Some Thoughts on God’s Sovereignty, Human Freedom, and Logic

One of the biggest controversies in the history of the church centers around God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  Put simply, how can we affirm God’s absolute sovereignty and still believe that we, as humans, are responsible for our actions?  If God already knows what we’re going to do in advance, how can we be held responsible for our actions?  These are good questions, and in no way am I suggesting that I will solve this perennial problem here.  However, I would like to offer some food for thought.  Before I do that, let’s cover some basic points.

As theological students and well-informed laypeople probably know, the answer to how God can be sovereign and human beings can be held responsible for their actions is generally answered in one of two ways.  On one side we have those who hold to a position known as libertarian freedom.  Those who hold this view insist that in order for someone to be held responsible for his actions, he must be able to do the opposite.  In other words, proponents of this position say it is illogical for God to hold someone accountable for an action or choice if they couldn’t have done the opposite.[1]  In philosophical discourse, this ability to choose or not choose a particular course of action is known as the power of contrary choice. 

On the other side of the spectrum are those who hold to a position known as compatibilism.  Compatibilists maintain that God’s sovereign foreordination of all things is compatible with the free choices of human beings.  This means that God holds us responsible for our actions and choices even though he knows and ordains them beforehand.

I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table and confess to being a compatibilist.  I am a compatibilist because I believe that when one takes all of Scripture into account, and when one works through all the relevant biblical data, the compatibilist position lines up much closer to Scripture than libertarian freedom does.

Although it would be fun to look at some of the biblical passages that support this position (Ex. 3:21-22; Is. 10:5-15; 44:28-45:4, cf. Ez. 1:1; Lk. 22:22; Acts 2:23 compared with 4:27-28, to name a few) that’s not my point in this post.  I simply want to deal with one of the charges that libertarians level against the compatibilists, namely, that our position is illogical. 

Although compatibilists argue their position from Scripture, libertarians often respond by insisting that their reason for rejecting compatibilism is that it is illogical.  They maintain that it is illogical for God to hold people responsible for their actions, if their actions are in anyway determined by God.

I think a word about logic is in order here.  First, for Bible-believing, truth-loving Christians, we believe that the Word of God is inspired by God.  We believe that the Word of God is totally sufficient and without error.[2]  We further believe that our access to the mind of God is revealed to us in Scripture.  God is the one who has condescended to disclose himself to us in the Bible.  Accordingly, the Bible is what tells us what is logical.  Thus, to my libertarian friends who believe compatibilism is illogical, I would simply say this: Remember that Scripture is our epistemological warrant for knowing what is logical or illogical.[3]  In making this comment I’m not suggesting that philosophy is incompatible with, or unimportant in, our study of Scripture.  What I am saying, however, is that our philosophical presuppositions must be informed by Scripture.  If our philosophical speculations conflict with our exegetical conclusions, our exegesis should trump our philosophy every time.[4]

Practically, this means that I cannot assume from the outset that libertarian freedom is true and that compatibilism is false without proving it from Scripture.  As Stephen Wellum writes, “[F]or the critic to charge that it is illogical or irrational to assert that God is able to foreordain our free human actions, if Scripture actually teaches such a metaphysical state of affairs, is to assume that he has the kind of knowledge that God only has, which is quite an assumption!”[5]  We do well to heed the following advice offered by Wellum: “[M]y reason must never re-interpret or eliminate the data simply because I do not grasp how it all fits together or it seems illogical to me.”[6]

One final word for both libertarians and compatibilists: In all of our theologizing we do well to remember that words like “sovereignty,” and concepts like “free will” have not been precisely defined for us in Scripture.  This requires us to do the hard work of reading, praying, studying, exegeting, and reflecting on Scripture.  We must take all of the Bible into account when studying a particular doctrine.  If this leads to us not being able to fully reconcile certain truths in our minds, then so be it.  But what we should not do (yes, even with divine sovereignty and human responsibility) is come to our theological conclusions “on the basis of metaphysical assumptions about what we think human accountability requires.  It should be made on the basis of what the Scriptures teach.”[7]

And Scripture never teaches that the only way humans can be held responsible for their actions is if they are able to do the opposite.  Scripture neither explicitly teaches libertarian freedom, nor does it ground human responsibility in libertarian freedom, i.e., nowhere does Scripture teach that our freedom consists in our ability to do the opposite of what we’ve chosen to do.[8]  We are responsible for our actions because God is our Creator and he has the right to judge us.

[1] To read more from someone who holds this view, see Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking about God: First Steps in Philosophy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 136.

[2] This is our position because we believe God providentially protected his Word from error.  As Kevin Vanhoozer has written, “[N]o doctrine of Scripture without a doctrine of providence.”  See his essay, “God’s Mighty Speech-Acts: The Doctrine of Scripture Today,” in A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, eds. Philip E. Satterthwaite and David F. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 143-181.  See esp. 148.

[3] The language of “epistemological warrant” is borrowed from Stephen J. Wellum, “God’s Sovereignty over Evil,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral: Founders, 2012), 231-268.  See esp. 240.

[4] In making this statement I’m not suggesting our interpretations of individual passages should fail to take into account the creedal consensus of the church.  No faithful interpretation of Scripture would disagree with the catholic creeds.  See D. H., Williams, “The Patristic Tradition as Canon,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 32 (2005): 357-379.  I’m fully aware of the chaos that can ensue when the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura is misunderstood or abused, as it was early on in American history.  See e.g., Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, eds. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (NY: Oxford University Press), 59-78.

[5] Wellum, “God’s Sovereignty over Evil,” 241.

[6] Ibid., 235.

[7] John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God?” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. T. R. Schreiner and B. A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 130.

[8] John Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Philipsburg: P&R, 2001), 124. Also cf. Bruce A. Ware, “The Compatibility of Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral: Founders, 2012), 212-230.


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