Setting the Ground Rules: Thoughts on Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism


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Whenever the concept of free will is brought up, there is bound to be disagreement. There are many people who have solidified themselves into a very rigid stance regarding free will and even some who would literally fight tooth and nail in order to prove themselves correct. There are countless arguments over predestination, determinism and free will around the internet and even a handful on this site alone.

That being said, there are also many who have yet to come to a conclusion on this issue and all of the arguments back and forth can just seem to cause more confusion. Part of the reason why this is such a difficult subject to discuss without frustration is the conglomerate of opinions that are discussing entirely different concepts of free will. As an example, Calvinists can either fully accept or reject free will depending on the concept being discussed. I hope to lay out some ground rules for discussion in order to make it easier for everyone to understand what it is we are actually talking about.

One of the most important things to do when advocating your position is to define your terms. What is meant by the term “free will?” You will get very different answers if you ask a philosopher, theologian, or even a scientist. Some would say that if we have the ability to alter our future, then we have free will. Others would say that, as long as our current decisions are not determined by the past, we have free will (although it may not seem like it, these are two very different statements). Personally, I prefer the latter definition. In general, those who argue for our ability to freely make choices completely unfettered are often said to hold to “libertarian free will.”

On the opposite side of the argument are those who argue for “hard determinism.” This is a position in which all events in the history and future of the universe have already been programed. From this perspective, every event in the universe has been determined solely based on the initial conditions of the universe. Theoretically, if we could figure out the exact location and velocity of everything in the universe, we could literally predict the future just off of physics calculations.

Now, when we apply these two positions to theology, we are talking about something much more specific. Theologians rarely speak of libertarian free will or determinism in the general sense. Most often, what is being discussed is the specific situation of our salvation. Therefore, someone who holds to libertarian free will is a person who believes that humans choose salvation without encountering any resistance (a position associated with Pelagianism). Apart from the Latter Day Saints though, Pelagianism is largely rejected by modern theologians. Instead, most Christians today believe that we are part of a fallen world with a sinful nature. Our default disposition is toward sin and this disposition must be overcome if we are able to seek God. Thus, most modern proponents of free will in theology ascribe to a Semipelagian position, in which we are disposed toward sin, but we are able to overcome that disposition and still seek God of our own will.

The position of determinism in relation to our salvation takes on the name of predestination. Those who hold to this view see us humans as incapable of seeking God on our own because we are quite literally enslaved in our sinful nature. It is God who has determined who will be saved and it is Him who does the work to bring us to salvation (Quite often, it is also believed that it is God who determines who will be damned as well). We are completely passive in the process. This is a view associated with the teaching of John Calvin and referred to as Calvinism or Reformed theology.

The debate between free will and predestination seems to get complicated when we look at scripture because it seems that both are found in the teachings of the Bible.

In favor of Predestination: Exo 4:21Psa 139:16, Jer 1:5, Matt 22:14, Mrk 4:10-12, Act 4:27-28, Act 13:48, Rom 8:28-30, Rom 9, 1Cor 2:7, Eph 1:3-5, Eph 2:8-10.

In favor of Free will: Deu 30:19, Jos 24:15, Jer 18:7-10, Ezk 18:32, Jon 3:16, Rom 10:9, 2Cor 5:15, 2Pet 3:9, 1Tim 2:3-4.

It is important for us to take all of these verses into consideration when coming to a proper view of Salvation. Too often I have seen people emphasize a few of these verses at the expense of the others in order to push their own views regarding free will.

I believe that the best position to take with regards to free will is one of Compatibilism. Compatibilism advocates that determinism and free will are not mutually exclusive. In essence, both are true! God has already determined those who will seek Him and receive salvation. All are predestined! None will seek God who have not previously been chosen and elected by God. Yet, once God has acted in reawakening our souls we respond by willingly choosing to seek God.

