Q & A: Is Calvinism Compatible with Free Will?

If there is one question I get asked more than any other, it is this one. A typical response looks something like this:

The short answer to your question is “Yes.”

Here is a much longer answer:

When researching all of this, make sure to keep an open mind and carefully define your terms. Distinguish between election and predestination and understand how they relate to calling. Election, for example, is nearly always cooperate in Scripture–one is elect only insofar as they are a member of the covenant community. Predestination refers to the destiny of that elect group (being conformed to the image of Christ). It is in Paul’s use of the word “called” that we see God’s sovereignty in salvation hinted at. Also, various phrases in Acts, taken plainly, seem to say that salvation is, in the end, ultimately up to God. Be aware, however, that there is so much more to the Reformed system of thought than predestination, and the idea of a 5 point system is something Calvin never dreamed of. If you really want to study “Calvinism,” you’d be better served starting with the idea of covenant.

As to the sovereignty/free-will question, I hold to what’s called the “compatibilist” position. I believe God’s sovereignty and human freedom are not in conflict, rather they are twin truths that we see upheld in Scripture with no attempt made to reconcile the two, as if they were contradictory. The mystery of how God’s sovereignty and our freedom intertwine was one we were never meant to understand. I like what Tozer says:

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.

Yes, God is the ultimate cause of all things and gets the final say in whatsoever comes to pass–even salvation. Thus we can trust his ability to work all things together for good and we can earnestly pray for the salvation of our loved ones, knowing that he alone is able to bring them to faith. But we are also free agents in this world whose actions make a terrifyingly real impact, and yes, even in salvation, the will of man plays its role. In the words of the Westminster Confession:

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ: enlightening their minds, spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (WCF 10.1, emphasis mine).

You see, I’m convinced that God often gives us the gift of paradox not so that we can try to resolve it with theological acrobatics, but rather so that we can respond to him in practical expressions of faith.

For more info check out J.I. Packer’s book “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” and this sermon by Tim Keller: http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/does-god-control-everything

We Do Not Drift Towards Holiness…

People do not drift toward Holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

– D.A. Carson