Is Libertarian Free Will Eternal?

September 13, 2013

by Ronnie Rogers, pastor
Trinity Baptist Church
Norman, Okla.

Ed’s. note: Per his usual practice, Pastor Rogers will be observing comments from time-to-time, but may or may not reply immediately. He likely will, however, reply to the most salient comments at a later time.

Humans are created in the image of God with soft-libertarian (incompatible) free will. This means that humans can choose, within the range of choices, to act or refrain, and whatever they do in fact choose they could have chosen otherwise. Many have argued that it is impossible to create such a being and guarantee that he will never use his freedom to do wrong—sin; thus, God could not be in sovereign control, nor could He guarantee that created man would never sin either in the Garden of Eden or eternity. It is obvious to all that man did choose to sin, and that all subsequent humans inherit a sin nature, with the exception of the God-Man our Lord Jesus Christ. However, many have asked me how can it be possible to guarantee those in heaven will never sin if Adam had libertarian free will and chose to sin? Stated a little differently, is it possible for God to create a truly otherwise choice human being who will never choose to sin, and if it is possible, then why did He not so create Adam and Eve, which would have avoided sin and its consequences.

This dilemma is seen as an argument against man having libertarian free will and an argument for man having a compatibilist free will. Compatibilism (the view that seeks to argue that freedom and determinism are compatible) argues that while there are determinative antecedents (nature, states, and conditions within the being), the choice is free so long as it is what one desires and there are no external constraints.

I would suggest that it may be impossible to guarantee that a created libertarian free human being with otherwise choice, who does not have experiential knowledge (either through personal experience or observation) of sin, will never use his freedom to sin provided that such choices are within his range of choices as was clearly the case with Adam. This is precisely where Satan tempted Adam because while he had faith knowledge of sin and otherwise choice, he lacked experiential knowledge of sin (Genesis 3:5). Even if the previously mentioned impossibility is the case (and I believe that it is), God’s coextensive creation/redemption plan assures that the redeemed in heaven will not be susceptible to the temptation to which Adam succumbed.

The redeemed in heaven will have experiential knowledge of sin and the consequences of sin, but they will have been redeemed from that and transformed by glorification. Thus, it appears that the redeemed and glorified man will have what is necessary to live forever and only use his freedom to choose righteousness.

Of course, much could be said also about God’s other protective promises and power (John 10:29, 11:25-26; Ephesians 4:30), which I believe are sufficient in and of themselves, but they also, in a certain sense, apply to Calvinism’s compatibilism. Here I am simply addressing the consonance of libertarian otherwise choice and eternal righteousness. The angels demonstrated libertarian choice in that some chose to sin and some chose to not sin, and each could have done otherwise (unless one believes that God created some who would inevitably choose to sin, i.e. compatibilism).

Consequently, it does not seem that redemption is essential in order to guarantee a created libertarian free being will always choose not to sin (although it may be essential for humans), which I assume is true of the holy angels, but experiential knowledge of sin does seem to be essential. The holy angels did not personally sin, but they did and have continued to experience sin both consequently and observationally. This particular distinction between man and angels may be further illumined by the difference between the nature of the creation of angels—all at one time—and humans through procreation, which infects all subsequent humans with personal consequences of the fall.

That is to say, a human’s first experience of sin after Adam and Eve comes from inheritance, i.e. procreation, which is not true of angels. Therefore, God solved the dilemma for humans through the plan to coextensively create and redeem man.

Although human illustrations do not fully capture spiritual realities, they can and do serve to simply and legitimately demonstrate various spiritual aspects, e.g. Jesus’ use of parables. For example, a mother may tell her little boy not to touch the hot stove. Each time she perceives his interest in touching, she warns him of the horrible pain, hospitals, surgery, and the loss of freedom to play, something of which he is so fond. Tragically, despite mom’s best warnings and pleadings, one day, the little lad touches the fiery electric grill, and everything comes to pass just as his mother had warned.

From that moment on, the little boy still has the freedom to touch the fiery hot stove, but he freely chooses to refrain for the rest of his life. He has no interest in touching it, and every inclination is to guard against even touching it by accident. The difference is not the loss of otherwise choice, but rather prior to his burn he had only faith knowledge. His understanding was based on only believing his mother’s words. Now, he has experiential knowledge coupled with even a greater faith in his mother’s words.

