In every discussion of Christian theology, whatever else we may be talking about, one issue is always hovering in the background. That issue is the sovereignty of God. What is the relationship between our free will and God’s sovereign control? Some people, I know, get very angry about this issue. Others see it as an esoteric and divisive question that is better left unanswered. To me, however, it is an essential question, one which must be addressed specifically. From my perspective, the answer is clear and crucial. God is sovereign—that is, God determines everything that happens in His creation—and the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is essential if we are going to understand the gospel.
The purpose of this paper is to defend the truth and importance of the sovereignty of God. There are different ways that one might proceed. One way to make the case would be to list the passages which seem to explicitly assert God’s determining power over creation. For instance, Ephesians 1 describes God as the one who “works all things after the counsel of His will.” Taken by themselves, however, such verses rarely convince anyone. People who believe in sovereignty will see it taught in these verses; people who do not will explain these verses in another way.
This paper comes at the question from another direction. Essentially one issue lies at the heart of all the disagreements: the nature of the human will. Is the human will “free,” and what would that mean? How do God’s choices relate to mine? This is a more fruitful line of inquiry; the nature of the will and its effect on our behavior is a central theme in the biblical gospel itself. The Bible gives us a rich description of the Christian journey: from initial faith, through testing and maturity, until we finally arrive at our eternal inheritance of glory. This paper will argue that this journey cannot be adequately understood apart from the sovereignty of God; for the gospel to make sense, God must have determining power over the wills of His people.
The primary focus of this paper is not so much philosophical as theological; I want to examine the implications of the Bible’s teaching on salvation. I should start, however, by spelling out the philosophical framework within which I am working. My basic perspective could be called voluntarist. Human actions are free in the sense that we act voluntarily; we do what we want to do. I am free when I am not forced to do anything “against my will.” But how did I come to have such a will? Why am I the sort of person who wants one thing as opposed to another? I did not determine the quality of my will; that was determined by my Creator. This is the picture implied by the Bible. Thus the Bible urges me to make choices, because I have real choices to make; in the end I will do what I want to do. But this is also why God can make promises which imply His control of my choices: He is the sovereign Creator who makes and then remakes me with a certain character and will.
The focus of this paper is on the Christian pilgrimage from faith to glory, and how the sovereignty of God is implicit in every aspect of it. At the end, I will give an all-too-brief answer to some classic objections to the doctrine.
I. THE NATURE OF FAITH
Certainly the aspect of sovereignty which is hardest for many people to swallow is the idea of ‘election’ or ‘predestination’, the idea that God chooses those who will believe and be saved. The very nature of saving faith, however, requires the doctrine of election. Faith arises out of a fundamental change of heart. In this age believers have not yet escaped the problem of sin, but we have made the change from unbelief to belief, a move just as mysterious and miraculous. The foremost characteristics of fallen human beings are that in our rebellion (1) we will not trust God, (2) we will not admit our guilt and need for mercy, and (3) we will not abandon our idolatrous lust for the things of this world. Yet every believer comes to do those very things: trust God, admit guilt, cry for mercy, and value God’s kingdom above the things of this world. This fact, as much as any other, makes me believe that faith is a gift of God, given to those whom He chooses. In this light, the controversial doctrine of election seems essential.
All of mankind has a truth problem. In principle, we have been designed to know the truth. Our minds are designed by God to be self-adjusting; errors in our thinking should be corrected through experience; we ought to, over time, home in on the truth. Sometimes we do. But there are some truths we do not want to know; there are some errors we cherish and hold to our hearts like a brother. We do not want to owe God thanks as our creator; we do not want to admit we are evil and guilty; we do not want to trust God; we do not want to let go of this world. If we were not morally flawed, we would be drawn to the truth like a man in the desert is drawn to water. But we are rebels like our father Adam. We have set guards on our hearts to ward off unpleasant truths. Jesus said to his opponents:
Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father…. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:43-45)
We accept easily only the easy truths. In light of this, consider the mysterious humility of the believer. The people of God are humble, knowing they are evil people who do not deserve God’s mercy. Yet by nature fallen humanity is proud, self-sufficient and self-justifying. The last thing a rebel wants to do is admit he is wrong. Jesus, in explaining why people reject Him, says:
…men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
The world…hates Me, because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil. (John 7:7)
Coming to believe in Jesus, therefore, is a monumental step; to do it we have to change our wants; we have to want things that by our very nature we don’t want at all. Our desires are not in neutral, waiting to see whether God or the world makes the best offer. We have inherited a corrupt nature; we are sinners at heart, and whatever else we might want, we don’t want God, we don’t want humility, and we don’t want goodness.
