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Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Defense of the Compatibilist Position

How can God be sovereign over everything and human beings have moral freedom for which they are responsible? Emotional and passionate disagreement quickly emerges when this question is put before critically thinking individuals. God’s divine sovereignty and the moral accountability of morally free humanity to Him as Sovereign has long been a major question that has troubled theologians and philosophers.1 A casual overview of titles written to address the subject of this essay demonstrates there is much division among Christians on how best to answer this question. Unfortunately, in an attempt to harmonize these two seemingly paradoxical realities unbiblical overemphasis is frequently placed on either divine sovereignty or human responsibility. Overemphasis placed on either results in a minimization or denial of the other and always terminates with a distortion of the true nature of God. A distortion of the true nature of God is certainly not an acceptable outcome.

The solution, therefore, is not to create a theological system that stretches the biblical text to fit a presupposed position, but rather an absolute affirmation of God’s meticulous sovereignty and humanity’s moral freedom and responsibility as equally true and taught in Scripture. This essay will attempt to demonstrate that a true knowledge of God is contingent on the affirmation of the compatibilist position that God is divinely sovereign over the created order, including all human choices, without repudiating humanity’s moral responsibility to their Creator for their choices. This will be accomplished by first reviewing differing positions related to the subject of moral responsibility and absolute divine sovereignty, then transitioning to explicit biblical texts exhibiting God’s sovereignty and humanity’s moral responsibility and how denial of either of these realities results in a diminished understanding of the Person of God.

Positions on the Issue In this section three opposing positions related to God’s divine sovereignty and humanity’s moral freedom and responsibility will be presented. Represented among these views are two opposites of the position that is to be advocated for in this essay. These extremes are open theism and hyper-Calvinism. Both are undeniably heretical in their misrepresentation of Scripture, but they do demonstrate the tendency to overemphasis either divine sovereignty or human freedom. The third position, Arminianism, will also be overviewed because of its popularity in mainstream evangelicalism and the frequency with which it is used in objection to the traditional reformed view of compatibilism.

Open Theism The essential component of open theism is the denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events. God’s sovereignty and providential governance of the created order is secondary and limited by human freedom. The argument is, for humanity to be free it is impossible for God to know future decisions. Within this position human freedom, moralresponsibility and an authentic love relationship with God are contingent on God not influencing free choice either coercively or persuasively. For authentic relationship to exists there must be uninfluenced reciprocity of love between God and man.

Radical human freedom is the foundational truth in open theism. While God’s sovereignty became limited after creation. The late Clark Pinnock, a leading proponent of open theism acknowledged God’s sovereign power in creation, but he suggests God sacrificed His sovereignty to humanity post creation. 2 It was a surrender of His active engagement in creation. Bruce Ware summarizes the openness position saying, “either God gives up unilateral control or he takes away the freedom and moral responsibility of the human agent.” 3 Exercising His divine freedom God voluntarily chose to create a world open to future possibilities determined by human choices. According to open theism in order to ensure this openness God’s knowledge of future events must be limited. Open theism does not view this as a limitation on God because future decisions are not yet in existence and therefore, there is nothing in the future to know.

In summary, the board concept of open theism is that God has no knowledge of future events, denies His active control over creation and magnifies the freedom of humanity.4 Advocates of open theism contend that “if God knows the future completely, the future must be fixed, and man cannot be really free.” 5 For the open theist God’s supreme desire for pureworship and relationship require the creation of a truly free humanity. This preserves God’s right to hold humanity morally accountable.

Open theism has solved the issue of reconciling divine sovereignty and human freedom by limiting God’s omniscience and activity in influencing creation. If God is unaware of all future decisions and the outcome of those decisions are the result of free choice then man is solely responsible for those choices. Hermeneutically, open theism ignores large portions of Scripture and must be rejected. The open theist’s denial of God’s foreknowledge and meticulous sovereign orchestration of a divine plan for creation compromises God’s true nature. Consequently, open theism is in opposition to orthodox Christian doctrine and should be classified as heretical.

