"For doubtless, against thine holy Son Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel gathered themselves together, To do whatsoever thine hand, and thy counsel had determined before to be done." (Acts 4:27-28)
We see in these two scriptures, both a contrast and a similarity. The contrast is that, in the Ezekiel passage, God causes His People to walk in His Statutes while, in the Acts passage, God is actively working in the hearts of wicked men to whatever His counsel had determined to be done. The similarity is that God is sovereignly at work in both cases. There is a lot of talk among today's Christians about "Free-will". It is said that those of us who hold to the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace, otherwise known as Calvinism, oppose human "free-will". This is certainly not the case, for the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes the entire Chapter 9 to defending the free-will of man. The issue, however, is that those who oppose us insist on a sort of "Libertarian" free will, a free will without boundaries, a free will able to manipulate events in the Spiritual realm . In the end, however, all must acknowledge that man's will indeed has limitations. Just ask, "Is it possible for anyone to live an entire lifetime without sinning?" If the hearer has any Biblical sense about him at all, he will have to acknowledge that men are indeed "slaves to sin". (Romans 6:17-20; Titus 3:3; 2 Peter 2:19). See also, August’s Blog “Freedom of the will”.2
It is acknowledged by any sober-minded person that man does have a will. Furthermore, it is easily proven than man's will is "free" to do what he wants to do. The problem arises when man's "free will" seeks for itself to become divine, able to save lost sinners, and effecting what Christ's work on Calvary was apparently unable to complete. For the Arminians tell us that 'God is a gentleman, who will never go against man's "free will'", as if the Almighty God who created the universe and all things in it, sovereignly working all things to the council of His will (Ephesians 1:11), must bow to the liberty of His own creation. Thus God's Sovereignty is denied, and God is not God.
Man's will is no cure for the sinful nature, but is instead the cause. Man's will has been corrupted by the Fall, and therefore, must be redeemed along with the rest off our wicked selves. Even the most basic philosopher quickly learns that man's will is neither libertarian nor autonomous. It is a secondary entity which depends on many things. The very definition of a rational person is one whose will is under the control of reason and rational thinking. To be "free" from such would make one insane. Wills are controlled by emotions, love, hate, anger, sadness, etc. Diseases can affect wills. Drug addicts "freely" partake in the substance that enslaves them, a perfect illustration of man's willing slavery to sin, but slavery nonetheless. Every part of man has been spiritually killed by the fall. He is totally depraved, and will be condemned forever unless God intervene on His behalf. For, "he that believeth not is condemned already..." (John 3:18).
The weak "free will" philosophy has taken over modern evangelism. Instead of preaching "Good News", we have limited ourselves to "good advice". We plead for men to come to a begging Christ, who is standing on the sidelines just hoping that the wicked sinner can muster up enough faith of his own resources to let Jesus save him. Oddly enough, most Christians who preach this doctrine won't hesitate to pray for God to "save" lost loved ones, even though they teach that "God is a gentleman, who will never violate our free-will" (see Psalm 33:10-12). As John Owen pointed out in his chapter "The Idol of Free-will", man's will is not "free" until the Son makes him free. (John 8:36). Man's will is free only in the sense that he does what he wants to do. Man's will is not free to change his own sinful heart, as Ezekiel 36:26-27 shows. This is the work of God alone.
Total Depravity - What it isn't
Total Depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he could be, or that all men are equally bad. There are definitely some men who are worse than others. No one would suggest that Ghandi and Charles Manson were equally bad. In fact, the Bible teaches that there are stages to depravity (Romans 1:28-32), and that some are guilty of greater sins (John 19:11). What total depravity means is that man is totally helpless in initiating his own salvation. He is, in fact "dead in trespasses" (Ephesians 2:1). Every part of man; his body, soul, mind, emotions (and will), has been spiritually killed by the Fall, and in order to be redeemed, one must be born again (John 3:3).