Additionally, God is not only the giver of otherwise choice; He is also the giver of the range of choices. Libertarian free will simply argues that within the range of choices God grants an individual, the individual can choose between the various options. Whether God gives the range in heaven that He gave in the garden is entirely up to Him. Even now, libertarian free will does not mean that a person can do anything he wants, but rather that he can act or refrain within the range of choices he has; a person may choose to  jump off a high cliff or choose not to jump, but once he has jumped, his range of choices is fatally curtailed. Man may choose to commit suicide or not (God has given that option within the range of human choices), but man cannot choose to cease to exist because that is not within his range of choices.

God has libertarian free choice, but this does not mean that God can or will sin. First, as God, sin is not within His range of choices. God is omnipotent, but He cannot be tempted with sin (James 1:13) or cease to exist since He is eternal and immutable (Psalm 102:27). For the sake of argument, if God did sin or cease to exist, that would prove that He was not ever really God—the eternally holy self-existing one.

Second, the inherent lack of knowledge and therefore initial susceptibility to sin in created beings with libertarian free will does not entail God having the same need or susceptibility because He has eternal, unchanging, infinite, exhaustive knowledge of every potentiality and actuality within Himself. Therefore, He possesses libertarian free will, but He has never sinned; nor is there the remotest possibility that He ever will.

Finally, in my estimation, and to the best that I understand the relevant panoply of Scriptures, this is a far more biblical way to look at this matter than the compatibilist approach (unless one is hopelessly surrendered to Calvinism’s esotericism). The following are but a few reasons why I think such; first, this view provides an explanation that maintains God’s sovereignty (He acts without any internal or external need or necessity in accomplishing His perfect holy and loving will) without resorting to Calvinism’s extreme causally-based sovereignty; second, it maintains a ubiquitous balance of all of God’s attributes such as holiness, love, justice, mercy, etc; third, it reflects the simple story of Scripture that man sometimes actually chooses against God’s perfect will for Him (Adam and Eve, when they could have and should have done otherwise), and that man should and can accept, by God’s grace enablement, His gracious offer of salvation that extends to everyone. All of which is comprehended in God’s perfect, sovereign, and infinitively loving plan; fourth, the way that I propose seems to both reflect and be consonant with the teaching of both the complex and simple passages of Scripture better than Calvinism’s reinventions of the simplest of Scriptures.

These Calvinistic reinventions mean that the obvious meaning of such verses and passages do not mean what they so palpably say and seem to mean—this from Adam and Eve freely choosing to sin against God’s warning and true desire for them to countless straightforward God-given pleas to repent and be saved, which clearly imply that He desires that end, they should choose such and that they can in fact choose (Matthew 4:17, 6:13, 11:20-24; Mark 1:14-15, 10:17-30; John 1:7-9, 6:28-29; Revelation 22:17); fifth, it seems to explain soteriological perplexities better than resorting to strapping both God and man with a compatible will as Calvinism does, which entails a host of biblically unwarranted disquieting realities that are usually and quite unsatisfactorily dismissed by swathing them in “it’s a mystery”; sixth, regardless how fancy the theology, Calvinism’s insistence upon compatibilism means that both God and man ultimately choose (as defined by Calvinism), but do not choose among choices.

I find such to not only be biblically unwarranted but a woefully dishonoring view of both God and man, particularly God. Because when one stands at the end of the causal chain of determinative antecedents of compatibilism, it seems more accurate to describe the moment of choosing or acting by both God and man as merely a moment of awareness since the decision of what a compatibilist being will ultimately and unalterably make is determined prior to any conscious involvement of the individual; hence, the so-called “decision” is not really a decision at all, but merely an awareness of what the determinative antecedents have already established that the individual is about to unalterably choose to do.

Words With Friends, part 2: Precise Names for Soteriological Views

August 29, 2013

by Dr. Rick Patrick, pastor
FBC Sylacauga, Ala.

From 1982-1990, the television sitcom Newhart entertained America with eccentric characters who lived in a small Vermont town, among them three backwoodsmen who lived in a shack and whose last name was never mentioned. The spokesman for the brothers introduced them the same way every time: “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.” With apologies to boxer George Foreman, the failure to identify your children with unique names is intrinsically ridiculous.

In a similar fashion, confusion reigns in a small town not far from a church I previously served as Pastor. This town featured street names practically identical to one another—names like Third Place, Third Street, Third Lane, Third Avenue and Third Circle led to the next block where one might find Park Drive, Park Road, Park Court, Park Trail and Park Way. Most Pastors in the community, when attempting visitation, did not even bother with maps or directions, but simply dropped by the fire station for assistance from the professionals who memorized the confusing street patterns in order to save lives.