I am comfortably in the position of Compatibilism because I believe that it is most biblical. But this site is not just representative of Reformed theology as I hold to, so I would like to know what you think as well. Is there more that you would like to add to the “ground rules” above? What do you think of Libertarian Free Will? Hard Determinism? Semipelagianism? Predestination? Compatibilism? What is your position? What are some of the implications you see in these views?

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  • Proverbs 16:9–

    “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.”

    To me, this Scripture puts both Calvinism and Arminianism together.  Like buddies.  We se man’s free will and God’s Sovereignty together.

  • This is what I believe as well. As far as I can see, it is the only way to really make sense of scripture’s teaching on salvation, otherwise (as you mentioned) you have to ignore parts of the Bible.

  • For me, I believe that we both have the freedom and ability to repent and turn toward God and at the same time we do not. I Also believe that God both elects all and doesn’t. Yes, this is a contradicting mouth full but both these concepts are true. And though they seem to be contradictory through human understanding, they do not. It is a divine mystery. It is like the trinity and the incarnation. How plurality and singularity can exist in the same place and the same time and how Christ can be both 100%man and 100% God. 

    They are truths beyond our comprehension. Thank God He elected me and I chose to repent and follow Him. 

  • Mmargarit

    So compatibilism succeeds  Salvation? Or visa versa. We seek the things of God because we are saved?  Or we seek Him because we are chosen.  😐 

  • I agree with Jonathan here, however, I also believe we can not know how God works because he is not limited by time like we are….it is a mystery, and we have parameters to our minds that we cannot transcend…Also I’m studying open theism right now and its not as heritical as people say it is,…as there are many many verses in the Bible that support it. Since this article didn’t deal with this view you can read about it here The way I view time is not that the future is already set because if it was set then that means the present is not really the present , it just seems like it is the present because we are perceiving our point in time as the present.  With this view we are merely moving toward that future as it it is fulfilled one step at a time. To me this idea of time just gives us the image that now and the present is true a real but really it’s not, we are orchestrated instead of living….almost like puppets. My view of time is that God has in his mind the future he intends to happen that has to happen for his purpose of reconciling all of creation and liberating it from it’s bondage to sin, death, and Satan…this plan also includes the new creation and God’s realm coming to earth as seen in Revelation. I think God views existence as an artist, think about how an artist has a picture in his head of what he is going to create and then he decides to start creating it one step at a time. That to me is how God operates, he operates now and he is creating now, and he is so smart that he can orchestrate both good and bad notes for his purpose. We are free now to think and choose because that’s how choices work check out this article also its pretty interesting as well May I say I’m not an open theist, I just believe as AW Tozer once said “God will not hold us responsible to understand the mysteries of election, predestination, and the divine sovereignty. The best and safest way to deal with these truths is to raise our eyes to God and in deepest reverence say, “O Lord, Thou knowest.” Those things belong to the deep and mysterious Profound of God’s omniscience. Prying into them may make theologians, but it will never make saints.”

  • Both. Both are in the scripture. He chose us. We choose him. But I don’t think having these views and doctrines hold any weight on salvation. It is his blood—not our understanding—that redeems us. 

  • YES YES YES! Awesome. The quote from A.W. Tozer is perfect! Dude, care to write an article some time? You have a lot to say my friend. 

  • Yeah for sure…I would not know what to say or talk about though lol

  • @facebook-1217281007:disqus , I’m not sure how deep you get into the philosophy of time, but it is one of the subjects that has interested me very much. The dynamic form of time that you seem to hold to is one that I reject. I am a “B-theorist.” I believe that all points in time, past, present, and future exist equally. I understand that the process of temporal becoming may seem like we are merely puppets, but that is no different than the symbolism of God being the potter and we the clay.
    I agree with Tozer in the quote above as well. A proper understanding of election, predestination, and divine sovereignty are not required for salvation. That is not to say that these are not important aspects of our relationship with God or that we should not strive to understand them the best that we can.

  • We are saved because we are chosen. We seek God because He has revived our souls. I believe that I made the order clear in the article above:

    “once God has acted in reawakening our souls we respond by willingly choosing to seek God.”

