Sovereignty and Free Will

Volume IX--Number 3,
Spring 1963
pp. 39-51
(C)opyright 1963
All Rights Reserved
The Cincinnati Bible Seminary 
    One of the most perplexing problems in theology is how God can maintain His absolute sovereignty while holding man fully responsible for his sin.  If God is sovereign, must he not be the ultimate and determinative cause of everything, including the so-called free acts of men? And if so, must we not then conclude that man is not really free and that he is not responsible for his actions? On the other hand, if man is really free to choose between good and evil, must he not then be the ultimate cause of his own actions? And if so, must we not conclude that God is less than sovereign? Is there any way to solve the problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

    Reformed theology emphasizes the apparently contradictory nature of this and other problems of doctrine, yet declares that inability to understand completely such as antinomy is not sufficient grounds for the rejection of any part of it. Reformed theology rather holds to both absolute divine sovereignty and full human responsibility, appealing to the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes as a possible solution or at least as an anthropomorphic way of understanding the relation between sovereignty and responsibility. Man himself is said to be the proximate cause, while God is the actual and ultimate cause, of man's free acts. Ultimate choice is not ascribed to man.

    How does so-called Arminian theology approach the problem of sovereignty and responsibility? The answer is that Arminianism also holds to both the sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man, though not in the same sense as Calvinism. Man is said to be not simply the proximate cause of his own free acts, but the ultimate cause of them. Man is said to have full freedom of will in the sense of being able to choose good as well as evil.

    The Arminian doctrine of free will is, of course, strongly denied by Calvinists. It is said that such a notion of free will is a virtual denial of the absolute sovereignty and responsibility by just doing away with sovereignty. Such a doctrine of free will precludes the sovereignty of God, it is affirmed.

    This is indeed a serious charge, and it is this very problem that I propose to deal with in this paper. Is it true that the so-called Arminian doctrine of free will makes God anything less than sovereign? If man has the ultimate power of choice between good and evil, is the sovereignty of God excluded from the outset? As the question is put, it is not entirely nor even primarily a problem of what does the Bible teach. It is rather a theoretical or logical problem. The idea of the charge seems to be that the Arminian understanding of free will logically requires a denial of the sovereignty of God. It is on this level, then, that I propose to discuss the problem: is there a logical incompatibility between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man?

    At this point the terms free will and sovereignty must be more carefully defined. In this paper free will is understood as the ability to freely choose between good and evil, the choice being actually determined by the will of man and not by the will of God. For example, when the gospel invitation is offered, it is assumed that man has the ability to either accept it or reject it by an act of his own will. The use of the term sovereignty in this paper may best be explained by saying that it means that God's decree is all-inclusive, that God's control is absolute and all-inclusive, and that God's knowledge is completely independent and all-inclusive. We may now turn our attention to the problem as it was identified earlier, does the doctrine of free will make God anything less than absolutely sovereign?


    At this point a more complete statement of the charge against Arminianism must be given. Regarding the decree of God, it is said that Arminianism will not allow that "whatsoever comes to pass" comes to pass in accord with the counsel of God.1 The Arminian doctrine of responsibility is said to presuppose the rejection of the idea that the plan of God is all-inclusive.2

    Regarding God's control, it is said that Arminianism attributes to man a measure of ultimacy, and thus by implication Arminians must believe in God who is confronted by that over which he has no control.3 Man is said to have original powers next to God on such a doctrine.4 It is said that the Arminian assumes that the facts that happen as a result of the decisions of man happen independently of the plan of God.5 The idea of freedom is said to amount to a measure of independence over against God.6

    Regarding God's knowledge, the Arminian position is said to lead to the conclusion that God does not know all because he does not control all. God is not able to predict the future because the future is not wholly under his control. There is mystery for God as well as for man.7 God is then surrounded by brute facts.8 There is possibility above God and man.9 The certainty of God's knowledge of future events is annulled.10 God's knowledge is said to be made dependent on a temporal reality which he does not wholly control. God has to await the election returns;11 God has to await man's decisions on many points.12 The very omniscience of God is said to be denied.13

    The God of the Arminians, therefore, is said to be a finite God,14 a God who is dependent upon man,15 a God who is determined,16 a God who is limited by the facts of reality,17 a God who is subject to the same conditions as man.18 In other words, if free will is ascribed to man, then God is no longer the sovereign God of the Bible. This is the charge made against the Arminian doctrine of free will.

