Theology Proper

A self-determinist reading of key Old Testament passages

Before Robert Picirilli identifies particularly significant biblical texts which teach that humans are libertarianly free, he pauses to describe the general approach to such texts by Luther and Calvin.


Picirilli describes the crucial importance of Luther’s distinction between law and gospel, and he suspects that Luther would regard some of the passages which Picirilli is going to cite, as gospel, rather than law, but he is not able to discern the criteria by which Luther makes this judgment. (p.22). I am happy that Picirilli represented Luther’s law/gospel differentiation as a distinction between command/promise. This is important, because non-Lutherans frequently confuse the unique Lutheran distinction between law and gospel with a distinction between the Old and New Testaments. Although fundamental to Lutheran biblical interpretation and theology, I don’t think that the distinction itself gives us much help in grasping Luther’s understanding of human freedom. When Luther read Deuteronomy 30, however, he cited Romans 3:20: “By the law is knowledge of sin,” and he posited that the law is given to show us our duty, but not our ability. It does not “prove the power of ‘free will’” (BW 158, 165) (p. 21).


Calvin did not follow Luther’s law/gospel distinction, so his view of passages in which God calls people to obey is consistently clear. Like Luther, Calvin cites Romans 3:20 for its clear declaration that the purpose of God’s law is to make our sin plain. “He adds that Romans 5:20, which says that the law entered to make sin abound, ‘would not be true if any power to obey existed in man’ (BLW 166).” Of Paul’s statement in Romans 7:9 that the result of the law is “to kill,” Calvin insists that no one should “deduce from commandments the extent or nature of human ability to obey” (BLW 206). Calvin read Deuteronomy 30:11-14, “in the light of Romans 10:5-9, as illuminating ‘a pathway to the gospel’ that therefore ‘has the function of leading people to Christ’ (BLW 169) (p. 22).          

Picirilli’s general critique of Luther and Calvin’s approach

Picirilli is convinced that Luther and Calvin have responded inadequately to texts such as he is about to lay before us, and that this is a consequence of their “drawing too-fine definitions of the things God says to human beings” (p. 22). Furthermore, Picirilli believes “that any objective reading of the passages [he is] about to treat below must at least consider the likely possibility that the Lord was dealing with people about things they could reasonably be expected to do, in at least some conceivable way—a qualification that requires careful attention” (p. 23). He suggests that we should regard the chosen passages “as gracious invitations that incorporate both law and gospel.” God repeatedly invites us into fellowship with himself, so that we might experience his blessings. He does not expect perfection, but he does require repentance and commitment, and his invitations offer us that possibility. “Fallen persons are depraved and dead, blind and bound by sin, but the quickening, enlightening Word of grace both invites them and enables them to respond, without necessitating a yes or a no, but making either response the possible choice of the sinner” (p. 23).

Picirilli observes that, when “people who uphold free will” read biblical passages which give us statements of God’s moral law, “they often argue that the giving of a command implies the ability to obey it, and so freedom of choice” (p. 21). Picirilli himself, however, believes that “it is an argument that must be used carefully if at all” (p. 21). When such arguments were used, Luther and Calvin generally responded

with three closely related observations: (1) that the purpose of God’s law is to reveal sin rather than to provide for its cure; (2) that the law of God serves to reveal our duty and not our ability; and (3) that God’s law convinces us of our inability to live in subjection to God.

Picirilli has a coherent, incompatibilist, view of the manner in which God addresses sinners graciously, commanding them to believe and obey, and enabling them to do so, without determining who will respond positively and who will reject God’s gracious overture. This clearly distinguishes Picirilli’s self-determinist perspective from the divine determinist model of Luther and Calvin, as well as Edwards, all of whom believed that final salvation by faith was God’s gift only to those whom he had predestined for salvation and effectually called.  Let’s see how Picirilli’s self-determinism comes through in his reading of the Old Testament.

(As a side note regarding predestination, it may be worth observing that Luther followed Augustine, viewing predestination as connected to perseverance, rather than to initial justifying faith, as per Calvin. This allows for salvation to be lost within the Lutheran framework, but not within Calvinism. That difference is also important because of the way it informs the respective understandings of the meaning of the baptism of infants. Arminius himself was agnostic about the possibility that salvation could be lost, but his followers tended to be certain that salvation could be lost, though most believe it can also be regained, as do Roman Catholics.)

