Does Calvinism Believe Man is Free, Determined, or Both?

I have a strong desire to enable people to more readily recognize the unmitigated determinism within every aspect of Calvinism.[1] This serves to make dialogue regarding the merits and liabilities of Calvinism clearer as well as enabling everyone a better opportunity to be aware of what they are actually embracing when they don the title Calvinist. In view of that, I frequently speak about the nature of compatibilism, which is Calvinism’s chosen perspective regarding man’s freedom as contrasted with libertarianism, Extensivism’s belief about man’s freedom.[2] If the entailments of these perspectives are misunderstood, the conversation is unproductive.

An important component of my attempt to elucidate this issue is to help people become apt at seeing Calvinism’s omnipresent determinism while reading Calvinist literature that is often beclouding at best. To that end, I believe it is helpful for people to be shown how to see beyond the obscurant language often employed in writings of well-known knowledgeable committed Calvinists as well as lesser-known knowledgeable Calvinists. In this article I look at Wayne Grudem’s less than clear explanation of moral freedom from the perspective of Calvinism. I do not assign ill-motive, and I am appreciative of the clarity of some of his comments.

In answering the charge that election means man does not have a choice in whether to accept Christ or not, Grudem provides a compatibilist response while avoiding the use of the term and making clear the negatives of compatibilism, along with obfuscating the microscopic determinism of this perspective. He says, “According to this objection, the doctrine of election denies all the gospel invitations that appeal to the will of man and ask people to make a choice in whether to respond to Christ’ invitation or not. In response to this, we must affirm that the doctrine of election is fully able to accommodate the idea that we have a voluntary choice and we make willing decisions in accepting or rejecting Christ. Our choices are voluntary because they are what we want to do and what we decide to do, and in that sense they are ‘free.’ This does not mean that our choices are absolutely free . . . God can sovereignly work through our desires so that he guarantees that our choices come about as he has ordained; but this can still be understood as a real choice, because God has created us, and he ordains that such a choice is real. In short, we can say that God causes us to choose Christ voluntarily. The mistaken assumption underlying this objection is that a choice must be absolutely free (that is, not in any way caused by God) in order for it to be a genuine human choice. However, if God makes us in a certain way and then tells us that our voluntary choices are real and genuine choices, then we must agree that they are.[3] (italics added)

Let me respond in the following manner. Preliminarily, it is important to keep in mind that according to compatibilism, one is considered to make a free choice when one chooses according to his own greatest desire (Grudem uses the synonym “want”) even though one cannot choose differently at the moment of decision given the same past or nature; thus, according to compatibilism, every decision is both determined and free. Additionally, compatibilism entails the principle of voluntariness; one acts freely if he choose according to his greatest desire. It excludes the principle of origination, the ability to initiate a new sequence of events that changes the future, given the same past. Note Grudem’s emphasis upon choosing “voluntarily” while making no mention of otherwise choice or the ability to originate a different future. Now, with this understanding in mind, one is equipped to detect a compatible view of moral freedom deeply embedded in his response.

First, with regard to his statement, “the doctrine of election is fully able to accommodate the idea that we have a voluntary choice and we make willing decisions in accepting or rejecting Christ,” it is important to note that it is not the doctrine of election that is in question because the Bible clearly teaches election, but rather it is Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election that is in dispute. While the biblical doctrine of election very easily accommodates libertarian freedom with otherwise choice simply by God’s sovereign decision to comprehend such in His salvational plan, it is quite another matter how unconditional election is able to accommodate “voluntary” choice in the sense of being a non-determined free choice. If one is not familiar with the distinction between voluntary and origination (the latter excluded in compatibilism), one can legitimately infer Grudem’s words to mean man made a non-determined free choice rather than a determined free choice. But that is not actually the case.

While Grudem’s words may accurately reflect compatibilism, they lack the clarity needed to help most readers see the micro-determinism in his view. In contrast to libertarian freedom, his precise wording does reflect compatibilism, which is the idea that one is considered to make a free choice when the person chooses according to his greatest desire even though one cannot choose differently at the moment of decision given the same past or nature. Compatibilism entails that every decision is both determined and free and excludes the possibility of having chosen differently in the moral moment of decision. Accordingly, prior to unconditional election wrought by monergistic irresistible grace, man “voluntarily” chooses to reject Christ, and subsequent to monergistic irresistible grace, man, having received a new nature emanating new desires, voluntarily chooses to believe in Christ.

What is glaringly absent from his defense of unconditional election is that in either state, man cannot voluntarily choose other than what he does in fact choose. Because in compatibilism, the idea of “origination,” starting a new sequence of events given the same past or nature, is absolutely impossible. To wit, prior to quickening, lost man can freely choose to reject Christ, but he cannot freely choose to believe in Christ, and after the quickening man can freely choose to believe in Christ, but he cannot freely choose to reject Christ. Further, Calvinists’ frequent attempts to replace the word cannot with will not is an obfuscation since man will not choose differently only because he cannot.

