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.
Today I will begin providing some examples of compatibilism from Scripture that fit two basic categories. In order to understand those categories it is important to draw some distinctions in the will of God. Scripture indicates at least two senses in which the “will” of God is spoken. First, God’s decretive will refers to His sovereign will in which He decrees or determines what will most certainly happen. Secondly, consider God’s preceptive will. This is the revealed will of God in Scripture which declares or instructs us what God has established as righteous, wise, good and true. Some call this God’s moral will, instructive will or will of command.
God Grants what He Commands
The set of examples I supply today indicates a response of human obedience matching what God has sovereignly decreed. God grants that which He commands. His sovereign decretive will matches His preceptive will.
God Conforms Us to Holiness
In Leviticus 20:7-8 we read: “You shall… be holy, for I am the LORD your God. You shall keep My statutes and practice them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you.” God commands His people Israel to be holy because He Himself is holy. This assumes the recipients have a moral obligation to exercise their wills in obedience. Yet, within the same breathe God states, “I am the Lord who sanctifies you [makes you holy].” Israel is to exercise her will to be holy and yet it is still God who causes her to be holy.
We see the same pattern Philippians 2:12-13: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Paul commands believers to “work out” their salvation; to labor hard “with fear and trembling.” But nothing of this intense work is in vain. He says simultaneously God “is at work in you.”
Sanctifying growth in holiness is not a matter of our working it out alone. We have no intrinsic power to grow Christ-like on our own. Secondly, it doesn’t reflect the passive and powerless cliché, “Let go and let God.” Thirdly, it is not a cooperative effort whereby we do our part and God does His. God is not our co-pilot. Rather we work 100 percent toward the progress of our sanctification while simultaneously trusting that God is 100 percent at work in us.
Rescue through Adherence to Divine Instructions
God often commands others to act in accordance with what He has already promised to grant.This pattern is reflected in Paul’s shipwreck experience in Acts 27. In a moment of desperation when the crew feared for their lives Paul addresses the ship:
I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, saying, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.” Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on a certain island. (vss. 22-26)
Paul assures his shipmates that God has “granted” (vs. 24) the lives of everyone on board. Now later, when the ship is running aground, a group of sailors panic and try to escape in a dinghy. Paul scolds the centurion, “Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved” (vs. 31). God’s sovereign decree does not abrogate common sense and sound judgment, but is in fact carried out by such. As long as everyone stays together Paul says, “Not a hair from the head of any of you will perish” (vs. 34). Their obedience becomes the means by which God achieves His sovereign purpose.
God Elects to Salvation and Sinners Convert
Consider the doctrine of election. Jesus gives us a dual explanation for conversion: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). The Father has elected particular followers to be given to His Son as a gift. How does Jesus receive this gift? Does the Father simply dump these followers into His lap? No – they will “come” to Him of their own accord; and as they come Jesus will never cast them out. Why? Because it is the Father’s “will” that Jesus “lose nothing” (vs. 39).
There are two reasons why sinners “come” to Christ. They come in response to both the decretive (sovereign) and the preceptive (instructive) wills of God. God doesn’t choose people for salvation without those individuals also exercising their wills to obey God’s command to act in faith and repentance. God effectually calls them to salvation and they in turn call upon Him for salvation (Joel 2:32).
We see the same dual pattern in Acts 13:48. After the gospel was preached we read: “As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” God sovereignly “appointed” some to receive eternal life but these also voluntarily exercised their wills and “believed.” In Acts 16:14 when Paul was preaching, “A woman named Lydia… was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” God secretly opened her heart while she remained passively unaware of His work. But as a result she actively responded in faith and was saved.
The Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture
One final example involves the revelation and inspiration of Scripture. Scripture is the product of two sets of authors working in concert to produce a divinely inspired and authoritative set of documents communicating God’s preceptive will. Every word Paul intended in the Biblical letters sprung from his own mind, reflecting his own style, his own motives and concerns. Yet all his intentions, thoughts and concerns precisely mirrored those of God long before Paul put pen to paper. Is it possible Paul could have used libertarian free will to write that which was contrary to God’s design? Absolutely not. He was not free to write against what God inspired, yet he freely wrote what he most wanted. God made sure that what Paul most wanted to write was precisely (i.e. every jot and tittle) what He Himself wanted.