Can Free Will Explain the Conversion of Sinners?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “I chose Christ of my own free will”? In many Evangelical circles such a notion is so self-evident as to be proverbial. “Well, of course we must exercise our free will in order to be saved!” So goes the conventional wisdom. Christians sling the phrase free will about with the same ease Tom Brady throws footballs to Rob Gronkowski. But do most really have any idea what they mean when embracing the notions that stand behind these overwrought words? Free will is part of the stock parlance of Arminian theology, and those who employ it with a little sophistication mean something like that which is advanced by philosophers known as libertarianism. And no, we are not talking about Gary Johnson! On the other hand, Calvinists have usually disparaged the use of the term, avoiding it like the scourge of Black Death. But of course Arminianism and its many step-children believe that Calvinism puts the grip of death upon the freedom and responsibility of human beings. In their mind, the dreaded Calvinists would have all humans beings consigned to a vast kingdom of droids.

Is this true?

A modest renaissance of sorts is occurring with a little known brand of Calvinistic thought that, while opposed to the libertarian impulse of Arminianism, embraces a wholly different kind of free agency. It is known as compatibilism and serves as a useful way to frame what the Bible really says about this slippery notion of free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility was most clearly articulated in Jonathan’s Edwards’ magnificent tome Freedom of the Will. Edwards picked up where Luther and Calvin left off in their carefully crafted works on the subject. Of course, they all stood on the shoulders of Augustine as he tried to grapple with the Biblical text.

In what follows, I offer a humble ode to the thinking of these theological giants on the complex issues that surround the sovereignty of God in salvation and what takes places in sinners who are converted to Christ. In order to understand the dynamics of conversion, one must understand the often neglected doctrine of regeneration. I suggest that regeneration is not only ill-conceived in Arminian theology, it bears little consequence for how we make sense of the metamorphic miracle that transpires when a sinner enters the glorious kingdom of Christ. That supernatural transformation can only be explained by the Calvinistic interpretation of the relevant Biblical data. Furthermore, only Calvinistic compatibilism can make sense of the conundrums that have plagued our understanding of the tension that resides between absolute divine sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other.

Let us consider some definitional points first.

Libertarianism and Compatibilism

Libertarianism holds to two basic notions. First, it is adamant that our choices as human beings can in no way be determined by anything outside of the autonomous power of one’s individual will. No outside influences of any kind are allowed to have sufficient determining power so as to cause us to make one choice or another. Not even our inner deliberations, desires, motives, preferences, and what not, are sufficient causes for the choices we make. And of course, God himself cannot interfere with the human will so as to determine any choice we make; otherwise we can be neither free nor responsible in making those choices.

The second fundamental tenet of libertarianism is known as the freedom of contrary choice. This simply means that no matter what choice one makes, in order to be truly free, an alternative choice must be a genuine possibility and able to be made with equal ease. So for example, in order for a person to exercise a free and meaningful choice to believe upon Christ for salvation, he must be able equally to choose not to believe. Without this unhindered equanimity in choosing Arminians believe humans cannot be held responsible for their choices.

There are many serious problems for this notion of free will from a practical, philosophical and especially theological perspective, but I will not canvas those problems here. I direct people to my full length book on the matter, What About Free Will? What I wish to do instead is consider a positive case for an alternate view of free agency based upon a careful inquiry into the Biblical witness. The Bible embraces a view of human choosing that is consummate with compatibilism. A Biblically framed compatibilism holds that free and responsible choices are compatible with a God who also sovereignly determines what we will or will not choose. In other words, there is a dual explanation for every choice we make. God is the primary yet remote cause of our choosing while we humans are the secondary yet proximate cause of our choosing.

Now in case one is not inclined to think that God is meticulously sovereign in all things—well, what page of the Bible do you wish to be referred? I take this as one of the few truly undisputed suppositions in matters that lie before us.

The Three Compatibilist Mechanics of Human Choosing

Before I consider a theology of conversion it is important to understand the notion of choosing from the strictly human side of the compatibilist equation I have stated. This helps define how one’s choices are determined not simply from the divine perspective, but from the temporal, situational, and personal angle of what goes on in our internal faculties. Three important propositions are affirmed by a compatibilist view of human choosing.

