Sovereignty and Free Will – An Arminian Perspective

This article was posted over at Arminian Perspectives by Kangeroodort. In the article he discusses the differences between Calvinists and Arminians on this issue. He asks a question that I have asked in the past. In fact, when I first started to study Reformed Theology this was one of my first objections.

Kangeroodort said

Is a God who can only control His universe through cause and effect bigger or smaller than a God who can allow for true contingency in His creatures and still accomplish His will?

Likewise, Arminians consider that this view magnifies God’s power, in at least two interrelated ways.

1. God was able to create a being who was not merely “determined,” but an actor who also “determines” things, a being who is free and in His own image. He of the only true sovereign will was able to endow man with a will that really has the power of decision and choice.

2. God is able to govern the truly free exercise of men’s wills in such a way that all goes according to His plan. A God who created a complex universe inhabited by beings pre-programmed to act out His will for them would be great. But one who can make men with wills of their own and set them free to act in ways He has not determined for them, and still govern the whole in perfect accord with His purpose is greater.” [page 43, italics his]

This was my position. I can still understand the argument. After all, in what way is God more powerful…when He controls everything or when He allows his creatures to have free will and He is still able to have His will accomplished? The answer seemed obvious. It makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Well on the surface it does. But there is so much more to this. The biggest problem I now see with this position is that it does not accurately account for the depravity of man. The depravity is total meaning that it permeates our whole being to the point of enslaving our will. Click here to read a more thorough discussion of Total Depravity. When we understand the true condition that our will is in we can understand that we can not have free will.

A.W. Pink explains it this way in Ch. 7 of The Sovereignty of God. He said

To will is to choose, and to choose is to decide between two or more alternatives. But there is something which influences the choice; something which determines the decision. Hence the will cannot be Sovereign because it is the servant of that something. The will cannot be both Sovereign and servant. It cannot be both cause and effect. The will is not causative, because, as we have said, something causes it to choose, therefore that something must be the causative agent. Choice itself is affected by certain considerations, is determined by various influences brought to bear upon the individual himself, hence, volition is the effect of these considerations and influences, and if the effect, it must be their servant; and if the will is their servant then it is not Sovereign, and if the will is not Sovereign, we certainly cannot predicate absolute “freedom” of it.

All men have free will but they are only able to make choices within and in cooperation with their nature.  For unregenerate people that nature is the sinful nature inherited from the Fall.  For regenerate people that nature is the new nature given to them at the point they are made alive and freed from the bondage of the sinful nature.  The new nature is one that seeks after God and can respond when the Gospel is proclaimed to them.

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25 Responses to Sovereignty and Free Will – An Arminian Perspective

  1. papasteve says:

    Thanks for the post. I , too, understand the argument. And it sounds good. It would be real good if it wasn’t for the book of Romans.
    Take care,
    Steve

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  2. Tom says:

    Yes, Romans 9 does seem to cause a problem for this argument.

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  3. Bad says:

    “After all, in what way is God more powerful…”

    Shouldn’t you be more interested in what way it is more accurate, rather than just “whatever makes God look the coolest and awesomest?”

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  4. Tom says:

    Bad,

    That is the point of the post. Basically, which way is the correct interpretation of what the Scriptures say about th subject…not just what I, or others, want the Scriptures to say.

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  5. Good post Tom. Steve, are you referring to Rom 5:1 in which faith precedes justification?

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  6. papasteve says:

    I was actually referring to the teaching of Romans as a whole . . but probably more specifically Romans 3 and Romans 9.
    I do think the whole topic goes beyond what we can totally understand. It seems scripture plainly teaches that we are held accountable for our actions yet left to our own resources we will never choose God; that Jesus died for the whole creation yet the propitiation will only be effectual for the elect that God mercifully predestines to be given the gift of faith to see and believe; and that through this God is both just and the justifier.

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  7. Bad says:

    But the specific logic of the question asked was basically “in which interpretation would God appear more powerful” as if whichever it was had some bearing on what was actual. If God only did always what made him appear most powerful, lots of things would be different.

