The Righteousness of God in the Sovereignty of God: An Analysis of The Grace of God and the Will of Man

Clark Pinnock, general editor (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 318 pp.

The Grace of God and the Will of Man, a recent work edited by Clark Pinnock, Professor of Theology at McMaster Divinity College, is aimed at addressing two of the most important questions in life: What is God like and how does He relate to His creation? These two questions are really one because the way that God relates to His creation is a reflection of what He is like–and, therefore, the kind of being that God is determines how He relates to His creation. This is the profound truth that Moses taught us when He prayed so passionately to God thousands of years ago, "Let me know Thy ways that I may know Thee" (Exodus 33:13). By understanding the ways of God, we will understand the nature of God because the ways of God reflect the nature of God.

 

The Purpose of the Book

So what is God like and how does He relate to us? Pinnock states this question in terms which bring out, as he sees it, the fundamental contrast between the view argued for in this work (Armianism) and the view that is contested in this work (Calvinism): "Is God the absolute Monarch who [therefore] always gets his way, or is God rather the loving Parent who [therefore] is sensitive to our needs even when we disappoint him and frustrate some of his plans?" (p. ix. Unless otherwise indicated, all page numbers are from The Grace of God and the Will of Man).

In other words, is it God’s nature to be absolutely sovereign, and therefore are His ways to see to it that He always accomplishes His will–as Calvinism maintains? Or is it God’s nature to be personal, and therefore to allow His will to be frustrated for the sake of maintaining a genuine relationship with His creatures–as Arminianism maintains? There is no possibility of seeing God as both absolutely sovereign and genuinely personal, in the view of this book, because they authors believe that one rules out the other.

The purpose of this volume is to argue that Arminianism is fundamentally correct— namely, that God is personal, after the pattern of a gentle parent, and therefore He gives His creatures the power of ultimate self-determination so that His plans can be shaped and even frustrated by them. As Pinnock writes in the introduction, "God is a personal being who respects the integrity of the significantly free creatures he made and who relates dynamically with them in the working out of his purposes for the world" (p. x). This means that God not only acts, but reacts. He does not only influence creation, but is also influenced by creation. And, because of this, His will is not always accomplished, but what happens is to a large extent the result of the autonomous decisions of His creatures. God is "flexible enough to adapt [His plans for history] to the decisions that human beings make" (p. x.10).

The reason that Pinnock is so zealous to establish this objective is that Calvinism causes "tremendous intellectual and practical difficulties" (p. xi.3) because of its affirmation of God’s absolute sovereignty[1] and consequent denial that humans have the power of ultimate self-determination. Calvinism is an "exceedingly harmful" (p. xi.2) system of theology, according to Pinnock, and therefore the church must be presented with a forceful case for a more satisfying alternative. As Pinnock says, "we think it is very important that people be made aware of an alternative theology" (p. xi.3).

This analysis of Pinnock’s work will fall into three parts. First, we will seek to grasp the overall framework of The Grace of God and the Will of Man. This means getting a feel for the main thrust of each chapter and the way that each of them works towards the establishment of the objective for the book. Second, we will investigate in greater detail the two pillar arguments presented for the Arminian view of God: God’s righteousness and God’s personality. Third, we will evaluate the success of these two main arguments and whether the objective of the book really succeeds in maintaining the righteousness and personality of God.

 

The Flow of Argument Within the Book

A very striking feature of this book is its willingness to set forth several different, and often contradictory, conceptions of Arminian theology. For example, of the three chapters that aim to present an alternative to the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty, two of the chapters (five and seven) affirm God’s foreknowledge, while chapter six denies it! This shows that Pinnock’s objective is not to establish in the reader’s mind any particular form of Arminianism; rather, it is mainly to establish in the reader’s mind the basic principles of Armianism which oppose Calvinism.

In the introduction, Pinnock categorizes the fifteen chapter work into six parts, each part being defined by the specific theme which the chapters in it aim to establish. In our quest to see the overall context of the book, we will explore it according to these logical divisions, seeking to understand how each theme of the parts contributes to the overall objective of the whole.

Part One: Overview

The first part, consisting of the introduction and first chapter (both of which were authored by Pinnock), seeks to give the reader a general overview from both a systematic and temporal perspective. The introduction functions from a systematic perspective by showing the logical connections between chapters and how they can thereby be roughly grouped into the six sections. The analysis of such connections serves to unify the book and thus increase the cumulative force of the chapters.

Chapter one functions to set the overall context of the issue through a temporal, rather than strictly systematic, perspective. It does so by following Pinnock through his personal pilgrimage from Calvinism to Arminianism. The force of using this more personal approach, says Pinnock, is that it makes "the issues more vivid" and enables people to relate more fully to them (29.4). The goal of this, it seems, is to make the reader more deeply feel the importance of the issue, and thus open him to being more deeply influenced by the book.

