The Glorious Sovereignty of God: Why God Gains More Glory Through Freewill than Determinism

From the Pilgrims through Edwards to Piper, Calvinism has had the prominent influence over the theology in America. Thus, it seems, in every area of American Christendom, people assume Calvinistic doctrines to defend the faith. I, however, along with many others, have rejected this underpinning for what I believe is a more coherent and Biblical theology.

The Failures of Calvinism

Why do I reject Calvinism? To answer this, I will define three expressions of Calvinism and pose a simple rebuttal to them. Calvinism, as far as this article is concerned, is the proposition that God determines every part of the universe from the explosion of the largest star to the vibration of the smallest particle. There is nothing that happens outside of his direct involvement.

The first camp that I disagree with is the Hard Determinist who state the above definition outright. Piper represents this viewpoint clearly. He says in this video that “Every sinful thing and every horrible thing is ultimately governed by God” (00:02:10). He goes on to defend his view by citing the lot being cast into the lap and the crucifixion. I know that there are many philosophical arguments etc. etc. that are leveled for this view. But there are two things that make it clear that he is wrong. First, this belief is so counter intuitive that it has “driven people mad” (00:04:05). This belief is not a light burden but a crushing one. Jesus states that his burden is light. While Jesus does teach some hard things, Jesus’s doctrine does not drive people to the point of insanity. It should make you filled with joy (Phil 4:4) because it is the good news. Second, this view completely contradicts Scripture. God says of himself, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1Jn 2:16). God cannot determine evil because he said that he does not do that. Whatever the correct theological system is, it cannot be hard determinism.

The second camp that I disagree with is the soft determinists who usually claim the title Compatibilist. This view claims that 1) man “does what he wants to do, acting in accord with his desires, whether those are holy or wicked;” 2) “Adam had the freedom or ability to choose either good or evil. The fall removed this freedom from us, for fallen creatures can do only what is evil (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Isa. 64:6; Rom. 3:10ff.);” and 3) “But Scripture does not teach—in fact, it denies. . . man’s free choices are not in any way foreordained or caused by God. Yet Scripture frequently speaks of God’s determining our free choices.”[1] In this system, God is exonerated from causing evil because he sets up circumstances so that a man can only choose an evil act and cannot do otherwise. But he himself is not the direct cause of sin.

But this merely kicks the can down the road. As many observe, this just adds layers to determinism so it seems like there is free will but at the end of the day it is still determinism.[2] So, in addition to the problems above, you have yet more. If compatibilism is true, then God is akin, in my estimation of this system, to El Chapo. See, El Chapo does not grow (from my understanding) his own drugs. Instead, he will come into a village and help struggling farmers get back onto their feet. Well, after some time, he will come back and as them to grow marijuana for his cartel. If they don’t do this favor, he will destroy the farmer’s family. In this way, El Chapo doesn’t actually grow drugs. But is he guilty of it? Yes. Because he made it so that the farmer had no legitimate choice otherwise.

The problem becomes more complicated. David, in order to cover his sin with/against Bathsheba, set up the murder of Uriah. He arranged it so that the enemies, in self-defense, would do nothing else but kill Uriah. Yet, God sends Nathan to rebuke David for this sin. But here you have the great irony. While God is condemning David, He himself has done the exact same thing. For God (according to this system), arranged circumstances such that David could not have done otherwise but kill Uriah. Would this not bother the conscience of God? Or is God the Divine Hypocrite? Does he order justice to be served against David yet expunge himself of any wrong doing? Does he not accuse David of hypocrisy by saying “Thou art the man”? In the end, I believe (though soft-determinists do not believe this is the case) that this system renders meaningless God’s command, “Justice, only justice you shall pursue, so that you may live” (Dt 16:20). If God can excuse himself from justice by condemning men for the same action he commits, then there is nothing on which justice is based.

