Divine Sovereignty vs. Human Free Will


"Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 'Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you'" (Matthew 11:20-24).


I hate dealing with this subject of divine sovereignty and human free will. It’s too complicated for me, and I’d rather let others more skilled deal with it. But given that in the same day I had 2 friends in 2 different states ask me for my thoughts on this issue, I thought I should comply in the form of this blog.

From Kenneth Boa http://bible.org/article/divine-sovereignty-vs-human-responsibility
There are good arguments on both sides, but I tend to claim that faith precedes regeneration. Yes, even faith is a gift, but the Bible teaches that if one believes, then one will have eternal life (John 3:16). However, the Bible also seems to teach that regeneration precedes faith (e.g., Jesus' comments on the wind blows where it wills and yields a rebirth—Jn. 3:3-8).

It sounds like what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. God has forgiven our sins in Christ. We are required to forgive others as God forgave us. We are to get rid of all bitterness as Ephesians 4 says, so in some sense at least forgiveness is unconditional. Yet the Bible is also clear that if someone sins against you, if he repents, then you are to forgive him (Luke 17:3). So it seems that forgiveness in terms of bitterness should be done prior to repentance, but there’s still something about forgiveness that’s not completed until repentance. Perhaps this is similar to what’s going on with our salvation. God offers forgiveness to all, knows that only some will receive it, but it’s only completed when the individual repents.

Now I’m really not even sure that the issue is primarily whether faith precedes regeneration or vice versa, since hard-core Calvinists may claim that faith precedes regeneration too. Faith is the means that God gives to bring about regeneration regardless the theological outlook. Rather, the basic problem seems to be, do we have any responsibility when it comes to faith? Hard-core Calvinists say no while other Calvinists are quick to claim of course the non-elect have responsibility. 

What about all the passages that say that God can harden anyone’s heart He wants to? Of course I hold that God is sovereign and can do this in order to bring about a better situation to glorify Himself (e.g., Pharaoh or Judas). Let’s not forget that even though God isn’t the author of sin, He can still bring it about to create something that is really a good. This is what I make of Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” But I think we need to seriously ponder: 1) does God harden the heart of every individual who ends up in hell, and 2) if so, how does He do this? If 1 does not hold, then perhaps there are certain individuals who harden their own hearts and perhaps God justifiably uses them to bring about an overall good. If 1 does hold, then I still don’t have to be a hard-core Calvinist here, since I can still hold that everyone with a hardened heart was still responsible. God hardens their hearts in the sense that He confirms their own decision in a given situation, and He knew this from all eternity. Since He’s the ruler of life itself, He can allow this situation to obtain. Notice that God allowing something He knows from eternity will happen in a given situation is different from Him causing it. Sure, He provides the world for the condition to obtain, but the causal choice for a particular action still rests on particular individual. That is the sense in which God "ordains" or "elects" some event. The basis of our particular callings is foreknowledge of what we responsibly do. “Whom He foreknew, He also did predestinate” (Rom. 8:29). “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Peter 1:2). It is no different from God ordaining or establishing every government in Romans 13:1-2, and yet, those of us who live in democratic countries all know we were the ones who freely elected the governing leaders that we have.

As for the Romans 9 passage, I see that as nations generally speaking. God can freely choose a nation to bring about the Messiah. The whole context of Romans seems to bear that out. But then again, God can hate a particular individual like Esau. So though certain nations have been cursed in not bringing about the Messiah as well as having favorable conditions to respond to the gospel, this doesn’t entail that all responsibility is gone for the individuals that make up a nation. Obviously people from Esau have become followers of Christ. Furthermore, Romans 9 must not be separated from the context of Romans 1. The individuals in the former passage are still responsible given the order of creation they are placed. They are responsible because they know better, but they still choose to not follow God.

So at issue now is whether that choice is truly free or not. There are two basic views of freedom here: 1) libertarian and 2) compatibilist. The former holds that an individual may really choose between alternative positions. It’s called genuine freedom. The latter holds that one can freely choose one’s ultimate desire given that nothing is obstructing it. So on this view, if you love ice cream, but have no means to get it, then you really aren’t free to have it. My own view is that compatibilism denies genuine responsibility. One can’t help but to pursue one’s own desires, and those were hard wired at least from the fall. But since Romans 1 teaches that individuals are still responsible, then individuals who comprise the nations in Romans 9 must still be able to exercise libertarian freedom in some way.


