Predestination and Free Agency - Romans 8:29, 30; Ephesians 1:5, 11 by W. E. Best

How can a person be a free and responsible agent if his actions were foreordained from eternity? “Free and responsible agent” indicates that an intelligent person acts with rational self-determination. The term foreordination signifies that from eternity God made certain the course of events that occur in the life of every person and in the course of nature. The same God who ordained all events ordained the free agency of man in the midst of those foreordained events. Free agency is under God’s absolute sovereignty.

The gospel is forced upon none against his will. Man is made willing in the day of God’s power (Ps. 110:3). If the absolute determination of events is within man’s hands, man has become superior to God. His will has become primary and God’s will, secondary. Conversely, the Bible teaches that God’s will is supreme and does not depend on man. The will of God makes the will of man willing to embrace the gospel to which by nature he is opposed.

The word predestination is a translation of the Greek word prooridzo which is made up of two Greek words. The suffix horidzo means to mark out, appoint, decree, determine, or ordain. The prefix pro means fore, in front of, prior to, or before. Hence, the compound word translated predestination means to determine or appoint beforehand. This places limitation upon someone beforehand, and brings a person within the sphere of a certain future, or destiny. Conclusively, the foreknown have had limitations placed around them which bring them within the sphere of becoming God’s children (Eph. 1:5) and of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). Hence, glory and honor must be attributed to the sovereign God by every recipient of grace.

Only a person governed by natural feelings rather than a revelation of truth through a sanctified mind could accuse those who believe in absolute predestination of fatalism. One person erroneously said that the logical conclusion of believing that events occur as predetermined is that God is guilty of all manner of sin.

Others regard divine sovereignty and human responsibility as one of many Bible antinomies. They illustrate their belief by comparing the so-called antinomy to two natural forces—centrifugal and centripetal force. They say these are complementary forces which contribute to the harmonious operation of the universe, and are analogous to divine sovereignty and human responsibility. They conclude that antinomies in nature prove that there are antinomies in Biblical theology. They believe that since the Author of nature is the Author of revelation, one may reasonably conclude that Scripture contains difficulties analogous to those in nature.

However, the Reformers and early church fathers correctly interpreted predestination and the free agency of man. They stated that the two Biblical truths do not conflict. The blending of the absolute sovereignty of God and the free agency of man is illustrated in every earthly kingdom. The king has the right to impose laws, and his subjects have the duty to observe them. God’s right to impose law arises from His sovereignty. Man’s duty to observe His law grows from his responsibility as a created being to his Creator.

Let us discuss predestination and free agency from three premises: (1) Biblical predestination is not fatalism. (2) Biblical predestination does not eliminate man’s free agency. (3) Biblical predestination does not reduce the will of man to a mere machine.

1. BIBLICAL PREDESTINATION IS NOT FATALISM. The Mohammedan concept of predestination is fatalistic. In genuine fatalism, fate is a natural force. The fatalist excludes mind and purpose, and confuses God with natural law. According to the Stoic, God is natural law and His other name is Destiny. He believes that human actions spring from irrational forces. The Christian, however, is assured that actions proceed from the loving, heavenly Father. He can say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd.... He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.... Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me...thou anointest my head with oil...” (Ps. 23).

If a fatalist were truly consistent, he would stop eating. After all, he is going to die anyway. And if it is his fate to live many years, he need not eat—he cannot die if his fate is to live many years. So, you see, no person can be consistently fatalistic. Since God has foreordained that a man shall live, He has also foreordained that he shall be kept from the suicidal folly of refusing to eat.

Fatalism is a heathen doctrine, but predestination is a Christian doctrine. It is called “destination” because it comprehends a determined order of the means to the end. It is called “pre”-destination because God appointed that order in and with Himself before the actual existence of those things He so ordered. God’s providence completes in time what He predestined in eternity.

Predestination recognizes the order of the universe. Since God is the God of order, predestination not only calls attention to God but to theodicy—vindication of God in all His actions. Providence is predestination in execution, and predestination is providence in its intention. The Christian looks “through” and not “at” providence to behold the fulfillment of God’s predetermined will. Therefore, he does not panic under circumstances but sees God’s determination before the foundation of the world revealed through His providential actions.

The Christian is not in the hands of a cold, immutable determinism, but in the hands of the warm, loving, heavenly Father. The tribulation he experiences teaches him to give glory to God (Rom. 5:3-5). Every Christian’s faith is so tested. Abraham’s faith was severely tested when God told him to offer Isaac. Nevertheless, he willingly denied his own selfish ambitions and did as God commanded. The Lord prevented Abraham from slaying his son, and He provided a substitute (Gen. 22:1-13). Abraham was not actually required to slay his son, but the desire to fulfill God’s will was in his heart. He looked through that providential act and saw the working out of God’s eternal purpose.

