Getting drunk on God’s sovereignty

These New Calvinists are a weird bunch. They take the most unspeakably evil tragedy and say not merely that God allowed it, not merely that God will use it to bring good, but that God caused it. They remind me a little of conspiracy theorists: the very lack of evidence for—or evidence directly contradictingtheir point of view is further proof of their belief. The more incomprehensible the evil—the more reluctant any sane person would be to say, “The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ must be the author of this”—the more satisfied they are that “God is in control” and “God’s will is done,” so praise God!

I try to give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time, but then I read something like this post from Trevin Wax. If I’m misinterpreting what he’s saying, please tell me how.

My favorite part is this:

Is it worth it having free will just so God can be loved without force? Isn’t there something bigger than our love for God?

I would ask that Wax refrain from using the word “love” because without freedom the word has no meaning. Coerced love isn’t love.

Good, evil, love, hatred, indifference… From Wax’s point of view, what’s the difference? A sovereign God wills what God wills, so praise God. In many ways, this extreme form of Calvinism isn’t much different from Hinduism: Whatever happens is really good, because it’s all God. What you see is what you get. If you don’t like what you see, that’s your problem, not God’s.

I would also recommend that Wax read David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea. Christian thinking on this subject didn’t begin in the sixteenth century.

13 thoughts on “Getting drunk on God’s sovereignty”

  1. Brent,

    Thanks for your comment. Thanks also for the book recommendation. I’ll add it to my queue of books to read.

    BTW, I am not saying that God caused the events of 9/11. God is not the author of evil. However, the fact that God did not stop the events of 9/11 from taking place brings us back to the problem of evil.

    I recognize that there are many Christians who have found satisfactory answers in other streams of Christianity. (Augustine utilized the free will defense, after all.) The point of the post, however, was to show that for many young people, the Reformed response resonated more than any other Christian stream. Just an observation, not a declaration that there are no other legitimate Christian ways to approach these difficult subjects.

    1. Trevin,

      I’m confused. If everything that happens is because God preordains it (for reasons that we can’t explain, for his glory, etc.), how is this different from saying God causes it? Do you deny that within this strand of Calvinism God acts in a strictly deterministic way? Regardless, what you say above (“the fact that God did not stop the events of 9/11”) seems softer to me than what you said in your post.

      By all means, God obviously didn’t stop the events of 9/11. And I agree with you that Christians often say dumb things in the face of tragedy. (Thanking God that one person survives when another dies is theologically troubling.) And I agree that God is in control.

      But I can believe all these things and not sacrifice human free will. The classic, consensual Christian view (i.e., enjoying a broad consensus in the history of Christian thought) of God’s sovereignty is that God’s will is not in competition with human will, such that the more God wills and acts, the less humans will and act. God will see to it that God’s will is done in an ultimate way, without at the same time overriding human freedom. God’s actions are on a different plane of causality from human actions.

      It seems like the New Calvinists’ effort to exalt God’s sovereignty above human freedom, such that freedom is meaningless, actually reduces God down to human size. A transcendent God doesn’t need to compete with humans to make things work out. Humans can’t thwart God’s purposes in any sort of ultimate way.

      To whet your appetite for the fierce intellect of David Bentley Hart, please read this piece in First Things, which originally appeared as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal after the St. Stephen’s Day Tsunami:

      1. Brent,

        I’m not a strict determinist, but a compatibilist. And I do believe we have free will, only that our free will is not free in the libertarian sense.

        When Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost, he held individuals responsible for crucifying Jesus, and yet he also declared that they were doing what God had ordained for them to do. In other words, the crucifixion was part of God’s plan, yet people acted freely when they put Jesus on the cross.

        I’m with you. These two things aren’t in contradiction. People committed horrible evils, and yet all of this was part of God’s master plan.

        The redemptive aspect of all of this, of course, is that the greatest good (salvation, cosmic restoration) has come from the greatest evil and injustice in history (the murder of God’s Son). So even the evil acts that bring such suffering today will be turned around and used of God for His glory and our good.