    A brief look at the positive teaching of Calvinism on these points may be helpful here. The particular statements cited are mostly from the writings of C. Van Til. According to Dr. Van Til, the decree of God means that every fact and law in the created universe is created and continues and accomplishes what it does "by virtue of" the plan or purpose of God. God foreordains "whatsoever comes to pass."19 God's will is the final and exclusively determinative power of whatsoever comes to pass. The nature of any created thing is what it is because of an act of determination in relation to it on the part of God.20

    Regarding God's control, Dr. Van Til affirms that everything without qualification is under God's control and direction. Man's created freedom operates in subordination to and in accord with God's ultimate will. God's will is ultimate and all-controlling.21 God is self-sufficient, therefore he has control over all.22 Man's will cannot frustrate any detail of God's plan.23 Regarding God's knowledge, it is said that since all reality is determined by God's will, therefore God knows all things. God controls all, therefore knows all.24 It is on the basis of his own decree regarding the world that God knows the world.25 God's foreknowledge is based on his foredetermination.26 God's knowledge is of himself and of all possibility besides himself.27 God knows the universe before it exists.28 God knows what might occur.29 There are no brute facts for God, no indeterminacy, no contingency, no probability. For God there is only absolute actuality.30 The omnipotence and omniscience of God are therefore asserted without qualification.31


    The charge against the doctrine of free will includes the accusation that it in effect denies that whatsoever comes to pass is in accord with God's eternal counsel. It is said to deny that the decree or plan of God is all-inclusive. Is this a valid criticism of the doctrine of free will? I propose to show that it is not. While affirming free will, I also affirm, with Dr. Van Til, that God has a complete plan for the universe, that all things happen in relation to this plan, and that there is no indeterminacy for God.32 I agree that nothing happens outside the will and plan of God.33 How can such a view of absolute sovereignty be held along with the doctrine of free will? The following paragraphs will attempt to show that the two are not incompatible.

    The first and most important point to be noted here is that all-inclusive does not necessarily mean all-determinative. The Calvinist says that the decree of God is all-inclusive in the sense of being all-determinative. That is, God's decree determines whatsoever comes to pass. God's will is the final and exclusively determinative power of whatsoever comes to pass.34 This means that the free acts of man are already determined by the will of God; the choice has already been made by God; God has already determined every choice of man by his eternal decree. The implication is that unless every detail is determined by God, the decree would not be all-inclusive. It is true that all-inclusive could mean all-determinative. God would certainly be sovereign on the basis of an all-determinative decree. But the point here is that all-inclusive does not necessarily mean all-determinative. Every detail may be included in God's decree without everything's being determined or effectuated by God, and God is no less sovereign if the decree be thought of in this way. God is still absolutely sovereign on the basis of an all-inclusive, though not all-determinative, decree.

    This is not to say that nothing is determined by God, however. Indeed, nothing could be more determinative than God's absolute, sovereign act of creation. As Dr. Van Til says, every created thing is what it is because of God's determinative act toward it.35 This being so, it may be said that man is what he is because of God's determinative act with respect to him. God has determined the nature of man. God was free to bestow upon man whatever nature he chose. His choice was free and sovereign. If man has free will, and I so affirm, it is because God has sovereignly determined him thus. In other words, God has sovereignly and absolutely determined man's freedom, but not man's free acts, at least in the same sense. The reason for making this qualification will be seen later. The main thing to be noted here is that God has determined and created man's free will in such a way that the exercise of that will is not determined. Man's freedom, not his free acts, is determined. But still, this is part of God's plan. This is the way he planned it, decreed it, created it. Man's free acts are included in God's decree, but are not determined by it. God's decree is all-inclusive, but not all-determinative.

    Can we say, then, that the free acts of man are not determined by God in any sense at all? This hardly seems to be the case. For instance, to say that God has determined man's freedom means that God has determined that there shall be free choices. God is the ultimate cause of every free choice because he is the one who sovereignly endowed man with freedom. On this basis God is the ultimate cause of free acts in the sense that he created the freedom from which they spring; yet man is the ultimate cause in the sense that it is he, not God, who determines whether this or that particular choice will be yea or nay.