First, we always choose what we want to choose. Nobody ever makes a choice they don’t want to make. This is axiomatic. But immediately some will raise a question here. Don’t we in fact sometimes choose things we don’t want to choose? Little Billy sometimes cleans his room even though he doesn’t like to. Incredibly, he can and does often do what he doesn’t want to do. Would we not agree there is some truth here? But doesn’t this show that libertarian notions of contrary choosing win the day? Not quite. When you examine the matter closer, you discover that there are determinative reasons why one make choices they otherwise would not. We never stand at a fork in the road and choose one direction or the other without some particular reason, even if those reasons are not particularly strong. This is not what libertarians and Arminians would have us believe, but I think it is easy to show they are mistaken. In little Billy’s case of the messy room, perhaps good ole dad stood behind him with threats of the woodshed; and so the properly fearful lad had a compelling reason to pick up those errant Legos. Billy wanted to clean his room because he didn’t want the alternative!

Let us put the matter another way. You can analyze every choice you make and you will discover that you always choose that which you perceive to be in your best interest at the moment of choosing. Go ahead! Think of something. We never choose things we think will harm us. Blaise Pascal said it well:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Even people who choose suicide are deluded in thinking at that tragic moment that self-inflicted death is the best choice for them. They think it will benefit them. Of course it will not benefit them, but we are often deluded about what really benefits us. Sin, temptation, and deception hold hands very tightly.

This principle of self-interest is embedded in the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself. In making this statement (and others like it), the Bible assumes that we have a natural love for ourselves—a natural interest in our own happiness and in making choices that we believe to be to our benefit. Of course, in principle there is nothing wrong with this so long as our choices truly are in our best interest. Only God can define the choices that are in our best interest. We do not retain that prerogative. What brings glory to him is always what brings the greatest benefit and subsequent happiness to ourselves. When we are deluded by what brings glory to ourselves (the true definition of selfishness) is when we are truly harmed by our choices.

Secondly, compatibilism says that all of our choices are determined by whatever our motives and desires are. Now there are many conditions, external and internal to ourselves, that can influence our motives and desires, but when all is said and done we never act against those motives—in particular, the strongest ones. If a contrary choice presents itself it will always have its own particular compelling reasons. Humans don’t do random. Even if we analyze the so-called willy-nilly things we do we find that there is some hidden dormant factor that sufficiently explains the direction we take. For the better part of the day we are barely conscious of the reasons that drive most of our choices. But let us reconsider Billy. The reason why he cleans his room when he otherwise hates to is because he is motivated by the threat of punishment if he doesn’t. Of course, maybe he is brave enough to test his dad’s resolve, but that would simply point to another set of sufficient reasons for doing so. Every boy now and then thinks he can get away with murder in a messy bedroom. Bravery can be a stubborn thing. The point is, you can analyze all your choices by what motivates you. The strongest motives that underpin the perception of what is in your best interest at the moment of choosing are what determines the choices you make.

But there is a third very crucial component here. And in this case, we are particularly concerned about our moral and spiritual choices. This is what the Bible is primarily concerned about and so this is where we must pay closest attention. What is it that motivates us to make moral and spiritual choices? Where do the motives for these choices come from? They proceed from our fundamental nature as human beings. In this regard, when the Bible uses the word “heart” it often has reference to our fundamental moral and spiritual disposition as human beings. Solomon says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). The heart here represents our core nature. It is our mission control central; and from the heart flow the course of decisions that we make about life.

The Fallen Nature of Humanity

But what is the condition of our heart? The Apostle Paul tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). This means a fundamentally corrupted heart. Consider what the Bible says here: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Paul instructs the Ephesians believers to “walk no longer just as the Gentiles [unbelievers] also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17). Notice not only is the heart hardened here wherein our basic affections and desires lie; but our core nature includes our minds that operate in futility, emptiness, and uselessness in regard to spiritual things. This is the default mode of every human being who lives apart from the holy well-springs of the life of God.

