God gives man free-will, and man chooses to believe in determinism, instead. That is the sad irony that Calvinists introduce into Christianity. So, is “freewill” a pagan term? No, it is a biblical term:
Philemon 1:12-14: “I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.”
There are several references to “freewill” that occur in the Bible, as found in the King James translation of the Bible. Here is one example:
Ezra 7:13: “I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee.” (KJV)
Here are additional variations to free-will, as found in the New American Standard translation:
Genesis 49:6: “Let my soul not enter into their council; Let not my glory be united with their assembly; because in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they lamed oxen.”
1st Peter 5:2: “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.”
Luke 12:57: “‘And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?’”
If God has free will (Ephesians 1:6), and if man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), it stands to reason that man may also have free will, or else in what way is man created in the image of God? Free will is the gift of a life-giving God in order for humans and angels to possess a living mind, with autonomy of reason and creative intelligence, so as to be able to act independently, all so that mankind may be suitable caretakers of God’s creative works.
What do Calvinists believe?
John Piper: “The more technical definition of free will that some people use is this: We have free will if we are ultimately or decisively self-determining, and the only preferences and choices that we can be held accountable for are ones that are ultimately or decisively self-determined. The key word here is ultimate, or decisive. The point is not just that choices are self-determined, but that the self is the ultimate or decisive determiner. The opposite of this definition would be that God is the only being who is ultimately self-determining, and is himself ultimately the disposer of all things, including all choices — however many or diverse other intervening causes are. On this definition, no human being has free will, at any time. Neither before or after the fall, or in heaven, are creatures ultimately self-determining. There are great measures of self-determination, as the Bible often shows, but never is man the ultimate or decisive cause of his preferences and choices. When man’s agency and God’s agency are compared, both are real, but God’s is decisive. Yet — and here’s the mystery that causes so many to stumble — God is always decisive in such a way that man’s agency is real, and his responsibility remains.”151
So, the type of free-will that Calvinists advocate is one in which man’s self-determinations (think about that) are “never” the “ultimate or decisive cause of his preferences and choices.” So, think of any action, and according to Calvinism, you are not the ultimate and decisive selfdeterminer of the choice and preference to perform that action—God is. That is the type of non-free free-will that Calvinists advocate, also termed “compatibilistic free-will,” meaning that an individual is free to perform only and precisely what is compatible with their predetermined nature. Hence, there is no meaningful distinction between Compatibilism and Determinism. The opposite of deterministic Compatibilism is autonomous, libertarian free-will, in which libertarian free-will is comprised of three main elements:
(1) Independent will. God does not cause our motives.
(2) Autonomy of reason. We self-determine our own motives.
(3) Power of contrary choice.
Set within the context of Cain, according to Genesis chapter 4, God asked why he was angry, warning and encouraging him of potential dangers that he must get under control so that things will go well with him.
Genesis 4:6-8: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.’ Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.”
The fact that God is acting persuasively shows the independence of Cain. He was his own person, though unfortunately acting contrary to the way in which God felt that he should. The fact that God reasoned with Cain, in that he must “master” the sin that was crouching at this door, shows that God believed that Cain could exercise his autonomous, self determination in a positive manner. He should be able to control the murderous motives that he felt inside. The fact that God warned Cain what would happen if he failed to control himself shows that God believed that Cain possessed the power of contrary choice, that is, Cain did not have to murder Able, even though that is exactly what he eventually did.
Evolutionists also reject free-will, instead professing biological determinism, in which that is the driving cause that shapes our choices. Such determinism is attractive to philosophers because it provides a neat and clean philosophical framework in order to explain all of our choices—i.e. something else renders it certain. Whereas for the Evolutionist, it is biological determinism, for the Calvinist, it is divine determinism. By contrast, though, non-Calvinists presuppose that man is a self-determining being. This is a difficult concept for philosophers, which perhaps even presupposes the need for a special Creator. Mankind is special in its self determining, autonomous condition, because God is special, and God has created special creatures for His own unique special purpose, that is, to be caretakers of His creative works.
What do Calvinists believe?
