In most of Christian history there has been different beliefs on God’s sovereignty, especially in regards to how he interacts with humans. As theologians and philosophers have wrestled with their beliefs of God’s sovereignty over history, they have often had a hard time reconciling that with humanity’s responsibility, or free agency. A difficulty that has arisen has done so in regards to God controlling and directing all things to an ultimate end. Some argue, that if God controls and directs all things, including people who commit evil acts, this causes a problem for human responsibility. Namely, how is one responsible for that which they are directed to do? Further, some argue, that if God controls and directs one to commit an evil act, or sin, then it is he himself who is the one responsible for the sin, as he is the one directing it. For these reasons, they argue, that humans must have a free will. However, others oppose this idea in favor of another position (of which will be labeled below). Others state that you can have full divine sovereignty that directs all things, even human affairs to an ultimate end. Within this full divine sovereignty, humans are free to act according to their desires and they are responsible and accountable for how they act. I will argue below that this latter position is more favorable and is able to withstand the objections raised against it. Following that, we will explore the implications this view has for the church today. In this blog-post, it will be argued that God’s providence, or more specifically, his governance is full and total over all human affairs including sin and Satan. This means he directs all things to their ultimate end, while remaining free from evil, or sin in himself.
Arminianism and Calvinism
As mentioned above there are some who argue that in order for humans to be responsible for their sin, they must maintain a free will. Free will is used here in the libertarian sense. R.K. McGregor Wright defines the libertarian idea of freedom as follows:
“the belief that the human will has an inherent power to choose with equal ease between alternatives… This belief does not claim that there are no influences that might affect the will, but it does insist that normally the will can overcome these factors and choose in spite of them. Ultimately the will is free from any causation. In other words, it is autonomous from outside determination.”
Those who most often hold to this view of libertarian free will are traditionally known as Arminians. John Frame affirms this, “Theologically, it [libertarianism] is defended by traditional Arminians.” Arminianism holds strongly to the fact that human choices must not be influenced or determined from an outside source in order to be a genuine, real choice. They believe that free will, in the previous mentioned sense, is absolutely essential to being a human that is responsible to God. John Miley, an influential Arminian scholar of the 19th century argues this very point, he says, “Indeed, there is no place for a moral system under a law of necessity. If God is a moral ruler over responsible subjects, they must be morally free.” It is further believed by Arminians that not even God himself can interfere with human decisions if they are to be free, though they do not deny that he accomplishes his purposes ultimately, general purposes that is. Wayne Grudem affirms this, in regards to Arminian belief he says, “God instead simply responds to human choices and actions as they come about and does so in such a way that his purposes are ultimately accomplished in the world.” Of course, because of this, Arminians would argue that God’s purposes in the world are very general.
In contrast to this position, is the position traditionally known as Calvinism. Which believes that God’s purposes are not general, but that every detail of the universe is being worked out according to God’s eternal plan, or decree. God’s decree is defined by Grudem as, “the eternal plans of God whereby, before the creation of the world, he determined to bring about everything that happens.” Calvinism believes that the precise details of God’s eternal plans include human affairs. Every action that a human makes is according to the decree of God. Further, it is God’s governance of the world that brings about these decrees. By governance it is meant that God is personally directing all things, including human actions to the end that he has planned them. Calvinists do not believe that this infringes the freedom of humanity. Though they describe freedom in a very different sense than Arminians. For the Calvinist, by freedom it is simply meant that humanity has a capacity to willingly choose things. Wright gives a helpful distinction when, he says, “When Arminians speak of ‘the will’, they are referring to an independent and self-determining power by which we are enabled to make autonomous choices. When Calvinists refer to ‘the will’, this term simply means the function of willing or choosing, not an independent part of our soul’s anatomy.” As Arminianism often argues for libertarian view, so Calvinism often argues for the compatibilist view. Which Frame says, “Compatibilist freedom means that even if every act we perform is caused by somethings outside ourselves (such as natural causes or God), we are still free, for we can still act according to our character and desires.”
