Adam and Eve struggled with God’s Word when the serpent strategically asked, “Did God really say…”. The question provoked doubt and an effort to submit to God. The struggle lives on today within non-Christians and Christians alike. It’s true for the Calvinist and the Arminian. All question, “Did God really say…” in their heart at some point in life. All struggle with doubt and submission to God. However, answers and views to such questions must be established in the Scriptures alone and understood to not always be delineated. Deep study does not always yield definitive resolutions. The finite cannot exhaustively define the infinite.
The relationship of God’s providence with human responsibility is one of these perplexing issues that has caused many to ask, “Did God really say?”. Theologians have debated this issue for centuries. The answer will not be definitive here. However, seekers of truth should investigate. Yet, it is imperative that an appropriate view be humbly built upon a foundation of Scripture. The free will defense and compatibilism offer alternative views to the debate. Both views have their strengths as well as weaknesses. Neither provide a definitive answer. Still, does Scripture present one view over the other as more faithful? If so, then the follower of God must humbly submit to God’s Word and say, “God really did say…”.
Libertarianism will be defined and reviewed according to its proponents. Primary sources will be explored to come to an appropriate understanding of this view. The understanding of God’s providence, what is meant by “freedom”, and how they relate will be developed. Likewise, compatibilism will be defined and presented just as thoughtfully. Both views believe to hold Scripture as their foundation which will be examined. Finally, objections will be addressed after the argument for the favored position. While libertarianism utilizes Scripture, compatibilism presents itself as the more faithful view because of its affirmation of the relationship between God’s providence and human responsibility according to the whole Scriptures as well as not denying the Scriptural teaching of God’s full nature.
When thinking about libertarianism, an understanding of what is meant by God’s providence is in order. The word “providence” is not found in Scripture but can be understood to be God’s actively working in his creation. Libertarian, Thomas Oden, defines God’s providence as “God’s own act by which God orders all events in creation, nature, and history, so that the ends for which God created them will be in due time realized.” For Oden, God upholds, cooperates, and guides his creation as acts of providence. The sovereignty of God is another way in which the providence of God can be understood. If God orders all events, in accordance with Oden’s definition, what does one do with evil? How can God’s providence be reconciled with evil found in the world? For Oden and other Libertarians, the free will defense relieves the tension.
What does it mean to be “free” though? Richard Rice states, “For human beings to be genuinely free, it seems, they must not only be able to do what they choose, they must also be able to choose otherwise.” Humanity must have the ability to choose choice “A” and, at the same time, be able to choose choice “not A” in order to be truly free. Libertarianism finds its foundation on this particular understanding of “freedom”. The will of man is free of any causation outside of itself. Therefore, man is the only responsible party when it comes to his choices and God is cooperating with man’s choices. The Libertarian says, “I choose because I choose and no other reason.” John Frame states that, according to this view, humanity has “a godlike independence when we make free choices.”
Therefore, man’s choice conditions God’s will. If all men are truly free to choose apart from God, then God must respond to man’s free choices in order to act. This is the condition of God’s love. “If man’s action is truly free,” Jack Cottrell says, “then God does not cause it but responds to it. If he cannot respond to it, then he must cause it.” However, according to Cottrell, not all of God’s acts have been conditioned. God’s providence acted unconditionally in the creation. Cottrell states, “Nothing outside of God influenced or conditioned his original motivating purpose for making this world and for making the kind of world it is.” This is the idea of general providence. Cottrell, and other Libertarians, disagrees with compatibilists that God is working within the specifics. He states, “we can say that God has a specific purpose for the whole of creation in general: to glorify himself and to share his goodness…But God does not have a specific, unconditional purpose for each discrete particle, object, person, and even within creation” (emphasis author’s).
Since God is conditioned to man’s free will, God is limited. This is not denied by free will proponents. God has created other free beings and allowed them to exist alongside himself. Cottrell says, “God limits himself not only by creating a world as such, but also and even further by the kind of world he chose to create. That is, he chose to make a world that is relatively independent of him” (author’s emphasis). Even though God has limitations, these do not negate God’s sovereignty because God has limited himself. Therefore, according to proponents, God maintains his sovereignty.