The Sovereignty of God
Charles Spurgeon right observed that "Men will allow God to be everywhere except on his throne. They will allow him to be in his workshop to fashion worlds and to make stars. They will allow him to be in his almonry to dispense his alms and bestow his bounties. They will allow him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends his throne, his creatures then gnash their teeth; and when we proclaim an enthroned God, and his right to do as he wills with his own, to dispose of his creatures as he thinks well, without consulting them in the matter, then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on his throne is not the God they love. They love him anywhere better than they do when he sits with his scepter in his hand and his crown upon his head. But it is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon his throne whom we trust."3 Attempts have been made by many in all camps to "reconcile" the paradox between God's Sovereignty and man's "free-will", and volumes have been written in an effort to do just that. However, this alleged paradox is built on the assumption that man's will is capable of acting independent of God's decrees in even the least way. This idea is completely refuted in the opening Scriptures, as well as many others. God's sovereignty is openly declared throughout the Scriptures, whereas "free-will", especially as defined by Arminians and Pelagians, is absent.
"Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none other God, and there is nothing like me, Which declare the last thing from the beginning: and from of old, the things that were not done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do whatsoever I will. I call a bird from the East, and the man of my counsel from far: as I have spoken, so will I bring it to pass: I have purposed it, and I will do it." (Isaiah 46:9-11).
"But our God is in heaven: he doeth whatsoever he will." (Psalm 115:3)
"And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and according to his will he worketh in the armies of heaven, and in the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, nor say unto him, What doest thou?" (Daniel 4:35)
"The Lord breaketh the counsel of the nations, and bringeth to nought the plans of the people. The counsel of the Lord shall stand forever, and the plans of his heart throughout all generations. Blessed is that nation, whose God is the Lord: the people that he hath chosen for his own inheritance." (Psalm 33:10-12)
He "... worketh all things after the counsel of his own will," (Ephesians 1:11)
These Scriptures alone should be enough to refute libertarian "free-will".
God's Sovereignty in the Works of Man
Isaiah tells us that God "hast wrought all our works for us." (Isaiah 26:12). With regard to the continued attempt to deify man's will, Stephen Charnock asks, "But what if the foreknowledge of God, and the liberty of the will cannot be reconciled by man? Shall we therefore deny a perfection in God to support a liberty in ourselves? Shall we rather fasten ignorance upon God, and accuse Him of blindness to maintain our liberty?"4
Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in some sense that God has two "wills". The Calvinist holds that God has a "revealed" will (as given through his commandments"), and a secret will, His eternal decrees that are not revealed to man. Both of these are scriptural (Deuteronomy 29:29). The Arminian holds that God has a "perfect" will (which can be compared to His secret will) and a "permissive" will, a horrible monstrosity in which God relinquishes His sovereign governance and turns a portion of His kingdom over to who knows what (man, fate, the Devil)? The fact that God predestines all the works of man is offensive to the rebellious human heart, but cannot be denied from the Scriptures. God decrees and wills all things that have been and will ever be, “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,” (Isaiah 46:10). God controls the steps (Jeremiah 10:23) and words of man (Proverbs 16:1) as well as heart of a king (Proverbs 21:1). In God “we live, and move, and have our being,” (Acts 17:28). He "upholds all things by the word of his power,” (Hebrews 1:3), that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without the will of his Father (Matthew 10:29). God fashioned the days of man, before they ever existed (Psalm 139:16). This is the God of the Bible, not the poor helpless being who sits on some distant throne hoping that His people will use their "free will" and let Him save them.
One of the most sobering aspects of God's sovereignty is His working in the sinful acts of wicked men. To most Christians today, it is a theological bombshell to hear that God wills all that happens, including man’s evil deeds. Not only that, but he uses the wickedness of man to bring about His Divine, immutable decree. According to Scripture, even Satan himself is in the hands of a Sovereign God. It is for this reason that many have sought to distinguish the will of God from the “permission” of God. However, God Himself has repudiated this distinction with His own Word, stating that He "works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). God does not alter His decree based on our “free-will”, but acts totally independent of this idol.