Paul puts this another way when he says: “The mind set on the flesh [sinful nature] is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7). The sin nature is hostile toward God and the things of God. It does not want to obey God’s moral imperatives in a way that brings him glory alone (Rom. 3:23). Thus we cannot please God in our natural sinful state. In fact, Paul says we are not even able to do so. As sinners infected by the curse of Adam we are unwilling and unable to do anything that pleases and glorifies God. All of our best attempts at goodness are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), tainted by every dark hue of sin our hearts can devise.

Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to alter our desperate condition. The prophet says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). Jesus says the same thing employing some other color metaphors:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt. 12:33-35)

Jesus uses the idea of a tree to represent the basic nature of human beings. There are either good trees or bad trees. There are either trees that are poisonous and produce poisonous fruit or there are good trees that produce good, nutritious fruit. In order for a tree to produce good fruit it must be made good. It must undergo a radical transformation. The heart is either full of good treasure or evil treasure. Jesus is summarizing what a Biblically oriented compatibilist view of the human will tells us. If you have a corrupted nature then you will only have corrupted desires and motives which produce corrupted choices.

So the question of crucial importance here is this: what must happen in order for the tree to be made good?

The Need for Regenerated Natures

We have a need for regenerated natures. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes very graphically the transformation that takes place in the sinner who is changed into a Christ follower. He begins by depicting the pre-Christian state of his readers.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

The unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins. Spiritual silence—stone cold death. They are dominated by the dark designs of the flesh—the sin nature we inherited from Adam and in which we freely and gladly indulged. Yes, Satan, the prince of the power of the air, has a powerful grip upon sinners, but every sinner willingly (freely we might add) follows after the devil’s sinister plots of provoking humans unto disobedience to the moral will of God. They can do no other despite the protests of Arminians who espouse an illusory freedom of contrary choice. What we might regard as average people who go about the normal routines of life have no inclination to spiritual things, rather they are by nature children of divine wrath. All people are born children of wrath and immediately enslaved to their sin nature (Psa. 51:5; John 8:34). Spiritual stillbirths litter the whole landscape.

With this framework of human depravity in mind, consider the following question. Could any person repent of their sin and believe upon Christ while being enslaved to this condition? Many Arminians like to think that our condition as unbelievers is not spiritual death but spiritual weakness or sickness. Within our sickly condition we still have a spark of spirituality in our souls. We can still reach out to Christ for salvation, however feebly. To be sure, divine grace is necessary in this scheme, but it is not sufficient for salvation to obtain. That rests with the libertarian free will of man.

But this scenario simply does not comport with the picture of our human depravity. The desperate catalog of our condition in Romans 3:9-18 says otherwise. No one who lives under the curse of sin is good or righteous (vss. 10, 12). No one has a capacity or a set of motives whereby they seek the true God (vs. 11). They have all turned from him to paths of self-destruction (vss. 12, 16). The sinner has no regard for a holy God (vs. 18). Such persons are in no condition to repent of their sins or to exercise faith in Christ. We might indeed say they are free, but they are clearly in bondage at the same time. They freely choose according to the corrupt desires of their corrupted nature, and can do no other. They cannot defy their nature, but it is important to note that they don’t want to defy their nature. This is why freedom of the will must be defined no more broadly than choosing according to one’s most compelling desires. The unbeliever has no desires for anything other than what their sinful nature dictates.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. Why is it that some people believe the gospel and others do not? Would we not say that faith and repentance are morally good and God glorifying actions? In fact, would we not say that these actions represent the climax of morally good choices? What could be better than falling upon your knees before a holy God in brokenness and utter contrition; of humbly acknowledging the depth of your depravity; and of seeing that faith in the wondrous Christ, who offered his life as an atoning sacrifice to pardon such depravity, is your only hope? Likewise, would we not say that to hear the clear and powerful message of the gospel and of the mercy of God and of forgiveness of sins and then to turn away from this message in unbelief—is this not tantamount to the most egregious of sins? But what causes a person to repent of their sins and trust Christ for pardon? Is it something that proceeds from one’s own good nature? Of course not, unless we want to deny the inherent sinfulness of human beings as the Bible so clearly describes it. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit. Something has to change. Something radical has to take place; something that results in the virtuous actions of repenting of sin and entrusting one’s desires and affections to a glorious Savior. A radical transformation of our nature must take place before such choices can be made. This leads us to the lynchpin of conversion, the doctrine of regeneration.