        Again, brother, I’m not trying to convert you or anyone else to the Calvinist compatibilist view of free will. The point of my post was merely to show that, for many of us young guys, the Reformed understanding of these things was attractive in the cultural ethos birthed by the horror of 9/11.

      2. I hear you, Trevin, and I appreciate your friendly tone. But I disagree, based on what you say, that you’re not a strict determinist. You say, “I do believe we have free will, only that our free will is not free in the libertarian sense.” I don’t see the difference. You believe people who do evil could not do otherwise because God ordained them to do so. From their perspective, their action was completely free, but in the background God was pulling the strings. That’s compatibilism, right?

  2. Two things that should be considered in the discussion on love and freedom are Saul of Tarsus and heaven.

    Saul of Tarsus: Paul was thundered upon on the road to Damascus and told (coerced) that he would be God’s messenger to the Gentiles. This was not his choice, nor his resonse to an invitation, however, what was his life’s resonse…love, great love for Jesus. BTW…though in the literal sense, he was coerced, yet when Christ is in view, it doesn’t feel like it because there is such great love and freedom. Paul’s salvation may be exceptional (non-normative), but your view of “freedom” in the free-will sense doesn’t fit here. Paul had supreme love for Christ, although he was not given a free-will choice to follow (his choosing came after this encounter). I agree with your premise that without freedom there can be no true love. However, we disagree with the nature of freedom. I believe freedom is the result of “seeing” and knowing Christ (“If the Son sets you free…”). When Paul was set free from his sin, great love for Christ followed.

    Footnote: I think this area is where Reformed Theology is quite misunderstood: When God calls a person (Rom. 8:30), and draws them to Himself (John 6:44), and gives them life (John 6:63), i.e., salvation, then the affections are roused and the recipient of grace wants to come. No one comes “kicking and screaming”. One who has been regenerated wants (will, emotions, heart desire, etc.) Christ. He/she has been set free from sin and self to now desire Christ. This freedom from sin must come first, or the will would never choose God.

    Heaven: Basically the same argument. In heaven God will not allow a hint of sin. We will be protected from the temptation and the choice. This does not mean we will become robots in heaven who feel no love. We will love passionately and perfectly. Choice will not be necessary for true love. Therefore, choice and free-will cannot universally and unconditionally be equated with love. Again, freedom from sin and relationship with Christ result in love, whether or not it was initially our doing (“Arminianism”) or God’s (“Calvinism”).

    1. Justin,

      I almost don’t even disagree with what you say. Our human response to God is conditioned on God’s grace, beginning, middle, and end. I’m no Pelagian! Paul couldn’t have responded to God without God’s initiative. But it feels kind of proof-texty to say that God forced Paul’s positive response because of this one verse. To say that God chose Paul doesn’t imply at the same time that Paul didn’t also choose. This is the mystery of election. As I indicated in response to Trevin, it doesn’t have to be either God or humans but not both. It’s both/and. God can operate in that way because God is God and we’re not.

      1. Brent,

        I, too, agree that this is a both/and issue. I think a fault that some Reformists/Calvinists fall into is downplaying the response aspect of the individual. In other words, the argument can be framed in such a way as to make it seem like someone would be chosen against their will (“kicking and screaming”). God’s calling and election do intermingle with individual lives, and, as I stated earlier, true regeneration brings forth love, response, etc.

        The word forced or coerced is not really a good way to describe Paul’s conversion. Forced, or coerced, seems to imply “against someone’s will”. So in that sense, I don’t believe Paul was coerced. When the Lord revealed Himself to Paul, Paul wanted to follow/obey/love, which brings it back to the primary point I was attempting to make (i.e., we love as a result of God’s initial act, not so much our “free-will”). At the same time, technically speaking, he wasn’t given a choice in the matter. For that matter, none of the disciples were. Even Jesus Himself said, “You did not choose me, but I have chosen you.” Yet, again, they loved and followed Jesus, even though they did not initially choose Him. They, then, found themselves wanting/choosing to follow. I see this as representative of the Lord’s operation in salvation (He regenerates, we sincerely and actively respond).

