By: Jonathan Harris
Most of us who call ourselves Christians know that the Bible teaches both that God is sovereign over all things (including time) and that man is responsible before Him. This is often brought up in interactions with other worldviews as a contradiction. How is it possible that God can “foreordain whatsoever comes to pass” and still hold human beings liable for the crimes they commit? The tendency among most evangelicals is to try to somehow diminish God’s sovereignty so that He’s just reacting to human choice rather than planning it. They’ll say things like, “God looked down the corridor of time and saw those who would choose Him, and in turn, chose them.” Of course, there’s nowhere in Scripture that it actually states this, and no definition of “choice” would include such a mechanism. But nonetheless, without this response a Christian is left feeling the tension of the dilemma. So how do we navigate this problem biblically, and does the “God looked down the corridor of time” argument work? Also, what are the alternatives to believing the Biblical view? Are they any more consistent? That’s what I intended to examine in this brief Sunday School lesson I gave to my local church. I hope it is of use to you as well.
Both Are Biblical
If you read Proverbs 16 you might be quite surprised. It states in verse 10 that “A divine decision is in the lips of the king; His mouth should not err in judgment..” Then two verses later the same proverb says, “It is an abomination for kings to commit wicked acts, For a throne is established on righteousness.” Was there a blatant contradiction between three verses? Why, if kings declare divine decisions, and shouldn’t err, do they, and are held responsible for it? Wouldn’t the author have seen such a problem? The Bible maintains that the idea that God foreordains and the idea that man is held responsible are not diametrically opposed. Foreordination is explicitly taught in both testaments (Is. 46:10, Psalm 33:11, Eph. 1:3-14; Rom. 8:28-30, 1 Cor. 2:7; 2 Tim. 2:13; etc.). Is. 46:10 states, “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’.” Likewise, Rom. 8:28-30 says:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.God’s control over time is just about always (if not always) viewed as a comforting reality. Just think of the alternative! If God were not in control of the future how much comfort would there be in the midst of any tragedy in this world, and how would we know God’s promises would be kept? At the same time, man is morally responsible for His choices and is in fact commanded to choose righteousness. (Deuteronomy 30:19; James 1:13-14; 2 Peter 3:9; Luke 13:3; etc.) Luke 13:3 puts it this way, “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In the words of James:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.So now that we know both of these truths (God’s foreordination and man’s free choice) are biblical, how is it that we reconcile them? And furthermore, why would we pray or evangelize if God’s just going to do what God’s going to do? Let’s answer the second question first.
Both are Compatible
God Ordains the Ends as Well as the Means (Phil 1:6, 2:12; 3:14; Eph. 2:10; Acts 2:23, 4:27-28; etc.)
Paul says in Phil 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” In the very next chapter he states, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” If you continue reading, in the chapter after that Paul follows it up with the personal resolution, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” So let’s get this straight. It’s God who’s at work in the believer’s sanctification process, yet the believer is commanded to pursue greater spirituality. So while the believer exercises him or herself to obey God it is really God at work in them. Bingo! It’s in God’s sovereign plan that the believer will put forth this effort thereby bringing about the intended result. The end (a mature believer) is accomplished through the means (the believers pursuit), yet both are ordained by God. This is true when it comes to evangelism and prayer as well. God has ordained that those things are his means by which he accomplishes an end. So prayer does change things and so does evangelism, yet it is God who is at work in the very process including believers in His divine decree. Eph. 2:10 declares, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
So are good means the only means that God declares or can He declare evil means to reach good ends? We find this answer, among other passages, in Acts. It states in 2:23, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.“ Then in 4:27-28 it reads:
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 purpose predestined to occur.
So there’s the answer. God does ordain even evil to reach a good end.