Still, how can a sovereign God who is limited maintain control of a world that acts independently of him? The Libertarian understanding of God’s foreknowledge deals with this tension. Foreknowledge is God’s foresight of future events to which God conditionally responds according to libertarianism. While God knows all events, he does not obstruct humanity from making their own independent choices. Yet with his foreknowledge, God does intervene in his independent creation when his purposes are needed to be accomplished. Such interventions are called special providence. Cottrell states, “Still, through the subtle manipulation of such laws and of mental states, God is able to produce variations in nature and bring about free-will decisions that would not have occurred otherwise.” God is able to see all things in the future and allow his creatures to freely choose because of his self-limitation unless such choices hinder his purposes, in which, God does intervene through special providence to subtly manipulate his creature’s free-will.
Wayne Grudem defines God’s providence as God being “continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.” Libertarians and compatibilists do not disagree that God is provident and that human responsibility exists. It is important to see that both can agree on this. The disagreement lies with how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility relate.
Compatibilism does not view itself separate from the will of God. Compatibilism is understood to be a willful choice based on one’s desires which comes from the heart of a person. This is grounded in the Luke 6:45 where Scripture says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasures produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” One can read this in Matthew 7:15-20 as well as Matthew 12:33-35. A person willfully chooses according to his desires and does what he wants to do. The good out of the goodness of his heart. The evil out of the evil of his heart. Frame states, “To my knowledge, Scripture never refers to this moral consistency as a kind of freedom, but the concept of heart-act consistency is important to Scripture, and theologians and philosophers have often referred to it as freedom.” Yet what a person chooses to do is not done apart from causation or sufficient reason. Grudem states, “Scripture nowhere says that we are “free” in the sense of being outside of God’s control or being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything…An absolute ‘freedom,’ totally free of God’s control, is simply not possible in a world providentially sustained and directed by God himself.”
Since compatibilism is not outside of God’s control, is this view determinism in disguise? Compatibilists would say that most misunderstand determinism and compatibilism. The views are not the same. Grudem states that he does not use the term “determinism” because “it suggests a system in which human choices are not real and make no difference in the outcome of events; and (2) it suggests a system in which the ultimate cause of events is a mechanistic universe rather than a wise and personal God.” Frame says that “Compatibilist freedom means that even if every act we perform is caused by something outside ourselves (such as natural causes or God), we can still be free, for we can still act according to our character and desires.” Willful choices fail to exist in determinism. Willful choices are compatible with God’s sovereignty in compatibilism. Determinism is mechanistic. Compatibilism is personal.
In his book, The Providence of God, Paul Helm believes there to be a “risk” view or a “no-risk” view. He states, “On the ‘risk’ view of divine providence, not only may a free decision thwart the decree of God, but God’s decreeing any human action is inconsistent with that action’s being indeterministically free.” On the “no-risk” view he states, “The great advantage of such a view of human freedom is that, being compatible with determinism, it is also compatible with a full view of divine omniscience and omnipotence, and thus with a ‘no-risk’ theory of providence.” In the long run, compatibilists accept a view where willful choices based on one’s desires are compatible with a fully sovereign God.
Part Two: Position
When thinking through the biblical data of God’s providence, compatibilism affirms human responsibility according to the whole of Scripture with no risk to God’s full sovereignty. God does not base his decrees upon his foreknowledge but knows all because he has planned all before the foundation of the world. Man is held responsible for their willful choices because they are free agents who do the act. Their willful choices are not free to do otherwise because their willful choices are based off desires derived from a cause. The cause can be God as a primary cause or a sufficient reason as a secondary cause.
A child who chooses chicken over a variety of vegetables did not choose the chicken because he had a choice to do otherwise. He chooses the chicken because of his desires based on sufficient reasons. For the child, there is no other choice. If his father forces or coerces him to choose the other options, there is still no choice to do otherwise because of the sufficient reasons to obey his father, namely, punishment or obedience out of love. Either way his desire for the tasty chicken, his desire not to be punished, or his desire to please the father are sufficient reasons that don’t allow him to choose otherwise. The child is responsible because he acts based on his desires that are compatible with God’s sovereign decree over human nature.
For another example, a father and mother decide to teach their daughter a lesson for the purpose of godliness (a decreed test). Intimately knowing (foreknowledge) his daughter (free agent) and her love (desire) for cookies (temptation), the father bites and sets his warm, fragrant chocolate chip cookie on the counter. He walks away. Seeing the bitten cookie, the daughter desires to take it since no one is around (sufficient reason). She takes the cookie and, as she bites into it, her father walks in to find her stealing his cookie. While the father predetermined the plan, the daughter is responsible for her actions and receives the just penalty of a lecture on stealing. Her willful choice was compatible with the plan of the father and mother and, therefore, held responsible for her actions.
