," Psalm 104:5; yet no one understands this to mean that the earth is square, or that it actually rests upon a foundation. We speak of the sun rising and setting, yet we know that it is not the motion of the sun but that of the earth as it turns over on its axis which causes this phenomenon. Likewise, when the Scriptures speak of God repenting, for instance, no one with proper ideas of God understands it to mean that He sees He has pursued a wrong course and changes His mind. It simply means that His action as seen from the human view-point appears to be like that of a man who repents. In other places the Scriptures speak of the hands, or arms, or eyes of God. These are what are known as "anthropomorphisms," instances in which God is referred to as if He were a man. When the word "repent," for instance, is used in its strict sense God is said never to repent: "God is not a man, that He should lie, Neither the son of man, that lie should repent." Numbers 23:19; and again, "The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for He is not a man, that He should repent," 1 Samuel 15:29. (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine Of Predestination)
Doesn’t this doctrine make God the Author of sin?
Boettner comments on this question that,
“A partial explanation of sin is found in the fact that while man is constantly commanded in Scripture not to commit it, he is, nevertheless, permitted to commit it if he chooses to do so. No compulsion is laid on the person; he is simply left to the free exercise of his own nature, and he alone is responsible. This, however, is never a bare permission, for, with full knowledge of the nature of the person and of his tendency to sin, God allows him or allows him to be in a certain environment, knowing perfectly well that the particular sin will be committed. But while God permits sin, His connection with it is purely negative and it is the abominable thing which he hates with perfect hatred. The motive which God has in permitting it and the motive which man has in committing it are radically different. Many persons are deceived in these matters because they fail to consider that God wills righteously those things which men do wickedly. Furthermore, every person's conscience after he has committed a sin tells him that he alone is responsible and that he need not have committed it if he had not voluntarily chosen to do so.” (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine Of Predestination)
"A ruler may forbid treason; but his command does not oblige him to do all in his power to prevent disobedience to it. It may promote the good of his kingdom to suffer the treason to be committed, and the traitor to be punished according to law. That in view of this resulting good he chooses not to prevent the treason, does not imply any contradiction or opposition of it in the monarch." [Tyler, Memoir and Lectures, p. 250-252.]
Some further examples:
In one place we are told that God, in order to punish a rebellious people, moved the heart of David to number them (II Sam. 24:1, 10); but in another place where this same act is referred to, we are told that it was Satan who instigated David's pride and caused him to number them (I Chr. 21:1). In this, we see that Satan was made the rod of God's wrath and that God impels even the hearts of sinful men and demons whithersoever He will. All of these things are summed up in that passage of Isaiah, "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I am Jehovah that doeth all these things," 45:7 and again in Amos, "Shall evil befall a city and Jehovah hath not done it?" Amos 3:6. (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine Of Predestination)
Boettner helpfully reminds us that,
“Unless sin occurs according to the divine purpose and permission of God, it occurs by chance. Evil then becomes an independent and uncontrollable principle and the pagan idea of dualism is introduced into the theory of the universe. The doctrine that there are powers of sin, rebellion, and darkness in the very nature of free agency, which may prove an over-match for divine omnipotence, imperils even the eternal safety and happiness of the saints in glory… …As a matter of fact, we gain more through salvation in Christ than we lost by the fall in Adam. When Christ became incarnate, human nature was, as it were, taken into the very bosom of Deity, and the redeemed reach a far more exalted position through union with Christ than Adam could have attained had he not fallen but persevered and been admitted into heaven.” (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine Of Predestination)
Doesn’t authentic love require free will?
Even C.S. Lewis answered the question, why would God make His creatures like this?
“Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automat—of creatures that worked like little machines—would hardly be worth creating.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 49)
As popular as this answer is, this is easily shown to be false in the fact that all Christians believe that in the eternal state, the saints will not be able to sin—they will have no ‘choice’, so to speak. But no one contests that we will not authentically love God in heaven. Loraine Boettner comments,
“If mere free agency necessarily exposed a person to sin there would be no certainty that even the redeemed in heaven would not sin and be cast down to hell as were the fallen angels. The saints, however, possess a necessity on the side of goodness, and are therefore free in the highest sense.”
Christensen further clarifies,
“God the Father and His Son, Jesus, do not have the freedom to hate each other. They love each other necessarily because their nature and character compel them to do no other. Both willingly love with irresistible intentions, and that is precisely what makes their relationship significant.” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p. 35)
The inability to sin does not destroy authentic love any more than the virtue of not cheating on your wife destroys an authentically loving marriage.
How come the Early Church Fathers universally believed that mankind possesses free will?
It is said that, prior to Augustine, all major church figures held to NONE of the five points of Calvinism, not one! Why is that? They are arguably much closer to the source (Clement of Rome may have known Peter personally). So, what gives?
It is a bit anachronistic to impose on the Early Church Fathers the categories of the five points of Calvinism which were formally developed centuries later. So, inherent in this question is some impropriety of asking of the Early Church Fathers what had not yet been formally developed and expecting them to write about it. We shouldn’t expect to find categories and ways of systematizing God’s truth in His Word that were developed centuries later in the Early Church writings. However, I do think that it is improper to say that they didn’t believe in God’s sovereignty and man’s creaturely free will.
Three things we must keep in mind with regards to how we use the Early Church Fathers:
1. They were not infallible nor authoritative.
We reject the Roman Catholic idea of Sacred Tradition being on par with the authority of scripture. The Early Church Fathers, while it is useful to read the writings of the Early Church Fathers to understand what the thoughts, context and teachings of the early church were, they are not writing scripture. Many of them erred in their theology. Many of us would disagree today with some of their beliefs and theology. Take for example their views on baptism – the majority of the Early Church Fathers believed in infant baptism. However, we believe from scripture that it teaches believer’s baptism. We don’t just default to adopting the views of the writers of the first few centuries, but rather we compare it to scripture to see if it holds validity.
