44. How can God be sovereign and man still be free?

Responsibility and voluntary choice are not the same thing as free will. We affirm that man is indeed responsible for the choices he makes, yet we deny that the Bible teaches that man has a free will since it is no where taught in the pages of Scripture. The Bible teaches, rather, that God ordains all things that come to pass (Eph 1:11) and it also teaches that man is culpable for his choices (Ezek 18:20, Matt 12:37, John 9:41). Since the Scripture is our ultimate authority and highest presuppsosition, the multitude of clear scriptural declarations on this matter outweigh all unaided human logic. We find that almost always the objections to God's meticulous providence over all things are moral and philosophical rather than exegetical. This means we must strive to consciously affirm what the Scripture declares over all our finite understanding and sinful inner drive for independence.

In order to understand this better theologians have come up with the term "compatibilism" to describe the concurrence of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Compatibilism is a form of determinism and it should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism. It simply means that God's predetermination and meticulous providence is "compatible" with voluntary choice. Our choices are not coerced ...i.e. we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God's sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass (Eph 1:11).

In light of Scripture, (according to compatibilism), human choices are exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism. For example, God is said to specifically ordain the crucifixion of His Son, and yet evil men willfully and voluntarily crucify Him (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). This act of evil is not free from God's decree, but it is voluntary, and these men are thus responsible for the act, according to these Texts. Or when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, Joseph later recounted that what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20). God determines and ordains that these events will take place (that Joseph will be sold into slavery), yet the brothers voluntarily make the evil choice that beings it to pass, which means the sin is imputed to Joseph's brothers for the wicked act, and God remains blameless. In both of these cases, it could be said that God ordains sin, sinlessly. Nothing occurs apart from His sovereign good pleasure.

We should be clear that NEITHER compatibilism nor hard determinism affirms that any man has a free will. Those who believe man has a free will are not compatibilists, but should, rather, be called "inconsistent". Our choices are our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures, nor seperately from God's meticulous providence. Furthermore, compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, a choice without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most according to our disposition and inclinations. The former view (libertarianism) is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency. (the fallen will is never free from the bondage of our corrupt nature, and and not free, in any sense, from God's eternal decree.) The reason I emphasize this is that compatibilists are often misrepresented by hard determinists at this point. They are somehow confused with inconsistent Calvinists. When compatibilists use such phrases as "compatibilistic freedom", they are, more often than not, using it to mean 'voluntary' choice, but are not referring to freedom FROM God's decree or absolute sovereignty (an impossible supposition).

In biblical terminology, fallen man is in bondage to a corruption of nature and that is why the biblical writers considered him not free (see Rom 6). Jesus Himself affirms that the one who sins is a "slave to sin" and only the Son can set him free. Note that even Jesus speaks of a kind of freedom here. He is not speaking of freedom from God but freedom from the bondage of sin, which is the kind of freedom those have who are in Christ. In this sense God is the most free Person since He is holy, set apart from sin... yet He cannot make choices contrary to His essence, i.e. He cannot be unholy. So, we must conclude, according to Jesus in John 8:31-36, that the natural man does not have a free will. The will is in bondage to sin. Any consistent theologian who uses the term "freedom" usually is referring to that fact that while God sovereignly ordains all that comes to pass, yet man's "free choice" (voluntary) is compatible with God's sovereign decree. In other words the will is free from external coercion but not free from necessity. In my reckoning, there is no biblical warrant to use the phrase "free will", since the Bible never affirms or uses this term or concept. So when some theologians use the word "free" they may be misusing or importing philosophical language from outside the Bible, but I think anyone who is consistent with the Text means "voluntary" when they say "free", but NEVER affirm they are free from God in any sense. For to affirm that God sovereignly brings our choices to pass and then also say man is free FROM GOD, is self-contradictory. So I repeat, many of those whom I read seem equate the word freedom with the meaning "voluntary". If any mean "free from God" they are confused. I heard R.C. Sproul say there are "no maverick molecules". Nothing happens by chance, but all falls within God's meticulous providence, no exceptions.