Picirilli’s understanding of key Old Testament passages

God and Cain

In Genesis 4:6-7, after Cain had “apparently brought less than the best he had as a gift in worship of God and God rejected his gift,” God asked Cain why he was angry, because: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door” (p. 24).

Picirilli suggests that “the natural way to read this is that God gave Cain two alternatives and the freedom to choose between them” (p. 24). Picirilli does not deny that Cain was “spiritually deaf and blind and bound,” but he posits that God’s word was “given life and power by the Spirit,” thereby enabling him to “respond positively in spite of his depravity.” Tragically, Cain rejected God’s offer of grace and chose to kill his brother.

Leviticus 26 and obedience versus disobedience in Israel

Leviticus 26 demonstrates clearly the alternative ways in which hearers of God’s word could respond, and the results which would follow from the alternative chosen. Verses 3-13 inform the hearers that if they “walk in [God’s] statutes,” he will “be their God, and [they] shall be [his] people. Alternatively, if they do not obey, but despise God’s statutes and break his covenant, the Lord will set his face against them (26:12), walk contrary to them (26:24), bring the land into desolation (26:32), and scatter them among the heathen (26:33). Pointedly, Picirilli asks: “Did God mean for his hearers to see, when he offered this, that there was no way they could do what he asked, and so the two alternatives were not both open to them in any way at all?” (p. 25). He wonders aloud: “Who will read such a passage . . . and say that it does not clearly speak to the possibility of choice?”

Moses’ parting words to Israel in Deuteronomy

Equally clear alternatives and consequences of choices made are described in Deuteronomy 11:26-28.  Obedience to God’s commands would result in God’s blessing, but disobedience, and following of other gods instead, would bring God’s curse upon them. This is reiterated in Moses’s final warning in Deuteronomy 30:11-20. On the day that Moses was speaking to Israelites, God was setting before his people the crucial choice between life and death, depending on whether they do good or evil. Obedience to God will surely be followed by his blessing, but disobedience and idolatry will certainly elicit God’s curse upon them, removal from the land and perishing.

Again, Picirilli wonders: “Can we really think God would tantalize them with a choice they could not make? That his command was nothing more than a reminder of what they ought but could not do?” (p. 26). This cannot be true, because “Moses said the command was not hidden from them; it was not out of their reach.” Rather, Picirilli proposes, these words of God spoken to Israel through Moses were “instruments of grace. . . . It was an invitation to grace conveyed in grace, and it did not leave the hearers unable to respond” (p. 27).

Following Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy 11:29, Joshua gathered the people after the victory over Ai, and he divided them into two groups, which stood on Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Ebal, with the people on Mt. Gerizim representing those who would obey God’s commands and be blessed, and the people on Mt. Ebal representing those who would disobey God’s commands and be cursed, and all the people were called upon to acknowledge the justice of God’s blessing the obedient and cursing the disobedient. Again, the choices and the consequences of those choices, were made very clear.

Paul cited Deut 30:14 in Rom 10:8, applying it to new covenant reception of salvation by faith, “to show that this righteousness is not somewhere out of reach or difficult to attain, but is as near as one’s mouth and heart—a mouth capable of confession and a heart capable of faith” (p. 28). Picirilli takes this to be indication “that the winds of grace were blowing as surely [in Moses’ day] as they are now when redemption is preached under the convicting work of the Spirit’ (p. 28).

Finally, Picirilli draws our attention to a particular grammatical structure in Deuteronomy 11:26, 30:1, and 30:15, translated “I have set before you,” and then followed by two options as objects of the verb. This structure occurs only once more in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah 21:8, “I set before you the way of life and the way of death.” Picirilli thinks it

highly unlikely that any interpreter would suggest that Jeremiah’s hearers could not make either of the choices. What seems likely is that the very construction was intended to suggest what we may call “live” options. when the persons so challenged were able to choose either. And it seems equally likely that this is the implication of the construction in Deuteronomy, when the persons so challenged were enabled to choose between life and death, blessing and cursing, which God set before them. (p.29).

