An Unbeliever’s Ability?  (A Biblical and Theological Discussion on the Sovereignty of God and Free Will of Man in Regards to Total Inability)

The topic of free will and determinism has always been a hot discussion in Christian theological circles.  Yet it is also one that extends far beyond exclusively the Christian faith.  As it pertains to psychology, determinism represents the view that environmental factors largely effect an individual’s actions, a view that many behaviorists hold strongly to(to varying degrees).  Free will, in this realm, then is the ability to choose from one outcome or action to the next despite those factors. [1] One must admit, if we apply this view of determinism over to the Christian faith, we see a humanity so deeply impacted by sin that even from the time of conception, we are brought forth in iniquity (Ps. 51:5).  Sin impacts our lives because it is our nature.

The perspective I would like to argue though, is that mankind, although deeply impacted by sin, down to the inescapable extent of our nature, is free to choose between moral actions (not that those moral actions establish goodness).  We are able to, in the light of God’s goodness, recognize our sin and place our faith in God.  

This perspective is however different than compatibilistic Calvinism, the viewpoint this article will address and contrast with more specifically.  When beginning to examine the common beliefs of reformed theology, a couple of strong positions in regards to free will and the sovereignty of God will stand out.  Hard determinism represents the position that God’s sovereignty has extended to a meticulous control over all events, so that the human will is not free in any sense.  Compatibilism is the view that God’s determinism of all events is compatible with man’s ability to choose to the greatest inclination of his desires. At though, it is explained well when defining compatibilism, “note: compatibilism denies that the will is free to choose otherwise, that is, free from the bondage of the corruption nature, for the unregenerate, and denies that the will is free from God’s eternal decree.”[2]   

To say these philosophies or the theology on the biblical doctrine of free will isn’t complex is just silly.  I don’t want to sit here in my comfy chair and pretend I know better than many very bright theologians and teachers, but I would like to represent a view that just doesn’t seem to have much representation as of today in modern Christian circles.  It’s a view often shrugged off as ‘human logic’ by Calvinists, who represent a large percentage of Christian leaders today. 

I personally don’t find my view on the unity of sovereignty and free will very complex, but I have encountered and read from very committed compatibilists, because it is so widely taught today in Christianity.  It’s almost as though they can’t fathom scripture suggesting a non-mysterious human responsibility in regard to salvation.  It’s important to point out, for those less familiar, that Compatibilism also aids the teaching of Total Inability and Irresistible (effectual) Grace, the first and fourth points of the TULIP acrostic in Calvinism.  These points practically establish the necessity of adoption of at least Four or Five point Calvinism.  This Compatibilist concept of free will is actually a large factor in influencing one’s entire view of scripture.

By compatibilist thinking, the sinner is unable to choose anything other than what is of his sinful nature. A seemingly good action or deed may be accomplished but the actions and thought behind it are marred by our sinful nature.

To narrow it down, some of the obvious implications that Compatibilism will create when applied to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) are: 

-An individual is unable to choose actions apart from their nature. {T-Total Depravity). The main point of contention addressed in this article is the depth of this depravity- an unbeliever cannot not make a decision of faith without being regenerated prior.}   

-God must regenerate the individual so they will have faith.  (I- Irresistible Grace)

I agree we are deeply affected by sin.  It is our nature and the unbeliever is dead in sin.  “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, (He) made us alive together with Christ. (Eph. 2:5)  It’s true. Staying in the same passage, we are also saved by grace as stated in Ephesians 2:8, but by what method?  The verse goes on to tell us the method is faith!  Here is where our view on free will is tested and becomes so critical to what we believe about soteriology and God’s method in salvation.  

Biblical Support for True Human Responsibility

Let’s answer what Jesus and the Apostles assume in our ability:

What does Jesus say about our obligation and our responsibility in regards to being saved?

Let’s look at the conversation in John 3, where Nicodemus asks Jesus how he can be born again.  To this, Jesus tells him in 3:5 he must be born of the spirit that He enter the kingdom of God.  The conversation in the passage unveils being born of the Spirit as a requirement of ‘entering the kingdom of God,’ which is synonymous to receiving eternal life.  In verse 8, Jesus makes the point that the spirit blows where it wishes, a fact we must consider, yet also in verses 15 through 18, we observe the action required on our part to have eternal life, essentially the answer to Nicodemus’ question of how one can be born again/born of the Spirit? 

“14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God”. – John 3:14-18

We find a similar conversation in John 4.  In verse 11, the woman at the well asks Jesus where someone gets the living water he speaks of.  Jesus tells her in verse 14, “but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” She asked Jesus and Jesus responded with what she must do: drink the water that only He gives.   One might assume:

                        ‘If’ we drink the water only He gives,

                        ‘Then’ He will produce a spring of water in us welling up to eternal life.

We also see another ‘whoever’ in verse 14 as we see it used in John 3:14-18 four timesWe might assume:

                        Whoever is actually whoever.

                        ‘Whoever’ is truly responsible to God for their actions and to believe/drink of His water.