Fortunately, there is a better way. By giving brothers and streets and theological positions their own unique names, we contribute to clarity, precision and mutual understanding on the part of everyone involved. To put it simply, the Calvinist Family has entirely too many brothers using the same name. We can do something about it.

In Part One of Words With Friends, I discussed a unique, whole, acceptable and unused term for the specific view of salvation doctrine that I believe accurately describes the majority position among Southern Baptists—Savabilism. In Part Two, I will now turn my attention to the moniker Calvinism, a multi-faceted, umbrella term whose strongest proponents must even admit fails the test of theological precision quite miserably. Some will say, “But Calvinism is not a monolithic system.” Indeed. To paraphrase a line from The Incredibles: “If everyone is a Calvinist, then no one is.” Only by providing each theological view their own name, room and cell phone will our communication improve.

A TAXONOMY OF UNIQUE SOTERIOLOGICAL LABELS

1. Fatalist: Also called Hyper-Calvinist, this view rejects the idea that the atonement in any respect was intended for the salvation of all. It thus discourages inviting all men to believe in Christ for salvation. Fatalism lies beyond the scope of Calvinism per se. Thus, a Fatalist is truly no Calvinist at all. An example would be John Gill.

2. Calvinist: This view embraces all five points of the TULIP, while also affirming the free offer of the gospel to all men. May the label “Five Point Calvinist” become viewed as a redundant term, for there is truly no other kind. An example would be Al Mohler. It is possible, however, to identify three noteworthy Calvinist subcategories:

2a. Supralapsarianist: Also called High Calvinist, this view embraces all five points of the TULIP while placing the creation of the elect and the reprobate logically prior to the fall of man. An example would be Jonathan Edwards.

2b. Infralapsarianist: Also called Low Calvinist, this view embraces all five points of the TULIP while placing God’s choice of the elect and the reprobate logically after the fall of man. An example would be Charles Spurgeon.

2c. Nonlapsarianist: This view rejects both of the lapsarian positions above, considering them either speculative, unnecessary or lacking in scriptural support. An example would be Herman Bavinck.

3. Amyraldist: A position disaffirming limited atonement but holding to the other four points of the TULIP. While God provided Christ’s atonement for all, He saw that none would believe on their own, and thus elected unconditionally those He would bring to faith in Christ. An example would be Richard Baxter.

4. Molinist: A position disaffirming limited atonement and irresistible grace, reconciling divine determinism with man’s free will without appealing to the Calvinist explanation of a mystery. Through God’s “middle knowledge,” He knows what His free creatures would do under any circumstance, as illustrated by the statement, “If you enter the ice cream shop, you will choose chocolate.” God also actualizes the world in which we freely choose that which God intends for us. An example would be William Craig Lane.

5. Savabilist: While compatible with the Molinist understanding of election, this view affirms one point of the TULIP, namely perseverance of the saints. Unlike Arminianism, perseverance of the saints is a doctrine embraced in a completely non-negotiable manner. An example would be Eric Hankins.

6. Arminian: A position disaffirming unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace, while embracing an interpretation of total depravity that affirms total inability. Unlike Savabilism, this view remains open to either perspective concerning the perseverance of the saints. An example would be Roger Olsen.

7. Semipelagian: According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, this is “the name given to doctrines on human nature upheld in the Fifth Century by a group of theologians who, while not denying the necessity of grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.” An example would be Saint Faustus of Riez.

Please note that the label Semipelagian is rejected by Arminians and Savabilists alike, for neither maintains that the process of salvation is initiated by human free will. In the same way, on the other end of the spectrum, the label Fatalist is rejected by Calvinists and Amyraldists, for they embrace the free offer of the gospel to all men. Our ongoing conversation regarding soteriology invites enormous damage whenever we attempt to push the definitions of our debate partners into either extreme position on the spectrum.

CONCLUSION

 In conclusion, this two-part essay has attempted to promote the use of specific, clear, whole words for each soteriological view. The goal is to distance ourselves from the kind of language encumbered by modifying terms and negating prefixes. To those who say, “We are all Calvinists of one sort or another,” let me reply, “Such a characterization is not at all helpful, for it is profoundly denied by those who disaffirm Calvinism.”

Fortunately, there is a much better way to approach this subject. If we desire to promote improved understanding, collegial conversation and respectful dialogue, let us begin by avoiding the tendency to lump every position into a few broad categories. Let us give each specific view a term of its own and a friendly welcome to the soteriological table. In this manner, whenever I ask Darryl to pass the salt, everyone knows what I mean.