Compatible and Libertarian Freedom

A Comparison between Calvinism’s Compatible View of Moral Freedom and Extensivism’s Libertarian Freedom

In order to understand the actual contrast between Calvinism’s view of the nature of God, His sovereign rule over His creation, and His salvation plan, with that of Extensivism’s view of the same, one must understand the two position’s vastly different views of what it means for man to be free to choose and be responsible for his choices.

I use the term Extensivism in this article as a general term that encompasses various orthodox perspectives that believe God truly desires for every person to be saved. This desire of God is evidenced by His extensive salvational love and provision for all (John 3:16; John 2:2). Extensivism stands in contrast to Calvinism’s exclusive perspective which limits salvation to only the unconditional elect.[1]

The following is intended to precisely clarify the positions. While Calvinists adopt and defend a compatible view of freedom, their frequent imprecision in defining it and regularly speaking inconsistently with the actual meaning of compatibilism, including its entailments, obscures its real meaning, thereby leading many to think that Calvinists and Extensivists mean basically the same thing when they say man is morally free and therefore responsible.

If one adopts Calvinism with its compatible view of freedom, I can respect that. However I cannot abide the continued attack on libertarian freedom, which is often based upon an erroneous understanding of libertarianism, while neglecting or suppressing the micro-deterministic nature of compatibilism. This perpetuates confusion and prohibits clarification.

To the question, did God endow man and woman with the ability to choose? The Calvinists and Extensivists both answer yes, but our answers have very different meanings. Regarding man’s freedom to choose and moral responsibility for his choices, there are three options from which to choose. They are determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism.

The definitions of the three perspectives regarding the moral responsibility of man are not dependent upon a Christian worldview. They are philosophical in that they explore the metaphysical nature, or lack thereof, of man and his freedom. That is to say, one of the perspectives may be held by someone who is a Darwinist, Atheist, Theist (but not Christian), or a Christian. The fundamental definitional meaning of each is the same regardless who holds the position. Consequently, the application to Christianity, and therefore, references to God, sin, and salvation are not actually inherent in the nature of the perspectives but only in their application to Christian theism.

Determinism: man is determined; therefore, whatever he does, he could not have done otherwise; accordingly, he is not morally responsible for his actions.[2] Sometimes this perspective is referred to as “hard determinism,” whereas compatibilism is referred to as “soft determinism,” a designation coined by William James. This perspective says that determinism and moral responsibility are not compatible. Neither Calvinists nor Extensivists hold this perspective.

Compatibilism: compatibilism says that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible; hence the name. This compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism. Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean that as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he can be considered to have made a free choice for which he is morally responsible, even though he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Consequently, the difference between compatibilism (soft determinism) and absolute (hard) determinism is not to be found in the levels of the deterministic nature of each because they are the same. Rather, the difference is that compatibilism simply contends that people are morally responsible for their choices if they are made according to their greatest desire and hard determinism says they are not. Moral responsibility is the product of defining free choice as acting in accordance with your greatest desire; although the desire is determined.

In addition to speaking about compatibilism inconsistently, Calvinists also seek to define it as meaning compatible with God’s sovereignty. Paul Gould notes, “As [D.A.] Carson sees it, compatibilism teaches the following: God is utterly sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions to mitigate human responsibility. Human beings are morally responsible creatures, but their moral responsibility never functions to make God absolutely contingent.”[3]

Gould comments, “Notice, what Carson means by “compatibilism” is just that freedom is compatible with divine sovereignty (not determinism). In other words, he is restating the fact that Scripture upholds both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (and freedom). But, importantly his “compatibilism” isn’t compatibilism.”[4]

There are two problems with Carson’s definition. First, he assumes compatibilism in his definition because libertarian freedom, rightly understood, is also compatible with sovereignty. Second, he has confused his belief that compatibilism is consistent with divine sovereignty with the definition of compatibilism, and they are not the same.

According to compatibilism, determinative antecedents (your past) provide the desire from which one freely chooses; therefore it is a predetermined free choosing without a choice between accessible options in the moral moment of decision. To wit, given one’s past, one could not have chosen differently than he did in fact choose. This means that at the moral moment when a person chooses to love God, hate God, tell the truth or lie, commit rape or rescue a woman from rape, that person acts freely so long as that is his greatest desire, but he cannot act differently given the same past; therefore, it is a predetermined free choosing without a choice between accessible options.

