If God knows everything I will do, can I really make free choices?
This question has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries. The debate centers on the tension between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. If God is sovereign, that is, has full control over the universe, can man be free to make real cause and effect choices for which he is accountable?
An atheist may stand back and congratulate himself for being above such trifle, but his naturalistic worldview cannot escape a similar problem. As the naturalist philosopher Derk Pereboom states, “Given our best scientific theories, factors beyond our control ultimately produce all of our actions…we are therefore not morally responsible for them.” Pereboom believes that since our brains are completely controlled by the laws of biochemistry, free will is an illusion. The social ramification for this theory is that no one can be held morally responsible for their actions. Who would have guessed that Darwinism could lead to fatalism and a total breakdown of law and justice?
The Christian dilemma of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will does not have an easy solution. The history of the church and of Christian denominations can be traced by how this question is answered. There is much at stake here; not only God’s sovereignty, but his omnipotence and omniscience, as well as other attributes. For example: What if God knows that tomorrow at noon you’re going to run a red light and miss a collision by inches. Because God is omniscient (he knows everything), He knew before the foundation of the world that this was going to happen. If this event is already in God’s knowledge, then the event must happen. How, then, do you have a choice in the matter? Where is your free will?
Many Christians believe any kind of determinism rules out human free will and responsibility. Theologian Keith Ward believes the universe must be indeterministic in order for humans to be truly free. Arthur Peacocke argues that the free will of man rules out the possibility that God knows the future. Clark Pinnock agrees and suggests that God only knows what can be known; since the free choice of man cannot be known in order for the choice to be truly free, God does not know what anyone will choose in the future.
The problem is that these opinions do not square with Scripture. Isaiah 46:9-10 says, “…remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” This and many other verses show that God is sovereign and in full control of human history. Fulfilled biblical prophecy is also clear evidence that God knows the future, including every choice that everyone will make.
Christians generally agree that man has a will and is morally responsible to God for the choices he makes. Many also believe that God is sovereign and nothing, not even human freedom, can keep Him from accomplishing His will (Is. 46:9-10). How can these two truths be reconciled?
Man’s free will has been viewed in two different ways: compatibilism (soft determinism) or incompatibilism (libertarianism). To illustrate the difference, I want you to look up at the ceiling right now. Just now, you chose to look up or not to look up; no one forced you either way. Of course, added to this mix is God’s omniscience; He knew what you were going to do before you did it.
A compatibilist would say your choice was not completely free; it was conditioned by a lifetime of cultural influences, personal character, and present state of mind. An incompatibilist believes your choice to look up or not to look up was completely free; nothing determined your ultimate choice.
The incompatibilist position seems to be the most popular, especially among choice-loving Americans, but there are some inherent weaknesses with incompatibilism. Incompatibilists say that our will is only free if our choices are not pre-determined by any internal or external conditions. This means our choices have an element of pure chance, and given the same set of circumstances, we might choose differently every time. But how can one be sure that our choices are free of any internal or external influences, since one of the determining factors in the choices we make seems to be derived from our personal character? Jesus makes this point in Luke 6:45: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
If the incompatibilist theory is correct, then our choices are based upon uncaused, random events beyond our control. Philosopher Richard Taylor writes, “The conception that now emerges is not that of a free man, but of an erratic and jerking phantom, without any rhyme or reason at all.” We typically don’t associate a mad man with being free. If our choices are based on pure random chance, beyond any internal or external influences, how can we be held responsible for our actions? Even insane criminals can be found not guilty by reason of insanity!
In order to maintain man’s freedom (complete independence from God’s influence), incompatibilists must also limit God’s sovereignty. However, this is impossible, since Paul said, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Life, including all choices we make, is only possible under God’s sustaining power. Finally, an incompatibilist must reinterpret or ignore passages like Ephesians 1:11, “…having been predestined according to the purpose of him [God] who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Compatibilism, on the other hand, is the idea that our choices are influenced by many factors, such as cultural upbringing, character, present situation, and state of mind; we do not make choices in a vacuum. For example, a person (like myself) may be tempted to stop at Starbuck’s; a person who thinks it silly to pay four bucks for a cup of coffee will not be tempted. The choice to stop or not is shaped by internal influences—personal values, upbringing, and a full stomach—and external influences—the existence of Starbuck’s, owning a car, and having only a dollar in one’s pocket. Many influencing factors are beyond our control, but the compatibilist affirms that they are not beyond God’s control.
To compatibilists, man’s free will is not so narrowly defined as to rule out God’s sovereign influence, especially in, but not limited to, salvation. When a Christian prays for an individual’s salvation, he is praying as a compatibilist, asking God to influence the will of that individual. According to theologian D. A. Carson, “Compatibilism is the view that…God is absolutely sovereign but his sovereignty does not in any way mitigate human responsibility; human beings are responsible creatures (i.e., they choose, decide, obey, disobey, believe, rebel, and so forth), but their responsibility never serves to make God absolutely contingent.” In other words, we are free to make choices, we are responsible for the choices we make, but our choices are not necessarily free from God’s sovereign influence.
Compatibilism is soft determinism, but it is not fatalism. Fatalism is the idea that all events are predetermined and our choices don’t matter. The question, “If God knows everything I will do, can I really make free choices?” assumes fatalism. It must be understood that although God knows every choice we will make, we do the choosing and are morally responsible. The Scriptures are full of verses that declare God’s absolute sovereignty (Is. 46:9-10; Ps. 115:3, 135:6; Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:11). However, the Scripture also affirms that God will hold us responsible for the choices we make.
Some suggest that God chose to limit his sovereignty so mankind could have free will, but there is no verse in the Bible that supports this claim. The idea that mankind is sovereign and God is subordinate to human freedom must be rejected. The Westminster Confession of 1647 struck, what I believe to be, the right balance: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
Another term often used by theologians when discussing the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is concurrence. The doctrine of concurrence affirms both that God is sovereign and that mankind makes choices for which they are held responsible. This is precisely the testimony of Scripture. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” And in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” These two verses tell us that God is directly involved in events considered to be matters of human freedom or events seemingly produced by random chance.
Concurrence is also found in Acts 2:22-23: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In his sermon, Peter acknowledges Jesus died according to God’s divine plan and foreknowledge, yet Peter also lays the guilt of Jesus’ crucifixion on the crowd. God, in His sovereignty, uses the evil intents of men’s hearts to accomplish His eternal purposes.
Another example is found in the book of Genesis. Out of jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, telling their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. Through a series of divinely orchestrated events, Joseph went from being a slave in Egypt to being a ruler second only to Pharaoh. This providential turn of events saved Jacob and his sons from certain starvation. Years later, Joseph said to his brothers concerning their selling him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Genesis 50:20 (ESV) Again, God used the evil intents of Joseph’s brothers to bring about his sovereign will. Many more verses could be used (such as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart before the Exodus), but these verses should be sufficient to show the Scriptural support for the doctrine of concurrence.
The doctrine of concurrence should bring Christians comfort and hope knowing that God is actively involved in our lives, and that evil can never ultimately overcome the good (Rom. 8:28). This is why Paul could write in Philippians 2:12-13, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Our choices do matter, but our choices never take God by surprise, nor are they outside His sovereign control (Is. 46:9-10, Eph. 1:11).
Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church of Chickasha, OK. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, and a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX. He is currently in the final dissertation defense phase of a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.