Can God foreordain/predestine a person's choices and they still be free?

by Matt Slick
6/16/2017
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God is omniscient and omnipotent, and in His infinite wisdom, He can foreordain (predestine) a person's choices, and yet those choices are also still free.  But, before I try to show this is true, I first need to define terms.

  • Free Will - the ability to make uncoerced choices that are consistent with one's nature.
    • God has free will and he is the standard by which true freedom ought to be defined. God cannot freely choose to sin, but yet God has the greatest freedom.
    • Free will is of two main viewpoints: compatibilist and libertarian.
      • Compatibilist Free Will is the position that human free will and God's sovereign providence are compatible with each other and that a person's free will choices are truly his.
      • Libertarian Free Will is the position that man's free will is not restricted and incapacitated by his sinful nature, so that he is not enslaved by sin so that he only chooses sinful things, and that he can freely choose to accept or reject God despite his enslavement to sin.
  • Foreordaine/predestined - Predestination is God's work where he wills and brings about an event or events among people and circumstances.
    • "Activity of God by which he establishes events and outcomes before they occur. In common usage, “foreordination” and the term “predestination” are synonymous." (Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.)
    • "(Gr. proorizein, Lat. praedestinare, “to predestine, to foreordain”) God’s ordaining or predestining what will happen in history and in relation to human salvation (Acts 4: 28; Rom. 8: 29– 30; Eph. 1: 5, 11)." (McKim, Donald K.. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 5561-5563). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.)

God knows our future choices

Given a libertarian viewpoint (which I do not affirm), if God knows all things (1 John 3:20) and knows what free will choice we are going to make, then by definition the choice is still free since it is called a "free will choice."  That is easy.  However, some people say that if God knows what we are going to choose, then we are not free to choose something different when it's time to make that choice. But, that is bad reasoning.  For God to know what we are going to freely choose at a particular point in time does not negate our ability to freely make that choice at that point in time.  After all, that is what we are freely choosing.  He just knows what we are going to decide to do at that time.  In this sense, we are the one choosing one thing over another and restricting our choices, not God.  So, that isn't a problem either.

However, can God cause a person to freely choose to do what he wants him to do?  Yes, he can.  One way is to arrange circumstances that will result in a person freely making a choice that God wants him to make. By analogy, I can cause my child to freely choose to eat ice cream and not dirty socks by placing both in front of her when she is hungry. I know exactly what she will freely choose to eat.  By my bringing the condition to bear, I've caused her to freely choose one over the other.  No problem there either.

God is sovereign over human free will

But the fact is, God is sovereign even over human free will choices. Please consider the following Scriptures.

  • Proverbs 16:1, "The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD."
  • Prov. 21:1, "The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes."
  • Ezra 6:22, "And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel."
  • Jer. 32:40, "And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me."
  • Acts 16:14, "And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."
  • Rev. 17:17, "For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled."

Though I could comment on each verse, let me focus on Acts 16:14.  It says, "And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."  Notice, that God opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying.  Did you get that?  God opened her heart to respond. She freely chose to respond because God opened her heart to do so.  God's work upon her heart directly affected her and she freely chose. God knew exactly what the outcome would be. He does not guess.  Therefore, God caused her to freely receive the things Paul was teaching by opening up her heart. This one verse alone should be enough to prove the case that God can ordain people's choices and are still free

Did Jesus have free will in relation to the Father's predestination?

What about Jesus?  Did he have free will given what God the Father wanted him to do and had ordained for him to do?  Of course, he did.  In fact, when we look at what Jesus said, we find some very interesting things that relate to this topic.

  • John 5:19, "Jesus therefore answered and was saying to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner."
  • John 5:30, "I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me."
  • John 8:29, "And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him."
  • John 12:49, "For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak."
  • John 14:10, "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works."

Jesus stated that he could do nothing unless he saw the Father doing it (John 5:19), that he did nothing of his own initiative (John 5:30), that he always did what was pleasing to the Father (John 8:29), and that the very words he spoke were not of his own initiative (John 12:49; 14:10). Obviously, he was only doing what God the Father determined that he would do (Eph. 1:11). Yet, Jesus was free. This is a perfect example of compatiblist free will where Jesus' free will was in accordance with the predetermined plan of God the Father.  That is why Jesus could do nothing of himself, yet he was free.  This is compatiblism.

Sometimes, when I bring up things like this to Molinists, I am met with the response that we must define free will in terms of people, not God/Jesus, since the topic at hand is human freedom. But, I respond by saying that Jesus is human.  Also, to use man as the standard of what free will is, is to philosophically adopt secularism. It is to deny the centrality and perfection of God's character and nature and to abandon God as the standard of truth in order to uphold a philosophical position that exalts human freedom. If we cannot include God in our definition of free will, then we are not God-centered.  That is wrong. (for a deeper look into this topic please see the article Do Jesus own words prove compatiblist free will?