Part Two: Biblical Universalism

In the second part, Fritz Guy (ch. 2), I. Howard Marshall (ch. 3), and Terry L. Miethe (ch. 4) seek to "lay the theological foundation of biblical universalism" (p. xi.5). Guy attempts to show that God’s love is universal, Marshall attempts to show that God’s grace is universal, and Miethe attempts to show that God’s saving benefits, won by the death of Christ, are universal. These three chapters flow nicely into each other because the grace of God expresses the love of God, and the saving work of Christ makes possible the grace of God. So the extent of each one, by implication, reveals the extent of the other two. Therefore, each individual chapter in this section also seeks to be an indirect confirmation of the other two.

The theme of universalism contributes to the overall aim of the work because if it is true, then the Calvinist belief that God has a group of people that He loves in a special way and therefore has infallibly destined to eternal salvation is false. Instead, we would have to conclude that the nature of God is such that he "expresses his power, not by having to control everything like an oriental despot, but by giving humanity salvation and eternal life under the conditions of mutuality" (p. xi.10-xi.1). In other words, we would have to conclude that Arminianism is true and Calvinism is false.

Part Three: Alternatives to God’s Absolute Sovereignty

One of the main pillars of this book is that a sovereign God cannot be genuinely personal (we will explore the reasons below). Therefore, to maintain the truth of God’s personhood, the authors of part three set forth three alternatives to the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty.

The first alternative to the absolute sovereignty of God, presented by Jack Cottrell (ch. 5), is that God is in total control without being in absolute control. To understand what this means, we must understand the difference between conditional elements of God’s decree and unconditional elements. Unconditional elements are those things which God ordains based upon Himself alone and not any influence from creation. Conditional elements are those things which God ordains based upon what creation does.

According to Cottrell, the purpose that God has decreed for creation ("to glorify himself and share His goodness" [107.4]) is an unconditional decree. But God does not have "a specific, unconditional purpose for each discrete particle, object, person, and event within the creation" (107.3). Thus, the unconditional aspect of God’s decree is only general, not specific. The specific decrees for what will happen are, instead, conditional. For example, the plan of redemption is a response to (i.e., conditioned upon) man’s sin and who is elected to salvation is conditioned upon man’s faith.

God is not in absolute control, therefore, because He does not unconditionally determine what will happen in every instance. But He is still in total control, however, because the general sweep of creation is under God’s unconditional determination. But how can God guarantee that His general decree will not fail when he does not also unconditionally control the specifics? Cottrell answers that God uses His perfect foreknowledge to decide when and where to intervene such that He is able to keep history flowing towards His ultimate goal for it–the manifestation of His glory.

The second alternative to the absolute sovereignty of God, presented by Richard Rice in chapter 6, is developed on the conviction that a view like Cottrell’s, which affirms the exhaustive foreknowledge of God, is secretly maintaining within itself one of the fundamental errors that it is supposed to eliminate–the Calvinistic denial (in fact, if not in words) of human freedom. This is because, as Rice argues, "If God’s foreknowledge is infallible, then what he sees cannot fail to happen. This means that the course of future events is fixed, however we explain what actually causes. And if the future is inevitable, the apparent experience of free choice is an illusion" (127.9, emphasis added).

Thus, in order to maintain a view of God’s sovereignty that does not "combine contradictory elements from different views of God [the Calvinist and Arminian]" (133.8, cf. Pinnock’s statement on 25.7: "I feared that, if we view God as timeless and omniscient, we will land back in the camp of theological determinism where these notions naturally belong. It makes no sense to espouse conditionality and then threaten it by other assumptions that we make."), Rice argues that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Thus, God does not make sure that His general goals for creation are fulfilled by making use of His foreknowledge, as Cottrell argued, but rather makes sure that they will be realized by means of His utter resourcefulness to react extemporaneously to the events of His creation (136.5-6).

The third alternative to the absolute sovereignty of God, set forth by William Lane Craig, seeks to maintain human freedom, like the other two views, while also maintaining certain "Calvinistic" elements denied among the other two views–namely, that God knows the future and that He has a specific purpose behind each and every event. In sum, Craig believes that God knows what anyone would do of his own free will under any circumstances in all possible worlds.

This is called "middle knowledge." Contrary to Rice’s understanding, this perfect foreknowledge does not destroy human freedom because "were some event to occur in a different way from the way it will in fact occur, God’s middle knowledge would have been different, and, hence, God would have foreknown differently than he in fact does" (151.10-152.1). In other words, God’s foreknowledge does not render our actions necessary, but reflects what they necessarily will be. And since this necessity arises from our own free-wills, and not God’s decree, it does not deny human self-determination.

By viewing His middle knowledge, God is able to determine which one of all the possible worlds, each made up of an intricate web of many potential situations, best accords with His goals. He then sets that world in motion. By deciding to create that possible world with all of its specific events and not a different one, He is totally in control of what will happen without being the determining cause of all that will happen. This is because, while human choices are largely made apart from the specific determination of God, God is the one who decides which overall set of choices (possible worlds) will be actualized. So we have say over what we will do, but not over whether the world will come about in which we will do it. [2] In sum, Craig’s view does not maintain the complete unconditional nature of God’s decree as Calvinism does.

