Christians tend to be debaters when it comes to questions pertaining to orthodox theology. One theology debate taking place pertains to the concepts of predestination and free will. The concept of free will is emotionally appealing, while the concept of predestination isn’t. However, orthodox theology isn’t supposed to be based on what is emotionally appealing. Orthodox theology is supposed to be based on what the Bible says. A case in favor of either predestination or free will has to have strong biblical support. So what does the Bible say about the concepts of predestination and free will?
The first concept to be examined is predestination.
Jesus made a few statements that seem to support the predestination position. The first statement is found in John 6:44, in which Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
The second statement is one that Jesus makes in John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”
The third statement by Jesus is John 6:65: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
The fourth statement is what Jesus says in John 17:6: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”
Christ’s words indicate that if a person becomes a Christian, it is because God drew that person to Jesus. God the Father gave that person to Jesus. God the Father made the first move.
The Apostle Paul directly introduces the doctrine of predestination. Here is what Paul says in Romans 8:29-30:
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Then there is what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 9:14-24:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
The Apostle Paul mentions God choosing which Jews would obtain salvation. In Romans 11:5 Paul states, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”
The Apostle Paul makes reference to the time when God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. In Exodus 4:21 God tells Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” In this verse God says that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. If such a thing isn’t the manipulation of a person’s will, then what is?
Now does God predestine everything? Does He control people as if they are robots? No. People do have a limited ability to make choices. In Joshua 24:15 Joshua tells the Israelites, “If it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve. . .”
Yes, people have the ability to make choices, but their choices are limited by their spiritual condition. In Romans 6:17-18 Paul writes, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
A slave doesn’t have unlimited free will. The slave’s master limits a slave’s choices. An unsaved person seeks to fulfill the desires of the flesh because the flesh is the master. Some people would say that Satan is the master. In Romans 8: 7-8 the Apostle Paul writes, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
These Bible verses indicate that God has to initiate a change in a person in order for that person to desire salvation through faith in Jesus. Romans 9:10-24 indicates that God can decide who will be drawn to Jesus and who won’t be.
Now the case for free will shall be examined.
Proponents of free will often cite what the Apostle Peter said in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
How is Peter’s statement to be interpreted? Taken by itself, Peter’s statement appears to support free will because Peter says “all”. However, when Peter says “all”, he could be referring to the “fullness of the Gentiles” that Paul mentions in Romans 11:25.
What about John 3:16? Does this verse support the free will concept? After all, the verse says that God loves the World. However, people might be giving this verse an ethnocentric interpretation. When Jesus walked on the Earth, the Jews believed that God’s love and mercy were reserved exclusively for them. The Jews abhorred the idea that God might be merciful toward Gentiles. The Jews in Nazareth demonstrated this fact by the way they reacted to Jesus when He preached in His hometown synagogue. Luke 4:22-29 says the following:
“And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph's son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.”
Jesus’ sermon was going well until He mentioned that God had previously shown mercy to a couple of Gentiles. At that point the Jews were filled with the desire to kill Him.
In short, when Jesus said that God loved the World, Jesus was saying that God’s love was for Gentiles as well as for Jews. He wasn’t preaching the free will concept.
What about Revelation 3:20? Does this verse support the free will concept? Here is what Jesus says in this verse: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Jesus says, “If any one hears my voice . . .” Can a spiritually deaf person hear the voice of Jesus? In Romans 11:7-8 the Apostle Paul writes, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.’” Spiritual deafness has to be eliminated in order for a person to hear the voice of Jesus. Do spiritually dead people have the ability to eliminate their own spiritual deafness? The Bible doesn’t say that they can.
Sometimes someone will claim that a certain Bible verse implicitly supports free will. Yet, upon examination the verse has nothing to do with free will. For example, it has been claimed that Mankind has free will because Mankind is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and God has free will. This deductive argument is non sequitur. If we were to take this argument to its logical conclusion, then we would have to say that Mankind has all of God’s attributes, such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and complete sovereignty. Does Mankind have all of God’s attributes? No, Mankind doesn’t.
Sometimes people will claim that the only way that God will be glorified is if people are free to choose whether they will have a relationship with God. People claim that predestination can’t glorify God. What Bible verses support such claims? How do we know what will glorify God? Do we think the same way that God thinks? No, we don’t. In Isaiah 55:8-9 God says the following:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Does God ever do things that appear to us to not glorify Him? Yes, He does. In Exodus 4:11 God tells Moses, “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” Now how does God bring glory to Himself by making people blind, deaf and mute? How does God bring glory to Himself by giving people “a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear (Romans 11:8)”? The human mind doesn’t understand how, but God understands.
God has the ability and authority to do things that will glorify Him, even if we don’t understand how those things will glorify God. He doesn’t need our understanding before He can do such things.
Regarding predestination, if it glorifies God, then it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand how it does. If predestination glorifies God, then it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t appeal to our flesh. Nothing requires God to do things that appeal to our flesh.
In summary, a biblical case can be made for the concept of predestination. Several Bible verses explicitly support the concept. Granted, predestination doesn’t appeal to the flesh, but the ways of God don’t have to appeal to the flesh.
Regarding free will, perhaps a case can be made for it. However, a case for free will can’t be based on emotional appeal; it can’t be based on what tickles the ears. It has to be based on Bible verses that explicitly support the concept of free will. The verses shouldn’t be ambiguous, allowing for more than one interpretation. If deductive arguments are made, then the arguments must have premises that are true. Furthermore, a case for free will needs to explain the Bible verses which support the concept of predestination.
It does not help for supporters of the free-will doctrine to create a false dichotomy, one which says that God must give people either unlimited free will or absolutely no free will. Such a false dichotomy wrongfully rules out God’s ability to give people limited free will. If God is sovereign and omnipotent, then He has the ability and authority to give people limited free will if He chooses to do so. It would be a mistake to claim that mere sinners are capable of knowing every choice that God makes or will make, because such a claim would contradict what God says in Isaiah 55:8-9.
Regardless of which concept that one supports, either predestination or free will, one needs to remember the warning that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 13:2: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
[All Scripture quotes are taken from the ESV Bible.]