There are groups within Christianity (Mainly reformed and Arminian) who have been engaged in intense debate over the topic.  Each have said the other is wrong, and there have been attempts to discredit positions based on falsehoods.  This intensified at the Synod of Dort in the 1600’s and has been raging ever since.  A clear understanding of the Sovereignty of God, and a clear understanding of what free will has the potential of bridging some gaps.  A better understanding can bring about unity in the body of Christ and we can better focus on the Great Commission.

Every Christian can agree that the Sovereignty of God is important.  The Sovereignty of God is defined as “God’s all-encompassing rule over the entire universe[1].”  The debate arises when that rule is discussed.  Is everything already set in motion, and we have nothing to do with the process?  Does man have a role to play in regards to his free will and reason?  In regards to free will we “have freedom to disobey our master and responsibility to direct our actions to fulfil the purposes of Christ[2].”

Thus is the nature of the controversy that have been ongoing for over four hundred years.  There are those who believe in the sovereignty of God to such a degree that they believe that God has preordained everyone’s lives.  Then there are those who believe that we somehow effect the will of God by the choices we make.  The purpose of this paper is to show that both sides are right to a degree, but both aspects are crucial to understanding sovereignty and free will.

GOD IS INFINITE

God is not a finite being, and is infinite in nature.  Understanding this is the basis of God’s sovereignty.  Our finite minds are unable to grasp the immensity of who and what He is.  Because of the limitations we have, theologian Louis Berkhof describes the attributes of God as perfections[3].  There are many ways these “perfections” can be described, and there are many theologians who use different terms.  In regards to these infinite attributes some uses terms such as infinite, eternity, or eternal because God surpasses all understanding of time and space[4].  As Augustine once wrote, “If we understand Him then He is not God[5].”

The argument against free will lies in these natures of God.  If God is infinite and eternal can he really be moved by our wills?  Theologian Wayne Gruden puts it another way, “He is not subject to any limitations of humanity or creation in general, but does interact with creation in a personal way[6].” In regards to the salvific process, A.W. Pink describes the sovereignty of God as God compelling his elect to come to Christ[7].  It is in the context of salvation that the study will be focused, as it is the major cause of disagreement.

 

HISTORY OF THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

To better understand the Sovereignty of God and free will we must understand the nature of the dispute.  There is no better way to do this than to look at the very real animosity between those in the reformed tradition and arminianism.  The reformed tradition teaches an acrostic known as TULIP to further describe the sovereignty of God.  This acrostic stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints[8].  The ariminians, as we will see, believe in some of the basic aspects as their brethren in the reformed tradition, but with one major difference.  Those Christians in the Arminian camp, which include most Baptists, hold that man must make a choice to follow God.  Through the beliefs of both a better understanding is developed, and is further illustrated by what took place at the Synod of Dort in the 1600’s[9].

Both sides quote scripture extensively to support their beliefs.  They even bring the great fathers of the early church into the discussion.  According to Clement of Alexandria, “one must first make the choice to follow the Lord then the Lord gives the strength needed to persevere and do his will[10].”

This of course causes a problem for those that hold to the idea that God has set everything in motion and not much else can be done.  It may sound simple, but it is quite a complex discussion.  To understand the Sovereignty of God and Free Will the acrostic TULIP needs to be looked at in more detail.

The “T” in TULIP stands for Total Depravity.  The idea is that at the fall of man we were inhabited by a sinful nature.  This idea starts in Genesis 3:6 which states, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate[11].”  As previously stated, at the fall of Adam we inherited a nature that was corrupted.  This does not mean that man is unable to do good of any kind, but that man is unable to do good in the sight of God[12].”  To do good of any kind we must rely on the grace that comes from Christ.  This is not unlike the beliefs of many Christians, but John Calvin took it further.  John Calvin looked upon on Job 14:4 and Psalm 51:5 as scriptural support what he said was the “root of sin and the impure seed man is born from[13].”