While feeble-minded man attempts to remove God’s purposeful will from all calamity and replace it with only His distant permission, Job, after passing through his many trials at the hands of Satan, his friends, his family, and his enemies, declares, “Who among all these does not know That the hand of the LORD has done this?” (Job 12:9) Thus the idea of mere “permission” is fiction. As punishment for David’s sin, God proclaimed concerning Absalom’s incest that He would "raise up evil out of" David's own house, and declared it to be His work, stating boldly that “I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.” (2 Samuel 12:11-12). The envy, kidnapping, and lying of Joseph's brothers was a direct act of God (Genesis 45:7).
Christ was the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8) It was not only the permission, but the will of God for His Son to be slain (Luke 22:42). In fact, it was God Himself who performed the work, because it pleased Him to do so (Isaiah 53:10). God was actively working in the following sinful acts; that Judas betrayed Christ; that the Jews plotted to kill Him; and that the Romans carried out their act, for all these did nothing but "what the hand and counsel of God had decreed" (Acts 4:27-28). This is affirmed by Peter, that Christ was delivered to death by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23); in other words, that God, to whom all things are known from the beginning, had willed (not just permitted) what the Jews and Romans had executed. He repeats the same thing elsewhere, “Those things, which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he has so fulfilled,” (Acts 3:18). They were all "disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. (1 Peter 2:8).
"I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." (Isaiah 45:7)
These are just a few passages that show that God not only created all things, but sovereignly governs all things according the council of His will, decreeing even sinful acts without being their author. Any other belief is an attempt by rebellious man to remove God from His throne and thrust His church into Deism, or even fatalism.
How does God decrees and work in the sinful acts of wicked men without being the author of sin (James 1:13)? The answer is that God does not force man to sin. He doesn't have to. While "in Him is no darkness" (1 John 1:5), man has enough sin in himself to accomplish all the evil that God could ever decree, for when a person sins, "each one is tempted, by his own desires being led away and enticed, afterward the desire having conceived, doth give birth to sin, and the sin having been perfected, doth bring forth death." (James 1:14-15). All God has to do is withhold grace, and "[deliver] them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient..." (Romans 1:28). This is what man's "free will" profits him. While God Himself is not the tempter, but He does send evil and lying Spirits to accomplish these acts (See 1 Kings 22:19-23; 1 Samuel 16:14-23, 1 Samuel 18:10, 1 Samuel 19:9). God is said to "lay a stumbling block to make men fall" (Romans 9:33) and "send strong delusion, that they should believe lies," (2 Thessalonians 2:11). It is God alone who "hast set them in slippery places, and cast them down into desolation. How suddenly are they destroyed, perished and horribly consumed..." (Psalm 73:18-19). Thus, God can decree even man's evil deeds, and work to bring them to pass, yet a man's sins remains man's own, and he is fully responsible for them.
Salvation is of the Lord
"Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, that he may dwell in thy courts..." (Psalm 65:4)
God is sovereign over the eternal destination of man. God Himself predestines the salvation of His elect (Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:4-5; Ephesians 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14), and He predestines the destruction of the wicked (Proverbs 16:4; Romans 9:21-22; Jude 1:4). However, it must be pointed out that, in both cases, men are still free to do what they want to do. There is a temptation here for many to stand in judgment of the Almighty. Paul, however, offers a stern rebuke to those who do so.
"Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doeth he yet complain? for who hath resisted his will? But, O man, who art thou which pleadest against God? shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power of the clay to make of the same lump one vessel to honour, and another unto dishonour?" (Romans 9:19-21)
You must be born again.