Third, this view I call super-soft determinism. It is this: 1) God determines all things; 2) man has freewill; and 3) the relation of the two is simply a mystery that we cannot figure out. This view sidesteps the question altogether and implies that anyone who seeks the answer is doing wrong. My disagreement with this view is that it misunderstands the nature of mystery. A mystery is something about which we do not have revelation: the gentiles being children of Abraham is a mystery and the marital relationship is yet another. But neither of these are in the same category as the proposition above. See, the idea that God both determines and gives libertarian freewill is a logical impossibility. It is like saying that God can make a square circle or a married bachelor. This position cannot be true because it would destroy the very reason that God has regenerated us with. If we are, by God’s Spirit, to love God will “all our mind,” I believe that this necessitates that we remove logical inconsistencies from our theological systems.

But you say, “Nate, not all of God’s ways make sense. ‘But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised’ (1Cor 2:14). See there? God’s ways are not our ways. And they often contradict our ways. You should just trust and obey.” This verse is true. But notice that it does not say that God’s ways are logically inconsistent. Nor does it say that Christians who are strong believers cannot understand that which is revealed. The verse says that his ways seem foolish to those who reject his light. Further, if God’s ways are inscrutable and we can’t figure it out, who says that you have it figured out? What if you are just misunderstanding the text and I understand it? No, I don’t think this text or any other that you may bring against me necessitates that I or any other theologian stop trying to understand God better.    I will never understand God or his ways completely, nor will I even attempt comprehensive knowledge. But I do believe we should understand all that he has revealed.

In the end, I do not accept Calvinistic determinism because, based on what I understand it teaches, the logical conclusions 1) obliterate God’s justice and 2) retain logical inconsistencies. What I have concluded is what I think the logical ramifications of these beliefs are. Calvinists of course do not agree with my conclusions. Most, I think, would not follow these beliefs out as I have. They often choose, rather, to withhold and plead that there is a mystery involved.

Of course, then, what do I believe?

A Better Alternative

I believe in the absolute, total sovereignty of God over the whole universe. He is the creator (Gn 1:1), and thus he is “my God and King” (Ps 145:1). I sing with the Psalmist who erupts with praise:

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. . .. The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. . .. [All his works] shall speak of the glory of [his] kingdom, and tell of [his] power, to make known to all people [his] mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of [his] kingdom. [His] kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and [his] dominion endures throughout all generations. . .. The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to [him], and [he] give[s] them their food in due season. [He] open[s his] hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Psalm 145:3ff

But God, being the great and powerful God Most High, although he could meticulously determine and manage all things, has chosen to create a world with freewill in which he has withdrawn his meticulous hand so that we have the chance to love him. He has built into the world the chance both to please the Almighty and to displease him.

God, being the Most Wise God, has delegated the rulership of the skies and the earth to his created beings. At creation, God made “humankind in our image, according to our likeness” and thus declared “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Gn 1:26). Humanity has been created “a little lower than the gods[3] but crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5). The angels likewise he has appointed to rule over the earth in some ways, as Moses sang: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods” (Dt 32:8). The responsibility of these angels/gods were to “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps 82:3).

Yet, against this perfect order, angels and men rebelled because they had the freewill to do so. Even the Calvinist John Frame says, “Adam had the freedom or ability to choose either good or evil.”[4] Yet, because of the allure of Satan, humanity fell (Gn 3). Now, humanity is at enmity towards God. All humanity is “dead through the trespasses and sins in which [they] . . . [live], following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph 2:1-2).

Enmity and deadness, however, do not remove the capacity of humans to understand and respond favorably to the light of God. For the truth of God is “plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rm 1:19-20). Humanity can understand the light of God as revealed through creation. But rather than accept it in faith and humble themselves, they suppress the truth. As humanity continues to suppress the truth, God judicially hardens many of them (Rm 1:24-32).

But into this rebellion, God has sent his light: the Gospel. With Paul, I can say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’ (Rm 1:16-17). God’s Gospel has sufficient power to save all who believe. It is not necessary for God to regenerate a human for him to be saved, because he said it is the Gospel which contains the power. The Gospel, both the old and the New Testaments, are “the holy writings that are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tm 3:15). Christians, those who have been saved, “have been born again, not from perishable seed but imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. . .. And this is the word that has been proclaimed to you” (1 Pt 1:23-25).