This concept was disputed by the Arminians because they held that man had free will.  In 1610 there was a document put together by those sympathetic to Total Depravity who claimed that Arminians “were unwilling to say that man was unable to save himself[14].”  This, of course, is not what was believed or taught by the Arminians, and some call it farcical.  To combat these accusations there was document known as the Five Articles of the Remonstrants that clearly shows what was believed and taught.  Article three of this document states, “In his state of Apostasy and sin he can by himself and for himself think that nothing is good –nothing, that is, truly good, such as saving faith is above all else[15].”  Further debate ensued which was further complicated by John Calvin who wrote, “For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive[16].”  Arminians believe that it is only by the grace of God that man may choose to do good.  Those that hold to Total Depravity are of the opinion that man in not capable of free will, and that good is a result of God working through a person.

Another aspect of the sovereignty of God that that must be looked at is that of predestination.  Virtually all Christian denominations believe in some aspect of this, but there are many understandings about it.  Predestination is also known as Unconditional Election and is the “U” in the acrostic TULIP.

A passage of scripture commonly used to justify this is Romans 8:30 which states, “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified[17].”  Unconditional election, or predestination, is further explained as “The divine determination of human beings to eternal salvation or eternal damnation. The doctrine of predestination is a branch, so to speak, of the doctrine of election; God’s predestinating activity is a function of his existence as the electing God[18].”  A quote by Augustine of Hippo is often used justify unconditional election.  There was a letter he wrote called De Anima which he wrote to the Pelagians to defend his opinion of predestination.  In this letter Augustine wrote, “they whom the Lord has predestinated for baptism can be snatched away from his predestination, or die before that has been accomplished in them which the Almighty has predestined[19].”

As previously stated Arminians believe that free will is a requirement for saving faith, and many denominations agree on this.  On the surface this seems like a case of Semi-Pelagianism, which is one of the heresies that Augustine condemned in the above mentioned document[20].  This is a common misunderstanding, and must be put to rest.

When free will is mentioned there are two main ways to understand it.  It can be taken as man making a decision to do good on his own without any grace or faith in God, or man can choose to follow God and do good because of God’s grace[21].  The latter is what arminians hold to.

In Unconditional election God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned for all eternity[22].  Arminians believe that grace and salvation of God are available to all, and that God wants everyone to be saved.  There are many scripture passages supporting the arminian view, but two will be illustrated.  The first is 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which states, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth[23].”  The second is 2 Peter 3:9 which states, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance[24].”

Though much can be said about the debate between the differences between the sovereignty of God and free will, much of it will revolve around these two passages.  Those that hold that free will is an error will level the charge of universalism against someone who says free will is a requirement.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church universalism is “that hell is in essence purgative and therefore temporary and that all intelligent beings will therefore in the end be saved[25].”

This is a serious charge as universalism is a heresy that has been condemned several time by many church councils.  There is a major difference when free will is introduced into these two verses.  In the case of 2 Peter 3:9 God wishes that all may come to repentance.  The only way they can come to repent is if they realized that they needed to repent.  By their own will, with influence by the Holy Spirit, they accept Christ and come to the knowledge of the truth.

A supporter of Calvinism may say that God wants all of the elect to come to the knowledge of the truth[26].  To their credit there is a fair amount of scripture that can be used to prove this point.  A popular passage used to illustrate this is Romans 9:13 which states, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated[27].”  Jacob was clearly the favored one in the eyes of God.  In fact God would latter change his name to Israel, and the twelve tribes sprang from him.  Great theologians from years past seem to advocate for this theory.  One such theologian is Thomas Aquinas.  In his immense work the Summa Theologica Aquinas states, “But Christ’s passion could not touch all mankind.  Therefore it could not sufficiently bring about the salvation of all men[28].”

CONCLUSION

Much was spoken of about Total Depravity and Unlimited Atonement.  This was intentionally done because a majority of Christians relate these items, or something similar, to the sovereignty of God.  As we have seen there is also much misinformation about the topic of free will.  How does one sum everything up?

To do this the words of a great church father may be best.  Clement of Alexandria states, “God does not deprive humanity of anything they possess for the sake of this goal, and those ‘who have chosen to lead a good life’ he even strengthens by inspiration[29].”

It is clear that we must willingly follow God, and make the choice to serve him.  On the other hand, God is sovereign and he is in control.  Free will never takes away the sovereignty of God.  It works hand in hand with it to fulfill the divine plan.

