Calvinism and Free Will
Defining choiceTo choose is to express preference for one path over another. So for choice to be possible, there must be (1) more than one path, and (2) the existence of preference. In order for preference to be expressed, there must be causation: one or more determining factors. But some would object that these determining factors beg the question, that is, the determining factors are the choices. But where did the determining factors come from? There must be a First Cause.
Does God have a free will?God is self-existent, the First Cause. His nature is defined by certain characteristics, but they had no cause. God does indeed have a will which is subject to no other, but it cannot violate his nature, the essence of his being. So in one sense his will is free in that it is not affected by anything outside himself, yet in another it is not free in that it is limited by his character. God’s character determines the limitations of his will, or to put it another way, God’s will is accountable to his nature. So will and nature are two separate things.
But his will is not caused by his nature. God willed to create the universe, but his nature did not compel or force him to do so. There is nothing in God’s character that forced him to act. But if every choice must have a cause (otherwise choice would be impossible), then what caused God to create the universe?
There must be two types of causation: event and agent. Event causation would be where one event causes another, and agent causation would be primary— in the nature of the agent. In other words, there is no event required to cause a primary choice - an act of will. God acts independently from, but limited by, his nature. He is an agent, a sentient being, because he says of himself, “I AM.” We can therefore define an agent as one who can say “I AM”.
Does man have a free will?We are given by God, with no choice of our own:
- sentience (self-awareness)
- accountability to God
The power of choice, and thus free will, is an illusion. We don’t know why we like one car and not another, why we choose the path in life that we do, why we do or decide anything at all. Created, finite beings can be nothing more than stimulus-response entities. Apart from God, there is no such thing as an act of will. Yet at the same time, God exhorts us to make the right choices. Why? Because we are designed to respond to exhortation. Likewise, we preach the Gospel only because God designed people to respond to the Gospel, and we must preach it in order to elicit the response. We ’plant seeds’ simply because we are commanded to, and we have no choice.No one would argue whether God has the power to do this. The question is whether he actually did it.
Without the power of choice, my personal growth as a Christian is simply a pre-programmed reaction to many pre-programmed stimuli. The whole of human history is just a giant reaction to the action of God. Understanding this, people will react exactly as they are programmed to react: either to condemn God as unfair or to worship him as Lord. But if those who worship him are saved without merit, then those who don’t are condemned without merit. And yet there we are, either in heaven conscious of our happiness, or in hell conscious of our suffering. But neither can stand in judgment of God for his fate, since God is sovereign and above reproach. As it says in Romans 9:20, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ’Why did you make me like this?’”
Is man accountable for his choices?Adam and Eve are examples of sentient beings exercising free will without an inherited mortality. “Made in the image of God”, they were agents with the power to choose within the limitations they encountered. (The Bible also tells us that angels are free moral agents with individual wills and choices to make, and that we will judge them someday.) But sin did not turn Adam and Eve into non-agents. Sinners are still said by the Bible to be made in God’s image, the image of a sentient being. Calvinists would be hard-pressed to explain how Adam and Eve could sin without an inherited depravity while claiming this condition as the cause of everyone else’s sin.
So the Bible definitely says yes to the question of man’s accountability. We are not only accountable for deciding whether or not to accept Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, but for all the choices we make throughout our lives. Every sentient being has the power of choice, and thus all are held accountable for their actions.
ConclusionIf I do not have a free will, then nothing matters. What will happen will happen, and I have nothing to say about it— and thus no accountability. Since accountability cannot be separated from free will, then to be held accountable is to have a free will. In other words, I am accountable, therefore I have a free will.
If I have a free will, then I am responsible for my choices and I am accountable to God. I must act upon what I understand the Bible to say, and it says I must choose— between God and self, life and death, obedience and rebellion. I cannot control the parameters, but there are two paths open to me. So I, a sentient being with two paths in view, have the ability to choose and to accept the consequences of my choice.
This in no way usurps the sovereignty of God, who could have made me a mere responder to stimuli if he so chose, giving me eternal bliss or eternal suffering as he saw fit. He has the power and right to do as he pleases, but this does not require him to do as he pleases. In fact, it pleased him to give me a choice of whether or not to willingly bow to him.
