Friday, February 10, 2017
Freedom: There Can Be Only One
This is a follow-up to my previous post on divine knowledge. What does God know, when does God know, how does God know? Essentially, what is the nature of divine knowledge? In that post I made and defended the claim that God’s knowledge is perfect and all-encompassing. I also made the claim that God’s knowledge is grounded in God’s will. This means that God’s knowledge is indelibly connected to His freedom. Those who posit a libertarian view of human freedom, if my view is correct, are also positing a view that contradicts divine freedom. And unless there is divine freedom, God’s knowledge cannot be all-encompassing. In short, if human beings possess an absolute free will as is expressed by most modern Christians, then God’s knowledge must be limited. There is no other option outside of a blatant logical contradiction. Below is essentially, “What Does God Know – Part II.”
If it is true that God’s knowledge is grounded in God’s will, and it is also true that nothing in the created order, to include human beings, can do anything contrary to God’s will, then in what sense can we say that human beings are responsible for their choices in this life? A very common belief in popular Christianity claims that in order to defend culpability, humans must be free. And it is also asserted that in order to defend divine justice, humans must be free. The idea of a determinative will and knowledge in God seems to contradict the idea of a just Creator. The goal of this section is to defend both the biblical teaching that God’s knowledge is exhaustive, complete, and grounded in his will and that God is just in his condemnation of sinful human behaviors. It is my firm conviction that these two beliefs are not contradictory the one to the other, and that they are both plainly taught in Scripture. The case study that will be employed to support this model of divine knowledge and human responsibility is the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is an event that was determined by divine will and known by God from all eternity. Yet, this event required innumerable choices and acts by a large number of human beings across thousands of years in order for it to become actualized.
What does the Bible affirm about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15) Very early in the history of human existence, the need for and promise of an atoning Savior became apparent. Too often we read this promise and give very little attention to all the necessary connections, people, events, and decisions that were absolutely essential to bring this promise to realization. The question that immediately emerges is, did God will the fall? In other words, was the fall of man something that God decreed? Was God’s promise in Genesis 3 along with his curse a reaction of God? In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 7, What are the decrees of God? The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. (Eph. 1:4,11, Rom. 9:22–23) Did God foreordain the fall of man? To use the language of this paper, did God will the fall of man? Since the divine will and the divine decree in this context refer to the same act of God, it is necessarily true that God willed or decreed or planned the fall of man prior to His creative act. This is true since no temporal act can occur prior to God’s eternal knowledge of that act. It is also true because no temporal act can occur apart from God’s decretive act. To know, or foreknow an uncertainty, is to know or foreknow a non-entity. To know that x is a possibility is not to know x. To know that the Atlanta Falcons could win the super bowl is not knowing that the Atlanta Falcons will win the super bowl. God’s free knowledge is true knowledge of reality.
The most important aspect of the Divine decree is, that it brings all things that come to pass in space and time into a plan. There can be no system of the universe, if there be no Divine purpose that systematizes it. Schemes in theology which reject the doctrine of the Divine decree, necessarily present a fractional and disconnected view of God, man, and nature.
Shedd is indeed correct to call us back to Scripture in this respect. There is an eternal purpose in God’s decree that shall indubitably show itself prominently in the case study I have selected to illustrate the point of this paper. The plan and purpose of the crucifixion existed prior to creation.