The worst part of "free will" theology is that it undermines the need for the new birth. For free-willers tell us that man, by virtues of the intelligence, reason, and wisdom that he was created with, is able to effectively come to Christ an obtain salvation. This is commonly referred to as "Human Ability" and is refuted time and again by Scripture. Jesus tells us that "No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him" (John 6:44), and again "no man can come unto me, except it be given unto him of my Father. (John 6:65). Human Ability, if taken to its logical conclusion, denies the need for the New Birth (John 3:3). It makes the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation either unnecessary, are at best, ineffective. However, the Bible is clear that a man must be born of the Spirit BEFORE he can even see the kingdom of God, let alone choose it. Human Ability gives natural man ability to receive the things of God, which the Scriptures specifically deny (1 Corinthians 2:14). Furthermore, Human Ability, as a contribution to salvation, is expressly denied in Scripture (John 1:12-13, Romans 9:16). Without the new birth, the things of the Kingdom of God appear to be foolishness. You must be born again. This is a supernatural event; one that man is totally incapable of doing.
The so-called paradox between God's Sovereignty and Man's "Free will" is a paradox invented by the minds of men. God's Sovereignty is clearly spelled out in the Scriptures, while man's freedom to act outside that sovereignty is but a pipe dream, and figment of man's vain imagination, the product not of the Divine Letter, but of human neurons. Nothing of this sort exists in the Scriptures. John Owen writes concerning the "Idol of Free Will", “What a stout idol is this, whom neither the Holy Spirit, the grace and counsel of God, the calling of the gospel, the knocking at the door of the heart, can move at all, or in the least measure prevail against him! Woe be unto us then, if when God calls us, our free-will be not in good temper and well disposed to hearken unto Him! For it seems there is no dealing with it by any other ways, though powerful and almighty. “For grant” saith Corvinus, “all the operations of grace which God can use in our conversion, yet conversion remaineth so in our own free power that we can be not converted; that is, we can either turn or not turn ourselves,” where the idol plainly challengeth the Lord to work His utmost and tells Him that after He hath so done, he will do what he please. His infallible prescience, His powerful predetermination, the moral efficacy of the gospel, the infusion of grace, the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit, all are nothing, not at all available in helping or furthering our independent wills in their proceedings. Well, then in what estate will you have the idol placed?”5
1.) God offers choices, and commands us to "choose" and "repent".
A common objection to this Sovereignty are the commands to "choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), and to "Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out," (Acts 3:19). This is true, and God does offer this choice to all. However, man, in his fallen state, is unable to make that choice. Jesus commands us to Come to Him (Matthew 11:28), but then clearly states that no one can come to Him unless is has been granted to him by the Father (John 6:65). Paul tells us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phillipians 2:12), and then immediately adds, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phillipians 2:13). The Scriptures are clear. The ability to repent, obey, and respond to the gospel call is itself a gift from God. Therefore, God’s commandments to “Repent” do not presume our ability to do so. The sinner does not need good advice. He needs new life, and only God can give that. This was the basis for St. Augustine’s prayer that brought the Pelagian heresy out of the woodwork. “Lord, command what you will, and give what you command.” This is most necessary, for without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
You will say to me, "I repent and ask for forgiveness". Why do you do that? Do you not see the hand of God in all of this? Did God not bring about all the details of your life to make you a Christian? Could you have just as easily been born the son of a Muslim, being taught that the best way to heaven is to blow yourself up in a Jihad? How is it that you came to the faith? Was it not Providence that allowed you to even learn of the Gospel? Did he not change your heart? What makes you different from others who do not believe?
2.) Doesn’t Calvinism make men out to be “Spiritual Robots”?