Hyper-Calvinism Hyper-Calvinism, stands in juxtaposition to open theism. To the degree that open theism celebrates the radical freedom of humanity and limits the omniscience and omnipotence of God the hyper-Calvinist does the opposite. Hyper-Calvinist affirm a hard determinism that rejects any human freedom and elevates God’s sovereignty to a level that God Himself is the author of evil. 6 R.C. Sproul rightly observes, “This does radical violence to the integrity of God’s character.” 7 Unjustly, many libertarians mistakenly associate compatibilist with hyper- Calvinism. However, hyper-Calvinism denies any genuine freedom is given to humanity. Although free decisions are made the freedom is illusionary because God dictated it sovereignly.

The dangerous tenants of hyper-Calvinism are many, including the denial of Gospel proclamation until evidence is observed that a person is the elect. One of the most troubling aspects of the unbiblical teaching of hyper-Calvinism is the propagation of double predestination. Double predestination teaches God is both active in the election of the elect andreprobation of the non-elect. 8 Hyper-Calvinist believe God to work unbelief into the heart of the non-elect.9

Logically this should remove the moral responsibility from humanity, but for the hyper-Calvinist man remains morally responsible for their unbelief because God has declared it to be. In summation, divine sovereignty over everything is exaggerated and moral responsibility and freedom is eliminated within hyper-Calvinism establishing the position as heretical.

Arminianism Abounding in a majority of western evangelical churches is the Arminian ideology. Arminianism is also known as libertarianism and is the most popular alternative to the compatibilist position. Libertarianism seeks to logically reconcile divine sovereignty and human accountability. Refusing to accept the tension of divine sovereignty and human responsibility Arminians create a position to harmonize the paradox. Accomplished by asserting that God is, “in control of history, but exercises that control so as not to interfere with man’s free will.” 10 A prevalent position referred to as freedom of contrary choice.

Contrary choice is defined as, “humans can always choose contrary to any prior influences that might direct their choices. Given exactly the same set of circumstances, no particular choice or outcome is guaranteed.”11 Therefore, to be morally accountable humanity must have complete freedom of choice without outside coercion. Freedom from coercion means,“our choices must originate from our own autonomous power of willing unhindered by the force of any cause decisively directing us toward a particular choice.” 12 Logically, contrary choice is

impossible if the doctrine of original sin is true. Surprisingly, however, Arminians affirm original sin and seek to solve the problem of the Adamic sin nature through prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace is a fundamental tenant of Arminianism. Prevenient grace asserts that in order to restore human freedom from their morally depraved condition God bestows on all humanity enough grace to restore their free will. This enables contrary choice. This bestowal of grace allows the unsaved individual to choose God or resist God.13 Theoretically, it would be unjust of God to punish sinners who are incapable of freely choosing and prevenient grace resolves this injustice. Without prevenient grace the Arminian’s cornerstone doctrine of freedom of choice deteriorates.

Ultimately, Arminians limit God’s comprehensive sovereignty because it undermines moral freedom and responsibility. God providentially does not control every detail of events because He is not allowed to interfere with man’s freedom of choice. Instead God responds to human choice and in His divine omnipotence is still able to accomplish His purposes with limited sovereignty. 14 The responsiveness of God in Arminian theology is most noted in their teaching on foreknowledge. Essentially, God in eternity past looked into time and foreknew those who would freely choose Him as Savior and elected them to salvation.

Support of the Compatibilist Position The preceding section outlined three opposing positions to compatibilism in relation to God’s divine sovereignty and humanity’s moral freedom and responsibility. This section will

now prove the essay’s thesis that compatibilism is the position that most faithfully explains how God can be sovereign over everything and humanity remain morally free and responsible. Here the compatibilist view will be presented and shown biblically to be the only position that leads to a true understanding of God. In this presentation compatibilism will be defined and defended through Scriptural evidence that demonstrates God’s meticulous sovereignty over both creationand human choices while not compromising humanity’s moral responsibility.