Joshua’s farewell message

In Joshua 24:14-15, we find the same situation we have been viewing in Deuteronomy (plus Romans and Jeremiah). Joshua clearly describes two options, between which everyone in Israel had to choose. Either they could fear the Lord and serve him sincerely, putting away their Egyptian gods, or they could serve the gods of the Amorites, in whose land they were then located. Picirilli finds it “difficult to see how free will could be any more plainly exposed, at least if one assumes that the enabling grace of God was at work.” He is careful to stress that he is “not denying their depravity, or their spiritual deadness or inability,” but “the sweet winds of grace were blowing,” so that “Joshua’s challenge to the people was the kind that enabled them to make the choice” (p.29).

Divine determinist reflections on Picirilli’s self-determinist understanding

I am pleased that, as is characteristic of classic Arminianism, Picirilli takes very seriously the morally disabling effect of original sin, and I expect that he would concur with me that this disabling or depravity is aggravated by the sins we perversely but deliberately commit, whenever we spurn God’s grace.

Picirilli has chosen excellent Old Testament texts to demonstrate that the law of God was addressed pointedly to people who were required to choose whether to obey or disobey, and who obviously had the graciously enabled ability to make a choice for which they would be morally accountable to God. He is correct to assert repeatedly that it would be extraordinary if anyone reading the texts he has chosen denied that those texts clearly describe a situation in which the hearers of God’s word proclaimed by his human representatives had an authentic choice between the alternatives set before them, and that they were morally accountable for the choice they made. I believe that Picirilli is correct in this regard, and I think that many of my fellow Calvinists would agree with my assessment.

The critical problem is that, for Picirilli, only a choice in which an agent’s will is undetermined qualifies as a “’live’ option.” By contrast, Calvinists like me believe that a choice only needs to be willed by an agent to ground moral responsibility, 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).  Neither divine foreknowledge, nor divine foreordination, affect the moral quality of the created agent’s volition. Both Picirilli’s model and mine are forms of “self-determinism,” but they differ significantly in regard to whether or not something else lies behind an agent’s volition. Calvin’s own work is a fine place to see a divine determinist understanding at work in biblical exegesis, so I checked him out on the passages which Picirilli selected. 

Calvin on Genesis 4:7

With regard to God’s message in Gen 4:7, Calvin wrote:

“In these words God reproves Cain for having been unjustly angry, inasmuch as the blame of the whole evil lay with himself. For foolish indeed was his complaint and indignation at the rejection of sacrifices, the defects of which he had taken no care to amend. Thus all wicked men, after they have been long and vehemently enraged against God, are at length so convicted of the Divine judgment, that they vainly desire to transfer to others the cause of the evil.” (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 4:7)

In these words God reproves Cain for having been unjustly angry, inasmuch as the blame of the whole evil lay with himself. For foolish indeed was his complaint and indignation at the rejection of sacrifices, the defects of which he had taken no care to amend. Thus all wicked men, after they have been long and vehemently enraged against God, are at length so convicted of the Divine judgment, that they vainly desire to transfer to others the cause of the evil.” (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 4:7)

Furthermore, Calvin clearly believes that Cain’s own conscience bore witness against him, for Cain was violating that inner witness when he deliberately chose to disobey. Calvin writes:

God not only repels his unjust complaint, but shows that Cain could have no greater adversary than that sin of his which he inwardly cherished. He so binds the impious man, by a few concise words, that he can find no refuge as if he had said, “Thy obstinacy shall not profit thee; for, though thou shouldst have nothing to do with me, thy sin shall give thee no rest, but shall sharply drive thee on, pursue thee, and urge thee, and never suffer thee to escape.” Hence it follows, that he not only raged in vain and to no profit; but he was held guilty by his own inward conviction, even though no one should accuse him; for the expression, “sin lieth at the door,” relates to the interior judgment of the conscience, which presses upon the man convinced of his sin, and besieges him on every side. (Commentary on Genesis 4:7)

This does not, however, lead Calvin to an assertion of self-determinism. For he writes:

They, however, childishly trifle, who distort this passage to prove the freedom of the will; for if we grant that Cain was admonished of his duty in order that he might apply himself to the subjugation of sin, yet no inherent power of man is to be hence inferred; because it is certain that only by the grace of the Holy Spirit can the affections of the flesh be so mortified that they shall not prevail. Nor, truly, must we conclude, that as often as God commands anything we shall have strength to perform it, but rather we must hold fast the saying of Augustine, “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.” (Commentary on Genesis 4:7)

I’m hearing in Calvin’s commentary on this passage a clear compatibilism: God, by his Spirit, efficaciously enables some to be victorious over sin within themselves, yet he gives everyone sufficient ability to constitute them guilty, when they yield to their own evil desires even though their own consciences condemn them as they do so.

