What About Free Will? (Part 6)

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 the last post I considered categories of compatibilism that harmonize God’s decretive and preceptive wills. Today we look at patterns of compatibilism that highlights disharmony between God’s two wills where He superintends that which He does not command. In these instances, although human actions match precisely what God decrees, God’s intentions and man’s intentions are diametrically opposed.

Good and Evil Intentions

The clearest example of this category comes from the statement Joseph made to his slave selling brothers. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). This reflects Genesis 45:5 – “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (vs. 5). In one breathe he acknowledges they “sold” him to Egypt and in the next that “God sent” him there.

Notice the key in Joseph’s statement in Genesis 50:20. The dual explanation for the same event is expressed in the two occurrences of the word “meant.” Joseph’s brothers made a choice and meant one thing and God made a choice and meant another. The two choices had different intentions but worked in harmony to achieve the same end.

The Hardened Heart of Pharaoh

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery is recorded in Exodus 4-14. Here God commands Pharaoh no less than ten times to let His people go. On eight occasions we read Pharaoh hardened his heart. However, on nine occasions we read God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was Pharaoh’s express intention to harden his own heart, yet at the same time this reflected the purpose of God.

The incident puts to rest any doubts about the truth of Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes” (cf. Psa. 105:25). In hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God is preventing His moral will from being obeyed. This reveals a greater sovereign purpose. God intends to put His glory on display while the Egyptian ruler appears to have no say in the matter (Rom. 9:17).

Yet in spite of God’s unyielding decree, Pharaoh is held responsible for his actions. “Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go” (9:17). In 9:27, Pharaoh acknowledges, “I have sinned…the LORD is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.”

Exodus 10:27 sheds further light on the compatibilistic nature of these passages.  “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go.” Here are two wills set side by side. God determines to harden Pharaoh’s heart while Pharaoh is simultaneously unwilling to let the people go. God’s will does not over-ride the human will. The two wills spring forth from each individual and yet at the same time work in concert together to achieve God’s sovereign goal. God’s goal is not in mortal combat with human goals. He is not wrestling with His creatures trying to get them to act against their will. Rather, the human will acts in full complicity with the desires of one’s heart and therein lays culpability.

God Ordains Evil as Judgment

A number of compatibilistic passages picture God using evil rulers to execute judgment upon others. Consider Isaiah 10:5-19. Here Assyria is referred to as the rod of God’s anger and the staff of His indignation (vs. 5). God’s intention is to “send it against a godless nation” (vs. 6) – Israel. If the Assyrians had the ability of contrary choice, then God could not “send” them as His instruments of judgment. But they had no such choice, so they do precisely as God secretly commanded. Do they see themselves fulfilling their role as judges? Not at all. Verse 7 says: “Yet it [Assyria] does not so intend, nor does it plan so in its heart, but rather it is its purpose to destroy and to cut off many nations.” Assyria has no intention of being a righteous judge of peoples. Rather it intends to wallow in vile acts of violence.

Once Assyria has finished its rampage, what is to be said? According to verse 12 God declares she will have “completed all His work.” Okay, no problem, right? Not quite. God responds, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.” What? Isn’t he a tool of righteous judgment? In God’s eyes he is but not in his own. In his heart he is a pompous dictator who desires to sweep up anyone who gets in his way. In fact, he boasts, “By the power of my hand and by my wisdom I did this” (vs. 13).

The Almighty responds in verse 15: “Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it? Is the saw to exalt itself over the one who wields it? That would be like a club wielding those who lift it, or like a rod lifting him who is not wood.” The king of Assyria thinks there is no God but himself. Only a fool thinks he is the wielder when in fact he is the wielded. God uses him as a righteous judge but that is not his own self-perception. Instead God holds him responsible for his villainous intentions. What is his punishment? God “will send a wasting disease among his stout warriors” (vs. 16).  Israel will turn and “burn and devour” him (vs. 17) and God will draw his kingdom to a close “as when a sick man wastes away” (vs. 18).

One is tempted to think this whole episode represents unfair manipulation on God’s part, using people to do His dirty work and then punish them for it. But we tread upon thin ice here. We can easily find ourselves in the midst of Isaiah 45:9: “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker – an earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’?” (Cf. Jer. 18:6).

God, Man and Redemption

Compatibilism provides a crucial perspective on God’s plan of redemption via the death of Christ. A vast and diverse tapestry of decisions by multitudes of people had to conspire for Jesus to die according to divine prophecy. Only a master author could write that kind of story. The dual collusion of the divine and human intentions precisely come together in the unfolding of Jesus’ death as two passages in the book of Acts makes clear.

In Acts 2, Peter speaking of Christ, says to the Jews, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (vs. 23). Peter minces no words as he gives the one event its two-fold explanation.

In Acts 4:27-28 we see the Jerusalem church praying to God: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” Each of the key instigators of Jesus’ death are listed as pawns on God’s chess board. This in no way suggests they are passive participants. Each makes deliberate decisions that lead to Jesus’ death. And each will bear responsibility for those decisions. Nonetheless, they have fulfilled the prophetic role God has assigned them. Not a single person involved in condemning and crucifying Jesus had libertarian freedom to act otherwise; which might scuttle God’s whole plan of redemption.

Emphasizing the Divine and Human Side of History

The common narrative of Scripture doesn’t usually frame human actions within this compatibilist grid.  Most examples of human action reflect only the visible and immediately perceivable human side of the compatibilistic equation as if God had no role in what takes place. But if we miss the divine role it provokes a skewed and truncated perspective.

On the other hand, sometimes Scripture mentions only the divine side of the equation. In those cases, we are tempted to forget that humans play a responsible role in freely exercising their wills to produce the outcomes of history. The temptation of eager but un-thoughtful Calvinists is to regard these explicit passages of divine sovereignty as ruling out any human responsibility and freedom. This is equally misguided. Regardless of which side is emphasized both are at work as history unfolds. The comprehensive picture compatibilism provides helps us to set human freedom and responsibility within a larger context of God’s sovereignty from which to make better sense of history.

Next I will begin a series of posts examining more closely the human side of the compatibilistic equation. I will explore in what ways we are free and not so free and yet responsible for our decisions in light of God’s sovereignty.


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