    Perhaps there is another sense in which God determines even the particular choices of men while at the same time leaving the will of man completely and ultimately free. It is this: since every free act of man is included in the decree and plan of God, though not ultimately determined by God, there is a definite sense in which it can be said that all free acts are certain. Berkhof uses this terminology. He declares that God determines whatsoever will come to pass,36 but makes a distinction between the things that God effectuates and the things that God permits.37 The latter, not being caused by God in, the same sense as the former, are determined only in the sense that they are rendered certain.38 These points from Berkhof may be noted: In defining the decretive will of God, he says that it is that will of God "by which He purposes or decrees whatever shall come to pass, whether He wills to accomplish it effectively (causatively), or to permit it to occur through the unrestrained agency of His rational creatures."39 Berkhof says that it is all right to say that God's will with respect to sin is a will to permit sin and not a will to effectuate it," as long as it is "borne in mind that God's will to permit sin carries certainty with it."40 He proceeds to say that the decree of God pertains primarily to the acts of God Himself, but also embraces the actions of his free creatures. The fact that the latter are included in the decree "renders them absolutely certain, though they are not all effectuated in the same manner." Some things he himself brings to pass, but others he merely includes in his decree and thereby renders certain but does not effectuate them himself, as the sinful acts of his rational creatures.41 To say that the decree is efficacious does not mean that God has determined to bring to pass himself by a direct application of his power all things which are included in his decree, but only that what he has decreed will certainly come to pass.42 "By His decree God rendered the sinful actions of man infallibly certain without deciding to effectuate them by acting immediately upon and in the finite will."43 Finally, he says this:

The decree merely makes God the author of free moral beings, who are themselves the authors of sin. God decrees to sustain their free agency, to regulate the circumstances of their life, and to permit that free agency to exert itself in a multitude of acts, of which some are sinful. For good and holy reasons He renders these sinful acts certain, but He does not decree to work evil desires or choices efficiently in man. The decree respecting sin is not an efficient but a permissive decree, or a decree to permit, in distinction from a decree to produce, sin by divine efficiency.44
    In these selected statements Berkhof seems to be talking like an Arminian. Of course, he would and does qualify his position in other places. As it has been noted, he says that God determines whatsoever comes to pass. Yet as the above statements show, everything is not determined in the same sense; and the way he explains God's permissive will is not far from the Arminian view of the free will of man.

    Thus it may be possible that the free acts of man are determined in the sense that the decree renders them certain without effectuating them. The fact that the decree is all-inclusive makes the free acts certain in this sense. Thus God may be said to be the ultimate cause, the determinative factor, the responsible agent in the sense that his decree includes every free act of man in a way that renders it certain. Yet the free acts are man's choices, not God's.

    We have seen that the free acts of men are determined by God in certain senses, yet the basic point is that in the ordinary sense of the word determine, that is in the sense of to precisely and exactly effectuate beforehand, God has not determined the free acts of man. Ephesians 1:11 is often appealed to in defense of the claim that God has determined whatsoever comes to pass: "God worketh all things after the counsel of his will." But this does not necessarily mean that God has determined all things after the counsel of his will in the sense just described. It may legitimately be interpreted to mean that whatever comes to pass happens the way God planned it. If man has free will, that is the way God planned it. Man's free acts are within the counsel of God; this is the very decree, that man should have the power of free choice. God's decree may thus be all-inclusive without being all-determinative. Does this mean that God is less that sovereign? Has the initiative been taken out of God's hand? Is God limited, determined, finite, dependent? Not in the least. God's freedom to decree whatever he pleases is proof of his absolute sovereignty. If the decree includes the free will of man, or even a self-limitation for God himself, God is still sovereign, because he is free to decree what he pleases. God is free to determine man's will if he so chooses, but if he decrees to suspend his determinative power with respect to the free acts of men, it is because he sovereignly chose to do so. God is absolutely sovereign in all that he does.

    Contrary to the charge made against the Arminian position, then, we may affirm that all things do happen in accord with God's counsel, though we do not affirm that all things are exclusively determined by God. Still, nothing is independent of God's plan. Neither man's freedom nor the resulting free acts are independent of God, because this is the very state of affairs which God decreed.


    We have affirmed that the will of man is free, and that this very freedom is a part of God's all-inclusive, sovereign decree. The next point to be considered is God's control over his creation. The assertion is made against Arminianism that if such ultimate freedom is attributed to the human mind, then here is something that God does not control. God's control is incomplete; the will of man assumes a position of autonomy and independence over against God, and God is helpless in the face of it.

    The question with which the Arminian is faced, then, is this: how can God have control over a free-willed creature if God himself does not actually determine the choices made by that will? And if God does not have absolute control, how can he be sovereign? These questions may be answered by a careful consideration of two separate points, absolute creation and the sovereign decree of self-limitation.