James White: “Let us lay aside this canard once for all…Man has a will. Unregenerate man’s will is, according to the Lord Jesus Himself, enslaved to sin (John 8:34), but it is still a will.”152
But is it an independent will? If man does not have an autonomous will that is independent from God, then there is no meaningful way to defend against the charge that God is the author of their sin. Only an independent will, coexisting with God’s will, can distinguish God’s holiness from man’s sinfulness. If God decreed whatsoever comes to pass, so that man’s will stems from God’s will, then we are left with only one will in the cosmos: God’s Will. Conversely, the concept of a truly independent free-will maintains God’s holiness, explains a myriad of Scripture verses in which God denies doing certain things, and also gives rise to a true meaning of divine permission. An independent will is crucial to this debate. Otherwise, Calvinism’s purported decree of “whatsoever comes to pass” would give the unbeliever an excuse for rejecting Christ, such that they were born this way. Free-will says No! You have a choice for which each of us are eternally held responsible.
What do Calvinists believe?
R.C. Sproul: “From the time a child in the United States enters kindergarten, he begins to be taught and to learn, if only through osmosis, a particular understanding of the nature of man—this concept of free will—that man is free to choose the good or evil, on either side. That’s a blasphemous doctrine. The Bible tells us that something happened, radically, to the constituent nature of humanity in the Fall.” 153
In other words, the Calvinist view of free-will is that our will is free to choose only evil, all the time, because our nature has been altered by our father, Adam. Thus, mankind is incapable of humbly admitting its fallen state and receiving God’s free offer of healing and restoration. However, our freedom of the will has not been lost from birth due to the fall of Adam, but rather God uses the power of the gospel to tap into our natural freedom of the will, in order to convict and to persuade us, so as to place one’s faith in Christ for salvation. If fallen mankind did not possess freedom of the will to accept Christ, then what would be the point of the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and persuasion of the lost?
Al Mohler states: “The subversion of moral responsibility is one of the most significant developments of recent decades. Though this subversion was originally philosophical, more recent efforts have been based in biology and psychology. Various theorists have argued that our decisions and actions are determined by genetics, environmental factors, or other forces. Now, Scientific American is out with a report on a study linking determinism and moral responsibility. The diverse theories of determinism propose that our choices and decisions are not an exercise of the will, but simply the inevitable outcome of factors outside our control. As Scientific American explains, determinists argue that ‘everything that happens is determined by what happened before — our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action.’ In other words, free will doesn’t exist.”154
“Other forces” such as God’s divine decree? The naturalistic determinism of the evolutionist is reminiscent of Calvinism’s theological determinism. So here you have one leading Calvinist defending free-will when talking to the naturalistic atheist, while on the other hand, another leading Calvinist calls the doctrine of free-will “blasphemous.” Part of the issue is that when Calvinists refer to free-will, they infer compatibilistic free-will, but yet which is still determinism, that is, a very similar type of determinism that is being denounced by Al Mohler.
Al Mohler continues: “Used in this sense, free will means the exercise of authentic moral choice and agency. We choose to take one action rather than the other, and must then take responsibility for that choice. This link between moral choice and moral responsibility is virtually instinctive to humans.”155
It’s almost like Al Mohler is saying, From the very first day you enter kindergarten, this is being taught to you….
Al Mohler continues: “As a matter of fact, it is basic to our understanding of what it means to be human. We hold each other responsible for actions and choices. But if all of our choices are illusory — and everything is merely the ‘inevitable consequence’ of something beyond our control, moral responsibility is an exercise in delusion.”156
How do Calvinists avoid seeing these things in relation to their own soteriological determinism? Is it attributable to cognitive dissonance?
Calvinistic Apologist, Matt Slick, of CARM ministries, defines the point of our contention over the issue of free-will on his web site. I will go through each of Matt’s points here:
“Free will is the ability to make choices without external coersion. There are debates as to what extent this free will is to be understood as it relates to people. There are two main views: compatibilism and libertarianism.”
“The compatibilist view is the position that a person’s freedom is restricted by his nature as is described in Scripture. In other words, he can only choose what his nature (sinful or regenerate) will allow him to choose. Therefore, such verses as 1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20 are used to demonstrate that, for example, the unbeliever is incapable of choosing God of his own free will since they say that the unbeliever cannot receive spiritual things, does no good, and is a slave to sin. …
The biblical position is compatibilism. Since the Bible clearly teaches us that the unbeliever is restricted to making sinful choices (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20), then we must conclude that anyone who believes in God (John 3:16; 3:36) does so because God has granted that he believe (Phil. 1:29), has caused him to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3), and chosen him for salvation (2 Thess. 2:13).”
