This post contains a review of the doctrine of divine sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility, and sketches briefly a Calvinist and Arminian response.
Much controversy has developed over the years concerning how to reconcile divine sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility, especially when it comes to salvation. These terms are explained below. The concern of bringing these understandings together belong squarely in the Christian doctrine of election, for it is there we ask, “what is the efficient cause that makes one a member of the elect?” An efficient cause is the agent that brings about the effect. The efficient cause of David, the famous renaissance sculpture, is Michelangelo.
So is it God’s choice that is ultimately responsible for bringing about a person’s salvation, or is it the individual’s choice?
Any treatment on the topic must consider the biblical data of prime importance. The following does not seek to be an exhaustive study, but merely to outline both understandings with some key passages. After that I provide a brief sketch of each of the main theories that bring divine sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility together.
With respect to Divine Sovereignty the scriptures say, “I know that you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42.2); and “the Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (Ps 135:6). With respect to salvation there is a strong emphasis on divine sovereignty. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8-9). Paul declares salvation “does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” Therefore, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom 9:16, 18). In his epistle to the church at Ephesus he states, “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Thus the Bible clearly teaches that God has the ability to will and to act according to his purposes, and that those who are elect he foreknew before the creation of the world.
Though never stated explicitly, throughout the whole of the scriptures it is implied that human persons have both freedom and genuine responsibility. Both freedom and responsibility are corollaries of the other. Joshua speaks to Israel, saying, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Jos 24:15). The heathens, who knew God from his revelation in nature, “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18-20). The Lord says in Isaiah “Come now, let us reason together . . . if you are willing and obedient, you will eat from the best of the land; but if you resist and rebel you will be devoured by the sword.” (Isa 1:18-20) Thus the Bible clearly teaches that humans are both free to will and to act according to their own purposes, and in their freedom are rendered culpable for all their moral actions.
Starkly divergent theological perspectives emerge when considering how election relates to foreordination. The Unconditional Election of Calvinism, which follows from the doctrine of Total Depravity and the principle that regeneration precedes faith, elucidates that the efficient cause for salvation is God’s unilateral decision. Thus God’s foreordination effectively eliminates an individual’s freedom and responsibility. Election was for Calvin primarily individual and relied solely on God’s determination, which was logically prior to the creative decree and the decree to permit the fall.
The doctrine of Election according to Arminianism, which is just as much a reaction to Calvinism as it is an interpretation of the relevant scriptures, states that the efficient cause of salvation is the choice of the individual’s identification with the corporate body. The community that is to be conformed to the image of Christ is predestined, and it is the individual who chooses if he or she is to be a part of that community. Election is primarily corporate and secondarily individual and occurs logical subsequent to the creative decree and the decree to permit the fall. Thus, on the Arminian view, human freedom is elevated at the cost of the strong view of the sovereignty of God that Calvinism would prefer.
On evaluation, the Calvinist refuses to take seriously the scriptures that imply human freedom and responsibility in salvation, and charges God with insincerity and impartiality. Insincerity for if God truly desired to save all people (2 Pet. 3:9), he could have done so. Impartiality for if God denies anyone salvation when he could have elected them, this seems to reduce his loving nature.
On the other hand the corporate notion of election according to Arminianism does not account for the scriptures where individuals are predestined to salvation (See Acts 4:24-28; 13:48). This suggests that this perspective is not the whole picture either.
The biblical view holds both God’s sovereignty and human free will and responsibility in tension. For example, Paul affirms his predestination to salvation in Gal 1:15, but affirms in his conversion testimony his “obedience to the heavenly vision” before King Agrippa in Acts 26:19. Ellis explains,“. . . in a theistic view of history divine sovereignty and human responsibility operate as a concursus in which neither is sacrificed and neither forcibly conforms to the other.”
Though these are not reconciled in scripture, the possibility of their reconciliation is of continuing interest today. Stay tuned for a theory that I find plausibly true which explains how both of these can act together without either being diminished.