The order saludus is most clearly proclaimed by John: “These things are recorded in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). First, there is the Gospel (“these things”). Second, there is faith (“that you may believe”). Third, then comes regeneration (“you may have life”). This belief is always accompanied by humility (Is 57:15) and repentance (2Pt 3:9). Also, Paul says the same thing regarding the order saludus: “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word about Christ” (Rm 10:17).

Humans, therefore, bear complete responsibility for how they respond to Christ. They can either reject him or accept him. God in no way forces freewill especially regarding salvation. Even Paul, God did not force to become saved (Ac 9). He displayed his power in such a way as to give him the ultimatum: will you believe or no. First, there was the declaration of truth: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Ac 9:4). Then, the humbled response: “who are you, Lord?” (Ac 9:5). There is no hint that Saul was regenerated on the spot before he believed. Thus, I maintain that even in this magnificent display of glory, Saul could have rejected the truth.

Humans are never the initiator of salvation. Humanity in his natural state of mind “is hostile to God; [he] does not submit to God’s law—indeed [he] cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rm 8:7-8). It is necessary, then, that God first draw him (Jn 6:44) and this drawing consists of the words of the Father (Jn 6:45). Thus, with the light of the Gospel (or words of the Father) so shown on the human, he has the opportunity to respond positively or negatively to that message. Therefore, because God initiates salvation, salvation is a “gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8). Faith is not a work of man. It is the recognition that man can do no good and a relaxation of any effort to earn God’s favor.

What, then, about the order and maintenance of the world? Is God deistic? Has he wound up the clock and let it run on its own? No. Indeed, the opposite. God has created and delegated authority to the world and lets it function according to natural laws (Col 1:17). Yet, he himself is active in his creation as a free agent. He has planned for certain things to happen, such as the crucifixion (Rv 13:8) and is not thwarted by the free agency of man (Dan 4:35). Most often, he employs the angelic hosts to do his bidding: “He does what he wills with the host of heaven” (Dan 4:35). He asks them for advice and lets them perform his purposes (Jb 1-2; 1 Kgs 22:19ff).

In this way also he seems to answer prayer. And, it seems, that sometimes God’s answer to prayer is delayed because of spiritual warfare (Dan 10:10-14). But somehow, the more we pray the more it avails before God (Jm 5:16-18).

What, then, do I say to the problem of evil? I affirm that God knows all things, the future, and all future possibilities (Ps 139). I affirm that God is good and that he works both good an evil to his purposes (Rm 8:28). Why does he not intervene to stop all evil? First, because he wants people to love him so if he intervened in all cases of evil there would be no true freewill. He is not thwarted by humanities freewill. He can deftly outmaneuver it. Second, because there is a level of spiritual warfare that we do not see and hardly comprehend. I assume there are many more things going on in the celestial sphere than you and I know about (Job 1-2). Third, God’s purposes are much greater than ours and he allows and uses evil for his purposes (Rm 8:29).

Wait, how is that third point different from that of Calvinists? We both agree that God can use evil to accomplish his purposes. The difference is in the causality. Does God cause the evil? Calvinists must answer yes, because they are theistic determinists. I answer no. God can use evil and be innocent of it much like a police department can plan a sting operation. Even though the criminal is set up to do wrong, he is not forced to do the wrong. But the police, knowing the intent of the criminal, can set up the operation and catch the person in the act. If then police departments can use evil and still be guiltless of it, so can God use evil and not be guilty of it. Thus, God is not the author of evil even though he may use it for his own ends.

But to my Calvinist friends, I issue this challenge: what do you make of God changing his mind? God often proclaims messages of judgment against peoples and nations. God proclaimed judgment through the prophet Joel (Joel 1:1-2:11). But Yahweh calls them to repentance: “And even now,” declares Yahweh, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and weeping, and wailing” (Joel 2:12). And the prophet adds, “ Rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to Yahweh your God, because he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and great in loyal love, and relenting from harm.” God, based on their self-humiliation and repentance, promised to change his mind about the harm he had predicted against them. Examples can be multiplied: Jonah and Nineveh (Jnh 3:9-10), Micah and Judah (Mic 3:12, cf. Jer 26:18-19), and Jeremiah and Jerusalem (Jer 26:12-13). Also, when humanity got to the point where “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” Yahweh “was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” If indeed God determines every detail of man’s sinfulness, why then does he change his mind? What grieves him? Why is he sorry that his own plan has been carried out? Is God pretending to feel bad but secretly he doesn’t actually care? Why does he condition his response on humanities repentance? If determinism is true, then these passages mean nothing—and, as I see it, determinism makes passages like these at best misleading and at worst an outright deception.