Just because they were closer to the NT age, doesn’t mean that they automatically got everything right. Although many of them were great thinkers, many of them also erred greatly and imported pagan ideas into their thought. Take for example Origin who brought a very mystic and allegorical approach to scripture. It is common knowledge that the Early Church Fathers, while they wrote many impressive things, also made mistakes in their writings. Their proximity in time to the events of the New Testament doesn’t automatically make them perfect theologians, but it does give value to their testimonies – especially about the historicity of the New Testament and particularly in the essential message of the Gospel.
2. They were not great Systematic Theologians
The context of the early church before emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion was fraught with persecution. The truth is that early Christians didn’t have a whole lot of time to develop a perfectly coherent system of theology, especially after persecution intensified in the later second and third centuries. Even today we can realize that we don’t have a perfect systematic theology, and we’re not running for our lives!
So, it is not surprising that the Early Church Fathers didn’t pull together all the threads of a system of thought on a particular doctrine from scripture to form a systematic understanding of it. This is work which takes much time to think deeply, often on the backs of previous generations that have likewise mined the riches of God’s Word.
The Early Church Fathers simply didn’t have the amount of time to develop that sort of expansive systematic theology, nor the luxury to do so. Many of them were great Biblical Theologians, but not many were great systematic theologians. Also, bear in mind that many of them didn’t have a completed canon of scripture to work with. In the period of the Early Church, letters and gospels were being hand-copied and passed around. This process took a while before it was distributed everywhere. So, you would have some Church Fathers who had some NT books, but not others. For example, some scholars believe that Justin Martyr (writing c. 150-160 AD) didn’t know of the Gospel of John and may not have had all the writings of Paul. This would severely handicap a person’s ability to understand the whole council of God and develop a complete systematic theology.
We may not see full-formed ‘Calvinism’ per se, but we do see affirmations of the Biblical truths it affirmed and systematized. For example, Irenaeus writes in his work Against Heresies about the sovereignty of God:
“But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation.” (Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 361.)
“We have been predestined by God, before the world was, (to arise) in the extreme end of the times.” (Tertullian, 1885. On the Apparel of Women. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 23.)
Also, Clement writes:
“…the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith—which results from the peculiar Testaments, or rather the one Testament in different times by the will of the one God, through one Lord—those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous.” (Clement of Alexandria, 1885. The Stromata, or Miscellanies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire). The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 555.)
And later in this same work, when he quotes Romans 8:28-30 and the Golden Chain of Redemption, he does so in relation to consolation in suffering persecution – which is entirely appropriate given that was Paul’s concern also! So, it makes sense that Clement would use these verses not to argue about sovereignty and free will, but rather to comfort Christians under persecution. The focus of the Early Church Fathers was often a lot different to ours. You use and read scripture differently when you’re under persecution as opposed to having the luxury to ask philosophical questions of a text.
Many of the early Reformers themselves (especially John Calvin – his commentaries and Institutes often cite many early sources) quote from the works of Early Church Fathers as they built and formalized their understandings on particular doctrines of theology. So, I think it fair to say that Reformed Theology does not stand apart from the historic theology of the Church, but rather sees itself as a continuation of the theology of the Early Church in as much as it was in accord with Holy Scripture.
3. Remember their context
Lastly, remember the context of the Early Church Fathers. Most of the writings we have from them were occasioned documents – meaning that they were writing to answer or address a specific challenge or occasion. One of the citations used by the person asking this question was from Justin’s First Apology – which was written in the context of providing an answer to pagan philosophy and a pagan understanding of fate. As we saw in past articles in this series, this is not what Biblical compatibilism is, and also Justin Martyr was arguing against that sort of pagan deterministic fatalism. When Justin writes against determinism and the reality of the human will, he is pushing back against pagan fatalism. So, I think we need to read the Early Church Fathers on their own terms, in their own contexts, bearing in mind the occasion for their writings if we are to do them justice.
In summary, reading the Early Church Fathers is very valuable to the Christian – they teach us so much and show such faithfulness under intense persecution. However, we must not put their writings on par with scripture. As with everything else, they stand or fall based on how well they accurately represent what scripture teaches.
Below is a shortlist of recommended resources for further study:
What about Free Will?: Reconciling Our Choices with God's Sovereignty by Scott Christensen - a very helpful and readable modern treatment of the topic which clearly addresses many of the struggles people have with this doctrine.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer - a great book for those struggling with the question of how the doctrine of sovereignty and election pertain to evangelism.
What About Evil?: A Defense of God's Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen - this is a book about theodicy (the justification of God) and is one of the best on the topic. Christensen is thorough, precise, clear and biblical. Highly recommended!
Willing to Believe: Understanding the Role of the Human Will in Salvation by R.C. Sproul - a great book that looks at the history of this controversy and provides a biblical perspective of the role of the human will in salvation.
The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free by James R. White - a good apologetic book defending the Reformed view of Divine sovereignty and the human will as a rebuttal to Norman Geisler’s book.
Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspective in Tension by D. A. Carson - brings clear, scholarly insights and finely-honed exegetical skills to this all-pervasive issue - examining the sovereignty-responsibility themes in the Old Testament, intertestamental literature and John's gospel and concluding with a reflection on the theological implications for ministry and mission today.
Read the other articles in this series:
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY & MAN’S RESPONSIBILITY | Implications, Objections & Resources
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