Predestination and Free Will

The Big Question

So, this is the big question that has stumped theologians and divided Christians. If God is sovereign and predestines, then what freedom do we have to make choices and thus what responsibility do we have for our actions.

This is a question we will come back to in more detail when we look at the Doctrine of Humanity and so at sin and redemption. However, it is important that we start looking at it now as we consider God’s character and nature.

Some things we know

There are two things we want to state at the outset that we do know.  First of all Scripture’s teaching is clear that God is sovereign and predestines

Secondly, we know that we do have freedom and responsibility. We make choices and decisions, this is our real-life experience. More than that, The Bible tells us that God holds us responsible and much of the way that God’s Word interacts with us is on the basis that we have freedom and responsibility to respond.

This means that we are not just robots programmed to operate along certain lines.  Now, John Frame notes that even if we were made as robots we would be wrong to complain and see this as a dishonour because God has still made all types of creature for his glory .and so even if our nature was robotic then it would be fulfilling that purpose of glorifying God.[1] Furthermore, who is to say that a robot’s experience of life would not be enjoyable and fulfilling. It is only when we idolise freedom that we assume an absence of autonomy must in and of itself be evil. However Frame goes on to note that the robot analogy just would never fit with our experience of God’s love and delight in us (cf Psalm 8) and God’s readiness to redeem us. It is not just our sense of freedom and choice that suggests we are not just robots. Rather, it is the way that God is willing to go to great lengths to redeem us that tells us that there is nothing just[2] about us at all. [3]

Big Distinctions to help with the Big Question

At this stage, it is helpful to note two vital distinction that theologians and philosophers make between types of freedom,

  1. The distinction between Liberty of Indifference and of Spontaneity

We affirm the latter.[4] Liberty of Indifference is the freedom to choose and to change your desires.[5] Liberty of Spontaneity is the freedom to follow your desires. [6]  Or, in other words, suppose I’m offered a plate of cabbage. I detest cabbage. I find the taste foul, the texture catches in my throat and makes me gip.

If I had liberty of indifference, it would mean that I was in fact indifferent to cabbage, its taste and texture. I would be able to decide for myself at any point whether or not I like it. What a joy that would be. I could sit down to dinner thinking “this really is going to be delicious.”  However, I don’t have that type of freedom. The freedom I have is “liberty of spontaneity.” This means that when I sit down to dinner and a plate of cabbage is in front of me, I have a choice. I can follow my desires. I can push the plate away from me and say “This is disgusting. Don’t make me eat it.” Or I can go against my desire choosing instead to eat the cabbage, to grin and bear it, forcing each mouthful down and smiling at my host through gritted teeth say “Thank you, how thoughtful.” Indeed, you will recognise at this point that I am simply choosing to prioritise one desire (to be polite and maintain a relationship) over another desire (to avoid putting something foul and evil in my mouth).

So, the type of freedom we have is liberty of spontaneity. We are not able to change our desires. Indeed, even humanists recognise that there is no such thing as unfettered freedom. We are always constrained

  • – By our circumstances and environment
  • – By our experience
  • – By our genetics
  • – By laws and regulations
  • – By the rights, responsibilities and actions of others.

No-one is ever completely free.

  1. The distinction between being responsible by being accountable and being responsible by being liable


We are clearly held responsible by accountability, this reflects God’s right as Lord to command our obedience.[7]  As Frame says:

“In Scripture, human beings are clearly responsible in the first sense, since they are accountable to God as the supreme evaluator of human conduct.” [8]

Accountability is primarily about recognising God’s legitimate right to rule his creation.

“Now although theologians take a great interest in the ‘problem’ of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it Is not one of the main concerns of the biblical writers, although they are aware of it. Just as it is plain to them that God controls everything, so it is plain to them that He is the supreme authority. Therefore we are answerable to God for our attitudes, words and actions.”[9]


This is at the heart of the problem of sin. God gave Adam and Eve commands in the Garden of Eden. He told them to eat from all the trees except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He told them that they would be accountable. If they disobeyed his command then they would face judgement and have to bear the penalty for sin, death. Similarly, God’s people in the Old Testament were held accountable for whether or not they kept the Law. Paul says that “The wages of sin are death…”[10] We are accountable for our own sin.  We will all have to give that account on judgement day.