Compatibilism Defined Etymologically compatibilism is rooted in the word compatible. Meaning, within the compatibilist position human freedom and sovereign determinism are compatible. In other words, God meticulously and sovereignly governs all of creation, including human choices without eliminating human choice or the responsibility for that choice. Scott Christensen explains, “God determines human choices, yet every person freely makes his or her own choices. God’s causal power is exercised so that he never coerces people to choose as they do, yet they always choose according to his sovereign plan.”15 This concept is mysterious and difficult for the finite creature to accept. However, both concepts are biblical realities, God as the divine sovereign and humanity as a morally free and responsible agent.16

This supposition presented within compatibilism that God determines human choices and those human choices are free appears contradictory. However, compatibilist theologian Christensen explains, “every human action in the course of history has a dual explanation, one divine and one human.”17 The concept of dual explanation is the key in understanding the compatibilist position. Dual explanation is found within the doctrine of concurrence. According to Wayne Grudem the doctrine of concurrence is God’s cooperation “with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do.”18 God is directing creation to act in a predetermined manner and creation freely acts in accordance with that decree.

Dual explanation alone biblically accounts for God’s sovereign control and human freedom and responsibility. Beginning with divine cause God accomplishes His sovereign will by being the first and primary cause of all activity in creation on the macro and micro level (Prov 16:9; 19:21).19 Compatibilism affirms God is sovereignly accomplishing an eternal plan. God is, “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa 46:10-11). John Piper paraphrasing this verse says, “the reason my predictions come true is because they are my purposes, and because I myself perform them.” 20 There is a plan preordained by God for the created order and God is actively engaging with creation to achieve His purpose (Ps 115:3;135:6; Isa 14:27; Dan 2:21).

God, the divine cause, is the remote initiator of all activity and is proactively using secondary causes to accomplish His sovereign will (Eph 1:11). One secondary cause is nature or natural law (Jonah 2:20; 4:6). For example, using secondary causes God makes the sun to rise and rain to fall (Matt 5:45). The human cause is another secondary cause. While the divine cause is remote, the human cause is the proximate cause. The proximate cause is the immediate cause of choice and action when humans act “in response to their most compelling motives and desires.” 21 God, therefore, uses the human cause supernaturally in such a way that He never repudiates the freedom of the human agent. God as the primary cause, for example, decrees the death of Jesus, but lawless men are the secondary cause used to accomplish the plan (Acts 2:23). Their strongest inclination in the moment is to kill Jesus, which is God’s sovereign decree. Additionally, their identification as lawless men confirms their moral responsibility. 22

This freedom of choice is dependent on God and always a response to the remote first cause of God’s divine decree. What human freedom is not is as absolute autonomy, but freedom to choose, that which is most desirable in any circumstance. “Compatibilist freedom means that even if every act we perform is caused by something outside ourselves, such as natural causes or God, we can still be free, for we can still act according to our character and desires.” 23 Moral responsibility is retained in the compatibilist position because human choice is a result of humanity’s acting in accordance with their strongest desire. The human agent will be held responsible because they do that which they most want to do. This is the essence of freedom according to R.C. Sproul. “Our choices are determined by our desires. They remain our choicesbecause they are motivated by our own desires.” 24 Therefore, compatibilist freedom is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. It is the person’s intention behind the choice that makes them morally accountable to the Creator. 25 For the unregenerate their desires are in opposition to God and sinful making them incapable of pleasing God (Rom 8:7-8).

Throughout the Scripture the compatibilist position of dual explanation is seen. Regularly the Scripture shows God accomplishing His sovereign will through free human agency. Most significantly, again, is the crucifixion of Christ. Acts 4:27-28 demonstrates that God had preordained the murder of Jesus and the fulfillment of that act was accomplished through a variety of human agents. God’s sovereign will was for Lydia to be saved and God through the preaching of Paul opened the heart of Lydia (Acts 16:14). Furthermore, Paul submits that although believers are responsible for working out their own salvation the remote primary cause of their obedience is God working in them (Phil 2:12-13).

Objections to Compatibilism The final section of this essay will address two objections to the compatibilist position. First, the objection that compatibilism makes God the author of evil will be addressed. Secondly, a response will be given to the objection that if God does not enable all humanity to freely choose Him for salvation He is unjust and humanity is not morally accountable.

