Are evangelism and human responsibility for sin rational in Calvinism?

Bible study that hits the spot
Theology that hits the spot

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.”

(Source)

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. “On Calvinism, God is the sole causal agent. There is no free will.”

    One of the rare times I disagree with you. I think you’re overstating the Calvinist position, making it more of what is a called a “double” or “hyper’ variation of Calvinism which most Calvinists do not hold.

    That said, it certainly is a large task to understand God’s election and sovereignty versus the will, ability, and responsibility of man.

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  2. My own brief response to the Calvinists: God willed us to be free will agents. (Only free will agents can love, a defining attribute of God/) To override this would be to go against His own will.

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  3. My own brief response to the Calvinists: God willed us to be free-will agents. (Only free-will agents can love, a core attribute of God/) To override this would be to go against His own will.

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  4. Except, that people do exactly what they desire to do.
    The unregenerate desire to sin and rebel, and that’s exactly what they do.
    Those whom God chooses to regenerate desire to obey God and call upon him to aid their choices with his wisdom and power.
    It’s not the ability to choose that’s in question, it’s the DESIRE that is in question.
    All those born in Adam reap Adam’s reward, and all those born in Christ receive his. Just as no one can choose to be born, no one can choose to be born again.
    Man’s responsibility flows from the fact that he bears the image of God, so he knows that God exists, and his conscience convicts him.

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  5. I agree. But why do you call yourself a Wesleyan (Arminian) and not a Molinist? Do you recognize God’s sovereignty in his veto power over possible worlds that don’t have an exceptible (to Him) level of reprobation? Just asking. BTW, I find compatibilist answer is not an explanation. How are they compatible? At least Molinism attempts to give an answer. Paul Ernst Date: Sat, 7 Nov 2015 19:00:16 +0000 To: epaulmary@msn.com

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    1. I do recognize God’s absolute sovereignty over possible worlds. That’s a strong sovereignty. I also agree compatibilism is not an answer. It’s just hand-waving in the face of an absolute contradiction.

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  6. Great article – thank you, WK!

    One question. Craig writes:

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

    Would it not have been more accurate and more consistent with Molinism (which I adhere to) for him to have written:

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

    I realize that it is only a one word change, but it seems important to me – I can see how Calvinists, and also Molinists, would go nuts over that one word. Thanks for your help, WK, or anyone here. God bless!

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  7. The wording here seems to indicate a great bias against sovereignty.

    No one acts against their will, but why is it wrong for our Father to control the circumstances such that their choice is completely predictable. For instance, a son of mine will always pick Cheetohs when he has a choice of chips — I do not control him, but I know the result. The theory of Molinism addresses this, though I think that it is wrong as it would allow for God’s prophecies to be undermined by human choice.

    The greatest comfort of Scripture is knowing that our loving Father controls every molecule — no need to worry, as He says.

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    1. That’s the Molinist view. God chooses the circumstances, but the people makes free choices. He knows what they will do in any situation, so he actualizes a world with the situations he wants, and then the people choose freely. His foreseeing what they would do doesn’t cause them to do it, any more than you foreseeing that if you put a Miata and a Cadillac in front of me, I’ll take the Miata and go drive it around. That’s what I like, and your fore-seeing what I would do, because you know me really well, doesn’t cause me to do it.

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      1. With all due respect WK, if God has exhaustive and perfect foreknowledge of all future events (in this case, because he chose which world to actualize) I cannot see how the Molinist escapes the problem. For example, Paul has an alleged choice between A and B. If God has foreseen and actualized a reality in which Paul will pick B – then he will :always: pick B. I would strongly argue that the Molinist is engaging in semantics at this point when it is asserted that the decision to pick B over A was freely chosen. If God knows it and actualized it, then it isn’t free in a libertarian sense. Because we’re not merely talking about :predicting: what will happen here (like the car analogy), we’re talking about actually creating patterns of human behaviour (and everything else) by infallibly knowing and actualizing it. If freedom is understood by the Molinist or Arminian to be the ability to do the contrary, then on its own logic human beings are not responsible for their actions under Molinism. Bearing in mind that on Lane Craig’s view none of these possible worlds are actually real – there is only one reality which actually is reified and exists.

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  8. WK, you write “The Bible teaches that God has chosen to limit his power so that that people have genuine responsibility for their actions” Where? Can you back that statement up?

    The historical position is that man does not have free will because he is bound by Scripture. John 1:12-13 shows its not the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

    So we have a passage that speaks directly to man’s supposed free will, and what do you have?

