Determinism or Free Will

This entry is part 39 of 329 in the series Inquiring Minds

Explain the two extremes of determinism and free will, Calvinism and Arminianism, TULIP, predestination, and where you stand.

The question of determinism and free will has been around for a long time. Ever since the 16th century people have been discussing it. Theologically, Calvinism and Arminianism have been the topic of many discussions, sometimes very heated.

History and Theology

In the beginning of the Reformation, Protestant theologians and scholars argued these points regularly. The school mainly on the side of determinism, or God’s sovereignty and predestination, came from a man named John Calvin (1509-1564).

He believed that God predestined almost everything in our lives, that there were no surprises and that everything was controlled by God. On the other side of the debate was a man named Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). He believed that humans had a choice and that God did not violate their free will. Both cited scriptures for their stance.

But it was their students who took the debate to a whole new level. Calvin’s students composed the famous TULIP system to explain the impossibility of violating God’s sovereignty or the predestination of his people.

The TULIP system goes like this:

  • Total Depravity: The heart of humans is so dark and depraved that they will not choose to serve God in any capacity.
  • Unconditional Election: Those whom God has elected to salvation he has known since the foundation of the world. He has already chosen them and they will be/are saved.
  • Limited Atonement: Christ died only for the elect. Since God already knows who they are before he went to the cross, his sacrifice was only on their behalf.
  • Irresistible Grace: If you are one of God’s elect, you cannot resist becoming his elect or the grace that he poured out for you at the cross. You do not have a choice.
  • Perseverance of the Saints: None of the elect can be taken out of God’s hand. They will persevere against the devil, temptation, sin, and anything else that can stand against them. They are eternally secure.

I am trying to provide a short understanding of the system. There is much great reading and literature on the subject and you may understand it differently. I humbly submit this shorthand version of the system without the intention of offending anyone who believes in it.

Arminius’ students would not let anybody down. They proposed all of the Scriptures that show humans having a choice and God allowing them to do whatever they chose. But they went so far to the other side that they proposed things that went against the idea that God is sovereign over his creation. Some of them sided so far into liberalism over legalism that they abused God’s loving kindness and grace.

Views on Predestination

Predestination is defined differently on both sides of the argument as well. Calvinists see predestination as God determining who will be saved. Arminians define predestination as a determination to service in God’s kingdom.

Let me provide the occurrences of the word “predestined” in the New Testament and show how each side interprets them.

Acts 4:28

“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (ESV)

This is in the midst of a prayer by believers for God to do his will in their city. It suggests that God put it in the minds of the religious leaders to kill Jesus no matter what. If anything, it suggests that they played their part in God’s great play. It suggests God’s sovereignty in the circumstance of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross at their hands. Calvinists and Arminians don’t really debate the points of God’s sovereign plan in Jesus’ sacrifice.

Romans 8:29-30

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (ESV)

Calvinists: God’s foreknowledge points to his knowing those who are called before the foundation of the world. Therefore there predestined, determined beforehand, to know God and are part of the elect. “Justified” is also a word that refers to salvation and being forgiven of sins.

Arminians: Foreknowledge speaks to the fact that God already knows these people, so they are already saved. They are not predestined to salvation that predestined to become like Christ (conformed to his image). As they are being conformed, God predestined stem, or pre-determines that they will follow his process to be like Jesus, be called to service, justification being part of their conformity to Christ.

Ephesians 1:5

“he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” (ESV)

Calvinists: They see the word “adoption” as a word for salvation and so say that predestined here refers to salvation. And the “purpose of his will” points to election and irresistible grace.

Arminians: Paul uses the past tense of all of these verbs, referring to salvation already gained. The point of this opening prayer is to thank God for these blessings that we already have because we are already saved.

Ephesians 1:11

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,” (ESV)

Calvinists: They see words like “inheritance” and “purpose” as salvation words, so “predestined” refers to salvation.

Arminians: This entire prayer is about thanking God for the blessings of salvation already gained. The word “predestined” refers to God’s purpose and will referring to what he does after salvation in preparing us to serve him.

A Biblical Example

There’s a great book in the Bible that really gives nuances to this debate. In the book of Jonah, God commands the prophet Jonah to go to the lost people of Nineveh. What many may not realize historically is that these are the archenemies of the Israelites at the time.

Jonah refuses to go. In fact, he heads in the opposite direction as far away as he can get from Nineveh. The problem is that God causes a storm to rise up and put the boat he is traveling in in great peril. He ends up getting thrown off the boat and swallowed by a giant fish.

Interestingly, when the fish spits them out on land, he found himself at the entrance to the city of, you guessed it, Nineveh. God has been directing him to follow his command to preach to these people. Even the choices he has made has still directed him toward God’s command.