James 1:12-15 describes this situation:
“Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. No one undergoing a trial should say, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ since God is not tempted by evil, and he himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to sin.” (emphasis my own)
Luke 6:45 shows that what man does comes for the desires of his heart. Yet Proverb 21:1 states, “The king’s heart is like channeled water in the LORD’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses.” Paul understood that it was God who is working within the desires as well. He states in Philippians 2:13 that it is God who is working both to will (τὸ θέλειν) and to work for God’s purposes. The sense of τὸ θέλειν is that of desire. Therefore, God gives trials, or tests, but Scripture does not allow the blame to be placed on God. It is man’s own desire that gives birth to sin and man’s desire comes from his own heart. God, therefore, places responsibility on man. Still, God directs the heart and will to work as he chooses. Man’s desires are compatible with God’s sovereignty.
God’s decrees according to the counsel of his will lay the foundation. In the biblical sense, a decree is not a command given but an eternal plan established by God according to the counsel of His will. Psalm 139:16 states, “Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.” (CSB) The psalmist recognizes that God had every single day of his life planned before any even began. Proverbs 16:4 gives evidence that God’s decrees were prepared beforehand as well. “The LORD has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of disaster.” (Prov 16:4 CSB) Both Psalms 139 and Proverbs 16 see that man’s ways are not independent from God but are laid out before the foundation of the world for God’s purposes. One of the best verses that show the prior plan determined by God but holds man responsible for their actions is Acts 2:23. It states, “Though he was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail him to a cross and kill him.” Peter knows that it was God who determined Christ to be delivered, however, he does not place the responsibility of the men’s actions upon God. The men’s actions were compatible with God’s sovereign plan. Verses abound revealing that “before the foundation of the world” God’s decrees were “according to the good pleasure of his will”.
These decrees are not mechanistic determinism but deliberately planned according to the counsel of God before the foundation of the world. What God had planned was not done without reason or without thought. God states that his counsel “stands forever” in Psalm 33:11. While there may be many plans that a man has in his heart, it is God’s decree that will prevail in Proverbs 19:21. In Jeremiah 23:18, no one has stood in the council of the Lord “to see or hear his word”. Again, in Acts 2:23, God’s “determined plan” (τῇ ὡρισμένῃ βουλῇ) has the idea that it was planned with reflection and the assembly of a council. This same idea is found in Acts 4:28, Ephesians 1:11, and Hebrews 6:17.
God’s plans are from eternity (Ps 139:16; Isa 22:11; Eph 1:4; 3:11; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 1:20). According to Psalm 115:3, God’s plan is according to his free choice and what he pleases (See also Ps 135:6; Isa 40:10-14; Rom 11:33-36; Eph 1:5, 6, 9, 11; 1 Cor 2:7). God’s plan is unconditional and includes the free actions of humans. In Isaiah 44:28, God declares that he will raise up Cyrus as his “shepherd” to “fulfill all my pleasure”. This is reiterated in Isaiah 45:1 where it states, “The LORD says this to Cyrus, his anointed, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him…”. In 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1:1, Cyrus gives his command to let the people of Israel return. In John 6:37, God is the one who gives all who come to Jesus and those who come to Jesus are never cast away. Still, it is understood in verse 44 that “no one can come to [Jesus] unless the Father who sent [Jesus] draws him.”
Libertarians would object that the decrees of God are God’s general providence that in no way obstructs man’s free will. However as seen above, libertarians do believe that, in God’s special providence, he does intervene at times in order to bring about his purposes. This is problematic. Libertarians recognize the dilemma. Cottrell says of special providence, “The result is something similar to determinism’s redefined notion of free will…dismissed as not being truly free. That is, I am granting here that through his special providence God brings about sets of circumstances calculated to influence people to make particular decisions that will serve his purposes”(emphasis my own). What Cottrell is granting God here is a view similar to compatibilism. The question then is if God can do this in “special” cases, why can’t he do it in all? He is either just here to do and therefore just do it in all cases or in doing so for “special” cases then he is not just at all.