The Doctrine of Regeneration and Conversion

This is precisely what Paul has in mind as we further consider his flow of thought in Ephesians 2. After describing the pre-Christian state of human beings (vss. 1-3), he goes on to outline this glorious transformation of regeneration:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

The believer in Christ went from death to life. How did this happen? Was it because sinners had the good sense to take their dead souls and infuse new life into them? No. People couldn’t do that even if they had the desire to do so. It was the sovereign God’s mercy toward vile dead sinners. It was the magnificence of his love for his elect even as they remained dead in sin, in an unperturbed state of constantly turning away from God, despising his moral imperatives, walking in their own way, and indulging in the corrupted desires of their hearts. God in his rich mercy and great love arrested appointed sinners in their tracks and he infused new life in them.

Paul says elsewhere: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5). Peter rejoices with similar words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). We did not cause ourselves to be born again, God did. No one causes their own birth. And yet without this new life we could not have the living hope Peter and Paul speak of. More importantly, for our purposes, we could not choose to repent and believe.

Remember our basic thesis about the mechanics of choosing. We always choose what we want to choose, and what we want to choose is what we believe to be in our best interest. Furthermore, the moral and spiritual actions we want to choose are rooted in our most compelling desires and motives. But these are inextricably tied to our basic spiritual nature. If we have a spiritually dead, intractable corrupted nature, then we will only have corrupted motives that produce corrupted choices. In order to make good, God pleasing, God glorifying moral and spiritual choices we must have a new nature implanted within us. As God tells Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)

God does this out the grace that flows from his own sovereign freedom. To be sure, we repent of our sin and trust Christ as an act of our own choice, freely and willingly. But we would never do so unless a change in our natures took place. That is something we cannot do. We are wholly passive as God replaces our heart of stone with a soft, pliable, pure, good heart that then suddenly develops desires for salvation it never had before. Our renewed heart then actively chooses salvation in response to those new desires; free of divine coercion, unhindered in any way, made completely voluntarily and yet in full concert with a sovereign God who made his choice first.

And this returns us to our compatibilistic equation. God is the primary cause of our actions, no less in the normal routines of life, but particularly as it concerns our spiritual transformation. But this does not somehow dismantle our responsible and freely made choices. Divine sovereignty is never to be equated to fatalism—a distinctly pagan notion. We are not lifeless marionettes dangling from the Master Puppeteer’s strings. We are responsible creatures who participate in his story in a necessary nexus of cause and effect. Regeneration is the supernatural side of the coin that initiates the work of salvation—the cause. Conversion is the effect—the natural and human side of the coin whereby we respond in faith and repentance to the effectual calling of the Spirit (John 6:44; 2 Tim. 1:9). Thus, the saving grace inherent in regeneration must precede faith.

In regeneration our wills are passive. In conversion they are active. Put another way, regeneration is the primary cause of our coming to Christ. Conversion is the secondary cause. God’s work of transforming our natures and infusing them with new life is largely silent and imperceptible, whereas our response in conversion is obviously tangible and self-conscious. The priority of regeneration is the only way to make sense of the gracious nature of salvation. It is the only way that prevents us from boasting and taking credit where no credit is due (1 Cor. 1:26-31). The honor and the praise are reserved for God alone. But what a privilege he has afforded us in having this strangely unique, personal, and beautiful part in the wonder of salvation. It is pure joy to be an actor in the divine Playwright’s grand story of redemption.

There are many questions this understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility raises—maters that go far beyond the conversion of sinners. This dual matrix for explaining divine and human action pervades the whole of Scripture and touches upon matters like sanctification, prayer, evangelism, the problem of evil, and more. I encourage you to investigate these issues more fully in my book What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

What About Free Will? Available Soon!

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My book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty is to be released on February 29. It was 2 years ago that I began working on this book and the day of its publication is finally here! You can order the book from Amazon here. The book also has its own website here. If you sign up on the website you will begin receiving a number of resources connected to the book that are not available elsewhere.

