The Bible everywhere assumes free will within the context of God’s sovereignty. This renders any semblance of determinism erroneous at best and damaging to the character and integrity of God at worst. If God influences our desires and decisions, as Calvinists argue,1 then our existence on earth is merely a freak show of God’s circus serving for His amusement. One Calvinist blogger confesses: “I’m just saying it’s more realistic [to believe in a harsh God]. If there is a God, then frankly he’s fairly hard-nosed. Just look at the kind of world we live in. And it hasn’t changed from OT times.” Yet he fails, of course, to consider that “the world we live in” is tainted by and at times consumed with sin. This does not, however, indicate that God is the One behind sin. Also, much has changed since Old Testament times, namely the manner in which God interacts with human sin. Grace in Jesus Christ has changed life as we know it. That some Calvinists miss this fact speaks volumes of their so-called “doctrines of grace.”
So, you see, we have a hermeneutical problem from the outset. The Calvinist, when approaching the Bible, already assumes a hard-nosed, “sinners in the hands of an angry God” type of God, who has decreed and through various means brings about all of the horrid conditions we experience. Even Luther admits: “Anyone who regards Him as angry is not seeing Him correctly, but has pulled down a curtain and cover, more, a dark cloud over His face.”3 Contrast Calvinistic philosophy of God’s character with the theodicy of Arminian theology — a theology that is not as much a reaction against Calvinism as it is a reclamation of early Church orthodoxy.2
Arminians assume, from explicit passages littered throughout the entire Bible, that, though God is sovereign, He affords His creatures a measure of freedom to make their own decisions apart from those decisions being decreed for them by God’s alleged foreordained will and plan. Determinism is rightly rejected, and libertarian freedom is properly maintained, while God remains sovereign. For example, God Himself grants Adam the freedom to name the animals. (Gen. 2:20) There is no reason given in the text, apart from an a priori assumption, that God foreordained what Adam should name the animals. God also grants to Adam and Eve the privilege of having dominion over His creation. (Gen. 1:26,28) Again, freedom is maintained, while God is still sovereign.
For another example, throughout the history of Israel, God’s people were given the freedom to either obey Him or disobey Him. (cf. Josh. 24:15) When the Israelites obeyed God, He blessed them, and also punished them when they disobeyed. All too often God called His people to repentance. That historical fact in itself demonstrates that God has not decreed our sin. For if God decreed our sin, and we could only existentially obey that secret decree, then God would be schizophrenic to call us to repentance knowing that we cannot repent because He has decreed we not repent. Yet this is the erroneous type of God Calvinists argue is the God of the Bible — a God who promises blessings for obedience, and punishment for disobedience, but has decreed — and actually influences our desires and decisions — every act we perform. In essence, then, the God of Calvinism is not just.
Moreover, let us consider the ministry of Jesus, as He interacts with people. Does He assume that His Father has decreed what each person should do? From a cursory reading of the New Testament we discover that even Jesus assumes libertarian free will. Jesus heals a sick man and commands him: “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:14, emphasis added) First, we learn that sin can affect our health, and thus sickness can be used of God to bring one to repentance. Second, that God uses means to bring about our repentance assumes that He has not strictly decreed either our repentance or our stubbornness, but graces us toward repentance. (cf. Rom. 2:5) Otherwise, why would Jesus give this man information regarding his future physical well-being? Certainly Jesus would have known the will of the Father — that God decrees for some to repent but not others.
When Pilate mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices to God, or when the tower fell in Siloam, Jesus used the tragedies to teach the people a lesson in theodicy and the problem of evil, that God does not bring about catastrophes merely because sinners commit sin. (Luke 13:2, 4) Let that be a lesson to the Pat Robertsons in this country. Evidently, neither does God bring about all tragedies that happen in our lives, at least Jesus does not teach this to the people. Let that be a lesson to the John Pipers of the world. God is not, contrary to the aberrant theodicy of John Piper,4 dragging His tornadic finger across this earth, causing destruction, and bringing about judgment. This is not to suggest that God cannot bring about judgment in such fashion. This, however, suggests that God is not, in all cases, doing so. To suggest otherwise is presuming to know the mind of God.