Predestination signifies that God created all things, and His providence extends to all His works. God Himself is free, and He has provided that man shall be free within the limits of his nature. Although man does not have a free will, he is a free agent.

The certain salvation of some is no hindrance to the endeavors of all. Suppose a minister could assure an assembly of unsaved people that ten of them would be saved, but no one knew who the ten were. That would not discourage others in the congregation, and it would not discourage the proclamation of the gospel. It would cause everyone to want to be under the sound of the gospel because God calls by the gospel. Ministers who believe the truth of predestination may preach with conviction, determination, and assurance. The Word which is preached in all its purity will not return void but accomplish the purpose for which God sends it: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11). Hence, persons who proclaim the truth become “...a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life...” (II Cor. 2:15, 16). Divine predestination assures salvation to some. However, the Arminian assumption that Jesus Christ provided salvation for all makes it sure to none—every man must exercise his own free will, and there is no assurance that any will do so.

The primary reason a man is likely to object to predestination is his unwillingness to acknowledge that he is at the disposal of another. Man desires self-disposal rather than control by the sovereign God. An often-sung hymn that states that one was “a wandering sheep and would not be controlled” should be corrected to state that he would not admit that he was controlled. The truth of predestination destroys a person’s pride and casts him at the feet of the sovereign God.

2. BIBLICAL PREDESTINATION DOES NOT ELIMINATE MAN’S FREE AGENCY. God ordained human history and free agency in the midst of it. Self-determination belongs only to man. God has the right to make laws, and man is obligated to obey them. Man is responsible for his volition—his disposition, or inclination, is self-moved. An animal is not responsible for his volition because instinct is not self-moved. Spontaneity in man is rational self-determination, whereas in an animal it is nothing more than physical instinct. Man’s spontaneity is the object of either approbation or disapprobation—his sense of reason makes him responsible. However, spontaneity in an animal is the object of neither approbation nor disapprobation. An animal is not a free agent.

Man’s free actions are not excluded from God’s foreordination. Moreover, God’s foreordination should not be regarded as overriding man’s free agency. Servitude of the depraved will does not turn history into a frivolous marionette show. Because Judas followed his own depraved desires, the Lord told him that it would have been good had he not been born (Mark 14:21).

The question concerning sin and holiness relates to inclination rather than to volition. Inclinations are born in man but choices are not; the will is not determined by the preceding state of mind. Consequently, a man is free so long as his volitions are conscious expressions of his own mind, or his activity is determined and controlled by his reason and fears.

Foreknowledge and foreordination stand or fall together. Since God knows even the most infinitesimal things (Matt. 10:29, 30), it is contradictory to say He foreknows the certainty of an event which in its very nature is uncertain. Divine certainty does not conflict with free agency, since God’s decree does not produce an event. The same decree that determines the certainty of an event also determines the freedom of the agent of the event.

If God’s foreknowledge were inconsistent with free agency, His foreordination would be inconsistent with it. God is a free Agent, and it is a certainty that He will always do right. It is also a certainty that fallen men, Satan, and demons will always do wrong. The will of man does nothing by constraint from without, since outward determination of an act renders it not free. The will of man is, instead, constrained from within. Inward, rational determination demonstrates the freedom of an act. Action prompted from within proves the free agency of man. Although a person may be unaware of it, from the first to the last moments of his life, he acts in absolute subservience to the purposes and decrees of God concerning him.

3. BIBLICAL PREDESTINATION DOES NOT REDUCE THE WILL OF MAN TO A MERE MACHINE. The alternatives to predestination are determinism and indeterminism. Atheistic determinism refuses to acknowledge God as the first cause. It goes no further with causes than the boundaries of this world. Nonatheistic determinism traces causality to God, but that kind of causality excludes human responsibility. Although the term determinism does come within the vocabulary of Christian conversation, the Christian doctrine of predestination and free agency presents something other than determinism and indeterminism. The word of God reveals the almighty activity of God and human responsibility at the same time.

Determinism and free agency are incompatible. Hence, divine determinism differs from determinism as it is generally understood. The rigidity of determinism is found nowhere in the Scriptures, but neither are responsibility, guilt, and punishment crowded out by God’s sovereign power. Every man “...shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead” (I Peter 4:5). “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).

Those who believe that God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s responsibility are contradictory must embrace one of two erroneous perspectives. They make man the creator of events, and place history in his hands; or they make history a divine game in which human beings, void of responsibility, are pushed about like checkers.

A Biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty and man’s free agency does not lead a person to be unconcerned about everything because all is predetermined. Many react in that manner after first coming to the knowledge of God’s absolute sovereignty, but further instruction in the Word of God leads them to see man’s duty. Predestination and responsibility are not competitive or mutually exclusive ideas as determinism would rationalize. The Bible teaches a divine activity “over” and “in” the activities of man. God overrules what He does not causally produce.

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