What is compatibilism and is it biblical?

Compatibilism is the position that human free will is compatible with God's absolute divine sovereignty. We are free in so far as our nature permits us to be free and that our free will choices are consistent and work within God's sovereign decrees and predestination. Theologians and philosophers sometimes debate about how compatibilism is possible. Generally speaking, people claim that for a person to be morally responsible, he must be able to act freely. If his choices are determined, then how can he be morally responsible? Those who hold to libertarian free will seek to answer the question by saying that unbelievers act in a manner consistent with their nature and that their choices are truly free but not determined in any way by God. Compatibilists, on the other hand, would say that human free will choices are consistent with the sovereign providence of God.

"The term indicates that absolute divine sovereignty is compatible with human significance and real human choices." (Grudem, Wayne A.; Grudem, Wayne A.. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Making Sense of Series, p. 1238)

Compatibilism not only states that that human free will and God's sovereign providence are compatible with each other, but it also states that people act in according to their natures and desires. Their desires are consistent with their fallen, immoral nature. Since people are fallen, they act in a manner consistent with their fallenness. Therefore, unbelievers will never freely choose to receive Christ. This is because they are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:14-20), are full of evil (Mark 7:21-22), cannot accept spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), do not seek for God and can do no good (Rom. 3:10-12).  Therefore, God must intervene for anyone to be saved.

Nevertheless, the debate continues because some will say that if unbelievers can do nothing but evil because they are restricted by their fallen nature to do so, then how they morally responsible? They object and say that for a person to be morally responsible, he must be able to choose between good and bad. But if it is true that a person's fallen nature does not allow him to choose between good and bad, then libertarians argue that they cannot be held morally responsible.

But to this, I would say that our fallenness is due to the free will rebellion of Adam. He represented us, and when he fell, we fell with him (Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22). This is called Original Sin.  In addition, his representative position is called Federal Headship which is the teaching that the male represents the descendants. In this case, Adam represented us. So, when he fell, because we were "in Adam," we fell also. We inherited a sinful nature. If people object to this, they must be consistent and reject the representation of us by the last Adam; namely, Jesus.

1 Corinthians 15:45, "So also it is written, 'The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.' The last Adam became a life-giving spirit."  

Jesus is called the last Adam. This designates his position as our federal head, just as the first Adam was our federal head. So, when Adam fell, we inherited his sinful nature. Our fallenness does not excuse us because the standard of moral righteousness is God, not man. God is the standard of what is right and wrong. Therefore, we are obligated to do what is right whether or not we can do what is right.  1 Peter 1:16 says we are obligated to be holy because God is holy. God does not lower his standard for us. He does not compromise his own holiness. Therefore, we are held responsible even in our fallenness.

Jesus and Compatibilism

Jesus had free will but he always did the will of the Father - which was settled/predestined to occur from the foundation of the world. This supports compatibilism (that man’s free will and God’s sovereign predestination are compatible). Jesus said he did nothing of his own initiative (John 5:19; 30; 8:28). So, He did not come from heaven to do His own will, but the will of the Father (John 6:38). Yet, Jesus had free will which was in accord with the sovereign desires and predestination of God the Father.  This is exactly what compatibility is.

  1. 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.’"
  2. 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."
  3. John 8:28, "Jesus therefore said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.’"
  4. 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."
  5. John 6:38-40, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

God ordains sinful events for which people are responsible

Furthermore, Scriptures support compatibilism in that they tell us that God ordains sinful events to occur, yet those who commit those sins, are still morally responsible. Please consider the following Scriptures.

  • 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."
  • 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."

We see here that God predestined, but not caused, people to do sinful things (Acts 4:27-28). Yet, they were the ones held responsible (Acts 2:23). The reason that they are held responsible for their sin is because they freely chose to do what they did. God did not force them to crucify Christ, even though they were predestined to do so.

Also, please consider the following verses regarding how David numbered Israel.

  • 2 Samuel 24:1, "Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”"
  • 2 Samuel 24:10, "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.”"
  • 1 Chronicles 21:1, "Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel."

So, we see that in 2 Sam 24:1, God incited David to number Israel and Judah. Yet, in 2 Sam. 24:10 David admitted that he sinned in doing this and God sent punishment on the land for David's sin (2 Sam. 24:12-17). But, it was also Satan who incited David to number Israel in (1 Chron. 21:1). There were three influences on David's heart: God, David, and the devil.  Yet, David is responsible for what he did because he freely chose to do it even though the anger of the Lord incited David to sin. 

At this point, people may object to the idea that God can predestine people to do certain events, even bad ones, and they still are held morally responsible. They can object all they want and deny Scripture. But this is what the Bible says.  How is this possible? I don't know, and I have no problem admitting that I do not know. I cannot fathom the depth of God's wisdom, omniscience, and power. His ways are above my ways, and so I submit to the revelation of Scripture and affirm the compatibilist view of human free will in light of it.


Compatibilism is biblical because we see the free will actions of people who do bad things, yet they were predestined by God to do them, and they are still held responsible by God for their actions. Our inability to understand exactly how this is possible does not negate the truth of God's word which teaches exactly what libertarians object to. The Bible says what it says, and as Christians, we need to submit to it.  That is why I hold to compatibilism.


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About The Author

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