Furthermore, St James argues, “You have not because you ask not.” (James 4:3) In other words, if we would ask God in accordance with His holy standards, we would receive. By assuming that we are in lack because we fail to ask is to rightly assume that God has not decreed our failure in the asking. This is why we continue to pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven, because God’s perfect and holy will is not being accomplished on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:10) This is why we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as God works within us toward the same, since God does not decree that we do so or work out our salvation for us. (Phil. 2:12, 13)
Further still, this is why we live according to the standards of the Holy Spirit, so that we will not gratify the lusts of the sinful nature, since God does not decree that we do so, nor does He coerce us to live according to the standards of the Holy Spirit. (Gal. 5:16) We stand against evil, and the evil one himself, since God has not decreed evil but rejoices in righteousness. (James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9) Udo Middelmann writes: “Far from being in any form fatalistic, we are called to resist evil, to feed the hungry, to argue with authorities [when they are in the wrong], and to start a new chain of beneficial effects from the choices we initiate.”5 Rather than attribute all effects to the decretal cause of God’s will, as do Calvinists, Arminians think the Bible grants us a different answer.
Additionally, Middelmann comments: “For when we ask whether things really had to happen the way they did for us, or when we realize that history is a record of things that did not need to happen in the way they did, we realize that the accusation about bad choices in the past will one day also stand against us.”6 To make decisions is to be human. To have decisions made for us by a deterministic and decretal God is to deprive us of our humanity. In Arminian theology, in Arminian theodicy, the Why? question regarding sin and evil is always answered in the accusative of fallen human creatures. In Calvinistic theology, the Why? question regarding sin and evil is always answered in the accusative of God’s decree, though He will still hold those same creatures responsible for enacting what He decreed them to enact. This, we think, is beneath God’s just and righteous character.
This world is not God’s circus and we are not the freak sideshow. God has not decreed that we misbehave, disobey, or commit any evil. The one amazing aspect of being is what Arminian theology allows and Calvinism forbids: “Our specific cultural context was born out of the Jewish and Christian encouragement to search for wider explanations.”7 (emphasis added) For the Calvinist, there are no wider explanations regarding sin and evil, since every minutiae of life can be attributed to the will and decree of God. For the Arminian or non-Calvinist, and the majority of believers throughout Church history, the problem of evil is not God’s problem but ours. We are the ones who sin; we are the ones who commit unspeakable evil; and we do all of this within the framework of our depravity, instigation of the devils, and always commensurate with our free will. God has not decreed our evil. He has foreknown our evil, as well as permits our evil, but He will also judge our evil. He can rightly judge our evil because of His divorcement from our evil.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; see also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.
2 “Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early Church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy.” See Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.
3 Luther’s Works, Volume 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, eds. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald and H. T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 37.
4 John Piper, Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 44. Piper, in the same space, writes: “By ordain I mean that God either caused something directly or permitted it for wise purposes. This permitting is a kind of indirect causing, since God knows all the factors involved and what effects they will have and he could prevent any outcome.” But God, in Calvinism, only knows “all the factors involved” because He has meticulously, exhaustively decreed “all the factors involved.” Piper likes to give the illusion that people have some semblance of free will but it is a complete farce.
By “indirect causing,” he means that God does not do the sinning He decreed for the individual, like controlling a puppet on a string. Nevertheless, God renders certain that a person sins, by whatever means He deems appropriate, and we find this notion unworthy of our glorious God. The person can only do that which God has foreordained he or she do. However the Calvinist attempts to wiggle his or her way out of the notion of the Puppet-to-Master relationship, the wiggle always fails, given the problems that Calvinism itself creates.
Piper elsewhere states that God is “able without blameworthy ‘tempting’ to see to it that a person does what God ordains for him to do even if it involves evil.” (24) Hence if God had not ordained that a person commit evil, in a Calvinistic construct, then that person would not commit evil, since people only do that which they have been ordained to do. Who, then, is the cause (and author) of sin and evil? God.
5 Udo W. Middelmann, Neither Necessary Nor Inevitable: History Needn’t Have Been Like That(Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011), 6.
6 Ibid., 4.
7 Ibid., 6.