Sometimes, a compatibilist may say had a person desired to, he could have chosen differently. This is merely a hypothetical otherwise choice rather than an actual otherwise choice.[5] While it is trivially true that if he had desired to act differently he could have, that response does not truly answer the specific question. The real question is, could a compatibilist free being have chosen differently in the moral moment of decision given the same past? The answer is no. This is because given one’s past, he could not have had a different ultimate desire from which to freely choose differently in the moral moment of decision. For example, could Adam, given his same nature and past have chosen to not sin? NO!

Calvinists understandably attempt to maintain the biblical perspective that God does not cause evil. This is accomplished by maintaining that God stands behind good and evil asymmetrically.[6] That is to say, God is related to the presence of evil so that it is not morally chargeable to Him but always to secondary causes; conversely, He is related to the presence of good so that it is always morally chargeable to Him and only to secondary causes or agents because of His grace. All of which happens within His sovereignty.

Thus, D.A Carson says, “I alone am responsible for that sin….God is not to be blamed. But if I do good….God’s grace has been manifest in my case, and he is to be praised. If this sounds just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response…is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is. There is no other.”[7]

I agree that this is indeed the biblical position that God does not cause sin, and I would also contend that He does not even desire it (beyond the desire to permit man the freedom to choose evil), but this biblical position is actually irreconcilable with Calvinism because of its commitment to compatibilism. Since compatibilism entails that the desire from which Adam freely chose to eat of the tree was predetermined by his past and nature, when one traces the causal chain back, it leads to God as the One who is ultimately responsible for Adam choosing to sin. Although his decision was a free decision reflective of his greatest desire, according to compatibilism’s definition of such, he is not the originator of his past from which the desire emanated because that is God. According to compatibilism, had God not desired for Adam to sin, He would have created him with a different nature and past.

This is the position of Calvinism even though not all who don the label Calvinist fully understand compatibilism and most (maybe all) do not speak consistently with its unflinching determinism. For sure, virtually no one lives and talks so that everyone understands the micro-determinism of Calvinism because of his or her commitment to compatibilism.

The following is a list of what compatibilism includes and excludes (entails)

  • Includes
    1. Voluntariness—one acts freely if he chooses according to his greatest desire.
    2. Man is morally responsible because he freely chose according to his greatest desire.
    3. Micro-determinism—given one’s past, no actual accessible options are available other than the one chosen in the moral moment of decision because the greatest desire emanates from determinative antecedents.[8]
    4. One may have an experiential sense of deliberation in decision-making.
    5. The determinism of compatibilism extends to every choice of every person.
    6. Guaranteed outcome—God knows what will happen because He predetermined everything so that everything would be precisely as it is; thus, everything is as God desired. [9]
    7. Efficient cause— “An agent that brings a thing into being or indicates a change.”[10] Moves something from potentiality to actuality.
  • Excludes
    1. Otherwise choice in the moral moment of decision given the same past.
    2. Origination—the ability to change the future sequence of events
    3. The sense of deliberation including the possibility of actually choosing between accessible options.
    4. Actual possibility in the moral moment of decision to have chosen differently than one did in fact choose.
    5. Actual range of accessible options—alternative possibilities.
    6. Agent causation as the efficient cause—meaning that one need look no further than the individual choosing for the cause of the choice.
    7. Reliance upon character-influenced choices in order to lessen the deterministic nature of the choice because for one’s character to accomplish such necessitates that the person made at least one or some previous choices between accessible options, which is absolutely disallowed by compatibilism.
    8. Being sufficiently defined to mean moral responsibility is compatible with sovereignty. This may be what an individual believes to be true, but it is not the definition of compatibilism.
    9. The individual being ultimately responsible for his choice because ultimate responsibility must be found at the origin of the chain of determinative antecedents. From a Christian worldview, this is God.

Libertarianism: man is not determined, and his Creator endows him with the ability to choose between accessible options. Libertarians contend that determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility.

Man possesses actual otherwise choice and can therefore act or refrain within the God-given range of options. Adam’s range of options prior to the fall was greater than mankind’s options after the fall. The range of options present prior to the fall was the result of creative grace.

