Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 8 (Final): Unifying Propositions on Determinism

See all the posts in the series, Toward Southern Baptist Unity»

The area in which Calvinists and Libertarians are farthest apart is that of determinism. Yet, as we have seen in other such areas, the root of this disagreement can be found in a single faulty premise upon which both sides agree. In this case, it is the premise that if God meticulously controls the events and actions of men, then such divine determinism eliminates all alternative possibilities (and thus “freedom to do otherwise”) for men. This premise is false; and once it is eliminated, there is much room for agreement, by which the two sides can be brought closer together.

It should be admitted on all sides that God knows the future. God transcends both time and creation, and sees all moments in time without waiting for any of them. But such knowledge of the future does not make that future certain. God’s knowledge of what will actually occur does not cause what occurs, any more than my knowledge of what is now occurring is causing it to occur. This is a common error. People usually assume that if God knows now what I will choose later, then it will be impossible for me to choose otherwise when the time comes—else God’s foreknowledge will fail in accuracy. What such an error is trying to do is to get under, behind or prior to God’s knowledge, which cannot be done—God is always there first and there’s no way around Him. It is an error in reasoning to pit your freedom against His accuracy. God looks at the future like we look at the past. What occurred is a fact, but such occurrences were free acts. Your choice in that future moment will also be a free act, but if you had chosen differently in that moment, then your different selection would have been in God’s foreknowledge. There is no way to get around, behind, under or prior to God, and the claim that your freedom is denied by God’s knowledge just does not “hold water.”

If God is to determine events in human history, He must intervene and act within that history. This God does in both transcendent and immanent ways. Transcendently, God acts in spiritual ways and miraculous ways that cannot be explained by natural means. Immanently, God acts in and through natural means, events and circumstances. Only by God’s purposeful acts of intervention does He determine events and accomplish His eternal plan. The question then becomes, how does God intervene in the affairs of men—how does He accomplish His plan and where does the freedom of men fit in?

This is a proposition that could end most of the debate if it were understood and embraced: God accomplishes His plan by means of certainty and not by means of necessity; certainty does not invalidate alternative possibilities or infringe on freedom of will. Millard Erickson explains further:

…The key to unlocking the problem is the distinction between rendering something certain and rendering it necessary. The former is a matter of God’s decision that something will happen; the latter is a matter of his decreeing that it must occur… What we are saying is that God renders it certain that a person who could act (or could have acted) differently does in fact act in a particular way (the way that God wills).

What does it mean to say that I am free? It means that I am not under constraint. Thus, I am free to do whatever pleases me. But am I free with respect to what pleases me and what does not? To put it differently, I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal for me. But I am not fully in control of the appeal which each of those actions holds for me. That is quite a different matter. I make all my decisions, but those decisions are in large measure influenced by certain characteristics of mine which I am not capable of altering by my own choice…

I am free to choose among various options. But my choice will be influenced by who I am. Therefore, my freedom must be understood as my ability to choose among options in light of who I am. And who I am is a result of God’s decision and activity. God is in control of all the circumstances that bear upon my situation in life. He may bring to bear (or permit to be brought to bear) factors which will make a particular option appealing, even powerfully appealing, to me. Through all the factors that have come into my experience in time past he has influenced the type of person I now am…[1]

Is God “in control of all the circumstances that bear upon my situation in life?” Either He is in control, or He has thrown the destinies of men to the winds of chance and circumstance.The result of denying that God is in control of events is to put the control of events into the combined but independent wills of innumerable mankind—billions of independent wills bearing on the events of every individual (not to mention the practical randomness of natural factors, such as weather, earthquakes, etc.). With such a myriad of uncontrolled factors, random chance is the virtual result, and we are chained by each other’s freedom. If all men are “free” to determine their own destiny, then no man is really free. When the free wills of billions of people interact and collide, chance circumstance will decide what opportunities and influences come your way, as it all depends upon the myriad of decisions of others, both present and past. Men may appear to be masters of their own destinies, but they are no more free in the decision than they are under Calvinism. Disparities of influence and opportunity are selective by nature; so that, either these disparities are purposely controlled by God or random chance is the result.

This brings up the next unifying proposition: God’s foreknowledge is never merely of what men will do, but must always include the effects of what God has done and what He will do. God’s actions and the actions of men together form an infinitely complex interaction. Men’s actions are changed by God’s actions, and God’s actions are changed by men’s actions. It’s like the game of “pick-up sticks.” If you randomly pile a hundred sticks on the table, with half of them representing God and the other half men, then you get the idea. You can’t move one without moving others. One change affects many others. God has worked out every infinitely complex interaction between what men will do and what God will do (and how men will react and how God will react) down to the last infinite detail. Since God is unavoidably in the mix, then the question of what any particular man would do apart from God’s influence is irrelevant, since God’s influence is unavoidable. There is no way to compare different men as to which will believe and which will reject as a difference merely between the men. Rather, since God’s interactions and influence have affected all men to some infinitely variable degree, then the variable is not merely the men but the extent of God’s influence. If the difference in God’s own influences are making the difference between Jim and John, then it ends up being God who has made the real difference.

