Calvinists are some of the best in class at affirming free will. Granted, things went awry around 1800. But I mean before that. Everyone affirmed free will and free choice. Even Luther in his characteristically bombastic way denied free choice when it comes to matters of salvation, not free choice in civil, moral, mundane matters.
But I am thinking more of the mainline reformed tradition. For example, Peter Vermigli (1499–1562) wrote, ““God foreknows everything and our freedom of will is retained” (Common Places 2.33).” Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) in his 1562 Helvetic Confession wrote, “no one denies that in external things both the regenerate and the unregenerate enjoy free will” (Ch 9).
No one denies that. That’s right. Only the most cage-staged Calvinist in his college dorm room would be silly enough to proclaim, “There is no free will!”
Everyone agrees that natural necessities limit freedom: disease, death, and so on. And after the Fall, we cannot please God with our works since sin is everywhere. “And without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6). So we are not free to do whatever we want—I cannot fly even if I choose to do so.
But we still have genuine freedom: I can choose red or blue or white or green. I can do one thing, but I might have done otherwise. I am not constrained by any external thing but my mind judges and my will chooses.
A Calvinist affirms all this. Yes, some like to nuance things in various ways. Calvin himself was not very clear on how to put the pieces together (click here to learn more). His contemporary Peter Vermigli was though. I wrote an article on him and free choice, which you can read by clicking here.
Later reformed theologians like William Perkins really found the language to speak about human freedom and divine freedom concurring. (To learn more about Perkins’s view, click here). And it is this idea of concurrence that makes Calvinists—or better Reformed Theologians—thinkers really skilled at affirming free will.
Here is how.
1. They Affirm God’s Unique Nature
First, God created everything. And he is the First of everything, prior to and superior to all. Sometimes people have spoken of God as the First Cause. “In the beginning, God created heaven and the earth.” He is the first Agent or Actor in reality’s story.
But uncreated as God is, he differs from everything created. He does not experience change like we do. So time does not measure his growth. For us, time measures change—the rotation of the earth or our body’s age, etc. We also see things one-at-a-time. God sees all things as eternally present to him. He is outside of the order of time and change.
No time. No change. For him, the past, present, and future are before him. He does not get better or worse.
This means God does not ordain, cause, or otherwise affect events like we might. He does do something at time X and time Y. He does not act in the physical universe like a cue hitting billiard balls. He is outside entirely that order of things when it comes to causation.
There is mystery here. But God does not tip the first domino. He does not act in 1987 and 1992 in discrete ways. If all things are present to him, he at every moment supports every act; the past and future are the same before him. We experience sequence and change. God reveals himself according to our capacity.
And yet for God, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Ps 90:4).
2. They Affirm God’s Non-Contradictory Causation
Due to God’s unique nature, human causes and divine causes cannot compete with each other. We cause things in sequence, in time. We tip the first domino. It falls. Then the next. We press our finger physically against the domino. We affect things in time and physically.
But God is Spirit (John 4:24). Divine causality exists in a way totally beyond our grasp. At every moment, God “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). Paul says of Christ: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). In Christ, “all things hold together.” Elsewhere Paul explains, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
These kinds of statements paint a picture of God or Christ continually holding all things together in Himself. Our life and being and activity are in him. Put into theological language, the way in which God is First Cause to the created order is by at all moments supporting the power of existence, of being, of all things.
Imagine the floor of a kitchen. Everything sits on top of it: the table, the chairs, the fridge. The floor at all times enables the objects to stand there. That’s a bit like God being the First Cause. It’s not that he pushes the domino to make a thing happen. It’s not that he has to wait for something to happen. Remember: before him, everything is eternally present.
One could just as well argue that free choice seems limited because God knows the past and not just the future! The First Cause means in some eternal way, God actualizes the potency (power) of all being, so that creatures can make free and contingent choices.
Certainly, God can and does intercede in more immediate ways. As Bullinger explains in the Second Helvetic Confession, “However, even here God’s power is always to be observed, for it was the cause that Balaam could not go as far as he wanted (Num., ch. 24), and Zacharias upon returning from the temple could not speak as he wanted (Luke, ch. 1).”
In the regular experience of life, God’s universal mode of causation exists at a level different than we think of or could cause. In us, not everything is held together by the word of power—nor do we live, move, and have our own being in each other. That’s for Christ or God alone.
Such a way of causing—as effect participating in the cause—makes it human and divine causality non-competitive. God does not will in time nor in place nor in sequence nor in the physical world as we might. He is invisible, eternal, immortal. His act is outside of the order of being in which we are. We exist only in him or by his word of power.
Were I to think of God physically ordering a sequence of causes, I’d have to be a determinist. And I think that’s what many today unintentionally do. They think of divine causes like a billiard cue hitting a ball into a pocket; or a domino push that makes the others in sequence fall.
Rather, God always actualizes the power of freedom, so that we can choose this way or that way. His cause—in a way literally impossible for us to understand due to our finititue and God’s infinitude—enables our freedom.
God’s foreknowledge is basically the same as his predestination since he sees all things as an eternal present. All things come to pass as he has decreed, yet all things before him are enabled to freely, contingently, without coercion, or external necessity choose one thing or that thing—free choice is not determined to one end. We have the power of free choice which itself is actualized by the faculty of the will, which God at all times holds together by the power of his Word.
More could be said. Yes, sin obliterates our freedom to please God (Heb 11:6). But grace restores that freedom. Yes, the answer above ultimately involves mystery since the dynamic between God’s causation and ours is literally inscrutable. But I like mystery. So does the Bible: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deut 29:29).
“…all things before him are enabled to freely, contingently, without coercion, or external necessity choose one thing or that thing”
Does this include the act of believing the gospel or rejecting it?
Since this is always THE issue when discussing free will.