The case study begins with the inaugural sermon of the Church delivered by Peter, the leading apostle of the early Church. Peter says that Jesus the Nazarene was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God. Three words are used in this sermon that deserve attention. The first word is horizō and in this context is means “to make a determination about an entity, determine, appoint fix, set.” It is use in Luke 22:22 where Jesus said that the Son of Man goes “as it has been determined” speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is used in Acts 10:42 where Peter says that Jesus has been appointed by God to be the judge of all men. It is used by Paul in Acts 17:26 where Paul says that God has determined the periods and boundaries of all nations. A few verses later he echoes Peter’s belief that Jesus has been appointed to be the standard by which all men will be judged. The second word employed by Peter is of equal importance: boulē. In this context, the will of God refers to that which God has decided. It is a resolution or a decision that is clearly in view. In other words, the two words appearing together tell us that Jesus the Nazarene was delivered over by the determinate, fixed, set plan, resolution, and decision of God. Prior to the crucifixion, God had already decided, planned, and determined that Christ would be crucified. The crucifixion was something that came to be as a result of God’s eternal purpose. The third word is prognosis. It is translated foreknowledge. This word speaks to God’s predetermination. The construction of this phrased is critical to a proper interpretation of the text. Although most scholars treat this phrase as a dative of instrument, it may be better to call it dative of rule (“in conformity with”; Wallace 1996, 158): “in accord with the intention and foreknowledge.” Peter repeated this basic idea a little later, “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” That which God has willed, God knew. That which God freely knows, God wills. The two are bound up in one another so that both must either be true or false. Before the beginning of time, the Christ event was included in the divine decree. I will devote more time to this below. We now come to Peter’s prayer, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28) Here we have the same Greek words employed that we see in Acts 2:23: horizō and boulē. The people in this city came together to execute God’s divine plan, God’s purpose, God’s will. We would ask if what these sinful men did in that city was the most wicked of all sins? It seems to me that there could be no greater sin than the unjust murder of God. And yet, Scripture reveals to every Christian in this text, openly and clearly, that even the most egregious sin ever committed by men was determined by God in eternity past. And even though it was determined by God in eternity past, these men freely acted to accomplish it. God decreed what men would freely do. God remains in sovereign control and these men are rightly culpable for their actions.
1 Peter 1:20, Christ as a sacrifice was “foreordained before the foundation of the world.” God’s plan to redeem is eternal. Eph. 1:4 says he chose us in him before the foundation of the world. 2 Thess. 2:13 says that God has chosen you from the beginning to salvation. Paul wrote to Timothy, saying, “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” (2 Tim. 1:9) Prior to the beginning of time, the grace of God in Christ who saves us was granted to us. In other words, our salvation was secure prior to the beginning of time. Paul uses the same expression in Titus 1:2, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago. Long ages ago is the expression “before the ages” or before time became.
Shedd is correct when he says that the divine decree is universal. It applies to good acts, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them. It applies to evil acts, like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ our Lord. (Acts 2:23) “In other words, God’s purpose embraces the means along with the end, the cause along with the effect, the condition along with the result of issue suspended upon it; the order, relations and dependencies of all events, as no less essential to the divine plan than the events themselves.” There is no such thing as a state of affairs that exists or comes to be that rests outside the divine decree. For the Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil. (Prov. 16:4) There isn’t anything that happens that is without divine purpose. Modern Christians express the belief that God reacts to less than desirable events, and then makes those events work for their good and God’s glory. The event of the crucifixion points us in exactly the opposite direction. Every event from the creation to the second coming of Christ revolves around the event of the crucifixion. This is why it serves as the exemplar for illustrating the point of this paper. The entire revelation of God given to the Church in Holy Scripture centers around the event of the atonement. God is revealed to be a holy God who redeems unholy and rebellious men and enters into covenant relationship with them. And this revelation is nowhere made more clear than at the cross. “Christ has come as the end-time Adam to do what the first Adam should have done and to reflect his Father’s image perfectly and to enable his people to have that image restored in them. In so doing, Christ is restarting history, which is a new-creational age to be successfully consummated at his final coming.”
For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Lu. 22:22) The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matt. 26:24) For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born. (Mk. 14:21) While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12) Jesus here points out that the only unguarded among the disciples was Judas. And the reason Judas was unguarded was so that Scripture might be fulfilled. John 10:35 tells us that Scripture cannot be broken. In these four passages we see Jesus referring to Scripture each and every time when he talks about Judas’ betrayal. It was Jesus who also expressed his firm conviction that the Scriptures cannot be broken. What does this mean if you are Judas living in these events at the time? Some Christians claim that we possess a libertarian freedom, an absolute ability to always choose contrary to the choices we make. Is this true? Is it possible that Judas could have chosen at any point in time in his life not to betray Christ? Could the state of affairs have developed through the free will choices of other human beings that would have resulted in Judas not betraying Christ or even not being the man to betray Christ? Did God have a contingency plan just in case Judas or someone else chose to act in a way so as to frustrate God’s plan, his eternal decree?
