"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « Images of the Savior (35 – His Parable of the Good Shepherd) | Main | John Piper responds.... »

    Compatibilistic Determinism

    Recently I received two questions which were similar in nature:

    Question #1) Do compatibilists believe in free will, that is, do they believe we are free from God? I often hear the phrase "compatibilistic freedom".

    Question #2) As I research more about the reformed position I come across the subject of determinism and compatibilism being mentioned frequently. I want to learn more about this subject. I tried searching but could not find any books specifically on these subjects. I’m not looking for anything technical, just something the lay person can understand. Please let me now if you are aware of any books that deal with these topics specifically.

    I will try to answer both questions in this post....

    Compatibilism is a form of determinism and it should be noted that this position is no less deterministic than hard determinism. It simply means that God's predetermination and meticulous providence is "compatible" with voluntary choice. Our choices are not coerced ...i.e. we do not choose against what we want or desire, yet we never make choices contrary to God's sovereign decree. What God determines will always come to pass (Eph 1:11)...

    In light of Scripture, (according to compatibilism), human choices are exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism. For example, God is said to specifically ordain the crucifixion of His Son, and yet evil men voluntarily crucify Him (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28). This voluntary of evil act is not free from God's decree, but it is voluntary, according to these Texts. Or when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, Joseph later recounted that what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20). God determines and ordains that these events will take place (that Joseph will be sold into slavery), yet the brothers voluntarily make the evil choice that beings it to pass, which means the sin is imputed to Joseph's brothers for the wicked act, and God remains blameless. In both of these cases, it could be said that God ordains sin, sinlessly. Nothing occurs apart from His sovereign good pleasure.

    We should be clear that NEITHER compatibilism nor hard determinism affirms that any man has a free will. Those who believe man has a free will are not compatibilists, but should, rather, be called "inconsistent". Our choices are our choices because they are voluntary, not coerced. We do not make choices contrary to our desires or natures, nor seperately from God's meticulous providence. Furthermore, compatibilism is directly contrary to libertarian free will. Therefore voluntary choice is not the freedom to choose otherwise, that is, a choice without any influence, prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition. Voluntary does mean, however, the ability to choose what we want or desire most according to our disposition and inclinations. The former view (libertarianism) is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency. (the fallen will is never free from the bondage of our corrupt nature, and and not free, in any sense, from God's eternal decree.) The reason I emphasize this is that compatibilists are often misrepresented by hard determinists at this point. They are somehow confused with inconsistent Calvinists. When compatibilists use such phrases as "compatibilistic freedom", they are, more often than not, using it to mean 'voluntary' choice, but are not referring to freedom FROM God's decree or absolute sovereignty (an impossible supposition).

    In biblical terminology, fallen man is in bondage to a corruption of nature and that is why the biblical writers considered him not free (see Rom 6). Jesus Himself affirms that the one who sins is a "slave to sin" and only the Son can set him free. Note that even Jesus speaks of a kind of freedom here. He is not speaking of freedom from God but freedom from the bondage of sin, which is the kind of freedom those have who are in Christ. In this sense God is the most free Person since He is holy, set apart from sin... yet He cannot make choices contrary to His essence, i.e. He cannot be unholy. So, we must conclude, according to Jesus in John 8:31-36, that the natural man does not have a free will. The will is in bondage to sin. Any consistent theologian who uses the term "freedom" usually is referring to that fact that while God sovereignly ordains all that comes to pass, yet man's "free choice" (voluntary) is compatible with God's sovereign decree. In other words the will is free from external coercion but not free from necessity. In my reckoning, there is no biblical warrant to use the phrase "free will", since the Bible never affirms or uses this term. So when some theologians use the word "free" they may be misusing or importing philosophical language from outside the Bible, but I think anyone who is consistent with the Text means "voluntary" when they say "free", but NEVER affirm they are free from God in any sense. For to affirm that God sovereignly brings our choices to pass and then also say man is free FROM GOD, is self-contradictory. So I repeat, many of those whom I read seem equate the word freedom with the meaning "voluntary". If any mean "free from God" they are confused. I heard R.C. Sproul say there are "no maverick molecules". Nothing happens by chance, but all falls within God's meticulous providence, no exceptions.