Man is not a Spiritual Robot. He is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). We have already acknowledged that man has a will which is free to do what he wants to do. The problem is that what man wants to do is sin. It is his nature, and he is a slave to it (Romans 6:17). The entire man must be born of the Spirit before he can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), and man's will is not exempt from this need (John 1:12-13).Angels are a perfect example of how to correctly view the Scriptures concerning will and predestination. It is no coincidence that the saved “angels” are referred to as “elect” (1 Timothy 5:21), whilst Hell is prepared for the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). If anything in scripture is clear, it is that the final estate of angels is predestined. Yet, even the angels have the ability to think and morally reason independently. Hell was created specifically for the wicked angels. Yet, the substance of what guides their actions does not cease to be “will”. Therefore, with angels, we see a prime example of beings that have a “will”, yet their wills are not free. Elect Angels cannot be damned, nor can wicked ones be saved. Most Christians have no problem with God predestining angels, but yet they get most offended at the idea that God could do this with people. Why do we assume that our wills are freer than that of angels?In heaven, we cannot sin (Revelation 21:27). Does that mean that we will be Spiritual Robots? Of course not. It means that we will serve Him (Revelation 22:3), and do so willingly. In heaven, our wills will finally be free to "not sin".
3.) Why preach?
If God has already predetermined who would be saved, then why bother to preach the gospel? There are a few reasons. 1.) Jesus told us to (Matthew 28:18-20). 2.) The means in which God gathers His elect is "by the foolishness of preaching" (1 Corinthians 1:21). We don't know who the elect are, nor are we to presume who they are. What we do know is that some will accept it, and some will reject it. Why? If our answers are anything other than the sovereign election of God, then we have to assume some inherent goodness or wisdom in men that enables them to do this. Someone once commented to Charles Spurgeon that if he really believed in Calvinism, he shouldn't bother to preach. He replied, “God has called me to preach His Word, and if I knew that all the elect had a yellow stripe painted down their backs, then I would give up preaching the gospel and go lift up shirt tails.” As Calvinists, we can preach the Word, knowing that "...My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:11). Is this verse always true, or only when people are saved?
4.) Love and obedience cannot be true love and obedience without free will.
Says who? The opening verse (Ezekiel 36:27) is very clear in that God gives His people a heart to obey Him, and causes them to walk in His statutes (See also 2 Chronicles 30:12). Love must come from the heart, and true Godly love must come from a true Godly heart, not a deceitful and desperately wicked heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Man, by his fallen nature, drinks iniquity like water (Job 15:16); does not seek God (Romans 3:11); loves darkness and hates the light (John 3:19-20); is dead in trespasses (Ephesians 2:1); cannot understand things that are Spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14); is a slave to sin (John 8:34); can no more choose good than a leopard can change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23). This is why Jonah tells us that "Salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2:9). Paul agrees, telling us that "it is by grace alone, not of works, lest any man should boast". (Ephesians 2:8-9). Ezekiel could have prophesied to those dry bones until he was blue in the face (Ezekiel 37:1-10), but unless the Spirit of God comes down to give them life (Ezekiel 37:5-6), they will never choose anything. They are dead. So is fallen man spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13). Sinners do not need good advice. What they need is new life, and only God can give that.
5.) How can we be held responsible for our sins?
Man sins because he chooses to do so, making him fully responsible for his sins. Man's sins are his own. His "free will" is the cause of, not the cure for, the sinful nature. Man sins willingly, but out of necessity, because that is his nature. No mere human can go through life without sinning, no matter how much "freedom" he may claim for himself. Man is not "free" to change his own heart. This is the act of God alone.
For further study, I recommend the following Books.
The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther
The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards
The Sovereignty of God by A.W. Pink
A Display of Arminianism by John Owen
The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock
1 Compare this Scripture with the statement by Corvinus that “God by his influence bestoweth nothing on the creature whereby it may be incited or helped in its actions.”
2 It must be noted that even God does not have Libertarian Free Will. There are some things God cannot do. God cannot lie, sin, change, or learn, etc.
3 Charles H. Spurgeon – Divine Sovereignty
4 Stephen Charnock - The Existence and Attributes of God
5 John Owen – A Display of Arminianism