Foreordaining Does Not Equal Coercing
It is important to note something very important here however. God did not coerce those who perpetuated the arch crime of history to do what they did. It says they were “godless men.” The roman soldiers didn’t have to work that day, they could have done an infinite number of other things rather than crucify the Lord. But the truth is they wanted to. They desired to kill Him, and so they carried out their plan, a plan God had ordained from the beginning. It’s hard to wrap our heads around this from a human perspective. If we want to make a future outcome absolutely certain we must coerce in order to accomplish it. For instance, a mobster, if he wants someone knocked off, must in advance either pay someone reliable to do it, or do it himself (that is, if he wants to be certain it will happen). From God’s vantage point this is not the case however. God does not have to coerce in order to accomplish. He works in such a way that men retain their choice making abilities and make the choice he predetermined at the same time. This is not a contradiction logically, but a difficult concept to understand from a human perspective because we must coerce in order to accomplish something for certain. In other words, we’re not God.
So the problem, logically speaking at least, has been eliminated. The law of non-contradiction says that things cannot both be true and not true in the same sense and in the same way. In this case, there is no contradiction because God is sovereign over human affairs in two senses. In one sense He foreordains, and in another sense He does not coerce. So the obvious question at this point is, are there any better explanations/reconciliations out there that better explain this idea of foreordination and free choice? Let’s take a look.
Arminianism assumes that a future outcome can be foreknown and yet not foreordained (i.e. “God looked down the corridor of time.”) This we shall see is logically inconsistent. Now stay with me. You may have to read this next sentence a few times. If it is certain in advance that an event will take place, it is by necessity having an effect in the mind of God before it occurs, making it therefore certain in advance that it will happen. Now what’s the significance of this? Well to put it plainly, the Arminian doesn’t really do anything significant to reconcile the seeming discrepancy. He really brings us back to square one. If all things are foreknown, and if the future is foreknown it is not contingent, therefore the future is not contingent. “Contingency” just means there are circumstances that are able to alter the outcome. So basically if God can foreknow events, which the Arminian grants, then those same events are by necessity also certain to take place, meaning that they are in fact predetermined.
The Arminian’s motivation seems to be the protection of “free will,” yet the Scripture teaches that human will is bound by human nature (Matt. 7:18; Rom. 3:12; Mark 7:21; etc.). The choices we make are a result of the kind of people that we are. Sinners sin, redeemed people do good works. Yes, there are choices given to mankind (“free choice”) but a decision will be dictated by a person’s nature. We do not make decisions in a vacuum, and neither does God. He in fact limits Himself to His own nature, otherwise we would be at the mercy of an arbitrary God whom we can’t even rely on to keep His own promises to us.
There are three basic philosophical theories when it comes to the subject of foreordination and free choice. Libertarianism, compatibilism , and determinism. Libertarianism assumes that humans are completely free to do whatever they want. The problem with this is that if you assume no God at the outset all you have is nature, and nature is regulated by laws (if this fact is denied you run into even greater philosophical problems). If laws regulate decisions libertarianism cannot be true. In an effort to save a godless system libertarians can run to compatibilism as an alternative (The idea that somehow human freedom is compatible with the fact that choices are predetermined by nature). The obvious problem here is that if all that is making a particular decision are the impersonal forces of physical laws then compatibilism is really a delusion. Physical laws are based on principles. For the sake of argument lets say human decisions are controlled by the principle that all decisions made will be the most selfish possible given a particular set of circumstances. If this is true, it is the impersonal principle that controls, not the person themselves. There really is no personhood because the person must choose the most selfish decision at all times (and a moral attribute such as selfishness being defined by a natural law is another problem in and of itself). The most honest position toward this question is perhaps made by the determinist who thinks that human decisions are bound by natural forces and admits this. However, once again we have a problem. If this is true, humans are not the ones making the choices themselves, but rather they are subject to impersonal forces. Therefore, they are not the ones making the choices themselves and should not be held responsible. Rapists and murderers are not liable for their decisions. They’re are simply acting on their natural impulses. A decision to kill a small child is no different than the decision of a basketball to bounce off the ground. Why should anyone care? There is no significance. And any determinist who tries to convince someone of determinism is really just showing that he or she actually doesn’t believe what they advocate since each one of us is already determined to believe what we’ll believe.
As we can see, the alternatives to the Biblical view make us run into real philosophical problems. The Christian can be confident and bold in his worldview. The Bible does reveal mysteries, but does not reveal logical impossibilities. The two must be distinguished, and the nonbeliever must be pressed to reveal his own presuppositions. Only then will the truth be made evident.