    One of the best statements on compatibilism is one I found from John Calvin:

    "...we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man's innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined. John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70

    We have some free online resources you can look at here...

    p.s. prior to the fall, Adam's will was not in bondage to sin, thus it was free from sin's bondage and corruption but it was not free from God's decree. His choice to rebel was completely voluntary even though God has ordained with certainty that it would come to pass. He was not yet sealed in righteousness even though his inclination was toward the good. Through Satans devices, that he overcame his own good inclination and chose evil makes original sin all the more heinous.

    Posted by John on August 6, 2007 01:09 PM


    Thanks for the enlightening article! I agree with all that you have said but have just one question for you. Would it be correct to say that although we always act voluntarily (that is, in accord with our wills), we cannot determine our wills, therefore meaning that our wills are determined by an outside source (namely God)? I have thought of this many times, especially in regards to the imputation of Adam's sin to us (which included receiving a sinful nature, which could also be described as a sinful will). God didn't have to make Adam our head and yet he did, and in doing so, he ordained that all men would be born with a sinful will, inevitably leading to voluntary, sinful choices. So in that sense, isn't God responsible for sin? While we are still the only guilty ones (since we are the ones actually sinning), God is still, through giving us a sinful will, directing our sinful actions for His good purposes.

    My point in writing this post is not to impugn the righteousness of God. He is perfectly righteous and holy and can do nothing wrong. Rather, I am seeking to get a better understanding of God's sovereign hand over EVERYTHING, including sin. Thanks!


    You said >>>>we cannot determine our wills, therefore meaning that our wills are determined by an outside source (namely God)?

    Right, our wills are determined outside (by God's decree) and inside (by our coruption). We thus chose by necessity, not by coercion.

    Matt you said >>>>God ordained that all men would be born with a sinful will, inevitably leading to voluntary, sinful choices. So in that sense, isn't God responsible for sin?

    Prior to the fall, God made Adam a federal head of the human race and likewise made Christ the head of all who would believe. What God ordained is the fact of federal representation which itself does not make God responsible for sin. That we are subject to the imputation of Adam's sin is a just judgement for Adam's sin. We were, in Adam, cheering him to sin on so to speak. Further, Adam federally represented us as a principle prior to the imputation of sin. So God is not arbitrarily changing the rules mid-course, so to speak.

    And 'the fall' did not take God by surprise.

    I agree that God ordained "the fact of federal representation" (good phrase!), which I do not think makes God a sinner in any way. However, since in making Adam our representative head, He inevitably bound all men over to a sinful will (because like you said, the Fall didn't take Him by surprise), I don't see why it would be incorrect to say that God is responsible for sin in that way. I didn't choose to be born with a sinful will - rather God sovereignly ordained that He would view Adam as my representative and impute his sin to me. I don't see this as a necessary action of God - he chose to do it this way for his own good purposes (undoubtedly a main purpose was so that He might receive all glory and honor through the sending of the second Adam, Jesus Christ). Like you said, Adam representing us federally was a principle before he sinned (and thus imputed his sin to us), but God still knew He would sin. And it wasnt as if this principle of headship existed outside of the decree of God - He wanted it to be this way.

    Wow, I don't know if any of that made sense. My point is simply that God knew that in making Adam our federal head, he was in effect making us all sinners by nature. I say that He [God] made us all sinners in an effort to dispel the idea that imputation is some mechanical, necessary principle. Its not. God chose to view us in Adam simply because He wanted to, and in so doing, he consigned us all to sin. Again, I do not think this at all impugns the righteous character of God. He did all this that He might display His glory, power, love, wrath, etc.

    If you disagree with me on anything I have said, please tell me. I know that these are deep waters that brush up against the limits of human understanding. I am open to correction, as my goal is truth. Thanks!

    Your points are well taken, but I might not phrase it quite the same way.

    Matt, you said >>>>I didn't choose to be born with a sinful will

    I believe we did. We were all in Adam just as we are now in Christ. We cheered Adam on from the bleachers. That is the whole point of federal representation. In his loins, so to speak, we were right there with him. Would you have made a different choice than Adam?

    I would simply say God ordains sin. When you use the phrase "responsible for it" it sounds almost as if you are imputing the guilt of it to Him, which I know you are not doing. Good to wrestle with these issues.

    That opens up a whole new can of worms with Adam's choice to break God's command. In looking at all humans after Adam, we can point to the sinful nature as the motivation behind all sin. However, Adam didn't have that sinful nature. In that sense, He was free. However, like you said in the P.S. to your article, he was never free from God's decree, which included his initial sin of eating the fruit.