Outline Approach

Following is another approach to this issue where I try and show that God can ordain a person's free will choices and they are still free. I've arranged things in outline form so that, hopefully, a logical progression can be made and a conclusion drawn. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not I've made my case in this outline.

  1. Nothing can happen by chance because God works all things in accordance to his will, Eph. 1:11; Prov. 16:33; Daniel 4:35.
    1. Verses
      1. Ephesians 1:11, "also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will."
      2. Proverbs 16:33, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD."
      3. Dan. 4:35, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing. But He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth. And no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'"
    2. All things that God works after the council of his will (Eph. 1:11) includes man's free choices, their sinful acts, and all events that are past, present, and future - otherwise, it is not "all things." This means that God foreordains/predestines whatever occurs whether it be calamity (Isaiah 45:7), well-being (Isaiah 45:7), sin (Gen. 50:20; Acts 4:27-28), or salvation (Rom. 8:29-30).
      1. This does not mean that God causes people to sin.  They are responsible for their own sin. This is demonstrated by the following Scriptures.
        1. Acts 4:27–28, "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur."   Yet, they are the ones responsible:  Acts 2:23, "this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death."
        2. 2 Samuel 24:1, 10, "Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah,".... 10, " Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”"
    3. Peoples' sins cannot occur unless they have been foreordained by God to occur, since they cannot be outside the knowledge and sovereign will of God. He does not sit around unsure of the future nor wondering about what free will choices a person might make - Open Theism denounced!
      1. Again, when we say "foreordain" we are not saying that God is necessarily directly causing something (though sometimes He does), but that in his sovereignty of all knowledge and circumstances, He brings about what He desires, even as he uses sinful events to bring about his sovereign will (Psalm 135:6; Isaiah 46:10).
        1. Verses:
          1. Psalm 135:6, "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps."
          2. Isaiah 46:10, "Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, "My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure."
        2. In theology we sometimes categorize different kinds of wills when speaking of God.
          1. God's Decretive will - God directly causes an event to occur by the direct action of his will.
          2. God's Prescriptive will - God reveals to us the moral standard that is consistent with his moral will.
          3. God's Permissive will - God wills to allow people to act in a manner contrary to his prescriptive will.
          4. Take for example Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers.  The sinful act of his brothers was said that it was God who sent Joseph before them to preserve their lives in the coming famine.
            1. "Joseph’s brothers were wrongly jealous of him (Gen. 37: 11), hated him (Gen. 37: 4, 5, 8), wanted to kill him (Gen. 37: 20), and did wrong when they cast him into a pit (Gen. 37: 24) and then sold him into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37: 28). Yet later Joseph could say to his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45: 5), and “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)."1
        3. Note:  We do not know how God can predestine sinful actions and also not be the direct cause of them.  He does not reveal his methodology, knowledge, or work regarding this.  But, as we can see from the above Scriptures, this is what God is doing.  So, at this we must submit and realize that there are things that are beyond us.
  2. Whatever God foreordains to occur (including peoples' free will choices), will come to pass. Otherwise, God would fail to be sovereign and he would fail to execute his sovereign plan, which is impossible (Psalm 115:3; Dan. 4:35).
    1. Verses
      1. Psalm 115:3, "But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases."
      2. Isaiah 46:10, "Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;"
      3. Daniel 4:35, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’"
        1. In Daniel 4:35 we see that God does whatever he wants among people.
    2. Consider prophecy
      1. If God promises something, he will bring it to fruition.  His prophetic assurance includes the free acts of all people so that his prophecies will never fail.
      2. Does God merely know what they will do and reacts to that knowledge?  No.  He has his plans that he carries out
        1. Daniel 4:35, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’"
        2. Psalm 115:3, "But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases."
        3. Psalm 135:6, "Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps."
  3. The free will choices of all people are events that are certain to occur because God has foreordained them to occur after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11; Daniel 4:35)
    1. If a different free will choice were to have occurred, then that is what God would have foreordained.
      1. Verses
        1. Ephesians 1:11, "also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will."
        2. Daniel 4:35, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’"
  4. But, since different free will choices do not occur, they are chosen by God not to occur.
    1. Isaiah 46:10, "Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure."
  5. Therefore, all creaturely free will choices (which are necessarily not coerced) are certain to occur because God has foreordained them to occur according to his sovereign will.
    1. Isaiah 46:10, "Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure."
    2. Psalm 135:6, "Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps."
    3. Daniel 4:35, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’"
  6. Therefore, human free will and God's sovereign ordination are compatible.

 

 

 

  • 1. Grudem, Wayne A.; Grudem, Wayne A.. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Making Sense of Series) (p. 323). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 
 

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.