Second, Grudem actually defines how freedom works within compatibilism by saying, “Our choices are voluntary because they are what we want to do and what we decide to do, and in that sense they are ‘free.’” (italics added) This is the meaning of free choice according to compatibilism; to wit, so long as one chooses according to his greatest desire, the choice is considered to be free choice. Unfortunately, this leaves most people thinking that such was a choice between various accessible options (in this case, believe in Christ or not believe in Christ), which of course is not true since every choice in compatibilism is as determined as every choice in hard determinism. The only difference between the two is that in hard determinism, one is not considered morally responsible because given the same past or nature, the individual could not have chosen differently. Whereas, compatibilism does not lessen this deterministic nature of man in order to make moral responsibility and determinism compatible, but rather such is achieved by defining a free or voluntary choice as doing what is one’s greatest desire, even though he could not have chosen differently in the moral moment of decision given the same past.

Third, he states, “This does not mean that our choices are absolutely free.”[4] This is true, but if he is implying (I am not claiming that he is but only clarifying) that the alternative view, libertarian freedom, entails absolute freedom or if someone infers such to be the case with libertarianism, it is a mistake. I often hear such depictions when Calvinists argue against libertarian freedom, and whether such is done wittingly or unwittingly, it is a false conclusion. Libertarian freedom does not argue that all our choices are free, uninfluenced (even significantly so), or one can do anything he chooses at any time (absolutely free). Rather, libertarianism argues that for one to be held morally responsible for his decision, he must have been able to have acted or refrained within the range of options, even given the same past or nature. That is, his decision was not determined by his past. An example of a significant influence is such as exists in God’s grace-enablements, which enable a sinner to be able to believe in Christ unto eternal life or reject Him unto eternal damnation.[5] Extensivism does not espouse absolute freedom—that one always can choose otherwise or do whatever one desires all of the time.

Fourth, Grudem says, “God can sovereignly work through our desires so that he guarantees that our choices come about as he has ordained; but this can still be understood as a real choice, because God has created us, and he ordains that such a choice is real.” Two key words to be noted. The first is “ordained” meaning that God actually preordained, predetermined, a certain state of affairs and nature of man. Because of having preordained such, He can therefore “guarantee” the choice of man is precisely what He desired it to be. Notice that this guarantee is not the product of foreknowledge (knowing what man will, but did not have to, choose) as an essential aspect of essential omniscience but rather foreordination—predetermination.

This is precisely consistent with compatibilism in which a choice is considered free so long as one chooses according to his greatest desire. So, God guarantees that an individual will choose A and not B by creating him with a nature, past, that emanates a greatest desire to only choose A. If God desires for the person to choose B instead of A, without directly causing the choice (e.g. against the person’s will), He simply gives him a different nature, past, that emanates a greatest desire to only choose B.

This can be seen in all choices according to compatibilism. For example, Adam’s choice to sin was what he desired, but God controls and works through the desires by giving a particular nature—past. To wit, God desired for Adam to have the greatest desire to sin. Further, once man sinned, and was thusly affected by sin, he can only desire to resist God; therefore, he must receive a new nature with new desires prior to freely choosing God.[6] Significantly, the change in the nature from which the new desires emanate and permit the free choice in a new direction did not come about by the free choice of man, but in fact in absolute opposition to the choosing of the fallen nature.

In other words, the monergistic act of irresistible grace is forced, but the choice to believe subsequent to it is according to man’s greatest desire that springs forth from the new nature and is therefore, according to compatibilism, considered to be free. Accordingly, to say “God can sovereignly work through our desires” is quite the understatement. For God actually predeterminately established man’s past, which guarantees man’s desires will, and can only, be what God desires them to be; this guarantees the choice of man will and can only be what He ordained it to be.  Any sense or supposition that things could have been different than they are is a flight of fancy—pipe dream.

Fifth, Grudem says, “In short, we can say that God causes us to choose Christ voluntarily.” This is precisely according to the absolute deterministic nature of compatibilism and Calvinism rightly understood. God causes man, by the given nature or past, to voluntarily choose to sin (Adam and Eve), which is why it is unnecessary and imprecise to say Calvinism teaches that God caused, meaning directly so, Adam and Eve to sin. Technically, consistent with compatibilism, God gave the nature and past from which the desire to sin emanated, and from that desire Adam and Eve can be said to have freely chosen to sin. Consequently, while God did not directly cause Adam to sin, He did cause the nature from which the desire to sin came, and thereby could foreknow and guarantee the predetermined outcome. Similarly, lost man cannot believe in Christ until God gives him a new past emanating the desire to believe. This He only gives to the unconditionally elect, which is the causal monergistic work of God (irresistible grace), which is in opposition to every desire and choice emanating from fallen man that precedes the voluntary choice to believe.