Examination of Specific Claims of Calvinism
Claim:God will save whoever chooses to come to him, but everyone’s nature is depraved to the point of being unable to so choose. God must therefore change a person’s nature to be capable of making the choice.
“Our inability to come, therefore, isn’t like a physical handicap which we could not be held responsible for but, rather, a moral bent, a disposition of the affections which is naturally hostile to God, a willful hostility. Therefore we are responsible and culpable for our rebellion - and even more culpable now since Jesus extended forgiveness to all who would believe through His self-sacrifice. This leaves people with no excuse for their rebellion. Thus the Reformed understanding of the gift of eternal life to all who would believe is nothing less than genuine. If we do not repent and trust in Christ it is because of our willful unbelief, not because anyone is holding us back. Those who refuse to come could come to Jesus if they wanted to. God does not ultimately restrain people from wanting to come, it is by their own will that they refuse Him.”(emphasis mine)
Objections:Logically, free will and not free will cannot both be true at the same time, and free will and accountability cannot be separated. We cannot be held accountable for our inability to come to God. It is, in fact, very much like a physical handicap. To scold a person bound to a wheelchair for not getting out for daily walks is exactly the same as holding the morally depraved accountable for their inability to come to God. Will is limited by nature, but if we are so limited in nature (depraved) that we cannot choose between acceptance and rejection of the Gospel, then we cannot be held accountable because we do not have the capacity to choose.
A gift is not a wage. Nothing can be both a gift and a wage. I didn’t earn any part of my salvation, because it’s impossible to merit or earn a gift. I did not deserve or earn the offer of salvation, I could only accept it or reject it, which is not a ’work’. I made a choice based upon known consequences, and chose the path according to my preference, which was to live eternally in heaven. Faith and works are continually contrasted in the Bible, so Calvinism cannot call our putting faith in Jesus a ’work’ or ’synergism’ (working with God for salvation).
The Case Against A Two-Stage Salvation
- Repentance and faith are the free acts of men. Every person who so responds to the gospel call does so because he truly desires to do so. God does not repent or believe for anyone. We must personally and willingly trust in the person and work of Christ in order to be saved.
- All persons must repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved. The Bible from cover to cover teaches that no one can be saved without this.
- Every person who repents and believes the gospel will be saved. In other words, whosoever responds to the gospel command will be received by the Father. It is our belief that the gospel requires us to declare to ALL HUMANITY that Jesus laid down his life for the forgiveness of sins to ALL who would believe.
- Because men love darkness they are unwilling to repent and believe.
- People will not desire Christ and thus understand the gospel until they first are given a new nature. (1 Cor. 2:14; John 1:13; John 6:39, 44, 63-65;1 Pet 1:3).“He still sets apart a favored people for Himself and restores our spiritual faculty that we might, in new affection for Him, turn and believe the gospel.”
Objections:There is no problem with points 1 through 3, but possibly with 4 (if it means ALL men, and unable), and definitely 5. None of the verses in point 5 hint at a new nature given before an expression of faith. None speak of restoring our spiritual faculty before belief.
A two-stage salvation? Affection before birth? Life before life? Are there people who are in limbo— somewhere between life and death, between quickened and saved? And do these people in limbo have the choice (free will) to either accept God or reject him? If they don’t have a choice, then there is still no free will involved in salvation, and Calvinism asserts that there is. If they do, then it must invent a class of people who are quickened but lost. There is no such group of people either expressed or implied in the Bible.
In its zeal to avoid man’s having any part in meriting salvation, which is Biblical, Calvinism makes the mistake of equating the acceptance of a gift with the earning of a wage, which is not Biblical. Without Christ’s sacrifice it would have been impossible to be saved; with it, it is possible. This fact alone makes our salvation completely dependent on Jesus. God, in his sovereignty, has permitted us to choose whether to accept or reject the free gift of salvation, offered to all but accepted by only a few.
God’s permissive will is not a lack of power or sovereignty. Our choices are within controlled conditions— controlled by God. Calvinism already concedes God’s permissive will in its arguments against universalism (God desires all to be saved, but doesn’t always do what he desires). Permission cannot exist without choice. If there was no choice (no free will), then none of God“s will would be permissive— it would all be directive.
