What About Free Will? (Part 4)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of several few weeks, I am blogging about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.


In this fourth post, I will lay out the basic parameters that define compatibilism. In the next post I will explore some Biblical examples of compatibilism.

Biblical compatibilism reflects the position on the human will of most of those who identify as Calvinists. Certainly Calvin himself was a compatibilist as was Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards, all of whom wrote important works on the subject.

Biblical compatibilism is concerned to demonstrate one simple reality. Every human action in the course of history has a dual explanation, one divine and one human. This juxtaposition is expressed simply and clearly by Solomon: “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9). People deliberate and articulate their plans to pursue the paths that define their lives. Then they act upon those plans. Yet, God secretly stands behind them all directing each set of footsteps along the specific course He designed.

God’s Meticulous Sovereignty

To speak of compatibilism is to affirm first of all that God is absolutely sovereign in decreeing all that takes place. “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psa. 103:19). And again, “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psa. 115:3). Nothing stands outside the over-arching hands of an omnipotent God. Paul says God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). In other words, nothing escapes discussion and planning by the Godhead in the divine boardroom, nor the Trinity’s thorough execution of those plans in the theater of play.

God determines the outcome of every occurrence extending from the broad panorama of history (Dan. 2:21; Acts 1:7) to the minutest detail of everyday existence (Psa. 139:16; James 4:13-16). Solomon says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:33). Nothing happens by chance; even the throw of the dice is determined by God. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Even the most insignificant of God’s creatures cannot escape His hand.

When it comes to evil the Bible does not mince words. Evil does not reside in a mysterious realm somehow untouched by God’s plan, purpose or power. If it did, we would have reason to fear for then God would not in fact be sovereign. If God is genuinely in control, then He is Lord over both good and evil. Isaiah says: “That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these” (Isa. 45:6-7).

Two Wills, One Outcome

Compatibilism indicates that in the unfolding of history we see two wills at work in the same events: the will of God and the will of man. Although often the intentions differ, the outcomes of the exercise of these two wills never come into conflict. What God determines to occur in human events just so happens to coincide with the outcome of corresponding freely (voluntarily) made human choices. D. A. Carson in his book How Long Oh Lord has provided us with a careful definition of compatibilism:

1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility [and freedom] is curtailed, minimized, or maligned.

2. Human beings are morally responsible creatures – they significantly chose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.

Carson’s propositions speak of paradox, but never contradiction. They can be viewed as converging links in a set of cause-effect relationships resulting in human actions. One cause is divine and the other is human. The divine cause is primary but remote. The human cause is secondary but proximate (i.e. the near cause). To speak of his relationship as remote is to say God does not make people’s choices for them. He does not directly act upon humans as automatons who have no independent heart, mind or will. This means God never coerces a person to act against their will (i.e. what they most desire to choose).

God’s causal relationship to human choices employs secondary causes which refer to the human side of the equation – the actual choices coming from people themselves. Also these human choices can be said to employ proximate causes – the more immediate and direct reasons for human actions. These proximate human causes are internal and include one’s beliefs, conscience, heart motivations, intellectual deliberations, and their spiritual nature whether dead or alive. But then alongside these are other complementary tertiary causes. These represent external influences that include other people, culture, upbringing, education, as well as natural and spiritual forces (i.e. angelic/ demonic forces).

A Model for Compatibilism

Wayne Grudem has provided a helpful model to understand the relationship between divine determinism and human action in his Systematic Theology. He compares God to the author Shakespeare crafting the story of Macbeth. In this case, God authors the story of history establishing all of its human characters, good and bad. Each personality helps shape the script along with all its moral and spiritual complexities without which the story would have no substance or appeal.

A good story always has its protagonists and antagonists; its heroes and villains. Without the malignant stratagems of Sauron contrasted with the moral transcendence and determination of the lowly Frodo, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would fail to resonate with the marrow of our humanity. Such stories captivate our attention because of the clash of good and evil and the complexities of the conflict between the two. We want the hero to seize the day and to see evil lying in ashes even though the storyline is littered with tragedy along the way. When evil provides no foil for righteousness to prevail, life sinks into a hollow impassivity. This explains why the redemptive triumph of Christ over all diabolical powers becomes the greatest narrative of history.