Support for Calvinism
Having summarized the Arminian and Calvinist positions on God’s governance in regards to human affairs, it is necessary to investigate which one is more favorable. When explored, there is an overwhelming amount of biblical data that contradicts that of a general eternal purpose being accomplished by God in response to human’s free choices (libertarian sense of free). In light of this biblical data, support for the Calvinist position will be given. Clark Pinnock, an Arminian and open theist, says in regards to God’s sovereignty that, “God rules in such a way as to uphold the created structures and, because he gives liberty to his creatures, is happy to accept the future as open, not closed…” It can be quickly noted that this position is highly mistaken in light of Isaiah 46:9b-10, which says, “…I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose shall stand and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.” God promises to accomplish all his purposes from beginning to end. He promises that his accomplishments include things which have not yet been done, that is, future events. It does not appear in any sense that God has happily “accepted the future as open” but instead he states he has a clear purpose for it. The apostle Paul teaches a similar concept, he says, “[God] accomplishes all things after the counsel of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11b). The Bible is replete with the teaching of God’s governance of even the minutest details. Such details are seen in Matthew 10:29 where Jesus teaches, “Are not two sparrows sold for one cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Jesus wasn’t teaching merely that God knows of this event but that he sovereignly and providentially controls it. John Calvin says that God by a special providence is “sustaining, cherishing, superintending, all the things which he has made, to the very minutest, even to a sparrow.” Having seen that God controls even the minutest detail. Perhaps, still some more specific examples in regards to God’s governance in human affairs might prove helpful. For this, it is necessary to look at Scripture. Acts 2:23, says, “this Man [Jesus], delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of Godless men and put Him to death.” Here, God determined the course of history for Jesus’ crucifixion it was “predetermined”. It can also be observed that God’s plan was accomplished through the willing acts of sinful men. Grudem affirms this, saying of this verse, “They were not forced by God to act against their wills; rather, God brought about his plan through their willing choices, for which they were nevertheless responsible.” This same idea is further affirmed in Acts 3:18 and Acts 4:27-28. Another clear example of God directing humanity to accomplish his purposes is seen in the story of Joseph. His brothers, as a result of their jealousy, sell Joseph into slavery. Later in Genesis, it is affirmed by Joseph that it was the plan of God to send him ahead to preserve “many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). In Genesis 45:5-8 we see this story take place and two very helpful truths affirmed. In verse 5 Joseph affirms that his brothers “sold” him into slavery, but in verse 8 he says, “Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” Is he contradicting himself? Did he change his mind about what he meant? Of course not! He is attributing ultimate control and governance to God. He is effectively saying it is by the hand of God I am where I am, for the preservation of many lives. This is why Louis Berkhof claims, “God is immediately operative in every act of the creature.” More helpful insight is found in Genesis 50:20 regarding this situation, Joseph says, “As for you [his brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Joseph attributes all evil and sinfulness to his brothers, and describes God’s workings for good.
Response to Arminian Objections
In spite of the biblical evidence that teaches God’s divine sovereignty and control of humanity, even his directing of sin as seen in Joseph’s brothers and the crucifixion of Christ. And even though it is clearly shown in scripture that the humans committing the sin remain to be the ones responsible for it, it is nonetheless objected that the Calvinist position makes God the author of sin. In one sense this is an understandable objection. However, it should be noted that in the previously mentioned verses one can observe that God does not force anyone against their will to accomplish his purposes nor does it show him committing evil. Grudem affirms this, “…Scripture nowhere shows God as directly doing evil, but rather as bringing about evil deeds through the willing actions of moral creatures. Moreover, Scripture never blames God for evil or shows God as taking pleasure in evil, and Scripture never excuses humans for the evil they do.” Conceivably, this is why theologians have found it helpful to speak of both primary causes and secondary causes. Primary causes being God’s eternal decree where he sovereignly directs all that comes about and secondary causes being those actions, which created things (including humans), do to bring said results about. It is because of this that Grudem contends, “God himself never sins but always brings about his will through secondary causes; that is, through personal moral agents who voluntarily, willingly do what God has ordained.” It is precisely due to any given human’s willingness and choice to sin that they are held both accountable and responsible to God. Also, as Frame notes, “We are responsible for [choices] simply because God has the right to evaluate them and to judge us for them.” Further, it is because Scripture never blames God for sin, that neither does a consistent Calvinist. Instead, Calvinism submits itself to the profound mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility under the instruction of the apostle Paul in Romans 9:19-21. A second objection raised against the Calvinist position is that if God ordains all things, including humanity’s choices, than they cannot be real choices. Arminians will say if one’s choices are ordained then they are like a robot that goes where it’s directed. The major problem with this objection is that while at surface level it is seemingly intuitive, upon further reflection it is clear it cannot be biblically deduced. There is not one portion of scripture that teaches that a choice must be free of divine causation in order to be real. Grudem affirms this point in length:
“In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on human experience and intuition, not on specific texts of Scripture. Yet scripture does not indicate that we can extrapolate from our human experience when dealing with God’s providential control of his creatures, especially human beings. Arminians have simply not answered the question, Where does Scripture say that a choice ordained by God is not a real choice? When we read passages indicating that God works through our will, our power to choose, and our personal volition, on what basis can we say that a choice brought about by God through these means is not a real choice? It seems better to affirm that God says that our choices are real and to conclude that therefore they are real.”