Part Four: Basic Principles

While the previous three parts have set forth the Arminian case of how God must relate to creation if He is the "loving parent" and not "oriental despot" that the authors maintain, part four seeks to add weight to this case by establishing more concretely and explicitly the "basic principles" (p. xiii.3) underlying the Arminian view of God. John Sanders takes a deeper look at what God must be like to be personal in chapter eight, C. Stephen Evans seeks to counter a major objection to the Arminian view of freedom in chapter nine, and Randall Basinger seeks to deal a death blow to all forms of absolute sovereignty with a "practical critique" of them in chapter ten. Sander’s main method of illustrating what it means for God to be personal is to contrast what he calls the "absolutistic" conception of God with the "personalistic"conception of God. Calvinism is "absolutistic" and thus impersonal because it views God as unconditioned by His creation. There are two philosophical problems that arise from this and one biblical problem. First, it is guilty of monism, for it logically leads to the conclusion that God is the only actor in the universe, and all creatures are merely reactors. Second, it is guilty of determinism, which logically leads to the conclusion that God is the author of sin. Third, it is unbiblical because it is contrary to the biblical metaphors of God as anticipating, remembering, responding, punishing, warning, etc.–things which an unconditioned God cannot do. Thus, the best lenses through which to view God and the Bible are "personalistic lenses" (178.6).

But if God is not absolutely sovereign and humans have actual self-determination, then it means that when it comes to salivation, humans are the ultimate and decisive cause of their faith. But, then, does it not follow that they deserve some credit for their salvation (and, therefore, that God does not deserve all the glory)? Stephen Evans examines this argument in his exploration of human freedom from a theoretical point of view in chapter nine.

Evans, who aligns himself with the Calvinist desire to give God all the glory, goes to Soren Kierkegaard for the solution. "The crucial move," he says, "consists in separating the question of merit form the question of free, subjective participation on the part of the individual" (182.10). Thus, while faith is a result of the self determination of humans, this does not take glory from God because faith is not a meritorious act. Faith is a non-meritorious act because it is simply the recognition that there is no merit in ourselves. Surely it would be strange to argue that the recognition that we have on merit is itself meritorious! (184.8).

Having examined such dimensions of human freedom from the theoretical point of view in chapter nine, chapter ten examines human freedom from a practical point of view. Randall Basinger argues that "Arminianism makes better sense of how we should and in fact, do act in the world" (203.8). He takes several steps to arrive at this conclusion, the main argument being that, unless the Calvinist is to live a life of utter confusion, the sovereign will of God must be ignored in decision making. For God does not generally reveal His purposes to us in what He does, and therefore we could not usually know what the circumstances God has us in tell us about how to act. Thus, Calvinists must make decisions on the same grounds as Arminians–without reference to God’s sovereign will. For this reason, what we believe about human freedom and divine sovereignty makes little difference because Calvinists ultimately live like Arminians. This means that Arminianism is the superior view because it does not need to be inconsistent.

Part Five: Biblical Analysis

The next segment of the book seeks to support the theme of part three–that God is not absolutely sovereign–by analyzing relevant biblical data more precisely through exegesis (as in chapters 11 and 13) and theological implications (chapter 12).

The first chapter in this series, by William MacDonald, focuses on election. He argues for election as a corporate, rather than individual, concept on the basis of the Hebrew corporate solidarity principle. This principle stated that Patriarch together with his belongings, family, and servants were considered one unit. Likewise, Christ is one unit with His church. Thus, "Choice of the one (Christ) per se means choice of the other (the church)" (222.9). So God did not choose specifically who would become part of the church; rather, he chose Christ and thus, by implication, all of those who would be united with him by faith as a corporate entity.

In the next chapter, William Abraham seeks to strengthen the case for Arminianism by arguing that the Calvinist view does not offer any advantages to the Arminian view regarding the issue of assurance. [3] I am aware that he states a secondary purpose that appears favorable to Calvinism—namely, to show that both sides have much to offer each other (231.10). But his rejection of Calvinism (242.4, etc.) shows that the good Calvinism has to offer is merely one of emphasis, not content. In light of his rejection of Calvinism, his exhortation that Arminianism imitate the deep emphasis of Calvinism on the divine reality (231.10; cf. 242.2-4) actually attacks Calvinism by implying that its content is not a necessary ground for its emphasis. Thus, his primary aim is, as stated above, only one–to strengthen the case for Arminianism by countering Calvinism. because it is plagued with the same problem that Calvinism finds in Arminianism--uncertainty.

