Sovereign Grace & Free Choice

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/22/2013

Last week I was asked a question by a friend whether I was really a Calvinist or not and, if so, if I was a five-point Calvinist. I usually avoid the term Calvinist for a different term that is almost synonymous with it and that is Reformed faith or Reformed theology. The reason is because people have a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the term Calvinism because they’ve encountered some extreme forms, and I think this is part of what was motivating her question. So I tried to clarify for her what I actually meant by the fact that I was a Calvinist.

When someone asks, “Are you a five-point Calvinist?”, my response is that there is no other kind. If you understand accurately the convictions of those who are reformed in their thinking about salvation, which these so-called five-points actually refer to, you realize that they are all held together by a common concept that J. I. Packer has put like this: God saves sinners. That’s the single point of Calvinism.

A couple of points before I get into the substance. First, I’m not here to persuade you about Calvinism, but to answer a question about freedom and sovereign grace. And I want to remove an objection to those who hold theological views like I do. I want to clarify a point and try to remove an objection to Calvinism, again not to persuade you to become a Calvinist.

Second, though I am a Calvinist, I am speaking only for myself here and not for Stand to Reason because as an organization we don’t take a position on this issue. It’s not in our Statement of Faith or a requirement for employment. There have been a range of views in the people who work for us.

The real question behind my friend’s question is about the nature of choice. Usually people who stumble over Calvinism or Reformed theology presume that in Calvinism there is no meaningful choice. If you’re a Calvinist then you’re a determinist. Your actions are determined by the sovereign choice of God. Everything is determined. Some who I would consider more extreme or mistaken in their application of the principles of sovereignty often sound that way and that puts the scare into some people. I think my friend was concerned because if a decision is not free, then it’s determined, and if you’re a Calvinist then you don’t believe in freedom. This is what it amounts to.

How can an act of faith be free and still be caused by, in some sense, and fully secured by God Himself? Supposedly at opposite poles of conflict are freedom of choice, and the view that, in some sense, God causes and secures salvation for an individual by the provisions of His grace, and not the individual. So this supposedly creates a kind of conundrum.

I think a vital question at this point is what does it mean for a decision to be free? This is a question that many people have never really thought about carefully because they think they understand that there are only simple and obvious alternatives: We are either determined, puppets on a string making mechanical decisions completely dictated from the outside like one domino falling against the other, or we’re not determined and we’re completely free with all choices available to us. If the choice for salvation is ours, as the Bible seems to indicate in many places, then we must be free and not determined. But Calvinism teaches, and it’s because the Bible also seems to indicate in many places, that the choice is God’s and He decides who is going to be saved and, therefore, it seems that Calvinists do not believe in freedom. Instead, they believe in determinism.

My friend, I think, was surprised to find out that I am a real Calvinist—a five-pointer—because, though she didn’t express it, my sense was that she thought that I was then a determinist. From her perspective, that seemed odd for me to be as she is aware of my thinking on other issues.

Here’s how I make sense of this. I am a Calvinist because of what the Bible teaches. I am convinced that grace is sovereign, a free gift of God, and it is distributed sovereignly by God. But I am also aware that the Bible acknowledges a choice that we make and I believe in that, too. That seems to be a conundrum until you realize that the options are not simply between freedom and determinism. This line of thinking leaves out an important detail and the detail is that there are two different ways to understand freedom. There are two different species, if you will, of genuine freedom and, in fact, both kinds of freedom seem to be part of our daily experience. These two distinctions are very important for understanding Calvinism.

Let me stimulate your thinking by asking you a couple of questions. First, do you choose to sin? Now I know you sin because we all do. It’s the human condition. My question is, when you sin, do you choose to do so? Is it because of a choice you are making to do wrong?

The second question is, can you, as a human being, choose never to sin in your life? In the natural condition, are you capable of sinlessness?

