Chosen But Free: Sovereignty and Free Will

Dr. Geisler's third chapter of Chosen But Free is titled "Who's in Charge?" Here he addresses the topic of the sovereignty of God. He has already defined "sovereignty," in his "balanced view," as God being "in control" (19) or "in charge" (22) of His universe, yet allowing for genuine free will decisions, though God is fully aware of those decisions. (19) The sovereignty of God, Geisler argues, is "deeply rooted in His attributes, [and] is revealed by (1) His characteristics and (2) His control." (19) The word "control" needs proper defining. A Calvinist may argue that God is "in control" of His universe and, by use of that word, he means that God has from eternity past decreed all that shall come to pass, whether by His immediate causation, or by use of secondary means. This understanding is not Geisler's understanding.

Arminius prefers use of the word "governing" when referring to the sovereignty and providence of God: "My sentiments respecting the Providence of God are these: It is present with, and presides over, all things: And all things, according to their essences, quantities, qualities, relations, actions, passions, places, times, stations and habits, are subject to its governance, conservation, and direction."1 He adds: "I except neither ... particular, sublunary, vile, nor contingent things, not even the free wills of men or of angels, either good or evil: And, what is still more, I do not take away from the government of the Divine Providence even sins themselves, whether we take into our consideration their Commencement, their Progress, or their Termination."2

One might respond: "That seems rather Calvinistic and deterministic." The difference between Arminius' Reformed views on the sovereignty of God and those of his Calvinist colleagues is that he grounds the sovereignty of God in the nature and character of God. Hence God does not strictly decree for a person to sin. However, God must concur with the sinner when he or she sins, and also sustain the very life of the person who is sinning. But God does not sit by idly while sinners commit sin: "With respect to the Beginning of sin, I attribute the following acts to the Providence of God: First. Permission, and that not idle."3 Dr. Geisler appears as a strong candidate for the sovereignty of God. He writes of God accomplishing His will (25), controlling all events (26), including the hearts of kings (27), human events (27), and whatever pertains to angels (27) and Satan (28). He even quotes from the Westminster Confession of Faith: "God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass." (26) But he then betrays this nod toward Westminster.

From my perspective, Dr. Geisler wants to appear to be "speaking the same language" of the Calvinist, but redefining the intention behind Calvinist documents like the Westminster Confession. For example, under the heading "Human Decisions Are Under God's Control," he argues: "What is more, the Scripture portrays God as in sovereign control of everything we choose, even our salvation. . . . God's sovereignty over human decisions includes both those for Him and against Him." (29) The Calvinist can grant Geisler a hearty "Amen!" and think that, perhaps, he actually is a Calvinist. He then asks: "If God is sovereign, how then can we be free? Does not divine sovereignty make a sham of human responsibility? Does God pull the strings of human 'puppets' at His will?" (30) This he addresses in the next chapter: "Why Blame Me?"

Dr. Geisler insists: "Yes, God is in control, but we are also free." (31) He claims that this is not a contradiction but, rather, a mystery. Incidentally, Calvinists play the same mystery card with regard to God's decreeing that we sin, yet He is not responsible for decreeing that we sin when we sin. But by suggesting that "God is in control," what Geisler is not suggesting is that God, from eternity past, decreed that we sin, and this against our free will. He notes: "One of the things God gave us was a good power called free will. . . . However, the power of moral free choice in this world entails the ability either to choose the good God designed for us or to reject it." (34) This is not Calvinism, in any sense of the term, moderate or otherwise. Geisler is not a Calvinist.

For the remainder of chapter four Geisler addresses the problem of evil, the origin of evil, and free will. He (rightly) challenges Calvinist Jonathan Edwards' thesis, that we only do that which we most desire, asking why God did not grant everyone the desire to choose the good. (34-35) He then quotes Calvinist R.C. Sproul, Sr., regarding the first impulse to sin: "R.C. Sproul calls this an 'excruciating problem,' adding, 'One thing is absolutely unthinkable, that God could be the author or doer of sin.'" (35) His son, R.C. Sproul, Jr. maintains no problem with naming God the author of sin (link), and neither does Calvinist Vincent Cheung (link). Geisler argues that Sproul Sr. finds the issue problematic because he believes in the law of noncontradiction. (35)


The law of noncontradiction holds that one cannot render a statement to be both affirmative and negative at the same time and in the same manner. God cannot both exist and not exist. A person cannot be both married and single at the same time and in the same manner. God cannot render an event necessary, securing every minutiae of that event by an eternal decree, even decreeing all secondary and tertiary means, thus guaranteeing the outcome He formerly decreed, and then hold someone responsible for the act she commits. This is especially the case when one considers the theory that God influences her desires and decisions to commit said act, as did Calvin, as do Calvinists like Wayne Grudem.4 Dr. Geisler rightly answers: "If neither the devil nor God made me do it [i.e., sin or evil], then who did? The biblical answer is that I did it. That is, the "I" or "Self" is the cause of evil. How? By means of the good power of free choice that God gave me." (36)