Let’s look at Matt’s errors, point by point, in light of the Scriptures:
Matt wrote, “a person’s freedom is restricted by his nature as is described in Scripture. In other words, he can only choose what his nature (sinful or regenerate) will allow him to choose.”
While we would agree that mankind’s freedom to choose is restricted to the confines of his nature, we disagree as to what those confines are in relation to sinful humanity. For instance, a man is not free to flap his arms and fly around the world, no matter how much he may will to do so. He is confined by his physical abilities. So too, there are moral confines on the abilities of sinful man’s will.
We would agree that mankind is born incapable of willingly keeping all the demands of the law so as to merit salvation. And we would also agree that mankind is in bondage to sin. We would not agree that a man is born incapable of willingly admitting that he is in bondage and in need of help — especially in light of God’s gracious, Holy Spirit inspired, clear revelation — by means of the law (a tutor) and the gospel (a powerful appeal to be reconciled).
Suppose a man was born in a prison cell and never told that he was in a cell. He was simply unaware of any thing outside the walls of his world. We would all agree that the man is born in bondage and incapable of even recognizing his position. But, suppose someone came into his cell and informed him of the world outside the walls. Does the fact that he was born in bondage prove he is incapable of hearing the messenger and believing his message? Of course not. You can acknowledge the bondage of the man from birth without assuming he is also born incapable of believing the testimony of the messengers sent for the purpose of helping him to be set free.
The belief that a man is born in a prison cell is distinct from the belief that the man is incapable of acknowledging that he is in a prison cell and accepting help to escape when it is clearly offered. Calvinists have pointed to passages that prove mankind is born in the cell while assuming mankind is incapable of humbly admitting they are in a cell and trusting in Christ to set them free.
Matt wrote, “such verses as 1 Cor. 2:14; 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20 are used to demonstrate that, for example, the unbeliever is incapable of choosing God of his own free will since they say that the unbeliever cannot receive spiritual things, does no good, and is a slave to sin. … the Bible clearly teaches us that the unbeliever is restricted to making sinful choices (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20)
The passages cited simply do not say what Matt asserts. (See Section 3 for exegetical commentary on each of these texts). Nothing in the three passages listed even come close to suggesting that mankind is incapable of admitting they need help when God Himself offers it. Matt goes on to describe libertarian free will (LFW) in this manner:
“Libertarian free will says that the person’s will is not restricted by his sinful nature, and that he is still able to choose or accept God freely. Verses used to support this view are John 3:16 and 3:36.”
This is an over-simplified and very shallow explanation of LFW. LFW (or contra-causal freedom) is “the categorical ability of the will to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action.” So, in relation to soteriology, LFW is mankind’s ability to accept or reject God’s appeal to be reconciled through faith in Christ. Given that mankind is held responsible for how they respond to Christ and His words (John 12:48), there is no biblical or theological reason to suggest that mankind is born unable to respond to His powerful, life-giving words (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:15-16; Rm. 10:17; John 6:63; 20:31). It makes no practical sense to hold mankind responsible (response-able) to Christ’s words if indeed they are unable-to-respond to those words, nor is it ever explicitly taught in Scripture. Matt continues:
“All the cults and false religious systems teach the libertarian view of free will….”
This is factually inaccurate. Islam, naturalistic Atheism, and ancient Gnosticism, to name a few, all held to forms of determinism. Matt goes on:
“…that salvation and spiritual understanding are completely within the grasp of sinners (in spite of their enslavement to and deadness in sin). For them, salvation would be totally up to the ability of the individual to make such a choice.”
This is a common error made by Calvinistic believers. They wrongly assert that non-Calvinists believe salvation itself is “within the grasp of sinners” because we teach that mankind is responsible to believe and repent of sin. Being capable of repenting in faith is not equal to saving oneself. Matt is conflating two separate choices as if they are one in the same.
By conflating these two very distinct actions, the Calvinist causes much-unneeded confusion. It would be tantamount to suggesting that because the Prodigal son chose to return home that the father was obligated to accept and restore him because of his choice to return. The son alone was responsible for his choice to return. Likewise, the father alone was responsible for his choice to accept and restore him. The only obligation on the father is one he puts on himself on the basis of his own goodness and grace. Nothing is owed to the son on the basis of his choice to return. When the Calvinist conflates these two choices as if they are one in the same it confounds an otherwise very simple gospel message.