My suspicion is that when you ponder those two questions you will answer yes to the first one. Yes, you do choose to sin. And you’ll answer no to the second one—no, you are not capable, as a fallen human being, of sinless perfection. Not only are those answers consistent with our personal experience, but those answers are consistent with Scripture. We are in a state of fallenness in which we sin in virtue of the fact that we are sinners. There is no option for us not to sin, even though we are aware that we choose to sin. In light of our choice to sin, we are held responsible for those sins that we choose.

Now let me ask you another question. Did you choose what you ate for breakfast this morning, and if you did, could you have chosen to eat something else if you had willed it so? I think your answer to both of those questions is yes. I chose to eat peanut butter on whole wheat toast with jam. I chose that. I don’t always choose that. I sometimes choose oatmeal or bacon and eggs. So I could have chosen otherwise in the decision I made about my breakfast this morning and I suspect so could you. When it comes to a lot of things, breakfast for example, we can make choices in a way that it seems we could have made other choices. We could have done otherwise.

But it also seems that there are some other choices, a much smaller group, that we don’t have that kind of freedom. I would put in this category rebellion against God that results in acts of sin against Him. This small group of choices are examples of a second kind of freedom, i.e., things that you choose that you could not have done otherwise. And here I don’t mean that you could not have done otherwise maybe in this particular act of sin. In this category, individual choices could have been otherwise, but in the course of making moral choices it is inevitable that someday, sometime or many times actually, we will choose to sin. Even though the choice is inevitable, it’s still our choice isn’t it? They are choices that we make and, therefore, we are responsible for them.

This suggests that there are two different ways for an act to be free. One, an act is free if we choose it ourselves. In other words, it’s our choice. The only condition for this kind of freedom is that we make the decision. Nobody is forcing us. There isn’t some force on the outside that requires us to act this way. We are free on the single condition that we choose the thing we choose of our own will and volition. That’s one sense of freedom.

The other sense of freedom has that condition to it, but adds another condition. In the second sense of freedom, an act is free if we choose it and, the second condition, we could have done otherwise. Philosophers call that libertarian freedom, although there is some debate about the nature of that term. Generally, an act isn’t free unless we choose it and we could have done otherwise.

So the options regarding freedom and determinism are a bit complicated so thinking through this question about Calvinism requires some clear thinking on freedom and choice first. It isn’t just determinism on the one hand, and freedom on the other. It is determinism on the one hand—puppets on a string, dominoes falling—or freedom in one of two or both senses. Either a choice that we make ourselves and couldn’t have done otherwise but it’s still our choice because we wanted to do it, or a choice that we make ourselves and, though we wanted to do it and chose it, theoretically we could have done otherwise.

Now what does the Bible teach about sin and salvation that would help us understand our choices and freedom. The Calvinist reads the Bible and sees that human beings are in a state of rebellion against God and fallenness in the natural condition. Our hearts are set against God. Our wills are inclined against Him. It’s not that we cannot choose God, that some external thing is preventing us from exercising our choice we would otherwise. It’s that we will not choose God because our own desires incline us against that choice. We are steadfastly and immovably in defiance of God. Read Romans 1 if you’re uncertain about that Biblical teaching. Every time we exercise our free choice against God we do so in a way that is consistent with our own anger and hostility and rebellion against Him. In other words, when we, as fallen human beings, exercise our freedom to do what we want to do we always choose against God. Our freedom then is the problem, not the solution.

So with all men bent against God, what is God’s response? Their natural inclination is rebellion. They are not inclined, in any sense, toward God and because of that will not, in any sense, choose to follow God left to themselves. Now what? God rescues us from our rebellion by sovereignly changing our nature and re-inclining our wills and hearts. He changes the direction of our hearts so that instead of choosing from a rebellious inclination we choose from an inclination that seeks God and His forgiveness. And this act of God is an act of mercy and grace from Him that we do not deserve on any basis.