But in fact believers do come to belief; in spite of their rebellious hearts they come to want what by nature they have never wanted before. Although they are still sinners, something about them has changed radically. In Luke’s version of the parable of the sower, Jesus describes those who respond to the gospel as “ones who hear the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). Believers have “honest and good hearts,” in the sense that their hearts do not run from the truths of God, but rather embrace them. David describes the person who admits his sin to God as one “in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2). In David’s categories, the wicked are those who will not admit their sins; the righteous admit their sins and receive God’s mercy. God’s people are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
If the hearts of believers must be like this, then God’s sovereign work in our hearts must come first, or we would never believe. The gospel asks us to chose whether we will trust in God’s salvation; we freely choose, doing exactly what we want to do from our very heart of hearts. Only God, however, can break into my heart to make it the sort of heart which will choose Him. Humility, trust, and a hunger for righteousness are foreign to the human heart; only those whose hearts have been remade by God will ever arrive there. It only makes sense, then, that the Bible would sound a strong theme of election:
No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him…no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father. (John 6:44, 65)
But you do not believe, because you are not of my sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:26-27)
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)
…no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:3)
These passages are not speaking in a vacuum; the Bible’s extensive picture of the heart of faith cries out for the doctrine of election. No wonder the Bible calls us “the elect,” the chosen ones. No wonder the Bible says that God “predestined us to adoption as sons.” How could it be otherwise? It takes true moral courage to admit how wrong we have been about so many fundamentally important things; where else would sinners like ourselves find that moral courage except from the Source of all goodness?
II. THE TESTING OF FAITH
One of the central truths of the Christian life is that God puts His children through trials. Three crucial passages (Romans 5:1-11, James 1:2-12, I Peter 1:6-7) all have basically the same logic, which runs like this:
- We rejoice in trials which test our faith
- because trials lead us to persevere in our faith
- which provides proof of our faith
- which strengthens our personal hope for our final salvation
- and that hope will not fail to come about.
This is the biblical teaching on assurance; God gives us assurance we are saved by putting us through the fire, so that the pure gold of our faith, a faith which survives the fire, will shine forth. Implicit in this argument is the idea of God’s sovereign control of our wills; God is responsible for our faith, and God is responsible for our perseverance to the end. If God is not sovereign in this way, than the biblical picture of assurance couldn’t work.
First of all, if perseverance is something we must accomplish on our own, then we couldn’t possibly rejoice in trials, because every trial becomes a stumbling block which might destroy us. I wouldn’t want my faith to be tested; who knows whether I could take it? Every trial becomes my worst enemy. But Christians do rejoice in trials, because trials can’t destroy us; instead, they are a God-given opportunity to see the miracle of faith at work in ourselves.
Furthermore, if faith is something we drum up ourselves, then the Bible couldn’t argue that trials bring about perseverance; if it is strictly up to us, then we might persevere or we might not. But the Bible can say that trials “produce” perseverance. We mustn’t soften this; the Bible is not merely saying that hard times tend to make one tough. These passages assert that perseverance is inevitable in the lives of believers. God’s people do hang onto their trust in Him, because God is working in their hearts. We are different people now; our eyes have been opened, and no trial can possibly close them again.
Again, if God is not ultimately behind our faith, then the Bible couldn’t say that perseverance provides “proof” that we are people of God; no assurance would be possible. The fact that we haven’t blown it yet is no guarantee that we won’t do it later. “So far so good” is not much assurance. But perseverance in trials does provide “proof.” When in the midst of trials we persevere in our faith, we show the reality of that faith in our hearts; our perseverance shows our true willingness to admit our sins humbly, our very real trust in God, and our longing for His righteous kingdom. Perseverance in trials shows us that we are changed people, with qualities of heart that only God could have brought about.
Finally, if God is not sovereign, we couldn’t say with Paul in Romans 5 that “hope does not disappoint.” Paul argues that those who truly have faith now cannot possibly fail to arrive at the destination of eternal life. His argument depends on the fact that God Himself is sovereign in salvation. If only the strength of my own fallen will keeps me on the path toward salvation, of course I could fail to arrive. But Paul argues that the love of God will insure that the fullness of His glory comes to every one of His children. Our hope will not fail us, because God is responsible to get us there. Having been justified by faith, we are now friends of God, and God will not let a single one of His friends down.
This is why the Bible presents perseverance ultimately as God’s work in us. This is why Paul describes God as “the God who gives perseverance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5). This is why Jesus says no one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand—why He says He will lose not one of those whom the Father gives Him (John 10:29, 6:39). Paul reminds us:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)
It is we who must chose to trust God. It is we who must hang onto that trust until the end. But if we are God’s people, we will. We can find assurance in this age because God is a craftsman who signs His work; true, it is mostly invisible writing, but it becomes quite visible in the fires of trial. The more we see the evidence of our faith now, the more confidence we can have that we will hang on till the end, because God has made us to be those kinds of people.
III. THE MATURING OF FAITH
Certain attitudes characterize faith. As people of God, we have a new trust in God, a new willingness to admit our sins humbly, and a new hunger for righteousness. Christian maturity is the nurture and growth of those attitudes. In this life believers are still sinners, but we know it; we admit it; we long to be different. Visible qualities like forgiveness, contentment, gentleness, and love for God’s people will be the result.