Fallen man can still choose between options, but the range of options is less than that of man prior to the fall. This lessening includes the ability to make choices that are inherently righteous or spiritually restorative (making one right with God) based solely upon creative grace. In order to make a choice such as responding to the gospel, God had to provision redemptive grace—grace-enablements.[11]

Regarding the problem of the presence of sin, compatibilism leaves one with the problem of ultimate responsibility, whereas libertarian freedom does not. First, sin is the result of man’s misuse of his freedom, which God did not desire but did comprehend in His plan. Second, it may very well be that one cannot create a free being with the option to sin and guarantee that he will not misuse his freedom. However, Scripture teaches us that God overcomes this dilemma through a co-extensive creation/redemption plan.

The following is a list of what libertarianism includes and excludes (entails)

  • Includes
    1. Voluntariness—man acts freely.
    2. Origination—choice can initiate a new sequence of events or alternative possibilities.
    3. One’s choice may be influenced, even strongly, but not determined. If it is a forced decision, then the individual is not morally responsible for that specific decision.
    4. Efficient cause— “An agent that brings a thing into being or indicates a change.”[12] Moves something from potentiality to actuality. The idea that one need look no further than the individual for the cause of the action, which includes ultimate causation.
    5. Contra-causal power—ability to do otherwise.
    6. Actual otherwise choice in the moral moment of decision even with the same past.
    7. At times, one’s character may occasion sufficient influence for a choice, thereby lessening the need of as much deliberation as other decisions may require.
    8. No guaranteed outcome—God knows contingencies because He is essentially omniscient.
    9. The problem of sin is answered in that it is the result of a free choice in which man could have and should have acted differently. Additionally, it may be impossible to create a libertarian free being with the option to sin (in his range of options) and guarantee that he will not misuse his freedom.
    10. God overcomes man’s misuse of the good gift of libertarian freedom with His co-extensive creation/redemption plan.
    11. God created man in His image with libertarian freedom, and therefore, it is a force. Like all other forces, it is thereby under His sovereign rule, which He can contravene at any time. He allows the misuse of freedom, but if such misuse goes too far, He can and does thwart it; we see this in the Scripture in many ways, but particularly in His dealings with rulers like Pharaohs and kings.
    12. Man is responsible for all choices that he makes apart from the use of force, e.g. held at gunpoint or when God overrides his freedom.
  • Excludes
    1. The idea that libertarian freedom means a person can do anything.
    2. The idea that having one’s libertarian freedom overruled results in a dispossession of libertarian freedom. God may overrule one’s freedom in a given moment, or man may be imprisoned by another; however, such coerced actions do not mean that the individual no longer has libertarian freedom, but only that he is not morally responsible for the coerced action.
    3. The idea that libertarian freedom disallows influential antecedents.
    4. The idea that a change in the range of options eliminates the existence of libertarian freedom because while different seasons of life, birthplaces, familial dynamics, physical and mental capabilities affect the range of options available to the person, they do not affect the reality of libertarian freedom.
    5. The idea that man’s choice is baseless or random. Libertarian choice may be influenced by reason, emotions, past, character, or circumstances, or a constellation of these, but the decision is not determined by them; that is the result of the free agent, which means that he has reasons for his choice, but he is not controlled by them.
    6. The idea that fallen man can choose to come to God apart from grace-enablements.

The two perspectives contrasted in the fall

Genesis two is unmistakably clear in presenting Adam as having a choice between obedience and blessing (Vs. 16), and disobedience and judgment (Vs. 17). Then when Adam and Eve did eat (3:6), God judged them and they died, along with losing all of the blessing God had granted them while living in the garden because He held them responsible for their actions (3:11–13, 16–19, 22–24).

According to compatibilism, Adam and Eve chose freely to eat of the tree and sin. Equally true of compatibilism is that given their nature and past, they could not have refrained from sinning because the desire from which they freely chose was a predetermined desire given their past and nature; although this component of compatibilism is often omitted by Calvinists. Accordingly, while God did not cause the sin, He did desire that they sin. This is evidenced by the fact that He set in place their past and nature, from which emanated the predetermined desire to freely choose to eat of the tree and sin. Consistent with compatibilism, had God desired for them to refrain from sinning, He would have given them a nature and past emanating that desire from which to freely choose.

