I had planned on writing about God’s grace next, but decided to divert to a discussion of God’s sovereignty and human free will first. It is mistakenly believed that Calvinists believe in sovereignty and not free will and Arminians believe in free will but limited sovereignty, but that is not the case. Both believe in sovereignty and free will, although they mean different things by the terms. I believe that looking into this will help to better understand the role of God’s grace. But first I want to look briefly at God’s omniscience in regards to the future; how can God know the future.
God and the Future
One of the attributes of God that is common across all orthodox Christian theologies is his omniscience. God knows everything, not just in the present and the past, but also in the future. God knew before he began to create the universe just exactly what I would do during my lifetime. But how does he know a future that hasn’t yet happened? Let’s look briefly at three alternatives.
- The Calvinist believes that God knows the future because he decreed it. Determinism is inherent in God’s sovereignty according to Calvinism; the thought that nothing happens apart from the specific direction of God. So, because God has determined the future, he can know it.
- The Arminian believes that God knows the future because he is transcendent, he is outside of time and able to see past, present, and future without necessarily impacting it. While Arminians do believe that most of the future is decreed by God, they do leave room for the free will actions of humanity, with God not violating the freedom he has given his creatures. God knows all of the possible choices I might make, as well as which one I will actually make, and plans accordingly.
- Open Theism teaches that God does not know the future exhaustively, that God cannot know what choices humanity will make in the future and has to wait until they act before knowing the action. This is a heretical teaching that limits the omniscience of God and makes him failable in his dealings with humanity. This is sometimes identified as Arminianism, but it is not.
Sovereignty and Free Will in Calvinism, from an Arminian Perspective
As mentioned above, sovereignty for the Calvinist involves determinism. Nothing happens in all of creation apart from the decree of God. Every event in the natural world as well as every action of man happens at God’s direction. So where does human free will fit into this? Calvinists advocate what they call compatibilist free will, or free will that is compatible with determinism. What this says is that God has made me is such a way that I freely choose to do what he wants me to do, although, since I could not choose otherwise, this hardly seems like free will.
Because God specifically determines everything that will happen, then it would seem to follow that God is also responsible for everything, including sin. Most Calvinists try to distance themselves from the thought that God causes sin, but it is an inescapable consequence of determinism. Their response to the issue of sin is hard to follow but goes something like this. Man is totally depraved and incapable of doing any good apart from God’s grace. God does not force people to sin, but he does withdraw his grace from them so that they are incapable of obeying God. Therefore the responsibility for their sin is theirs alone and not God’s. In essence this comes across to the Arminian as God telling us to hit a ball, holding it so high we can’t reach it, and then blaming us for missing the ball. If you read the quotes at the bottom you will see that some Calvinists, instead of going through this gyration, just admit that God is the author of sin.
Maybe the most significant issue in regards to determinism is the Calvinist view of predestination. In this view God foreordained some to salvation and the remainder are condemned to damnation. God’s foreordination of his elect is not based on anything they might do. Rather, God, in his divine wisdom and inscrutable ways, simply chose them. It is hard for the Arminian to see this as anything other than God arbitrarily creating people for the express purpose of condemning them to hell simply because he did not choose them, holding them responsible for something they were incapable of attaining on their own, that he could give to them, and yet withholding that means from them.
The Arminian generally fails to see determinism as anything other than God as a puppet master pulling the strings of humanity and making God responsible for everything that happens in creation, including sin and evil. In is hard to see a loving and merciful God in this.
Sovereignty and Free Will in Arminianism
Arminius rejected this view of sovereignty, not out of a desire for free will, but because of how he understood it to reflect on God’s character. How do you reconcile a holy, righteous, and loving God with one who is the author of sin and holds humanity responsible for something they cannot avoid. Human free will, rather than being at the center of Arminianism, is a way to transfer responsibility for sin from God to humanity. Because humanity is responsible for their own sin, God can rightly punish sin without doing damage to his holiness.