Christian maturity, like every other aspect of faith, is ultimately produced by God. Maturity and wisdom are a state of the heart and will. They start with a faith grown strong, a vision filled with confidence in God’s promises. Such a heart, such a vision, only comes through the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul often prayed that God would do this very thing for Paul’s readers:
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:4-7, 13)
…may God give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe…. (Ephesians 1:15ff)
[I pray]…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
Enlightenment in the eyes of our hearts, strength, and spiritual comprehension—these come from God’s Spirit. People with such eyes and such hearts will live differently; they will be wise. Paul is explicit, as well, that such a change is also the work of God:
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3)
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
Now may God…equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight…. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
Notice the explicit statement in Hebrews; mature Christian living is pleasing in God’s sight, but He Himself is the one who works in us to bring it about. The well-known list of the fruit of the Spirit sums this up most explicitly:
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…. (Galatians 22-23)
Christian maturity presents the same mystery as our initial faith itself; the issues are the same, just worked out over time. All of the characteristics of the mature believer are essentially states of the will; God gives us wisdom by changing what we want. This is one of the most comforting truths of the Christian life. Life can be crushing in its demands, but we are not being asked to meet those demands with our own puny resources of maturity and wisdom. God alone among all the teachers in the world can write His lesson plan in the hearts of His pupils; not one of His students ever flunks.
The Bible admonishes us to trust, to persevere, and to live wisely. This makes sense, because the choice is ours; in the end we will either do these things or not; we will do what we want to do. But the Bible can assure us that God’s love brings us to faith, causes us to persevere, and gives us wisdom. He can do this because as our creator, He has access to that part of us about which we can do nothing: our essential character and will.
IV. THE HOPE OF GLORY
I first started thinking about free will and God’s sovereignty many years ago. For me the issue was not predestination, but rather the problem of sin and the nature of our salvation. As a young Christian I struggled to understand why it was so hard to do right and so easy to do wrong. I longed to know whether I or God was ultimately responsible for cleaning up my act. It was then I first started to believe that God’s sovereign control over my will was not optional; the very nature of the gospel required it.
First of all, our notion of the “freedom” of the will has to take into account the basic human problem as the Bible defines it: we are all slaves of sin. Adam passed on to each of His children a nature steeped in rebellion. Humanity is under the wrath of God because of our essential evil. Furthermore, because of our sinful natures, God has given us over to our sin. We are locked into our rebellion, because the only One who could change our rebel hearts is angry with us. And we can’t placate His wrath ourselves, because we are incapable of being good. God’s moral law can only condemn us. Paul talks of “what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh…” (Romans 8:3). The law cannot make us pleasing to God because it cannot make us good; only a person whose will was uncorrupted by evil could truly keep the law of God. We are certainly “free” to keep the law; nothing is stopping us except ourselves.
What is true of the basic human problem is even more true of the solution: just as sinful humanity is a slave of sin, so God’s redeemed people will be slaves of righteousness. “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did….” The gospel is essentially about the promise of a complete transformation of our wills. God promises that we are going to live an eternal life of perfect righteousness. We are going to be like Christ; we are going to reflect perfectly the glory of God’s holy and righteous character. God promises this; but God cannot make such a promise if He does not have control of the human will. In this sense, God’s sovereignty is our one great hope. Paul can say he is “waiting for the hope of righteousness” because he knows that his will can be transformed by his creator. Throughout eternity we will face real choices, just as we do now. We will make those choices in a perfect, godly way, the way Christ Himself would, because the Spirit of Christ will have soaked into every corner of our souls. Our free choices will express the goodness in the depths of our hearts, a reality God Himself will have put there. If God is not sovereign over my will, then He cannot keep the promises He has made in the gospel.
V. OBJECTIONS TO THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
I have now made the argument I set out to make: that the biblical picture of salvation implies God’s sovereign control of the human will. I suspect it would be unwise, however, to leave this topic without saying something about the classic objection to this doctrine. Opponents of the “sovereignty” view usually argue that such a doctrine slanders both humanity and God. First of all, it robs people of any possible meaning to our choices. If God ultimately determines what we choose, then how could we possibly be blamed for our sin? We would be mere puppets, robots whose sins are meaningless and whose love for God is equally meaningless. Furthermore, they would complain, this doctrine paints an ugly picture of God. For Him to choose some for eternal life and not others is totally unfair. Most damning of all, this doctrine makes God culpable for all the evil in the world; it stains the character of God.
These critics argue that there is only one solution to these problems: the will must be totally autonomous. To make us significant, God gave us true independence from Himself. If we choose to love Him, then that love is truly meaningful because He had nothing to do with it. But our total freedom to love Him carries with it an unavoidable drawback; we are also totally free to hate Him, and there is nothing He can do about that, either. God was willing to let us bring evil into the world, in order that some of us might choose to love Him. The result of this, they argue, is that our choices are truly meaningful, and God is not responsible for evil.
What shall we say to these things? These objections deserve more attention than I can give them here. But I should say something, so below I give a brief answer to the two questions raised by this objection: (1) What makes human choices significant? and (2) How can God be both sovereign and good?
