C.S. Lewis on God’s sovereignty and human free will

August 25, 2011

As I’ve been wrestling this week with the dense and difficult Romans 9, specifically vv. 14-24, for the final week of our “Roman Road” series, I came upon this excerpt from a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote (from the C.S. Lewis Bible). Lewis doesn’t believe we can say as much as we might like about the challenging “inter-relation between God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom.” But what he does say is brilliant as usual.

(When he refers to the “Calvinist view,” he means the view of God that so highly exalts God’s sovereignty—that God is absolutely in complete control of everything that happens—that human responsibility and freedom become meaningless.)

The real inter-relation between God’s omnipotence and Man’s freedom is something we can’t find out. Looking at the Sheep & the Goats every man can be quite sure that every kind act he does will be accepted by Christ. Yet, equally, we all do feel sure that all the good in us comes from Grace. We have to leave it at that. I find the best plan is to take the Calvinist view of my own virtues and other people’s vices: and the other view of my own vices  and other people’s virtues. But tho’ there is much to be puzzled about, there is nothing to be worried about. It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.

You know what Luther said: “Do you doubt if you are chosen? Then say your prayers and you may conclude that you are.”

C.S. Lewis, “Who Is Chosen?” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1283.

4 Responses to “C.S. Lewis on God’s sovereignty and human free will”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, certainly there is “mystery” as to predestination versus free choice. Also, from our perspective, generally speaking, we need to live as though it was “up to us” (basically similar to what Lewis says more eloquently). However, in my opinion the subject cannot so easily be “left at that.” Or, it cannot be left at that because Calvinists are out there teaching “more than that.” Which can be harmful to some people’s view of the faith (as it was to mine at a juncture). Here’s a very brief view of my own take on the subject.

    Imagine God (speaking somewhat anthropomorphically) deciding what type of universe he would create. Millions or so possibilities. However, two “standouts” would be a universe where everything was “perfect” (i.e., Heaven to start out and end up with). Or, the “love” universe. Love requires the capacity to choose for or against someone in response to their overtures. It can’t be “forced,” or it is not a real choice. God, who describes himself as love, as an expression of himself and also because he knew it was the “best choice,” elected the “love” universe.

    So, where do the “predestined” verses come in? And particularly so as to Jacob and Esau and Pharaoh in Romans 9? I see that in this way. God, being infinite in knowledge, knew, if it “threw the switch” for the “love” universe, who would say yes and who would say no. Not that he would make them–he “foreknew.” However, even knowing who would be saved and damned, he “flipped that switch.” Therefore, in that light, he “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau even before they were born or had done anything. Not arbitrarily, or because he flipped any “inner switches” in them, but because he was willing to go with the love universe in the first instance, even though he knew the effect of such a universe would be salvation for Jacob and damnation for Esau.

    But does this mean God never “intervenes”? No. Enter the Pharaoh passage, where it says God “hardened his heart” to make his power known. What to do with that? God, knowing what the hearts of all men would be, put each person at the point in history where his purposes would be fulfilled. The way he “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart (IMO) was that he put him at the point in history where he would be faced with this upstart Moses telling him, the most powerful person in the world, what to do, and something he really did not want to do. That must have made him pretty angry (as it did). He would not want to make that decision whatsoever. So, God “hardened,” not by “flipping an inner switch,” but by putting Pharaoh where he did when he did so that “hardness” of his heart would “come out.”

    This does not solve all the puzzles, but it is a heap sight better than Calvinism, IMO. (Incidentally, should you want to use any of this line of thought, please do.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful post, Tom. As far as “leaving it at that,” your quarrel is more with Lewis than with me! I was characterizing Lewis’s thoughts. More can and should be said, I believe. Although I strongly agree with this sentence regarding “the Pauline doctrine”: “it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.”