So then he decides that he will preach to the people and tell them how wicked and evil they are. He intends for them to ignore him and go toward their destruction. Instead, to the prophet’s dismay (I know, right?), the people turn to God.

Jonah is so upset about it that he throws a temper tantrum in the hot of the day. Got even provides shade for him by making a tree grow. Instead of being thankful, Jonah decides to continue his temper tantrum. The book ends with God asking him why he shouldn’t save people who want to be saved.

God allowed Jonah to make his own decisions. But he also sovereignly directed him toward the people of Nineveh because they needed to hear the gospel and to be saved from destruction. God’s care for the Ninevites took a higher priority than Jonah’s hatred of his enemy. He used Jonah to preach to the Ninevites without violating his free will.

My Views on the Debate

My personal stance in all of this I have highlighted several times in my ministry. The summary of my stances that I am in the middle between both extremes. Rarely do we find extremes that the Bible agrees with completely. Anyone can find versus to support their opinions, especially when they look for them out of their context.

I believe that God is sovereign and as King over his own creation, no one can go against my personal whatever he wants to do. But I do not believe that God holds so tightly the entire universe that every molecule moves at his direction. I believe he made natural laws that govern these things.

I also believe that when humans make a choice and exercise their free will, God honors their decision and allows the blessings or consequences to fall on them. One of my professors introduced an excellent illustration for this idea.

Imagine that there is a giant yard, acres and acres long. On the inside of this entire yard, there is a smaller fence. The people inside the fence can roam anywhere they wish, but if they go outside of the fence through the gates, they will find themselves in deep peril.

The fence represents God’s will for our lives. There are many options inside of his will. Sometimes he directs us to the very best ones and other times it is up to us to decide between two good options. But if we get outside of the fence, we can find ourselves in danger with every choice that we make.

Issues I see with the TULIP system:

  • Total Depravity: I completely agree with this point. We need to hear the gospel and respond to it. Otherwise we would continue to lead a life of sin against God.
  • Unconditional Election: I believe that every human being who hears the gospel has the opportunity to accept or reject it and follow Christ. While God made know who will finally come to Christ, I don’t believe that he knows in advance and rejects anyone who is listening to the gospel.
  • Limited Atonement: Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 that Christ died for all. The “all” here does not need to be pushed into one smaller group. The context suggests that he refers to every person rather than only the “all” who are elected before the foundation of the world. That’s what makes rejection of Christ’s sacrifice so painful for our Savior. He shed his blood so that every person has an opportunity to believe in him.
  • Irresistible Grace: God’s grace is not irresistible. There are millions, if not billions through history, who have not chosen to follow Christ after hearing the gospel. Even after hearing about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, his crucifixion, and the great suffering he went through, there are many who still reject him. It is possible to resist God’s grace.
  • Perseverance of the Saints: It is possible from several passages in the Bible, including Hebrew 6:4-6, as well as several others, to fall from God’s grace. It is called apostasy. The New Testament points out several places and situations where a believer (who truly believes and is converted to Christ) can fall away from God’s grace. The idea of “once saved, always saved” doesn’t hold up well to some scriptures.

People will debate determinism versus free will until the Lord returns. My mind is settled in knowing that I don’t have to understand every nuance of this argument or of the delicate balance God makes between determinism and his sovereignty versus human free will.

Further Resources

  • Losing Ground – a blog post I wrote a while ago that goes into my reasons for why I believe a person can lose their salvation and fall away from God’s grace.
  • My Personal Views on Calvinism – an essay I did quite a while ago. I posted it to my blog so it could be another resource. You may see how my views may have changed over the years or remained the same.
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4 Responses to Determinism or Free Will

  1. Colleen McCauley says:

    Thank you, pastor, I enjoyed your views on this issue. Though you state that you are in the middle, I sense that you are much closer to the Arminian stance. I have given much thought to the claims of both camps over the years and have decided that it is a secondary issue that only serves to divide the body of Christ. I will spend my time loving, worshiping, and serving the Lord and leave my eternity in His very capable and wise hands. ~Colleen~

    • Jonathan Srock says:

      In most cases, it is more philosophy than theology. The only time it becomes important is in explaining how we are saved. I believe it is a marriage of both extremes. I am in the middle, but you are correct. I tend to leave a little more toward the Arminian side. But we do see examples of both in Scripture.

      • Colleen E McCauley says:

        Agreed. It is the philosophy of men. Both sides can find scripture that they feel supports their stance. Spurgeon was once asked the question: “If you believe that the elect are predestined, why do you preach?” to which Spurgeon replied, “because, dear sir, if I were to go around lifting the shirts of men to see if ‘elect’ were stamped on their backs, I would not find it. So I preach to all”. This is a paraphrase, as it’s been a while since I read the original quote, but it states well, I believe, that we are to be about the Lord’s work, and not to get wrapped up in the philosophies of men.

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