A. What makes choices meaningful?
The bare bones of my answer can be seen in the following assertions:
(1) Sovereignly determined choices are neither coerced nor meaningless.
There is a powerful emotional pull to the argument that God would be unfair and coercive if He is determining our choices. But we are reacting emotionally to the wrong picture. We are thinking in terms of doing something “against our will.” Yes, if somehow I am being forced to do something that in my heart of hearts I don’t want to do, then my choice is not “free” and it is not meaningful. If I am forced at gunpoint to be kind, what credit is that to me? If electrodes connected to my fist force it to jump into your face, how could I be blamed?
But what if I do exactly what I want to do? Then that choice is free and meaningful in the truest sense; that choice reflects who I am. I deserve praise or blame, because I am like that. But I am a creature, and I have to accept the logic of creation. I did not choose to exist; I did not choose the kind of creature I am.
(2) Freedom is the ability to express who I am in my choices.
If in my choices I can express who I truly am, then those choices are free. This is how the Bible presents things: our choices show what sort of creature we are. Jesus says:
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce good fruit. (Matthew 7:16-18)
In the parable of the sower, the sower scatters seed beside the road, on rocky ground, among the thorns, and on good ground; only the seed on the good ground produces the crop. The prior nature of the soil determines whether the seed produces a crop; the prior nature of the heart determines whether the gospel produces salvation. Either we have eyes to see or we don’t. This is a very commonsensical idea; we all feel that we see “what people are made of” by the choices they make. The choice must be free from coercion or we don’t see people’s own character at work. But equally, the choice must reflect our essential nature or it would be meaningless.
(3) Absolute “free will” would result in meaningless choices.
If we try to define “free will” as more than “doing what I want”—if we try to define it as “a will determined by nothing except itself”—then we end up with truly meaningless choices. Choices are meaningful only when they arise out of the intrinsic nature of the chooser. If we don’t have a particular kind of nature, then how can our choices be meaningful? At best they would be random accidents. We can’t evade this by saying, “Well, we have various tendencies, but we must choose to follow one or the other.” How did “we” come to be in the first place? Why would “we” choose one thing or another? Either “we” are a particular kind of “we”—in which case our choices will show what we are, freely and meaningfully—or else “we” are no particular kind of “we” at all—in which case our choices come from nothing in ourselves, but are random and meaningless.
Only God can say that His choices are determined solely by Himself. I am a creature; I am not self-existent the way God is. God freely expresses Himself, but that self finds its origin only in Himself. I, on the other hand, am free to express myself, but not to create myself. The “self” I express is the creation of another.
(4) “Freedom” does not mean freedom from our nature.
If we say that “freedom” means freedom from everything, including our own nature, we make nonsense of the biblical story. Think of the temptations of Jesus. Did Jesus make a free, significant choice to continue trusting God? Of course He did. But could it have turned out any other way? It all depends on what we mean by “could have.” Nothing “forced” Jesus to choose rightly; nothing except His nature. He “could” sin in one sense; He “couldn’t” sin in another. Jesus was sinless, perfect in moral character; He never made an evil choice, and He never will. Does that negate the freedom of Jesus’ choices, or lessen the praise due to Him for making them?
This issue becomes crucial when we think about the promise of the gospel. Paul tells us that believers “boast in hope of the glory of God”; that is, one day we will be like Jesus, sharing in God’s glorious nature of righteousness. As sinners we fall short of God’s glory; we cannot do otherwise. As redeemed saints in God’s kingdom we will never fall short of His glory again; we will not be able to do otherwise. And yet we will be truly worthy to be called “glorious.” Glory and honor will be ours for what we are: righteous, holy people. But the praise will be due to God for making us what we could not make ourselves. As His redeemed creatures, we will have a righteousness that is both free and inevitable.
(5) “Freedom” does not imply the potential for sin.
The absolute-free-will position is trying to defend God’s honor; it sees an evil world and says, “God is not responsible. He had to run the risk of possible evil when He made our wills free.” But clearly, God Himself, Jesus Himself, and God’s redeemed people in the next age are all “free,” and yet their freedom leaves no room for sin. Clearly, one can be “free” and yet good. Thus the absolute-free-will position cannot get God off the hook; He could have created people who were always free and always good, but He didn’t.
B. How can God be both sovereign and good?
This question obviously deserves a book, not the woefully brief comments I am about to make. Following, however, are three brief assertions:
(1) God sovereignly determines everything that happens, including the evil choices of sinners.
The thrust of my argument so far has really concerned only a part of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. I have argued that every truly good choice a believer makes, including faith, perseverance, wisdom, and eternal righteousness, is sovereignly determined by God. Implicit in this argument, however, is the idea that God sovereignly determines everything that happens. I can’t see any way around this. God creates everything that is; nothing is the way it is unless God has made it to be so. The Bible supports this notion:
The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes. (Proverbs 21:1)
He turned [the hearts of the Egyptians] to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants. (Psalm 105:25)
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 things. (Isaiah 45:6-7)
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth? (Lamentations 3:37-38)
Why, O Lord, do You cause us to stray from Your ways, and harden our heart from fearing You? (Isaiah 63:17)
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. (Acts 4:27-28)
The implications of this last example seem unavoidable to me. The cross happened because evil men chose to crucify Christ; the cross also happened because God had decided that it was going to happen exactly that way.