Calvin on Leviticus 26

Calvin deals with the situation Picirilli described well, as found in Leviticus 26 and numerous similar Old Testament passages, where God gave people two alternatives and held them accountable for their choice, in II, V, 10 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is entitled “The Biblical promises suppose (according to our opponents’ view) the freedom of the will.”

Calvin writes:

These blessings which the Lord offers us in his promises they think to be referred to our will unsuitably and in mockery, unless it is in our power either to realize them or make them void. And it is quite easy to amplify this matter with such eloquent complaints as: “We are cruelly deluded by the Lord, when he declares that his loving-kindness depends upon our will, if the will itself is not under our control. This liberality of God would be remarkable if he so unfolded his blessings to us that we had no capacity to enjoy them! Wonderfully certain promises these—dependent upon an impossible thing, never to be fulfilled!” [n. 22. Most of these passages and arguments had been used by opponents of Luther, including Schatzgeyer, Erasmus, Cochlaeus, De Castro, and Faber.] (Institutes II, V, 10, p. 327)

But, Calvin denies “that God cruelly deludes us when, though knowing us to be utterly powerless, he invites us to merit his blessings.” He asserts that, “by these entreaties, ‘If you are willing,’ ‘If you hearken,’ the Lord neither attributes to us the free capacity to will or to hearken, nor yet does he mock us for our impotence” (Institutes, II, V, 10, p. 328). Rather, says Calvin, if sinners “are held guilty of any fault, the Lord with reason reproaches them for not feeling, because of their perversity, the benefit of his kindness. Let them therefore answer whether they can deny that the cause of their obstinacy was their own perverse will. If they find the source of evil within themselves, why do they strain after external causes so as not to seem the authors of their own destruction?” (Institutes, II, V, 11, p. 329). Psalm 78:8 speaks of “a wicked generation. . . . that kept not its heart straight,” and people are urged not to “harden their hearts” in Psalm 95:8, because “the blame for all stubbornness rests in the wickedness of men” (Institutes, II, V, 11, p. 330).

It troubled Calvin that, from those facts,

it is foolishly inferred that the heart, since the Lord has prepared it [cf. Prov 16:1], can be bent alike to either side.  The prophet says: “I have inclined my heart to perform thy statutes” [Ps 119:112], namely, because he had pledged himself willingly and with cheerful attitude of mind to God. And yet he does not boast of himself as the author of this inclination, which he confesses in the same psalm to be the gift of God [Ps 119:36]. [Institutes, II, V, 11, p. 330).

Citing Philippians 2:12-13, where Paul urges us to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work . . ., both to will and to accomplish,” Calvin discerns God’s humbling of believers so that “they remember what they are bidden to do is God’s own work. By it he clearly intimates that believers act passively, so to speak, seeing that the capacity is supplied from heaven, that they may claim nothing at all for themselves” (Institutes, II, V, 11, p. 330).

Calvin on Deuteronomy 30

Picirilli’s appeal to the clear alternatives God gave to the Israelites, through Moses, as described in Deuteronomy 30:11 ff., as proof that humans have free will (understood libertarianly), had precedent in Calvin’s day. Calvin wrote:

Yet our opponents cite a passage from the law of Moses that seems to be strongly opposed to our explanation. For, after promulgating the law, Moses calls the people to witness in this manner: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not obscure, nor is it far off, nor is it in heaven. . . . But it is near you . . .  in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:11-12, 14 p.) [n. 24: cited by Erasmus and Herborn] (Institutes II, V, 12, p. 331)

Calvin grants that “if these words be understood as spoken concerning the bare precepts, I admit that they are of no slight importance for the present case.” He suggests that “even though it would be an easy matter to dodge the issue by contending that this has to do with man’s capacity and disposition to understand the commandments, not with his ability to observe them, nevertheless perhaps some scruple would thus also remain.” So, Calvin does not rely on that approach but appeals to the apostle Paul’s citation of this text, in Romans 10:8:

