GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY & HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY | What About Free Will?

Loraine Boettner, in his book, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” has said:

“This is a doctrine which deals with some of the most profound truths revealed in Scripture and it will abundantly repay careful study on the part of Christian people. If any are disposed to reject it without first making a careful study of its claims, let them not forget that it has commanded the firm belief of multitudes of the wisest and best men that have ever lived, and that there must, therefore, be strong reasons in favor of its truth.”

The argument about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility has kept Cage Stage Calvinists and Arminians busy in the comments section of many social media posts. Sometimes it can seem like one of those debates that draws more heat than light. However, the controversy is not without its purpose and many Christians have found it both practically and spiritually edifying to do the hard work of seeking Biblical answers for these questions.

In this series of articles, we will attempt to tackle a big and often confusing topic. This topic of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility is a very interconnected doctrine that could spread on forever into many different related topics. We will not be able to explore extensively all the intricate details and related topics in this series of articles. As a result, for the purposes of this series, we will have to limit the scope of our efforts today to focus on what is the pertinent core of the doctrine.


We’ll keep 3 points in mind:

  • Our focus is on the relationship between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in salvation. What is the relationship and interplay between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility? We will particularly look at it in relation to the topic of salvation. However, there are other areas which we will only be able to briefly touch - such as how does God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility interact in terms of the problem of Evil? This is a larger topic which I will probably tackle in future articles.

  • Our goal is not to offer philosophical speculations, but rather, to see what the Bible clearly says about this topic. We will see directly from several relevant texts that the Bible is not unclear on this topic. We want to go as far as the Bible goes on speaking about this topic, but we also want to go no further than it speaks. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” We want to mine all that the Bible says on this topic, but also stop ourselves from speculating into the secret things which God has chosen not to reveal to us.

  • This is a family dialogue - This topic is one which is highly debated and can often lead to disunity amongst Christians. However, we must understand that it is a conversation that must happen in the context of the family of God and disagreement over the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility does not mean that the opposing side is “outside the Kingdom”. My goal in this is not to demonize genuine believers who hold a different view, but rather to help give some Biblical clarity to the topic. Any personal offense is unintended as I argue for my case.

I want this to frame our exploration of the topic together with the reminder for all true Christians that we are God’s family working through this challenging doctrine together, not theological enemies trying to one-up one another.


DEFINITION OF TERMS

In order to have a fruitful discussion of this topic, we will need to clearly define our terms so that we’re not speaking past each other.


Divine Sovereignty

A.W. Pink said,

“To say that God is sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the possessor of all power in heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purposes, or resist His will (Psa. 115:3) ... The sovereignty of the God of Scripture is absolute, irresistible, infinite. When we say that God is sovereign, we affirm His right to govern the universe, which He has made for His own glory, just as He pleases. We affirm that His right is the right of the potter over the clay… We affirm that He is under no rule or law outside His own will and nature, that God is a law unto Himself, and that He is under no obligation to give an account of His matters to any.” (A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, p. 13-15)

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God states simply that God sovereignly controls and directs all things in the universe and whatsoever that comes to pass according to His eternal decree.

Human Responsibility


This is simply the concept that people freely make choices for which they are morally culpable or responsible.


If someone freely chooses to kill someone else, they are guilty of that act - they are responsible for the act, and must be held accountable for it. This much is clear and uncontested by all. However, the struggle comes when we try to reconcile the fact that people are held morally responsible for their actions, yet also affirm that God is in sovereign control over everything.


On the surface, it seems like these two things are incompatible - and this is the reason for this article series.


One further note

Our cultural context probably affects the way we frame some of the difficulties we encounter when thinking about this topic. We have been conditioned by a Western culture that prizes democracy - everyone gets a vote. However, the context of the Bible was a time and place where Monarchs ruled. A king was the uncontested sovereign over his territory. In parts of the world where there is still monarchical rule today, we find that there is a lesser struggle with the idea of sovereignty as there is a ready analogue in the experience of people. So, we must realize that while this is an important topic for us, we also have certain cultural influences that can make it more difficult for us.