(2) God’s sovereignty does not make Him unfair.
Many argue that God being sovereign in salvation would be horribly unfair. How can He choose some for salvation and not others? I can think of no better answer than Paul’s in Romans 9:
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have the right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory… (Romans 9:18-23)
The fact that we are creatures of God is one of those truths we all have trouble swallowing; here Paul has spelled out the implications of creation almost brutally. We have no claim on God; He has mercy on some—not because He owes it to them, but in spite of the fact that He does not. God has His good reasons for the choices He makes, reasons based in His purity of character. As our creator, He has every right to make those choices; there is nothing “unfair” about it.
(3) God’s sovereignty does not make Him evil.
My colleague Jack Crabtree has proposed an analogy between God’s sovereignty over creation and an author’s sovereignty over a book; this analogy has been very helpful to me. Again, the logic of creation is at work; a creator is transcendent over his creation. When Iago cruelly tricks Othello into killing his beloved Desdemona, we don’t think, How could Shakespeare be so cruel? In the world of Othello, Shakespeare didn’t “do” anything; he created the world in which Iago and Othello acted. Whether Shakespeare is good or bad is not determined by what Iago did; it is determined by two criteria: (1) What were Shakespeare’s purposes in creating? and (2) What actions in his creation represent what Shakespeare would do if he lived in that world? Obviously this analogy falls apart; we are not imaginary creations. But we are creations, and the analogy works to this extent: God’s goodness should be judged by the same two criteria.
CRITERION #1: We can start to get a glimpse of God’s purposes if we ask this question: what would God’s people be missing if the fall had never happened? We would never have tasted the bitter fruits of rebellion against God; such rebellion is rebelling against life itself, and now we understand that beyond question. We also would never have known God’s mercy. That’s what Paul implies in Romans 9: God made vessels of wrath “in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” Most of all, we would never have known the supreme event in human history: we would never have seen God become a man and die on a cross to save His people.
CRITERION #2: Shakespeare put certain speeches and actions into his plays that represented what he himself believed and endorsed. God has done the same thing in His creation. Having created a world that is experiencing the corruption of sin, God Himself enters into that creation through the action of His Spirit, to undo, correct, guide, and show His true character to His creatures. And of course, His supreme act of self-expression is the man Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, God Himself enters into and becomes part of His creation. In Jesus, we see God’s most revealing self-expression; we know what God would do if He were a man, because He became one and shows us.
This “author” analogy is emotionally repugnant to many people. Perhaps that is unavoidable ultimately, but there is one stumbling block which needn’t trip us up. I am not saying that we are unreal, fictional characters. This is an analogy: God is to us as we are to our “creations.” I am not saying that we are less real, less free than we thought. We are exactly as real and as free as we always thought we were. But God is more real and more free than we as creatures could ever be or comprehend. God is transcendent; He is as much beyond us as Shakespeare is beyond Othello.
God is totally good, and if the doctrine of God’s sovereignty implies that He is not good, then that doctrine is wrong; I am wrong. But I am convinced that this doctrine says nothing evil about God. He created a world that fell into sin because He knew it was the best thing to do. Just as Hebrews says that Jesus was perfected through suffering, the same could be said of all of creation. Paul says:
…the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21)
So, did I choose God or did He choose me? Both. I chose God with all the freedom that a creature can have; God chose me with the fuller freedom that He has as my Creator. This seems to me both true and essential. God’s grace is truly gracious precisely because it can solve the problem I can’t solve: the problem of my will. Only He can bring springs in the desert, light in the darkness. The lifetime of choices we must face would be a burden beyond bearing, if God cannot mend our hearts to choose rightly. The sovereignty of God should fill His people with joyful hope. For today, we can hope to find the strength and wisdom to follow Him with a tenacious trust. For tomorrow, we can hope to live eternally a fulfilling life of goodness. This hope is ours because the arm of God is strong to save, strong enough to reach into our souls, recreating us in His own glorious image forever.
Jack Crabtree, an MSC staff member, was asked to write a response:
The primary focus of Ron Julian’s paper “Chosen for Glory: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation” is, as he put it, “theological” rather than “philosophical.” In response to Ron’s paper, I want to explore the role of the philosophical—as compared to the role of the theological—in resolving our understanding of divine sovereignty and human freedom.
I do not want to imply that there is a clear and unambiguous distinction between philosophy and theology. There is not. Indeed, if pressed to articulate a distinction, I would be hard put to do so. Theology is fundamentally philosophical in its nature; and biblical philosophy—if it is truly biblical—cannot help but be theological in nature.