But the apostle, our sure interpreter, removes our every doubt when he declares that Moses here spoke of the teaching of the gospel. But suppose some obstinate person contends that Paul violently twisted these words to make them refer to the gospel. Although such a man’s boldness will not be lacking in impiety, yet we have a means of refuting him apart from the apostle’s authority. For if Moses was speaking of the precepts only, he inspired in the people the vainest confidence. For what else would they have done but dash into ruin, if they had set out to keep the law by their own strength, as it if were easy for them? Where is that ready capacity to keep the law, when the only access to it lies over a fatal precipice? It is perfectly clear then that by these words Moses meant the covenant of mercy that he had promulgated along with the law. For a few verses before he had also taught that our hearts must needs be circumcised by God’s hand for us to love him [Deut 30:6]. He therefore lodged that ability, of which he immediately thereafter speaks, not in the power of man, but in the help and protection of the Holy Spirit, who mightily carries on his work in our weakness. Nevertheless, we are not to understand this passage as referring simply to the precepts, but rather to the promises of the gospel; and they, far from establishing in us the capacity to obtain righteousness, utterly destroy it.

Paul confirms this testimony that in the gospel salvation is not offered under that hard, harsh, and impossible condition laid down for us by the law—that only those who have fulfilled all the commandments will finally attain it—but under an easy, ready, and openly accessible condition. Therefore this Scripture [Rom chap. 10] has no value in establishing the freedom of the human will. [Institutes, II, V, 12 pp. 331-32]

Within a compatibilist perspective, it is essential that we acknowledge the free agency of humans when they act morally responsibly, but the will of God is of prior importance, for he exercises it sovereignly and accomplishes his purposes in and through his image bearers. Calvin is careful not to diminish the importance of our wills in our acts of obedience to God, while not detracting from the essential work of God’s grace which requires us always to give God the glory for whatever good we do. He unpacks this in II, V, 15, a section entitled: “The ‘works’ are ours by God’s gift, but God’s by his prompting” (Institutes,p. 335).

Nothing now prevents us from saying that we ourselves are fitly doing what God’s Spirit is doing in us, even if our will contributes nothing of itself distinct from his grace. Therefore we must keep in mind what we have elsewhere cited from Augustine [Cf. II, ii. 11]: in vain, people busy themselves with finding any good of man’s own in his will. For any mixture of the power of free will that men strive to mingle with God’s grace is nothing but a corruption of grace. It is just as if one were to dilute wine with muddy, bitter water. But even if there is something good in the will, it comes from the pure prompting of the Spirit. Yet because we are by nature endowed with will, we are with good reason said to do those things the praise for which God rightly claims for himself: first, because whatever God out of his loving-kindness does in us is ours, provided we understand that it is not of our doing; secondly, because ours is the mind, ours the will, ours the striving, which he directs toward the good. [Institutes¸ II, V, 15, pp. 335-36].

Making sense of Calvin’s compatibilist understanding

I can understand the puzzlement which non-Calvinists are almost certain to feel as they read Calvin’s compatibilist comments on God’s commands to sinners who are morally responsible for their deliberate disobedience to God, even though they do not have the libertarian freedom which incompatibilists usually assume to be necessary for moral responsibility. Elsewhere, Calvin has spoken about this in ways which illuminate his perspective for me, and this may be helpful to others too. Once again, I am grateful to A. N. S. Lane, for the exposition he provided in his article, “Did Calvin Believe in Freewill?” (Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 72-90).

To avoid the confusion which necessarily arises when people are using terms in a different sense from one another, Calvin carefully defined his terms.

There are four different states of the will to be distinguished: free (libera), coerced (coacta), spontaneous (spontanea), and bound (serva). According to the popular understanding (followed by Pighius) a free will has it in its power to choose good and evil. A coerced will ‘is not inclined hither and thither of its own accord, or by the motion of internal choice, but is violently carried along by an external motion’. Such a will cannot exist for it would be a contradiction in terms. A spontaneous will turns itself of its own accord and is not dragged unwillingly. Finally, a bound will is enslaved to evil lusts on account of its corruption and can only choose evil. But it does so freely (sponte et libenter), not driven by an external motion. According to these definitions, fallen man has a will (arbitrium) which is spontaneous and does evil by the choice of his own will (voluntariae suae electioni). Coercion and violence are excluded as these are inconsistent with the nature of the will. Freedom is also excluded as the will necessarily chooses evil, because of its innate depravity (Def. serv. arb. [OC 6.280]). [Lane, pp.79-80]

So, we see that Calvin defined very clearly the sense in which the sinner’s will is free.