All Calvinists are compatibilists. Arminians are libertarians. The problem with the former is that even though they may claim everyone is responsible, they claim that the non-elect couldn't have done otherwise since their wills were not sovereignly determined to respond to God's love and offer of salvation. Those who are elected are done so unconditionally. If there is no condition, then there is no responsibility, since the non-elect could not have done otherwise. They are just "freely" following their utmost desires of rebellion, since nothing is keeping them from doing so. God could have saved them, but He didn't. The responsibility falls on God, not the unregenerate. The secondary causes were issued from Him just as David was the one who had Uriah killed through Joab. So even though David wasn't the primary cause of Uriah's death, the former was still responsible for it. God is the one who is responsible for salvation, not man who could not do otherwise. So if one cannot do otherwise, then that is what most of us mean by saying one isn't responsible.

Humanity is fundamentally messed up and dead in sin as Ephesians 2 says (total depravity). “Deadness” is obviously a metaphor, and metaphors need to be properly interpreted. From my understanding of scripture, it’s communicating separation, not the inability to be culpable. So I disagree with Calvinists on this point. If one were to say, "My ex-wife is dead to me," one should understand that he is not claiming she no longer has a will to respond to him. Jesus told the people of Jerusalem that He would have received them to Himself, but they would not come (Matthew 23:37). It is not that they could not come. On Calvinist theory, they really could not come.


This is where I find the different versions of Calvinism which claim all are responsible to be incoherent. They demand repentance from all, and yet they know full well that all can't repent. They claim all are responsible, but yet God has made it that most of His image-bearers (the broad road as Jesus calls them in Matthew 7:13-14) can't do otherwise.

Since humanity is so messed up, no one would be saved unless the Father initiates. John 6:44 is clear on this: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." On my view, God knows that even with His best attempts, the vast majority of people are still going to reject Him. Couldn’t God save everyone? I really don’t think so. Does this mean I hold the Sovereign God can’t do something? Recall that omnipotence doesn’t entail that God can do the logically impossible or the nonsensical. It’s impossible for the all-holy to lie, for example [Hebrews 6:18]. So I’d have to say that it’s nonsense to say that God could save everyone or even most people given our fallen condition. I admit this is a hard sell for some.


On the Calvinist viewpoint, of course He can save everyone, since the responsibility is not with man, but the Sovereign God. So why doesn't He save everyone? Wouldn't we expect a God who is by nature love (1 Jn. 4:7-8) to save everyone if it was simply a matter of His unconditional election? (By the way, His nature of love is logically prior to His nature of sovereignty, since He was love in Triune community prior to any act of creation in which He would be sovereign.) If He could save everyone, then they probably wouldn’t be human on my view. They would be robots that look like humans. Given human nature, they have a will which is made in God's image and is responsible even though it’s severely marred and bent toward sin. So if God’s going to save humans, He’s got to be creative. On my view, even though I’m not a Calvinist, that creativity entails damning certain responsible individuals to hell who would not accept Christ under some circumstances, so that more may live and give God glory.

In principle, this is debatable, but many ethicists are sympathetic to it. A good example may be what happened in WWII in bombing Germany and Japan. In and of itself, it was evil. But since the overall purpose was to save lives in shortening the war, the overall act was considered a good.

So at the beginning of the day, God chose this particular world in which I am saved, but He could have easily chosen a world in which I wasn’t saved or didn’t even exist. But regardless of the world, I still had responsibility and He is the one who deserves the glory. Here’s a good article on my basic position: http://www.iep.utm.edu/middlekn/. If you want to deal with this further, I suggest you contact John D. Laing at the bottom of the article.

Regardless of where you come down on this weighty issue, I trust that you’ll continue to extend Christian charity to me as one who sees through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12).


For further study, see: Jerry Walls: What's Wrong With Calvinism, Part 1, Jerry Walls: What's Wrong With Calvinism, Part 2, and Clive Lewis and John Piper's Calvinist Confusions, by Dr. Jerry Walls.


Rob Sivulka
President, Courageous Christians United
October 7, 2010

Revised August 3, 2019

Add Comment
John Kauer says... (Reply)
"I disagree with your 'hard-core Calvinist' and agree with Calvin as stated in his commentary on Eph 2,