The only alternative that is both Biblical and reasonable is that God is really in control. Men do have free will, and that was orchestrated into God’s plan. But every end result is predetermined by that plan. God determines events not because we cannot choose any differently but because we will not choose differently. In every case in which we should have chosen differently, that better alternative was available and genuinely possible. God in His planning used His foreknowledge of every potential course of action—the knowledge of how every man would act and react in every possible situation and circumstance (and in response to every differing degree and kind of influences). Therefore, God chose from the myriad of variable circumstances and influences—in each case and at every moment—in order to arrive at a freely chosen action that fit with His plan. Therefore, God is still meticulously in control, and men still freely choose their courses of action.

How then, you may ask, are men still held accountable for sins of which God was in control? On this perpetual question, Andrew Fuller has offered an important proposition that clearly illuminates the Scriptural truth of the matter: “God has ever maintained these two principles: All that is evil is of the creature, and to him belongs the blame of it; and all that is good is of Himself, and to Him belongs the praise of it.” Fuller continues:

…To acquiesce in both these positions is too much for the carnal heart. The advocates for free-will would seem to yield the former, acknowledging themselves blameworthy for the evil; but they cannot admit the latter. Whatever honour they may allow to the general grace of God, they are for ascribing the preponderance in favour of virtue and eternal life to their own good improvement of it. Others, who profess to be advocates for free grace, appear to be willing that God should have all the honour of their salvation, in case they should be saved; but they discover the strongest aversion to take to themselves the blame of their destruction in case they should be lost. To yield both these points to God is to fall under in the grand controversy with him, and to acquiesce in his revealed will; which acquiescence includes “repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]

This answers the question brilliantly and Biblically. All that happens that is evil is foreseen of God and permitted, while all that happens that is good only happens because God has decided to cause it to happen. All good is caused by God in some way, while all that is evil is of the creatures alone and is not caused by God (except in the sense that it is part of His plan). Simply put, every sin is a freely chosen act that was foreknown by God, while the good in any act must not only be foreknown by God but must also be caused by God.  In both cases, creatures freely choose; but in the case of chosen good, the ultimate credit must go to God, while in the case of chosen evil, the ultimate responsibility rests with the sinner.

Unless God graciously intervenes to suppress the evil and effect the good, men would continually be as sinful as possible. Because mankind sinned in Adam, all men are depraved, and there is no good within us apart from God’s intervening grace. Therefore, if there is to be anything good within human events, God must intervene and bring about the good. However, those parts of God’s plan that include allowing sin to occur (such as Christ’s crucifixion) do not need God to cause men to sin, since men are naturally quite willing to sin on their own. God in every case chooses whether or not to restrain the evil, and He chooses to what degree to restrain the evil (He is not obligated to do either)—and all is done according to His eternal plan in order to accomplish His ultimate purposes.

The final unifying proposition for consideration is this: Man’s responsibility is never absolved by God’s meticulous control. Biblically, men are always accountable for their sin regardless of God being ultimately in control. In Gen. 50:20, Joseph told his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” What men mean for evil, God uses for His good. But that same God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Rom. 2:6-10 ESV). Men are accountable precisely because of the volitional freedom by which they chose to sin in every occurrence. While it is true that sinners cannot escape their sinful nature and avoid sin all together, it is just as true that there is no particular occasion of sin that was beyond their natural ability to choose otherwise. The fact that men do not choose to sin as often or as badly as possible, but do in fact frequently resist temptation (whether in response to the threat of civil justice, the threat of social ostracism, or the result of good parental upbringing, or the convictions of conscience, etc.) proves that sin in any particular moment is not without the possibility of choosing otherwise.

Since sinners could have and should have acted differently, then it follows that men cannot escape the ramifications of what might have been if they had acted differently. In other words, the trajectory of events, actions and results would have been different had the sinner not sinned in any particular instance; and that better path that was not taken hangs over the sinner as a judgment. To those who chose a wrong path, it was not God who denied them access to the right path but their own sinfulness. Even nonelect sinners would have been gloriously saved by the cross of Christ if they had but been willing to lay down their rebellious unbelief and embrace Him. Since every man has been graciously given at least a minimum of revelation of the truth of God’s existence (Rom. 1:18-23;—and many have been given much more), then any nonelect man who might choose to believe would have only God’s grace to credit for his conversion (and if he believed, but did not yet have the gospel, then God would send a missionary to him as He did for Cornelius in Acts 10). And further, since it is impossible to get behind, beneath, or prior to God’s foreknowledge and plan, then any nonelect sinner who might choose to believe would be included in God’s plan as one of His elect from eternity past.

