Here is a teaching I gave to students on the question of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom:
In the latter half of Romans 1, Paul presents a very intriguing argument for the universal depravity of man. He states that God has provided the gospel to those who believe (Rom 1:16), because the wrath of God is revealed against all men for their ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). In other words, because we are so sinful and wicked, God has provided a means for salvation. If he had not, his wrath would remain forever upon us.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul draws out the nature of this wickedness that merits God’s wrath. It’s very interesting to see the paradoxical manner in which he describes our sin.
First, Paul says that our sin is willful and knowing rebellion against God. In Romans 1:20-21, Paul says that though we know that God exists, we willingly and purposefully rebel against him. He also tells us in Romans 1:32 that we know that those who act wickedly deserve God’s wrath. So sin, in this vein, is a meditated choice to rebel against God.
But while Paul does describe sin as willful rebellion, in this very same passage, he also describes our sin as uncontrollable “lusts” brought on by our “hearts of impurity”, “dishonorable passions” and “debased minds” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Paul finishes by saying that if God left us in our sin, our sinful desires would enslave us, ultimately sending us to hell. So in this sense then, though we willfully disobey God (Rom 1:20-21), we are also uncontrollably bound in sin. Our sinful desires so control us that we become “filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom 1:29).
In this way, sin is both something we choose, and something that controls us. Sin is both high-handed and willful rebellion, and all at the same time, a slave master who causes us to sin.
Edward Welch comments on this truth, saying,
In sin, we are both hopelessly out of control and shrewdly calculating; victimized yet responsible. All sin is simultaneously pitiable slavery and overt rebelliousness or selfishness. This is a paradox to be sure, but one that is the very essence of all sinful habits. If you deny the out-of-control nature of [sin], as some Christians have done, then you assume that everyone would have the power to change himself. Change would be easy. You would simply say, “Stop it. You got yourself into it, and you can get yourself out”. There would never be a sense of helplessness or a desperate need for both redemption and power through Jesus. So this cannot be our position.
At the same time, there will be other problems if you ignore the in-control, purposeful nature of [sin]. [Sinners] will be quick to place blame outside themselves. They are left with no way to understand their guilt. The redemptive work of Christ is replaced by an emphasis on “healing” that is not rooted in the grace of forgiveness.¹
For Welch then, sin must be personal and purposeful, and enslaving and controlling. And certainly, it is biblical. We are slaves to our sin (John 8:44). Yet, our sin is not divorced from our will. We choose to disobey. We want to disobey (Joshua 24:15).
More than this, though, God addresses our confusing sin problem with a complex gospel. In Christ, God provides an atonement through which all of our individual, chosen sins can be forgiven. But also, by the work of the Holy Spirit, God washes us through regeneration, replacing our sinful heart with a new heart able and willing to obey God. No longer do we have to obey the taskmaster of sin, but we are empowered to obey God afresh. And no longer do we have a record stained with sin, but a clean one filled up with Christ’s righteousness.
We have a paradoxical sin problem. But we also have a multi-faceted gospel solution. And we can be made new in Christ.
¹ Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Edward Welch
CS Lewis is famous for saying, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside”. Lewis believes this truth, that “hell is locked from the inside”, because of the fact that “man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two-edged. From these premises it follows directly that the Divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul”¹. Of course, implicit in this statement is not just that God doesn’t lock the door from the outside. What Lewis is really saying is that God really wishes that every person could be saved, but his purposes are foiled by the free will of man. And so, in Lewis’s framework, man’s choice wins supreme.
Is Lewis right in saying this?
Jared Wilson, a prolific author, doesn’t think so. He says,
Does love demand giving the thing loved what he or she wants [i.e., hell]? The new inclusivists insist yes, and while their desire to maintain the biblical teachings on hell are admirable, we do not find much in the Scriptures to support the idea that, a la Lewis, the doors there are locked from the inside. The sentimental tail wags the theological dog when we say that love demands freedom, and that therefore when God cosigns the unrepentant to judgment he says, “Thy will be done” to them. In one sense, he is saying this, of course, but in the most crucial sense, he is not. In the most crucial sense, when God cosigns the ultimately unrepentant to eternal conscious torment, he is saying, “My will be done”²
I like Wilson’s points here. What he is trying to point out is that, when we think over this issue, God’s will must be taken into account. Because of course, God is sovereign. He is in control. And so, if men go to hell, and if God is sovereign, it must be true that it is God’s will (however permissive that will may be) that those men go to hell. In this way, God’s will, as opposed to Lewis, is that not every soul will be saved.