Fallen man is a slave of sin in that he cannot but sin, he sins inevitably and of necessity. But this bondage is not due to force or coercion. Man is not an unwilling captive held by violent coercion or external force. On the contrary, he sins freely in the sense that he sins voluntarily, spontaneously, of his own accord and his own will. His sin is the expression of his true character and in that sense he is fully free. But he is not free in the sense of being poised between good and evil in some sort of moral neutrality. The sinner is totally committed?to sin. [Lane, p.80]

As we see in Calvin’s distinctions, as just described, a very significant plank in Calvin’s platform is the distinction between necessity and coercion.

People sin necessarily, but this necessity is inherent, as a result of the fall, and so it arises from their own nature. There is no external coercion on people from outside themselves. They sin, not because they are forced or unwilling, but voluntarily. They are moved by their own passion; and yet “such is the depravity of their nature, that [they] cannot move and act except in the direction of evil [Inst. II.iii.5]. They sin necessarily but voluntarily (Lane, p. 78).

To defend the compatibility of necessity (but not coercion) with the integrity of the will, Calvin cited the examples of God and the devil, following Bernard. God is necessarily good, because of his nature. The devil has so fallen that he can do nothing but evil. Therefore, “if the freewill of God in doing good is not impeded, because he necessarily must do good; if the devil, who can do nothing but evil, nevertheless sins voluntarily; can it be said that man sins less voluntarily because he is under a necessity of sinning?” (Calvin, Inst. II.iii.5, cited by Lane, p. 78).

People are slaves to sin, but their bondage is voluntary. They are under a yoke of ‘voluntary servitude’ (Inst. II.iii.5. Cf. Comm. Jn. 8: 34; Comm. Rom. 7: 14). Can it be said, then, that human wills remain free? As Lane points out, this depends on how “freewill” is defined.

Calvin was certainly not keen on the term. In his sermons it is always portrayed as an error of the papists. In a commentary he ironically stated that the origin of ‘freewill’ (liberum arbitrium) is that Adam wanted to be independent (per se esse) (Comm. Gen. 2: 9). In the Institutio his position is more subtle. The early fathers are criticised for conceding too much to fallen human powers, for fear of the jeers of the philosophers and for fear of encouraging sloth. All but Augustine were confused on this matter. Calvin summarised the different views on freewill, showing how there was a slow but steady retreat from the bondage of the will after Augustine (Inst. II.ii.4f.). Calvin was himself prepared to accept the term freewill if it was used not in the sense of ‘a free choice of good and evil’ but to mean that man acts wickedly by will and not by coercion (Inst. II.ii.7). But he considered that freewill was far too grand a title for such a small thing when man is the (voluntary) slave of sin. Furthermore, the term has been so abused that most people imagine it to mean that man is ‘the master of his mind and will in such a sense, that he can of himself incline himself either to good or evil’ (Inst. II.ii.7). The solution could be to explain the true meaning of the term, but the propensity of man to falsehood is such that the error dormant in one word can outweigh the truth in a whole discourse of clarification. Calvin’s advice is to drop the term in order to avoid the danger, but if any wish to retain the term without the error, they are free to do so (Lane, p. 78-79).

Calvin did believe in freewill in one sense (which he clearly defined), but he did not believe in it in another sense (which he equally clearly defined). I find his understanding satisfactory and helpful, but I know that incompatibilists will necessarily  be dissatisfied with this understanding, because the will which Calvin attributes to us does not strike them as robust enough to ground moral responsibility.  

Tony Lane believes that “the weak point in Calvin’s case lies not in his doctrine of predestination, since he could plausibly claim that God’s decree and man’s action function at ‘different levels’, but in his doctrine of original sin” (p. 81).