Until the Arminian gives clear scriptural proof, with sound biblical exegesis this objection must be simply denied as an invalid objection. The Arminian may further object that one does not find two plus two equals four in Scripture but it is nonetheless true. This is very much an accurate statement. However, there are not numerous teachings in the Bible that contradict two plus two equals four either. On the contrary, the Scripture is vastly covered with teaching of human actions happening as a result of divine causation. This clearly contradicts the Arminian view that argues humans act apart from divine causation, out of their own self-determination.
Implications for the Church Today
Even though God’s providence in regards to human affairs is an age-old debate between Calvinists and Arminians, it still holds massive implications for the church today. The significance of the Calvinist’s view of God’s providence will be considered. First, it is interesting to note that God consoles Paul in a vision; God expresses his foreknowledge that no one will harm him in Corinth. This is seen in Acts 18:9-10, “And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.’” In regards to God’s foreknowledge, Frame wisely articulates,
“There is in God’s mind a reciprocity between foreknowledge and foreordination… God’s knowledge is based on what he foreordains.” God doesn’t merely foresee that Paul will not be harmed but rather that he will not allow him to be harmed. One could safely assume this proves to be a comfort for Paul who ended up settling there “a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
In contrast, in 2 Timothy 2:10 where Paul was suffering imprisonment, willing to “endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” Paul knew that before the foundation of the world was laid God had chosen whom he would providentially save. Paul knew in Corinth that God was keeping his enemies from harming him. As seen in the book of Timothy, God permitted Paul to be imprisoned he knew God was going to save those who he had chosen. Whether suffering imprisonment or being kept from harm by his enemies, Paul knew that God would direct humans according to his promise. Paul was emboldened in mission by the sovereignty of God. Therefore, God’s providence is hugely significant for the church to engage in fearless mission, knowing God is faithful to fulfill his promise. What great comfort Christians can take in hostile nations knowing that nothing can be brought about except by the divine providence of God. And even if God should permit someone to harm them, they know “he works all things for [their] good.” Calvin says the Christian can rest in this divine providence:
“… [Christians] can rest secure in the protection of [God] to whose control everything that could do them harm is subject, by whose authority, Satan, with all his furies and engines, is curbed as with a bridle, and on whose will everything adverse to our safety depends. In this way, and in no other, can the immoderate and superstitious fears, excited by dangers to which we are exposed, be calmed or subdued.”
Second, God’s providence is significant for the church because it means that God is able to answer prayer. In fact, Grudem affirms, “God has also ordained that prayer is a very significant means of bringing about results in the world.” Not only is he able but also willing if Christians would just ask, “you have not because you ask not” (James 4:2). When Christians believe in God’s full control of the universe, they can be fully assured that God will care for them and their loved ones more than adequately as he is able to direct them to an end that is pleasing to him. Third, because God directs every individual in such a way that he is able “accomplish all his good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10), Christians can rest in the promise that God will bring the work he’s started in them “to completion” (Philippians 1:6). Further, Christians can be assured, that because God controls everything, nothing will “separate them from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35a). Because God is the one directing Christians they can rejoice that he is “able to keep [them] from stumbling, and to make [them] stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24). God’s providence over humanity is the Christians assurance that they will persevere to the end. Christians ought rejoice that God is in full control of everything in the universe and be encouraged to pursue missions fearlessly, pray to God confidently, and rejoice in him that he will keep them in the faith until the end.
Wright McGregor R.K., No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 43-44
Frame John, The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 139
Miley, John, Systematic Theology: Volume 2 (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1894), 274
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 338
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 332
Wright, No Place for Sovereignty, 44
Frame, The Doctrine of God, 136
Pinnock, Clark, Rice Richard, Sanders John, Hasker William, and Basinger David, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 104
Calvin John, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 114
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 327
Berkhof Louis, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 171
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 323
Frame, The Doctrine of God, 146
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 343-344
Frame, The Doctrine of God, 150
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 116
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 334