Nevertheless, there is often an important difference between the sorts of issues addressed by the Bible and the sorts of issues discussed by philosophers. In the context of the debate about divine sovereignty and human freedom, Ron’s paper illustrates this quite well. Ron has rightly captured the emphases of biblical teaching: What is the problem of human existence? Why is it that we cannot be good; that we constantly choose self-destructive behavior? How will our problem be solved? Where can we look for help? These are the sorts of questions and concerns the Bible addresses.
Compare this set of concerns with those that occupy our minds and discussions when the issue of divine sovereignty comes up. The Bible simply does not address this set of concerns. We look in vain for a definition of the human will, or for an analysis of the logic of causation, or for a definition of freedom, or for an analysis of moral accountability, or for any such related issues. These issues, as important as they are, are simply not discussed in the biblical writings.
The Bible has a characteristically “theological”—as opposed to “philosophical”—flavor. What conclusions should we draw from this? Should we, like the Bible, avoid philosophizing about our faith? Should we ask only those questions the Bible asks? Should we seek only that knowledge which the Bible explicitly reveals and not seek any knowledge that it doesn’t? With respect to the doctrines of divine sovereignty and human freedom, should we be content not to resolve the philosophical issues typically raised? Should we be content to leave the matter where the Bible does?
I. PHILOSOPHY IS NOT ESSENTIAL
In a certain sense, we clearly could settle for merely understanding the biblical gospel; and we would not have to resolve the philosophical questions which usually surround the divine-sovereignty/human-freedom debate. Two arguments support this perspective.
(1) Understanding the gospel is more important
One important implication of the theological “flavor” of the Bible is this: understanding the truth of the gospel—and all that it entails—is of relatively greater importance than having a true philosophical theory about the relationship of divine sovereignty to human freedom. If I don’t fully understand the fact and nature of my own sinfulness, my eternal destiny is in jeopardy. Likewise, if I don’t understand—at some level—the nature of God’s plan to save me, my eternal inheritance is on the line. But if I cannot articulate the nature and extent of divine sovereignty as it relates to human freedom, nothing critical is at stake. I may have a faulty understanding of the inner workings of one aspect of my experience, but my understanding of life itself is not thereby made inadequate.
I can understand myself, my experience, the saving promises of God, and all that these imply about how I should act, think, and feel about my life without ever developing a finely tuned theory of the human will and human freedom. The Bible is very right, therefore, to focus on the existential questions implicit in the gospel rather than the metaphysical questions of philosophy.
What God wants of us, what we desperately need, is the ability to live our lives—not the ability to accurately analyze our lives. And to live our lives, we need only to understand—in the roughest of terms—the nature of our moral-spiritual problem and the nature of the solution God has promised. Any understanding that enables me to trust God and hope the hope of the gospel is adequate to meet the vital needs of my life.
Now, nothing I have said here suggests that asking philosophical questions is wrong; it is merely unnecessary. And, while I have suggested that asking philosophical questions is of lesser importance, I have not said that it has no importance whatsoever. The theological concerns the Bible addresses directly are clearly of greater import than the philosophical problems it does not address directly. Furthermore, it is essential that I confront the theological concerns the Bible does address; it is not similarly essential that I confront the philosophical concerns the Bible does not address.
(2) Philosophy seeks to understand what we already know
Oftentimes, the agenda of philosophy is not to understand what we do not yet understand, but rather, to analyze more deeply what we do already understand; to explore something which, at a commonsensical level, is quite adequately understood and to develop a theory about what exactly this thing-that-I-already-understand is.
Consider an example. No one really lacks understanding about human freedom and the human will. At a commonsensical level, we know what it means to “make a choice,” to “be responsible for our choices,” to “make our choices freely,” and so forth. We set out to analyze the concept of free will, not because we need a solution to some practical problem in our everyday life, but because we suspect we can analyze even more deeply than commonsense does the nature of what human choice actually is. We want, if possible, to understand more fully the relationship of human choice to God and to other realities. Until I arrive at the true philosophical analysis of human will and human freedom, however, I am not paralyzed from making free choices nor am I unable to hold myself and others appropriately accountable. For the purposes of living my life, I do understand what it means to have a free will and to make choices for which I am morally accountable. I have no need for anyone to teach me these things.
This is the most important reason why the Bible does not seek to define the human will, human freedom, and moral accountability. We don’t need to be taught these things. We already understand them. The Bible is intent on teaching us things about which we are ignorant and deceived, not about things we already understand adequately.
Does this mean there is no value in philosophy? No, philosophy can be helpful in many different ways, some of which will become clearer in this paper. But as valuable as philosophy can be, it is not essential. Many people will become truly wise and understanding without one bit of help from the sort of philosophical analysis that takes apart our commonsensical reality in order to examine and theorize about its inner workings.
I don’t understand quarks and the intricacies of sub-atomic theory. I don’t even pretend to understand them. But my lack of understanding of the sub-atomic physics of my driveway is no obstacle to my being able to walk on it and drive on it. I seem to do just fine. Philosophy is to the inner workings of human life and experience what physics is to the inner workings of the physical universe: an attempt to arrive at a true theoretical understanding of the realities that underlie the surface of our lives.