Specific Scriptures:1 Cor. 2:11-14 is not speaking about the ability to accept the Gospel message but about spiritual truths in general.
John 1:13 is illustrating the difference between physical procreation and spiritual birth, not that people are incapable of making spiritual decisions. Verse 12 says ”to all who received him he gave the right to become children of God“, which is shown in opposition to those of physical birth. So this right to be spiritually born (regenerated) follows reception, yet Calvinism claims it precedes it.
John 6:39 refers to the security of the believer, which has no bearing on the issue of predestination. Verse 44 is presumed to mean that the Father doesn’t draw everyone, even though Jesus said that he would draw ”all men“ to himself (John 12:32). Verses 63-65 show his foreknowledge. The ”enabled“ of verse 65 are those of verse 12, the ones who are receptive. 1 Peter 1:3 is not a proof of predestination, since no one argues that birth is anything but a gift.
Acts 16:14b: ”the Lord opened her heart to respond“ seems on the surface to mean that he made the choice for her. But notice that it was only after the apostles ”spoke to the women“ that she responded. Is it ”quickening“or faith that comes from hearing the word (Romans 10:17)? The phrase ”opened her heart“ in context most likely means that she understood the message. God can limit or increase a person’s perception (see also Luke 24:31-32), but this does not violate free will because a person is still responsible for what they understand. The choices may be few or many, broad or restricted, but we are responsible for whatever those choices are.
1 John 5:1: ”Whoever believes... is born of God“ is taken by Calvinism to mean that the being born caused the believing, but the word order gives me the clear impression that it is the believing that causes the being born. According to Mounce’s Analytical Greek Lexicon, the word translated is [or has been] born is gegennhtai which is parsed as perfect passive indicative 3rd person singular:
- Perfect= a past event with continuing action
- passive= action done to subject by another
- indicative= shows a fact
- 3rd person= he/she/it
- singular= one subject.
The big issue, though, is exactly when in the past the action happened. To say that the Greek tense shows that being born happened before belief begs the question. Here again, the fact that the sentence mentions first belief, then birth, would give more weight to identifying the timing of events as belief and then birth.
John 5:21 - ”is Jesus Himself clearly exercising sovereignty on whom He will grant the spiritual resurrection: ’For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will’. But to whom does he will? The answer is found in 2 Peter 3:9 - “The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. To read anything else into that verse - that any and all refer only to those chosen by God to be saved - begs the question. (see also John 12:32 discussion above)
John 10:16 - “Is evangelism making sheep or gathering sheep?” The Calvinistic view, of course, is that the sheep already exist but are not yet ’gathered’, meaning there are people who are regenerated but not yet saved. On the other hand, there’s verses 9 and 10: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved... I have come that they may have life...”. Obvious emphasis on will be and may have, which means they’re not “alive” yet, and thus not “regenerated”. Who are the “other sheep”? They are Gentiles, the ones who are “not of this fold”. So Jesus is saying that he will make the two “folds” into one; he will extend salvation not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.
Calvinism claims that the spiritually dead cannot make spiritual choices, and thus choose life. But in Deut. 30:19 Israel is told that the moral choice between life and death was before them, and that they should choose life. Why the admonishment to choose life if no choice were possible? Romans 1:21 shows the ungodly knowing God but rejecting him; Romans 2:8 speaks of them rejecting the truth; Romans 5:18 speaks of both the condemnation and justification of all, not just some or many. 1 John 2:2 says “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world”.
Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s love and holiness working together. It is a complete act in itself, satisfying God’s holiness and demonstrating his love for all. The Cross was necessary even if not one soul ever accepted it, because justice had to be met and love had to be proven. Those two things having been completed by God alone, nothing else is needed or possible on our part. This is the point at which some would say “everybody’s going to heaven”, but available salvation is not the same as accepted salvation. We have no part in our salvation, but we can choose to accept it or reject it. In so doing, we are not working with God, we are simply accepting him.