On Armianism, assurance seems to be difficult because, even if one knows that he is currently saved, one cannot know for certain that he will persevere to the end and thus be finally saved. Calvinism appears to overcome this problem with its doctrines of unconditional election and (thus) perseverance. However, this solution creates a new, and just as damaging, uncertainty: namely, how can one be sure that he is elect? As Abraham says, the doctrine of perseverance "provides assurance only if we know that we are one of the elect. Yet this is crucial information not vouchsafed to us" (235.5-6). Thus, the apparent superiority of Calvinism on the issue of assurance is not real.

In chapter 13, Grant Osborne examines soteriology in the gospel of John. His approach, like MacDonald’s in chapter 11, is exegetical. From the beginning to the end of the gospel, he walks through some of the main texts relevant to the issue. His method is, mainly, to set a text that appears to strongly teach unconditional election next to a passage in the context which, on his view, seem to teach free-will. With both texts before him, he then interprets each text in light of the other. His conclusion throughout is that "the two sides–divine election and human decision–work together" (247.5), which means that our faith decision is an act of our free will, but is not the cause of the new life that is birthed in us. God is the sole cause of that. But He does it in those who first believe.

Part Six: The Moral Dimension

Finally, the last part of The Grace of God and the Will of Man explores the moral dimension of the debate. Larry Walls argues against the justice of unconditional election in chapter 14, and Bruce Reichenbach argues against the justice of God’s absolute sovereignty and human original sin in chapter 15. Another central implication is also drawn from the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and absolute sovereignty–namely, that if these doctrines are true, then God cannot have a genuinely personal relationship with His creatures.

As we will see, the assertion that God would be unjust to unconditionally elect and unjust to be absolutely sovereign in many ways form one of the two core pillars of the book. The argument that God could not be genuinely personal if He were absolutely sovereign forms the other pillar. For this reason, these two chapters, though at the end of the book, function to provide the center of the book. Highlighting the pillars that they seek to establish will thus help tie together the full scope of the book and give it greater unity and depth. Therefore, we will now turn to an exploration of the main arguments for these two pillars throughout the book and especially in these last two chapters.

 

The Pillars of the Book

As we saw above, the main objective of The Grace of God and the Will of Man is to show that Arminianism is true and, therefore, that God does not ever relate to His creation as the absolute sovereign. This is because absolute sovereignty would entail two disastrous implications for the nature of God: unrighteousness and impersonality. These are the two pillars upon which the book is founded.

The Righteousness of God

The first pillar we will look at is the assertion that if God is absolutely sovereign, then he is not righteous. Those who argue for this pillar do so with two main arguments. First, the absolute sovereignty of God over all things in general would make Him the author of sin (and thus unrighteous) and, second, God’s sovereignty over salvation in particular would make Him unjustly partial (and thus unrighteous). We will look at these two arguments in this order.

Sovereignty in general. Rice argues–from logic, not Scripture [4]--that "God’s omnicausalty involves omniresponsiblity. If everything happens just the way God plans it, then God is responsible for everything." By definition, he seems to imply, this "seems to make God responsible for all the evil in the world" (132.3; by "responsible," the context shows that he means "morally blameworthy"). Likewise, Sanders argues that "If the characters do only what the novelist determines, then the novelist is responsible for what happens" (172.7). Obviously, if God were responsible for sin (in the sense that Rice and Sanders mean), then He would not be just. Thus, God’s absolutely sovereignty would seem to contradict God’s perfect righteousness. Therefore, it is concluded, God must not be absolutely sovereign.

Calvinists, however, have a ready response (termed compatibilism): God brings about sinful choices in a way that preserves human moral accountability and therefore the divine purity. He does this by making it so that the choice that He has decreed for us to make is our greatest preference at the moment. This ensures that we will choose what He has ordained because it is axiomatic that we always choose according to our greatest preference. But we remain moral agents worthy of blame for sin because as long as a person is acting from His preferences, he is guilty for sin–no matter how he came by that preference–because that is the essence of moral accountability. The basis of moral accountability is from the nature of the disposition moving one to act, not the cause of one’s disposition from which he acts. To deny this would be like denying that a circle is a circle because it did not cause itself to be a circle.

For this reason, the authors of this work are quick to argue (with varying degrees of understanding of it) that compatibilism is unsuccessful in establishing moral accountability and therefore fails to uphold the righteousness of God in ordaining sin. Miethe, for example, argues that "the very existence of reason, or the ability to know, shows that man is capable of choice [ultimate self-determination]" (92.6).[5] Just as it would be ridiculous to deny that we can know things, so also it is ridiculous to deny that we have the power of ultimate self-determination.

Cottrell argues that a decree of God that is unconditional and all-encompassing "completely rules out any meaningful notion of human freedom" (103.7)—thereby implying that compatibilism is not a meaningful (and thus true) notion of human freedom. As he says a few sentences later, "the mere ability to act in accord with one’s desires is not a sufficient criterion of freedom" (103.10). He seeks to prove his point by citing the examples of hypnotic suggestion and brain-washing–which are cases where people are acting according to their desires, but clearly are not morally accountable. If we are to accept ultimate self-determination, and it seems from this that logic requires it, then we must conclude that God is not absolutely sovereign. "If man’s action is truly free, then God does not cause it but responds to it" (104.3).