One of the best statements on compatibilism is one I found from John Calvin:

"...we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man's innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.
- John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70

Prior to the fall, Adam's will was not in bondage to sin, thus it was free from sin's bondage and corruption but it was not free from God's decree. His choice to rebel was completely voluntary even though God has ordained with certainty that it would come to pass. He was not yet sealed in righteousness even though his inclination was toward the good. Through Satans devices, that he overcame his own good inclination and chose evil makes original sin all the more heinous.

We highly recommend this very helpful video recently delivered by John MacArthur on the issue of sovereignty and responsibility.


I would also like to share an important email exchange I previously had on this issue that I think some might find helpful. A visitor asked some important questions on on Calvinism, Evil and God's Holiness.


Dear Mr. Hendryx,

I've been reading your website with interest and find it to be one of the very best Calvinistic resources I've seen on the net. I am not a Calvinist, though I can't say I'm decisively against Calvinism either. I still have lingering questions which I hope you might be able to answer, or point me to ressources that would help.

Perhaps my main objection to accepting Calvinism involves the problem of evil. I've read several of the articles you have on the subject (by Piper, Bahnsen, [Cheung] and two others by authors whose names I can't recall), but none
seemed to offer any new or helpful answers to my objections/doubts/questions.

This is what I understand the Calvinistic claim to be: God is sovereign over everything, having decreed before the foundation of the world everything that will come to pass. This would include, I should think, all moral evil, whether realized in word, thought or deed, or merely imagined in man's heart. In other words, before there was a devil, man, or sin, God 'imagined' (for lack of a better word) all of the horrific, sinful and debased things that have ever and will ever come to pass, and then chose to actualize them. God was not coerced into allowing evil to exist as if it was outside of his power. Rather, God chose to actualize sin and evil where before there was none. Would that be an accurate conception so far?

If it is, then my first thought is that whether or not God uses the Devil or humans as 'secondy' causes of these evils seems to be a moot point at best. I can't help but think that sin, death, and the Devil are nothing more than God in disguise. When I ask some Calvinist friends about this they usually answer in one of two way. Either to say (1) reconciling a holy God with an evil decree is a mystery we should not even talk about; or (2) God is unquestionably the author of evil, but since God is God, and by definition all that he does is good, he can do whatever he likes. And so we come to my two objection or concerns with Calvinism.

My first problem is fairly straightforward: I have one life to live - why should I spend it serving a God who admittedly is the author of all evil in the world, especially when there are other equally plausible Christian accounts of God that claim he is not the author of evil? Wouldn't making God the first cause of all evil be a reason to think that account is false?

Secondly, if God is the first cause/author of evil, it would seem that claims by Calvinists that God is good, just, or holy, are pretty hollow. At least I haven't read any that seem even remotely convincing. But I have a deep-seated conviction that God is holy, and could not be the inventer, creator or decree-er of evil, therefore its hard for me to accept that Calvinism is true. Rather than being holy or good, it seems to me that in Calvinism what is decisive is that God is all-powerful, where might makes right. He's holy because he says he's holy; He's good because he says he is good, even if he acts contrarily to what he has decreed to be good and holy. I'll leave what questions/comments/objections at that, and hope you might be able to point a way forward. Cheers, Shawn


Shawn, Thanks for your email. It appears from your email that most all of your objections are moral rather than exegetical. You are, therefore, basing your considerations and thus your theological future on shakey ground...

The conclusions you eventually reach, I would contend, should be based on what the Scripture says. For the alternative is to draw your highest presuppositions from something other than an authoritative source, such as unaided human reason. It would likewise cause you to draw the erroneous conclusion that God can somehow be taken by surprise ... that there is actually something called "chance" in the universe, something over which God has no control, and thus it very well may be that, in the end, this thing called chance will get the upper hand. For if God had no control over evil entering the universe (i.e. if it was against his will but occured anyway), then it would appear He is not all-powerful and that there is some other entity in the universe which may even be more powerful than He. Such is what we must conclude from the position you seem to be toying with. My advice is to come up with exegetical grounds for your position, rather than base your theology on an emotional reaction against someone elses. Truth must be derived from looking at the whole counsel of Scripture, not just texts we like.