Salvation is purely a gift. But for a gift to be exchanged, acceptance must be made. Does this mean that the giver “works with” the receiver, or that the receiver “has a part in” the gift? No, the acceptance of a gift is simply a choice. The receiver could not earn the gift or it would no longer be a gift but a wage. The giver earned the item to be given but was under no obligation to offer it to anyone. When a man proposes to a woman, he is motivated by love to spend money on a ring. He then offers this ring he paid for to her, not requiring her to accept it, but simply offering it. She is free to choose either way. In accepting it, she has not earned it or had any part in its purchase. So it is with salvation.
Calvinism says: “Regeneration (the new birth) both precedes and elicits faith in Christ. The only reason you were able to receive Christ was because you were first ”made alive“ or ”quickened“ by the Holy Spirit when you were regenerated.”
But to say that regeneration (the new birth) precedes faith is to say that birth precedes birth! Since it is faith that saves me, and since the moment of salvation is the moment I am reborn, then the new birth cannot precede faith. Romans 10:9 says, “if you confess... and believe... you will be saved”. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith it is impossible to please God”, yet Calvinism proposes a ’regeneration’ without faith. In John 3:15 Jesus says that whoever believes has eternal life. Therefore, whoever does not believe does not have life. In other words, to not believe is to be dead, so life (the new birth) cannot precede belief.
Can God love the dead? John 3:16 says that he loved the world, not that he only loved the living. The world is always contrasted with God’s people, so it refers to the lost, i.e., the dead. John 3:17 says that “God sent his son into the world so that it might [made it possible] be saved”. The lost, or dead, have the opportunity to be saved. Romans 5:8 says that Christ died for us while we were still sinners - while we were still dead (see also Eph. 2:1), and that this was in demonstration of his love for us - the dead! So the Bible says that God loves the dead.
Now if God can love and die for the dead, he can certainly offer them a gift - the Gift of Life (when you think about it, to whom else could life be offered?). To say that he cannot is to limit God to our finite understanding. Yes, in human terms, gifts and love are not offered to the dead, but this is God we’re talking about. The analogy of human love and giving is meant to illustrate the fact that the exchange of a gift does not involve works of any kind.
To say that only Adam was truly made in God’s image (had the true power of choice) is to say that none of his offspring are made in God’s image— in contradiction of Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9. It also means that there was no point in God giving us his Word, or filling that Word with exhortations to choose, strive, content, etc., for the results are predetermined by God and will come to pass regardless. The fact that God’s Word exists and tells me to make choices is clear indication to me that I in fact do have the power to truly choose, not simply to react.
Objections to Calvinism’s TULIP:
Total DepravityMan is corrupt and sinful and incapable of saving himself in whole or in part. But total depravity is not taught in Scripture. We, even though “dead”, have the capacity to choose between good and evil. Accepting the Gospel does not constitute a “work”, since the acceptance of a gift is not the payment of a wage.
Perseverance of the Saints
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son” (it does not say “predestined to be elect”). The “elect” are those who choose to accept the gift of salvation, and God has known from eternity past who that would be. These are, then, through no choice or power of their own, predestined to conform to Jesus. It is this new nature, which we are given as the result of faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is incapable of rejecting the Gospel - not the old nature being incapable of accepting it.
Jesus died for the whole world, not just the predestined. Scriptural support was given previously.
Grace is not a force to be resisted, but a condition to be acknowledged. In Romans 6:14 it is contrasted with law, so grace is defined as freedom from the law. Those who, in this current dispensation of the church age (see Eph. 3:2), accept this gift from God are no longer under bondage to the Law. Without this gift we would have no hope of salvation; therefore, our hope of salvation is totally dependent upon God. We are saved by placing our faith in the grace of God instead of in our own abilities.
What Calvinism means by “perseverance” is that although we are saved by God’s election alone, we must then keep believing in order to stay saved. After being saved we still have no free will because we can’t choose unbelief. But the Bible declares that we choose to be saved, and once that choice is made we are in a fixed moral state (Rev. 22:11) because we have a new nature (see Gal. 2:20). We who believe are already in possession of eternal life. The word eternal is meaningless if it can be lost.
ConclusionThe Bible says that:
- Salvation is through faith in the Gospel of Christ.
- We are accountable for our choices, therefore we have a free will.
- God loves us all and offers a gift to us, neither of which depends on us.