If it is actually the case that Judas could have chosen not to betray Christ, then it is also the case that it was always possible that the prophecies concerning his betrayal would fail, resulting in false prophecy and reclassifying the respective prophets as false prophets. This would mean that Isaiah 53 could have possibly been wrong, a false prophecy. This would have made Isaiah a false prophet. This would mean that the Word of God could have failed contrary to Paul’s argument in Romans 9 that it has not! More importantly, this would mean that it is possible that there are other interpretations of the prophets that are correct and that such prophecies failed.
If Judas could have acted to the contrary, God must not have known. But if it is true that God knows everything, and that all things are laid bare before him, that he declares the end from the beginning, in what sense could Judas have chosen to do contrary to what God knew he would do? It seems then that to say that Judas could have acted to the contrary, one would have to believe that either God did not know what Judas would do or that Judas could have frustrated God’s will. And to say that God did not know what Judas would do is indeed a view of God rejected by historic Christian orthodoxy. It amounts to a denial of divine omniscience and understands there to be imperfection in God. It does not help to say that God knows future events like a man sitting on a mountain looking down at the bending road (Boethius). That view of divine knowledge separates knowledge from the divine will. In that case, things happen, not because God sovereignly willed them, but because man is completely free, and God is just observing man’s free choices. In this case now we compromise divine sovereignty while in the former attempt we compromise divine omniscience. Neither choice is acceptable if we are to maintain a high view of God as revealed in Scripture.
If Judas could have acted to the contrary, God’s will is capable of being frustrated by man. And indeed this is the case when some men claim that God wants to save all men without exception. Does the divine decree depend upon the free choice of man? Or is the free choice of man folded into the divine decree? Surely the latter must be the case if we are to avoid outright contradiction in Christian theology. There is no defect in God, in knowledge, power, and veracity. His decree cannot therefore be changed because of a mistake of ignorance, or of inability to carry out his decree, or of unfaithfulness to his purpose. Isaiah says my counsel shall stand. Some Christians misunderstand this verse to mean something like God’s advice or commandments. Actually, the Hebrew word for counsel is etsah. In this context it clearly does not refer to advice. Rather it means counsel, i.e. plan, purpose, design, plot. God immediately follows this statement with “and I will accomplish my purpose.” This points us to the singular nature of God’s purpose and to the fact that He is more than powerful enough to accomplish it.
If Judas could have acted to the contrary, then Scripture can be broken. If Jesus was right when he said that Judas had to go the way he did in order to fulfill Scripture, then Judas was not free to act to the contrary. But if Judas was free to act to the contrary, then the Scriptures are breakable. The ramifications here are far-reaching. If it is true that Scripture can be broken, the results are devastating to Biblical Christianity. If God has acted in history to reveal himself, and the Scriptures are the inspired and revealed interpretation of those acts of revelation, and it is shown that Scripture cannot be fully trusted, then it follows that Christianity is on the weakest of ground. The nature of Scripture is such that God moved in history in acts of revelation to people of his choosing. Scripture is God’s revealed interpretation of his acts of revelation in history. If it is untrustworthy, then Christianity is just one religion among hundreds of millions.
If Judas could have acted to the contrary, then it was possible for Jesus to have been wrong. Jesus could not have been more emphatic about Judas final destination. Jesus said it would have been better for Judas if he had not been born. Jesus based his statement on what he knew from Scripture and what His Father had revealed to him. In fact, Jesus called Judas the ho huios tēs apōleias, the son of destruction. Is it actually possible that Jesus could have been wrong about his description of Judas? If Judas could have freely chosen to do the contrary, then it is necessarily the case that Jesus was wrong. What Jesus should have said is, if Judas does what I think he will do, then he is the son of destruction. But Jesus described Judas in a certain way and said clearly that it was better for Judas if he had never been born. This is patently false if it were possible for Judas to choose not to betray Christ. If Jesus was right, then Judas’ future was fixed by the predetermined plan and eternal purpose of God and he was in no sense free to do the contrary. Judas was only free to betray Christ and he made that choice freely without coercion. But make no mistake about it, to say that Judas could have done otherwise spells the end of Christianity as we know it. We are saying that it was possible that Jesus could have been a false prophet when we say that Judas could have done otherwise. That is the logical conclusion. The choice here then is between human free will or divine sovereignty; human autonomy or divine freedom; man is in control of his own destiny or God is in control of all things declaring the end from the beginning. Either God is absolutely free or man is absolutely free. If there is an absolutely free being, there can be only one. And since Christianity claims that God has revealed himself to be such a being, then there can be no other being who is absolutely free. This would be a logical contradiction.
