Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?

Here is a quote from Dr. Craig that seems to get Calvinists so angry:

“The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which confront Him are outside His control. He has to play with the hand He has been dealt.”


Calvinists have told me that this quotation from Dr. Craig is “heretical” or “borderline heretical”. They are claiming that Dr. Craig thinks that God is lacking in power somehow. But why is God’s power limited, according to this quote?

Well, it’s because God respects FREE WILL. That quote is simply Dr. Craig’s way of saying that God does not override the free will of his creatures.

So let’s make sense of Craig’s statement. Either there is determinism and God causes people to act, or humans have free will and they cause themselves to do things. If you do not cause yourself to act, then you are not responsible for what you do. Just think for a minute. If I push you into someone and you fall into them and then they fall off a cliff, then are you a murderer? No – I would be, because I am the cause. The Bible teaches that God has chosen to limit his power so that that people have genuine responsibility for their actions, and that means they have genuine free will. Humans can only be responsible for their sins if they have the ability to do other than they do, and this is the traditional Christian view.

It’s true that human beings are totally depraved as a result of the fall, and do not want God in their lives, but they are responsible because God wants them to be saved, and it is their free choice that prevents it. Rather than force humans to love him against their will, God lets them resist him, and so they are responsible for their sin.

Dr. Craig cites the famous Calvinist D. A. Carson (who I like) explaining some of the themes of the Bible that affirm robust free will and human responsibility:

The classical Reformed [scholars]… acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom.

On Calvinism, however, all of these 9 features of reality, supported by dozens and dozens of Bible passages, are all false. On Calvinism, God is the sole causal agent. There is no free will. People go to Heaven or Hell as a choice of God. People can only perform good actions if God acts unilaterally to “regenerate” them, making obedience to God possible. Calvinism teaches that God and his agents are constantly exhorting and commanding things that they literally cannot do because they are unregenerate, and the only way to get regenerate is for God to regenerate them, against their will. And they can’t resist that.

So let’s make sense of D.A. Carson’s list of 9 items:

  1. On Calvinism, when God or his agents exhort or command people to perform good actions, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so that they can perform the good actions.
  2. On Calvinism, when God or his agents tell people to obey, believe and choose God, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so they can obey, believe and choose God.
  3. On Calvinism, when people sin and rebel against God, it’s like people are soda cans that God shakes up some of them, and then pops the tabs on all of them and the ones he shook up fizz.
  4. On Calvinism, when God judges people for sinning, it’s like God sends the cans who don’t fizz to Hell for eternity, even though he unilaterally chose not to shake them, which is the only way they could fizz.
  5. On Calvinism, when God tests people, it’s meaningless, because there is no way they can pass the tests unless God unilaterally regenerates them first, so they can pass the test.
  6. On Calvinism, when people receive divine rewards, it’s meaningless, because all the credit goes to God for regenerating them. They are just fizzing because he shook the can.
  7. On Calvinism, when people respond to God’s initiative, it’s meaningless, because God’s regeneration is irresistible and irrevocable. They can do nothing other than fizz when he shakes the can.
  8. On Calvinism, when people pray, it’s meaningless, because God unilaterally decides whether to regenerate people or not, and all their fizzing comes solely from his decision to shake or not shake the can.
  9. On Calvinism, when God pleads with sinners to repent and be saved, it’s meaningless, because God has to unilaterally regenerate them before they can repent.

Here’s William Lane Craig to explain it further in an answer to a question of the week from Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith web site.

5 problems:

  1. Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
  2. Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
  3. Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
  4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
  5. Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.

If God’s choice, to regenerate or not, causally determines whether we can respond to him, or not, then that is determinism. And it makes our lives meaningless because we are not responsible for anything we do. Life is a puppet show, and there is only one person pulling the strings. Evangelism makes no sense, because God decides unilaterally and irrevocably who is saved. When I explain this to Calvinists, their response is that God commands us to evangelize, so we must even if it makes no sense on their view.

A Calvinist might respond to this defense of free will and human responsibility with passages from Romans 8 and 9, but those are best understood as speaking about corporate election, rather than unilaterally-determined selection. Membership in the elect group is based on people responding to God’s drawing of them to him. That interpretation fits with the rest of the Bible, which is uniformly affirmative of human free will and human responsibility. Concerns about diminished divine sovereignty are resolved by middle knowledge, in which God chooses to actualize exactly the world that achieves his sovereign will out of all the possible worlds, and he saves exactly the people he chooses to save – but without violating their free will. Yes, it’s cosmic entrapment, but at least the cosmic entrapment does not violate the free will of the creatures, which would render then irresponsible for their own sins.

Disclaimer: I don’t think that this is an issue that should divide Christians, and I do think that Calvinists are most definitely Christians. And that they are very devout and intelligent Christians, too.

If you are looking for a good book on this issue, I recommend Kenneth Heathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty“, which is a thorough discussion of the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

25 thoughts on “Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?”

  1. You pit determinism against free will–one or the other. For the standard Calvinist (and, I believe, biblical) view, see compatibilism.


    1. “compatibilism” always struck me as a giant cop-out. Determinism and free will are as obviously incompatible as modern cosmology and a 6,000 year old earth. One who is of the YEC persuasion could claim “Oh, I’m a compatibilist with regards to science and a young earth” but this does not go any distance at all to show that the position is reasonable.


