For the Calvinist Toolkit: An Outline for Answering Common Sovereignty, Freewill, and Responsibility Questions


We’ve all had these questions (and we all continue to hear them):
“How can man be free if God foreordained all that comes to pass?”
“How can God be sovereign yet man still responsible for his own sin?”
“How can [something, something] predestined [something, something] sovereign [something, something] freewill?” While these are indeed quite complicated questions to answer in full (we can leave that to John Frame), I hope here to at least give a rough outline of how to answer that might be a handy addition to your Calvinist toolkit.

Two things to note at the outset: First, the question of Sovereignty and Freewill is a different question than that of Sovereignty and Responsibility.  The former is purely a logical and metaphysical question, the latter has to do with the moral appraisal of actions. Second, I think it is very helpful to answer each question at the propositional level, to test the logic, and at the metaphysical level, as both are determinants of consistency—and consistency is what is really being called into question.  I will try to do this throughout this post.

(1) The first question that must be answered is, do you believe that both of the following statements are true?

(a) The Scripture teaches that men desire, will, and choose.

(b) The Scripture teaches that God is sovereign and has foreordained all that has and will come to pass.

Answering this, I would suggest, must be the starting point for any discussion, and furthermore if we believe the Bible does indeed teach both, then we simply need to confess both plainly.  Initially, we need not know how both are consistent, or how it all works out metaphysically.  We are called to see with the eyes of faith and trust in God’s Word.  We shouldn’t want to stop here, but we can’t reject (a) in favor of (b) or vise versa just because we can’t initially see how they hang together; not if the Scripture actually teaches both (a) and (b).

(2) If we believe that both (a) and (b) are taught in the Scripture, the next question might be, is there a logical contradiction? I suggest that no, there is not. We can test this at the propositional level by attending to the two following statements:

(a1) Jim chose to go for a jog.

(b1) God foreordained that Jim would go for a jog.

These propositions are not contradictory, inconsistent, nor logically incompatible.

(3) Are statements (a) and (b) above metaphysically inconsistent? Can both not occupy, metaphorically, the same metaphysical space together? Let’s look at the two following statements:

(a2) Jim’s desire and will were the cause of his choice to go for a jog.

(b2) God’s desire and will were the cause of Jim’s choice to go for a jog.

There appears on the face of these two propositions to be inconsistency, but I would suggest, as would the Westminster Confession of Faith, that we are simply using “cause” in two different senses.  God causes as the transcendent One; He causes from outside of the created order of space, time, and the causal order.  We thus call (b2) the “first cause” of Jim going for a jog.  Jim’s choice, on the other hand, was caused within the created time, space, and causal order, i.e., is according to “second causes”.  The statements are not metaphysically inconsistent so long as we do not equivocate on “cause”.

(4) But is this “choice” of Jim’s really “free” since it is the result of the first cause, the ordination of God, and could not be otherwise? Here we make a distinction between “freedom from necessity” and “freedom from coercion”, based upon our conclusion in point (3) above. Nothing and no one is free from first causes, viz., God’s foreordination.  But we are all free from “coercion”.  God’s foreordination from outside of time, space, and the causal order is the fundamental reality behind, afore, and to the side of all that is, no matter what it is; it is the necessary precondition of all that is. Nothing and no one is free from that which is necessary, any more than we are free to round the square or square the circle. But God does not “cause” our choices in terms of second causes; i.e., He does not normally foreordain events by messing with our neurons or by overpowering and overcoming our wills.  That is, we are free to choose in every meaningful and logically consistent sense of the term.

(5) Next would be the question, how man can be held morally responsible for his actions if God has foreordained all that should come to pass? How can God not be responsible for the actions He has ordained? How can both of the following be true?

(a3) Man is morally responsible for his actions.

(b3) God has foreordained all of man’s actions.

Again, on the face of this there seems to be inconsistently.  But I think we can see through the seeming inconsistency by attending to the example of Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Here we have two statements, both true, that can be checked at the propositional level for logical consistency:

(a4) You meant this for evil.

(b4) God meant this for good.

We have a similar account in Isaiah 10 where God calls the Assyrian the rod of His wrath being wielded in judgement against Israel.  But he says immediately after that, “But he [the Assyrian] does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few” (Isa. 10:7).  God goes on to judge the Assyrian for his wickedness.  I think we can agree that there is no logical contradiction here, unless the text itself is false.

(6) But what of the metaphysical level? I would again suggest that there is no inconsistency here either. Why?  Because events as such are not metaphysically righteous or sinful any more than are acorns falling from the tree outside your house.  Actions are the locus of moral appraisal, and what distinguishes human action from bodily spasms is intention.  Actions are morally appraisable only in as much as they are indeed actions, viz., a composition of belief, desire, and intention.

Therefore, the event qua event of Joseph’s abuse or the event qua event of the Assyrian’s violence is morally neutral.  Thus, the Scripture tells us that the events foreordained and resulting from the first cause were good and displayed the righteousness of the God, as they were intended for good and resulted in good; but the men who committed them intended them for evil and were therefore evil and punishable actions. Same event, differing actions (because of differing intentions), therefore differing moral appraisals.

(7) And of course, last, unregenerate man’s will is shackled to sin since the fall and will only and always freely (in the above senses) choose sin. One must be made a new creation by the Spirit of God in order to choose what is good and pleasing to God. But I think the issue of total depravity is secondary to points (1) – (5) and is much easier to demonstrate from the Scripture.

Now, my Cage Stage compatriots, feel free to whip this out of your tulip embossed five piece toolkit and hammer away!*


* This is not an endorsement of Cage Stage Calvinist activities, nor does the author bear any responsibility for this hammer being used beyond that sanctioned by the Reformed tradition (Servetus excluded).  This author does not endorse the use of “Calvinist” to describe those who hold to the doctrinal statements of the Reformed tradition anyhow.  Further, you don’t even know “Jim” so it doesn’t matter whether he did in fact decide to go for a jog or not. (I happen to know that Jenn did indeed decide to go for a jog.) And last, the real reason for the fine print: I might be wrong about all this.

6 thoughts on “For the Calvinist Toolkit: An Outline for Answering Common Sovereignty, Freewill, and Responsibility Questions

  1. Ezra February 7, 2017 / 3:40 pm

    this article is from my amazing dad! Dad keep up the great work!


    • Paul Liberati February 7, 2017 / 3:56 pm

      Hi Ezra,

      Thank you for your comment. Your dad sure is amazing; he’s a great dad and a great soldier for Jesus Christ. I’m glad that you took the time to encourage him.


      • Ezra February 7, 2017 / 5:09 pm

        you earned it!


  2. Nick February 7, 2017 / 4:29 pm

    I’ve thought about this a lot, and as a thought exercise propose the following hypothesis:

    I came up with this after reading something about the possibility of a multi-verse based upon choice. What if God considered every “free” choice of human beings and explored every branch of reality possible from the beginning to the end of time without willing each to happen. A theoretical multi-verse which only exists in God’s mind. What we call reality, (that which God willed to happen) is actually the one He picked because it glorified Him the most in creation.

    So our will is truly free, because each possibility really was considered and lived out in God’s mind; and God is the transcendent cause because he chose what would be true reality.

    1. This assumes God has the ability to consider possibilities and outcomes other than what he wills to happen.
    2. Human choice is not dependent on the physical creation but has a spiritual element.
    3. There is no biblical basis for this hypothesis, it’s just fun to think about.


    • Chuck October 20, 2017 / 7:23 am

      I believe that would be Molinism


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