        Thanks for your feedback. Grace and peace.

  3. All the comments above show what a difficult issue we are dealing with when it comes to “election” and “free will”; or, also, God’s hand in “tragic events.” I don’t think we can get away from God’s having his hand in the “terrible disasters” that occur. But I also don’t think God “decides” who will be saved without taking into account the heart of man, “from which come the issues of life.” God comes “first” as to salvation in that he set up the game plan and paid the cost and calls out. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” But the rest of the verse is, “If any man will open the door, I will come in.” It does not make any sense to say God was responsible for the decision of whether or not to open the door compatible with that passage. I agree with Brent that “coerced” love is not love.

    So, the only way I can reconcile all this (and I certainly cannot totally do so, and many are wiser than I am), is to say whom God “foreknew” he did predestinate. God could “see ahead” what the hearts of men would be like, and planned history around the states of those men’s hearts. How can these things be? I don’t know. But to say God cannot create something that he did not make do what it does seems to place a limitation on God, which I don’t think we can. I would rather cling to God’s goodness and puzzle over his capacities than take an “I can rationally understand that” view of his capacities and a “dark” view of God’s heart. But once “foreknown,” I believe that God does “orchestrate” the events of history, including natural disasters, to “bring out” what is in the hearts of men, and bring to salvation all those “appointed” to salvation. But God did not “appoint” irrespective of what men’s hearts are like, but precisely because he knew what those hearts would choose to be like. My best two cents on the debate.

    1. Tom,

      I can’t think of any “Reformed” believers that I know, have heard, or have read that believe that God holds a dark place in his heart, that He causes sin, or that He coerces people to love Him in some negative way. I think it is one of the great misunderstandings of “Calvinism”.

      Acts 13:48 illustrates what election looks like: the
      Gentiles heard the Word…they began rejoicing and glorifying God…all who were appointed for eternal life believed. When a sinful, blind, and lost heart is regenerated the resulting response is joyful and desirous to glorify God.

      There need not be a negative view of God in election. It is not evil for God to choose to save anyone. The essence of the debate, in my opinion, hinges on one’s view of sin and man. Is man truly depraved? Is Romans 3 correct when it says there is none good, none who seeks God , no not one. If man is truly depraved and at enmity with God, then God choosing to save anyone is a tremendous grace on His part. I don’t see the support in Scripture for the claim that God chose those whom would first choose him, or that men would choose God of their own heart. Doesn’t Romans 3 actually oppose that line of thinking. Also, in your interpretation of foreknowledge, isn’t the issue of God’s “goodness” still called into question in that He still creates those whom He knows will not choose Him. Why still create them?

      Last question: how does the foreknowledge argument you stated line up with John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws Him.” If God looked down the halls of history to see who would choose Him, then where does the drawing of the Father come into play? It seems to create a circular argument.

      You are certainly right , Tom, in your perception that this is a difficult issue and many true and strong Christians have wrestled with it. I hope this didn’t come across as bombastic. They are issues and questions that I have wrestled with. That said, I will leave you with one last encouragement: I think the Revelation 3:20 argument for free will isn’t definitive one way or the other. The verse is directed to the Church in Laodicea (not evangelizing the masses) and also the idea of men being called to choose is not necessarily incompatible with God initiating that choice (see Matthew 11:25-30 for a very interesting and balanced teaching on Jesus’ part).

      Grace and peace.

  4. Justin, you certainly raise a lot of good points. However, think there is one fundamental issue that Calvinists have to deal with. That is, if God is “in control” as to whom to save, then he is as equally “in control” as to whom not to save. It man is totally powerless, as in totally depraved, then God’s selection would be, in legal terms, “arbitrary and capricious”; that is, without guiding principles. This is what would make God “dark” under Calvinism–his choice not to just save everyone, since no one could do anything more or less to obtain their salvation or qualify to receive it.