In chapter 15, Bruce Reichenbach extensively analyzes the concepts of freedom, moral accountability, and justice. He carries on an extensive discussion concerning Calvin and Edwards’ understanding of compatibilism, concluding that all of their arguments fail to topple the two chords of his argument: that original sin and foreordination remove our moral accountability. This is because original sin and foreordination mean that we act of necessity (though not of compulsion) and, in spite of all of Calvin and Edwards’ arguments to the contrary, "genuine freedom means that the causal conditions do not determine the person’s choice or action" (286.9). Thus, unless one is to conclude that God is not righteous, Reichenbach believes that he has proven that his chapter "requires the abandonment of necessitarian views of divine sovereignty" (299.9).

Unconditional election in particular. The second strand of argument among those who argue that God’s absolute sovereignty is inconsistent with His righteousness is that unconditional election would render God unjustly partial and therefore unrighteous.

Larry Walls devotes most of chapter fourteen to arguing against the justice of unconditional election. His argument is based upon two main premises that he seeks to defend. First, he argues that unconditional election is contrary to our moral sentiments of justice. To this it may be objected, as the Reformers did, that our moral sentiments are irrelevant because God’s will is the standard, or definition, of what is right–not our moral sentiments. Unconditional election is just because God wills it.

Walls responds to this by defending his second premise–that our moral sentiments of justice can be trusted on this issue. Calvin and Luther’s view of God’s will as the definition of right is inadequate because it implies that if God willed something that was obviously wicked, it would be nonetheless be right. But, he says, unconditional election is just such a case. The problem is that Luther and Calvin were isolating the will of God from His other attributes— namely, love. When we consider God’s will in relation to the rest of His attributes, we see that "if God were unconditionally to damn someone, it would be clear that he would not be treating that person in a way that fits his own nature as a loving God. Consequently, we know it would not be right for God to treat any person in such a way, and we can be sure that he in fact does not do so" (268.8).

The Personhood of God

The second pillar of Arminianism is that if God is absolutely sovereign, then he cannot sustain a genuine relationship with His creatures. Thus, God’s absolute sovereignty rules out not only His righteousness, but His personhood. The reason for this is that a divine controller cannot have a genuine personal relationship with that which He controls. As Pinnock stated in his 1975 editorial work, Grace Unlimited, and this work continues to echo, "The blueprint model of history is mechanistic and [therefore] sub-personal. It thinks of history as frozen and God as the master manipulator" (Clark Pinnock, ed., Grace Unlimited (Bloomington, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 97.1).

Rice states that the fundamental problem with harmonizing God’s absolute sovereignty and personhood is the inability to comprehend how an absolutely sovereign (and thus unconditioned and changeless) God could genuinely relate with His creatures: "It is difficult to understand how we could have a personal relationship with a being who is absolutely changeless" (132.4). Only the Arminian view can "provide us with a view of God who is genuinely personally and lovable" because only the Arminian view acknowledges that God’s will is not always done and thus presents "a God who is vulnerable, who can take risks and make sacrifices, a God who is momentarily delighted and disappointed, depending on our response to his love" (136.9).

Sanders likewise argues that an absolutely sovereign God cannot have the qualities essential to personhood such as thinking, planning, and knowing, because these things "imply that the future is as yet undetermined," which it is not if God knows all and controls all (170.3). If God is absolutely sovereign, he is not personal because there is no "reciprocity or conditionality" to "God’s covenant with his creatures" (171.9). If God is sovereign, then his relationship with humans is ultimately a "monologue" and thus not a "genuine dialogue" (178.3)–which is obviously, be definition, not personal.

 

The Pillars Crumble

The Grace of God and the Will of Man is a thought provoking and professional work. Perhaps its main value is the initiative it takes at keeping the ball in play between Calvinists and Arminians. That is, indeed, one of its goals (Pinnock writes: "We do not have the last word, but at least we can keep the ball in play" [p. xiv.3]). Furthermore, it is a good representative of Arminian theology and thus a very important work to study if one is to understand the Arminian position in greater depth.[6] This book has helped me to see that the motive behind Arminianism seems to be zeal for a view of God that one can most intimately relate to. And the two most central qualities that Arminianism believes God must have for this to be the case are, as we saw, righteousness and personhood.

While this zeal is to be commended, Arminianism actually defeats its own purpose. Far from helping us relate more personally to God, Arminianism is actually a great hindrance to knowing God and trusting Him (one of the most essential components of a relationship) because it actually denies (in varying degrees) the two pillars on which it tries to stand–the righteousness and personhood of God. I will seek to show this by erecting a pillar of Calvinism from Romans 9. After showing how this biblical pillar erodes the foundations of the two Arminian pillars, I will seek to briefly apply the implications of this pillar to some of the specific arguments we examined in our overview of the book.