First Objection Opponents of compatibilism argue that if God sovereignly preordains all events and is the primary cause of all human choice then He is by default the author of evil. Biblically, of course, this is impossible. God cannot be the author of sin. God by nature is holy and incapable of doing evil (Ps 5:4; 92:15; 119:137; Heb 6:18; 1 John 1:5). However, God as the sovereign Lord does in a mysterious way preordain that evil occur (Isa 45:7; Rom 11:33-36). The compatibilist position argues that God, “ordained that His creatures should have the capacity for evil. He did not force them to exercise that capacity, but He knew that they would exercise it.” 26 As the remote and primary cause of humanity’s ability to sin God does consequently preordain that sin occur. However, it is the creature that freely acts upon their internal desire to sin making them morally responsible agents and exonerating God of culpability.

God’s meticulous control over sin and humanity acting in accordance with their strongest desire is clearly displayed in the narrative of Joseph being sold into slavery. “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” (Gen 50:20). This passage demonstrates that Godremotely, without the knowledge of the creature, had preordained the selling of Joseph into slavery for a good purpose. The secondary cause of this providential governance was the brothers of Joseph acting in accordance with their strongest desire and selling Joseph. God accomplished His sovereign purpose, which is traceable back to the Abrahamic Covenant, through the evil choice of the brothers (Gen 15:13-16).

God allows for sin because it is through the existence of evil that the full spectrum of God’s attributes is displayed (Rom 9:22-23). There are elements of the nature of God that would not be known if not for the existence of evil. Therefore, although God does not do evil He ordains that evil occur in order to display His sovereign plan for His glory.

Second Objection Unlike libertarians compatibilist hold that only those who God sovereignly predestines for salvation can choose salvation. The objection to this position is that it makes God unjust and negates humanity’s responsibility for rejecting the Gospel. It is true that if God does not sovereignly enable sinners to believe the Gospel they will not. Arminians have resolved this tension through prevenient grace. However, compatibilism contends that all of humanity acts in accordance with their strongest desire, regenerate and non-regenerate. For the non-elect the desire of their heart is in opposition to God. God does not owe them salvation because they freely choose sin. For the elect, God has sovereignly chosen to regenerate them by efficacious grace. Efficacious grace is the primary divine cause of conversion and belief would be the secondary human cause. God does not force them to choose Him. Rather, they continue to choose based on strongest desire, which after regeneration is the Gospel (Acts 13:28; 1 John 5:1). Moral responsibility is not compromised for the elect or non-elect because choice remains contingent on desire. Also, God’s righteousness is maintained because salvation is not owed to anyone and He has the right to give or withhold grace according to His good pleasure.

Conclusion In summary, this essay has demonstrated that the compatibilist position is the only view that does not distort the true nature of God in respects to divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Scripture explicitly teaches that God as Creator maintains active sovereign control over creation governing all things, including human choices. He does this by being the primary and remote cause of activity in creation using secondary human cause to accomplish His purposes. By never coercing a person to act in contradiction to their strongest desire, however, God is exonerated from culpability and human responsibility is not repudiated. 27


1 Scott Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2016) 1.

2 Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books 2001) 31.

3 Ibid.,131.

4 Ibid.,19-20.

5 John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2016) 310.

6 Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of Gods Sovereignty and Free Will (Minneapolis, Minn: Bethany House, 2010) 218.

7 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2010) 115.

8 Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of Gods Sovereignty and Free Will, 215.

9 Sproul.,Chosen by God, 115.

10 Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty, 6-7.

11 Ibid.,27.

12 Ibid.,23.

13 Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty, 150. 14 Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter- Varsity Press, 2010) 115.

15 Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty, 254. 16 Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 28.

17 Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty, 77.

18 Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, 143.

19 Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 181.

20 John Piper, Doctrine Matters: Ten Theological Trademarks from a Lifetime of Preaching. (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014) 61.

21 Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty, 259. 22 Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, 148.

23 Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 824.

24 Sproul.,Chosen by God, 40.

25 Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 824.

26 R.C. Sproul, Does God Control Everything? (Stanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012) 48.

27 Christensen, What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty, 78.


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