An excerpt from Calvin’s Dilemma: God’s Sovereignty vs. Man’s Free Will
The apparent tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will has been a point of study and discussion—and, sadly, of contention—among sincere Christians for centuries. Some have taken the approach of C. I. Scofield, that these are two truths that must both be accepted but that cannot be reconciled. “Both are wholly true, but the connecting and reconciling truth has not been revealed.” In apparent agreement, James M. Gray, a past president of Moody Bible Institute, suggested that “no one finite mind could hold God’s…sovereignty and man’s free agency…both equally at the same time. How necessary, however, that both be duly emphasized!”
Likewise, William L. Pettingill wrote, “God insists upon His sovereignty and also upon man’s responsibility. Believe both and preach both, leaving the task of ‘harmonizing’ with Him.” In a similar vein, A. T. Pierson, although a leading Presbyterian, declared that both “the sovereign will of God and the freedom of man” are taught in Scripture and that “if we cannot reconcile these two, it is because the subject is so infinitely lifted up above us. Man is free.... Thus the last great invitation in God’s Book is an appeal to the will.” R. A. Torrey agreed that we should not “try to explain away the clear teaching of the Word of God as to the sovereignty of God [and] the freedom of the human will....”
Unfortunately, neither John Calvin nor many of his followers today have been willing to accept both sides of this biblical teaching. The result has been devastating in its consequences for the gospel: that man can only reject Christ; he cannot accept and believe in Him unless he is sovereignly regenerated by God. Calvinism refuses to accept what so many great evangelists have recognized is vital. Edgar Mullins expresses very well the essential balance that is missing:
Free will in man is as fundamental a truth as any other in the gospel and must never be canceled in our doctrinal statements. Man would not be man without it and God never robs us of our true moral manhood in saving us.... The decree of salvation must be looked at as a whole to understand it. Some have looked at God’s choice alone and ignored the means and the necessary choice on man’s part.
A Commendable but Mistaken Zeal
Kenneth G. Talbot and W. Gary Crampton assure us that “The sovereignty of God is…the most basic principle of Calvinism…the foundation upon which all [including Christianity itself] is built.” Loraine Boettner agrees: “The basic principle of Calvinism is the sovereignty of God.” Such fervor for God’s sovereignty is commendable. However, Calvinists have mistakenly made God the effective cause of every event that occurs: “Whatever is done in time is according to his [God’s] decree in eternity.” But would a Holy God decree the evil that fills man’s heart and the world today? Surely not!
Calvinism denies to man any real choice concerning anything he thinks or does. C. H. Spurgeon referred to “a class of strong-minded hard-headed men who magnify sovereignty at the expense of [human] responsibility.” The Calvinist mistakenly believes that if man could make a genuine choice, even in his rebellion against God, it would be a denial that God is sovereign. Thus God must be the cause of all sin, beginning with Adam and Eve. Boettner argues, “Even the fall of Adam, and through him the fall of the race, was not by chance or accident, but was so ordained in the secret counsels of God.” That unhappy conclusion is necessitated by a concept of sovereignty that is required neither by the Bible nor by logic.
We have noted the admission by some Calvinists that man is free to respond to God. At the same time, however, the doctrine of Total Depravity requires that he can respond only negatively and in opposition to God. Of course, that is not freedom at all. Philip F. Congdon points out:
Classical Calvinists may talk about man having a “free will,” but it is a very limited freedom! That is, a person may choose to reject Christ—all people do—but only those who have been elected may choose to accept Him. This is no “free will”! Are the open invitations to trust Christ in the Bible actually a cruel hoax? I don’t think so. Are all people free to put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior for their sin? Yes. That is why the call to missions is so urgent.
Freedom to Rebel but Not to Repent?
How can there be any real freedom of choice if only one kind of choice can be made, and one, at that, which has been decreed eternally? To call this “free choice” is a fraud. It is, however, the only “freedom” Calvinism can allow. Arthur W. Pink favorably quotes J. Denham Smith, whom he honors as a “deeply taught servant of God”:
I believe in free will; but then it is a will only free to act according to nature.... The sinner in his sinful nature could never have a will according to God. For this he must be born again.
Nowhere does the Bible support such a statement; and this is one of Calvinism’s most grievous errors. Were Abraham and Moses “born again,” i.e., regenerated? Isn’t that a New Testament term? What does Smith mean by “a will according to God”? Even Christians don’t always do God’s will. A desire to know God? Surely all men are expected to seek the Lord while He may be found. That God promises to be found by those who seek Him must imply that the unregenerate can seek Him.
Nor does it help the Calvinist to say that man can only will and act according to his sinful nature and against God. How could it be God’s will that man defy His law? If sinful acts are admitted to come from genuine choice, then we have the same challenge to God’s sovereignty that the Calvinist cannot allow. Either man has a free will, or his sin is all according to God’s will. As we have seen, the latter is exactly what Calvin himself taught and many Calvinists still believe, making God the author of evil.
Could it be that Adam’s nature was actually sinful, though God pronounced him “good” when He created him? How else, except by free will, can his sin be explained? The Calvinist escapes free will by declaring that even the sin of Adam and Eve was
foreordained and decreed by God. Pink argues, “God foreordains everything which comes to pass. His sovereign rule extends throughout the entire Universe and is over every creature.... God initiates all things, regulates all things....” Then why did Christ tell us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth...” if all is already according to God’s will and decree?