In the end, I’ll compare determinism and freewill with two different analogies. In determinism, God is playing chess with himself. He will win the game because he controls both sides of the board. In freewill understanding, God only plays one side of the chess board and free agency the other. Indeed, God doesn’t play just one side of one chess board, but he plays against a myriad of freewill chess masters. But he is so much greater than them that he will outmatch every opponent in every game every single time. Now I challenge you, which view of God gives God more glory? The latter gives him more. For, a child who understands the basic rules of chess can win against himself every time. But for someone to simultaneously outmatch myriads of chess masters—this is true majesty.

As a post-script, I want to clarify something. I do not think that Calvinists are not Christians. I don’t even think that I should separate from most Calvinists. Why? Because I believe that most Calvinists are not consistent with their system. I know they view themselves as being consistent, but I personally don’t. Many Calvinists share the Gospel ardently. Many of them subconsciously preach freewill especially when they call people to repent. Many of them fight social ills like abortion. Ultimately, however, they ascribe to the cardinal doctrines of the church which have been distilled from Scripture and captured in the creeds. They serve the same God that I do and we are on the same team. I will not hesitate to call them out on what I think is wrong in their theology. But I also will treat them as brothers in Christ who are wrestling with some very tough questions.

Finally, I know this post does not cover every detail. I don’t intend to. At this point, I’m already at 3500+ words and simply cannot write much more. If I were to write more, I would end up writing a detailed systematic which would probably duplicate work done by other much more accomplished and coherent professionals. So I defer to them. I think Dr. Layton Flowers at Soteriology101 is the clearest proponent of Provisionism. I recommend his answers to many of the more detailed questions.


[1] Frame, John M.. Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (p. 164-165). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.”

[2] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

[3] This is a Hebrew reference to what we consider angelic beings.

[4] Frame, John M.. Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (p. 164). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “The Glorious Sovereignty of God: Why God Gains More Glory Through Freewill than Determinism

  1. I don’t any Calvinists who say that God is the author of evil. Maybe there are some. But I think you disagree with the “logical implications” of the sovereignty of God, but not with the actual position.

    See, I think many Calvinists (this is a spectrum, not a monolithic label) hold to 1) absolute human responsibility; and 2) absolute divine sovereignty… without trying to reconcile the two. Since you quoted Piper, I heard/read somewhere of Piper saying the same thing. That’s what we see in Scripture.

    My question for you is, where is your starting point in this discussion? Do you start with a theological problem and try to solve it with Scripture? Or do you start with what Scripture says, and you may not end up solving it, but you are being honest with what the text says?

    I asked that becaues on our last conversation, you were tyring to state your view (provisionist?), but you said that you’re still working on it because you have to look up Scripture references. I may have misunderstood (so correct me if I’m wrong), but it seems to me that you are starting with a theological statement that makes logical sense and trying to back it up with Scripture. That may be the foundational difference between us.

    When I look at Scripture, both responsibility and divine sovereignty are clearly on display — yet without making God the author of sin.

    20 As for you, you meant evil against me [human responsibility], but God meant it for good [divine sovereignty], to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen 50:20 ESV)

    23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God [divine sovereignty], you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men [human responsibility]. (Act 2:23 ESV)

    Somehow God used the evil of the brothers and those who crucified Jesus to accomplish his good plan. Yet those people are solely responsible for their evil. I think I’m perfectly content without knowing everything how can God be absolutely sovereign and not the author of sin (James 1:13). But it appears that He somehow allows people to do what their evil hearts want under his sovereignty.

    Like you, I’m not a systematic guy. So, I’ll end with that. Take care, bro.

