Calvinists believe that man is free to choose according to his greatest desire. For example, Jonathan Edwards believed in what he called “strength of motive.”[i] He said concerning such, “I suppose the will is always determined by the strongest motive.”[ii] Therefore, Edwards argued that one freely chooses to act according to his “strongest motive.” Regarding the nature of free choice, he also said that it is “the ability to do what we will, or according to our pleasure.”[iii]
Consequently, according to Edwards, man’s freedom to choose is determined by his nature and his desires. In other words, man is free to choose to do his greatest desire. Of course, this is the Calvinist view of free will as defined by compatibilism.[iv] It is important to note two very important components of this view. First, the desire or nature from which the desire emanates is not chosen—i.e. a person’s past. Second, the unchosen desire is in fact determinative of what the free choice will be.
That is to say, the Calvinist believes man is free to choose according to his greatest desire but not contrarily. Therefore, his free choice is actually determined by his desire. For example, according to Edwards, sinful man will always freely choose to do his greatest desire, which is to sin. The greatest desire is a part of his nature. Fallen man will never choose to follow Christ without first having his nature changed to emanate new desires; this is the basis for the Calvinist position that regeneration precedes faith.[v]
This view of freedom also highlights the compatibilist’s inability to answer satisfactorily the question of what caused the first sin. Because if man chooses according to his greatest desire, and man chose to sin, then sin must have been his greatest desire. This leads to the disturbing question of where did the desire come from? Of course, it had to come from God since God created everything. Thus, according to Calvinism, God gave the desire, which unavoidably birthed the choice to sin, and this desire God called “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Therefore, God must have, in some very significant sense, desired for man to sin or else He would not have given him a nature or past emanating such desire (this desire being more than merely the desire to create, which all recognize), a disquieting reality. In the same way, when God desires people to be saved, He must choose to regenerate in order to give them a new nature with new desires so they will freely choose to exercise faith in Christ.
When the concept of compatibilism is applied to the first sin, the Calvinist conundrum is even more apparent because it results in Lucifer choosing to sin because of his nature or his greatest desire before sin existed. His choice could not have been from preexisting internal sin or a direct external temptation since both he and his environment were directly created by God, lest one posit God creating sin or tempting one to sin, which is impossible. Therefore, it seems inescapable that according to Calvinism, God gave Lucifer either an environment, nature, or past that would inviolably produce a desire to sin from which would come the free choice to sin, Calvinist demurring notwithstanding, a disquieting reality. For, if Calvinists respond that Lucifer (or man) could have chosen not to sin, then they are espousing libertarianism, and compatibilism becomes simply a later incongruent development of Calvinism.
Now, it is true that Calvinists are often clear and passionate about their denial that God caused sin, which I appreciate; further, they are correct to deny that Calvinism teaches that God directly caused sin, which is consistent with a compatibilist understanding of freedom. However, their answer to how this denial fits with compatibilism is inchoate and unconvincing and leads to the Calvinist retreat, “it is a mystery.” In other words, they do not usually want to implicate God in desiring, willing, or orchestrating sin, and rightfully so, but the logic of their system seems to inevitably lead to that inescapable reality. Further, you have some Calvinists who exacerbate the problem regarding God’s role in the first sin and sin in general by their avowals and beliefs regarding free choices, like Edwards and his contemporary protégés.
For example, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s comment that “every Bible-believing Christian must conclude at least that God in some sense desired that man would fall into sin…I am not accusing God of sinning; I am suggesting that he created sin.”[vi] He further “describes God as ‘the Culprit’ that caused Eve to sin in the garden.”[vii] Then there is Gordon Clark’s assessment, “As God cannot sin, so in the next place, God is not responsible for sin, even though he decrees it.”[viii] Again, Clark in response to Arminians asseverates, “I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so …. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God works all things, not some things only, after the counsel of his own will.”[ix] Contrary to Clark, Ephesians does not say that God wills—determinatively desires—everything, but rather that “he works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
Part Two Coming Soon!
[i] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 143.
[iii] Ibid., 11.
[iv] Succinctly, compatibilism believes that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible; such compatibility is accomplished by defining moral freedom to exist when one chooses to do what he desires. This compatibility does nothing to lessen the deterministic nature of compatibilism any more than that found in raw determinism.
[v] Such change may be called renovation, quickening, or regeneration.
[vi] David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2010), 148.
[viii] Ibid., 292.