Understanding man to be compatibly free results in many perplexities. I mention two of them here. First, Calvinists are ever so quick to defend their belief against the charge that God caused Adam to sin (meaning directly or against Adam’s voluntary free choice). That is to say, Adam is responsible for his free choice to sin—the one to blame. I am, for the previously stated reasons, willing to accept such a defense given compatibilism. However, the dilemma arises in that they are equally adamant that while salvation does include the free choice of man to believe in Christ, God gets all the glory because it is God who gave man the new nature from which man could desire to believe. Given the symmetry of compatibilism, how can man be totally responsible for man’s sin and God be totally responsible for man’s salvation? This despite their continued attempts to say they believe God is related to sin and sacredness asymmetrically. Second, compatibilism, being what it is, does permit one to maintain that Adam was the proximate cause of his sin, and therefore, proximately responsible for his sin, but it leaves the question of ultimate responsibility finding fulfillment only at the doorstep of God.

Sixth, Grudem says, “The mistaken assumption underlying this objection is that a choice must be absolutely free (that is, not in any way caused by God) in order for it to be a genuine human choice.” Regarding this summarization of his response, we should note that he seems to implicitly acknowledge the fact of non-agent causation in his view of “choice.”[7] His statement should not be confused with God causing the ability to choose between accessible options, which libertarianism unreservedly acknowledges and compatibilism rejects. Rather he is speaking of the causal component of the choice itself through determinative antecedents, which is rejected by Extensivism.

If he was seeking to truly make Calvinism understandable, it seems to me he would make it unmistakably clear that Calvinism believes free creaturely decisions are unalterably determined by God’s causative actions rather than God having endowed man with the ability to choose differently than he does in fact choose. Next, as stated in his fifth comment, if by absolutely free he means man can do anything, or there exists no significant influence, then he created a straw man since libertarian freedom does not argue such to be the case. If he only means man could have chosen differently, then yes. I think free choice so defined is unambiguously and ubiquitously reflected in Scripture, human experience, and even in the prayers, writings, and preaching of Calvinists.

Seventh, Grudem says, “However, if God makes us in a certain way and then tells us that our voluntary choices are real and genuine choices, then we must agree that they are.” While this statement is true, it lacks certainty or, it seems to me, even an intelligible meaningful differentiation from choices that are not genuine. That is to say, everything hinges upon the word “if.” Specifically, did God create mankind with only the voluntary principle of free choice (compatibilism) or with both the voluntary and origination principle (libertarianism)?

While Calvinists are free to believe God created man with compatible freedom, the evidence of Scripture seems to be that man is created with otherwise choice, and thus blessing and judgment are understandably contingent upon the choice that man makes. One may peruse well-known Calvinist commentaries and, quite contradictory to the basics of Calvinism, see such recognition in them. Additionally, there simply is a glaring absence of Scripture wherein God says He made us in such a way as to only be able to choose one thing. That is a misguided philosophical assumption of Calvinism rather than a testimony of Scripture.

Given their commitment to compatibilism, I would appreciate all Calvinists speaking and writing so as to clearly elucidate the micro-determinism of Calvinism both in general areas such as Scriptures that depict choice and concomitant consequences and in every quodlibet. Only then can one understand what being a Calvinist actually means.

© Ronnie W. Rogers, 2018


[1] There are three basic views regarding man’s freedom to choose.

One is determinism. The basis of this view is that man is determined, and whatever he does, he could not have done otherwise and therefore he is not morally responsible for his actions. This view is sometimes referred to as hard determinism. This view is not held by Calvinists or Extensivists.

The second view is compatibilism. In compatibilism, the belief is 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 if a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he made a free choice even though he cannot choose differently. This view is sometimes referred to as soft determinism.

According to compatibilism, determinative antecedents (your nature or past) provide the desire from which one freely chooses. Therefore it is a predetermined free choosing without a choice. Consequently, at the moral moment of decision a person chooses to love God, hate God, tell the truth or lie, commit rape or not, that person acts freely so long as that is his greatest desire, but he cannot act differently given the same past. This is the position of Calvinism even though not all who don the label Calvinist fully understand compatibilism or make its entailments clear.

The final view is libertarianism. In libertarianism, the belief is that determinism and moral responsibility are not compatible. Therefore, man is not determined. At the moral moment of decision a person chooses to love God, hate God, tell the truth or lie, commit rape or not, the person has a real choice to act or refrain. Looking back upon the moral moment of decision, a person had a real choice to choose, and whatever he did in fact choose, he could have chosen differently even with the same past; thus, he is obviously responsible for his actions. All that is necessary to demonstrate libertarian freedom in Scripture is to show that some choices involved otherwise choice. Extensivists believe that compatibilism’s determinism is not consistent with what Scripture reveals about God and man. Extensivists also believe God endowed Adam and Eve with the ability to choose between real accessible options.

[2] Extensivist is used in the place of non-Calvinist.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999).

[4] Grudem addresses this more fully in chapter 8 on providence.

[5] For a description of grace enablements see https://ronniewrogers.com/2016/07/05/grace-enablements.

[6] Even if a Calvinist denies regeneration prior to faith, because of compatibilism, they are still dependent upon some predeterminative work of God prior to faith. Millard Erickson’s writing are a good example of this.

[7] Compatibilism rejects man being the efficient cause. One need look no further back than the point of decision for causation of the decision.