    Like

    1. Well, I was starting with the question about divine determinism. Does God meticulously control every part of the universe such that there is nothing good or evil that occurs without his direct plan and purpose. That God used evil for his purposes is evident. But can one derive from those occurrences that God therefore determines all evil? So, does God’s use of evil men for the crucifixion therefore mean that God always predestines every evil thing? I don’t think so. God uses people whom he knows will commit evil. But he doesn’t force them too.

      As for Calvinists saying God is the author of evil, I don’t know how else to take many of their statements. Calvin himself said, “I have already shown clearly enough that God is the author of all those things which, according to these objectors happen only by his inactive permission… No, when we cannot comprehend how God can will that to be done which he forbids us to do, let us call to mind our imbecility.” Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1 and 3:136, 138-39.
      James White: Yes, because if [God did] not [decree the rape of a child] then it’s meaningless and purposeless and though God knew it was going to happen he created it without a purpose… and God is responsible for the creation of despair… If He didn‟t [decree child rape] then that rape is an element of meaningless evil that has no purpose. http://turretinfan.blogspot.com/2011/08/why-it-is-important-to-go-back-to.html
      Vincent Cheung: There is not one thing that happens that he has not actively decreed – not even a single thought in the mind of man. Since this is true, it follows that God has decreed the existence of evil, he has not merely permitted it, as if anything can originate and happen apart from his will and power. Since we have shown that no creature can make completely independent decisions, evil could never have started without God’s active decree, and it cannot continue for one moment longer apart from God’s will. God decreed evil ultimately for his own glory, although it is not necessary to know or to state this reason to defend Christianity from the problem evil. Vincent Cheung, “Problem of Evil,” http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/ProblemEvil.htm (March, 2013)

      See more quotes at: https://atheologyintension.com/2013/03/21/2376/

      I don’t know how else to take these statements.

      I’ve never denied the absolute sovereignty of God. But from my understanding of Scripture, God does not need to nor does he in fact meticulously control all things. He is sovereign over his own control and can create a world in which libertarian freewill exists.

      Even before I studied Calvinism, I studied deeply into angelology. I had no other purpose than to understand what the Bible teaches along those lines. It was in this study that I concluded that God delegates some of rule to the angels. I didn’t force it on the text, it says as much in Deuteronomy 32:8 (NRSV, textual var.). So, while this post is a systematic without lengthy exegesis, it did not come because I first assumed freewill and then cherry-picked verses to suite. It grew out of another study which has major implications for freewill/determinism.

      Further, there are times when God directly steps in a determines man’s actions. When God struck Uzzah, this was about as deterministic as it gets. But I don’t think it follows that God therefore meticulously determines all things.

      This isn’t just my position that I cooked up and found Bible verses to support what I’m saying. There are many strong theologians whom I relied on to write this post. My favorite is Layton Flowers. But C S Lewis, Rodger Olsen, and others who are all excellent theologians have grown their theologies from the text and have concluded that divine determinism is not what the Bible teaches.

      Further, the first 400 years of the church fought against divine determinism. Determinism was a heresy preached by the Gnostics and Maticians. It wasn’t until Augustine, who was believed in Gnostic philosophy for 10+ years (I believe), that divine determinism entered into the church. This is supported by Ken Wilson (D. Phil, Oxford) in his book The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (2019). Augustine inserts into Western theology this gnostic philosophy. I don’t think it comes from the Bible itself.

      I don’t pretend to know everything about God. Nor do I pretend that there are no mysteries in theology. But I do believe that we can answer this question to a greater degree than we think.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. And what about those passages where God changes his mind because of the repentance of human beings? If God can relent concerning his decree to destroy a nation, does this not mean that God has built freewill into this earth? If you apply determinism to the same texts, your head spins with the ramifications. On the one hand, you have God’s stated decree that he will destroy them. On the other hand you have God’s implicit decree that he caused them to repent. On yet another hand, have the decree from God that those people should perform the exact sins he determined for them to do for which they bear the responsibility although they had no choice in the matter. It just gets into philosophical spiral that promotes confusion not confidence.

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