  • Well said. I need to look into these theories of time, but it sounds like I am a “B-theorist.” I believe that God, existing outside of time, sees and experiences all time and the same time. 

  • Again, not sure if I agree with the order. Certianly that is true from a reformed position. But I am not sure about the other “free will” scriptures. They would seem to indicate that we are saved by the blood because we chose repented. 

  • so the will is only free once we have been possessed by God, then we have free will?

  • Mmargarit

    Hard and soft theological determinism, compatibilism, Fallibilism, Epistemology, Nihilism… the myriads of theological-philosophical ideas to try to fit or explain the meaning of life, man’s existence, purpose and God’s plan for all. Philosophers, thinkers, from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno of Citium, Epicurus…, been trying to find the answers for millenniums up to our present time, basically without success. Libraries are full books of men like these and students have labored in vain in trying to come to some sort of an ultimate conclusion as to why. 

    The meaning of life as we know it is not really that complicated. Carpenters, fishermen, tent makers, man without any sort of education whatsoever, figured out as to this purpose. It is only as we became dissatisfied with the answers and have become more and more inquisitive as to the existence of God and His plan for us, trying to explain an infinite God with our, infinitesimal finite mind, that we have come to the end of the latter, running out of room to climb any further. We have overloaded ourselves with stuff, that we have no more room to file the simplistic, basic instruction manual, that the LORD (God) left for us to live and survive. The pride of men, have basically pushed to the side God Himself (Holy Spirit) because, He also is not enough to satisfy our inquisitiveness. Always trying to explain God and His attributes with a fallen nature, making Him out to be just like us. God is never to be measured by any human standard of fairness, which is also a reflection of man’s fallenness. 

    I for one believe in the predestination of God, because it has been taught throughout the scriptures from Genesis through Revelation. There is no ambiguity with God and He is not in the habit of giving us revelation of Himself in a shroud of secrecy or mystery. We are the ones who cloud things up and create chaos and confusion in trying to interpret Scripture in our finite mind. Millions of Non-believers and believers, will open the Bible today and read without having any clue as to what it says. And as I said before, out of site, out of mind (Holy Spirit). They’ll quote and read the most quoted scripture of all, John 3:16 (as if it’s a magic verse that will usher millions into the Kingdom) and many will be split as to what it means by the words, “world” “all” “whomever” “believes”… and totally skip verse 17. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, ( as if the world was not already condemned back in Genesis Chapter 3) “but in order that the world might be saved through him.” As we know that the whole world will not be saved, unless you are a universalist and hell does not exist. It is not as simple of a verse as many would think. Who is He talking about here? What does it mean by “world” what does “all” mean? What does “many” mean? Everyone? Anyone? The whole world? Or only a selected people? so in what sense is He the saviour of the world? In the sense that there is no other Saviour of the world. There is only one Saviour. World taken in the sense of humanity here, He is humanity’s only Saviour. “For God so loved humanity”, that He gave His only Son…”

    John 14:26
    But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
    John 15:26
    “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
    John 16:7
    Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
    How many times does the Lord needs to say something in order for us all to get the point and understand His message? Send, helper, truth, guide, teach, bear witness, ALL THINGS!

    We are our worst enemy. We are the ones standing in the way of God (Holy Spirit) and not allowing Him to do the work that He is willing to do for us. We are the ones, that have pushed Him to the side, because WE know better and WE demand better answers. WE split the atom! We figured the Theory of relativity and E = mc2, WE send man to the moon! AND WE’LL FIGURE YOU (God) OUT ALSO!   “you thought that I was one like yourself. How wrong you are” Psalms 50:21 “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. Isaiah 55:8,9

    “And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.” And the Lord said:”Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder;
    and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” Isaiah 29: 11-14

    I don’t agree with Tozer in His view of Predestination. He danced around soteriological issues. Tozer did indeed deny the Reformed doctrine of soteriology. 