“Our age, with its emphasis on democracy, doesn't like this view, and perhaps no other age liked it less. The tendency today is to exalt man and to give God only a very limited part in the affairs of the world.” (Loraine Boettner)

Calvinism & Arminianism

Ahh… The age-old debate…


Many people throw around the terms ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Arminianism’ without adequately understanding what they’re talking about - particularly young twenty-something-year-old males who’ve just binged watched hours of John Piper and Paul Washer YouTube clips (I know because I used to be one). Of the many who will claim these titles of ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Arminian’, few have actually read the works of those to whom these titles owe their name. How many have actually read Calvin’s Institutes or other significant works to understand the totality of his thought, and similarly for Arminius?

Many people tend to assume that only Calvinists believe in God’s sovereignty, while only Arminians believe in human free will. This is plainly false and misrepresentative of both theological systems. Both affirm these two concepts. However, they differ in how they understand the limit and nature of each. However, in popular Evangelical culture, the misunderstandings and baggage associated with these theological terms remain due to the ignorance of many of the actual facts.


For this reason, we will not be focusing primarily on these two theological systems in this series - as it would be an unfair treatment of them to boil them down just to this topic of divine sovereignty and free will. Calvin wrote much more than just this. Even the so-called 5 points of Calvinism were not written by Calvin himself (although they do reflect a summary of part of his teaching). The baggage that these terms carry with those who are unfamiliar with them is often not helpful to the fruitful discussion. So, for the purposes of this series of articles, we will not be framing it with these terms, but rather focusing on what the Bible has to say about the topic.


Any theological system only stands or falls as far as it aligns with God’s authoritative, infallible, sufficient Word.


THE CHALLENGE OF LIBERTARIAN FREE WILL

We will be using the phrase ‘libertarian free will’ in reference to a specific kind of understanding of free will in our study. A common myth which many people believe is that Arminianism believes that people have ‘free will’ and Calvinism does not. However, this is overly simplistic and untrue. Both systems affirm some understanding of human free will. The difference is that Arminian systems of thought affirm what is called a ‘libertarian’ understanding of free will:


Libertarianism believes that a person’s will is so free that nothing decisively influences them to make a choice one way or another between several options.


Ultimately, the reason for that choice lies solely in the person’s will itself. The libertarian understanding of free will understands that if people are given two choices and choose one choice in one instance, that if the same exact circumstance were to be repeated, they could choose something different. Their choice is unaffected by any external influence but rather springs up entirely from within themselves.


Roger Olsen, an Arminian theologian, in his book, “Arminian Theology” says, “Free agency is the ability to do other than what one in fact does.” He goes on to argue elsewhere that God exercises sovereign control of events by means of His strong persuasion or influence. But Olsen claims, “Free and rational creatures have the power to resist the influence of God. This power was given to them by God Himself.” (Pg.131) So, the argument of Arminian theologians is not that God lacks the power to control our choices, but rather, that He doesn’t choose to do so for the sake of maintaining our liberty. They believe this is especially true in regards to salvation. While they reject the idea that man can choose Christ without the aid of the Holy Spirit, according to Leroy Forlines, they argue, “no matter how much or how strong the aid of the Holy Spirit may be, the ‘yes’ decision [to choose Christ] is still a decision that can be rightly called the person’s decision. Also, he could have said no.” (Classical Arminianism, pg. 52)

“Libertarianism argues that some conditions (reasons, causes) may be necessary for a choice to be made, but they are never sufficient for that choice to be made; otherwise, we are not free.” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p.19)

Libertarian free will is often simplified as “the ability of contrary choice.”


The Case for Libertarianism

We don’t want to caricature Libertarians. They do point to several passages in scripture that seem to support their position, as well as what seems to be sound reasons. For example:

  • Commands to ‘choose whom you will serve’ – e.g. Joshua 24:15

  • Give as one has freely decided in their heart, not under compulsion – 2 Cor. 9:7

  • “Whosoever” will believe in Jesus will be saved – e.g. John 3:16

  • People resist God’s commands and desire – e.g. Acts 7:15 (Stephen rebukes people as stiff-necked and always resisting the Holy Spirit)

  • God seems to change His mind based on the actions & decisions of people – e.g. Exodus 32:14 (the Golden Calf rebellion - God relents from destroying the people after Moses intercedes for them).

  • Jesus expresses his desire to gather Jerusalem to him like a mother hen, but they would not (Matt. 23:37).