The other dilemma in denying specific providence and believing that God is not working the specifics of his creation is the denial of the plethora of scripture that states otherwise. Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus, the exact nature of God, bears or upholds all things. Colossians 1:17 says that Jesus holds all things together. The verb tense is a present active indicative that indicates this “holding” is continual. God is seen to be ruling over the weather in Psalm 148:8 (See also Ps. 135:7; Ps. 104:14; Job 38:32; Job 38:12; Matt. 5:45). God is sovereign over the animals in Job 38:39-41(See also Matt. 6:26; Matt. 10:29). While things may seem to happen by chance, Proverbs 16:33 says that while the lot is cast it is God who makes the decision. In Daniel 4:34-35, God is sovereign over the nations (See also Job 12:23; Ps. 22:28; Acts 17:26; 14:16). God is the one who provides our daily food in Matthew 6:11. Paul also recognizes this in Philippians 4:19. God is sovereign over man’s days in Psalm 139:16 (See also Job 14:5; Gal 1:15; Jer. 1:5) and his steps in Jeremiah 10:23 (See also Prov. 20:24; Prov. 16:9; Prov. 16:1). God is sovereign over man’s success and failures in Psalms 75:6-7 (See also Luke 1:52; Ps. 127:3). Paul lets his readers know that their talents are not their own doing but come from God in 1 Corinthians 4:7. As discussed above, God is sovereign over man’s decisions in Proverbs 21:1 and Philippians 2:13 (See also Ezra 1:1; 6:22). Scripture notes God’s involvement in the workings of evil., most notably, in the stories of Joseph (Gen. 45:5; Gen. 50:20), the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8; See also Paul’s reflection in Rom 9:17-18), the destruction of the Canaanites (Josh. 11:20; Judg. 3:12; 9:23; Judg. 14:4; 1 Sam. 2:25; 1 Sam. 16:14). In the story of census of Israel, God cites David to do so in 2 Samuel 24:1 but it is David who realizes that he has sinned in verse 10. The same story is told in 1 Chronicles 21:1 where it shows that God cites David through Satan but David is held responsible for his actions. God permits Satan to inflict evil upon Job in Job 1. The examples could go on and on through Ahab’s prophets, his working and punishing the Assyrians and Babylonians. In Jonah 1:15, the men cast Jonah into the sea. Jonah says God did this in Jonah 2:3, though. Still, it is the men who ask for forgiveness in Jonah 1:14. Most importantly, God anointed Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel to come against Jesus to bring about the cross in Acts 4:27 and Acts 2:23. The scriptural data of God’s sovereign working in his creation is overwhelming. It is hard to justify libertarian free will apart from the scriptural evidence. They either have to deny the Scriptural data or adjust their presuppositions of God’s providence and what it means to be “free”.
The issue of God’s providence and human responsibility is perplexing and complicated. Libertarianism and compatibilism try to ease the tension when it comes to God’s providence and human responsibility. Both are mysterious. It is imperative people challenge each other to think through such issues with a purpose of edifying each other in love. Between the two, the scriptural evidence seems to favor compatibilism as it faithfully holds the full understanding of God’s providence while maintaining human responsibility. The tension expresses itself in the question, “Did God really say?” Orthodox Christianity believes God’s Word does speak and, in humility, must say, “Yes, God did really say”.
Cottrell, Jack W. “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” In The Grace of God and the Will of Man, edited by Clark H. Pinnock, 97-120. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1995.
Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Helm, Paul. The Providence of God. Contours of Christian Theology. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1993.
Oden, Thomas C. The Living God. 1st ed. Systematic Theology, V.1. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
Richard Rice, “Divine Foreknowledge and
Free-Will Theism.” In The Grace of God and the Will of Man, edited by
Clark H. Pinnock, 121-140. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1995.
Thomas C. Oden, The Living God. 1st ed. Systematic Theology, V.1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 270.
Oden, The Living God, 270-271.
Richard Rice, “Divine Foreknowledge and Free-Will Theism.” In The Grace of God and the Will of Man, edited by Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1995), 125.
John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2013), 825.
Jack W. Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” In The Grace of God and the Will of Man, edited by Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1995), 104.
Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” 107.
 Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” 108.
 Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” 110.
Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” 112.
Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 315.
Luke 6:45 (ESV)
Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 824.
Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 331.
Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 316.
Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 824.
Paul Helm, The Providence of God. Contours of Christian Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1993), 49.
Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” 112.
Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 326.
Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 316-326. This chapter was helpful in finding the Scriptures and categorizations in this section.