Of course with this whole conversation, questions of predestination, sovereignty, free will, and sin are necessarily brought up. And we could wade these doctrines to see what conclusion we would come up with. But we must, more than anything, understand how the scriptures address hell and condemnation.
And I think biblically, the answer to this complicated questions is yes: God sends people to hell and people send themselves there. What I mean is that biblically, the responsibility is given to both parties. And I believe that this testimony is clear from Romans 1.
Paul tells us in Romans 1:24-32 that God judges guilty sinners by “giving them up”. Clearly then, God is active in condemnation. But, also, notice just exactly what God is giving them up to. Paul says that God is giving the sinner up to “the lusts of their hearts” and their “dishonorable passions” and their “debased minds” (vs. 24, 26, 28). In other words, God is not forcing the sinner into condemnation. Rather, he is leaving them to the sin they love so much. He is allowing them, permitting them, to choose what their hearts already want. And so, while God is active, he certainly isn’t twisting anyone’s arm. He is judging yes, but he is doing it by cosigning them to the same end they are passionately pursuing. He is nudging them the very direction they were already going. And so, I think that both man and God are active in condemnation.
Douglas Moo says of this passage,
[The meaning of God “giving them up”] demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator in the process. God does not simply let the boat go [so to speak] — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin…
[And yet, as Paul states in verse 32,] those who engage in [sin] know that what they are doing is wrong. They act “knowing the righteous decree of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death”… People generally, as Paul claims, have some degree of awareness that the moral outrages they commit are wrong and hence deserve to be punished by God³
Moo here demonstrates that, for Paul, and for the rest of the Bible, God’s sovereignty over those going to hell by no means diminishes personal responsibility. But also, personal responsibility doesn’t cancel out the sovereign activity of God in justly condemning man. God punishes the sinner, thus resulting in that person going to hell. But also, the sinner willfully and even knowingly rebels against God, thus sending themselves to hell. They want to go there.
And in fact, I believe Romans 1:18-32 describes all of us apart from God’s gracious and effectual calling of sinners to himself. How else could it be? Without God’s intervening grace by which he opens blind eyes, gives a new heart, and accredits the merits of Christ to us, we are but sinners walking into “ever-increasing sin”.
There is much mystery to this, especially when we consider how free will and sovereignty fits into it. However, it is certainly in Romans 1. And it is certainly in the rest of the Bible. And therefore, we must trust God with the mystery, and revel in the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, contributing nothing to God but sin and rebellion.
So then, does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?
¹ Problem of Pain, CS Lewis
² Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson
³ The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo
The more I consider the mysteries of the Christian faith, the more I must admit that there are things that the Bible affirms, that the human mind cannot possibly comprehend in its fulness. The Trinity, for instance, God’s unity and diversity, must be affirmed, but will never be understood. Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot possibly be explained philosophically. To be Christian, we must affirm these complex and amazing doctrines. Another doctrine that is mysterious is God’s kingly sovereignty over mankind, even over all of history.
Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God works all things to the purpose of his will. Logically, if God works all things to the purpose of his will, his will therefore comprehends all of history, and is subservient to his sovereign purposes. And because all history is subservient to God’s purposes, we must also affirm that God’s will includes the free actions of men, both good and evil. And if mankind’s free actions are included in God’s sovereign rule, we must conclude that God can and does use our choices for his greater and more supreme good.
And yet, even though God is sovereign over history, we must also affirm that mankind is free. All men are free in regards to their choices, and are not coerced by God in any way. The choices we all make are genuinely ours, both good and evil. And this means that God holds all men accountable, and judges them accordingly (Heb 9:27). Even Paul affirms this, by saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). Do you see here how Paul worked hard, made free choices, and yet he can say at the end of his life that it was God made him who he was. There is in this verse, both God’s sovereign will, and Paul’s free choices. They do not contradict, nor do they cancel out one another. And so biblically, God’s sovereign will and man’s free choices go hand in hand.
And while many Christians would heartily agree with Paul that God sovereignly brings about good in his people, what about evil? Is God sovereign over evil as well? Can he work through our evil to bring about his good? And if he does work through evil to bring about his good, does this make God complicit in that evil? Some Christians reject God’s sovereignty because they believe it is impossible for God not to be culpable for evil acts over which he is sovereign. And of course, when I speak of God’s sovereignty over evil, I am in no way saying that God is the cause of evil. However, I will affirm that God does, in his wisdom, decree to permit, use, and bring a greater good out of evil (Job 2:10).