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  9. The philosophical debate over sovereignty and free will is important for us because in it we discover the character of God. However, God has chosen NOT to reveal to us how His Sovereignty, foreknowledge and free will all work together just like we have limited understanding of the trinity.

    Part of that may be that it would take up every atom in this universe just for the to get through the prologue of understanding it. An it wouldn’t save one more soul. But it does keep us searching.

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  10. Let’s make sense of D.A. Carson’s list of 9 items, from the perspective of Molinism (in a tongue-in-cheek manner):

    1) On Molinism, when God or his agents tell people to obey, believe and choose God, it’s meaningless because God has foreseen and actualized a specific reality in which Joe will do good things but Bob will burn down a kitten sanctuary. There was a possible world in which Bob was a kindly pastor, but God foresaw that such a reality would make Donald Trump President, so he decided to scrap that one.

    2) People are said to obey, believe, and choose God. (See 1.)

    3) On Molinism, when people sin and rebel against God, it’s like people are soda cans which God knows perfectly have been shaken up. He then then pops the tabs on all of them and the ones he knew were shook, fizz.

    4) On Molinism, when God judges people for sinning, it’s like God sends the cans who don’t fizz to Hell for eternity, even though he chose to pop the tabs on all of them and could have chosen a totally different scenario where he knew that they would fizz. Which is the only way they could fizz.

    5) On Molinism, when God tests people, it’s meaningless, because there is no way they can pass the tests unless God actualizes a world in which he sees that they pass the test.

    6) On Molinism, when people receive divine rewards, it’s meaningless, because all the credit goes to God for selecting the reality they inhabit. They are just fizzing because he selected a possible world with more cans marked ‘fizzy’ than ‘not fizzy’ and you just happened to be one of the ‘fizzy’.

    7) On Molinism, when people respond to God’s initiative, it’s meaningless, because God foresaw and actualized a world where they would be saved or not. They can do nothing other than fizz when he picks up the can marked ‘fizzy’ from the possible worlds store.

    8) On Molinism, when people pray, it’s meaningless, because God has perfect foreknowledge of and actualizes a reality in which he knows who will ‘freely’ deny or choose him. A million prayers are not going to change which cans God perfectly foreknew would lack fizz.

    9) On Molinism, when God pleads with sinners to repent and be saved, it’s meaningless, because God knows exactly who will/will not repent and has chosen a utilitarian reality in which the greatest number will be saved. But your Auntie Ethel will never repent because, if she had, then eighty other people would have ‘freely chosen’ to refuse God’s pleads. But Ethel still deserves it (See 4).

    Ultimately, it seems to me at least, that Molinism just cannot answer the very problems which it repeatedly raises against the Reformed position. It is well intentioned, for sure, but in the end it collapses into something very similar. Namely, over the ability to do the contrary – which is surely impossible on Molinism, given exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge of the actualized world. I could be wrong of course and would always appreciate feedback.

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    1. I agree that Molinism fails — one reason is that, if God controls the circumstances so that God’s desired result occurs, then God actually causes the result. So, why push the sovereignty away from the result at all? God’s complete sovereignty makes all the issues work out.

      People make choices as they desire, in their eyes that is all they see. So, truly, they have freedom of will (from their perspective), so, their denial of responsibility remains personal, since that is all that they (and we) can see.

      One day, we’ll know, the rest of the story.

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  11. You are such a big meanie against Calvinism. The Arminian God either couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene to change people’s eternal destiny, so it doesn’t fare any better than Calvinism when trying to defend God’s alleged character flaws.

    Molinism uses more subtle goalpost shifting, but its God either made people who wouldn’t choose him in any universe or they would have chosen him in a different universe but God created wrong universe for them. It is also indistinguishable from what is accuses Calvinism of.

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          1. :-) Now, in the case of the soda cans in the trash, God predestined you to do that because He knows that more energy is consumed through recycling than is represented by the carbon footprint of the landfill. And God wants, no demands (:-)), that you be a good steward of the earth – without actual worshipping it like liberals do.

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          2. Indeed. I was an atheist for 42 years. :-( Little did I know that I had no free will at my conversion.

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  12. Good post WK, and great comments.

    I would like you to expand, at some point, on this statement of yours…
    “……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….”

    Unless I misunderstand your point, it seems that the same problems would exist on a corporate level as would exist on the individual level, re. the free will/ divine sovereignty conundrum.

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