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  8. Tom says:

    Bad,

    I understand where we are mis-communicating now. The question is one that we, as His creation, ask…..not one that He asks. By this I mean that question comes from our perspective in trying to understand and know an infinite, perfect God….not from God trying to decide how best to His power to His creation.

    I hope this clears it up.

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  9. jesserwilson says:

    Very nice post. Many people struggle with the Calvinist docrtine because it implies that God causes evil and predetermines people to hell. Such a view is intolerable. Clearly the Bible indicates we have free will, choice, and responsibility. There are laws and physics, and many other things which weave themselves around events everyday. A free world will naturally have bad things happen. But allowance for an unperfect world is better than creating robots lacking the ability to choose to love their creator.

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  10. Tom says:

    Hi Jesserwilson,

    I think the free will issue really turns on ones understanding of the total depravity of man. That is the starting point. Where you start will affect where you end up on this issue.

    Man has free will but the will is not sovereign…it is free to choose within its nature only. Until regeneration, the nature is depraved and corrupted…so that is what it chooses from because the depraved corrupted will influence the will. The Bible actually says that we are slaves to this depravity (slaves to sin). Once we understand the true condition (nature) that we are in then we can understand our free will.

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  11. jesserwilson says:

    Yes, but Lucifer’s nature was neither depraved nor corrupt before becoming the “devil” by his own free choice to sin. Thus, I don’t think its correct to only view free will within the lens of depravity.

    Free choice is the orgin of evil by the ability (not necessity) to misue that power.

    Soloman said it well: “This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” (Eccl. 7:29)

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  12. Tom says:

    Jesserwilson said,

    Yes, but Lucifer’s nature was neither depraved nor corrupt before becoming the “devil” by his own free choice to sin.

    I completely agree….as long as we are only talking about Lucifer or Adam. God made them both with the ability to choose. After the Fall, Adam was corrupted by sin. We (meaning the whole human race) have inherited our nature from Adam. We do not start with a clean slate like he did. We are inclined to sin — because it is our nature. We cannot choose anything contrary to our nature.

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  13. jesserwilson says:

    Is your position that we are “inclined” to sin or “predetermined” to sin. It seems your logic is constructed as:

    1. Humans choose only their nature.
    2. Humans nature is sin.
    3. Therefore, humans can only choose sin.

    But we choose unsinful things everyday. So one of these premises is false. I’m not sure I agree that “we caannot choose anthing contrary to our nature.”

    – Jesse Wilson

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  14. Tom says:

    Jesse

    It seems you have correctly described my position as it applies to human nature. This nature is inherited from the Fall of Adam. It is impossible for us to choose something that is against our nature. The fact that we can do some good things in humans terms does not negate our total inability to do good in the eyes of God. As such, we are not predetermined to sin but our depraved nature allows for now other possibility…until it is changed by Holy Spirit in regeneration.

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  15. Tom and Jesse, I hope you don’t mind a quick drop in. Wouldn’t it seem, if we read Rom 5:1, Acts 16:31, et al, that belief logically precedes justification? If that is so, it seems then that the nature of humankind is horribly marred but retains the image of God and is able to generate positive belief. God bless…

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  16. papasteve says:

    If I too, may drop in. Warren, we could list dozens of Scripture references pointing to the fact that faith is a prerequisite for justification. I think that is clear in Scripture. The next question would be, “What logically precedes faith?” I would answer, “regeneration”.
    Ephesians 2:8,9 indicates that our faith is not even our own. John 3 says we cannot even “see” the kingdom of God less we are born again. 1 Corinthians 2:14 states: 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.
    John 6:44 says one cannot come to Christ unless he is drawn by the Father.
    Scripture says that we are spiritually dead. Dead men can’t do too much. But some of these dead men were called, predestined before the foundations of the world to receive mercy from Him who shows mercy to whom He shows mercy, and justice to whom He shows justice.
    Romans 8:29-30
    God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.
    Amen

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  17. Tom says:

    Pastor Warren said

    Tom and Jesse, I hope you don’t mind a quick drop in. Wouldn’t it seem, if we read Rom 5:1, Acts 16:31, et al, that belief logically precedes justification? If that is so, it seems then that the nature of humankind is horribly marred but retains the image of God and is able to generate positive belief. God bless…

    I don’t mind at all..in fact I welcome your input.