If this perspective of free will is correct, then it is quite possible that we have prophecies in the OT that have proven to be false because of their dependency on human free will. And indeed, some liberal scholars argue that this is actually the case. Historic Christian orthodoxy would deny such outrageous conclusions as does a straightforward exegesis of Scripture. The divine decree is unconditional, or absolute. This means, that its execution does not depend on anything that has not itself been decreed. This means that God decreed that Christ would be crucified, and, included in that decree was all the necessary free choices of human beings that would go into actualizing that event. And in a way that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, God worked his plan without forcing men against their will to make the decisions that were necessary to bring the crucifixion to past. This the Church calls divine providence.
The apostle Paul helps us take up the proper response to this very important question. If God has willed that men perform wicked acts, and it is also true that God’s will cannot be resisted or frustrated in any way, then how can God hold men responsible for acting in accord with his sovereign will? The point this question is making is that this way of thinking seems to impugn the goodness and justice of God. How is this just?
To answer this question, we turn to Romans 9 where Paul helps us identify the proper Christian response to the objection. Paul says in v. 13 that God loved Jacob and hated Esau even before they were born and had done anything right or wrong. Therefore, God did not see anything in these two men from his eternal perspective that made him choose Jacob over the Esau. God’s choice was not based on anything in the men or anything the men had done, but on his eternal decree, on his purpose. The objector in v. 14 will say, Is there injustice with God? In other words, how is such a choice just? Both men are equal. How could it be just to choose the one and reject the other? The modern opponent will say this is either unjust or it is arbitrary. But it is neither as we shall see. Paul explains that there is no injustice with God at all and that God has full right to have mercy on whomever he chooses. In v. 16 Paul emphasizes that it does not depend on the will of men or on efforts of men and this would include men’s decisions. God does not show mercy to men depending on the will and efforts and decisions of men. God’s basis for choosing to show mercy is located in God and it is in accord with his plan, his purpose which is known only to himself. Paul points us to Pharaoh, in whose place I insert Judas. Paul says that God raised up Pharaoh (Judas) for this very purpose; to put his power on display! God has mercy on whomever he wills and whomever he wills, he hardens. God’s mercy and God’s hardening are according to God’s decree, his will. In v. 19 the objector returns and asks, what we might consider a very reasonable question: Why does God still find fault then? For no man can resist or frustrate the will of God! Not Pharaoh and not Judas! How does Paul answer this question? Does he seek to get God off the hook of this apparent contradiction? He does not. Paul makes no such effort. Rather, he tells the objector to shut their mouth in no uncertain terms. But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:20-21) While this answer will leave many wanting for more, that is exactly the warning we should all observe very carefully. Nothing more came. And perhaps, nothing more is coming even in eternity. God expects us to take our proper place and ask nothing of him that he himself has determined we have no right to know.
Does this answer accord with Scripture? I think it most assuredly does. Is this answer reasonable? In other words, is it logically plausible to say that God has ordained the wicked acts of men as well as the punishment for performing those acts? I believe it is. It does not follow that because Judas could not have chosen otherwise, that he was not free in the choice that he made. Judas freely chose to act in a way that was in perfect accord with God’s will. The only way injustice could be legitimately accused of God is if 1) it can be proven that God can only act upon the will of men so as to force them against their will to carry out his plan, and 2) that no man living deserves to be treated in this way. The presupposition behind the objection is that unless God had “forced” men against their will to fall into sin, they would not have done so. Such a presupposition is completely baseless and contradicts Scripture at every turn. There is no contradiction in saying that God ordained that Adam would freely choose to eat of the tree. Another issue that the discussion raises concerns the value of evil. Christopher Green notes, “Theists need not explain particular evils in light of the more general good of freedom. If we are convinced that, for all we know, God will use particular events to perform some sufficiently-valuable demonstration in the future, then theists can avoid difficult territory pertaining to the value or precondition of freedom. In other words, freedom is unnecessary as a high value in order to permit evil. There could be another “higher value” such as God’s glory that justifies the existence of evil. And indeed that is the case in my view.