Remember, regarding the death of Jesus the Biblical text says, "...both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done." (Acts 4:27-28)

So the Bible itself testifies that God ordained evil men to crucify Jesus. Acts 2 says the same. So you need to be able to develop a theology which fits that into your view. While you may not understand it, you must yield to what the Scripture teaches regarding God's meticulous hand of providence in all things:

God "works all things after the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11). This "all things" includes the fall of sparrows (Matthew 10:29), the rolling of dice (Proverbs 16:33), the slaughter of his people (Psalm 44:11), the decisions of kings (Proverbs 21:1), the failing of sight (Exodus 4:11), the sickness of children (2 Samuel 12:15), the loss and gain of money (1 Samuel 2:7), the suffering of saints (1 Peter 4:19), the completion of travel plans (James 4:15), the persecution of Christians (Hebrews 12:4-7), the repentance of souls (2 Timothy 2:25), the gift of faith (Philippians 1:29), the pursuit of holiness (Philippians 3:12-13), the growth of believers (Hebrews 6:3), the giving of life and the taking in death (1 Samuel 2:6), and the crucifixion of his Son (Acts 4:27-28).

From the smallest thing to the greatest thing, good and evil, happy and sad, pagan and Christian, pain and pleasure - God governs them all for his wise and just and good purposes (Isaiah 46:10). Lest we miss the point, the Bible speaks most clearly to this in the most painful situations. Amos asks, in time of disaster, "If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?" (Amos 3:6). After losing all ten of his children in the collapse of his son's house, Job says, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21). After being covered with boils he says, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (Job 2:10).

John Piper once wisely said, "Oh, yes, Satan is real and active and involved in this world of woe! In fact Job 2:7 says, "Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." Satan struck him. But Job did not get comfort from looking at secondary causes. He got comfort from looking at the ultimate cause. "Shall we not accept adversity from God?" And the author of the book agrees with Job when he says that Job's brothers and sisters "consoled him and comforted him for all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him" (Job 42:11). Then James underlines God's purposeful goodness in Job's misery: "You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful" (James 5:11). Job himself concludes in prayer: "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2). Yes, Satan is real, and he is terrible - and he is on a leash."

As for the alternative views you are considering, they cannot consistently say that God foreknew who would be saved and then preach that God is trying to save every man. Surely if God knows whom He can save or who will be saved, then who would say that He is trying to save more? Certainly, it is foolish to assert that God is trying to do something which He knew never could be accomplished.

Likewise other positions cannot consistently say that God foreknew which sinners would be lost and then say it is not within God's will to allow these sinners to be lost. Why did He create them? It is important that the synergist consider this question. God could have just as easily refrained from creating those that He knew would go to Hell. He knew where they were going before He created them, correct?. Since He went ahead and created them with full knowledge that they would be lost, it is evidently within God's providence that some sinners be lost, He evidently has some purpose in it which we human beings cannot fully discern. The Christian humanist can complain against the truth that God chose to allow some men a final destiny of Hell all they want, but it is as much a problem for them as for anyone. As a matter of fact, it is a problem which they must face like anyone else. If they face it, he will have to admit either the error of his theology or deny foreknowledge all together. But he might say that God had to create those that perish, even against His will. This would make God subject to Fate.

Likewise these cannot consistently say that God foreknew who would be saved and then preach that God the Holy Spirit does all He can do to save every man in the world. The Holy Spirit would be wasting time and effort to endeavor to convert a man who He knew from the beginning would go to Hell. You hear these other positions talk about how the Spirit tries to get men to be saved and if they don't yield to him they will "cross the line" and offend the Spirit so that He will never try to save them again. Bottom line, the synergist makes a finite creature out of the Divine Godhead.

Listen, when disaster strikes, we should not sit around and presume that such persons must have done something worse than we did to have to deserved such a thing. Rather, we should wonder why it did not happen to us. When the tower of Siloam fell on some people, Jesus said, "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:4,5) In other words, disaster should strike into our hearts the precarious position of mankind as a whole before God and His judgment, specificially it should make us consider that but for the grace of God, that would be me.

Hope this helps clarify some things ...most of all, I would challenge you to let the conclusions you ultimately draw take into account all biblical evidence.


Visitor response.....