There are many misunderstanding about the sovereignty of God and free will, but I conclude that the two work are mutually beneficial.  God is fully in charge, and he created us with minds and the ability to reason.  We are able to decide to follow and love him because he did not create robots.  In regards to this mutuality Dr. Matyas Havdra states, “Clement’s remark according to which God ‘sees in advance even the end of things’ indicates the possibility that God in Clement’s view knows the outcome of our choice even ‘before the foundation of the world,’ and those who make the right choice and reach the goal of perfection are ‘predestined’ only in consequence of this previously known outcome[30].”

 

Image result for god and free will

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Question 48:  The Efficiancy of Christ’s Passion,” http://www.newadvent.org, accessed May 2, 2015, newadvent.org/​summatheogica/​question48.

“St. Augustine, Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, And Love,” Tertullian.org, accessed June 30, 2015, http:/​/​www.tertullian.org/​fathers/​augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm.

Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best:  Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Berkouwer, G. C. Studies in Dogmatics:  Sin. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1971.

Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church. 4th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion [Henry Beveridge]. Cambridge, MA: Hendrickson Books, 1999.

Cross, F.l. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Synod of Dort.”

Fahlbusch, Erwin, Jan Milic Lochman, John Mbiti, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Lukas Vischer, eds. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. 4th ed. Vol. 4, P-Sh. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Havdra, Matyas. “Grace and Free Will According To Clement Of Alexandria.” Journal of Early Christian Studies. 19, no. 1 (2011, Spring): 24.

Hippo, Augustine Of. A Treatise on the Soul and Its Origin. Edited by P. Schaff. Translated by P. Holmes. New York: NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887.

Holman Concise Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Incest.”

Hurst, Rebekah, Rachel Klippenstein, Derek R. Brown, and Douglas Mangum. The Lexham Theological Workbook. Bellevue, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Karleen, P.s. The Handbook to Bible Study:  with guide to the Scofield Study System. New York: NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Myers, A.c. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids:  MI: Eerdmans, 1987.

Pink, Arthur W. Answering Objections to the Sovereignty of God. Bellevue, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005.

Stewart, Ken. “The Points of Calvinism:  Retrospect and Prospect.” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology. 26, no. 2 (2008, Summer): 187-203.

W.h.mare. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

[1] Rebekah Hurst et al, The Lexham Theological Workbook (Bellevue, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 58.

[2] Holman Concise Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Freedom.”

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 52.

[4] W.h.mare, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 494.

[5] “St. Augustine, Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, And Love,” Tertullian.org, accessed June 30, 2015, http:/​/​www.tertullian.org/​fathers/​augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 167.

[7] Arthur W. Pink, Answering Objections to the Sovereignty of God (Bellvue, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), 21.

[8] Ken Stewart, “The Points of Calvinism:  Retrospect and Prospect,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 26, no. 2 (2008, Summer): 191.

[9] F.l. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Synod of Dort.”

[10] Matyas Havdra, “Grace and Free Will According To Clement Of Alexandria,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 19, no. 1 (2011, Spring): 22-48.

[11] Genesis 3:6 (Revised Standard Version).

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 497.

[13] G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics:  Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1971), 479.

[14] W.h.mare, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 354.

[15] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 272.

[16] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Henry Beveridge] (Cambridge, MA: Hendrickson Books, 1999), 512.

[17] Romans 8:30 (New International Version).

[18] A.c. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids:  MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 847.

[19] Augustine Of Hippo, A Treatise on the Soul and Its Origin, ed. P. Schaff, trans. P. Holmes (New York: NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 348.

[20] Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best:  Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), 195.

[21] Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best:  Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), 195.

[22] Erwin Fahlbusch et al, ed., The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 4th ed, vol. 4, P-Sh, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 341.

[23] 1 Timothy 2:3-4 (English Standard Version).

[24] 2 Peter 3:9 (English Standard Version).

[25] F.l. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Universalism.”

[26] P.s. Karleen, The Handbook to Bible Study:  with guide to the Scofield Study System (New York: NY: Oxford University Press, 1987), 342.

[27] Romans 9:13 (English Standard Version).

[28] “Question 48:  The Efficiancy of Christ’s Passion,” http://www.newadvent.org, accessed June 28, 2015, newadvent.org/​summatheogica/​question48.

[29] Matyas Havdra, “Grace and Free Will According To Clement Of Alexandria,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 19, no. 1 (2011, Spring): 22-48.

[30] Ibid (n.d).

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