A question we received through our website followed by our answer:
I . . . have a question regarding the various views of free will and God’s sovereignty.
Often, it seems to me, the views on the free will of man and the sovereignty of God are broken up into three camps: Determinism, Compatibilism, and Libertarian free will. I think I understand the basic premise of these three; Determinism views every action of man and every event in history as planned by God; Compatibilism views the free will of man as working in conjunction with God’s sovereignty, but he is technically not free to choose other than he does; libertarian free will says that man is free to choose different alternatives.
The question that I would like clarified is this: Are these views of human freedom different from the views of salvation? It seems to me that A. whether or not a man can choose to accept Christ through prevenient grace, and B. whether any and all of his actions are free, are separate questions. Are these the same question?
The reason I ask this is because I have talked to several Calvinists who seem to believe we are free in all of our actions except in regards to salvation and sin, where we cannot choose God. We can choose, say, to eat an apple at lunch instead of an orange. But we cannot choose to come to God, prevenient grace or not. We choose only sin because of our nature, not technically because God has foreordained the sin, as the some would accuse Calvinism of. It seems to me, then, that the only difference between Calvinism and Arminianism (at least in this view) would be salvation itself, not everyday actions.
It certainly seems to me that sometimes Arminians get caught up arguing over whether or not everything is determined by God, when the central issue is salvation. Am I wrong in saying this? Is there a distinction between free will in regards to salvation and free will in regards to everyday actions?
“Are these views of human freedom different from the views of salvation? It seems to me that A. whether or not a man can choose to accept Christ through prevenient grace, and B. whether any and all of his actions are free, are separate questions. Are these the same question?”
First, your classification is incorrect. Compatibilism is a form of determinism. The category of determinism is broken down into what is often called hard determinism and soft determinism (also called compatibilism). Hard determinism admits that because God determines all that happens, has unconditionally decreed all things ahead of time, human beings are not free; there is no free will. Soft determinism/compatibilism holds that there is human free will and that we are free, but redefines freedom ot mean that we do what we want even if God determines what we want and we cannot do other than we determine. They say we are free since God determines what we desire, and then we do what we desire. Libertarian free will is normally understood as you articulated (though some would define it more in terms of our actions originating with us or us being in genuine control of our actions).
As to whether these views can be separated from salvation, yes they can, but they are not separated from salvation in the standard views. Standard Calvinism takes a deterministic compatibilistic view of God’s sovereignty over all things. It is in their creeds. But as with many theological views, there are variations. So standard Calvinism ascribes to exhaustive divine determinism, but some Calvinists grant that we have free will in non-spiritual matters or in areas other than salvation. For those, who deviate from standard Calvinism, and so from most of the Calvinist leaders out there today (Piper, Keller, MacArthur, etc.), the main difference on the specific matter of free will would indeed be over the issue of salvation, which happens to be the most important area, whether people are free to believe and go to Heaven or not, and ultimately, whether God really wants everyone to believe and be saved.
“It certainly seems to me that sometimes Arminians get caught up arguing over whether or not everything is determined by God, when the central issue is salvation. Am I wrong in saying this?”
Yes, I think you are wrong about that in that standard Calvinism holds to determinism in all things. And that is perhaps the most troubling of Calvinistic beliefs. For it has God decreeing all sin and evil, and then punishing people for what he determined them to do, and they could not avoid doing. However, in discussion with Calvinists who don’t believe that, but believe we have free will except for salvation, then it is good to establish common ground (we both reject the standard Calvinistic view), and move on to discussing the extremely important area of salvation. We need to be interactive and fair to the people we actually engage with and not insist they believe something they don’t.
Hopefully we have answered your questions satisfactorily.
By the way. You should consider joining SEA. You can do so through this link: https://www.bigtent.com/groups/thesea. We have discussion groups on Facebook, where questions like these can be raised and answered, networking can take place, fellowship of a sort, etc.
May the Lord bless you and lead you in his truth.