Dear Mr. Hendryx,

Thank you for your reasoned reply. You are right to point out that my objections and conclusions need to be shaped by exegesis rather than by reason. That is a lesson I find hard to accept, and yet it is one I must surely learn.




Note on Responsibility:

It is important that we make some clear distinctions here. In contrast to many who inconsistently affirm that man has free will, I will demonstrate below that responsibility is not the same thing as freedom. While we affirm that man is indeed responsible for the choices he makes, yet we deny that the Bible teaches that man has a free will.  It is no where taught in the pages of Scripture.  In fact, just the opposite is taught throughout its pages. Consider this: Whenever someone acknowledges the need for grace, they do away with free will altogether. For what need is there for grace if man can come to Christ of his own will power? And since all true Christians acknowledge the need of grace, they all deny free-will perhaps without knowing it. Again, God calls all men to obey the Ten Commandments. but they are morally impotent to do so. This plainly demonstrates, from one small example, that inability does not alleviate responsibility. Paul says the reason for the divine legislation is not to prove our ability but to reveal sin, or our inability (Rom 3:19, 20) Christ alone sets us free from our bondage to sin (John 8:36, Romans 6:18). We all affirm that man is free from outside coercion, but he is not free of necessity. His choices are voluntary, but in bondage to sin. The Bible expresses this in this way: "A sow, after washing, returns to its wallowing in the mud." In other words, the pig does what is natural to it, which is wallow in the mud and so does the natural man who will not submit to the humling terms of the gospel apart from a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit (John 6:63) to give him a new heart.

A very good way to begin a discussion when someone claims man has a free will is to define freedom. Ask the question: free from what? Free from sin? These questions go a long way to get the discussion on the right track.

Again, we affim that God is sovereign and man makes voluntary choices, and so is responsible for his actions. However, the more fundamental question is, “Does the bible teach that God is sovereign and that man chooses things without external coercion, for which he is responsible?”. If God has spoken in his word, our first duty is to believe, whether or not we can at first reconcile what he has said in our finite minds. Often He will grant us more understanding as the whole counsel of Scripture unfolds. To those tempted to cavil against God's absolute sovereignty, or to charge him with evil, I would encourage you to let God's word speak ... take the time to read and yield to the authority of Scripture, not what what feels comfortable to you. Since God has reveals a lot about this topic in Scripture He obviously meant for us to think about it. But when we charge God with evil or injustice we are on very shakey ground. In response to those who reject God's meticulous sovereignty, the Scripture says, “On the contrary, who are you to reply back to God?” (Rom 9:20). However, having said this, we can demonstrate from Scripture that sovereignty and responsibility are both clear biblical truth, and since God's is the author of all logic we can look to the Scripture to let it change our understanding.

Consider this.  If a person borrows $1 billion to fund a company and then goes and squanders it in a week of wild living in Las Vegas, his inability to repay the debt does not alleviate him of the responsibility to do so.  Our condition in Adam is like a debt we cannot repay.  We are responsible.  The command to believe the gospel is to be proclaimed to all men. All are responsible to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was crucified for sinners, then rose from the dead and that He grants forgiveness of sin to ALL who believe. But when the synergist says but "men may be saved if they will." we must reply, "Agreed, we all believe that; however, it is the "if they will" that is the difficulty. Are men ever found NATURALLY willing to submit to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ? Jesus Himself declares that no man will come to Christ unless God grants it (John 6:63-65).

So God may save whom he will according to His sovereign good pleasure (Eph 1:3-5) because left to himself, no one would come to Christ, apart from the work of the Spirit. So while man's choices are not free from sin, yet the Bible clearly teaches that they are voluntary. He chooses what he desires but a bad tree only produces bad fruit. Only a miracle of God's grace in Christ can make the tree (and fruit) good. Natural men must first be born from above if they are to either see or enter the kingdom of God ... "born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.: (John 1:13). Scholars agree that "the flesh" refers to the natural man; or the person without the Holy Spirit. The Apostle here demonstrates, therefore, that our will to believe does not come from a person who is still in their unregenerate state.

1. Note: The natural man is not free. He is neither free to thwart God's decree, nor is he free from sin's bondage, but with regard to salvation, he is free from external coersion. He rejects Christ voluntarily unless God has mercy on him.

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