"And were by nature F16 children of wrath. All men without exception,
whether Jews or Gentiles, (480215Galatians 2:15,16,) are here pronounced
to be guilty, until they are redeemed by Christ; so that out of Christ there
is no righteousness, no salvation, and, in short, no excellence. Children of
wrath are those who are lost, and who deserve eternal death. Wrath means
the judgment of God; so that the children of wrath are those who are
condemned before God. Such, the apostle tells us, had been the Jews, —
such had been all the excellent men that were now in the Church; and they
were so by nature, that is, from their very commencement, and from their
mother’s womb.
This is a remarkable passage, in opposition to the views of the Pelagians,
and of all who deny original sin. What dwells naturally in all is certainly
original; but Paul declares that we are all naturally liable to condemnation;
therefore sin dwells naturally in us, for God does not condemn the
innocent. Pelagians were wont to object, that sin spread from Adam to the
whole human race, not by descent, but by imitation. But Paul affirms that
we are born with sin, as serpents bring their venom from the womb.
Others who think that it is not in reality sin, are not less at variance with
Paul’s language; for where condemnation is, there must unquestionably be
sin. It is not with blameless men, but with sin, that God is offended. Nor is
it wonderful that the depravity which we inherit from our parents is
reckoned as sin before God; for the seeds of sin, before they have been
openly displayed, are perceived and condemned."

Men are culpable for their sins and the sin of Adam, who gave us this inheritance.

Does this make me a 'soft-core Calvinist'? " (11/5/10)
John Kauer says... (Reply)
"Romans 1 does not teach men are responsible. Men are not able to respond to what God has plainly given them, they suppress the revealed truth, they do not honor him, they do not give thanks, etc. These responses are rebellious not righteous or faithful. Man is in bondage to his sin nature and can only choose to sin, sometimes worse than others; however, never doing anything to bring God glory (Rom 3). This 'libertarian' freedom can only be found in the one that has been freed from bondage and brought to life in Christ. Thus, regeneration must precede faith and the imputation of Christ righteousness. Faith is a means not a causation, lest you destroy justification by faith and make it a work (Rom 4).

I do feel soft in the middle?" (11/5/10)
John Kauer says... (Reply)
"Your use of responsible is confusing me. I think it is better to use the word accountable. Men are accountable for their sins and the sin of Adam. They are not responsible that is able to respond." (11/5/10)
John Kauer says... (Reply)
"You state, "Given human nature, they have a will which is responsible even though it’s severely marred and bent toward sin" - this my friend is a lie that smells like fire, cause it comes from hell. This is what destroys the good news, the gospel. Back to Ephesians 2, "we are dead in sins". This is separation, but much more, a nature unable to respond. Verse 4, "But God", He must do a work in us to respond to Him, and this is how He gets the glory, and this is the definition of biblical grace. As my friend Brian Buchanan says, "What can a dead man do?" The answer is "nothing". Check your local cemetery for confirmation." (11/5/10)
Arthur Haglund says... (Reply)
"Molinism and middle knowledge are not correct. The idea that God chose THIS world, wherein you are saved, when he could have chosen a world wherein you are not saved is fiction and fallacy.
There is this world and this world only. God did not have a premade selection ready for him from which to choose.

God created the world. God created you. God did not choose anyone FOR salvation in a sense that this salvation is based upon some pre-creation election." (8/17/14)
Arthur Haglund says... (Reply)
"WOW, Rob, straight out block me?
I invite you to discuss this, which would include you correcting me, and your response is to block me?

So, I guess that means:
1. No possibility that you could be wrong
2. No possibility that you could correct me
3. no possibility that I could be right?

Seems like Shawn McRaney got a better shke from you. Way to break Christian bonds of brotherhood!" (8/18/14)
Rob Sivulka says... (Reply)
"Art--it shouldn't surprise you when I already kicked you out of the MormonInfo.org/JosephLied.com discussion group over this. If you think Calvinists are heretics, then it's not me who is breaking the bonds of Christian brotherhood. You've got a long pattern of divisiveness, which many will attest to, and as Rom. 16:17 says, "mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them."" (8/18/14)
Arthur Haglund says... (Reply)
"Rob, THAT page was dealing with current and leaving mormons, and my understanding was that you did not want them to get confused about THAT issue on THAT page.
Now, Rob, let us for a moment, say that Calvinism IS part of Christianity, then you would be right, in part, and wrong in part, as you have NEVER attempted to have a biblical discussion with me about this and to show me my error. The totality is your insisting that Calvinism is not heretical. not even attempting to show me my error. Funny how Shawn got more respect and a bit more biblical obedience from you on this topic, for his error.

Now, let us say, to balance it out and present both sides, that I am right
You, Rob do yourself and others a disservice for refusing to discuss the matter, pridefully insisting via actions, that you need not engage in any self correction or allowing others to do so. In effect, you are acting like Shawn on his 'inquisition' HOTM episode.