However, again, just because our minds cannot comprehend this does not make it unbiblical. God is by definition God, and his sovereign workings in this world are both good and wise, even if we cannot understand exactly how he can be sovereign and not the cause of evil.
But this is where we must submit to God in the mystery. God is sovereign. Man is free. Even within the Reformed doctrine of election, God chooses us, but we also choose God! And the choices we make are no less our choices, even though they flow from God’s sovereign choice of us. Free will and sovereignty. The Bible affirms both.
John Calvin has some good insights on submitting God in his sovereignty. He says,
Therefore no one will weigh God’s [sovereignty] properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence. Hence it happens that today so many [men] assail this doctrine with their [philosophical arguments]: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves. Also they rail at us with as much wantonness as they can; because we, not content with the precepts of the law, which comprise God’s will, say also that the universe is ruled by his secret plans. As if what we teach were a figment of our brain, and the Holy Spirit did not everywhere expressly declare the same thing and repeat it in innumerable forms of expression.
But I believe that Calvin has good insight here when he tells us to humbly submit to God in this doctrine, even though we may not completely understand it. I will finish with CH Spurgeon’s answer to the question of free will and God’s sovereignty. He wisely said, “I never try to reconcile friends—they are both in the Bible.”
In my first post about objections to God’s sovereignty, I addressed the objection that if God is sovereign, then he is the cause of sin.
In this post, I want to address the objection that goes something like this: If God decreed everything that would happen, this makes us puppets, and takes away any real choice that we would make. In my opinion, misunderstanding the nature of how God makes his decree leads people to this conclusion. In my former posts, here, here, and here, part of my argument included the fact that God is able to decree the free choices of humans. That God decreed those free choices by no means takes away free will — it simply means that God can be and is sovereign over even the free actions of man.
Louis Berkhof says,
This objection [that God’s sovereignty takes away our free choices]…ignores the logical relation, determined by God’s decree, between the means and the end to be obtained. The decree not only includes the various issues of human life, but also the free human actions which are logically prior to, and are destined to bring about, the results.
In short, God’s decrees include our free choices. And what this means is that although God has planned to include my actions and choices in his plan, my choices are still my choices. Many argue for instance, that within a world where everything is decreed, prayer and evangelism are meaningless. But in fact, this is again misrepresenting God’s sovereignty. When it comes to answered prayers, God decided before hand to accomplish his purposes in and through our freely offered prayers. God dwells outside of time; so although I make my prayers in the year 2014 (or whatever year), God can decree to answer my prayers before the world even existed, and even use them to accomplish his purposes. To me, this makes prayers all the more important. God has designated the means to his own end, and my freely offered prayers are included in it. As Berkhof says, we cannot ignore the logical relation between God’s ends, and the means to his end.
Wayne Grudem has some more helpful insight with this objection. He says,
In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on [subjective] experience and intuition, not on specific scripture texts. Scripture repeatedly indicates that God works through our will, our power to choose, and our personal volition, and it consistently affirms that our choices are genuine choices, that they have real results, and that those results last for eternity…
[However], the kind of freedom that is often assumed by those who deny God’s providential control of all things is a freedom to act outside of God’s sustaining and controlling activity, a freedom that includes being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything external to ourselves. Scripture nowhere says we are free in those senses. That kind of freedom would be impossible if Jesus Christ is indeed “continually carrying along things by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and if God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).
I think Grudem makes some good points here. First, just because we choose to do something doesn’t mean that God didn’t ordain to permit and use your free choices. Subjective experience alone cannot confirm or deny anything.
But also, Grudem makes a great point that no one is completely free, or outside of God’s providence. This would be impossible — even God’s permissive will is under his sovereign control. While we may say that we willfully and freely make choices in the sense that God in no way forces us to make the decisions we do, still God sovereignly decreed to permit and use those free choices, making them certain.
Grudem then critiques the theological idea that God simply foreknows everything, but does not decree anything. I found it immensely helpful. He says,
Others [who disagree with this idea of God’s sovereignty] say that God knows the future [simply] because he is able to see into the future, not because he has planned or caused what will happen…
[However, this] response fails to render our choices free in the way that [they] wish them to be free. If our future choices are known, then they are fixed and therefore predetermined by something (whether fate or the inevitable cause-and-effect mechanism of the universe). And if the are fixed, then they are not “free”…
I think that this is exactly right. Whether God decrees or not, if he foreknows the future, this means he foreknows a fixed future. And this means that the free will we may want doesn’t really exist, because the future God foreknows is fixed.