Free Will as “Human Autonomy” (the “separateness” of God)
Websters defines “autonomous” simply as “undertaken or carried on without outside control.” Autonomous describes things that function separately or independently. For instance, once you move out of your parents’ house, and get your own job, you will be an autonomous member of the family. This adjective “autonomous” is often used of countries, regions, or groups that have the right to govern themselves. Autonomous is from Greek autonomos “independent,” from autos “self” plus nomos “law.”
Some wrongly assume that the Non-Calvinist’s use of this term is meant to suggest that mankind’s existence, sustenance and natural abilities are completely independent of God, altogether. This is absurd, of course. Paul asked his readers, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), which strongly implies that all our abilities, including the ability to make choices, is given to us by a gracious God.
We can affirm that “God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him,” (Ps. 115:3) while still holding on to the equally valid truth that, “the highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to mankind” (Ps. 115:16). This means it pleases God to give man a certain level of “autonomy” or “separateness.” This is a biblical view of divine sovereignty and human autonomy. As A.W. Tozer rightly explains:
“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”157
Some Calvinists have wrongly concluded that the Non-Calvinist seeks to downplay the sovereignty of God and highlight the autonomy of man, when in reality we seek to maintain the right biblical understanding of man’s autonomy so as to better highlight the Sovereignty, Love and Holiness of God.
Let us turn our attention to the attribute of God’s Holiness. If you notice that the Tozer quote above is from his book, “The Knowledge of the Holy.” Tozer’s intentions are in defense of God’s Holiness, not an attempt to undermine other equally important attributes of our good God.
I suspect that Tozer, like myself, would wholeheartedly agree with John Piper’s teaching on God’s Holiness here:
“Every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God. Let me illustrate. The root meaning of holy is probably to cut or separate. A holy thing is cut off from and separated from common (we would say secular) use. Earthly things and persons are holy as they are distinct from the world and devoted to God. So the Bible speaks of holy ground (Exodus 3:5), holy assemblies (Exodus 12:16), holy sabbaths (Exodus 16:23), a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); holy garments (Exodus 28:2), a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1), holy promises (Psalm 105:42), holy men (2 Peter 1:21) and women (1 Peter 3:5), holy scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15), holy hands (1 Timothy 2:8), a holy kiss (Romans 16:16), and a holy faith (Jude 20). Almost anything can become holy if it is separated from the common and devoted to God.
But notice what happens when this definition is applied to God himself. From what can you separate God to make him holy? The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. Sui generis. In a class by himself. In that sense he is utterly holy. But then you have said no more than that he is God.” – John Piper (emphasis added)
Notice the common term used to describe God’s Holiness and man’s autonomy? The word “separate” is referenced in both definitions. This is significant.
Some Calvinists fail to see that the Non-Calvinists defense of man’s separateness (autonomy) is actually in defense of God’s Holiness, or as Piper put it, God’s separateness “from all that is not God.” But, in a world of divine meticulous control of all things, what is left to be considered “separate” in any meaningful sense of the word?
One would think that sinful intentions would be included in “all that is not God,” yet many Calvinistic scholars affirm that man’s sinful intentions are unchangeably predetermined or brought about by God so as to glorify Himself.158
We must understand that John Piper, while holding to the same definition of holiness as Tozer, comes to a very different conclusion about the nature of our thrice Holy God. Continuing with the quote above, Piper concludes:
“If the holiness of a man derives from being separated from the world and devoted to God, to whom is God devoted so as to derive his holiness? To no one but himself.”
Piper fails to relate his understanding of God’s Holiness (separateness) to the nature of morally accountable creatures (as autonomously separate) but instead uses this attribute to emphasize his Calvinistic view of God’s self-seeking nature.
Piper is arguing that God is all about Himself because there is no “higher reality than God to which He must conform in order to be holy.” In other words, God is all about God because there is nothing more Holy than God. But, what does this even mean unless you establish that which God has separated Himself from in the meticulously determined world of Piper’s Calvinism?
