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Do we live by Free Will or by Determinism?

This is an important question. The majority of mankind likes to think that they have some control (free choice) over their lives, even though life often seems to be a catalogue of random (chance) events.

The opposite of this worldview is the philosophy of determinism, whereby all events in life are determined by previously existing causes. In other words, everything that happens, both good and bad, must happen as it does and could not have happened any other way. On other words, the individual has no real control over what happens in their life.

Atheistic Determinism

Take atheism for example. Atheists adopt a purely naturalistic worldview and see their present life and beliefs as determined by a long chain of past and inevitable events based on physical laws over which they have no control. There is no room for random (chance) events. In the words of the atheist Bertrand Russel:

Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms …

How sad! So what is the purpose of life? As Dawkins commented, “our [sole] purpose is to make more copies of our DNA”! This hollow philosophy leads to another interesting question: how can atheists know that their worldview (aka there is no God) is correct when their worldview is predetermined by mindless, natural causes?

Christian Determinism

Determinism also applies to Christian philosophy, but here it is often described as predestination. Those believers who follow this philosophy see their lives as predestined (in a good sense) by God. Their lives are predetermined and blessed by a transcendent power. But, like atheism, predestination philosophy has its problems. In particular, it maintains that some are predestined to eternal life, and some are not. To quote John Calvin:

Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what He has knowingly and willingly decreed … salvation is freely offered to some while others are barred from access to it.

John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion

Is that the will of a just God? Moreover, in both atheism and the predestined form of Christianity the concept of free will seems absent. Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ appears to be beyond an individual’s control.

This has serious practical ramifications. For example, why should a Christian who adheres to Calvinistic predestination try to evangelise others? After all, the listener’s eternal destiny is already predestined, isn’t it? Aren’t we all like puppets being manipulated by some supreme Being?

Are we puppets in the hand of God?

Predestination in the Bible

Despite the difficulties of Calvinistic predestination, some will still point to Bible texts which refer to predestination. In particular:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son …  and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified …

Romans 8:28-30, emphasis added

This is a key text in predestination theology. To “predestinate” (Gk: “proorizo”) means “to predetermine, to decide beforehand”. In one sense it implies that some (not all) are predestined to serve God, and in doing so they are justified in His sight. For instance, God chose (called) Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, David and Paul to carry out great exploits for Himself. And in the case of Jeremiah and David, the Bible clearly states that their lives of service were predestined before they were born (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:16).

Clearly these individuals were predestined to fulfill God’s purpose for them, and they followed His calling. In this sense, predestination is a very positive concept. But some see predestination in a more controversial sense.

The Predestination Conundrum

As just discussed, in one sense, predestination can refer to God’s selective calling of individuals in order to fulfill His purpose. These men had special roles to fulfill.

But some see predestination in a more controversial sense by claiming some are called to salvation, and some are not. Calvinists call this “unconditional election” in the sense that God has elected certain persons from before the foundation of the world, link. Most evangelistic Christians reject such theology on the grounds that Christ died for all and not just for an elected few.

Nevertheless, it remains to ask: Is such selective calling implied in the gospels? Consider the words of Jesus:

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out … This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day … No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day … [as I said to you] no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father

John 6:37, 39, 44, 65, amplified

The same selective calling is implied in the Book of Exodus. God tells Moses:

I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion to whom I will show compassion.

Exodus 33:19 (Romans 9:18)

It can be argued from these texts that the Father only draws some to Jesus, and so not all will be forgiven and brought into God’s Kingdom. Some are excluded. As a result of the Father’s selective calling, not all will be given eternal life (John 17:2). As already noted, this controversial concept is embedded in Calvinism. It might also be seen in the book of Revelation, where some never have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life:

And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world … 

Revelation 17:8

As Solomon is reputed to have remarked, the LORD makes even the wicked for the day of doom (Proverbs 16:4). In contrast, we note that Moses (and countless other followers of God) start life with their names in God’s Book (Exodus 33:2).

Refuting Calvinism in John 6

At first reading John 6 implies that God the Father calls only a selected few to Jesus and hence to salvation. But read it again, carefully and in context. Verse 45 clarifies what Jesus is saying in verses 44 and 65:

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father, comes to Me.

John 6:45, amplified

For someone to come to Jesus they must first be taught by God. Like Nicodemus, they must first have an understanding of why Jesus was sent by the Father in order to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3). So verses 44 and 65 are really saying that there is no other legitimate way to come to Jesus; the Father’s plan for Jesus must first be revealed before an individual is drawn to Jesus.

The parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:2-14) makes the same point. No one was allowed into the Feast without first accepting the gracious provision of God through His Son (verse 2). The person who was there without understanding the real significance of Jesus was rejected. They were not prepared; they did not have the Father’s word in their hearts (John 5:38).

Today we see this revelation of the Father’s salvation plan as coming through the Holy Spirit.

A Calvinistic interpretation of John 6 is also incompatible with other biblical fundamentals, such as love, justice, and free will.

Love, Justice and Free Will

The controversial aspect of predestination (Calvinism) has been outlined. Calvin held that both the good and bad aspects of a person’s life are predetermined by God and so are out of their control.

But is this deterministic worldview compatible with the biblical concepts of ‘love‘, ‘justice‘ and free will? How can love for God be shown when it is already predetermined? Love is only meaningful when it is freely given. And where is the justice when a person does not have their name written in the Book of Life (when they are excluded) – even from the foundation of the world (Revelation 17:8)?

The Need to Believe

This fundamental biblical concept of belief is totally incompatible with Calvinism. Let’s look at Paul’s letter to the believers in Ephesus. He said:

Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.

Ephesians 1:4,5 (NKJV), amplified

Paul is saying that God’s perfect plan from the beginning was that we should (Gk: “mello”, to intend, to have in mind) be holy. That is not the same as a predestined decree that we would become holy. So there is room here for free will; room for individual choice; room for the need to believe. Verse 5 elaborates God’s plan for holiness – it would be through His Son Jesus Christ. Paul emphasised this free will concept whilst Timothy was at Ephesus:

[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge and recognition of the [divine] truth.

1 Timothy 2:4, amplified

In other words, God predestined salvation to be offered to everyone (Christ died for all), but each individual must choose to accept or reject the gracious offer of salvation from God the Father. The apostle Paul made it simple. Once we understand why Jesus suffered for us we need to believe it!

Believe in the Lord Jesus [as your personal Savior and entrust yourself to Him] and you will be saved, you and your household [if they also believe].

Acts 16:31, amplified


Determinism is followed by both atheists and some Christians (Calvinists). Both worldviews tend to eliminate free will. The determinism of atheists even seems to destroy their assertion that there is no God, since, by definition, they have come to that view through mindless natural processes! Similarly, the deterministic (predestination) belief of Calvinists destroys the Christian understanding of love, justice and the need to believe (as stressed in the gospels).

Compared to Calvinism, the traditional Christian belief of individual choice (free will) aligns much better with the majority of scripture. In John chapter 3 Jesus clearly stressed the need to believe in Him (an act of self-will is required), and warned of the consequences of rejecting Him. But that belief must be well-founded in the word; believers must first be taught by God and this understanding draws them to Christ. No one is predestined to come to Jesus, or to be rejected by Him.

Make Your Choice

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