Doctrine Ch.6 - Free Will

Do we choose God or does he choose us? We can reason either way from the Bible depending on how we understand certain words. What we believe about free will shapes the way we describe what God is like.


A few days before Barack Obama’s reelection as US president, new statistics showed a rise in the number of jobs, though simultaneously the number registered as unemployed also rose because more people had signed on to seek work. Obama greeted this as a sign that the economy was recovering, while his rivals took it as proof that the economy was stagnant. But while we expect politicians to put their spin on facts, are we guilty of doing the same when it comes to interpreting the Bible?

       The issue of predestination is a case in point. Some Christians believe that God decides who will be saved, while others believe that we can freely choose to follow or reject God. Both stances can be validated in Scripture. The first group (Calvinists) emphasize Bible words such as “predestined,” “chosen,” and “elect” to support their view; those with the opposing view emphasize “repent,” “follow,” and “believe.” These two competing systems of theology now divide the church.

       John Calvin, an influential French theologian in the sixteenth century, developed a self-consistent Bible-based theology based on the assumption that God is totally in charge. This means that when someone chooses to follow God, he is in fact doing what God had already planned for him. Later, a Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius, responded with an equally self-consistent and Bible-based theology based on the assumption that God allows people to have real freedom of choice. Today this theology is often called “Wesleyan” after John Wesley, who refined it in the eighteenth century.

5-minute summary

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Rival theories

Although these two systems contradict each other, both are Bible-based—they both take the Bible seriously, but they understand some Bible words differently. Take, for example, the New Testament word that we translate as “predestination” (Greek prooriz┼Ź—i.e., “prior-plan”). Calvinists regard this as God’s inescapable prior planning to provide salvation for some and condemnation for others, while Wesleyans regard it as God’s prior planning to provide salvation for everyone, which they have to accept or reject. Similarly, “election” and “calling” are understood differently in each system. Calvinists apply them to selected individuals whom God has invited, while Wesleyans apply them to everyone because they say that God has saved and invited everyone, though only some accept.

       When the word “sovereignty” is used—that is, God’s kingly ability to do whatever he wishes—there is a very subtle distinction. Wesleyans say that whatever God wants to happen will happen, whereas Calvinists say that whatever happens is what God wants to happen. The distinction lies in the way that human choice is carried out. Wesleyans think that God wants humans to freely choose him, but Calvinists think this free choice must be directed by God, because otherwise it could override God’s will.

       Key Bible verses are understood differently by both systems. Wesleyans quote proof verses such as “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and … Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Tim 2:3-6). Calvinists say that this can’t actually mean “all people” because in that case God’s will has been be thwarted when some people rejected him. Therefore, for Calvinists, the phrase “all people” must mean “all [kinds of] people.”

       Calvinists quote verses such as “Those God foreknew he also predestined” (Rom 8:29) and “he predestined us for adoption … in accordance with his purpose and will” (Eph 1:5). In reply, Wesleyans point out that “foreknow” implies that God knows beforehand, rather than decides beforehand. They also say that since Roman adoption normally involved a young adult who had to agree to be adopted, Paul’s picture implies human choice—that is, God wants to adopt everyone, but only some respond and agree to become his children.

       In the Gospels, Jesus’ words appear to support both sides. He says that “many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:14), which seems to imply that only the chosen few will be saved. However, he accompanied this with a parable that turned the saying on its head. In the parable of the banquet, a king invited chosen guests to his banquet, but they declined, so he called for everyone else to come. We get a similarly double-sided message in the parables of the lost in Luke 15: the prodigal decided by himself to return, but the stray sheep was sought and carried back. Jesus’ teaching is clearly neither Calvinist nor Wesleyan—he portrays the truths of both understandings: God seeks and brings us back, and also we decide to return.

“Whoever comes to me”

This balance is displayed especially in John 6:37, where it appears that the first clause supports Calvinism and the second clause supports Wesleyanism: “All those the Father gives me will come to me; and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” However, as with other such verses, both sides have a reasonable explanation to affirm their own view. Some Calvinists say the first clause is God’s viewpoint and the second is a human viewpoint. Other Calvinists say that the order is important: first God chooses who will come to Jesus, and then Jesus accepts those who come. Wesleyans counter that if the order is important, the process must start with human choice because Jesus began this section in verse 35, saying “Whoever comes to me …”

       Does the church really need to be divided by these opposing interpretations? Perhaps we can cut through the arguments by applying common sense. Do we feel free or do we feel controlled? Even this question doesn’t have a clear-cut solution. Sometimes we feel like a puppet manipulated by circumstances, as if God and the universe are pushing us around. At other times we feel as if we have at least some freedom—like any toddler who refuses to eat her vegetables or share a toy, we can choose to do or not do things. Wesleyans may feel that this bolsters their position, but again, this isn’t decisive because extreme Calvinists say that God makes us feel free, and moderate Calvinists say that we use real freedom to choose what God planned.

       Having read this, you may be concluding that New Testament authors didn’t want to express certainty on this point, because they appear to be totally equivocal. It is difficult to be sure, but this is probably close to the truth, because it seems that Jews at the time were similarly divided and uncertain. Rabbi Akiva put it most succinctly at the end of the first century, saying: “Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given.”1 This viewpoint from two angles is as close as early Christians could get to understanding how God worked, and it appears that they were satisfied with that position.

       Personally I lean toward the Wesleyan point of view because this describes God as I know him: his fundamental characteristic is love—so, he enacts his love to everyone by saving and inviting us all. Calvinists regard God’s fundamental characteristic as justice, so he shows grace towards only the few whom he has decided to save. However, if God’s overarching characteristic were justice rather than love, I would expect him to punish us all or have grace toward us all. I have difficulty with the Calvinist view that a righteous God decides to punish some individuals for their sins and decides to save others (by causing them to repent) even though they were equally sinful. I can see that you could call this gracious (because there is no need for God to save anyone), but you could also call it unfair.

       You might well quote Paul’s words to me: “But who are you … to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’” (Rom 9:20). However, although God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (9:17-18), Pharaoh also hardened it himself (see Exod 9:34-35). That is, Pharaoh decided to be obstructive, and God helped him stick to that decision because it worked well for God’s plan for the nations.

       In the end, I respect both systems of theology, except for the extremes. Extreme Calvinists may not bother to communicate the gospel because they believe that those whom God has chosen will come to him, whatever we do. Extreme Wesleyans may also neglect spreading the gospel because they think that neither sin nor the devil can interfere with human freedom to believe in God. When any theology discourages us from sharing God’s love with others, we know it has gone wrong.

       Political parties flounder when they have divisions, and the gospel can be similarly damaged by theological divisions. Wesley had an acrimonious and public dispute with fellow evangelist George Whitefield, who championed a Calvinist interpretation. However, Wesley’s funeral oration for Whitefield contains the first recorded use of what is now a commonplace phrase that I’d love to hear Christians say to each other more often: “We may agree to disagree.”



1^ Pirkei Avot 3.15 (TinyURL.com/P-Avot-3).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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