Compatibilism: Divine Permission and Human Action– Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 3/7

Providence is God’s work of sustaining creation and his sovereign, benevolent control of all things, guiding them toward their divinely predetermined end in a way that is consistent with their created nature, all to the glory and praise of God.

It is widely held that humans are free to the extent that they are able to choose between alternative possibilities with equal ease. Compatibilism (also known as soft determinism) rejects this so-called “power of contrary choice” or the “liberty of indifference”, and contends that choice is not a matter of indifference; we always chose what we personally want. We also act in accordance to our nature, motives and desires. Our choices change under different circumstances, but ultimately they follow what appears to be the most compelling motive for the moment.

Since God by virtue of his omniscience knows exhaustively our motives, he is able to foreknow and foreordain (elicit) specific human choices under appropriate circumstances ordered through his meticulous providence. We act according to what God has foreknown; nevertheless our choices and actions which follow our strongest motives are voluntary since they are not coerced. That is to say, divine foreknowledge is compatible with voluntary human choice.

The practical logic for compatibility between divine foreknowledge and voluntary human choice may be laid out accordingly:

(1) Human choice (freedom) is not an arbitrary or random event, but the outcome of disposition, desire and deliberation. “Your choices, as a rational person, are always based on various considerations or motives that are before you at the time. Those motives have a certain weight with you…you, being a rational person, will always choose what seems to be the right thing, the wise thing, the advisable thing to do.” [John Gertsner, A Primer on Free Will (P & R, 1982), pp. 4-5]

(2) God by virtue of his omniscience knows exhaustively the disposition, inclination and personality of each human person.

(3) Together, (1) and (2) lead to the conclusion that God is able to foreknow what each human would freely choose under specific circumstances.

The argument for compatibility between God’s foreknowledge and voluntary human choices strikes a middle path between fatalism (which allows no power of choice or self-determination for humans) and libertarianism (which sets human choices outside divine foreknowledge and determination). Augustine agrees that, “we assert both that God knows all things before they come to pass, and that we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it.” [Augustine, City of God Trans. Marcus Dods (Random House, 1950, 1978), p. 154]

Scripture clearly testifies that voluntary choice is compatible with divine foreknowledge and determination. Insofar as God in his divine foreknowledge allows humans to make choices, such choices must be seen as a gift of divine permission.

What is the relationship between divine permission and human freedom? One suggestion is to view divine and human action as a simple “complementary relationship,” where the divine and human action are “component factors, functioning side by side.” However, the nexus of divine-human action is not one of complementation which suggests parity between divine and human action. It is rather one of correlation where, “the divine act makes room, leaves open the possibility for man’s act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth, by it. And within that “room,” that possibility, God’s work is honored according to his pleasure.” [Berkouwer, Divine Election (Eerdmans, 1960), p. 46]

Libertarianism presupposes an abstract concept of autonomous freedom set in opposition to divine sovereignty. However, such ‘freedom’ can only end up with an enslaved will. In contrast, Scripture views human freedom as a relational concept. Freedom is not an abstract possibility but rather an actuality, the actuality of being free in Christ. [G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 321-322] “Freedom cannot be formally defined through a “free from” approach, but always in a material context, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). Humanness “does not reveal itself in an obscure “free from,” but in a love-filled “free for” and fulfills also the law of Christ.

The logic of an abstract concept of freedom leads libertarians to conclude wrongly that God’s action is a threat to creaturely freedom. On the contrary, God in his grace creates the space which makes room for free will for his creature without diminishing divine sovereignty. Conversely, to be human is to respond to the divine summon to act responsibly in the “space” of God’s grace, “freedom in Christ is the true freedom of man’s humanness.” [Berkouwer, Man, pp.328-329]

Berkouwer elaborates, “The entire creature is dependent on God, but receives, through the working of God the possibility for its own creaturely activity…Providence …does not negate, but honors and develops that which God created…and works in them in such a way , that they themselves cooperate as second causes.” [Berkouwer, Providence (Eerdmans, 1952), p.125] God does not enforce His authority in any way other than through our willing submission. Indeed, our true freedom arises from a willing submission to the sovereign God. The compatibility between human and divine action does not compromise the integrity of voluntary human choice. God not only respects the integrity of human choice; he even permits humans to go against his will.

More concretely, Scripture narrates how human choices are exercised voluntarily even though the circumstances which bring about these choices are ordered by meticulous divine providence (Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). God can actively bring about certain human decisions (Is. 44:28, Dan. 1:9, John 19:24, Acts 16:14). This includes even sinful actions (Gen. 45:5-8, Luke 22:22, Acts 2:23-24, 4:27-28, Rom. 9:17).

