Free Will and the Antinomy
In the last chapter we considered free will and free agency. It is important not to confuse the two. Free will and free agency are not the same thing. Man is a free, moral agent, but he does not have a free will; his will is limited by his nature.
In this chapter I wish to address a question that is logically raised when serious thought is given to our subject. The question comes in different forms, but at the bottom are God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
In the study of man’s will, the question is usually asked like this: How can a person be a free and responsible agent if his actions have been foreordained from all eternity? This is a logical question indeed.
To put the question another way, How can an action be known to God before it takes place and yet be freely performed by a free, moral agent?
The 121 Westminster divines were aware of this question and they addressed it with candor when they drafted their Confession. They said, “God has freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” That is divine sovereignty. They immediately added, “Yet so as to thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offended to the will of the creature, nor is the liberty of contingency of the second cause taken away, but rather, established,”
Sometimes the question comes in this form: Is not God unjust to require what men do not have the ability to perform? I answer:
Yes, God is unjust, unless He first gave the ability to perform what He requires.
Yes, God is unjust, unless man, by his own will, brought this inability upon himself.
Yes, God is unjust in requiring that which man cannot perform, unless such a requirement which is impossible to meet is designed to lead him to acknowledge and deplore his inability.
This is the real problem with the multitude of efforts by those who come running on the scene of human turmoil with this sentimental pity for man in his present condition. They immediately begin to charge God with being unjust.
When we see sickness, death, war, pain, murder, rape, robbery, and lawlessness we ask, “How did this come about?” The answer is: Sin! Sin! Sin! Man’s sin! How did the prodigal son come to feeding pigs? By living in sin!
If I believed that God made man like he is, and then condemned him for what he is, I would curse God and die—such a God would be a monster. But instead, “Truly, this only I have found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29; emphasis mine).
Who but God can fully comprehend how an action that was known of God before it was done can be freely performed by man? However, our inability to understand how something should actually come to be is not sufficient ground for affirming that it cannot be.
It should not surprise us or discourage us that there is divine foreknowledge of all human actions on the one hand
and free agency on the other hand.
We have a similar problem with God’s commanding men to do what they do not have the will or ability to do since they must act in accordance with their nature. For example, when God commanded Lazarus to “come forth from the grave,” he was dead and did not have the ability to obey or respond to our Lord’s command—unless God did
something for him.
Another example is the poor man in the gospels who had been powerless for thirty-eight years and had no native ability to obey our Lord’s command to “take up your bed and walk.” The power came from the one who gave the command.
We are considering in this chapter these two truths: (1) Man is a free agent and is responsible for his actions; (2) Man’s actions are foreknown by an omniscient God. Both of these truths are clearly set out in the Holy Scripture many times in the same verse. For example, in Acts 2:23 we read, “Him [Christ], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death” (emphasis mine).
This verse clearly teaches that the crucifixion of our Lord was planned, predicted, and determined before it happened and all the devils in hell or men on earth could not keep Jesus from the cross—it was determined by a sovereign God. Yet at the same time, wicked men—acting freely—were charged with this wicked act.
In Acts 4:24—30, God puts these two truths side by side without apology or explanation. Here this apparent contradiction and seeming conflict is expressed in a prayer.
“So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: ‘Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: “Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ.” For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.”
Peter and John were in prison when they prayed this prayer. Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were said to be carrying out what God had purposed and determined was to be done before it was actually done.
In the first truth we see that Cod is one hundred percent sovereign in planning and determining. At the same time the verse teaches that wicked men are one hundred percent responsible for their wicked deeds.
If we examine these two truths separately, we will conclude that from Genesis to Revelation the Bible teaches that the God of the Bible is one hundred percent sovereign—sovereign in creation, sovereign in redemption, and sovereign in providence—and that from Genesis to Revelation the Bible teaches that man is one hundred percent responsible for his sin. Therefore, we have no alternative but to believe both are true, even though with our finite minds we cannot reconcile them or harmonize them.
When Charles Haddon Spurgeon was asked to reconcile these truths—God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility— he said, “I never try to reconcile friends—they are both in the Bible.”
There is one word that gives us the biblical picture of these two truths—antinomy. J.I. Packer taught me the meaning of that word in his wonderful, helpful book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. More than any other, this book has helped me get a biblical view of evangelism. Let Dr. Packer define antinomy:
All theological topics contain pitfalls for the unwary, for God’s truth is never quite what man would have expected; and our present subject is more treacherous than most. This is because in thinking it through we have to deal with an antinomy in the biblical revelation, and in such circumstances our finite, fallen minds are more than ordinarily apt to go astray.
What is an antinomy? The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” For our purposes, however, this definition is not quite accurate; the opening words should read “an appearance of contradiction.” For the whole point of an antinomy—in theology, at any rate—is that it is not a real contradiction, though it looks like one. It is an apparent incom-patibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. There are cogent reasons for believing each of them; each rests on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other. You see that each must be true on its own, but you do not see how they can both be true together. Let me give an example. Modern physics faces an aritinomy, in this sense, in its study of light. There is cogent evidence to show that light consists of waves, and equally cogent evidence to show that it consists of particles. It is not apparent how light can be both waves and particles, but the evidence is there, and so neither view can be ruled out in favor of the other. Neither, however, can be reduced to the other or explained in terms of the other; the two seemingly incompatible positions must be held together, and both must be treated as true. Such a necessity scandalizes our tidy minds, no doubt, but there is no help for it if we are to be loyal to the facts.