    You mention the Cornelius incident. But how did that start out? His prayers and alms were what led the angel to appear to him, and for Peter to receive his vision. Cornelius already had a “heart toward God” BEFORE his salvation (though he was not saved thereby–else, why would Peter have to come?). Also, when God decided to destroy the world, he spared Noah. Why? Because Noah was a just man, blameless in all his ways. So, in fact it appears that God is “looking for something” in the persons he “selects” for salvation. He does not have to select anyone. But since he has elected to save some, he does so in a fashion that is “just” and “righteous”–not like drawing straws.

    Why did God go ahead and create those he knew would say, “No”? Because the choice is the thing. If choices could only be, “Yes,” there still would be no “free choice” going on. And the people who say no really are evil and deserving of hell, since they reject the call from God, his provision for their salvation, his general provision of life, etc. So God is not being “unjust” to them in creating them with the capacity to choose. Just because you foreknow something does not mean you are “forcing” the person to act that way. Imponderable, but true. And less “dark.”

  5. In regards to God’s choosing, what do you with verses like Romans 9:11 – 16, which also quotes Exodus 33:19?

    I think it is fallacious to equate God choosing to show mercy to whom He will as something dark, sinful, capricious, or negative, especially when the people are dead in trespasses and sins and at enmity with God. Even if we disagree on the broad interpretation of this passage, we can’t disagree that God does (or at least has) exercise a right to choose whom He will show mercy and compassion to. Was it arbitrary and capricious of God to choose Esau to serve Jacob (v. 11)?

    If God choosing without the recipient actually choosing first is wrong, then to be consistent in principle, we must say that God was wrong in His dealings with Jacob, Esau, and the people in Moses’ day, which I know we wouldn’t do, however, it seems to be the inevitable conclusion because I don’t see how He exercises this right in at least some places on one hand, yet on the other hand it is wrong and/or dark.

  6. I don’t believe God is either dark, arbitrary, or capricious. However, the logical corollary to that is God must have some sound and legitimate reason for the choices he makes. Not that God has to do ANYTHING–but, if we believe him to have described himself in certain terms, then we can expect correct doctrine to be consistent with that revealed personality. And so with Romans 9.

    With respect to Jacob and Esau, my understanding of that point is that God already “foresaw” which of the two would ultimately have the “good heart,” and therefore chose which of the two to love and hate “before they were even born, before they had done any good or evil.” In fact, even at that, the “love” and “hate” was to ELECT a “choice” universe, where those who said “yes” would be blessed, whereas those who said “no” would be cursed. And “who are we, oh men, to argue with God about that?” Thus, by choosing the “love universe,” God was choosing to show mercy on whom he would show mercy. God could have done things any number of different ways, but he chose to do it that way, which means he “showed mercy to whom he would show mercy.”

    The thing I can’t accept is to believe God “drew straws,” as it were, and therefore sort of “worked up the emotion” to “love” Jacob and “hate” Esau, irrespective of anything in their (foreseen) character which would have legitimized the choice. To me, to do things that way certainly appears to be arbitrary, capricious, and “dark,” so it would only be with “brute force” (speaking figuratively) that I would accept that to be the way things are, with the God of LOVE the Bible elsewhere shows him to be. God did “choose first,” because he elected to go with the love universe, irrespective of any objections anyone might like to weigh against THAT choice. But the very nature of “love” in the first place is a WILLING response to the love offer. God does not compel that response. He “foresaw” it, and acts, and has acted, accordingly, from even before time began.

    1. Hey Tom. Not much time…but wanted to confirm from your opening sentence that I don’t think you believe God to be dark or arbitrary. If something I wrote came across that way, I apologize.

      Anyway, I’m enjoying our conversation and I appreciate your thoughtful comments and responses. I have a busy weekend ahead, but hopefully will have a chance to respond soon. Have a good weekend.

      Grace be with you.

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