More than that, if the future is not certain because of God’s final decision, then what makes it certain? Fate? Nature? Random coincidence? Either way you slice it, something has to make the future fixed. While we do make free, non-coerced, unforced choices, these choices are either fixed by God’s decision, or by another force unknown to us.
With that said, I believe that God is able to render certain free-will actions, and that this by no means takes away man’s free choices. It simply means that God is the ultimate authority over all that has, is, and will happen. It certainly does not make us puppets.
In my last post, I said that even though God is sovereign over sin, he by no means causes, commits, or even condones those sins. I said,
Though God’s decree to permit the fall rendered it certain, it by no means makes him a sinner. And this can be said of all sin. Though God knew it would happen, planned beforehand to permit it, and even used it for his plan, it doesn’t mean he committed the sin, or forced anyone to sin
I think that if Christians affirm God’s sovereignty, this must be the case. God decreed to permit sin to enter and corrupt the world without himself efficiency committing any sin. This view of God’s sovereignty over sin is the classical Reformed view; it is a view that has been held by Reformed theologians for centuries — and all of these theologians affirmed that God’s sovereignty included the sinful actions of men; that in his wisdom, God decided beforehand to allow sin to enter the world, even though it goes against his holy character. And most importantly, he did it to bring a better good out of the situation.
However, many Christians who would not consider themselves Reformed think that this view of God’s sovereignty over sin makes him culpable in sin. Roger Olson, a theologian whom I truly do respect and have read many of his works (but obviously differ with on this topic), says:
Does God foreordain and render certain sin in general and specific sins? Calvinism says yes but then usually retreats into the language of “permission” which, non-Calvinists believe, is inconsistent with Calvinism’s divine determinism. If God “designs, ordains, and governs” sin and evil, then, as Arminius himself said (and Wesley agreed) God is the only real sinner. Adding that God does not “cause” sin but only “permits” it only raises the question of how God “ordains and governs” sin without causing it. (source)
For Olson, for God to decide beforehand (or ordain, or decree) to permit the sins of free moral agents makes him morally complicit in all sin and evil. I guess that doesn’t follow for me. Let’s start with a few presuppositions that I start with in making my own conclusions: First, God foreknows all that could, would, might, and / or will happen. Second, nothing will / would happen unless God permits or causes it to happen. Lastly, this means that God has the ultimate say in what will happen, even if he is not the immediate cause of it. So, with that, we can say that God decreed to permit Adam to choose sin, while not himself having committed the sin.
Olson obviously disagrees. He proposes his own view by saying,
Now, an Arminian begins with the fact that God only permits sin in general and specific sins and then says that, yes, God also uses sinners and their freely chosen sins for his purposes, but without sin being part of his antecedent will. Sin is only part of his consequent will—what God wills to allow because of the fall and its consequences. So, the men who crucified Jesus, for example, were only “destined” to sin insofar as they planned and carried it out freely and God permitted them to do what they wanted to do. But this was part of God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. And God did not render their sin certain. He knew what they would do, but he did not effectually manipulate them to do it nor was their sin part of God’s “design” except consequentially.
I don’t see a real difference between this view and mine, other than the fact that Olson believes that for God to decide / decree / ordain what will happen beforehand makes him complicit in sin.
But here’s where I have a problem. Even within the Arminian view of foresight-and-permission, God still foresaw the fall and all the consequent sins that would be committed, could have stopped those sins from happening, and decided not to stop them. If God dwells outside of time, and consequently can see free choices before they actually happen, why didn’t he stop those free choices which were sinful? Even more basic, why didn’t God simply not create humans if he knew they would sin? Both Calvinists and Arminians must answer that God decided to allow his free moral agents commit sins to accomplish a greater outcome. We may disagree on the reasons, but have to at least have an answer.
Here’s a helpful quote from Michael Horton on this issue:
[This issues is a] vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose. (source)
While Olson might be uncomfortable with God deciding what to permit / not permit before it happens, this is not really different from God foreseeing specific sins and allowing them to happen. In both instances, they happened necessarily because God decided to allow them.
With that said, God’s decrees do not make him the cause or originator of sin. Because God decreed to permit those sinful actions does make them certain — but it by no means makes him sinful.