    The only way I can sort it out in my mind is like this (don't take these words, or any of my words in fact, to the bank...):

    God (apparently) directly influenced/caused/ordained/decreed Adam to sin and thus conform to his eternal decree. God indirectly influences/causes/ordains/decrees all humans after Adam to sin, through the sinful nature that He imputes to all of us.

    Your warning concerning the language we use is good. I think that you are right - responsible does seem to carry guilt, which I am not saying. Thanks for being patient with my questions and wrestling with me!

    PS - I love Monergism and am totally getting a shirt!

    Hi Matt—

    To add to what John has said (and let me thank him for an excellent article): to say that God is responsible for sin implies an ethical situation. That is, responsibility is correctly an ethical condition: if you are responsible for something, it means that you are being held accountable to some kind of moral law, by a law-giver, for something you have done. In this sense, it is incoherent to speak of God being responsible, since to what moral law could he be held accountable, and who could judge him? He is the lawgiver, and there is no higher authority. So to speak of him as being morally or ethically responsible for sin is literally meaningless.

    I think you are speaking of responsibility in a metaphysical sense, though. What you mean is, God is the ultimate (though not the immediate) cause of sin. John is correct, then, to caution that it is better simply to say that God ordains sin. Using the term responsible in a metaphysical sense only leads to confusion, because it is a colloquial expression which actually contravenes the technical meaning of the word in this case.

    I hope this helps.

    Regards in Christ,

    Thank for your efforts to explain such desperately difficult concepts. As a Pastor I often discover that my people ask questions that I cannot answer either to their satisfaction or mine. Do you find it unacceptable when we find ourselves wading in deep waters -- as has been obsserved -- to freely confess that we are in over our heads and the answers to the questions we are asking, while important, must remain a mystery until we no longer see through a glass darkly?

    I am not suggesting that we shouldn't wrestle with such issues -- clearly, we should -- but doesn't there come a point when we need to be cautious about out explanations. I believe I understand what is being said when the observation is made that we were there in the stands cheering Adam on when he chose to sin. But surely that is a terribly difficult idea to try to get our arms around and even more difficult to hand off to our people.

    I agree with almost everything that has been said in this exchange of ideas. But I am also comfortable with coming to the place where I freely admit that we are dealing with more than we can know.

    Thank you, for providing this forum.

    For the King,


    Thanks for all of your comments!

    Bnonn, your point is well taken. I was talking about responsibility in the metaphysical sense, but that is a confusing word. I will not use that it to describe God's ordaining/causing/willing of sin (I like ordaining the best).

    I also agree with Pastor Caines. Although I love diving deep into these mind boggling waters, I (we all) would be wise to heed Calvin's words when he said, "It is not right for man to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. He has set forth by his Word the secrets of his will that he had decided to reveal to us. These he decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us." - Calvin's Institutes, Book3, Chapter 21, Section 1

    I think Calvin is dead on.

    I think Luther explained it well when he explained how God moved with His omnipotence the evil nature of Pharaoh, and caused it to react sinfully (voluntarily according to his sinful nature moved by the omnipotence of God which give him the power to will according to that nature) against His serious command of letting His people go. All of this to show His power and glory through him.

    Try to search in his "The bonadage of the will" this part where he speaks of that.


    John, thank you for shining a light on a subject, I, Quite frankly, have not been able to reconcile in my mind. I appreciate the thoughtful commentary on the subject and look forward to meditating on these theological mind benders.


    The point of "cheering him on from the bleachers" is simply to say that we have such close solidarity to Adam, since their unregenerate are In Adam, that every time we sin, we are saying yea and AMEN to what he did. As American swe tend to think of individuals but God made the world more like a collective body. We are subect to the conditions we are born under. Romans 5 shed some light on this.

    What a great discussion! I am grateful to our Lord for my friend's having sent me this page, and for the participation of all here.

    May we back up a bit in our thinking, to before the creation-- not only of the earth with which we are familiar, but of the heavens as well? "In the beginning God..." There was no sin. There was not even anything with the potential to sin. There was nothing that could sin because there was nothing but God.

    Everything that could and would commit sin was created, with intent, by God. The potential for sin exists in creation because that which is created BY God is, necessarily, NOT God; is LESS THAN God. Creation can never be on a plane with its Creator (no matter what may constitute a plane in the language of the eternal).

    I am not wise enough to defragment the issue of responsibility, but it seems to me that God, who is One yet three, can and may be responsible to Himself if He so desires. In this case, we must content ourselves with the mystery for now, trusting that what will be revealed to us shall be revealed when it pleases God to do so.