Contrary to popular opinion in Calvinist circles, Arminianism holds a high view of God’s sovereignty, in some ways even higher than the Calvinist. For the Arminian, God’s sovereignty means that nothing happens in the universe that God does not allow. Indeed much, if not most, of what happens is decreed by God. But we do believe that God has given man a limited, although corrupted in the fall, free will that is able to make actual choices. While our depravity does prevent us from choosing to believe in Christ, we are able to freely choose the color of shirt we will wear, what we will eat for dinner, where we will go on vacation, or who we will marry. Yet no matter what choices we make, God knew them before creation and works through them to accomplish his purpose in creation. For the Arminian, God permits sin but does not decree it. But even as God permits sin, he uses it to accomplish his purpose. God also prevents gratuitous evil if good cannot come out of it.
Arminians also hold to a form of predestination. But rather than foreordination for arbitrary reasons, God predestines based on his foreknowledge of who will respond to his offer of grace. All who submit to it are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. Those his resist his grace face damnation, not because God wants them to be damned, but because they chose to reject God’s offer of salvation.
In contrast to the compatibilist free will of Calvinism, Arminians hold to libertarian free will, or will that is free from determinism. Human free will is totally depraved and totally incapable of doing anything that is pleasing to God. Apart from the working of God’s grace I cannot please him; and we hold this in common with Calvinists. But God does give to each of us a measure of grace that will enable us to do good. Because of this ‘common grace’ we can be rightly held responsible for our sin. While I am totally corrupt, God’s grace enables me to make good moral choices, and so I have no excuse.
While the Calvinist view of sovereignty is ‘sovereignty by fiat’, where God is like a puppet master pulling all the strings and making everything and everyone dance to his tune, the Arminian view is more that of a ‘sovereign conductor’; God is like an orchestra conductor who works to blend the music of each of the players into his vision. Each member of the orchestra is independent and contributes their own notes. But the conductor has a plan that he is working toward and works to bring all of the disparate parts into a magnificent whole. But while the human conductor is not guaranteed success, God will not fail, his plan will be successful.
So just why would the sovereign God grant humanity the ability to make free choices rather than just direct all of our affairs? I believe that it is related to his purpose in creation. Why did he create the universe? I believe it was to produce the church. The best proof of this is that when he takes us from this earth the purpose for the universe is accomplished and the next step is the destruction of the current creation and the production of a new one that we will inhabit (2 Pet 3:3-13; Rev 21:1).
I believe that God is using the current creation as a place, not only to produce the church, but also to develop it for what is to come. The development of our character now is important, and how better to do that than to allow us to make choices, including mistakes. In some ways we are like children now, and what we will be is not yet known, but I believe God has created us for a special purpose, and as a loving Father is guiding us along the way. And what better way to shape us than by allowing us to make choices rather than just be programmed. I really struggle with the purpose for a deterministic universe. Why could God not just skip this phase, speeding up the programming, and just start his elect off in the new creation?
Nothing that has happened in the history of the universe was a surprise to God. He knew before he created us that we would reject his lordship and go our own way. His plan of redemption was not an attempt to win us back after we foiled his plan; it was the plan from the beginning (1 Pet 1:18-20). God wants those who will respond to him in faith (Heb 11:6), not because they must. On our own, we are incapable of responding in faith, but God’s grace does enable humanity to either submit to God or to continue to resist him. It is by faith, enabled by grace, that we are able to enter into a relationship with God that will continue for the remainder of eternity. God created humanity with free will for a reason; he wants us to freely choose to serve and love him as well as to develop into maturity. And I believe that the exercise of our wills now, as we develop, is preparing us for eternity and his task for us there.
- Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. – Psalm 90:2
- For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:16-17
- Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit. – Psalm 147:5
- Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:13
- Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:26
- Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. – 1 Chronicles 29:11 – 12
- I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. – Job 42:2
- The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. – Psalm 135:6
- In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.- Ephesians 1:11-12
- The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. – Psalm 135:6
- The LORD works out everything to its proper end—even the wicked for a day of disaster. – Proverbs 16:4
- For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. – Romans 8:29-30
- And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” – Genesis 2:16-17
- The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9
- You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. – Galatians 5:13
- Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. – John 7:17
- But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. – Joshua 24:15
- Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. – Revelation 3:20
- Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. – Romans 13:2
- No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13
- Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. – John 1:12-13
- This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. – Deuteronomy 30:19-20
- Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! – Ezekiel 18:30-32
- I say then, that though all things are ordered by the counsel and certain arrangement of God, to us, however, they are fortuitous,—not because we imagine that Fortune rules the world and mankind, and turns all things upside down at random (far be such a heartless thought from every Christian breast); but as the order, method, end, and necessity of events, are, for the most part, hidden in the counsel of God, though it is certain that they are produced by the will of God, they have the appearance of being fortuitous, such being the form under which they present themselves to us, whether considered in their own nature, or estimated according to our knowledge and Judgment. Let us suppose, for example, that a merchant, after entering a forest in company with trust-worthy individuals, imprudently strays from his companions and wanders bewildered till he falls into a den of robbers and is murdered. His death was not only foreseen by the eye of God, but had been fixed by his decree. – John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion 1.16.9
- For other Calvinist quotes concerning God’s ordination of sin see the article Does God Ordain Sin?