Do we need this understanding in order to live our lives? Clearly not. Is this understanding, therefore, totally and completely irrelevant, utterly futile to pursue? I don’t think so. And in any case, we cannot help ourselves. Part of what it means to be a human being is to be a creature with an appetite for knowledge. We want to know; and if we think knowledge of any sort is possible, we seek to discover it. Regardless of its practical relevance, philosophy—like theoretical physics—is ultimately inevitable. But as inevitable as it is, philosophy is not essential to the living of life. We can find our way without it.
II. PHILOSOPHY IS IMPORTANT
Having argued that a philosophical understanding of divine sovereignty and human freedom is, in a significant sense, unnecessary, let me now suggest why in certain other respects such a philosophical understanding is important and even necessary.
(1) Philosophy is inevitable
To a certain extent, philosophizing is inevitable. Whether we like it or not, we put our understanding of what the Bible teaches into one philosophical framework or another. It is a rare person indeed who will have no picture whatsoever of how God is related to the human will. Our mental picture of what the human will is and how God is related to it will either conform to the truth of the matter, or it won’t. The goal of biblical philosophy, therefore, should be to fine-tune our picture of the human will in relation to divine sovereignty—or, if necessary, to transform it radically—until our mental picture conforms as closely as possible to the truth.
(The realistically achievable goal of the biblical philosopher is to arrive at a picture of the human will and divine sovereignty that is totally consistent with the truths of the gospel that the Scriptures explicitly reveal. We may not be able to know through philosophy whether we have arrived at a picture that captures the full and unblemished truth of the matter, but, at the very least, we can expect to arrive at a theoretical framework that explains and illuminates the truths of the gospel without distorting them into something other than they are. The clear goal of biblical philosophy is to illuminate and make clear the gospel itself. Nothing else is important compared to that.)
(2) Good philosophy counteracts distortions
One of the most important reasons for philosophizing about the nature of divine sovereignty and human freedom is to counteract the distortions of the gospel created by bad philosophy.
Ron has done an excellent job in his paper of emphasizing a clear and indisputable implication of the New Testament gospel: God has committed himself to bringing into reality the fact that I will want what I ought to want and, ultimately, I will choose what I ought to choose—if I am among those destined to be saved. No one and no thing can prevent God from doing it. Nothing in the New Testament could be clearer than the reality of God’s irresistible hold on my life and the inexorable progress of my salvation.
And yet, the view that our hope of salvation is sure and certain in this way is by far the minority view among conservative, Bible-believing Christians today. Why? If the Bible is so clear, why would people who believe the Bible fail so frequently to believe what it says?
The answer does not lie in any inadequacy or ambiguity in the biblical data. The view Ron has espoused can be clearly and adequately defended from the biblical text. The modern Christian hesitates to embrace this view because his own understanding of the gospel has been distorted by his prior philosophical commitments. The typical modern believer is committed philosophically to a certain picture of the human will: a will so completely autonomous that it transcends the scope of God’s control.
Why does the modern Christian embrace such a picture of the human will? Does he do so because he read a philosophical essay in the Bible that prescribed and defended that particular picture? Of course not. As we have already seen, there are no philosophical essays defending any philosophical theory in the Bible. Wherever this view of the human will came from, it did not come from the Bible.
This view, I would argue, came from bad philosophy. Our intellectual culture has handed down to us a philosophical theory that proposes a particular picture of the human will in relation to divine sovereignty. The picture is false; it does not conform to reality. How do I know that? Because if we take this picture seriously and follow it to its logical conclusions, the promises of the gospel could not possibly be true. As Ron has shown us in his paper, we could not have a certain and secure hope in the glory of God (contrary to Romans 5:2), we could not rejoice in our tribulations (contrary to the exhortation of James 1:2), we could not know through trials that our faith was genuine and permanent (contrary to the argument of Romans 5 ), and we could not know that our hope would not fail (contrary to Romans 5:5). If the prevailing philosophical theory of human autonomy is right, then the Bible is just plain wrong.
So which should I believe: the traditional philosophical picture or the Bible? Given my commitment to the Bible’s divine authority, surely I must reject the philosophical picture in favor of the Bible.
But how can I do that? Once I have lost my innocence, once I have been seduced by bad philosophy and known the rapture of philosophical theory (well, at least, the security of philosophical theory), there is no going back. I will continually be driven to understand how my choices are related to the divine control of reality. I cannot replace my faulty, misleading theory of divine sovereignty and human freedom with no theory. I can no longer be satisfied with no theory. I would always be haunted by the memories of a philosophical framework that explained how it all fit together. Until I can embrace some other coherent picture of human freedom and divine sovereignty, there will always be doubts about my understanding of the biblical gospel. I need a new picture to replace the faulty one, a picture truly compatible with the biblical gospel, a picture that illuminates rather than distorts the gospel.
Therein lies the necessity and the goal of biblical philosophy today. The goal is to discover a theory of freedom and sovereignty that is congruent with the biblical presentation of the gospel. The necessity arises from the fact that I already have a false picture that must be replaced.