    Unless I am wrong (which is always possible) belief must logically precede justification in both the Arminian and Calvinistic systems. Here (http://arminiantoday.blogspot.com/2007/09/brief-notes-on-ordo-salutis.html) is a link to a listing of the order of salvation that I found on an arminian blog. In the example, what he labels conversion is what I think we are referring to as belief. The only real difference is when regeneration takes place. So the question becomes – Are we regenerated so that we can believe or do be believe and then are regenerated? I am leaning toward regeneration as the first step.

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  18. Tom says:

    papasteve,

    Nice explanation. Thanks for participating.

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  19. Thanks Steve for a cogent, well structured and obviously heartfelt response. Perhaps I should explain the verses that I inserted into you discussion.

    Rom 5:1 – “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith” indicates that faith is the cause of regeneration, not the other way around.

    Acts 16:31 – “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved”; again, believe and then be saved – not be saved and then you will believe

    Rom 3:24-25 “(We) are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” We are justified through faith – regenerated upon receiving the gift of grace.

    You mentioned some passages in support of the idea that regeneration precedes faith and I wanted to touch on a couple.

    Eph 2:8-9 – We must handle this passage very carefully because the Greek directs the antecedent of the kai touto (and this) not to Faith but to the gift of grace by which we are saved. While Sproul proclaims this passage as the one that seals the deal, many Calvinists including Jean himself affirm that the antecedent is Grace.

    1 Cor 2:14 – Again, I think we must be cautious not to pull this verse out of its context. Paul does not speak of regeneration/justification here. He is speaking to spiritual immaturity and contrasting those who are spirit-filled and prepared to receive the wisdom in v9 versus those of the world unwilling to welcome it.

    Some of the other verses (ie: John 6:44) speak more to a discussion of election and, if I remember correctly, Tom did an excellent job of facilitating a long discussion on that topic so we will leave that to lay for the time being. Scripture seems consistent and clear in saying that the priority assigned is not chronological: salvation and faith are simultaneous. Humankind cannot be saved without faith and this faith does not exist without salvation. Logically, in our understanding it is humankind’s receipt of the gift of grace that regenerates the marred image of God in men and women.

    God Bless

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  20. papasteve says:

    Warren,
    Let me first say that I’m assuming that we all agree on the matters that are most important (salvation through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ alone) and that the rest, though important, is secondary. This is a conversation between Christian brothers just having a little fun doing some mental wrestling . . a little “iron sharpening iron”. If any of my comments come off as different that what I describe above please accept my apologies.

    On the verses you quote above. I would say they tell us that faith precedes justification, not necessarily regeneration.
    On Eph 2, my greek is a little rusty (I’ll go and review), but I believe that ‘kai touto’ is neuter and does not agree in gender with either faith or grace. If I recall, that indicates that the antecedent is the entire clause – it’s all from God, less no man should boast. Again, I’ll review.
    On 1 Cor 2, I agree that the context is not about salvation but it still plainly says that natural (unregenerate) man cannot appraise spiritual things. I’ll review this one as well. I do not want to misrepresent Scripture.
    I think John 6:44 is a significant verse. It clearly says that no man can come to Christ unless he is drawn by the Father. There will be different interpretations as to what “drawn” means but whatever it means we see that man cannot come to Christ without God’s intervention. Then the question would be does God draw all, or some. That can be another discussion but again, I think this verse says that man’s depravity prevents him from chosing God without Divine intervention.
    Just an FYI . . .I’m not a Calvinist. When I was receiving my theological training someone once told me that “you can’t believe in any 3 points of Calvinism without believing the other 2.” I find that to be silly. We as humans tend to collect data, logically process it, and begin extrapolating other truths from that original data set. God gave us the ability to reason and expects us to use it. I think we use it to apply scriptural teachings to how we live our lives but I think it’s dangerous to use it to extrapolate characteristics of God’s attributes or His own application of those attributes. Our logical reasoning and premises will always be flawed, incomplete, and finite. They will not, of themselves, correctly explain God. Scripture plainly teaches that man is fallen and saved by grace through faith. If I stop there and extrpolate on God and His plan from that data only, I will fall into error. Scripture also plainly teaches that God has predestined some to wrath, and some to glory. If I stop there and extrapolate on God and His plan from that data only, I will fall into error. All of us tend to focus on one or the other, then try and apply our finite logic to interpret the scripture that seems to be in conflict. I think our challange is to let Scripture speak for itself, let God, through Scripture, define Himself, and let the tension exist whereever it may be. I know that’s a struggle for me but it’s a balance I try and maintain. Calvinism vs Arminianism; Covenant vs Despensational – they have a place but they are man made systems that, at the end of the day, end up trying to put God in a box.

