The Freedom of the Will: A Brief Look at Compatibalism

r-FREE-WILL-large570Living in Canada and especially in the breathtaking province of New Brunswick,  I am accustomed to breathing the air of freedom fought for by many brave men during World War I & II. Citizens of this country have the right to make choices on where to live within Canada, their employment, those who will govern and, while we see them floating away, our religious beliefs. We make choices everyday regarding what to wear, what foods to eat and even what person we will spend the rest of our lives with. Choice is an attribute of humanity that is very much a part of being human and it is an essential characteristic that defines us. We are creatures of selection!

I decided to write this little post on an issue that is raised quite frequently by many brethren in churches that are opposed to the Doctrines of Grace. The discussion of these doctrines always gives rise to the topic of the human will and especially the nature of our freewill. There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding and confusion regarding this fundamental area of my beliefs. It really is so crucial that it has a huge bearing on why I believe in the doctrines of grace. Our non-calvinitic brethen are under the impression that we Calvinists don’t believe that men have a will. The recurrent expression of how, because I believe in election and predestination, I must logically deem that man has no will is very disheartening. How many times have we heard the slogan “we are not robots” come up! The issue is not whether I believe that man has a will since I certainly do but the matter stems from why do I will what I will? Is an individual’s will truly free? It addresses the fact that if man is truly a slave to sin and does not truly have a libertarian free-will then how is it that God can hold a person responsible? Does their need to be complete freedom in men’s decision making for them to be guilty of sin? These are the issues I wish to address in these particular posts but most importantly I believe that I must deal with this subject from a biblical point of view. I will not be going through all the philosophical idealism regarding the nature of the will, decision making ect… but I want to focus on the scriptural teaching of the subjection of the will of man in relation to the will of God and hopefully answer some of the above questions while doing so.

It should be noted that my prayer is not necessarily that one will embrace these thoughts but that the person reading this will have a better understanding of my view of the will of man as well as it might give an opportunity for the brethren to rightfully represent the position in which many have chosen to criticize.

What is Compatibalism?

I know, O Lord, that a man’s way is not in himself; nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23)

There will be objections from the beginning as to the terminology I have employed since many will argue that the term “compatibalism” or “compatibalistic freedom” is not found in scripture however let me point out that even though the term doesn’t appear explicitly in scripture it is certainly found implicitly as we will see!  I derive the term from the English expression “compatible” which denotes the thought of “being able to coexist…capable of being used in combination” (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Page 312). It is the thought that one thing can be attuned to another even though most would see it as a contradiction. It is the thought that our wills are attuned to the will of God in that one action can have two wills involved. As we will see, the scriptures point to many particular circumstances where God has chosen a decision that lead to a particular event for good which man has chosen for evil. This all within one event or action. To go one step further, it is the theological idea that if God has willed for something to happen, does man have the power or option to will against it? Can man thwart God’s will? It is the idea that only one could have caused it to happen! It tackles the very center of the intentions of the heart. It pits the sovereignty of man versus the Sovereignty of God. For instance, let us take a look at an example:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.’” (Ezra 1:1-4)

It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’”(Isaiah 44:28)

This is pertaining to the King of Persia, Cyrus the Great who would conquer Babylon in 539 B.C.  then allow the Jews to return to rebuild their temple. Jehovah named Cyrus and what he would do long before Cyrus was even born. The question that we must ask is: Could Cyrus have done otherwise? If Cyrus would have the absolute freedom of the will, could not the decree of Jehovah have been thwarted by Cyrus? Cyrus made choices in the matter however they were not outside the Sovereign will of the Lord in bringing these things to pass. We have the will of the Lord and the will of Cyrus working here to accomplish the purposes of God in time.

The Sovereignty of God

What we must stress in our application of the term “compatibalism” is to add to it the most foundational element which is God’s Sovereignty. The bible is absolutely entrenched with scriptural references to the absolute Sovereignty of Jehovah over all things.

Let all the earth fear Jehovah; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For *he* spoke, and it was [done]; *he* commanded, and it stood fast. Jehovah frustrateth the counsel of the nations; he maketh the thoughts of the peoples of none effect. The counsel of Jehovah standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart from generation to generation. (Psalm 33:8-11)

Whatsoever Jehovah pleased, he hath done in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all deeps; (Psalm 135:6)

The king’s heart in the hand of Jehovah is [as] brooks of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)

For Jehovah of hosts hath purposed, and who shall frustrate [it]? And his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27)

Produce your cause, saith Jehovah; bring forward your arguments, saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring them forward, and declare to us what shall happen: shew the former things, what they are, that we may give attention to them, and know the end of them; — or let us hear things to come: declare the things that are to happen hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods; yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be astonished, and behold it together. (Isaiah 41:21-23)

Remember the former things of old; for I [am] ¹God, and there is none else; [I am] God, and there is none like me; declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure; (Isaiah 46:9-10)

I know, Jehovah, that the way of man is not his own; it is not in a man that walketh to direct his steps. (Jeremiah 10:23)

And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto the heavens, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation.