Calvin asserted that Adam’s sin brought a hereditary taint of corruption into human nature (Inst. I.xv.8 (1559); Comm. Rom. 5: 12). As a result of the Fall, all Adam’s descendants suffer from a corrupted and depraved nature (Inst. II.i.5-8 (1536-1559). Cf. Comm. Ezek. 11: 19f). All men are guilty not for Adam’s sin but for their own depravity. We are condemned as a result of the Fall not because we undeservingly bear Adam’s guilt but because we are guilty ourselves, being depraved because of the Fall. Infants, for instance, are guilty not of Adam’s fault but of their own corruption (Inst. II.i.6,8 (1536-1559); Comm. Rom. 5: 17). Calvin seems here to be avoiding Augustine’s teaching that all men sinned ‘in Adam’ and are therefore guilty of the Fall. But his change exacerbates rather than relieves the problem of responsibility. For Augustine, we are responsible for our present plight because in some mysterious way we sinned in Adam. Our ultimate responsibility is maintained, albeit by a mystery. For Calvin, we are guilty because we are in a depraved condition which is explicitly Adam’s fault and not ours. Calvin removed the mystery but appears also to have removed any ground for our responsibility for our present plight (Lane, p. 81).

I share Lane’s analysis, having become unsatisfied with the common Reformed concept of “imputed guilt” and righteousness. I much prefer the concept of “incorporated guilt” and righteousness. (This is a term which I think I first appropriated from Michael Bird. I have unpacked its operation in a blog post: More fundamentally, I have become convinced that Reformed theology has put a weight upon original guilt which Scripture does not support, as seen, for instance, in the biblical teaching regarding final judgment, and in God’s distress over the unbelief of the non-elect. Elsewhere, beginning with a section in chapter 11 of  Who Can Be Saved?,  I have written about this, but it would take us too far afield to say more in that regard at this point. (For any who are interested, however, a prepublished draft of that chapter can be read at my blog site: .)   

B. B. Warfield’s practical application of compatibilism to evangelism

B. B. Warfield addressed the very practical matter of evangelism from the compatibilist perspective which we have just seen enunciated by Calvin, in a manner which some (along with me) may find helpful. Warfield acknowledges that “one of the most difficult questions which the seeker of souls has to meet arises out of the doctrine of Inability” (“Inability and the Demand of Faith” (Selected Shorter Writings [vol 2, 725-28.], p. 725). One of Warfield’s concerns is to prevent unbelievers from excusing their unbelief, by appeal to their inability, because they are “wholly dead in sin.” Warfield writes:

The command to believe is explicit. And the object of faith is most winningly presented to the mind and heart. Our obvious duty is to believe: and if we cannot do so the responsibility rests upon us. That we cannot do so is the result and index of our sinfulness. Inability is a sinful condition of the will, and the sole reason why a man cannot believe is that he is so exceedingly sinful that such a one as he cannot use his will for believing. He cannot will to do it because he loves sin too much. For such a “cannot” he is certainly responsible (p. 725).

Warfield proposes that

the puzzle is a logical one, and concerns doctrine, not action. . . . Regeneration is not a fact of experience, but an inference from experience; and inability is not a ground of quiescence, but an inference from quiescence. It passes away in regeneration; and no one can know that it is gone save by the change in activity. We reason back from our experience and call in the doctrine of inability to explain our actual conduct, and that of regeneration to explain the gulf between our conduct of yesterday and today. But that gulf is revealed in consciousness only by action. No man can know, then, whether he is unable save by striving to act (p. 726).

We need to recognize that “the doctrine of inability does not affirm that we cannot believe, but only that we cannot believe in our own strength. It affirms only that there is no natural strength within us by which we may attain to belief. But this is far from asserting that on making the effort we shall find it impossible to believe” (p. 726). Warfield cites the example of the man with a withered hand, who knew that he was impotent to stretch out his hand. Yet, when Christ commanded him to do so, he did. “So God commands what he wills and gives while he commands. Unable in ourselves, we may taste and see that the Lord is gracious. These very struggles of the soul are an evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit within us” (p. 726). Consequently, “we are justified in saying to every distressed sinner, in the words of Principal Gore: ‘Act against sin, in Christ’s name, as if you had strength, and you find you have” (p. 726). This is borne out by the “frequent commands of God to believe and the frequent unlimited and universal promises of acceptance (p. 727).

