Theology Proper

A self-determinist reading of key New Testament passages

In my previous post on Robert Picirilli’s book, Free Will Revisited, I examined his study of key Old Testament passages in which he found indications that God has given humans libertarian freedom. I responded to his reading in some detail, taking the opportunity to examine John Calvin’s exegesis of those Old Testament texts, and then offering some of my own comments regarding the mystery of authentic human freedom of choice, within a world whose history is meticulously predetermined by God. Having done that work, I can now examine Picirilli’s selected texts from the New Testament much more briefly, since Picirilli finds the New Testament’s account of human freedom to be the same as the Old’s, and my response is therefore also very similar.

Key New Testament texts

Jesus’ call to his first disciples

In Matthew 4, Jesus invites Peter and Andrew to follow him and to learn how to fish for men. When Peter later recalls that event, he says: “We have left all and followed you.” Given Picirilli’s theological perspective, when he reads this narrative, he sees the disciples choosing to follow Jesus rather than continuing to work within the family fishing business, and he knows that God had graciously “enabled them to choose,” by “the breath of the Spirit on their hearts” (p. 30).

A general invitation

In Matthew 10, Jesus lays out the alternatives that everyone faces, the choice between which is crucial because it is a “choice of eternal life versus eternal death.” Those who confess Jesus publicly, Jesus will confess before his Father, but those who deny Jesus, he “will deny before his Father” (Mt 10:32-33). Picirilli declares that “depraved, dead, deaf, disabled sinners cannot do this by their free will.” But, “those who hear this generous invitation breathed to them by the Holy Spirit of God are thereby enabled to respond—or not” (p. 30).

The rich young ruler

Sadly, some people who are given the opportunity to follow Jesus choose not to do so. A striking example of this is the rich young ruler whose story is told by all three of the synoptic Gospel writers (Mt 19:16-22; Mk 10:17-27; Lk 18:18-27). “He chose his possessions over Jesus,” but he must have been able to choose Jesus instead, because Jesus would not “have challenged him to do what he could not do just to show him that he could not” (p. 31).

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem

Matthew 23:37 records the sad words of Jesus as he looked down upon Jerusalem, on his last visit there. He had taught God’s truth and worked miracles before the eyes of its inhabitants, and Jesus willed to draw them to himself, like a hen gathering her chicks, but they were not willing to let him do this. God’s gracious words and works, said and done by Jesus, were evidence that the breath of God’s Spirit was among them, and some of them believed but others chose not to, although they could have done so if they wished.


In conclusion of this chapter on free will in a biblical perspective, Picirilli lists many other instances in the New Testament where invitations were given for people to believe in Jesus and to receive his salvation, which was offered in open invitations, and “open salvation means freedom of choice” (p. 33). From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with humanity. He created them all, and he gave them the choice between life and death. He graciously empowered his invitation by his Spirit’s enabling in the hearts and minds of everyone, and many people chose to accept God’s invitation, but many others chose to reject it, even though God had enabled them to respond positively. God had given them that option and they were free to choose how they would respond.

My response

As I read this final section of chapter 3, there was no point at which I disagreed with Picirilli. I could say everything he said, and I think that this indicates that the two of us would do evangelism in the same way, as far as our message to unbelievers is concerned. This was not always true for me, but it is possible because I came to affirm the hypothetical universalism which was represented at the Synod Dort by a significant number of the English delegates. The Canons of Dort accommodated that view, by affirming that the atonement is sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect. Consequently, the common Calvinist position which is represented in the relatively modern acronym “TULIP,” should not be deemed Calvinist orthodoxy. I too am a “5 point Calvinist,” provided this is not equated with the TULIP rendering of those 5 points.

Where the difference between Picirilli and me would come out is before (at the stage where we ask God to work in our evangelistic situation) and after (when we assess what happened as a result of our evangelistic work, both in its success and in its failure to bring about conversion to saving faith in Christ) our evangelistic endeavor. That difference derives from the fact that, for Picirilli, only a choice which has not been predetermined by divine decree, and in which the agent is capable of making a different choice, is a “live option.” By contrast, Calvinists like me believe that as long as a choice is voluntarily willed by an agent, that agent is morally responsible, even though the wills of agents are determined by their character. (John Murray calls this “the dispositional complex, and he notes that it is essentially what Scripture calls ‘the heart’ [Prov 4:23; Mt 12:34, 35; Mk 7:21, 22] Collected Writings of John Murray. Vol. Two: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 61).  I don’t believe that either divine foreknowledge, or divine foreordination, affect the moral quality of the created agent’s volition. I see both Picirilli’s model and mine as forms of “self-determinism,” but they differ significantly in regard to whether or not something else lies determinatively behind an agent’s volition. For me, divine determinism is compatible with human moral agency, for Picirilli and other incompatibilists, divine determinism would eliminate human moral responsibility.

I grant that, in our culture, it is much easier to convince people of Picirilli’s incompatibilist model than it is of my compatibilist understanding. I am regularly reminded of this because I still find compatibilism somewhat mysterious. In my current understanding of Scripture these two factors are clearly taught: comprehensive divine determinism and human moral responsibility. But Picirilli and his fellow incompatibilists find that affirmation incoherent. Since nothing short of libertarian freedom suffices for moral responsibility, biblical texts which compatibilists take to be statements of divine determinism are asserted to have been misread. I commend incompatibilists for their commitment to theological coherence, and I share that commitment, but I find in Scripture very clear affirmations of God’s meticulous providence. Everything that happens, occurs as God willed in his eternal purpose or decree, including the things which happen by the decisions and actions of moral creatures.    

Currently, therefore, I remain a compatibilist, but I continue to work toward a more clear and convincing explanation of how these two theological affirmations can be held simultaneously. In recent years, I have been best satisfied with what I call a “hypothetical knowledge Calvinist” framework. In this model I have appropriated aspects of the Molinist model, but I believe it is more coherent than that model, which is fatally flawed by the grounding objection to it. (That is, it is impossible to predict what choice a libertarianly free creature would make in a hypothetical situation because nothing grounds such knowledge. By definition, the actor has to have been able to choose differently, and only the actor’s choice (undetermined, though not uninfluenced, by prior factors) determines what that person does.

In my construct, it is vitally important that God is able to know what creatures would do voluntarily, in any possible situation. If the grounding objection to Molinism is valid (which I think it is), this knowledge would be impossible if God gave creatures libertarian freedom. But, because God gave them voluntary freedom, the power to do what they willed, without external coercion, God was able to know all the possible worlds and to choose which one of those worlds he would actualize. In the world God chose, everyone who believes and is saved, believes freely, acting according to their own will, because of an effective work of God in their hearts. But everyone who chooses not to believe is accountable for their voluntary choice not to respond positively to the convicting and drawing power of the Holy Spirit. So, the glory for a person’s salvation is attributable to God and his grace, but the shame of willful sin and disbelief is born by the resistant sinner.   

That brings us to the end of Part One of Picirilli’s book and I will begin, in my next post to interact with his “case against free will.”

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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