And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he doeth according to his will in the army of the heavens, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? (Daniel 4:34-35)

The question that must be addressed is whom in those scriptures we have presented is sovereign; God or man? If man is truly free, then how can Jehovah truly decree anything and be certain it will come to pass? Is Jehovah at the mercy of the will of man? If man’s free-will decision ultimately decides the outcome of an event or a fate, then would it not be logical to say that man’s will is sovereign over Jehovah’s? The scriptures are clear that whatever Jehovah decrees will come to pass since He is the one who is sovereign and directs all things for His purpose and glory. Let us now take a look at some passages that directly deal with the issue of compatibalism.

Joseph and his brothers

Joseph was the son of a man named Jacob who had twelve sons. These twelve sons are referred to as the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. The story of Joseph begins with the fact that Joseph had found favor over and above his brothers in his father’s eyes and there was much jealousy and hatred towards Joseph from the hearts of his brothers. (Gen. 34:4) Joseph also was given a dream from Jehovah that one day he would rule over his brothers and they expressed their discontent by clearly stating: “And his brethren said to him, Wilt thou indeed be a king over us? wilt thou indeed rule over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams and for his words. (Gen 37:8) Their hatred grew so great that they had plotted to kill him but settled with a plan to fake his death, tell his father that he was dead and sell his into slavery. We read:

And they said one to another, Behold, there comes that dreamer! And now come and let us kill him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, An evil beast has devoured him; and we will see what becomes of his dreams. And Reuben heard [it], and delivered him out of their hand, and said, Let us not take his life. And Reuben said to them, Shed no blood: cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness; but lay no hand upon him — in order that he might deliver him out of their hand, to bring him to his father again. And it came to pass when Joseph came to his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his vest, the vest of many colours, which he had on; and they took him and cast him into the pit; now the pit was empty — there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead; and their camels bore tragacanth, and balsam, and ladanum — going to carry [it] down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brethren, What profit is it that we kill our brother and secrete his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites; but let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh. And his brethren hearkened [to him]. And Midianitish men, merchants, passed by; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver-pieces; and they brought Joseph to Egypt. And Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph [was] not in the pit; and he rent his garments, and returned to his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, where shall I go? And they took Joseph’s vest, and slaughtered a buck of the goats, and dipped the vest in the blood; and they sent the vest of many colours and had it carried to their father, and said, This have we found: discern now whether it is thy son’s vest or not. And he discerned it, and said, [It is] my son’s vest! an evil beast has devoured him: Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces! And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, and said, For I will go down to my son into Sheol mourning. Thus his father wept for him.

If there was ever an act of evil committed that destroyed the life and relationship between a father and his son, we can point to this as a great example of this type of evil. However, this act of willful evil committed by Joseph’s brothers led to a greater and purposeful event. The life of Joseph afterwards was one of an action-packed nature. He had gone from being imprisoned due to false charges against him to sitting at the right hand of the great Pharaoh of Egypt. After the brothers had been sent to Egypt to purchase food, Joseph reveals to them that he is their brother: “And Joseph said to his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4). Even though they would have been deserving of the demonstration of Joseph’s wrath for their actions, Joseph speaks of the purpose behind their action “And now, be not grieved, and be not angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Genesis 45:5) Once again, in v.7, Joseph reiterates the purpose of his being sold into slavery in that “God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth, and to save you alive by a great deliverance (Genesis 45:7). Joseph then explains who was the one who enslaved him all those years ago in that even though the intentions of their hearts were evil and they acted upon them “it was not you [that] sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8) After Jacob passed on, the brothers were in fear once again that Joseph would avenge himself of their evil deed however in reply to this, Joseph answers by saying “And Joseph said to them, Fear not: am I then in the place of God? Ye indeed meant evil against me: God meant it for good, in order that he might do as [it is] this day, to save a great people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20). The expression “ye indeed meant evil against me: God meant it for good” is a significant statement in that there was only one action in view here. Who was essentially responsible for sending Joseph into Egypt through all the trials of his life and the suffering of his father who thought his son was dead? (45:8) The brothers were guilty for their choice however it was ultimately God’s choice to “save a great people alive”. So if this was ultimately Jehovah’s choice then why are the brothers guilty? Why is there guilt if this was God’s plan from the beginning? Here we see an example of compatibalism in that there are two wills involved however it is God’s will that is Sovereign over man’s. It was His decree that sent Joseph into slavery yet man’s acted upon the intention of his evil heart and is condemned rightfully.