The Righteousness of God

First, Arminianism does not accord with the righteousness of God because it is, in principle, an attack on the deity of God. It attacks the deity, or Godness, of God because His sovereign freedom in creation and redemption is an essential element of His nature. Since God’s righteousness consists in acting according to His nature, to deny the sovereign freedom of God is to deny the righteousness of God. I will seek to show that Paul teaches this clearly in Romans 9:14-15. If I am successful, then the whole Arminian case crumbles because it contradicts an express and clear declaration of God.

It is the nature of God to be sovereignly free. In Romans 9:14-15 Paul addresses the principle charge that is brought against God’s sovereign freedom by the authors of The Grace of God (especially by Jerry Walls)–that it would be unjust for God to elect unconditionally whom to save.[7] Paul writes:

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’

At the beginning of v. 15, the "for" indicates that Paul is giving the reason for what he has just said in the previous verse–that God is not unjust in unconditional election. The reason that he gives is a statement from Exodus 33:19 where God is in the midst of proclaiming His name to Moses: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." To the Hebrews, one's name revealed who he was, his nature. The declaration of the name of God, thus, is the unveiling of the glory of God. Or, put another way, the ways of God reveal the nature of God. This is what we saw earlier in Moses’ prayer in verse 13 ("Let me know Thy ways that I may know Thee"), which is in this same context. So verse 15, which states how God acts (namely, that "He has mercy on whom He will have mercy"), is at root a statement about what God is like—His nature–because Moses teaches that God’s ways reveal God’s nature (v. 13).

But what is this saying about His nature? Verse 15, quoted from Exodus 33:19, is a special kind of Hebrew phrase called idem per idem. Dr. John Piper explains, "Other examples of [this formula] are Ex 4:13 ("I pray, Lord, send now by the hand you will send"); Ex 16:23 ("Bake what you will bake, boil what you will boil"); ...2 Kgs 8:1 ("Sojourn where you sojourn"). By leaving the action unspecified the force of this idiom is to preserve the freedom of the subject to perform the action in whatever way he pleases....Therefore ...[God is]...stressing that there are no stipulations outside his own counsel or will which determine the disposal of his mercy and grace" (John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker books, 2nd edition1993], p. 82).

What this means, then, is that it is the nature of God to decide whom He will give mercy to without considering any condition found outside of Himself. In other words, God is sovereignly free (or, in the words of Pinnock’s book, totally unconditioned by creation). He gives mercy to whoever He wants to, He consults nobody but Himself in His decision, and therefore His decision is not based upon anything that the individual does.

It seems, then, that the biblical teaching is that God unconditionally elects whom He will save.[8] But it goes even deeper than this because all of God’s acts towards the creation are in some sense acts of mercy or acts of withholding mercy. Thus, for God to be sovereignly free in His decisions to show mercy is for God to be sovereignly free in everything. Thus, Romans 9:14-15 establishes that it is not only the nature of God to be sovereignly free in election, but it is also the nature of God to be sovereignly free in all of His ways towards His creation.[9]

This is the exact thing that The Grace of God and the Will of Man denies. And they deny it not with solid biblical arguments, but mere intuitive and logical inferences.[10] It is striking that the authors never furnish a biblical text which teaches that if God is the sovereignly free determiner of all that happens, then he is morally blameworthy for sin. But what is more striking is their almost complete neglect of passages such as Isaiah 63:17, where Israel acknowledges the sovereign disposal of God over their disobedience; Exodus 7:3, where God says that He will cause Pharaoh to disobey precisely so that He may judge him for that disobedience (and thus multiply His signs and wonders throughout Egypt); and Romans 9:1-24. It is true that they interact at places with Romans 9, but their major flaw here is their failure to interact with the best arguments for the Calvinist understanding of this text. It is hard to understand why, for example, John Piper’s solid work on this text, The Justification of God, only has one brief mention in a footnote. Is this responsible scholarship?

It is the righteousness of God to exercise His sovereign freedom. What we have already seen from Romans 9 is very sobering. But what is even more sobering is that this text goes deeper than telling us what God is like in His essence. To see this we must ask, how does the fact that it is God's nature to be utterly free in determining who will receive mercy answer the question raised in verse 14 of why God is not unjust in unconditional election?

As we saw, Paul’s reason for affirming that God is not unjust in unconditional election was to quote the expression of God’s name in Exodus 33. But this means that Paul was stating, in other words, that God is not unjust in unconditional election because in doing so He is acting in perfect accordance with His nature. In other words, Paul is saying "God is not unjust in unconditional election because He is acting in accordance with His nature, which is to be sovereignly free in all acts of mercy." The implied assumption behind this is that for God to be just (righteous) is for Him to act in accordance with His nature (glory). Since God is acting in accordance with His nature (glory) in unconditional election, God is just to unconditionally elect who will be saved.