  • 2 Peter 3:9 says that God doesn’t wish that any should perish, but that all would come to repent, and 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God desires all people to be saved.

With all of these passages and many others that libertarians point to, it seems like there is a pretty strong case for this understanding of free will!

Furthermore, libertarians argue that the commands of scripture imply the ability to fulfill them, otherwise it would be unjust of God to demand them. Ought implies can. Norman Geisler argues:

“Moral obligations imply that we have self-determining moral free choice. For ought implies can. That is, what we ought to do implies that we can do it. Otherwise, we have to assume that the Moral Lawgiver is prescribing the irrational, commanding that we do what is literally impossible for us to do.” (Norman Geisler, Chosen but Free, p. 30)

Indeed, this idea of libertarian free will seems obvious and is assumed by us because we live in a culture where we’re bombarded by a multitude of choices from which we are free to choose.


For example, you go to a store to buy shampoo. What kind? Aveda or Aveeno, Neutrogena, Pantene? Organic? Vegan? There are a plethora of choices which you are free to make! You don’t feel like you’re under any compulsion to buy one or the other, and you could have chosen something else. How could it be any other way? It seems so intuitive to us.

But is it true?


The Problems with Libertarianism

Firstly, although the idea of libertarian free will sounds logical, it proves that in fact, if it were true, it would be absurd.

If people truly had libertarian free will, we wouldn’t really resemble persons at all. We’d instead be irrational and chaotic beings because the control they exercise over their choices would be severely hampered. This is because every choice we make is contingent—it is dependent on some or several prior factors and influences, both internal and external, which together provide sufficient reason or cause for your choice.


If, as libertarian free will supposes, no set of circumstances were sufficiently able to produce a person’s choice and they can always choose otherwise, then we would never be certain of why we actually chose what we did. There’d never be a sufficient explanation for the cause of our choice. They’d just be random. Not only that, the basis for our judicial system would break down since it is based on establishing plausible and compelling motives for an act or crime – which would be impossible in a libertarian system where acts can truly spring up randomly without the need for sufficient causes.

“If our choices have the possibility of being cut off from our circumstances, desires, motives, beliefs, and so forth, then in what sense can we say that choices come from ourselves at all?” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p. 32)

Secondly, the argument that ought implies can and that inability absolves guilt proves to be untrue.


For example, if Adam borrows $4000 from Zack and was unable to pay him back, that certainly doesn’t excuse him from his obligation. Just because he ought to pay him back, but is unable doesn’t make him guilt-free. Likewise, God isn’t obligated to dismiss our guilt simply because we cannot repay our debt or fulfill His moral commands perfectly. Furthermore, this also misunderstands what compatibilism actually believes. Compatibilists do not believe that we are incapable of fulfilling God’s law perfectly because of our inability, but rather because we don’t want to because our will is corrupted by our fallen nature. For example, every young man has the capacity to not look at porn, and just telling them that it is wrong doesn’t solve the problem. Why? Is it that they don’t know? No. Is it because they are unable not look at it? No. It is because their sinful desire is so compelling that it is as if they can do no other. But they are not forced in any way to sin. We sin willfully, and thus it is entirely just for God to condemn sin.


This brings up one of the major problems with the concept of libertarian free will: scripture tells us clearly that since the Fall, humanity’s will is not free but rather in bondage to sin.

Finally, this is where we must stop and realize that many things which seem ‘intuitive’ to us may not necessarily be true. Much of our natural reasoning is intuitive, yet it is God’s Word that brings truth to correct our distorted vision – and it is similar here. We must bring God’s Word to bear on this question, and not just default to our human and faulty intuitions. If left to our own intuitions, none of us would have thought of the Cross as the means of salvation. Many of God’s ways go against our natural intuitions for His ways and thoughts are far higher than ours.


Man is not the measure of ultimate truth; God and His Word are.


So, in approaching this topic, we must all be committed to submit to the truth of God’s Word as is clearly stated. In our future articles in this series, we will seek to examine the relevant Bibilcal texts to see what they clearly teach on this topic. In our next article in this series, we will consider the concept of Biblical Compatibilism as we wrestle with the relationship of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.


 

Read the other articles in this series:

  1. GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY & HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY | What About Free Will?

  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

If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing and subscribing. Thanks!