The King of Assyria

The prophet Isaiah reveals to us by inspiration many historical and prophetic facts within the pages of his great book. One that is worthy of notice in regards to our look at the compatibalistic will is found in the tenth chapter. This is the text speaking of God’s judgment against Israel through the Assyrians. We will read how the purpose of the Assyrians is not to serve the God of the Israelites but to serve their own evil purposes however it is clear that the Assyrians have become the instrument of the will of Jehovah to punish a wicked nation. We read:

O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few. (Isaiah 10:5-6 KJV)

The Lord refers here to the Assyrian king as “the rod of mine anger” in that he is being used as a tool to invoke a judgment against the nation of Israel. He sends them against a godless nation to pass judgment upon them for their idolatry  yet notice in the following text how Jehovah actually punishes the Assyrians for doing what He had caused to happen:

Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent: and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man: And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the people: and as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped. Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood. Therefore shall the Lord, the Lord of hosts, send among his fat ones leanness; and under his glory he shall kindle a burning like the burning of a fire. And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame: and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day; (Isaiah 10:12-17)

When the Lord had completed His work in the punishment of the Israelites, he now turns to chastise the king of the Assyrians for the wicked deed he had committed! The Assyrians believed they had conquered the Israelites upon their own power and might however the scripture states that this is not the case. The King and His people are punished for the arrogance of their heart! Why should the king of Assyria be punished for something that the Lord had decreed to happen in order to accomplish His purpose? God intended the punishment of Israel as good and righteous (even though using a pagan nation as His instrument) while the Assyrians meant it for evil which is shown in their arrogance!

The Death of the Lord Jesus Christ

Most Christians are agreed that the greatest evil ever committed by man is the crucifixion of the sinless Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is also well established among Christians that the death of Christ was a necessity (Mark 8:31) however it is also recognized that the death of Christ was committed by acts of wickedness fashioned by the men involved in His crucifixion. (Luke 22:22) The early church in the book of acts saw this event in a compatibalistic light since on the one hand they understood that is was God’s plan for the sinless Messiah to die:

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: (Acts 2:22-23)

Luke promotes the idea here that Christ was delivered not only by the foreknowledge of God but also by His “determinate counsel”. The fixed plan of God was in essence the grounds by which the Lord Jesus bled and died at Calvary in His sacrificial death. There was chance in the matter and God since it was Jehovah’s decree that Peter acknowledged as the source of this act. J. Calvin comments:

“Peter declareth that he suffered nothing by chance, or because he wanted power to deliver himself, but because it was so determined (and appointed) by God. For this knowledge alone, that the death of Christ was ordained by the eternal counsel of God, did cut off all occasion of foolish and wicked cognitations, and did prevent all offences which might otherwise be conceived. For we must know this, that God doth decree nothing in vain or rashly; whereupon it followeth that there was just cause for which he would have Christ to suffer. The same knowledge of God’s providence is a step to consider the end and fruit of Christ’s death. For this meeteth us by and by in the cousel of God, that the just was delivered for our sins, and his blood was the price of our death. (Commentary on Acts, J. Calvin, Baker Books, P.96)

We then read later on how Luke renders the guilt upon the Jews and Pilate by stating:

The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled. (Acts 13:13-15,18)

Even though God’s eternal counsel determined that the Son of God would suffer and die, the men involved were accountable for their actions. They had delivered Him up, denied Him, desired a murder to be released over him and killed Him. There was no doubt of the responsibility of the people of Israel for His death. We read further on in the book of Acts once again regarding the issue of liability of the death of Christ:

“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, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. (Acts 4:27-28 NASB)

All parties involved in the most wicked event in history are named and clearly identified. They are deemed guilty as charged yet in the same phrase we read that this act was “predestined to occur” by the hand and purposes of Jehovah. This entire event was predestined or determined by God before the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8) What men had meant for evil because of the intentions of their wicked hearts, God was the primary establisher of this happening that resulted in the salvation of the people of God!

Concluding Thoughts

We can see from the biblical data above that man’s freedom is only sovereign to a limited degree and that, even in the most heinous of actions, God has a purpose which is good. The freedom of man could be compared to being on a ship whereas he has the ability to move anywhere on the ship he desires however it is the captain who determines where the ship is heading. I pray that this small study will shed some light on what we Calvinists hold to in regards to man’s free will. As my reader can gather from this small post, we do believe that man has a will but ultmately it is only God who truly has a libertarian free will.

For further reading:

Please read the classic “On the Freedom of the Will”( Jonathan Edwards)

The Sovereignty of God (A.W. Pink)


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