It appears, therefore, that an antinomy is not the same thing as a paradox. A paradox is a figure of speech, a play on words. It is a form of statement that seems to unite two opposite ideas, or to deny something by the very terms in which it is asserted. Many truths about the Christian life can be expressed as paradoxes. A Prayer Book collect, for instance, declares that God’s “service is perfect freedom”: man goes free through becoming a slave. Paul states various paradoxes of his own Christian experience: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…having nothing, and yet possessing all things”; “when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 6:10, 12:10). The point of a paradox, however, is that what creates the appearance of contradiction is not the facts, but the words. The contradiction is verbal, but not real, and a little thought shows how it can be eliminated and the same idea expressed in non-paradoxical form. In other words a paradox is always dispensable. Look at the examples quoted. The Prayer Book might have said that those who serve God are free from sin’s dominion. In 2 Cor. 6:10, 12:10 Paul might have said that sorrow at circumstances, and joy in God, are constantly combined in his experience, and that, though he owns no property, has no bank balance, there is a sense in which everything belongs to him, because he is Christ’s, and Christ is Lord of all. Again, in 2 Cor. 12:10, he might have said that the Lord strengthens him most when he is most conscious of his natural infirmity. Such non-paradoxical forms of speech are clumsy and dull beside the paradoxes which they would replace, but they express precisely the same meaning. For a paradox is merely a matter of how you use words; the employment of paradox is an arresting trick of speech, but it does not imply even an appearance of contradiction in the facts that you are describing.
Also it should be noted that a paradox is always comprehensible. A speaker or writer casts his ideas into paradoxes in order to make them memorable and provoke thought about them. But the person at the receiving end must be able, on reflection, to see how to unravel the paradox, otherwise it will seem to him to be really self-contradictory, and therefore really meaningless. An incomprehensible paradox could not be distinguished from a mere contradiction in terms. Sheer paradox would thus have to be written off as sheer nonsense.
By contrast, however, an antinomy is neither dispensable nor comprehensible. It is not a figure of speech, but an observed relation between two statements of fact. It is not deliberately manufactured; it is forced upon us by the facts themselves. It is unavoidable, and it is insoluble. We do not invent it, and we cannot explain it. Nor is there any way to get rid of it, save by falsifying the very facts that led us to it.
What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding; think of the two principles as, not rival alternatives, but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other. Be careful, therefore, not to set them at loggerheads, nor to make deductions from either that would cut across the other (such deductions would, for that very reason, be certainly unsound). Use each within the limits of its own sphere of reference (i.e., the area delimited by the evidence from which the principle has been drawn). Note what connections exist between the two truths and their two frames of reference, and teach yourself to think of reality in a way that provides for their peaceful coexistence, remembering that reality itself has proved actually to contain them both. This is how antinomies must be handled, whether in nature or in Scripture. This, as I understand it, is how modern physics deals with the problem of light, and this is how Christians have to deal with the antinomies of biblical teaching.
The particular antinomy which concerns us here is the apparent opposition between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, or (putting it more biblically) between what God does as King and what He does as Judge. Scripture teaches that, as King, He orders and controls all things, human actions among them, in accordance with His own eternal purpose. Scripture also teaches that, as Judge, He holds every man responsible for the choices he makes and the courses of action he pursues. Thus hearers of the gospel are responsible for their reaction; if they reject the good news, they are guilty of unbelief. “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed.” Again, Paul, entrusted with the gospel, is responsible for preaching it; if he neglects his commission, he is penalized for unfaithfulness. “Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught us side by side in the same Bible; sometimes, indeed, in the same text. Both are thus guaranteed to us by the same divine authority; both, therefore, are true. It follows that they must be held together, and not played off against each other. Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent. God’s sovereignty is a reality, and man’s responsibility is a reality too. This is the revealed antinomy in terms of which we have to do our thinking about divine command and free-will.
To our finite minds, of course, the thing is inexplicable. It sounds like a contradiction, and our first reaction is to complain that it is absurd. Paul notices this complaint in Rornans 9: “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why does he [God] yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” (Rom. 9:19). If, as our Lord, God orders all our actions, how can it be reasonable or right for Him to act also as our Judge, and condemn our shortcomings? Observe how Paul replies. He does not attempt to demonstrate the propriety of God’s action; instead, he rebukes the spirit of the question. “Nay but, 0 man, who are thou that repliest against God?” What the objector has to learn is that he, a creature and a sinner, has not right whatsoever to find fault with the revealed ways of God. Creatures are not entitled to register complaints about their Creator.7
This incomprehensible antinomy—God’s will, man’s will, and free will—occupies a large part of God’s truth. Does this subject have a message for ministers and Christians in this day of doctrinal indifference and ignorance? It most certainly does.
Many evangelicals today have a lot of semi-Pelagianism in their blood. They believe man really isn’t all that bad. Certainly he isn’t totally depraved—he can choose to do good because his nature is good.
An understanding of the bondage of the will would produce some radical changes in the common approach to preaching in general and to evangelistic preaching in particular. As has been shown previously, man’s will is a slave to his nature. He cannot decide something or choose to do something that is alien to his nature. This concept would have a profound effect on many departments of theology as well as pastoral work. It is good for us to remember that the bondage of the will was a central theme at the foundation of the Protestant Reformation and thus at the center of all that occurred then in evangelism, preaching, holy living, and organizational restructuring.
Do we not stand in urgent need of teaching that humbles man, strengthens faith, and glorifies God?