Now, the inconsistency of those who would demand libertarian free will while also holding to an exclusive view of Christianity find themselves in not a small dilemma. This dilemma is demonstrated in the follow ways. The dilemma arises for those who hold to a traditional evangelical view of Scripture and of God. The gospel of Christ saves and only the gospel of Christ saves. Apart from the gospel, there is no faith, and where there is no faith, there can be no salvation. Yet we know that millions of people die every year never having heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. For these people, those who reject the position in this paper, would contend that they are subject to the eternal wrath and damnation of a holy God. But if these people never heard the gospel, this would mean that they never had a chance to even consider Christ. And if they never had a chance to make a free choice regarding Christ, how then can God damn them for rejecting Christ? For how can they reject the Christ if they have never heard of him? How can a just God condemn sinners for rejecting a gospel that they have never heard? Essentially, those rejecting the position of this paper are claiming on the one hand that God would be unjust for condemning Judas if he could not have chosen the contrary while at the same time claiming that God is just to condemn those who had no choice afforded to them by way of a gospel presentation. Ouch! Would not a good and just God at minimum give these millions and millions and even billions of people a chance to choose Christ? The problem gets worse for those who argue that God sincerely wants to save all men without exception. In other words, God literally is trying to save as many people as will allow him to save them. This essentially means the kind of God these people are placing their faith in is a frustrated God. Not only is he not able to save every person he wants to save, there are millions upon millions to whom he can’t even get the gospel. If God really is trying to save everyone without exception, then there is no other conclusion to reach but that God is frustrated. This means that God is literally disappointed in exactly the same way we experience disappointment. But Scripture does not describe God in this way. Anthropopathic language is used of God so that we can have a glimpse into God’s view of human behavior but that fact cannot be pressed too far. Doing so places the entire Christian worldview in jeopardy. God condescends in his communicative act in order that we may understand him. This view is not only consistent with Christian philosophy and theology; it is essential if we are to understand anything about our infinite God. If we take the contrary view, Christianity unravels doctrine by doctrine, beginning with our doctrine of God.
If God wanted to save all men without exception, he would send the gospel to all men. God has not sent the gospel to all men. Therefore, it is not the case that God wants to save all men without exception.
While it is beyond the scope of this paper to go into detail, it should be noted that I am in no way arguing that God is the author or chargeable cause of sin or evil in the world. That God decreed all that would come to pass is affirmed, but that decree, where evil is concerned, is according to second causes. I will return to this in a follow-up paper on the defense of reformed theology. God is sovereign over all creation and nothing happens that God has not decreed. Man is acts freely in all he does and is responsible for all his choices. Both of these propositions are true because both are clearly taught in Scripture. As explained above, they do not contradict one another when understood in the light of Scripture in total. In closing, Robert Reymond notes, “What reformed theology denies is that a man’s will is never free from God’s decree, his own intellection, limitations, parental training, habits, and (in this life) the power of sin. In sum, there is no such thing as the liberty of indifference; that is, no one’s will is an island unto itself, undetermined or unaffected by anything.”
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).
 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology V1 (publication place: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 398.
 Ibid., 398-399
Wallace Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics
 Martin M. Culy and Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2003), 37.
 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology V1 (publication place: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 399.
 Ibid., 400.
 G K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2011), 465.
 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology V1 (publication place: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 401.
 David J. A. Clines, ed., The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press; Sheffield Phoenix Press, 1993–2011), 528.
 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology V1 (publication place: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 401.
 David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson, eds., Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 246, accessed February 3, 2017,
 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, ©1998), 373.
In the spirit of transparency, if you are reading this blog for the first time, you should know that I am not a fan of Arminian t...
The state of affairs in which we find ourselves as Christians is one of perpetual opposition. I have found that it is always healthier if...
The Contest I was finally able to make it to a James White debate. I have followed Dr. White’s ministry for many years now. His mini...