When addressing the philosophical notion of cause and effect he rightly states: "In response, first, every event does have a cause. But not every cause has a cause, as the strong sovereignty view holds." (36) Again, by "the strong sovereignty view," he indicates what we all know to be orthodox Calvinistic teaching -- not hyper-Calvinism, not "extreme" Calvinism, but the orthodox theology of Calvin, Beza, Edwards and Whitefield. (By "orthodox" I mean historical or genuine or original Calvinism.) Still, Dr. Geisler rightly continues, "Every painting has a painter, but every painter is not painted." (36) His point is well taken. Welseyan Daniel D. Whedon, who answers and challenges Edwards, argues: "The Will in its conditions is a full and adequate cause accounting for the effect, and no adequate cause needs any other cause to make it effective."5 Granted, Whedon properly notes the sufficient influence of the grace of God concerning one trusting in Christ for salvation, but his point is well-received here: the will is a cause in itself in rendering decisions.

Geisler agrees: "However, if our actions are not uncaused, then is not the extreme sovereignty view [i.e., Calvinism] correct that they must be caused by another? Not at all, for this perspective overlooks one very important alternative; namely, that they were caused by ourselves." (37) God is able to influence a cause; Satan is able to influence a cause; and we are able to will a cause. (38) The question is then asked: "Why did I do it?" (39) Our various conditions (e.g., environmental, familial, geographical, psychological, emotional, spiritual) influence or affect us but do not necessarily effect or cause us to render decisions. (39) Perceiving a response from a Calvinist critic, Geisler asks, "How can an evil nature choose good?" He argues that a person freely chooses to sin, inferring that a person could choose not to sin, even being in a depraved state. (40-42) This notion Arminius and Arminians reject (see previous post). While we do not sin by necessity, i.e., by God's eternal decree, prior to regeneration we sin because of our depraved nature, in that depravity itself is the guarantee that one will inevitably and necessarily sin.

Finally, Geisler states, "But here too logic seems to insist that such moral obligations imply self-determining moral free choice, for ought implies can." (42) Here he assumes that the operative grace of God is working within an individual to perform what he ought to perform and, hence, he can perform what he ought to perform by the grace of God. (43) In this sense, then, rewards and punishments from God are given their due: we are held responsible for our own actions, we were not decreed to those actions, and we can be appropriately rewarded or punished for the decisions we freely make. As long as Dr. Geisler remains within the framework of appealing to the proactive grace of God in the hearts and minds of human beings then he avoids semi-Pelagianism and finds himself at least in company with Arminians. He can defend his Perseverance of the Saints doctrine 'til Jesus returns, but in denying determinism, and denying unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace places him within the broad Arminian tradition.

Granted, there are a host of Baptistic evangelical-minded people who reject the name "Arminian," namely, Southern Baptists. We Arminians never intend to force a label onto a group of people who do not wish that label for themselves. Geisler remains in such a group. However, when he attempts to redefine labels, thus rendering himself a "moderate Calvinist," while rejecting core tenets of Calvinism, this will not do. Dr. Geisler, for whatever reason(s), tends to bounce back and forth between a semi-Pelagian and an Arminian grace-induced position of free will. Again he writes: "Even after Adam sinned, becoming spiritually 'dead' (Gen. 2:17; cf. Eph. 2:1) and a sinner 'by nature' (Eph. 2:3), he was not so completely depraved that he could neither hear the voice of God nor make a free response." (45) The image of God, which he admits includes the free will of humanity, was not destroyed by the fall. (45-47) Arminians insist that the free will of mortals was destroyed by the fall, and that only by the grace of God can a person "hear the voice of God," or "make a free response." In other places Dr. Geisler actually agrees. (48)

I suppose, then, one could assume that, in every place where he does not qualify a statement about free will, and the statement appears to be advocating a semi-Pelagian view, one is supposed to intuit that what he really means to convey is that the free response of the individual is influenced by the inwardly-active grace of God's Spirit. I will confess: This is quite an assumption, especially in places where explicit references to a person's innate ability of free will is plainly stated, and that without any qualification whatsoever. Arminius, the Remonstrants, and all Classical Arminians insist that the inward gracious influence of the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary for the understanding of spiritual matters and the proper response to the Gospel.

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1 Jacob Arminius, "A Letter by the Rev. James Arminius, D.D.: The Providence of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:696.

2 Ibid., 2:696-97.

3 Ibid., 2:697.

4 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; I.18.4. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

5 Daniel D. Whedon, Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 101.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.