Freedom of the Will

by R.C. Sproul

Does God’s foreknowledge eliminate human freedom? Does the immutability of God and the omniscience of God mean the end of all human freedom?

  • If free human actions were not known in advance by God, then when He learned of them, He would undergo a change in His knowledge; He would learn something new. Here both immutability and omniscience would be compromised.

If human actions are known by God in advance, is it not certain that they will come to pass exactly as God has foreknown them? If God knows today what I will do tomorrow, then there is no doubt that when tomorrow comes, I will do what God already knows I will do. With respect to the mind of God my future behavior is absolutely certain. But, does that mean that my future actions are absolutely determined or coerced by God?

God can know the future in more than one way. He can know the future because He has determined the future, or He can know it as a spectator. Consider the following analogy. Suppose you are standing at the corner of the roof atop a fivestory building. As you look down to the street directly below, you see two runners on the sidewalk. One of them is approaching the edge of the building below you from south to north. The other runner is approaching the edge from west to east. They cannot see each other because their view is obscured by the building. From where you are standing you can see that the two runners are going to collide. You want to shout for them to stop, but you know it is too late. They are a split second away from crashing into each other. All you can do is stand helplessly waiting for the collision.

The analogy suggests a human way of knowing the future without causing or forcing the future to happen. (Of course, like any analogy, it is far from perfect. It is possible that one of the runners will step into a manhole just before he reaches the corner, or one might be vaporized by a laser gun at the last second. Our knowledge of the future in this case is not really certain.) The point of the analogy though, is simply to illustrate that we can have knowledge of future events without causing those future events.

Some have approached the subject of God’s foreknowledge from a different perspective. Their argument is based on God’s relationship to space and time. The idea is this: God is eternal; He is above space and time. God sees all things from the vantage point of the present. There is no past or future with God. He sees all things as present. If God sees all things as present, then how He does it is completely beyond our comprehension. What God’s ultimate relationship to time is remains a highly speculative matter. If what is future to me is present to God, then we know His knowledge of our future is perfect and that future is absolutely. certain. God can make no errors in His observations.

It is one thing to say that God causes or coerces all things. It is quite another to say that God foreordains all things. If God forces or coerces all things, then He would have had to coerce the fall of man. If this were so, then God would be the cause, indeed the guilty perpetrator of sin. Not only would God be guilty of sin but His coercive actions would destroy the freedom of man.

To aid understanding we need to consider two models, two images of God, which lead to serious distortions of the divine character. First is the image of God as a puppeteer. Here God manipulates the strings of marionettes. The feet and the arms of the puppets jerk and dance as God pulls the strings. Puppets have no will. They have no heart or soul. Their bodies are filled with sawdust. If God were like this, not even the Wizard of Oz could make us truly free.

The second image of God is of the spectator. Here God sits on the sidelines of world history. He observes the game closely. He makes careful notes about the action and will turn in a scouting report. He is the ultimate armchair quarterback. He second-guesses the plays that are called. He roots for His favorite team. However, He is powerless to affect the outcome of the game in any way. The action is on the field, and He’s not playing. This model of God destroys His sovereignty. The spectator God is a God who reigns but never rules. He is a God without authority. He observes history but is not Lord over history.

Neither of these images does justice to the biblical view of God. They serve merely to alert us to the pitfalls that lurk in the shadows. They represent borders over which we must not go.

  • We must be careful not to so zealously maintain the sovereignty of God that we end up denying human freedom and responsibility.
  • At the same time we must be careful not to so zealously preserve human freedom that we reduce God to an impotent spectator of world affairs.

The correct approach is to insist that God foreordains all things and that all future events are under His sovereignty. The future is absolutely certain to God. He knows what will take place, and He foreordains what will take place.

Foreordain does not mean coerce. It simply means that God wills that something take place. He may will future events through the free choices of creatures. This is the great mystery of providence – that God can will the means as well as the ends of future events. God can even will good through the wicked choices of men.

The greatest event of human history was at the same time the most diabolical. No greater shame can be tacked to the human race than that a human being delivered up Jesus to be crucified. Judas betrayed Christ because Judas wanted to betray Christ. The Pharisees pressed for His death because the Pharisees wanted Jesus killed. Pilate succumbed to the howling crowd, not because God coerced him, but because Pilate was too weak to withstand the demands of the mob.

Yet the Bible declares that the Cross was no accident. The outcome of God’s eternal plan of redemption did not hinge finally on the decision of Pontius Pilate. What if Pilate had released Jesus and crucified Barabbas instead? Such a thought is almost unthinkable. It would suggest that God was only a spectator in the plan of redemption, that He hoped for the best but had no control over the events.

God did more than hope for the Cross. He willed the Cross. He sent His Son for that very purpose. Before Jesus was brought before Pilate, He pleaded with the Father for a different verdict. He begged that the cup might pass. Before Pilate ever raised his Roman scepter, the gavel had fallen in Gethsemane. The verdict was in. Jesus was delivered by the determinate forecounsel of God.

Augustine said that “In a certain sense God wills everything that comes to pass.” He ordains things with a view to human freedom. He does no violence to our wills by His sovereign ordination. He is not a spectator and we are not puppets. His knowledge is certain, and our actions are free.

How the providence of God works out these matters of concurrence is mysterious but not contradictory. There is nothing that is rationally incompatible about God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Scripture clearly teaches that God is sovereign and that man is responsible. Neither teaching is false. I am not proposing that freedom and sovereignty are not contradictions simply because the Bible teaches both. I am saying that the two concepts are not contradictory because they are not mutually exclusive concepts. Divine sovereignty and human autonomy would be mutually exclusive. If God is sovereign man could not be autonomous. If man is autonomous God could not be sovereign.