What does Paul say about our obligation and our responsibility in regards to being saved?

Let’s consider Paul and Silas’ conversation with the Philippian jailer?  Acts 16:30-31 speaks for itself stating, “Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Jailer: What must I do to be saved?  

Paul and Silas: Believe in the Lord Jesus.

What was the action prescribed by Peter at Pentecost?

After Peter gives his sermon in Acts chapter 2, observe this large crowd’s response in verses 37-38, “37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38 And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Crowd: What shall we do?

Peter: Repent and be baptized….and you will receive the gift on the Holy Spirit.

Notice what has not been mentioned in each of these passages is that God must divinely cause you to believe or drink the water or take the action.  What is mentioned is one’s obligation/the option to believe (Jn. 3:15-18 and Acts 16:30-31), drink of (Jn. 4:14), and repent (Acts 2:38) so that God would save them, giving eternal life.  We also see very clearly, in Acts 2:38, the act of repentance required before regeneration/the indwelling of the Spirit.  In John 3 we view a similar requirement, less boldly, but definitely a fair assumption, that one must believe to be born of the Spirit.  Maybe this has something to do with where the Spirit wishes to blow?

The point to be made here is that the individuals in all of these conversations are sinners/unbelievers who Jesus, Paul and Peter have all deemed capable to take action and place their belief in a Holy God.  Are they dead in their trespasses? Colossians 2:13 says yes. Are they good? Romans 3:10-12 and Psalms 53:1-3 says no one is good, no not one! Yet still Jesus, Peter and Paul present the gospel as though an individual can act upon it and is responsible to do so.  In Acts 2, the crowd is cut to the heart by God’s word and asks for and receives the answer toward their next action. Repentance and baptism is ascribed by Peter so that they may receive the Holy Spirit.  In both hard deterministic and compatibilistic Calvinism, the unbeliever is deemed incapable of repenting or believing without first being regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  If Jesus and His apostles were actually compatibilists, don’t you think much of their directions would actually be disingenuous?  Secretly, they advise an action that can only be accomplished mysteriously by the divine causation of God in only those individuals God will choose to do so in. 

Compatibilists even go so far as to say an unbeliever will not even earnestly inquire or desire righteousness because they are in bondage to their nature even in regards to desiring God.  A few scriptures Compatibilists reference concerning this concept are Romans 3:10–12, Psalm 14:1–3 and Psalm 53:1–3, each passages or a reference to David’s poetic Psalms.  These are worthy considerations to this conversation, but over and over in scripture we also see a humanity deemed capable by God to maintain responsibility and who are without excuse (Rom. 1:20).  In the words of the great reformed theologian R.C. Sproul, “if there’s one phrase that captures the essence of reformed theology, it is the little phrase ‘regeneration precedes faith.”[3] Calvinists say the unbeliever cannot repent or believe.  Acts 2 says the unbeliever must repent to receive the Holy Spirit.  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” – Eph. 1:13

What I’m not saying is that the unbeliever is saving them self or working for their salvation.  Rather the unbeliever is acting upon God’s command. This subject is deep. The Spirit is drawing, convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. (Jn 16:8)  God’s word is the power unto salvation. (Rom. 1:16)  It cuts hearts. (Acts 3:27)  Still, God has a simple requirement on mankind that He save them.  The requirement is repentance and faith in Him and in His work. 

We believe.  

God saves.  

This has always been God’s requirement and this conditional format is continually presented in scripture.  Maybe this idea, for the compatibilist creates different mysteries and that makes sense, but what is scriptural is what we need to identify.  I admire their quest for the truth of God’s word regardless. 

If anything, I’d like to convey that a sinful yet capable of repenting and believing mankind is not some unheard of concept to scripture.  It’s widely observable in God’s word. Conditional statements are continually used. ‘If, then’ scriptural statements are a worthy topic to consider. Check out the link below in the sources to these ‘If, then” statements just in the book of 1 John.  Conditional statements assume one or more course of actions and many biblical conditional statements reference if mankind will do this or that, then God will do this or that.  Also, many biblical ‘if, then’ statements are in direct regard to salvation as well. (1 Jn. 1:9, Rom. 10:9) [4] Condition is what creates responsibility.  Remove the unbeliever’s ability to place their faith in Jesus and they have no responsibility in the matter.  Responsibility then becomes a fabrication, ‘a mystery’ as the compatibilist will and must say. 

Hopefully I have presented some of the biblical support and reasoning for a free will outside of compatibilism in a way that conveys, this is actually a scriptural conversation rather than a product of ‘human logic’ as many a Calvinist will defer the discussion to.  Again, it’s a discussion, but I definitely encourage reformed believers to step back and look at the whole picture.  If you still find compatibilism true, maybe have some grace on others who believe differently on the topic and actually address the points they make that pertain to scripture.  I think the non-reformed perspective is fairly simple.  We are responsible and we really are. 

I’ll conclude with the best theological quote outside of scripture I’ve found to describe this unity of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man:

“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”[5]