- As an example: “God controls everything that exists and everything that happens. There is not one thing that exists or that happens that he has not decreed and caused—not even a single thought in the mind of man. Since this is true, it follows that God has decreed and caused the existence of evil. He has not merely permitted it, because nothing can originate or happen apart from his will and power. Since no creature can make free or independent decisions, evil could never have started unless God decreed and caused it, and it cannot continue for one moment longer without God’s will for it to continue or without God’s power actively causing it to continue.” – Vincent Cheung: The Problem of Evil, God’s Sovereignty
- Whether certain words and forms of speech are not employed in them, which are capable of being understood in different ways and furnishing occasion for disputes. Thus, for example, in the Fourteenth article of the [Dutch] Confession, we read the following words, “nothing is done without God’s ordination,” [or appointment]: if by the word “ordination” is signified, “that God appoints things of any kind to be done,” this mode of enunciation is erroneous, and it follows as a consequence from it, that God is the author of sin. But if it signify, that “whatever it be that is done, God ordains it to a good end,” the terms in which it is conceived are in that case correct. Jacob Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments X.4
- In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.” Jacob Arminius, Public Disputation 11 On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers
- 30. The understanding of God is a faculty of his life, which is the first in nature as well as in order, and by which He distinctly understands all things and every thing which now have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, any kind of being; by which He likewise distinctly understands the order which all and each of them hold among themselves, the connections and the various relations which they have or can have; not excluding even that entity which belongs to reason, and which exists, or can exist, only in the mind, imagination, and enunciation. (Romans 11:33.) – Jacob Arminius, Public Disputation 4 On the Nature of God
- 38. Though the understanding of God be certain and infallible, yet it does not impose any necessity on things, nay, it rather establishes in them a contingency. For since it is an understanding not only of the thing itself, but likewise of its mode, it must know the thing and its mode such as they both are; and therefore if the mode of the thing be contingent, it will know it to be contingent; which cannot be done, if this mode of the thing be changed into a necessary one, even solely by reason of the Divine understanding. (Acts 27:22-25, 31; 23:11, in connection with verses 17, 18, etc., with 25:10, 12; and with 26:32; Romans 11:33; Psalm 147:5.) – Jacob Arminius, Public Disputation 4 On the Nature of God
- 5. And, First, let us look forward on the whole work of God in the salvation of man; considering it from the beginning, the first point, till it terminates in glory. The first point is, the foreknowledge of God. God foreknew those in every nation those who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things. but, in order to throw light upon this dark question, it should be well observed, that when we speak of God’s foreknowledge, we do not speak according to the nature of things, but after the manner of men. For, if we speak properly, there is no such thing as either foreknowledge or afterknowledge in God. All time, or rather all eternity, (for the children of men,) being present to him at once, he does not know one thing in one point of view from everlasting to everlasting. As all time, with everything that exists therein, is present with him at once, so he sees at once, whatever was is, or will be, to the end of time. But observe: We must not think they are because he knows them. No: he knows them because they are. Just as I (if one may be allowed to compare the things of men with the deep things of God) now know the sun shines: Yet the sun does not shine because I know it, but I know it because he shines. My knowledge supposes the sun to shine; but does not in anywise cause it. In like manner, God knows that man sins; for he knows all things: Yet we do not sin because he knows it, but he knows it because we sin; and his knowledge supposes our sin, but does not in anywise cause it. In a word, God, looking on all ages, from the creation to the consummation, as a moment, and seeing at once whatever is in the hearts of all the children of men, knows every one that does or does not believe, in every age or nation. Yet what he knows, whether faith or unbelief, is in nowise caused by his knowledge. Men are as free in believing or not believing as if he did not know it at all. – John Wesley, Sermon 58 – On Predestination