Book Review: The Problem of Evil

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Trying to reconcile the notion of a good and powerful God with the existence of evil has been a perennial problem that Christian theism has had to face from its inception. The matter has been taken up in earnest over the last several decades. One contribution is The Problem of Evil by Jeremy A. Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Evans is part of the thriving resurgence of Christian philosophers that have proliferated the field of philosophy for some time now.

Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient.  Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.

Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes.

Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.

And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy.  Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.

Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.

Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.

Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil)

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2’. It is very likely that God exists.

3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)

Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.

One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.

Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).

Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.

Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument  that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.

All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.

All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly.  Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.

What About Free Will? (Part 9)

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.

time-bomb 

Libertarians say we are only held liable for our actions if we could have acted otherwise.  In some cases, this may be true, but that is not principally where liability lies. Compatibilism holds that we are held liable for our actions in direct proportion to the degree that we voluntarily (intentionally) engage in such actions. Let us consider this proposition.

To the Degree we Act Voluntarily we are Liable for our Actions

Almost all human actions are voluntary, but some actions are more coerced than others thereby mitigating their voluntariness. The more voluntary one’s actions are the more one is liable for those actions and vice versa. Thus, if a compelling force causes a conflicting motive within a person to act in a way one would otherwise not act, such a person is not as liable for the action. If one feels forced to act against what his conscience tells him is clearly wrong then he is not held as liable for such actions.

Freedom from coercion and the ability to act voluntarily and responsibly is reflected in most systems of jurisprudence where just measures are used to assess guilt (blame) or innocence. Manslaughter is the killing of another without malice of intent, whereas murder is the killing of another with malice of intent. Voluntary manslaughter involves intentional killing, but when mitigating factors make the intention less culpable.  For example, a sudden provocation leads to a fight resulting in the death of the provocateur. Involuntary manslaughter refers to accidental killing in which the death occurred without intention. For example, a person driving her vehicle hits and kills a pedestrian by accident. One is held less liable for something they did accidently or reluctantly under duress. Conversely, one is held more liable for an immoral action if they did it freely (i.e. more intentionally). In fact, what makes it immoral is directly connected to the intentions of the perpetrator (James 1:14-15).

Sam Storms relates a poignant illustration that highlights this proposition. The story involves a pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells who robbed a bank while an explosive device was strapped to his body. He fled the scene with the bomb intact and was later apprehended by the police where he pleaded for their help. He claimed he had been forced to rob the bank by the real perpetrator of the crime who forcibly placed the device on him and threatened to detonate it if he didn’t comply. If his confession was true, what other choice would he have? Under such circumstances our justice system is obligated to exonerate him of culpability for the crime even though he robbed the bank.  The compelling motive to rob the bank is not rooted in some mal-intent but the preservation of his life.

However, under such circumstances one would not be without an alternative choice. Technically, due to the absence of absolute constraint, he was not forced against his will to rob the bank, it was done willingly. The difference is it was also done reluctantly due to extreme duress. All things being equal we can suppose his conscience would not allow him to engage in such a criminal act. But the strongest of any motive or compelling desire within a person at any given moment is always the one that directly influences the will, in this case the coercive influence of the main perpetrator. However, he could have taken his chances and refused to commit the robbery. He could have said I would rather die than cause distress to the bank and its customers and risk their deaths should the perpetrator detonate the bomb in the middle of the robbery. In this sense, he is free to act contrary but only if corresponding contrary motives prevail. The point is the will is the absolute servant of the motive that most powerfully influences it and it never acts in a contrary manner.

People are also not considered liable for actions if other legitimate hindrances prevent them from acting responsibly. For example, Christians ought to attend church on Sunday morning (Heb. 10:25).  But if they are sick and bed-ridden we do not hold them liable; they have a natural inability to act otherwise. But if they don’t go to church because they preferred to watch a football game, they are more liable because they had a natural ability and a moral responsibility to do so. They were under no constraints preventing them from acting responsibly. Likewise, one would not be held liable for saving a drowning victim if he was unable to swim. His natural inability prevents him from doing what is morally right. However, if he is able to swim and doesn’t make the effort to save the drowning victim he is held liable. In this case, he is held liable not because he is unable to swim but because as Stephen Holmes wrote, he is “unable to care.” Thus, liability lies not just with natural ability but as always with one’s intentions.

What About Free Will? (Part 8)

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.