Now here is the part that’s hard for some to accept. He does not do this for every person. Why He doesn’t, I don’t know because the Bible doesn’t tell us, but the difference between those He does it for and those He does not do it for is the difference between the elect and the non-elect. If men were left to their own devices they would continue in their rebellion because now, since the Fall, that is our nature. We would continue to freely choose, in the first sense of freedom that we discussed, according to the inclination that is hostile towards God, and no one would be in Heaven and Christ would have no bride.

So God chooses from among the rebellious who are under condemnation justly because of the free choice to rebel and sin against God. God punishes the sinful. It’s not God’s fault because He doesn’t elect all men. It’s sinner’s fault because they chose rebellion and sin. So when God works through grace that isn’t owed to anyone He is rescuing them from themselves. God chooses from the rebellious who are under condemnation and elects from those who are hopelessly lost a company of human beings who would be a bride for His Son. And He transforms their nature and heals them so that now they choose the right option, forgiveness that God offers, instead of the wrong option, rebellion.

Through His undeserved grace God is able to guarantee the result, a bride for His Son. It is an act of mercy towards those who don’t deserve it. He guarantees our choice in a way that allows men to freely choose restoration with God in the same way that we freely chose rebellion against God. We freely chose rebellion because it is consistent with our nature. And when God changes that nature, by an act of grace, those whom He chose, act consistently with the transformed nature and freely choose Him now. And that is how an act of faith can be free and still be caused and fully secured by God.

Limited Atonement

My friend asked if I was a five-point Calvinist and I am. Some people say they’re a four-point Calvinist because they’re uncomfortable with limited atonement. That’s a stumbling block for some people. But if we understand freedom and choice and God’s unilateral grace to save us, then I think the objection to limited atonement is removed, and, in fact, every Christian believes in limited atonement.

First let me tell you what I mean by “atonement.” There are a number of theological theories of atonement, but what I have in mind here when talking about “limited” or “particular” atonement is the payment for sin to absolve God’s anger toward the sinner.

Let’s work through a series of questions.

When you pay a bill, is the bill still owed? No. In other words, when the payment is made for a bill, the debt is canceled, right? In the same way, when a sin is actually paid for, atoned for, then the sin bill is no longer owed, is it? There is forgiveness of the debt, and with forgiveness, salvation.

Therefore, everyone whose sins have been atoned for, their sins have been paid for. And everyone whose sins have been paid for is forgiven. And everyone who is forgiven is going to Heaven.

Therefore, everyone whose sin has been atoned for is going to Heaven.

So if only the atoned for go to Heaven then atonement must be limited in some sense or else universalism is true, every human being goes to Heaven. So every Christian but universalists believe atonement is limited.

But how is the atonement limited?

The atonement is not limited in its potential because Jesus was not just man, but also God, and the sacrifice of the God/man was adequate to pay for all sin for all time.

The atonement is limited in its application. The atonement is applied only to those who God intends it to be applied to, those who have satisfied the right condition: faith in Christ.

Sinners’ condemnation is secured, determined beforehand because the nature of our will is bent toward sin. God does not intend the payment (atonement) to be made for everybody (in which case everybody would be saved—universalism). Instead, God intends that the payment (atonement) to be limited to those who fulfill the conditions for receiving it—faith in Christ?

Therefore, the atonement is limited.

Notice that I have not said anything about election in this reasoning. It seems to me that there is nothing in this characterization of limited, or particular, atonement that should in any way be offensive or disagreeable to someone who does not believe in election in the Reformed or Calvinistic sense. Jesus’ atonement is limited in application to those who fulfill the conditions for receiving it: faith.

“Sufficient for all; efficient only for the elect.” And at this point you can cash out election in the Arminian sense (because even Arminians believe in the elect) or in the Calvinistic sense. It makes no difference in understanding limited atonement. Regardless of whether or not election is conditional (Arminianism) or unconditional (Calvinism), the atonement must be limited in its application or else universalism is true.

So limited atonement shouldn’t be a stumbling block theologically for any Christian other than universalists. It fits within both Arminianism and Calvinism. And that’s why I can say I’m a five-point Calvinist and I believe in personal freedom.