Just as the sinner can find no defense in the fact that God is ultimately in control, and the unbeliever can find no excuse in the fact that God is ultimately in control, believers can take no ease in the fact that God will only save those whom He has already elected. Just as the sinner cannot escape the fact that he could have done otherwise, and the unbeliever cannot escape the fact that he would have been saved had he been willing to believe, the Church cannot escape the fact that there are many who perish for lack of a little more influence—such as one more witness or one presentation of the gospel that would have been enough to bring them to their knees in repentant faith. There will be many who could have been reached and might have been converted but were not, because the laborers were few.

God is indeed ultimately in control and all things happen according to His plan; but never in such a way as to absolve men of their sin, their unbelief, or their failures—not even when it comes to believers. If there are any problems in putting these two together, they are merely problems in our understanding of the mystery of God’s ways; but mystery is no disproof of the proposition. God saves by means of the preaching of the gospel. Can we be so sure that He (in His eternal plan) does not also allow men to perish by means—the means of sin, of unbelief, and in some cases even the means of our neglect? Had it not been for the sin of the race in Adam, all men would have been in righteous relationship with God; and that sin of Adam has far-reaching effects, even among the household of God.

The urgency of proclaiming the gospel must come from more than a mere desire to obey the Great Commission. True urgency entails an understanding that men’s lives really do hang in the balance—that men will perish or be saved based in large part on our efforts to reach them with the gospel in word, in witness and in example. An important component of the urgency of the gospel is the implication that God’s unconditional election in eternity past is not a limitation on whom may be saved as a result of our efforts, but a mysterious correlation to how much labor we are willing to apply to the fields that are “white with harvest.” Objections to the contrary are merely attempts to get behind, under, or prior to God.

These eight areas of unifying propositions are not offered with the false hope that all on both ends of the SBC spectrum will adopt them. Rather, they are offered as a means of illuminating the path between the two sides. It is a path of reconciliation whose existence has been often overlooked, ignored or denied by those at either end. One may choose to take that path or not, but its very existence has a unifying effect by showing that the two extremes are part of one contiguous whole. Furthermore, the mitigating nature of these propositions is not due to a desire for unity; but rather, it is due to the fact that the extremes on both sides have gone beyond the Scriptural truth. Therefore, offering propositions that bring the two sides closer together is not a call for compromise of the truth, but a call to return to a closer handle on the truth.

Ken Hamrick, 2013

[1] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), pp. 357-358
[2] Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), p. 330.

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One Response to Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 8 (Final): Unifying Propositions on Determinism

  1. The nice thing about determinism is that it is a prejudicial term, one utterly designed to misrepresent the freedom involved in the concept of Predestination. Just take a look at Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope and the theology of the conspirators who think they are running all things toward their final solution (they claim to be pluralists who oppose the determinists, meaning the Puritans and other s of the Reformed theology of the Reformation, including especially the missionary movement in its beginnings)(it is page 1139 in a download that I have from the internet. Another was page 1039. A third, I could not even find the reference. However, predestination, as Dr. John Eusden put it in his Introduction to his translation of William Ames’ Marrow of Divinity (the first textbook in theology used at Harvard), is an invitation to begin one’s spiritual pilgrimage,…. Dr. George W. Truett caught the spirit of the matter in his Address for the Centenary Celebration of the Birth of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “Calvinism magnified the sovereignty of God and placed a crown on the head of the individual man,….It reminded man of his direct and inescapable responsibility to God.”(The Inspiration of Ideals, p.161). One of the American Intellectual Historians that read in my graduate work for the Master’s degree in that field declared that the Puritans weresome of the most responsible people in the world. And it was the Sovereign Grace Southern Baptists who sought to avoid an utter rift among our churches by introducing the idea that the preaching that Christ tasted death for every man shall be no bar to communion. The chairman of that committee later lost his wherewithal to be so flexible and became a Primitive Baptist, but at his best he could see plainly that what we are about is the establishment of the truth by persuasion, not force, not intimidation, nothing of the sort. Liberty in things of faith is the right of every child of God who is truly saved. Only the person who rages and drives people together misses the point; he is like the advertisement from some years ago where come cowboys are trying to herd cats. I am willing, and I usually hear messages on the subjects discussed here, and I often disagree with them. Sometimes I hear messages that favor my view, and I also disagree with them due to their being put some way that is unwise or even a turnoff. It is the presentation of any view that is a challenge that I like. I once heard a Calvinist preach on the subject, “Then Things A Sinner Can Do To Be Saved.” Imagine that! Perhaps, we ought to have preachers preach sermons that favor the view with which they disagree. Then we might get somewhere. However, I do want to close with the idea that every doctrine has two poles, two competing ideas that are not meant to be reconciled. They are meant to create a tension in the mind of the believer to enable that person to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic. The point is that one responds to the situation with that part of the truth which is appropriate.

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