How can one celebrate God being about God unless you separate that which is not about God from that which is about God? What exactly can be deemed as “separated” in a worldview where absolutely everything is brought about by God for God? Holiness loses its meaning in a deterministic worldview because nothing can be described in any significant way as being “separate” from God and His will.
It is senseless to speak of God’s Holiness (as separateness) unless there is something outside of God from which to separate. God cannot be separated from Himself or His own choices. And if you insist on the one hand that God is unchangeably determining all creature’s sinful inclinations so as to glorify Himself, then how can you on the other hand claim that God is wholly separate from those same sinful, yet selfglorifying means? You might as well be claiming A is not A (God is separate but not separate).
Listen, either God is implicated in moral evil or He is not. He is either Holy or He is not. He is either separate (an affirmation of both Divine Holiness and human autonomy) or He is not (a denial of both Divine Holiness and human autonomy). Do not allow the Calvinists to have their cake and eat it too on this point.
John Piper takes the attribute of Holiness to teach that “God is all about Himself.” Whereas, Tozer takes the attribute of Holiness to teach that while God would be perfectly just to be all about Himself and His own glorification, He graciously chooses to glorify undeserving creatures who have separated themselves from Him through autonomously sinful choices.
Non-Calvinists, like myself, simply believe that Tozer is right and Piper is wrong.
If true love requires “free will,” and if there is no “free will” in Heaven to sin, then it follows that there cannot be true love in Heaven by sinless beings, and yet who would suggest that there is no love in Heaven?
When people receive Christ, they receive all that comes with being a Christian, including eternal life and a future sinless nature. So, even if there will be no “free will” in Heaven to sin, we will have essentially chosen (on earth) to receive that (future) sinless nature.
Non-Calvinists virtually deify “free will” even though it is God’s sovereign choice that saves individuals. For instance, if left to himself, Paul would never have chosen Christ. God graciously made the choice to save Paul. That is why he is saved. It’s not because Paul made a free will choice. Paul’s positive choice is only an after-effect of God’s choice.
If I’ve chosen a fork instead of a spoon, have I deified the fork? Whichever is chosen, it’s still my choice to use whichever utensil that I deem best. So, regardless of whether God chose to save people through free-will or Irresistible Grace, either would still be God’s choice to use or not to use. God ultimately determines His own system of providence.
Inherent to Calvinism is the notion that God has secretly, already sorted and ordered humanity from eternity past, having selected certain future, unborn humans that He wished to save, and discarded the rest, and the whole idea of free-will could undermine who God wished to save. The opposing view is the following: (a) God desires all to come to Him, and (b) the sorting and ordering of humanity is not yet complete, and (c) the sorting and ordering is done by His creatures—just like with the angels. Free-will is simply the utensil God has chosen for the sorting and ordering to take place, consistent with the principles of (a), (b) and (c) above.
Indeed, Paul (or at the time Saul) would likely not have chosen to come to Christ, aside from Christ’s visible encounter along the road to Damascus, though even that is still speculation, just as anti-Christians do sometimes convert to Christianity without major revelations of God. Some even have a death-bed conversion. Clearly, God was not going to wait that long since He intended to call him to evangelism. Nonetheless, two facts remain: (a) God didn’t make Paul positively respond to His orders, and (b) others in similar circumstances chose not to act positively to God’s orders, such as Balaam and Jonah. Paul still had his own choice to make while he was blinded for three days. He could have chosen to harden his heart, like with Jonah and Balaam. It is question-begging to suppose that since Paul made the right choice, that his choice must have been made for him.
147 The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (Regula Fidei Press, 2019), 88.
148 Foundations For Our Faith: A Solid Word For An Unsure Age, Vol. II, A Study In Romans Chapters 5-9 (Memphis, TN: Love Worth Finding, 1998), 91-92.
149 What Love is This? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God (Bend, Oregon: The Berean Call, 2006), 279.
150 See also the discussions on Determinism, Middle Knowledge and Omniscience.
151 A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Free Will’, emphasis mine, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-beginners-guide-to-free-will.
152 Debating Calvinism (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2004), 347.
153 R.C. Sproul, Calvinist movie trailer.
154 Albert Mohler, So . . . Why Did I Write This? The Delusion of Determinism.
157 The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1961), 110-111.
158 “God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child…” (Link)— Mark R. Talbot, “’All the Good That Is Ours in Christ’: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” in John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 31-77 (quote from p.42).