The Freedom of God

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“But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3 NASB). The Psalmist follows this declaration of the sovereignty and capability of God with the inferior and impotent nature of idols: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see;” etc. (Ps. 115:4-5 NASB). The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the living God, and besides Him there is no other (Isaiah 45:5, 14).

God is sovereign and is, in the words of Arminius, “capable of operating externally what things soever He can freely will, and by which He does operate whatever He freely wills.”1 God does not operate with His creatures as one does with a machine, but concurrently, allowing them a measure of freedom to do those things which they desire. But if God has all power in the universe, does this mean that He is free to do whatever can be done?

The apostle Paul writes to Titus regarding “the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago” (Titus 1:1-2 NASB). The Greek word for “cannot lie,” ἀψευδής, refers not to the fact that God does not lie, but that He cannot lie — God lacks the ability to lie. God cannot deny His nature (2 Tim. 2:13): “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He” (Deut. 32:4 NASB). Jesus, who is the radiance of God’s glory and “the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3), claimed to be truth incarnate (John 14:6). The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (John 16:13). God is truth.

Since we understand that God cannot lie, we know that God is not completely free. No one is completely free, and libertarian free will does not promote the notion that it is the freest of free will. Even if a man wanted to, he is not free to sprout wings and fly. Man was not designed by his Creator with the ability to will into being wings in order to fly. By God’s nature, He is not free to lie. By God’s nature, He is not free to sin. Since by nature He is righteous, then He cannot sin, nor would He hypothetically desire to sin. Arminius comments:

    • The measure of the Divine . . . Capability is the free will of God, and that is truly an adequate measure; so that the object of the Capability may be, and indeed ought to be, the free will of God. For whatever cannot fall under His Will, cannot fall under His Capability; and whatever is subject to the former, is likewise subject to the latter.

      But the Will of God can only will that which is not opposed to the Divine Essence (which is the foundation both of His understanding and of His will), that is, it can will nothing but that which exists, is true and good: Hence neither can His Capability do any other. Again, since under the phrase, “what is not opposed to the Divine Essence,” is comprehended whatsoever is simply and absolutely possible; and since God can will the whole of this; it follows that God . . . is capable of every thing which is possible.2

    God has had a plan for human history and He, according to His ability and purpose, is working out “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11 NASB): “He causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28 NASB). What is included in God’s plan? From the two passages quoted, “all things” are included in God’s plan, which He is working out. Is sin included in that plan? Yes, sin is part of “all things.”

    Does this mean that God pre-planned for all sin to take place? If God is not free to sin, being holy and righteous in nature, in what sense can it be admitted that God efficaciously pre-planned for sin to take place (i.e. He will bring sin about by His exhaustive will)? If sin is included in the “all things” which God is working out, then what connection does it have with God’s nature?

    The Lord’s half brother James explains that God cannot, ἀπείραστος, be tempted by evil, κακός (of a bad nature, wrong, wicked), and He Himself does not tempt anyone (James 1:13). Thus when we pray, “and do not lead us into temptation” (Matt. 6:13), we understand that God would not lead us into committing sin, for He hates sin (Habakkuk 1:13). A better way of praying this would be, “and do not let us be led (by another) into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Leading a person into sin is one of the impossibilities of God. Arminius writes:

      Those things are impossible to God which involve a contradiction, as, to make another God, to be mutable, to sin, to lie, to cause something at once to be and not to be, to have been and not to have been, &c., that this thing should be and not be, that it and its contrary should be, that an accident should be without its subject, that a substance should be changed into a pre-existing substance, bread into the body of Christ, that a body should possess ubiquity [omnipresence], &c. These things partly belong . . . to a want [or lack] of power to be capable of doing them, and partly to insanity to will to do them.3

    If God is not completely free, being restricted if you will by His nature, and His choices are determined by His nature then how can man maintain libertarian freedom? Are not man’s thoughts, desires, choices and decisions determined by God’s nature, plan, and choices? In order to answer properly, and according to Scripture, then we have to first affirm the following:

    1) Though God may bring about calamity (Job 31:23), He may not bring about sin merely by decree, without regard to the will of one of His creatures, for sin is contrary to His holy nature (Hab. 1:13; cf. James 1:13).

    2) God has never been restricted to pre-planning every minutiae of future events (including man’s thoughts, desires, choices, decisions, and sin) in order to be sovereign or to exhaustively know the future (Isaiah 46:10). To suggest the contrary is to limit God’s ability to know, and to foreknow the future.

    3) When God in eternity past planned the history of mankind, He did so according to His purpose, and “the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). The Greek word for purpose, πρόθεσις, refers to “a setting forth of a thing, placing of it in view” (link). The Greek word for counsel, βουλή, is similar, referring to a purpose or desire (link). The Greek word for will, θέλημα, refers to “what one wishes or has determined shall be done” (link). His plan, will, purpose is unchangeable (Heb. 6:17). He states: “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isa. 46:10 NASB).

    When sin comes about, it comes through and originates from the sinner, not God: “But each one is tempted [to sin] when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (James 1:14 NASB). The lust is not present in the sinner by God’s work; nor is the sinner enticed by God, but by his own lust. The sinner is not tempted by God to sin, as we saw above (James 1:13). Thus when a sinner commits a sin, he does not do so by necessity, i.e. because that sin is what God by His necessitating or efficacious will or decree or purpose chose to bring about.

    However, since all people “live and move and exist” because of God’s will (Acts 17:28 NASB), since all things are sustained “by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3), God works concurrently, admits Roger Olson, in his “consent to and cooperation with creaturely decisions and actions. No creature could decide or act without God’s concurring power.”4 With regard to sin, God does not force His will upon His creatures. When a sinner commits a sin (something which God would never decree or will upon a creature), he does so not because God willed and pre-planned for Him to sin, but because he is a sinner who wanted to sin. When a sinner wants to sin, God does not withhold the power for him to commit the sin. Olson notes Arminius as teaching that even sin requires

      the Divine Concurrence, which is necessary to produce every act; because nothing whatever can have any entity except from the First and Chief Being, who immediately produces that entity. The Concurrence of God is not his immediate influx into a second or inferior cause, but it is an action to God immediately . . . flowing into the effect of the creature, so that the same effect in one and the same entire action may be produced simultaneously . . . by God and the creature.5

    If we suggest that all things are necessary because of God’s will or decree, that which will inevitably be brought to pass by the Divine Creator, including sin, this does not disprove libertarian freedom, since that which comes to pass does not materialize due to God’s alleged exhaustive deterministic will. In other words, God’s concurrence is not equal to His efficacious cause. God does not concur with sinners willingly, as though He approves of their sinning. But since He does not control sinners as men do machines, and since He in no wise leads them into sin, He permits them to sin “in order to preserve the sinners’ liberty.”6 Both God’s sovereignty or governance and man’s libertarian freedom is preserved, as is clearly presented in numberless passages throughout the tenor of Scripture.

    1 James Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XXII. On the Power or Capability of God,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:352.

    2 Ibid., 2:353.

    3 Ibid.

    4 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 117.

    5 Ibid., 122.

    6 Ibid., 123.