In the sermons of the successful evangelist, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Warfield found many good examples. M’Cheyne never glossed the inability of sinners.

To the objection that the heart is hard and cannot believe, he replies: “This does but aggravate your guilt. It is true that you were born thus, and that your heart is like the nether millstone. But that is the very reason God will most justly condemn you; because from your infancy you have been hard-hearted and unbelieving.” But he makes this very inability a reason why we should look from ourselves to a Savior for salvation. (p. 727)

The “essence of the matter” is that “Christ is needed as a Savior all the more because we cannot do the least thing to save ourselves” (p. 727). So, Warfield urges us not to argue with sinners but to press them to come to Jesus (p. 728). He cites a sermon by a Dr. McCosh, on “Waiting for God.” McCosh said to unbelieving sinners:

But you say you can do nothing without grace; you are waiting for it. Ah, there is reason to fear that to all [your] other sins [you are] adding the sin of hypocrisy. [You] are not waiting for grace, but in [your] secret heart for something very different. Determined to cherish [your] self-righteousness, [you are] waiting for self-indulgence, waiting for earthly goods and pleasures. God does offer [you] grace, but [you wish] to remain graceless. [You might] be made humble, but [you are] determined to remain proud. [You might] have [your] self-righteous spirit subdued, and [you are] resolved to lean on [your] own deeds. . . . Friend, I would strip you of these false pretexts by which [you are] deceiving [yourself], but by which [you can] not deceive God. Away with the delusion that [you have] been waiting for God, when [you have] been waiting for self-seeking ends. Let there be a surrender at once of [your] self-will. Commit [yourself] at once and implicitly into God’s hands. If [you knew] the gift of God, and how good he is to them that “wait for him,” [you would] even now submit [yourself] to him to do with [you] as [seems] to him good; to bend [you] as [you require] to be bent; to change [you] as you [require] to be changed; and to fashion [you] anew after his own pleasure. And [do not] say that [you are] waiting for the movement of the Spirit, as the impotent man waited at the pool for the troubling of the waters. For the spiritually impotent are cured not by any wished-for movement of their spirits, but by Christ himself as he passes by; and he is now passing by and is ready to heal” (pp. 727-28; text in square brackets is to make the language more natural for contemporary ears, which are not accustomed to “thee”s and “thou”s and the verb forms which accompany them).          

The alternative mysteries of compatibilism and incompatibilism

The passages I’ve referred to in Calvin’s writing remind me of the puzzling conclusion of divine monergism: that I am justified solely by God’s grace, through his effectual enabling and the gift of saving faith, and yet I would have been responsible for my rejection of God’s grace, which was sufficient to ground moral responsibility, if it had not been efficient in securing my salvation. Similarly, I am as holy as God has graciously chosen to make me, but I am responsible for not being more holy than I am. This strikes Arminians as frustratingly self-contradictory, but I think the mystery of compatibilism is not more strange than the mystery of evangelical incompatibilism.

I have frequently remarked to Arminian friends that if I believed, as they do, that people who believe in Jesus could have chosen not to, all things being the same, including the working of God’s grace in their lives, I would find it appropriate to congratulate new believers for having made a good decision, where others had made a bad one. I am thankful, however, that, in my experience, when synergist/incompatibilist Arminians give testimony concerning their conversion, they regularly give God the glory for his grace in their salvation.

Neither I nor John Calvin has difficulty heartily affirming the strong insistence which Picirilli makes in this section of his book, that Scripture’s appeals to people to obey God, and warnings of the consequences of disobeying him, unmistakably teach us that sinners are morally responsible for the sinful deeds they do willingly, though these are contrary to the promptings of their own consciences. From this, however, Picirilli and other incompatibilists conclude that we must, therefore, have the libertarian freedom to decide and act in one way or the other, with nothing internal to ourselves which makes our decision predictable by a being who knows us and all the factors of our situation exhaustively. To Calvin, Edwards, and modern Calvinists in general, however, it is inconceivable, given Scripture’s strong portrait of God as ruling the world effectively according to the will of his eternal purpose, that we should affirm that most of the history of the world is determined by creatures.

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


By Terrance Tiessen

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,562 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments