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Divine and Human Freedom

The most objectionable tenet of the Reformed Faith to the mind of its detractors is its view of absolute predestination and election.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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The Tyranny of Non-Christian Freedom
The most objectionable tenet of the Reformed Faith to the mind of its detractors is its view of absolute predestination and election.1 Though it is a doctrine taught plainly in the Bible2 and by the leading Western church father, Augustine,3 and expressed forcibly in the writings of John Calvin and in the Canons and Decrees of the Synod of Dort, moderns suckled on heady notions of freedom in our ultra-democratic age find the bare mention of the possibility of divine predestination simply monstrous.

To the mind of modern man, if he is to be free, he must be free in the sense that God is free—that is, absolute, unconditioned freedom. Of course, since God and man cannot be absolutely free simultaneously, eventually God is relegated to dependence on the absolute freedom of man. Man becomes the Great Predestinator; and, as Rushdoony has noted on several occasions, soon man in the form of the state begins to predestine every area of man’s life in terms of an abstract antinomianism. Men, therefore, do not escape predestination; rather, they simply transfer it from God to man. In Rushdoony’s language, predestination is an inescapable concept.4 The course of this depravity is methodical: first man asserts a measure of freedom from God; then he claims an equal or coordinate freedom with God; subsequently, he asserts that God must respond to man’s freedom; and finally God becomes dependent on man and on man’s freedom of choice for his very existence. This is the blasphemy of Nietzsche, as well as Marx, both of whom believed that God is the invention of the fertile mind of man. The French Revolution and Pol Pot’s Cambodia are horrific testimonies to the perverse notion of the freedom of man. The idea of the freedom of man apart from God and his absolute freedom never leads to righteousness or utopia, but always to depravity, dystopia, and hell. Because man in his natural state is a depraved human being, he will always will to do evil.

Freedom in the Biblical Sense
The Bible does teach that man is a free being, but only in terms of an absolutely free God. Man can be derivatively free as a creature precisely because God is absolutely free as the Creator. Chapter three of the magisterial Westminster Confession of Faith, in addressing the issue of God’s eternal decree, states that "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass . . . ." It correctly attaches as prooftexts Ephesians 1:11, Hebrews 6:17, and Romans 9:15, 18. It goes on immediately, however, to assert that this Biblical teaching in no way denies "the liberty or contingency of second causes," citing cts 2:23, Matthew 17:12, Acts 4:27, 28, John 19:11, and Proverbs 26:33.

Unfortunately, many professed Calvinists are much more accomplished at affirming God’s absolute freedom than man’s derivative freedom. If the great error of Arminians is the notion that if man is to be free, he must be free in the sense that God is free, the error of some Calvinists is that if God is free, man cannot be free in any sense at all. But the God who created man out of his own image determined that man would be free to act within the plan of God. Man exists in a divinely created and covenantally shaped universe. He is, therefore, a conditioned being. He is conditioned by his past, his history, his body, his will, his emotions, his intelligence, his mind—every aspect of God’s creation that comes to bear on him. God has at his disposal every aspect of his creation to fulfill his plan in the entire universe—including in man. But to say that man’s life and his choices are not unconditioned is not to say that they are not in any sense free. Man acts according to his nature. The natural man sins because he wishes to sin. Sin is delightful to him. He is oriented to sin because he was born in sin.

The regenerate man is different. He is free from the power (though not the presence) of sin. It is no longer his nature to be sinful, although he will bear within him until his dying day the residue of the sinfulness of what St. Paul calls the "old man." Just as the unregenerate man is born in sin, so the regenerate man is born from above in righteousness. It is his nature to desire adherence to Christ, the Bible, and sanctification. Every time the unregenerate man sins in asserting his supposed freedom from God, he further binds himself to the sin which destroys true human freedom. Genuine human freedom is experienced only in Jesus Christ and in obedience to his Law-Word (Jn. 8:36). Therefore, every assertion of human autonomy is equally an assertion of human bondage. Likewise, every assertion of human submission to the Lord Jesus and his word is equally an assertion of the greatest human freedom possible.

The Significance of Freedom for the Christian
The man who understands the doctrine of predestination and the proper relationship between divine and human freedom does not worry about them. They are not a source of vexation for him but a source of comfort. The Christian knows that because of absolute divine predestination, with man, all things are not possible. The greatest enemies of mankind are those men who believe that man is absolutely free. If man is absolutely free, then God, if he does exist, is a conditioned being dependent on the absolute predestinating man. The Christian glories in the doctrine of the divine predestination of human freedom, working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and do his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12, 13). He sees these doctrines as he sees every other doctrine: in terms of the revelation of the sovereign, covenant-keeping God.

In every aspect of his life, a godly man attempts to obey and please God. He works tirelessly to advance Christ’s kingdom in the earth, beginning with his own life, in his family, church, and wider society, including the state. He does not profess to comprehend every nook and cranny of the Biblical view of God’s predestinating work, nor does he profess to understand all of God’s providential dealings. He simply acknowledges that whatever God does, is good.

His responsibility is not to question the plan of God, but to obey the Word of God. He basks in the knowledge of God’s absolute predestination, and works with the knowledge of his own creaturely freedom.


1. See, e.g., Jack W. Cottrell, "The Nature of Divine Sovereignty," in ed., Clark H. Pinnock, The Grace of God, The Will of Man (Grand Rapids, 1989), 97-119.

2.   Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids, 1951).

3. Geoffrey Bromiley, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, 1978), 110, 11.

4.   Rousas John Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (s, VA, 1978), 42.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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