CaptainCrunch                                             

Scripture affirms that the heart of our wanting, desiring and choosing in a particular direction stems from acting in what we perceive to be in our best interest. This is the fountainhead of all other desires, motives and preferences (see Part 7). I will consider these corollary causes in this post. They form the next layer down in the cause-effect paradigm of human choosing as indicated by our next proposition.

What we want to do is always in accordance with our Desires

Specific desires, motives, inclinations, passions, preferences, etc. are the immediate causes affecting the choices a person wants to make. The endless combinations of these various internal dispositions stem from that most basic of motives – self-interest. We do what we think at the moment of choosing is the thing that will benefit us the most.

The Apostle James connects specific actions we choose to engage in to the internal desires that drive our choices, in this case, sinful ones:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)

 Evil desires produce envious expectations and lusts that are not met, thus provoking choices resulting in quarrels and conflicts and even murder. Others pray for resources to fulfill immoral pleasures. Those prayers go unanswered because the motives are wrong. Earlier James says: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (vss. 14-15). The Apostle presumes these immoral motives undergird personal responsibility. Again culpability for our actions stems from the intentions behind our actual choices not from the libertarian idea that we could’ve chosen otherwise. 

Internal motives and desires are the engines that drive human action. However, these internal factors can be influenced by external factors as well. Every situation has a unique set of circumstances that influence one’s choices. People, media, culture, our upbringing and education all influence us. At every turn multiple external factors weigh heavily upon the way we think, what our hearts crave and the direction our choosing leans. 

The extent to which these external influences have compelling value or constraining power determines the degree of causal force they bear. A captivating preacher has more power to persuade than a boring one whose sermons you forget the moment you walk out the church doors. But unless outside influences exert absolute constraints upon the person choosing, their influence is limited. The preacher may compel a man to love his wife, but he cannot force him to. On the other hand, a preacher may not compel a heckler to leave the sanctuary during the sermon, but a 250 pound usher trained in martial arts could; by physically removing the man against his will.

In either case, under most circumstances, the immediate causal power of choosing rests within the person choosing and not outside forces. In the end you cannot wholly praise or blame these external factors for the choices you make. It is your own internal inclinations that are responsible for generating your actions. No option is selected that is disconnected from the most compelling desires that emanate from the heart’s affections and the mind’s intellectual deliberations. This doesn’t mean that every possible contributing cause or influence can be ascertained, only that they reside somewhere among the stewing mixture of ingredients within.  

We always do what we most want to do

We come now to a related proposition that reflects one of the most crucial points in the compatibilist understanding of the human will. People often have what I term conflicting desires or conversely competing desires, but in the end the most persuasive or prevailing desire inevitably determines the choices one makes. People do what they most want to do – that which appears at the moment to be in their best interest or to their greatest advantage. Or as Jonathan Edwards argued, “The will is always determined by the strongest motive.” Now people often regret their choices later, but at the moment of choosing they always do what seems best and most compelling to them at the time.

Conflicting Choices

Conflicting desires usually correspond to situations in which external coercion influences a person to make a choice that under normal circumstances he wouldn’t. We often wrestle with opposing desires that battle within. Tom walks down the street and encounters a thug who demands all his money. He is not favorably inclined to obey such a directive and dismisses the miscreant. But suppose Tom meets the same villainous fellow again and this time he presents a loaded .45 to his head saying, “Give me all your money or I’ll blow your brains out!” This is a bit of a game changer. It produces a new motive Tom didn’t entertain previously. Under these new circumstances he is faced with the dilemma of acting upon one or the other of two conflicting motives. Like most people Tom would rather part with his money (reluctantly of course) than part with his life. Tom’s second choice is far less desirable – it holds little appeal to what he really wants. Nonetheless, it is the more compelling choice and represents what he in fact wants to do most under the circumstances even if it is extremely disagreeable to him.

Many conflicting desires involve no threat from outside forces; rather they reflect intense battles within between opposing thoughts that seek mastery for our souls. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). These conflicts at their core are moral in nature. The conscience, like an unbending steel beam, remains steadfast and firm in its declaration of what is right. But the heart often overrules the conscience with a path that is contrary to sound judgment; and the heart always prevails (Matt. 6:21). 