  2. To claim that the sovereignty of God means humans cannot have free will is to claim that God is not sovereign enough to create free will. A God that MUST be the sole cause of everything and CANNOT allow free will is less sovereign than a God who does have the ability to limit Himself in order to allow free will if He so chooses.


      1. Yes, God could choose not to allow free will and be just as sovereign. But that’s not what the Bible indicates.

        My point was that Calvinist reasoning that free will implies a less sovereign God is flawed. Free will is fully compatible with a sovereign God.


  3. Please forgive my ignorance on this issue, but I thought that the difference between the Total depravity of Calvinism’s TULIP and the Radical depravity of Molinism’s ROSES was that the latter allowed for soft libertarian choices, analogous to a prisoner’s set of possible choices behind the bars of sin, but that the former, being causally determined, did not?

    Also, could someone explain to me how participating in even Bible study or apologetics make sense under total depravity? Would not the complete depravity affect our rational thought so as to make it totally unreliable, or is that something different?

    Maybe someone could address these questions from both sides. Thank you so much!


    1. “Also, could someone explain to me how participating in even Bible study or apologetics make sense under total depravity?”

      It doesn’t, that’s the point. Apologetics is incoherent if God is the one who has to flip the person’s switch from UNSAVED to SAVED. But it makes perfect sense if God uses it to draw people to him, while still letting them have the freedom to resist it.


      1. That’s what I was thinking too. Thank you. Are there any big name (or small name) evidential (or otherwise) Calvinist apologists?


        1. There are tons, and they are really good too. But I think there is an inconsistency between their theology and their apologetics awesomeness. I don’t mind, it’s not bad as long as they do their jobs right.


          1. Yes, those guys are totally awesome! I really like them and they are very strong Calvinists and just generally awesome guys, with superior worldviews. I even have them in my blogroll and I urge everyone to read their blog.


  4. You’re bordering on a straw man argument toward Calvinism. Furthermore, as one Calvinist has put it, responding to Dr. Craig, “Then we need to be worshipping the card dealer in the argument rather than God.”


    1. The “cards” are the free decisions of free creatures, and that is exactly what God is unwilling to override, lest he determine who goes to Hell and not unilaterally, in effect sending people to Hell who he could save – who could only be saved by his own decision to save them.


      1. That may actually be the most brilliant thing you have ever written. Or, it just appears to be brilliant to one who is not so brilliant. I thought for a moment that Jake had you, and you totally flipped it.


      2. What you’re saying that Calvinists believe in equal ultimacy, that God determines who is going to hell as well as who he will save. Number one, that’s not scriptural, number two…well, saying it’s not scriptural is enough.
        Ephesians 1:4-5 is clear, God predetermined to save all that he would save through Christ, that means that apart from his gracious act EVERYONE was going to hell. God doesn’t have to save anyone. He freely chooses to save.
        The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is that when a friend of mine was getting married, her sister, and her 2yo, came to the church to drop of some flowers before the service, where she left her son in the car for a moment while she ran inside. I was standing in the door of the church talking to her when I noticed that her son had gotten out of the car and had wandered into the highway as a 18-wheeler was coming. The truck driver could not see the child because of a curve in the road. I ran toward the child, who was playing in gravel in the intersection, he was happy where he was at, ignorant of his situation, until I grabbed him up just short of being hit myself.
        Every believer is that child playing in the road, and God rescues us from our own foolishness and ignorance before the truck of his judgment hits us. There is nothing in and of ourselves that causes us to desire to be rescued because we are blind to reality of our condition. We think we are safe when the truth is unless someone steps in we’re already dead, which is a point that Scripture makes: we are DEAD in trespasses and sin, and unless God quickens us to spiritual life that is how we will remain.


        1. The problem with that analogy is that God is the rescuer AND the truck driver AND the one who put the child in the road according to Calvinism. But how can God create a child, put him in the road, drive a truck toward Him, and then pat Himself on the back for rescuing the child from the situation He put him in? If God determines everything, that’s what you have to deal with. Only if the child put himself in the road by his own free will actions can the rescuer truly be applauded for rescuing him.


          1. Did everyone skip Genesis 2 and 3? Man died in his sin. Dead things have no will. More than that, the wrath of God ABIDES on us in our sin (John 3:36).
            Furthermore, we have to deal with Paul’s argument from Romans 9:
            21 Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use?
            22 But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction?
            23 And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory –
            24 even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?


          2. “Man died in his sin. Dead things have no will.”

            Way to misuse an analogy.

            I can do that too. We are to be lights. Light has no mass. Thus, we should kill ourselves to get out of our bodies so we won’t have mass. Oh, wait, that’s not what it meant.

            When mankind is dead in sin, that means not in right relationship with God and destined for the second death of hell. It does not mean they have no free will.


  5. I fail to see how hell can be a responsible doctrine unless Molinism or “Middle Knowledge” is considered the full council of Scripture on the subject.

    Calvinism (including compatibilism) are both deterministic in nature and are impossible to rationally affirm.

    I am relatively new to the study of Molinism but after roughly 5 years of going over it I fail to see any major problems with it that don’t have a reasonable explanation to it that seems to also offer greater explanatory scope of Scriptures dealing with the subject of Sovereignty and LFW.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s