Is it possible that Rob can be wrong?
Is it Rob?
Is it possible that Calvinism can be heretical doctrine, Rob?
If not, then why is Rob NOT a Calvinist?
Rob is not a Calvinist because he DOES consider Calvinism to BE ERROR!
Rob, however does not allow others, who also consider Calvinism to be error, to go further than Rob goes and calls it heresy, Rob, thus, is the arbiter of how far is too far.
Shawn is a heretic for holding some quasi undefined doctrine on the Godhead, but Calvinists are not heretic for teaching that Christ came one for some, that only some CAN be saved, that even sin is ordained by God?

This is putting Rob close to heresy, not me!" (8/18/14)
Arthur Haglund says... (Reply)
"Sorry, I should have included this:
mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

So, did the Apostles teach TULIP, Rob? If so, why are you not a Calvinist? Is TOTAL depravity taught, and if so, does the Bible redefine depravity to mean unable?
Does the bible teach unconditional election unto salvation, with the name and number of all that will ever be saved predetermined with the balance created TO GO TO HELL, Rob?
DOES the bible teach the limited atonement of Jesus, that he came ONLY to die for those who are pre-elected?
Does the bible teach IRRESISTIBLE grace, Rob (you answered this above, showing that you do NOT agree with Calvinism, proving that YOU, Rob, hold that Calvinism is causing the division, that Calvinism is teaching contrary to the sound doctrine of scripture, Rob
And, Rob, do you hold that perseverance of the saints hold OSAS, that once a person is saved, that some sins are no longer within their reach and they cannot,m under any circumstance, lose their salvation, Rob?

See, Rob, Calvinism, Like Mormonism, is THE ATTACK on Christianity, so, Rob, since you already declare that you are NOT a Calvinist, why do you allow fellowship with those that hold and teach contrary to scripture as your 'christian' brothers?
WHY reject me for standing against such doctrine?

Why do I become your enemy by telling the truth?
Why, Rob, when I offer you the chance to correct me, do you disfellowship me, instead?
REPENT prideful Rob!" (8/18/14)
Rob Sivulka says... (Reply)
"Well if Shawn was my Facebook friend (Shawn doesn't even have a FB page), he would have received the same treatment as you. As I said before on FB before I blocked you, your comments are just too ignorant to bother responding to. Way too much time is required on dealing with basic theology and simple Bible quotes, and no authority dealing with cults would consider this an essential issue of the faith anyway contrary to the way you seem to be treating it. " (8/18/14)
Arthur Haglund says... (Reply)
"" "Well if Shawn was my Facebook friend (Shawn doesn't even have a FB page), he would have received the same treatment as you. As I said before on FB before I blocked you, your comments are just too ignorant to bother responding to. Way too much time is required on dealing with basic theology and simple Bible quotes, and no authority dealing with cults one consider this an essential issue of the faith anyway contrary to the way you seem to be treating it. " (8/18/14)"

REALLY, so a person can be TOO ignorant and thus do not bother to save them, correct them, there IS a point of no return, Rob. Can you cite scripture to sustain such a thought?

BTW, Rob, My stance is not from a point of ignorance, but, rather, comes from MUCH study.

As for no AUTHORITY considering Calvinism a pseudo-Christian cult, you hold some men above others, rob?
What, in Rob's mind constitutes an authority?
Would the FACT that hundreds of thousands of Christians hold my position hold no weight, just some nebulous idea and concept of an authority?

IF Dr Brown came out and stated it, THEN the truth I hold becomes true or possibly true for Rob?
If Dr White renounces Calvinism and declares it a cult, does THAT lend credence to the concept?
Repent, Rob of your respector of persons and pride, I beg of you. And, guess what, Rob, the divisiveness you claim that I have a long history of, what does that entail, exactly?
Holding the Mormonism is false, that JW doctrine is false, that SDA is a cult a sect because it precicely violates acts 15 and galatians, the entire letter?

Or is it that I have come out against Calvinism, only. What deviciveness are you accusing me of, exactly, Rob?
Or is it a convenient public thing to say, so you look good to others for breaking Christian fellowship. Fellowship that YOU break, not me.

BTW, I have ALWAYS considered that SOME Calvinists CAN be Christians, because they are ignorant and have this error unknowingly, but those that study it and still hold to it, well, no, they are, in NO way, of the body of Christ.
Amen" (8/18/14)
Arthur Haglund says... (Reply)
"Rob, so nice of you to avoid answering questions with a claim that It is TOO... whatever and for the unsupported, yet public clam that I am divisive. Your pride is showing and greatly." (9/9/14)