    The first and most important point is that God is the absolute creator of all things without exception. Man is a creature, and his freedom is created. As a part of God's creation, man is under the absolute control of God. God has not created a Frankenstein. The Calvinist's picture of the Arminian's free-willed man is greatly overdrawn; it is usually a grotesque caricature. As it was mentioned earlier, such a free-willed being is said to have original powers next to God, to have ultimate powers correlative with God, to have autonomy over against God, to be self-sufficient just as God is self-sufficient, and to be independent of God's control. But these things would be true only if man were not a created being. Nothing can be correlative with God except that which is not created by God. Is man self-sufficient and independent of God? Only if he is uncreated, which he is not. Does man have autonomy over against God's plan? Only if he is uncreated, which he is not. Man's autonomy is a created autonomy that lies within God's plan, not over against it. Does the measure of ultimacy in the will of man make man correlative with God? Only if man is uncreated, which he is not. God the creator is still Lord of his creation.

    God controls all things, then, in the sense that he is the creator and sustainer of all. But what of the will of man? How can God be said to control it if he does not determine its choices? The answer is that God does not control the will in the sense of determining what choices the will shall make. God controls the external circumstances of a man through his divine providence and he works within the heart through the Holy Spirit, but not to the point that man is left without choice. God works even to the point of opening or hardening the heart, yet without turning the will itself to one side or the other and always within the frame work of His foreknowledge. God controls the very life of a man, so that he can prevent any course of action a man chooses by altering the external circumstances or even by striking him dead. This last thought, that God may strike a man dead as a means of exercising control over him, suggests the fact that God's control over the will is frequently a negative one. God may prevent man from making certain choices by withdrawing life from him before he has been confronted with the necessity of choosing. But God does not control man's will in the sense that he necessitates all choices to be made. He can prevent certain choices, but He does not make particular choices for the individual. For instance, God can through various means prevent a young man from choosing to enter Seminary, but He does not actively force a man to enter a seminary. He may exert influence through the Holy Spirit, through providence, through an actual opening of a man's heart; but the will is still in the power of man.

    I have affirmed that God has absolute control over all things because he has created all things. In this sense God has control over the total situation. On the other hand, I have said that there is a sense in which God does not control the will of man, that is, in a determinative sense. The picture is somewhat like a man holding a bucket with a bug in it. The bug is free to move where he chooses inside the bucket, but the man has complete control of the bucket.

    Still someone will say that God has been limited by such an arrangement. If the will is free, is not God confronted with that which he cannot control? The answer is no; he is confronted with that which he will not control. There is a tremendous difference between "cannot" and "will not." And in saying that God will not determine man's will, we come to the second point in this section, the notion of God's sovereign decree of self-limitation. The idea of self-limitation means that God has created man with the ability to make his own choices and has sovereignly decreed to suspend his own control in the realm of man's will. If God is limited, it is only through a sovereign act of self-limitation, a self-imposed suspension of his control at this particular point. Man does not limit God; God limits himself. The self-limitation is itself a sovereign and free choice on the part of God; he was not forced in any way to limit his control. The fact that he freely chose to so limit himself shows that he is sovereign, that he does have control over the entire situation. Thus it is not that God cannot control man's will; in this case God would not be sovereign. It is the case rather that God freely chooses not to control man's will, and thus maintains his absolute sovereignty. It must also be remembered that this sovereignly self-imposed suspension will one day be lifted when God sits as sovereign judge over all.

    What has been said here amounts to this, that the measure of God's sovereignty is not what God has decreed or what God has created, but God's absolute freedom to decree and create what he pleases. God created man with free will because he was pleased to do so; God limited his control over this freed will because it it pleased him to do so. In this case or in any other case God is no less than absolutely sovereign.


    The final point to be considered in this paper is the relation of free will to God's knowledge. The charge is that the doctrine of free will necessarily means that there is indeterminacy, contingency, possibility, chance, mystery, brute fact, or surprise for God. God's knowledge is said to be made dependent upon man; and if God is dependent upon man in any way, he cannot be sovereign.