According to libertarianism, Adam and Eve freely chose to sin and eat of the tree. Equally true of libertarianism is that given their past, which includes their nature, they could have and should have refrained from sinning because they had the ability to choose to eat or refrain, and whatever they did in fact choose they could have chosen differently. God’s desire for them to refrain is evidenced in that He endowed them with the ability to live in holy fellowship with Him, blessing them by placing them in the garden and warning them to not sin and of the consequence if they did sin. Even though He knew they would misuse their freedom and sin, He never desired that for them since He always desires holiness and righteousness.

The two perspectives contrasted in the gospel

 According to compatibilism, given one’s past and fallen nature, man can only freely choose to reject the gospel; he not only will not believe, he cannot believe. For him to be able to respond with anything but disbelief and rebellion, God must work graciously to restore the ability to choose freely to believe the gospel. This restorative act is referred to by different names such as regeneration, new birth, quickening, or renovation.

This grace work of God is only performed upon the unconditionally elect through selective regeneration, which inevitably results in the person freely exercising faith. Accordingly, the restorative act of regeneration precedes and results in faith. Once this regenerative work is accomplished, the person cannot disbelieve any more than he could have believed prior to the grace work. Thus, as with Adam, while the individual freely chooses, it is a predetermined free choosing without the possibility of choosing otherwise.

According to libertarianism, given one’s past and fallen nature, man can only freely choose to reject the gospel; he not only will not believe, he cannot believe.[13] For him to be able to respond with anything but disbelief and rebellion, God must work graciously to restore the ability to make spiritually restorative decisions such as, choose freely to believe the gospel. This restorative act of God results in grace-enablements, which flow from God’s redemptive grace. The work of restorative grace is provisioned for everyone.

Grace-enablements restore fallen man to the point at which, while still in his sins, he is enabled to either believe the gospel or continue to reject the gospel, only now with a more full understanding of what he is actually believing or rejecting (John 12:35-36). Accordingly, God’s gracious liberating work precedes faith, and faith is both a free and undetermined choice, which if exercised results in regeneration and salvation. Thus, as with Adam, God desires that man choose to trust Him, but he can still choose to disbelieve and walk away.

I suggest to you that everyone reading the Scripture, without theological importations, sees the clear and ubiquitous message to be that people have otherwise choice, and God conditions blessing or judgement upon the choice a person makes. Extensivism contends that this is a component of what it means to be created in the image of God. The libertarian perspective is the only view that consistently communicates that God redemptively loves all of His creation.

In consideration of the gospel of John 10:31

The Apostle John gave as his reason for writing his gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). It seems clear that “you” includes anyone who reads John’s gospel. Now, why would John write, or more importantly, why would God inspire him to write this in order for people to read, believe, and be saved if, as Calvinism posits, God knows the non-elect can never read and believe, and the elect cannot believe prior to regeneration since that is monergistic and man is totally passive?
Thus, according to Calvinism, no one can merely read John’s writings or any Scripture and believe unto salvation because salvation is monergistic—accomplished by God alone.

Yet, Jesus continually called on people to believe so that they would not die in their sins. “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). The obvious conclusion to draw from this statement is that they desperately need to believe, that Jesus truly desires that they believe, and that they can in fact believe in order not to die in their sins.

This is contrary to the Calvinist secret[14] that while it is true, that if one does not believe he will die in his sins, the corresponding truth is that Jesus is telling them to do what He knows they cannot do unless they are the elect.[15] (See also Matthew 11:20–24; 23:37; Luke 23:34; John 5:40–47; 11:42.)


[1] At other times I use the term more specifically to convey my particular approach to soteriological issues. I define the term narrowly, an Extensivist “believes that man was created in the image of God with otherwise choice and that God’s salvation plan is comprehensive, involving an all-inclusive unconditional offer of salvation and eternal security of the believer; reception of which is conditioned upon grace-enabled faith rather than an exclusive plan involving a limited actual offer of salvation to only the unconditionally elected, or any plan that, in any way, conditions salvation upon merely a humanly generated faith.” 

Extensivism may have some things in common with Calvinism, Arminianism, or Molinism but does not rely upon any of them. Further, similarities do not equal sameness. Extensivism seeks only to present a comprehensive, consistent system of soteriology that is reflective of the warp and woof of Scripture, which may have shared beliefs with other systems of soteriology, but Extensivism neither relies upon nor seeks to be consistent with them. Applied more generally it is used interchangeably with non-Calvinism.