What about liability? Well, we already know that liability can be restricted by ability. This is a basic legal principle. A child is considered to have less ability than an adult and so may not be held criminally liable for their decisions. Where negligence and recklessness contribute to an accident, it is recognised that one person may be more culpable than another.  In court, liability and blame is apportioned.

“The results of our actions are never entirely the result of our decisions. Events in the world have multiple causes, and of course none of us causes anything by his free decision alone. So courts must often ascertain the degree of liability for a crime or injury, and that judgement amounts to assigning partial liability.”[11]

So, to what extent are we as finite human beings liable? Are we fully liable for our actions?  Well, it is true to say that we are limited in ability to differing degrees but our knowledge, by our circumstances by our strengths and weaknesses (as we saw when thinking about freedom above).  Even the fact that we are fallen limits our ability to obey.

However, the sense throughout Scripture is that we are liable.[12] We are liable because we take pleasure in sin. We enjoy it, we delight in it. This is best summed up by John:

“ And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.”[13]

Paul also picks up this point in Romans 1 and 2. We are without excuse, in other words we are liable because our rebellion against God was willing and knowing in the face of clear, loving revelation.

18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. 19 They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. 20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So, they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Additionally, even if we are not fully liable individually there is the sense that we are fully liable corporately. Our sin was “In Adam.” Therefore, God’s judgement is against the whole human race together.[14]

Therefore, we must recognise:

  • – that there is a sense in which we are both free to follow our desires and that this means we are accountable and liable to God.
  • – That God remains fully sovereign in his knowledge, will and decrees

The Choice

All of this means that we must conclude that God has made us in a way that makes this freedom possible. He does it in a way that does not interfere with his sovereignty.  How is God able to achieve that?  We will also have to acknowledge that we are not fully able to comprehend this truth or hold all the pieces together in the here and now

But we have to make a choice. Do we prioritise God’s sovereignty and insist that whatever I say about human freedom must fit in with that (Calvinism)or do we prioritise human freedom and redefine God’s sovereignty to fit my understanding of freedom (Arminianism, Open Theism)?

I believe that the former has to be the right and only way forward if we are to acknowledge that we exist for God and not the other way around.  This is important because otherwise we place a limit on God’s freedom and sovereignty. God’s Will becomes contingent on our decisions.

The Pastoral Priority

One final thought.  What is the difference between theologians and philosophers? This isn’t a joke by the way!  I think the difference boils down to this.

God is infinite, it is impossible to know him and even to know his creation exhaustively. However, the Philosopher seeks to attempt this. He wants to discover as much as he possibly can through human reason.

The theologian (should) recognises that God is infinite and he is finite. However, he works on the basis that God is the one who reveals knowledge about himself to us. God does not reveal everything but he reveals enough. He tells us exactly what we need to know about him, us and creation.

What do we need to know? Well what does a 5 year old child need to know about their dad? They need to know that their God loves them and will always love them. They need to know that they can trust their dad and that they can rely on him. Dad is willing and able to look after them. What do we need to know about our heavenly father? The answer is “exactly the same.”

So I may not be able to work out quite how my freedom to choose fits with God’s sovereign right and ability to pre-determine. That’s not the purpose of the Doctrine of Pre-destination. Rather, its purpose is to keep reminding me that I am more loved than I could ever grasp and than I could ever deserve and I am safe and secure in the Sovereign God’s hand.

[1] See Frame, Doctrine of God, 145-147.

[2] Ironic humour  intended!

[3] Frame, Doctrine of God, 147.

[4] See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, X.III.i-xv. (Giger, 1:665-668)

[5] Also referred to as “Libertarianism. Frame, The Doctrine of God, 138.

[6] Also known as “Compatibilist Freedom” Frame, The Doctrine of God, 136.

[7] See Frame, Doctrine of God, 119-120.

[8] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 119.

[9] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 120.

[10] Romans 6:23

[11] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 127

[12] See Frame, The Doctrine of God, 126-131.

[13] John 3:19.

[14] Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22.