The ramifications of this are that to deny unconditional election is to imply that God is acting contrary to His nature of sovereign freedom, and is thus to imply that God is unrighteous (because unrighteousness for God would consist in acting contrary to His nature). This, then, is the Calvinist pillar: the righteousness of God consists in His allegiance to act according to His nature; it is the nature of God to be sovereignly free in all things; therefore, God must be absolutely sovereign in providence and redemption. This brings down the first Arminian pillar (that a God who unconditionally elects would not be righteous) because it means that if God did not unconditionally elect, He would not be righteous.

It is striking that Jerry Walls accepts that the righteousness of God consists in His allegiance to act according to His nature. This is clear from his affirmation that if God were to act contrary to His nature, he would not be acting rightly: "If God were unconditionally to damn someone, it would be clear that he would not be treating that person in a way that fits his own nature as a loving God. Consequently, we know it would not be right for God to treat any person in such a way..." (268.8). The radical departure between Walls and Calvinism, therefore, lies in their differing conceptions of the divine nature. And the issue is settled by the apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 9:14-15.

In sum, unconditional election and unconditional sovereignty over all things are at the essence of what it means for God to be God. Therefore, although Arminianism claims to be protecting the righteousness of God in its denial of unconditional election and absolute sovereignty, it is actually denying the righteousness of God.

The Personhood of God

Having brought down the first Arminian pillar, this leads us to the second pillar of Arminianism: If God is absolutely unconditioned by His creation and His decrees are all thus all encompassing and unconditional, then how can He be personal? How can He relate personally with us?

The answer to this is not really that hard. Simply put, I agree with the Arminians that there must be some sense in which God "responds" to our actions and choices if we are to have a genuine relationship with Him. Some form of mutuality is essential to a true, genuine, relationship. However, this is not inconsistent with the Calvinist truth that God is conditioned by nothing outside Himself. This is because God Himself is the one who brings about our choices to which He responds with different attitudes and actions. Thus, God is ultimately acting in response to His own actions and is not therefore conditioned by the creature. In other words, it is true that many of God’s decrees are conditioned on things we do. But those things that we do are themselves a result of God’s unconditional decree. Therefore, God is always responding to His own decree and is thus totally unconditioned by His creation while still being able to respond to His creation.

Thus, the second Arminian pillar fails to stand because there is a consistent way to conceive of God as genuinely personal while being absolutely sovereign. In fact, it seems that the Arminian view makes it harder to trust God because it limits His ability to help us, in many cases, by our ultimate self-determination. Since trust is one of the most essential components of a relationship, it follows that Arminianism undercuts its second pillar as well as the first.

Having established this, there is only one thing left to do: demonstrate the implications of what we have seen for a few of the arguments for Arminianism that we encountered in our overview of the book.

Tying it all together

First, contrary to Arminianism, God does not love all equally but has a distinguishing love that ensures the salvation of His chosen. Second, God is not an oriental despot because we have seen that He is both sovereign and personal. Third, contrary to Arminianism, God does indeed control everything unconditionally and know the future exhaustively. Fourth, this does not destroy human accountability because, since God is both absolutely sovereign and a just judge (as His righteousness requires), compatibilism is true.[11]

Fifth, Craig’s view of middle knowledge cannot serve as a rapprochement because his view still places the ultimate cause of faith in the creature (which means that there is something good in the universe that is not from God and thus God does not deserve glory for) and denies that grace is inherently effectual (The efficacy of God’s grace in our lives is up to us" [158.1]; "No grace is intrinsically efficacious" [159.7])—which is a necessary implication of God’s sovereign freedom. Sixth, contrary to MacDonald and Osborne, election is both individual and unconditional.[12]

Finally, contrary to Basinger, divine sovereignty does make a difference in everyday life. Basinger’s error was that he only focused on decision making when there are many other things that are highly relevant to his assertion. I wish to close by pointing out two of these benefits of belief in the absolute sovereignty of God.

 

Applications

First, God’s sovereign freedom instills in us a greater confidence in God because it shows that His love cannot fail and can therefore be trusted totally to work for our good always. This is in vivid contrast to the Arminian view, which has conditioned our minds "to think of the cross as a redemption which does less than redeem, and of Christ as a Savior who does less than save, and of God's love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help, and of faith as the human help which God needs for this purpose…" (J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990], p. 137).

Second, the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty gives us a right humility before God because it both robs us of significance and gives us significance. It robs us of significance because it shows us that we do not have final say over anything and that all that we have is ultimately not ours, but a gift. This deeply humbles us. But it gives us significance because it means that our very being and all of our actions are of exceeding worth because they are manifestations of God’s decree, which is of exceeding worth.[13] This gives us a right respect for the image and work of God in us.

What all of these things add up to is this: unlike Arminianism, Calvinism allows one to completely trust God because it is His nature to be sovereignly free and righteous, and therefore His ways with us are to be both absolutely sovereign and personal. This is the answer to the question that we posed at the beginning and it both humbles us and gives us a trust in God filled with hope. Because God is personal, He is not unresponsive to what we do or what happens to us and therefore He can come to our aid when we cry out to Him. At the same time, He is able to perfectly help us because He is absolutely sovereign.