Fiction imitates life and thus God authored the real story to include evil and good, loss and redemption, tragedy and triumph. Without both polarizing elements we never have the opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of the Creator’s masterful and wise purposes in which the full panorama of His glory is put on display. God designs and determines every intricate plot and sub-plot. In telling the story, He serves as the prime executor of the action but only as the author. The characters themselves act of their own accord, freely and responsibly. While the author of the story created the characters and set forth the trajectory of their lives, He does not live vicariously in the characters themselves. They exist independent of the Him and full of the vitality He supplied to them.

Compatibilist Freedom

In what way does compatibilism’s concept of the liberty of the will differ from libertarianism? If our choices have any hint of being coerced or if the desires that appeal to us the most are thwarted by some compelling reason so we don’t act upon that choice, then freedom is diminished or lost.

Coal miners in West Virginia in the early 20th century often had no other jobs available to them. Even though they risked their lives every day and reluctantly endured horrid conditions, it was the only way to feed their families. Were they free to walk away? Perhaps, but only if different circumstances had prevailed. For most, constraining forces kept them working when many would have desired better jobs. Contrast this with those who have various reasons to love their jobs, say professional athletes with million dollar contracts. We say they are freer because they happily spring forward into their occupations with few constraints to discourage them.

Now the sort of freedom described here applies only to general human actions. But the Bible is concerned with a deeper and far more significant kind of freedom that is entirely spiritual in nature. In this regard, humanity suffers bondage of their wills due to enslavement to sin (John 8:34). The Son of God came to set men free from this spiritual bondage (vs. 36). The believer experiences the first fruits of spiritual freedom in this life, but the full consummation of such freedom will only come with our future glorification.


4 thoughts on “What About Free Will? (Part 4)

  1. Wow! I had no idea you were going there. The thing that touched me was the idea of a compatibility between the will of God and the will of a man.

    I was raised in a fundamentalist church (Salvation Army, an offshoot of Methodism). And salvation was seen as a surrendering of one’s own will to God. A beginning, if you will, of a re-synchronizing ourselves with God’s plan for us. Sanctification was the strengthening of that sync’ing over time. A slower transformative experience than the more immediate change at the alter.

    You’ve etched out the free will problem in a different perspective, and given a double meaning to compatibility. It is much richer than merely the problem of separating our will’s from God’s predestination. And it is a pleasure to read prose of such quality.

    I’ve spent most of my time on the secular compatibility of determinism and free will, and believe that free will exists nicely within a deterministic universe. The theological issue is fairly new to me. We never believed in “predestination” as some Christian churches do. So free will was not much of an issue as I was growing up.

    I did run into a couple of things I don’t understand. What are you referring to in the phrase “their spiritual nature whether dead or alive” in the last paragraph under Two Wills… ?

    Also, I find a problem in the term “libertarianism” due to the confusion with the political ideology. But that’s not just in the theological side, but also has been used by those debating the secular paradox. So I don’t know that there is anything you can do about that.

    All in all though, a lovely piece of writing. Excuse me now as I enjoy it again.

  2. Marvin,
    Thanks again for your comments. When I speak of the nature of man as being dead or alive I am speaking of the fact that prior to regeneration by the Holy Spirit and one’s conversion to Christ that the Bible describes us as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). I take this to mean that our fundamental human nature suffers from a moral inability to truly embrace Christ for salvation because we are slaves to sin (John 8:34) and hostile to the things of God (Rom. 8:7). But the Apostle Paul says that while some were in this state of spiritual death God “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). This is what Jesus means when he says a man must be born again before he has the capacity to either “see” (comprehend) or “enter” (believe) the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). One does not cause their own spiritual birth, it is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. But once God awakens us from our spiritual slumber we suddenly find a new freedom to believe upon Christ for salvation and to serve God with new affections and spiritually inclined desires that truly please Him. This is because we have incurred a new nature by which to do so. I will tease these ideas out further in future posts.

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