Free Will and Calvinism

Investigating the relationship between God’s Sovereignty and Free Will (see Calvinism with a Heart and Legs) brought me back to JollyBlogger‘s blog today. For awhile, on my old blog, I had stolen JollyBlogger’s blog quote by C.S. Lewis:

Grace substitutes a full, childlike, and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become like Jolly Beggars.

JollyBlogger wrote a little series explaining Calvinism. I absolutely love his Intro to the Five Points of Calvinism where he explains, humbly and logically, why we end up using words like Calvinism as “theolgical shorthand” out of courtesy and necessity, to explain a theological position and not to identify ourselves with a man. One of his posts in this series is called Total Depravity and Free Will, and I thought I’d share a little of his point of view with you:

First of all, I want to address a comment that is commonly made in evangelical circles. The comment goes something like this “God is a gentleman and there is one thing He will never do – He will never violate a person’s free will.” I’ve heard variations on this in many places and I have to admit that I think it is one of the most ludicrous things that a Christian could say.

Anyone who has ever prayed for God to change a person’s heart has prayed that God would “violate” that person’s free will. Which parent, who has a child who is walking away from the faith really wants God to not interfere with that child’s will.

Certainly we have biblical examples like God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the proverbial statement that the heart of the king is in the hands of the Lord, and He turns it whatever way He wishes. But having said that, all of the questions are not answered.

We Calvinists affirm that man has a free will. The question gets into just what do the effects total depravity (or radical corruption as I like to call it) do to a person’s will and how does God apply His will to our will.

JollyBlogger speaks of his seminary president who taught that we always need to stay within the center of biblical tension. In other words, though the Bible does not contradict itself, there are paradoxes and seeming polarities in scripture. JollyBlogger explains that the Bible affirms human freedom AND God’s Sovereignty. (If this Calvinism doesn’t sound like Biblicism to you, I will be surprised).

He notes the Westminister Confession (which is well-known as a “Calvinist” Confession) that states in Chapter 9, Section 1:

God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil. (Matt. 17:12, James 1:14, Deut. 30:19)

He goes on to explain how our sinful natures affect — or define — our free will:

So, in this regard, biblically, we have to affirm human freedom and God’s sovereignty. This may sound like I am giving away the farm and basically taking a non-Calvinist view. However, I would ask the non-Calvinists to carefully consider how they define human freedom. I’ve written on this before, but I’ll repeat my assertion that freedom is always circumscribed in some way. Our freedom is always bound by our nature….every man has absolute freedom to do what he wants to do, but due to the presence of sin, natural man will never want to believe in Christ unto salvation. That is the problem – we have a “wanter” that doesn’t want God. This is the real crux of the free will debate. Calvinists believe the bible teaches that man, in his natural state, just doesn’t want to believe savingly in Christ. And his “wanter” can only be changed by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.

Man has a free will, but this freedom is dependent upon the sovereign grace of God. Yet God sovereignly orchestrates all of the events of this life, even the free choices of man according to His purposes. Even in our freedom, we have never willed or done anything that is not according to God’s purpose. Yet, the choices have been ours. The Westminster Confession chapter 5 on providence speaks of this: Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; (Acts 2:23) yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (Gen. 8:22, Jer. 31:35, Exod. 21:13, Deut. 19:5, I Kings 22:28,34, Isa. 10:6–7)

Notice, that though God’s will is immutable and infallible, He causes things to come to pass according to the nature of second causes – necessarily, freely or contingently.

JollyBlogger admits that not all Calvinists are happy with his explanations of free will, but says that these guys are not the norm. From my personal experience, I would agree with him. NONE of the Calvinists I have met or read in the past few years embrace a determinism or fatalism of which his critics esteem:

I want to address a particular issue that comes up more from the Calvinistic side. On another blog I shared a few of my thoughts on this in a comment, and there were some who took issue with my position. They seemed to think my view of sovereignty was a little weak. From what I gathered, I think they didn’t think that my view did justice to the principle of the kings heart being in the hand of the Lord, that the Lord might turn it whatever way He chooses. I think my critics on that blog have the impression that we are puppets on a string, and not only does God control our every action, but even the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.

To me, this is a level of determinism that approaches fatalism and goes beyond what even the historic Calvnistic creeds would affirm. I see that view as a hyper-Calvinistic view that most Calvinists wouldn’t affirm.

What do you think of JollyBlogger’s attempt at explaining how Free Will fits into the Doctrines of Grace? In my experience, Calvinist friends have mirrored JollyBlogger on this issue. For me, Calvinism has not turned out to be as extreme as I once thought it was — rather, it has turned out to be very close to what some term “Biblicism.”

