Freedom of the Will (Part One)

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In his blogpost on The Absolute Sovereignty of God, John Piper recalls a time in seminary when his notion of free will was challenged. According to Piper, this experience was one of “two experiences in my life that make Romans 9 one of the most important chapters in shaping the way I think about everything, and the way I have been led in ministry.”

It can rightly be said that one’s view of Romans 9 can indeed shape the way in which one thinks “about everything,” as Piper put it. That is certainly cause for great joy and great alarm. For if one misinterprets Romans 9, then he or she will misinterpret just “about everything” else in Scripture.

Free Will. No other two words gets under some (most?) Calvinists’ skin. Today I speak to those Calvinists who believe that human agents do not have anything resembling free will. (Note, too, that Arminians do not believe that human beings have complete free will. To suggest that we do is to misreperesent our view in an effort to set up a straw man.)

Piper, in that same blogpost, gave his definition of free will. He explains, “When I entered seminary I believed in the freedom of my will, in the sense that it was ultimately self-determining. I had not learned this from the Bible; I absorbed it from the independent, self-sufficient, self-esteeming, self-exalting air that you and I breathe every day of our lives in America. The sovereignty of God meant that he can do anything with me that I give him permission to do” (emphases mine).

If this is the definition of free will, then I suppose that I, too, do not believe in free will. But his definition of free will is, like so many other Calvinists, not entirely accurate. It does not take into account God’s freedom (as the Arminian view rightly does). Though we are going to argue against Piper’s absolutist (nearly tyrannical) view of God’s sovereignty, Arminians hold that He is sovereign nonetheless.

Let me use Phil Johnson’s blogpost (John MacArthur’s right hand man) as another example of an inaccurate view of free will. He writes, in his introduction, “How is it that God inspired the Scriptures in such a way that every word—indeed, every jot and tittle—was what He determined?

“Every standard evangelical definition of inspiration would emphatically insist that God used the personalities, vocabularies, intellects, and learning of the individual authors—and we completely agree. Let’s also stipulate that He did not employ dictation (except in a few cases where this is expressly stated). Yet the product was still determined sovereignly by God. The words are avowedly His words (2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 2:13).

“So how did this miracle occur? I say you cannot answer that question without embracing the very essence of the Calvinist position regarding God’s sovereignty and human free will.”

I was waiting for the punch line, but it never came. I was hoping that the man was not serious, but he was. He believes that because God can sovereignly determine what His Word was to communicate, then that destroys any semblance of human freedom. Two things need to be pointed out.

First, Arminians wholeheartedly agree with Johnson that God sovereignly determined what would be in the Bible, and that He “used the personalities, vocabularies, intellects, and learning of the individual authors.” But surprisingly, he has seemingly forgotten that it is the graphe that is inspired, not the authors! (And he should know better!)

Secondly, If God indeed did use the “personalities, vocabularies, intellects, and learning of the individual authors,” then it seems to me that God was working, in a synergistic manner, with the free will of the authors, since it was their personalities, their vocabularies, their intellects, and their learning which He incorporated!

I will tell you why the “absolute sovereignty” view of God does not work. If God has predetermined what a person will do and say, behave, or how he or she will dress, eat, be educated or not educated, then there is conflict within God.

Moses was not a little frustrated with the elect people of God in the wilderness. At one occasion, when the people had complained that they needed water (implying that God was not meeting their basic needs), he “gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank” (Numbers 20:10-11 TNIV).

But the LORD got angry with Moses and said, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Numbers 20:12, emphasis mine). Who did not trust God? Moses did not trust God. He said, “Because you did not trust me,” etc. Did God cause Moses to not trust in Him? No. But is God not sovereign? Yes, He is still sovereign.

If God is “absolutely sovereign,” in the sense that hard determinists such as Piper and others mean, then God should actually have been angry with Himself, not Moses; yet Moses got the blame. Since God had already predetermined/caused what Moses’ actions would be, and Moses had no free will of his own to not strike that rock twice (for it was strictly and causally foreordained, and that by God), Moses was merely the pawn in God’s angry hand, but he must take the blame for what God caused and predetermined.

This is what happens when one’s view of God’s sovereignty backs a person into a corner; these silly allegations against God come into focus. It was not God’s fault that Moses struck that rock twice. God foreknew it and God allowed it, but He did not cause it (and in that sense foreordain it), and then blame Moses for doing it! Moses struck that rock of his own free will. To deny this is to blame God! And in that sense, that would be like blaming a compass for pointing North, when it cannot but do otherwise.

To be continued . . .