    But WHY would God create the potential of sin, i.e. those beings who had the ability and then the inclination to sin? Paul explains it as being "that God may be all in all,"(1Cor.15:28), that in God the Son all His creation might behold what (Who) is the All by which all exists and is sustained (Col.1:15-17), and that that might be seen in and through His church (vv.18-20,Eph.1:18-23). In other words, the instrumentality of sin sharply contrasts the imperfection of the created against the perfect Creator. Creation is not self-originated nor self-sustaining, and will be what it is designed to be ONLY by the handiwork of Him who both designed and sovereignly controls it.

    "New agers," "emergers," and others may try to blur the line between Creator and creation, but in Christ we are able to know that our LORD "works all things according to the counsel of His will," all to His own ends (Eph.1:11-12). That should more than satisfy our curiosity. It should delight our hearts.


    I was wondering, is there any refutation of Daniel Whedon's The Freedom of the Will as a Basis of Human Responsibility and a Divine Government, which Arminians consider to be a decisive refutation of Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will? I am a relatively new Christian. I have been in the Lord for about four months now. I'm trying to decide what is the more scriptural view. I am automatically more inclined toward calvinism, since I do hold in high regard the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and because it answers a lot of my questions as to why God did things the way He did. However, I am not sure whether Calvinism is more scriptural than Arminianism or not. Any help?

    I'm about 3 or 4 years late to the party, but I think that Al Hartman's post on February 26, 2009 hit the nail on the head: Everything that could and would commit sin was created, with intent, by God. The potential for sin exists in creation because that which is created BY God is, necessarily, NOT God; is LESS THAN God. Creation can never be on a plane with its Creator (no matter what may constitute a plane in the language of the eternal).

    God is perfect, and to me at least, I believe in the above statement, it shows God is incapable of making another perfect replica of himself. Because he is perfect in every way shape and form, there could be no creation that could be as perfect as he is.

    Again, WHO determined man's desires? WHO unconditionally decreed ALL things that come to pass? God. There is NO moral responsibility for man under Calvinism. None. If man cannot choose between two choices because God unconditionally determined--UNCONDITIONALLY decreed--for man to think, act, desire whatever he thinks, acts, desires, it is God who is the author of Sin and evil, not man.

    A robot programmed to only walk three steps forward is not a robot who is not "willing" to walk four steps forward. The robot CAN NOT walk four steps forward because the Programmer determined him only to walk three, not four, steps. Calvinists routinely play word games with "can't" and "won't" fully realizing that they are not the same thing but yet refuse to admit the difference.

    Calvinism is theological fatalism.

    It may be helpful in making some sense of these deep concepts to think of the end of all things rather than the beginning. In Revelation Chapter 7, The Apostle John recorded the vision of a multitude of people praising God and saying, salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. In Ephesians Chapter 1, we find a hint of what this praise consists of - it is praise for the glory of his grace.
    What is grace? Well, of course, it is unmerited favor. This phrase, thrown around by so many, gives those who use it a sense of God's compassion for us, and our need for salvation. What is it really?
    A more palatable grace for the masses is to believe that God is like an absent-minded professor who really knows a lot, but certainly doesn't know all things, certainly not all things perfectly. A more palatable grace for the masses is to believe that God is like a well-intended politician who makes good plans that are potentially prone to fail, but not perfect plans that never fail. A more palatable grace for the masses is to believe that God is like a person in the park that throws bread to any pigeon that chooses to come and eat, not a God who actually directs this bread (salvation) to individuals as he sees fit. What does this palatable grace do but lesson the extreme, and I mean extreme grace that God has bestowed on those he loves.
    It is one thing to think that God's grace is universally extended to all people, and equal in all respects to all people. It is quite another thing to think of God's grace as an extension of causes that produce an end that God ordained and God considers perfect. This grace is not palatable, and yet it is biblically derived.
    The previous post used the phrase "theological fatalism" to describe the apparent conclusion that God is sovereign, and we are not. Sovereign over what? Sovereign over everything. This sovereignty is not palatable, and yet it is biblically derived.
    How we make sense of these deep concepts is certainly a difficult task. I am certain of one thing though. God wants us to know that we are in dire need of the real grace, not the palatable grace that might calm our minds and settle our stomachs because it gives us the idea that we have a miniscule amount of control over our destiny. Let us praise God for his grace.

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