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  21. Thanks again Steve for a pastorally sensitive and well thought through point of view. I agree with much of what you say although I might apply a bit more weight to extrapolating, in human form, the character of the Father as he elected to reveal it to us. The isms, etc. have their place in theological discussion but we must consider their extension to the larger Body, few of who engage in this type of iron on iron sharpening. God bless you brother.

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  22. kangeroodort says:

    Thanks for the face time. I do not have time to interact with all that is said here, but I would think that all of you would understand that Arminians hold to total depravity and that we cannot put our faith in Christ until presented with the gospel and enabled by the Holy Spirit. I hope that some of you will be willing to check out a more recent post dealing with the subject of regrets. I would be interested to hear what your readers think.

    I would also love for you to discuss my post on why I believe regeneration cannot Biblically precede faith since that seems to be where this discussion has led.

    Here is the link:

    http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/07/does-regeneration-precede-faith.html

    And here are a few more that relate to that subject:

    On the meaning and implications of “dead in sin”:

    http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/09/john-fletcher-on-being-dead-in-sin.html

    http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/09/fletcher-on-being-dead-in-sin-part-2.html

    On John 3:3, 6:

    http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/08/does-jesus-teach-that-regeneration_20.html

    On John 6:44:

    http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/07/does-john-644-teach-irresistible-grace.html

    http://arminianperspectives.blogspot.com/2007/08/is-drawing-of-john-1232-universal-or.html

    I think these posts address most of the objections that have been raised in this thread.

    God Bless,
    Ben

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  23. rey says:

    Only men who have by their personal free will given themselves over entirely to sin (especially blasphemy) can believe in total inability and determinism because it is only true for them: only they are unable to do anything but sin, yet their actions are clearly not decreed by God but by Satan.

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  24. Tom Shelton says:

    Rey,

    You do not understand the concept of original sin and how it has affected the whole of God’s creation since. You don’t understand that we are slaves to sin as a result of original sin and that we are born into that slavery. We don’t choose it of our “personal free will” at any time.

    Please spend some more time reading and studying your Bible. Also, read some on how the “will” works. Then come back and lets discuss what you have learned.

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  25. Skandalon says:

    Tom,

    With all due respect, doesn’t it seem reasonable that God would have mentioned this “totally depraved” condition as being one of the judgements for the Fall along with the labor pains and working of the ground? After all, having to deal with labor pains and working the soil seem quite inconsequential in light of a judgement where all mankind is born in a state of utter hopelessness to even respond to God’s appeal to be reconciled, don’t you think?

    You seem to confused the condition of the natural man from birth with the condition of a man who has been judicially hardened by God. As Paul explains:

    Acts 28:24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: 26 ” ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” 27 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

    Notice the word “otherwise?” What might these Jews have done had they not “become hardened?” “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn.” And notice how Paul contrasts these Hardened Jews with those Gentiles who have not yet grown calloused to God’s revelation. He says, “…they will listen.” Clearly, the Gentiles who are not hardened have the ability to hear, see, and understand while those who have become hardened do not. Thus, it is clear that you have confused the natural condition of mankind with that of men who have continually rebelled to God’s revelations and have grown hardened over time.

    Blessings

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