Competing Choices

On the other hand, sometimes choices are difficult because of competing desires.  These are not desires in conflict with (opposing) one another; rather they are nearly equal in their positive or negative appeal. Suppose you have received two college scholarships – one to Michigan and the other to Michigan State. You love both universities so which one shall you choose? The choice might be difficult and attended with uncertainty and trepidation. But you weigh the pros and cons and deliberate upon them until reasons emerge for one or the other option. When the final verdict is in, the most persuasive reasons producing the strongest desire will determine whether you will be a Wolverine or a Spartan. The prevailing motives for the winning decision might slightly edge out the loser so that the difference is barely discernible or not even discernible at all. 

SONY DSC

Notice our desires variously fluctuate between those attended with intensity and those that are marked by complacency. But in either case, the strongest desire wins the day. For example, when a decision is critical and the options have nearly identical value (whether negative or positive), it drives up the stress factor considerably. We don’t want to make the wrong choice. Whereas, when the options are insignificant, you could just as easily flip a coin. Which of my favorite cereals shall I eat this morning – Captain Crunch or Lucky Charms? It might come down to which box is closest to your hand. But that in itself becomes the prevailing motive. Our choices at times may appear to be random but they never are. In most cases, we rarely think about our motives. We don’t have a running tab in the back of our minds registering pros and cons before making our choices. We just choose and then maybe sort out the motives later if we have to.

What About Free Will? (Part 7)

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.

 on Maiden Voyage 

In the following posts I am shifting gears. After surveying the broader forest of divine sovereignty and compatibilism as a whole, I focus now on the narrow set of trees that concern the strictly human side of the compatibilistic equation. I will begin in this post with the immediate act of choosing which lies on the surface of human actions and then uncover successive layers of reasons why people make the choices they do. As we eventually uncover the core source of choosing, a picture will emerge that explains in what ways humans are both free and not so free. To achieve all this, I will set forth a series of propositional statements about the nature of human choosing.

Our Will is Free in that we do what we want to do.

Jonathan Edwards writes, “A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.” In light of this, it is better to speak of people being free rather than the will being free; to speak of free agents, not free wills. The will is not some autonomous dictator that wields power to direct us, rather we direct the will. The source of choosing lies elsewhere; namely via the heart’s affections and the mind’s deliberations by which motives emerge to generate the willing of a choice.

Another way of understanding this notion of voluntary action is that people always act in a way that corresponds with what they believe to be in their best interest. Jesus simplifies this axiom by saying, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Blaise Pascal put the matter this way:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end… The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Self-interest is the base motive of all action even as it is conjoined with other motives that either taint it with vice or transform it into something virtuous. 

Biblically it is appropriate to speak of a natural self-love (i.e. self-interest) people have. This is assumed in the commands Scripture gives about loving your neighbor “as yourself.” In Ephesians 5:29 Paul says no one ever hates their “own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” In Philippians 2:4 he says, “Do not look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” This assumes people naturally think first of their own best interests. The command essentially reframes the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (cf. Matt. 7:12). 

Self-love is a two-edged sword. In our depravity it is used to gratify evil desires and corresponds to greed, covetousness, envy, jealousy, etc. As regenerated believers it is restored to something truly virtuous. Genuine self-interest is finding satisfaction in what brings glory to God and in that which interests Him (Psa. 16:11). If acting in one’s best interest seeks glory for one’s self, then it is clearly sinful. The foundation for one’s pursuit of happiness becomes the self not God; and this is what is normally meant by selfishness or self-centeredness. But when one adheres to what God has established as good and right and true, then one truly acts in his best interest.

Hindrances to Freedom

Both libertarianism and compatibilism are concerned about anything that interferes with human freedom. However, there is disagreement on what constitutes such hindrances. From a libertarian perspective, anything regarded as an antecedent cause for the choices we make impedes the freedom we have to make those choices. But in compatibilism it is not causes per se that prevent freedom, rather the kinds of causes one is talking about. Physical restraints, natural inabilities, moral inabilities, coercion from others, etc. would represent causes that restrict freedom. Other causes promote freedom as we shall see later.