III. WE MUST REJECT FALSE PHILOSOPHY
Those of you who have in recent years read my papers or heard my lectures on the subject of divine determinism will know that my primary focus—in direct contrast to the focus of Ron’s paper—has been philosophical rather than theological. The reason for my different focus lies in what I have said above. We have lost our innocence. We have been led astray by bad, anti-biblical philosophy. The only way back is to think harder, to think more deeply, and to analyze even further. We need to do more philosophy—not less—until we have thoroughly eradicated the faulty philosophical framework from our thinking and replaced it with a new one that is fundamentally and radically biblical in its implications.
But I want to emphasize why we must reject the old philosophical picture for a new one. I did not make my own transition from a thorough-going free-will Arminian to a thorough-going divine determinist for philosophical reasons. The revolution in my thinking, philosophically, was driven by exactly the sort of theological considerations Ron has so eloquently laid out for us in his paper. The more I understood exactly what the biblical gospel was, the more I felt the tension between my philosophical commitments and the gospel I embraced. I had two choices: (1) I could insist on the validity of the philosophical picture to which I was committed—a picture of human freedom as human autonomy—and re-interpret the biblical presentation of the gospel to harmonize with this philosophical picture; or (2) as comfortable as I was with my concept of human freedom, and as indisputably right as it seemed to me, I could revisit my concept of human freedom and seek a radically different philosophical picture. My commitment to biblical authority, along with my commitment to integrity in biblical interpretation, won out in the end. I could not deny the validity of my understanding of the gospel as it was presented in the biblical text. I could not in all honesty deny what the Bible was clearly teaching me. And clearly, I could not finally reject what the Bible was saying. The only valid option, therefore, was to reassess the philosophical legacy that had been passed down to me.
In time, I was able to discover how the traditional notions of human freedom and moral accountability were completely faulty. There is a different philosophical picture we can embrace which is completely compatible with the biblical gospel and which, at the same time, completely vindicates our strongest commonsense notions about freedom and responsibility. In this picture God is completely and totally in control of every aspect of every event in cosmic history, and yet at the same time, the human creature is a significant being who makes significant choices for which he is morally accountable. In the light of the considerations Ron has laid out for us, how can such a picture not be a better philosophical picture than the traditional one in which divine sovereignty is sacrificed at the altar of human autonomy?
I have not, of course, told you what this new and better philosophical picture of human freedom is. That has not been my purpose. I have in the past and will again in the future paint this new and better picture and seek to defend it. For now, it is enough that I have explained the need to do so.
Not too long ago, I engaged in public discussion with a committed Arminian on the issues surrounding divine sovereignty. I presented this new and different philosophical picture to him during the course of our discussions. In the end, he could not deny that this new picture of divine sovereignty conforms nicely to the biblical data, but he rejected it nonetheless—on the grounds that the Bible did not explicitly teach this picture, and it was, instead, developed through philosophical reasoning.
I hope what I have said in this paper has made clear how dishonest such an objection is. My Arminian opponent—no less than I—was operating within the framework of a philosophical picture developed through philosophical reasoning which the Bible does not teach explicitly. Where in the Bible is the philosophical essay that explicitly proclaims and defends the absolute autonomy of the human will? Where is the philosophical discussion that proclaims directly that there can be no moral accountability where there is no autonomy from the will of God? These assumptions, and many others like them, are not the explicit pronouncements of the Bible; they are prior philosophical commitments we bring with us to the Bible. If they are the product of bad philosophy, then they are faulty assumptions and a distorting lens through which to read the gospel. (And the extent of their popularity does not make them any more valid.)
I hope, too, that I have shown the nature and legitimacy of biblical philosophy. To do biblical philosophy is not merely to uncover that philosophy which the Bible itself teaches. Rather, an important part of doing biblical philosophy is to develop philosophical theories about the realities of our life and experience which illuminate and confirm the truth of the gospel. There is no harm in doing such philosophizing; indeed there can be very real benefit. The key to sound philosophizing is to immerse oneself so thoroughly in the Bible and to achieve such a clear and undistorted understanding of the gospel that one has a touchstone by which to judge the validity of one’s philosophical theories. If they illuminate and confirm the biblical gospel, they represent good philosophy. If they distort and contradict the biblical gospel, they are bad philosophy. The issue is not whether we should do philosophy; the issue is whether we will do it badly or well.
All modern Bible students are going to engage in philosophical argumentation with respect to the relationship between human freedom and divine sovereignty. The question is: will their arguments do right by the gospel itself? If not, then on what grounds are they committed to their philosophical theories? For the modern Christian, the ground for his commitment is often simply tradition. Or, perhaps it is the strength of his sense of the rightness of his philosophical theories? Just such people have complained most loudly that I am basing my belief in divine determinism too much on philosophy and not enough on the Bible. Ironically, I do not believe it is I who has based his belief too strongly on philosophy. Ron’s paper, I trust, has helped to demonstrate that.