[2] Some may argue that he is, but generally that is not the case.

[3] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981). As cited on http://www.paul-gould.com/2016/04/20/why-theology-needs-philosophy-a-case-study/

“Why Theology Needs Philosophy: A Case Study” accessed 5-17-2016.

[4] D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981). As cited on http://www.paul-gould.com/2016/04/20/why-theology-needs-philosophy-a-case-study/

“Why Theology Needs Philosophy: A Case Study” accessed 5-17-2016.

[5] More formally known as a hypothetical analytical otherwise choice vs. an actual otherwise choice.

[6]  D.A Carson, Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1994), 37.

[7] Joshua Butcher, “D.A. Carson and Compatibilism” http://anotherreadersreview.blogspot.com/2008/05/da-carson-and-compatibilism.html, posted May 8, 2008, accessed 5/18/16.

[8] The determinative antecedents, and particularly the genesiacal determinate antecedent (ultimately responsible action/actor) may be different in Darwinism, Christianity, or other worldviews, but the degree of determinism is constant.

[9] As noted earlier, the aspects of spiritual realities are not innate to compatibilism; consequently, secularism would exclude God.

[10] Efficient cause is the idea that one need look no further than the individual for the cause of the action, moral responsibility. In libertarian freedom this would include the idea of ultimate causation as well, whereas, that is not the case in compatible freedom. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/efficient_cause, accessed 7/5/17.

[11] For a list of grace-enablements see my article, “Anyone and Everyone Can Be Saved by Grace: Grace-Enablements,” posted 1/25/2015, www.ronniewrogers.com.

[12] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/efficient_cause accessed 7/5/17.

[13] I believe in total depravity, which means that the fall affected man extensively, and thereby man is incapable of coming to God without God’s redemptive grace—grace-enablements, which God provides for all. This does not mean that man lost all sensibilities regarding God, (Genesis 3:8–13; Romans 1:18–23).

[14] Regarding unconditional election and selective regeneration (i.e. the non-elect really cannot be saved even though they hear “whosoever will may come”), Calvinists often emphasize that is not something to be talked about with the unsaved. For example Lewis Sperry Chafer says, “The entire theme concerns those only who are regenerated and should never be presented to, or even discussed in the presence of, the unsaved.” Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. III, Soteriology, (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 172.

[15] In contrast to Calvinism, Jesus clearly warned them to repent, with every indication that they should and could, which warning He issued repeatedly (Matthew 4:17; 11:20–21; Luke 5:32; 15:7; 24:47) and the same can be said for the Apostles (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). If He knew some of them could not repent because they were not the elect, then His warning seems disingenuous and misleading. Some Calvinists will say that Jesus was making a “good faith offer” (if there is such an idea), because as a man, He did not know who the elect were.

As an example of Jesus not knowing certain things, in His humanity, they reference Jesus saying “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). However, these are disanalogous. For the reference in Matthew to be relevant, it would have to include Jesus not knowing the date and then announcing a date for His return. That is to say, there is a crucial difference between Jesus not knowing certain things due to His role as a servant and His speaking forthrightly things that are either misleading or not true—do not correspond fully to reality.

There are problems with assuming Jesus’ words were in any way misleading or ill informed. First, Jesus would had to have forgotten all about “unconditional election and selective regeneration” (this goes far beyond not knowing who the elect are because it would include not even knowing there was such a concept as the elect). This seems unlikely since, as part of the Trinity, He actually helped devise the plan of unconditional election, which would at least makes His “good faith offer” a little less good than your everyday Calvinist. Second, and more problematic for the Calvinist, is that Jesus said He always did the will of the Father (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 17:4) and spoke not of His own initiative but what the Father wanted Him to speak (John 3:11, 34; 5:19; 7:16; 8:26, 28, 38; 12:49–50; 14:10, 24, 31; 17:8). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was upon Jesus filling Him without measure (Isaiah 61:1; Matthew 12:18; Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14; John 3:34; Acts 10:38).

Consequently, even if Jesus did not know, the Father and the Holy Spirit did know; therefore, the Calvinist doctrine of selective regeneration makes the Trinity complicitous in this misrepresentation. The obvious truth is that Jesus commanded them to repent because He was not willing that any would perish and that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), something that God has grace-enabled everyone who hears the truth to do.