  • I believe we are able to exercise our own will at all times; however, I wouldn’t not say that it is entirely “free” at any time. We are either slaves to our sin or slaves to Christ.

  • Thanks for the comment Mike. I think I’ll have to ask you to clarify what it is that you are saying here. You seem to be denouncing the pursuit of understanding God’s work of salvation at one point in your comment and advocating a very specific theological perspective at another. Are you suggesting that we should not seek God with all of our minds?

  • If you want a good survey of the arguments, I suggest looking into this book. Paul Helm does a very good job in advocating B-theory.

  • Having three persons in one God or Christ being both fully man and fully God stretch our minds for sure but these are not contradictory. On the other hand, to say that God both predestines all and does not predestine all is irreconcilable contradiction. God imparted logic into us as part of the imago dei. I don’t see how God would operate in a way contrary to His nature and so cannot see God functioning in a logically impossible way.

  • Mmargarit

    I’m not denouncing the pursuit of God at all. If that pursuit, is being done in the power of the Holy Spirit and His Word. Once we get away from God Himself (Holy Spirit) we just runaround chasing shadows and mysteries, going nowhere fast. We can pursuit with our infinitesimal finite mind, and study all the world’s philosophy, cemeteries, Oops, I meant seminaries, and we would not even begin to know who God really is with our finite mind. We get lost in the pursuit of God at times and sometimes it’s hard to get back. I’ve been around the block a few times and was saved 32 plus years ago. I’ve seen so many casualties within the body. That’s why I always tell young people that are new in Christ and want to pursuit ministry, to first really make sure that God has called you; Second, take time off, at least 2-3 years before going into higher learning or seminary. Those institutions have a habit of extinguishing the fire of a new believer, than the best fire department known. They go in on fire and come out as wet zombies. And a lot of them fill our pulpits every Sunday. Hand to hand combat, dessert walking and ministering the needs of the people is where one really finds out as to who God really is. Then one will be strong and grounded enough to recognize and deal  with some of the overpriced “theology” that is being peddle in those institutions. Get in and get out asap, and run as fast as you can. 😉
    My perspective on Predestination and as how can someone just take scripture, trivialize and use them as a mantra, without even knowing it’s meaning or allowing the Holy Spirit to minister, as to its truths. 

  • Proper theology is a necessary part if knowing and understanding God. That is not at all an easy task. It takes deep study to understand the depths of what has been revealed to us. This should be done in the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word, which I believe is what we have been doing. If you want my perspective in a bit more detail, check out this article:

  • Mmargarit

    Herbert Spencer died in 1903, heralded as a brilliant genius, as a great scientist for having discovered the five categories of the knowable…time, force, action, space and matter. He said that all that is knowable in the universe can be summed up in five categories: time, force, action, space and matter. Everything that exists can fit into that. And that was a great discovery. That’s exactly what it says in the first verse of the Bible, In the beginning…that’s time; God…that’s force; created…that’s action; the heavens…that’s space; the earth…that’s matter. It’s all in that verse.

  • Mmargarit

    Eric, I guess you miss what I posted. The article that you wanted me to check out in detail, says what I’m saying. The study of God “Theology” can only be achieved as God (the Holy Spirit) teaches, guides, ministers truth… as Paul and the rest of the writers of the Bible were moved by the Holy Spirit. I believe that theology is very important aspect of Christian life, study to show yourself approved unto god “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” 

    I’m just relating what I have seen throughout all my years and I have seen the trap set by the enemy, time and time again to some of the best pastors, teachers… who have fallen on their face never to get up again, because of what it is said in Isaiah 29: 11-14 and the refusal of council from leaders within the body. People who think that they know it all and are puffed up in all sorts of knowledge are the first ones to fall. I’m not saying this because I’m judging. It is by experience and as to what I’ve seen. As we all get older, our perspective on life in general will change time and time again as we walk through life with Christ. I have been walking with the Lord for a long time and on this earth twice as long. And I have learned “theology” from walking with Him, and have had the privilege of studying under the best  theologians out there; John Warwick Montgomery, Dr. Walter Martin, R.C.Sproul, John MacArthur… I understand how important it is. But I also understand what is said in 1 Peter 1:3 “Make Your Calling and Election Sure:
    His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, Also in 2 Timothy 3:7 “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.God Bless!