    This question may be posed immediately, then: does free will make God's knowledge dependent upon man? The Calvinist answers yes. The reason is that the Calvinist makes God's knowledge dependent upon his decree or determination of all things. Dr. Van Til says that all reality is exhaustively determined by the will of God and "therefore exhaustively known by the mind of God."45 He stresses the idea that "God controls and therefore knows all things."46 Again, "it is on the basis of his own decree with respect to the world that God has full knowledge of the world."'47 Berkhof says that the problem of God's foreknowledge is solved by the consideration that God has decreed all things along with their causes and conditions in the exact order in which they come to pass; thus God's foreknowledge of future things and of contingent events rests on his decree.48 God's foreknowledge is "based on His foreordination."49 Since foreknowledge is made to be dependent on God's foredetermination, it is no wonder that the Calvinist says that if God does not determine the will, then he can not know what the will of man will choose until the choice is made. Berkhof says, "We can understand how God can foreknow where necessity rules, but find it difficult to conceive of a previous knowledge of actions which man freely originates."50 He says that "it would seem to be impossible to foreknow events which are entirely dependent on the chance decision of an unprincipled will, which can at any time, irrespective of the state of the soul, of existing conditions, and of the motives that present themselves to the mind, turn in different directions. Such events can only be foreknown as bare possibilities."51 This gross overstatement along with the other statements cited above are sufficient to show that for the Calvinist, God's foredetermination is not only a sufficient but also the necessary cause of God's foreknowledge.

    Two things may be said in reply to this. In the first place, if God's knowledge is based on his decree, then on the position taken in this paper God's knowledge is still complete because the decree is taken to be all-inclusive. Of course the Calvinist would insist that the decree must be a decree in the sense of foredetermination before God could know the results. A decree that is just all-inclusive is not enough. I affirm, however, that it is enough. In the second place, even if God's knowledge of all things is not based on his determinative decree, God still knows all things simply because he is omniscient. By suggesting that God could not know unless he determines, it is the Calvinist who limits God's knowledge, not the Arminian. Such a view of omniscience is patterned too closely after man's powers to know. God's power to know, however is unlimited. His omniscience includes the power to foresee even the free acts of men.

    Neither is this knowledge dependent upon man in any way. In order to be called dependent, the knowledge would truly have to be post-eventum knowledge. But it is not. God knows the free acts of men even before the world is created, while the universe exists only as an idea or plan in the mind of God. How can anyone then say that God's knowledge depends on anything, if it is complete in his own mind before anything else exists? God's knowledge is then completely independent and absolutely all-inclusive. The free will of man does not alter this one bit. God is still no less than absolutely sovereign.


    The question under consideration in this paper has been whether the doctrine of free will makes God anything less than absolutely sovereign. Against the Calvinist charge that it does, I have sought to show that it does not. The fact that the decree of God is all inclusive, including both man's freedom and his free acts, is enough to maintain the sovereignty of God with respect to his decree. The fact that God's control is absolute in the sense that he is the creator of all, and that the limitation with respect to man's will is self imposed also shows that God is sovereign. That God's knowledge of man's free acts is both complete and independent also means that God is sovereign.

    The purpose of this paper has not been to prove that man has free will and that God is sovereign. The purpose has been to show that free will and sovereignty are not incompatible, as the critics of the doctrine of free will seem to suggest. Effort has been made to show that free will does not in an a priori fashion preclude the absolute sovereignty of God. Such a discussion is necessarily limited, and the conclusions reached are by no means the final word. The final answer must come from the revealed Scriptures. Only there may we learn whether man actually does have free will, and whether God actually is the Sovereign Lord.

1Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences (CTE), class syllabus 1961, p. 36.
2Van Til, Apologetics (AP.), class syllabus, 1959, p. 91.
3Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (ST), class syllabus, 1961, p. 187.
4CTE, p. 36.
5ST, p. 16.
6ST, p. 160.
7ST, p. 183
8AP, pp. 89, 91.
9Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (CTK), class syllabus, 1957, p.2.
10L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, n.d.), p.68.
11AP, p. 70.
12AP, p. 89.
13Berkhof, p. 68.
14CTE, p. 36.
15ST, p. 160; AP, p.21.
16AP, p. 91.
18CTK, p. 2.
19CTE, p. 55.
20AP, p. 11.
21ST, p.175
22CTK, p. 1.
23AP, p. 12
24ST, pp. 180,183
25ST, p. 236.
26Berkhof, p. 107.
27ST, p. 107.
28ST, p. 235.
29Ibid., p. 67.
30CTE, pp. 55, 58, 59, 60.
31ST, p 175.
32CTE, p. 58.
33ST, p. 175.
34AP, p. 11
36Berkhof, p. 100.
38Berkhof, p. 103.
39Berkhof, p. 106.
40Berkhof, p. 79.
41Berkhof, p. 103.
42Berkhof, p. 104.
43Berkhof, p. 105.
44Berkhof, p. 108.
45ST, p.180.
46ST, p.183.
47ST, p.236.
48Berkhof, pp. 67-8.
49Berkhof, p. 107.
50Berkhof, p. 67.
51Berkhof, p. 107.

Scanned: Michael Riggs
Corrected: Daniel Dyke