Critics are quick to retort that the nexus of divine permission with wrong human choices must surely implicate God as the author of sin and evil. Millard Erickson disagrees:

We must understand that the will of God permits rather than causes sin. God never says, “Commit this sin!” But by his permitting the conditions that lead a person to commit a sin and by his not preventing the sin, God in effect wills the sin. If one maintains that failure to prevent something constitutes causation or responsibility, then God would have to be regarded, in this secondary sense, as causing evil. But, we should note, this is not the way that responsibility is usually assigned. [Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. 3rd ed. (Baker 2013), p. 334]

Admittedly, we may never know fully why God sometimes allows man to choose evil and bring about suffering. However, divine permission should not be equated with divine authorship; nor does it exonerate human responsibility for evil deeds. R.C. Sproul explains:

“If it is true that in some sense God foreordains everything that comes to pass, then it follows with no doubt that God must have foreordained the entrance of sin into the world…All that means is that God must have decided to allow it to happen. If He did not allow it to happen, then it could not have happened…We must conclude that God’s decision to allow sin to enter the world was a good decision. This is not to say that our sin is really a good thing, but merely that God’s allowing us to do sin, which is evil, is a good thing. God’s allowing evil is good, but the evil he allows is still evil. God’s involvement in all this is perfectly righteous. Our involvement in it is wicked. The fact that God decided to allow us to sin does not absolve us from our responsibility for sin.” [R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Tyndale House, 1985), pp. 31-32]

What Scripture emphasizes is that man with guile and “heart of stone” voluntarily chooses evil with his will, and not through compulsion. As Jesus testifies, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth.” (Matt. 12:35) Ultimately, our choices for evil are voluntary in accordance to our inclination and will and not because of external compulsion. Nevertheless, God is able to override the willful disobedience of man to bring about the very thing they intended to prevent. This is clearly the case of Joseph brothers selling him to become a slave of the Egyptians, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20) /1/

Compatibility between divine and human action is evident when God in his mercy turns our “hearts of stone” into “hearts of flesh” when he brings about saving faith for those who have been elected for salvation in Christ. First, in the process of regeneration God makes alive the elect so that they are able to respond to the call to repentance. God brings about circumstances and “such suasive operations adapted in his infallible wisdom to the precise state of mind and heart of those whom he has selected for salvation, and so securing from them their own free action, a voluntary coming to Christ and embracing of him for salvation.”/2/

In short, God in his foreknowledge chooses which individual will come to faith and what circumstances and influences will be present in such a way that these individuals will freely respond to him.

Finally, Berkouwer offers an illuminating illustration of the compatibility between divine determination and voluntary human response in God’s work of salvation.

“The relation between God’s work and man’s work is a problem that is not peculiar to the Providence doctrine. It appears also – and then most acutely – in the doctrine of salvation. There it is the problem of the connection between God’s grace and our faith, between grace and freedom, and between grace and works. The Church’s struggle with pelagianism, semipelagianism, and other forms of synergism were defined by this question. The Scripture themselves awaken our attention to the relationship, as Paul says: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13). Paul cuts straight through the apparent dualism (though not the duality) between God’s work and ours. He indicates a unique connection, which is expressed particularly in the word for. Our activity finds its persistent motivation in the fact of God’s working in us.” [Berkouwer, The Providence of God, 126]


1. Stout-hearted theologians stride in where faint-hearted philosophers fear to tread, as John Calvin suggests that God may intervene more definitively to achieve his sovereign ends. After listing a catalogue of actions God performs on men’s hearts which culminated with the hardening of Pharaoh, Calvin concludes:
“These instances may refer, also to divine permission…But since the Spirit clearly expresses the fact that blindness and insanity are inflicted by God’s just judgment [Romans 1.20-24], such a solution is too absurd. It is said that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart [Ex.9.12], also that he made it heavy [ch.10.1] and stiffened it [chs. 10.20,27; 11.10; 14.8]…for if “to harden” denotes bare permission, the very prompting to obstinacy will not properly exist in Pharaoh. Indeed how weak and foolish it would be to interpret this as if Pharaoh only suffered himself to be hardened!…from this it appears that they had been impelled by God’s sure determination.” [John Calvin Institutes, Book 1.18.2]

Calvin stresses that it is God’s sovereign will at work even though he never takes pleasure in the judgment or destruction of the wicked. “To sum up, since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made this providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience.” [Ibid]

2. I am freely adapting for my own purpose, B.B. Warfield’s words from The Plan of Salvation. Reprint ed. (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 91. Leaving aside the issue God’s unconditional decree and the sole initiative of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, and since this post is not about Arminianism, I shall only refer to Millard Erickson’s observation that Calvinistic compatibilism differs from Arminianism which has more affinity with the “middle knowledge of Molinism” –

“In the Arminian understanding, there is a foreknowledge of actual existing entities. God simply chooses to confirm, as it were, what he foresees real individuals will decide and do. In our scheme, however, God has a foreknowledge of possibilities. God foresees what possible beings will do if placed in a particular situation with all the influences that will be present at that point in time and space. [Philosophers describe this aspect of God’s foreknowledge as “middle knowledge.”] On this basis he chooses which of the possible individuals will become actualities and which circumstances and influences will be present. He foreknows what these individuals will freely do, for he in effect made that decision by choosing to bring them into existence. With respect to salvation, this means that, in logical order, God decided that he would create humans, that they would be allowed to fall, and then that among this group who would be brought into existence, all of whom would come under the curse of sin, some individuals would, acting as he intends, freely choose to respond to him. [Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 332–333]

Depending on the response from my readers, I may post a critique of Molinism in the future. Obviously, the conclusion depends on how we understand “middle knowledge.”

Related Post: Models of Divine and Human Action in Providence – Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Part 2/7

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