  • I would obviously contest the “logic” of having 200% or how 1=3 but I suppose we have had this conversation in other places. For those interested, here is another article on logic and the true/nature of God.

  • Thank you for the clarification. Your input is much appreciated.

  • Deity and humanity are not additive properties. They are different levels of existence entirely. To be fully God and fully man is no different than simultaneously being fully human, fully male, fully teacher, fully writer, fully father, etc.

    Also, we aren’t talking about 3 persons also being one person. Neither are we talking about three Gods being one God. Again, the existence of God is not the same as a human. Just because a human can only be comprised of one person is not sufficient reason to believe that God can only be comprised of one person. There is a significant difference between three-in-one and 3=1

  • “It is only as we became dissatisfied with the answers and have become more and more inquisitive as to the existence of God and His plan for us, trying to explain an infinite God with our, infinitesimal finite mind, that we have come to the end of the latter, running out of room to climb any further.”

    Whoa, that’s good.

  • I understand where you are coming from on this one Eric. I do. I have heard these approaches to deity and trinity from you and others before. These would be great topics to discuss in other posts but for now we will have to agree to disagree because I don’t agree with the different levels of existence or your explanation of the trinity. The latter is far more complicated since each act, quality, name, and responsibility that is usually attributed to particular members of the trinity are in fact exclusively attributed to each throughout the scripture. For example, it is Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit who died on the cross for our sins in different places in the scripture. Obviously this is controversial and would be a great series of blogs. 

  • I would be interested in reading the scripture passages you refer to in which the Father or the Holy Spirit died for our sins.

  • Angie Miller

    I am late coming to the party because I just discovered this site, which I like very much. I have already expressed my belief that Jesus died for all, that everyone has the potential to be saved, that without surrendering an ounce of His power or authority, God has made us an offer and asked us to choose Him or not in response to an essay on this topic  by Jonathan Keck. I won’t belabor the point, but I will ask for a clarification. You say that often those who believe God has chosen who will go to Heaven also believe He has chosen who will go to Hell. How can this be true often rather than always? How is it possible not to believe both? If God picks some to go to Heaven with Hell being the alternative destination, how does He not determine who will go to Hell?

  • This really requires us to consider how the will of God works. God can will things in both passive and active forms. For example, when God speaks the world into existence, that is an active will. On the other hand, when God gives people over to their sinful nature, He is exercising His passive will (i.e. He does not make them sin, but allows them to).

    The issue of Salvation when comparing predestination and free will differs in this sense. From the perspective of the proponent of free will, salvation is a passive will. God allows us to choose our own salvation. To the predestinarian, God actively saves people from their own destruction. The question then becomes: Is God actively involved in the process which leads people to hell?

    For many, this is just like how God allows people to sin. He takes no part in the action. He sits back and lets us mess up everything. Many believe that, while God actively saves many, those who are left condemn themselves. I think that this makes predestination a little bit easier to swallow for people, but I don’t really think that it is biblical.

    I think scripture clearly points to double predestination, in which God from the very beginning decided who would be saved and who would be condemned.

    “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,
       “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, 
       and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

    It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

    What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:14-24)”

  • Thanks, Eric, for a very interesting post on a subject that fascinates me.  I am a panentheist, and I believe that God’s being permeates the entire cosmos.  There is not one atom that is separate from God.  Therefore, to talk about free will is nonsense.  All will is God’s will.  God expresses Himself as human beings, and as animals, and as planets, and as all of creation.  I realise that this creates problems in terms of the degree of difference between Jesus and other human beings.

    I have posted on the subject of free will on my blog, Perfect Chaos:

    Thanks again, and I will follow Theology 21 with keen interest!

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