God is sovereign. Man is free. Man’s freedom is limited, however, by God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is not limited by man’s freedom. This is simply to say that man is not God. God is free and man is free. But God is more free than a man. Man’s freedom is always and everywhere subordinate to God’s freedom. If we reverse these we pass from theism to atheism, from Christianity to humanism, from Christ to Anti-christ.

from “One Holy Passion”

16 thoughts on “Freedom of the Will

  1. Love ya, R C, what did you just say? It’s as clear as mud to me–but I’m thick and no rocket scientist. Perhaps the mystery of how these things actually play out is to stay a mystery and we are to believe our Lord to be just that:LORD, and me His servant.

  2. “consider the birds” i can understand !

    Thankfully Jesus was much simpler then R C

    i agree as clear as mud

  3. God “I’m sovereign,and i know everything ur do”
    me “then i can’t help but do it”
    God “nobodies forcing you”

  4. Mike,

    Great post! Amen and amen!

    This is where man’s limited thinking grinds to a halt. But God’s word is true. It is somforting to know that the plan of salvation could not have failed and will not fail, because our sovereign God is the one who works it out. Ever before Adam fell, God had worked out His plan into every moment of the centuries ahead.

    Satan and limited men may scheme and plot and choose to ‘do their own thing’, yet our Great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ uses all things to work out His eternal purpose. Contradictory? No. Beyond limited human thinking? Certainly.

    Stay blessed.

    Yomi

  5. Darrel and Andy,

    R.C. said, “Scripture clearly teaches that God is sovereign and that man is responsible. Neither teaching is false.” What is so hard to understand about that?

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  6. Mike, knowing that God is sovereign and I am yet responsible is what the Scriptures teach. The problem comes when we elevate the “free-will” of man above and beyond the sovereignity of our Lord and thus say that God has subjected Himself to the whim of man. Example: foreknowledge and predestination means that God looks ahead and sees who will “accept Jesus as their personal Savior” and upon that choice of man God “choses” those particular people to be saved. This thought has zero basis in Scripture and yet is the battle-cry of those who would elevate their will and choosing above that of God. This idea flys in the face of “You did not chose me, I chose you” and hundreds of other verses that teach election.

    I listen to R C most every morning and cannot recall when he was ever so vague in his explanation of the relationship between the sovereignity of God and man’s accountability. About six months ago I heard him say in essence that he was going to “take off the gloves” when it came to dealing with the Arminian apostasy. I guess this is where the “mud” comes in, for he is usually very precise and clear in his presentations. R C is one of the few with national exposure that has kept his Scriptural base intact– I pray that he will always do so.

  7. Yomi if your so sure “This is where man’s limited thinking grinds to a halt. But God’s word is true” ,how you so sure your interpretation of scripture is correct,if its made with a limited mind?

  8. I posted this quote else where by J Piper but i think it includes RC argument :

    “the question that really matters is how do u reconcile the sovereignty of God with mans accountability..Because most people would hear i don’t have ultimate self determination,i am born wired against God and hell bound,so how am i accountable for my deeds if ‘already bent that way..And thats the question that as to be asked!! i.e God is total in charge of my choices and i am totally responsible for my choices..

    end quote

    John just explains my feeling perfectly!! I seem to remember he said its a question thats never been fully answered,not even by J Edwards…

  9. Darrel and Andy,

    I suppose the reason I do not struggle with this, even a little, is that I understand completly that anything that is good of myself is as filthly rags to God. He alone is good. Even my understanding of what He does and is doing is flawed if I use my own limited understanding. However, because I have been regenerated, the grace of God and the good work of God through me gives me faith that is of God. I then accept the fact that I must submit my will to His in all things because He alone is good and right. This concept is not a struggle for me and I don’t believe it is for R.C. either and that may be why some see his argument here as not being so precise. The truth is the truth and it’s God’s truth so let’s just accept it and go with it.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  10. Mike, My understanding of GOD and HIS word is limited by my capacity. It seems as if I am on a journey to infinity and have only traveled one inch. I love listening to R.C. and you. I sense a heart for people in you both. When you love people you know this is a gift from GOD. I’m on a journey and I aint gonna quit. Thanks for your help and encouragement.
    Captured by HIS grace, Gene

  11. I seem to remember he said it’s a question that’s never been fully answered, not even by J Edwards.

    Andy,
    Actually, John Piper says that Edwards does answer the question of how one reconciles the sovereignty of God with man’s accountability. Here is the article:
    http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Articles/ByDate/1976/1581_A_Response_to_JI_Packer_on_the_SoCalled_Antinomy_Between_the_Sovereignty_of_God_and_Human_Responsibility/

    Here’s a quote:
    “Therefore, in order to see how God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility perfectly cohere, one need only realize that the way God works in the world is not by imposing natural necessity on men and then holding them accountable for what they can’t do even though they will to do it. But rather God so disposes all things (Eph. 1:11) so that in accordance with moral necessity all men make only those choices ordained by God from all eternity.

    “One last guideline for thinking about God’s action in view of all this: Always keep in mind that everything God does toward men – his commanding, his calling, his warning, his promising, his weeping over Jerusalem, – everything is his means of creating situations which function as motives to elicit the acts of will which he has ordained to come to pass. In this way He ultimately determines all acts of volition (though not all in the same way) and yet holds man accountable only for those acts which they want most to do.”

  12. Hi on the sermon i quoted ,J Piper clearly says its a question thats as NOT been fully answered,but that J Edwards came closes..

    J Piper’s a interesting person in this conversation,i would guess you would agree with most of what he says?

    You would say God as spoken to him through His word,,but did God speak to J Piper through His word on the subject of charismatic gifts i.e tongues?If no,am i to believe God speaks clearly to him on some subjects and on others its just Johns mind??

    Its all interpretation

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