      I completely agree with you about the “love universe.” Love means freedom and choice, even destructive choices, and God believed creating a love universe was worth the trade-off. Very well said. I might add that a “perfect universe” that excludes love (by excluding free choice, which amounts to the same thing) isn’t perfect, even though no actual sin is committed. Fair enough?

      I also agree that the “hardening” was a consequence of the rebellion against God that already existed in Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh had already refused Moses’ demands. Plus, he was already abusing God’s people as slaves in the first place! The point is that the “hardening” occurs after Pharaoh’s initial sins against God and Israel. Clearly, something evil was already there. God merely drew it out of him. It seems ridiculous to imagine that God had to “flip a switch,” as you say, to make Pharaoh behave this way! (Flipping a switch is good image!) Nevertheless, God enables Pharaoh “to stand,” rather than judge him for his sins immediately, because God uses Pharaoh’s rebellion for a larger purpose: to demonstrate God’s power and display God’s glory to the world. The world needs to know who this God is, and through the difficult experience of the Exodus, including Pharaoh’s ill-fated role in it, that comes to pass.

      Also, one point I can’t stress enough to my Calvinist friends—which seems crystal clear in this difficult passage—is that these verses are not about “how God elects human beings to salvation or damnation, in general.” Calvinists abstract it out at their own peril. Predestination and the question of whether or not grace is “irresistible” are hardly Paul’s concerns here! The scripture is about how God has remained faithful to his covenant with Israel, in spite of the glaring fact that Israel, the very people with whom and through whom God made the covenant, has (in general) failed to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of the covenant.

      One thing Paul seems to be saying is that this is the way God has always done things: God, when faced with a sinful and disobedient people (because what other kind of people are there?), always carried his plan of salvation forward—in spite of the people’s sin. How? By grace alone. This grace meant choosing a rascal like Jacob (who, like Esau, deserved much worse). It meant sparing a remnant from the disobedient Israelites at Sinai who worshiped the golden calf. And of course, as Paul argues in Romans 10 and 11, it even means a remnant of Jews will still be saved.

      In fact, the good news is that God is using ethnic Israel’s rebellion and disobedience (as he used Pharaoh’s before) to carry forward his plan of salvation, just as he promised Abraham that he would.

      As for the potter and the clay (which comes from Jeremiah when Israel was once again being stubborn and rebellious), God is re-molding Israel to include Gentiles and Jewish Christians, even if it means excluding that part of ethnic Israel that failed to believe. Again—God has done this sort of thing throughout Israel’s history. In this way, God’s word has not “failed.” God has been faithful and true to his original covenant.

      The good news for us today, which I will surely explore in my sermon, is that God’s will is going to be ultimately done. God’s purposes will be fulfilled. Human sin and rebellion—freely chosen but simultaneously used by God for good—cannot and will not thwart God’s plans. God truly is in control. But God can be in control without having to make people his puppets to do his bidding. The scriptures demonstrate that when people actively refuse to do God’s bidding (as with Jacob and Esau, as with Pharaoh, as with Israel at Sinai and in the time of the prophets), God still wins in the end. That’s kind of amazing when you think about it!

      Thoughts?

      • brentwhite Says:

        One more thing… The “vessels of wrath made for destruction” that Paul mentions… Pottery is a two-step process, and Paul is describing the first step. In other words, the potter is still sculpting. He can always mold something else. Only after the second-step, after which the sculpture is fired and glazed, can it be broken beyond repair.

        Whether or not these vessels will be fully and finally destroyed in this way, according to Paul, must be up to the clay (i.e., ethnic Israel, because Paul, as always, isn’t talking about humanity in general). See Romans 11:11 (where Paul employs a different scripture reference): “Have they tripped up in such a way as to fall completely? Certainly not!” The whole thrust of Paul’s argument is that it’s not too late for more of ethnic Israel to be saved, and Paul believes firmly that more of them will.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Very well stated, Brent. You have really worked through this! I especially like the conclusion that God “wins out” with his plans even despite our “independent” disobedience. Look forward to reading your sermon.


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