 

Notes

  1. The absolutely sovereignty of God means two principle things. First, it means that God’s control extends to every single aspect of creation–from the orbits of electrons to the decisions of men to the motions of galaxies. Second, it means that God’s control over creation is the execution of a plan that was formulated based upon God and His purposes alone. The plan was in no way conditioned–determined–by anything other than God.
  2. Craig’s view appears to be very close to Calvinism, evidenced by the fact that Craig himself presents it as a possible rapprochement (161.6-10). But upon closer examination, Calvinism differs widely from Craig’s view. While both believe that God has a specific purpose in everything that happens, the difference is that Craig believes that human free will ultimately defines the parameters within which God can work. That is, God is not the sole planner of the numerous possible worlds He could create. Rather, the possible worlds are largely each a result of human decisions that God does not determine. What God does is select the possible world where the free decisions of human beings most closely accord with His highest wishes. Thus, there is no world where everything would go exactly the way God would have had it.
  3. Calvinism, on the other hand, believes that nothing outside of God Himself limited the parameters from which God brought about this world (and thus all of His specific purposes are exactly as He wants them). Unlike the Calvinist, Craig believes that the "building blocks" God had to work with in designing the course of human history were determined to a large extent not by God, but by huam free will decisions.

  4. This is not the way he words it. He says that he seeks to show that "the dispute about assurance has for the most part been a verbal one" (231.8). However, if this chapter is to be consistent with the theme of the book which it is a part of, the reason that he seeks to show this (and thus the more ultimate purpose) must be because doing so takes away one of the major benefits that Calvinism appears to have: a stronger foundation of assurance. That this is his reason is clear from the deduction he makes on p. 235.5-6 (see below).
  5. This is evident from the fact that this objection to Calvinism is sandwiched between two other objections. The other two are labeled "biblical" and "personal." This one is labeled "logical."
  6. The context requires that Miethe is using "choice" here not to mean mere decision making, which compatibilists agree that we do, but the power of ultimate self-determination. Otherwise, this statement does not show the "philosophical deficiency" of Calvinism (which is what he is arguing for) since it is a statement that Calvinism itself believes.
  7. This is important because, as Greg Bahnsen has said, in order to defeat the opposing view, one must understand it better than those who argue for it.
  8. The flow of Paul’s argument requires that we interpret these verses as referring to unconditional election to eternal salvation rather than to corporate election to temporal roles. This is because vv. 1-5 raise a problem that concerns the eternal destinies of individuals within the nation of Israel. Verses 6-13 are the solution to this problem [as evidenced by the explicit statement of the problem in verse 6a, "It is not as though the word of God has failed," which implies that it looks as if God’s word has failed, followed by "for"–a clause which shows that what follows is the reason for (and thus, in this case, solution to) what has just been said] and therefore must also deal with the eternal destinies of individuals. Verses 14-18, in turn, seek to solve a problem raised by the solution of vv. 6-13. Therefore, the accusation that God is unjust (which is the problem being addressed) must concern individual election to salvation. For a further defense of the interpretation that Romans 9 is dealing with individual election to eternal destinies, and not corporate election to temporal roles, see my article "Is Individual Election to Salvation Taught in Romans Nine?", which is a summary of John Piper’s The Justification of God, at ~mperman/rom.html.
  9. A few other biblical texts that unconditional election are John 10:26; 12:37-41; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:28-30; 1 Corinthians 1:22-27; Philippians 1:29; and 2 Timothy 2:25.
  10. A few other texts which establish the sovereign freedom of God in all things are Psalm 139:16; Lamentations 3:37; Daniel 4:35; Romans 11:36; and Ephesians 1:1.
  11. This is exactly what we saw above when we noted Rice’s acknowledgment that the argument that God is morally responsible for all that happens if He is absolutely sovereign is a logical, rather than biblical, inference and when we noted that Wall’s whole case against the justice of unconditional election is built upon what his moral intuition tells him.
  12. None of the rebuttals to compatibilism in The Grace of God and the Will of Man are at all convincing because they merely amount to a restatement of the very conclusion that they are arguing for–namely, that physical ability is "just not a sufficient criteria for moral accountability." For a more detailed analysis of compatibilism, see my article "The Consistency of Divine Sovereignty and Human Accountability" at comp2.html.
  13. Cf. D.A. Carson’s comments that in Osborne’s exegesis on John, "some kind of mutual annihilation takes place [between the texts emphasizing divine sovereignty and human accountability]...The result is that neither set of texts means quite what we thought they meant after all–though in Osborne’s hands it is the set of texts on divine sovereignty that suffers the most." Carson points out that Osborne’s fatal assumption is that divine sovereignty and human accountability "must be mutually limiting" (D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), p. 221.1-3.
  14. Thus, to the degree that we did have ultimate self determination we would be of less significance because to that degree our actions would not derive their worth from the most valuable being in the universe.


Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.

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