How can God be sovereign and man still be free?


by. John Hendrix

Responsibility and voluntary choice are not the same thing as free will. We affirm that man is indeed responsible for the choices he makes, yet we deny that the Bible teaches that man has a free will since it is no where taught in the pages of Scripture. The Bible teaches, rather, that God ordains all things that come to pass (Eph 1:11) and it also teaches that man is culpable for his choices (Ezek 18:20, Matt 12:37, John 9:41). Since the Scripture is our ultimate authority and highest presuppsosition, the multitude of clear scriptural declarations on this matter outweigh all unaided human logic. We find that almost always the objections to God’s meticulous providence over all things are moral and philosophical rather than exegetical. This means we must strive to consciously affirm what the Scripture declares over all our finite understanding and sinful inner drive for independence.

In order to understand this better theologians have come up with the term “compatibilism” to describe the concurrence of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Compatibilism is a form of determinism and it should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism. It simply means that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence is “compatible” with voluntary choice. Our choices are not coerced …i.e. we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God’s sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass (Eph 1:11).

In light of Scripture, (according to compatibilism), human choices are exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism. For example, God is said to specifically ordain the crucifixion of His Son, and yet evil men willfully and voluntarily crucify Him (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). This act of evil is not free from God’s decree, but it is voluntary, and these men are thus responsible for the act, according to these Texts. Or when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, Joseph later recounted that what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20). God determines and ordains that these events will take place (that Joseph will be sold into slavery), yet the brothers voluntarily make the evil choice that beings it to pass, which means the sin is imputed to Joseph’s brothers for the wicked act, and God remains blameless. In both of these cases, it could be said that God ordains sin, sinlessly. Nothing occurs apart from His sovereign good pleasure.

We should be clear that NEITHER compatibilism nor hard determinism affirms that any man has a free will. Those who believe man has a free will are not compatibilists, but should, rather, be called “inconsistent”. Our choices are our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures, nor seperately from God’s meticulous providence. Furthermore, compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, a choice without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most according to our disposition and inclinations. The former view (libertarianism) is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency. (the fallen will is never free from the bondage of our corrupt nature, and and not free, in any sense, from God’s eternal decree.) The reason I emphasize this is that compatibilists are often misrepresented by hard determinists at this point. They are somehow confused with inconsistent Calvinists. When compatibilists use such phrases as “compatibilistic freedom”, they are, more often than not, using it to mean ‘voluntary’ choice, but are not referring to freedom FROM God’s decree or absolute sovereignty (an impossible supposition).

In biblical terminology, fallen man is in bondage to a corruption of nature and that is why the biblical writers considered him not free (see Rom 6). Jesus Himself affirms that the one who sins is a “slave to sin” and only the Son can set him free. Note that even Jesus speaks of a kind of freedom here. He is not speaking of freedom from God but freedom from the bondage of sin, which is the kind of freedom those have who are in Christ. In this sense God is the most free Person since He is holy, set apart from sin… yet He cannot make choices contrary to His essence, i.e. He cannot be unholy. So, we must conclude, according to Jesus in John 8:31-36, that the natural man does not have a free will. The will is in bondage to sin. Any consistent theologian who uses the term “freedom” usually is referring to that fact that while God sovereignly ordains all that comes to pass, yet man’s “free choice” (voluntary) is compatible with God’s sovereign decree. In other words the will is free from external coercion but not free from necessity. In my reckoning, there is no biblical warrant to use the phrase “free will”, since the Bible never affirms or uses this term or concept. So when some theologians use the word “free” they may be misusing or importing philosophical language from outside the Bible, but I think anyone who is consistent with the Text means “voluntary” when they say “free”, but NEVER affirm they are free from God in any sense. For to affirm that God sovereignly brings our choices to pass and then also say man is free FROM GOD, is self-contradictory. So I repeat, many of those whom I read seem equate the word freedom with the meaning “voluntary”. If any mean “free from God” they are confused.

One of the best statements on compatibilism is one I found from John Calvin:

“…we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.
– John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70

Prior to the fall, Adam’s will was not in bondage to sin, thus it was free from sin’s bondage and corruption but it was not free from God’s decree. His choice to rebel was completely voluntary even though God has ordained with certainty that it would come to pass. He was not yet sealed in righteousness even though his inclination was toward the good. Through Satans devices, that he overcame his own good inclination and chose evil makes original sin all the more heinous.

About Jian Ming Zhong

In short, I am a five point calvinist, amillennial, post-trib rapture, paeudobaptistic (not for salvation), classical cessationism , and covenantal. I embrace Reformed Theology and subscribe to the WCF 1647. I do not break fellowship with anyone who holds to the essentials of the faith (i.e., the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, Jesus' Physical Resurrection, Virgin Birth, Salvation by Grace through Faith alone, Monotheism, and the Gospel being the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) but does not affirm Calvinist Theology in the non-essentials. I strongly believe that God's grace and mercy are so extensive that within the Christian community there is a wide range of beliefs and as long as the essentials are not violated, then anyone who holds to those essentials but differs in the non-essentials is my brother or sister in Christ. Romans 11:36 "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be Glory forever. Amen!"
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