One of the most powerful forces of obstruction to human freedom is constraining actions. Extreme forms of constraint remove freedom altogether. If a Mac truck comes flying around the corner and throws you fifty feet across the street you become a total victim of circumstances outside of your control. You didn’t make the choice to be a projectile and thus you have no freedom in the matter whatsoever. Most absolute forms of constraint are physical in nature. 

Lesser forms of constraint such as coercion are mental in nature. Coercion restricts the voluntary exercise of the will usually through mental manipulation. It seeks to plant an intimidating obstacle within the mind so as to force a person to act against what they otherwise wish. The use of threat by powerful dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un constrains the choices of the citizens of that oppressed nation. Coercion does not eliminate the ability to choose, but it certainly seeks to thwart our choices and the freedom we expect in making them.

Natural and Moral Ability

Compatibilism makes a distinction between natural ability and moral ability. There are some things we have no natural ability to do although we may want to do them. One may have a desire to fly by flapping their arms, but they have no natural ability to do so, therefore their will is constrained.

In some cases a person may have a natural ability to do something he wants to do but is restrained by external physical factors. A prisoner may want to see his wife and children, but his prison cell contains steel bars he cannot break. Also, a person may have lost a natural ability. Consider someone like Joni Eareckson Tada who became a quadriplegic through a diving accident. As much as she may desire to escape her wheelchair to walk, she is physically unable. Natural and physical inabilities hinder one’s general freedom of choice in ordinary matters. 

However, when it comes to spiritual and moral matters we encounter a different sort of hindrance. There are actions man has a natural ability to do but because he suffers from a moral inability he cannot do them. For example, people have a natural ability to exercise faith. We trust our cars will function safely at 65 miles an hour. We trust that the local bank will secure our money once it leaves our hands. Faith is a natural part of human behavior. Yet faith in Christ is impossible so long as people remain in a state of spiritual inertness (i.e. “dead in trespasses and sins” – Eph. 2:1). They have no moral ability to exercise such faith. Furthermore, the Scripture indicates that spiritually dead people lack a desire to do so; they don’t want to believe (Rom. 3:9-18). Their wills are bound by sin so that they cannot and will not believe upon Christ for salvation.

Our Will is not Free in that we can only do what we want to do

Our second principal proposition indicates man is never free to act against his will. People don’t make decisions arbitrarily or for no reason. They always choose only what they want to do. If a person wanted to choose something other than what he did then he would have reasons for doing so.

Edward Smith was the captain of the RMS Titanic. On the night of April 14, 1912, he and his crew ignored six separate warnings that icebergs capable of sinking the passenger liner were within its path. The ship never reduced its speed nor altered its course. By the time it steamed full ahead into the fateful mass of ice it was too late to avoid catastrophe. The ship submersed violently down to the bottom of the sea taking some 1500 of its 2200 plus passengers to their watery deaths. We don’t know why Captain Smith made the decision he did. We can only surmise he thought he had good reasons. But we can be certain of this – if he thought the ship would sink under those conditions he would have had reason to make a different choice (unless of course he harbored sinister desires).

Whatever reasons (i.e. causes) stand behind the choices one makes, those reasons always lead necessarily to that specific choice. First, uncaused choices don’t exist. Secondly, only one choice can arise from the matrix of causes that underlie that choice. The collusion of all specific antecedent causes can never result in multiple outcomes. That would result in an arbitrary, unpredictable, chaotic and purposeless world. God is not the author of disorder. If the same precise circumstances in any given situation were repeated, the outcome would be the same. This necessary cause-effect principle whereby reasons always determine choices also indicates that people don’t face alternative choices without any preference for one or the other.

Nonetheless, Compatibilism doesn’t say that alternative choices are impossible.  If we have a preference for an alternative choice we would have also have alternative reasons for that choice.  Alternative outcomes can occur if alternative preconditions exist (1 Sam. 23:7-14; Matt. 11:20-24). We are free to make different choices, but we are not free to act against the reasons that led to the actual choices we make. The necessity of prior causes affirms determinism. The voluntary nature of our choices indicates freedom is compatible with determinism.

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.

1280px-1872_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema_-_Death_of_the_Pharaoh_Firstborn_son

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.