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The Sovereignty of God and the Free Choice of Man: A Reconciliation (Part 2)

The Problem Stated

In the intro to their book, Predestination and Free Will, David and Randall Basinger state:

The Christian faith presents us with a dilemma. On the one hand, we believe that God made us morally responsible beings with the ability to make meaningful moral decisions.   . On the other hand, Christians also believe that God has sovereign control over all earthly affairs. . . Nothing can thwart God’s plan. . . The dilemma becomes clear. Can both of these basic Christian beliefs be true?

If man is really a victim, so-to-speak, of God’s determined plan, how can he be held responsible for his decisions? On the other hand, if man truly does have control over his moral decisions, how can God be said to be sovereign over them? These questions have challenged great Christian thinkers throughout the centuries. Augustine of Hippo affirmed the inability of man to choose freely by stating, “The free will has been so enslaved that it can have no power for righteousness.” In a treatise on predestination he affirmed that, “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy, that we do good works.” Therefore, human beings, according to Augustine, rely solely on God to carry out the very commands He holds them responsible for. John Calvin had the same viewpoint believing that “those destitute of his Spirit cannot produce any thing that does not deserve cursing.” He agreed and attributed to Augustine the idea that, “men also are ruled by Providence [and] that there cannot be a greater absurdity than to hold that anything is done without the ordination of God; because it would happen at random.” However, in Calvin’s teaching there is an attempt to reconcile these two paradoxical truths. He states:

Man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with so proud a title? An admirable freedom! that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, [a voluntary slave]; his will being bound by the fetters of sin.

Calvin therefore does allow for two separate senses in which it can be said that mankind is free. In one sense, man “has a free choice because he acts voluntarily.” In another sense, he is incapable of voluntarily acting in any other moral way. This observation will become extremely helpful to us as we seek to resolve the dilemma. Among those of Augustine’s and Calvin’s persuasion (that man’s will is in bondage to sin) sit the eminent theologians Martin Luther, John Knox, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon, among others. On the other side of the fence (those who believe man’s will is not in complete bondage to sin) sit such influential scholars as Pelagius, Jacobus Arminius, Desiderius Erasmus, and John Wesley, among many others. Though some on this side of the fence, such as Pelagius, can be considered heretical in their extreme libertarian stands to the detriment of God’s sovereignty, most from this “Arminian” persuasion seek to reconcile free will with God’s sovereignty in some way. John Wesley affirmed that God “can do whatever He pleases. He can strike me or you dead in a moment. But he loves you; he loves to do you good.” Randy Maddox, in his book Responsible Grace, in which he describes John Wesley’s practical theology, states Wesley’s position as follows:

While a sovereign monarch might technically be free to dispose of subjects as he or she
sees fit, a loving parent would not even consider withholding potential saving aid from any child (i.e., unconditional reprobation or limited atonement). On the other hand, truly loving parents also respect the integrity of their children. Ultimately, they would not impose their assistance against the (mature) child’s will.

The attempt within the Arminian persuasion seems to be a preservation of man’s ability to choose apart from God’s determined foreordination, while at the same time affirming that God is sovereign over His creation. As we shall see, philosophically this is an impossible task, thus leaving both systems with the same basic problem: How does God’s sovereignty not override man’s responsibility to keep God’s moral law? In popular evangelicalism this issue is often termed “the robot problem?” Poet Hiam Gosaynie puts it this way, “[If predestination were true] wouldn’t that mean that everything is decided before we even take any action at all? Before we live? Before we fall? Wouldn’t that necessitate in making no decision—in being robot-like throughout our lives?” Man’s aversion to being controlled by an outside agent makes such arguments compelling. Though the other side of the coin is rarely considered. If God cannot interact with His creation in such a way as to influence them would this not make Him a robot helplessly observing a chance universe without a purpose for any of it? The robot problem runs both directions. On a popular level it would seem we either have to make God a robot, or man a robot—something evangelicals who believe the Scriptures are reluctant to embrace in either direction. It is the resolution of this work to prove that there does exist an answer to the conundrum—an answer that reduces what seems to be a contradiction to a paradox without any reasonable alternatives.

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