It is fallacious to imagine that for God to be in control of His universe He must foreordain and initiate everything. In fact, it would deny His omniscience and omnipotence to suggest that God cannot foreknow and control what He doesn’t foreordain, decree, and cause. Here again, Calvinists are trapped in contradictions. Another leading Presbyterian theologian, A. A. Hodge recognized the severe consequences of that extremist view of God’s sovereignty: “Everything is gone if free-will is gone; the moral system is gone if free-will is gone....” At the same time, however, he declared: “Foreordination is an act of the...benevolent will of God from all eternity determining...all events...that come to pass.”
Confronting a Vital Distinction
For the Calvinist to uphold his extreme view of control, God must be the cause of man’s total depravity and the negative response it produces. There is no way to escape this conclusion. If God were not the cause of man’s sin, man would be acting independently of God, and that cannot be allowed for anything in the Calvinist scheme. It follows, then, that “He [God] could…have prevented it [the fall and entrance of sin into the world], but He did not prevent it: ergo, He willed it.” Thus one must conclude, “It is even biblical to say that God has foreordained sin.”
The only way, however, to defend God’s integrity, love, and compassion in a world filled with sin and suffering is to acknowledge that He has granted to man the power to choose for himself. It is thus man’s fault and by his own free choice that sin and suffering are the common experience of all mankind. God has provided full forgiveness of sins on a righteous basis, and will eventually create a new universe into which sin can never enter—a universe to be inhabited by all those who have received the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. God is exonerated and man alone is to blame for sin and suffering. Such is the teaching of the Bible, as we shall see in depth.
Calvinism rests upon a mistaken view of what it means for God to be sovereign. Edwin H. Palmer tells us that God predestines untold multitudes to everlasting torment “for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures....” Obviously, God could show His sovereign power over His creatures in many ways other than by decreeing their eternal damnation, a fate surely not required by sovereignty.
The Bible teaches that God sovereignly—without diminishing His sovereignty—gave man the power to rebel against Him. Thus, sin is man’s responsibility alone, by his free choice, not by God’s decree. Calvinism’s basic error is a failure to see that God could sovereignly give to man the power of genuine choice and still remain in control of the universe. To acknowledge both sovereignty and free will would destroy the very foundations of the entire Calvinist system.
This false view of God’s sovereignty is the Calvinists’ only justification for God’s saving only a select group and damning the rest. If one asks how a loving God could damn millions or perhaps billions whom He could have saved, the answer is that it “pleased Him so to do.” If one persists and asks why it pleased Him, the response is that the reason is hidden “in the mystery of His will.”
Free will does not diminish God’s control over His universe. Being omnipotent and omniscient, God can so arrange circumstances as to keep man’s rebellion from frustrating His purposes. In fact, God can use man’s free will to help fulfill His own plans, and He is thereby even more glorified than if He decreed everything man does.
Hear It from Calvin and Calvinists
In his classic, the five points of calvinism, Palmer writes, “Although sin and unbelief are contrary to what God commands (His perceptive will), God has included them in His sovereign decree (ordained them, caused them to certainly come to pass).... How is it that a holy God, who hates sin, not only passively permits sin but also certainly and efficaciously decrees that sin shall be? Our infinite God presents us with some astounding truths....”
“Astounding” is the wrong adjective. What Palmer admits astounds even him, a man who dogmatically defends this doctrine, is appalling to non-Calvinists, including even non-Christians. Palmer expounds further upon this outrageous doctrine:
All things that happen in all the world at any time and in all history—whether with inorganic matter, vegetation, animals, man, or angels (both the good and evil ones)—come to pass because God ordained them. Even sin—the fall of the devil from heaven, the fall of Adam, and every evil thought, word, and deed in all of history, including the worst sin of all, Judas’ betrayal of Christ—is included in the eternal decree of our holy God.
[If] sin is outside the decree of God, then the vast percentage of human actions...are removed from God’s plan. God’s power is reduced to the forces of nature.... Sin is not only foreknown by God, it is also foreordained by God. In fact, because God foreordained it, He foreknew it. Calvin is very clear on this point: “Man wills with an evil will what God wills with a good will....”
There is neither biblical nor rational support for such dogma. Surely God in His infinite power and foreknowledge could fit into His plan even the most rebellious thoughts and deeds of mankind. He is perfectly able to frustrate, prevent, or use man’s plans and deeds to fulfill His will, and He can do so without destroying man’s ability to exercise free choice. To make God the author of sin is to blasphemously misrepresent Him.
Why would an infinitely holy God ruin his own creation by purposely creating sin? Why invent the elaborate story of “casting fallen angels out of heaven”? Why cause mankind to sin in order to “forgive” them? How would that glorify God? Instead, in Calvinism God becomes like the person who sets a forest fire so he can “discover” it, put it out, and be a hero. It also turns God into a fraud who pretends that Satan, though God’s own intentional creation, was His enemy. How absurd!
Yet Calvinists persist in this unbiblical and irrational doctrine, which they imagine defends God’s sovereignty but actually diminishes it: “If God did not foreordain all things, then He could not know the future. God foreknows and knows all things because He decreed all things to be.” On the contrary, God does not have to decree human thoughts and actions to foreknow them. He knows all beforehand because He is omniscient.