Here’s a few other Calvinists’ take on Free Will:

R.C. Sproul:

God is sovereign. Man is free. Man’s freedom is limited, however, by God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is not limited by man’s freedom. This is simply to say that man is not God. God is free and man is free. But God is more free than a man. Man’s freedom is always and everywhere subordinate to God’s freedom. If we reverse these we pass from theism to atheism, from Christianity to humanism, from Christ to Anti-christ.

Douglas Wilson has a remarkable argument that our “will” — our choice of actions — comes from our hearts (Matthew 12:33-37). Jesus doesn’t give us a new will when we become Christians, rather he gives us a new heart — meaning you’ll soon see a Christian who begins making new choices not because he was given a different status of will, but because he is acting out of his new heart.He goes on to say:

No man is capable of making a choice contrary to the strongest desire of his heart. This is an inexorable law; there are no exceptions — even God’s choices proceed from His immutable and holy nature. A person may certainly has other desires, and they may be very strong desires (Romans 7:18-23). But what he finally does is what he wanted to do most, and he is therefore responsible for the choice.If the choice were not his strongest desire, he would not have chosen it. Let us return to our example of the bowl of cockroaches for a moment. Suppose a man said, in order to refute this teaching, that he didn’t want to eat a cockroach, but that he was going to do so anyway — so there. Is this a refutation? Not at all. It simply means that his will acted on the basis of his strongest desire, which is now to win the debate.

If we take these factors together, we see that it is nonsense to talk of a free will, as though there were this autonomous thing inside of us, capable of acting in any direction, regardless of the motives of the heart. If there could be such a thing — a creature who made choices not determined by the desires of its heart — we would not applaud this creature as a paragon of free will, but would rather pity it as a collection of random, arbitrary, insane choices. Such a creature would not be, and could not be, a free and responsible agent. We would recoil in horror from an exhibition of such autonomous free will. Choices made apart from the desires of the heart? They would be an exhibition, not of freedom, but of insanity. “Why did you throw the vase against the wall?” “Because I wanted to go for a walk.”

So a far more Biblical way of speaking is to speak of free men, and not of free will. And what is a free man? He is someone who is free from external compulsion and is consequently at liberty to do what his heart desires. This is a natural liberty, and all men are in possession of it. It is the only kind of liberty possible for us, and it is a gift to us from God. Under the superintendence of God, all men, Christian and non-Christian, have the freedom to turn left or right, to choose chocolate or vanilla, or to move to this city or that one — depending entirely upon what they want to do. The foreordination of God does not violate this; it is the cause of this — but more on this in a moment.

Notice that this natural liberty is not the same thing as the freedom from sin, i.e. moral liberty. In Romans 6:20,22, Paul makes the distinction between natural liberty and moral liberty. He says:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness… But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.

Slavery to sin is true slavery, but even sin does not negate natural liberty — the slave to sin is free from righteousness, but is still not free from his own desires. This slave to sin is one who loves sin, and consequently obeys it. As a creature, he is free to do what he wants, which is to continue in sin. But he is not free to desire righteousness. Why is he not free to do right? Because his sinful heart does not love what is right. Like all men, he is not free to choose what is repulsive to him, and true godliness is repulsive to him. So in the realm of morality, he is therefore free in a limited sense — free from the control of righteousness. When God, by grace, liberates him from the bondage of his own sin-loving heart, he is then a slave to God. As a slave to righteousness, the Christian freely, out of a new heart, follows Christ.


3 thoughts on “Free Will and Calvinism

  1. R.C. Sproul comment:
    I like what you quoted, but I would add a minor refinement. When he said, “God’s sovereignty is not limited by man’s freedom.”, I would invite you to consider a God big enough to set parameters of man’s freedom that he would not violate.
    I used to have a wonderful Biola teacher who pointed out that God had all of eternity between one heartbeat of Hitler and the next to end Hitler’s life. He was suggesting that sovereignty reigns even in ultimate wickedness.
    But what about a God who wanted men to exercise their will in accepting his son? What if God limited himself not to violate this free will ever? Would it not explain our anemic prayers for others who want to say no to the gift?
    I believe that such an explanation does not reduce God’s sovereignty; rather a God who is capable of creating limited freedom is the biggest God of all.
    Can we still pray for the unlost? Yes, even my father. But it certainly aids my understanding of over 30 years of prayer. I have seen dad called and convicted (sovereignty), but I have also seen Dad reject the truth (freewill). God may have created hell, but it is created for men to put themselves into.

  2. God did not create hell. Hell is a place that is unprepared, for people who seperate themselves from God’s choice. It is a place of teeth gnashing and darkness, not order and creation. It is a place other than the Father and his love.

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