by John Byl


Given our best scientific theories, factors beyond our control ultimately produce all of our actions . . . we are therefore not morally responsible for them. Derk Pereboom (Living without Free Will, 2001: front flap).

* * * * *

A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say to you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. (Matthew 12:35-37)

The philosopher Derk Pereboom believes that all our acts and choices are ultimately produced by factors beyond our control. He embraces the naturalist position that our minds are run by our brains, which in turn are completely controlled by biochemical laws. As a result, he concludes that we have no free will. Hence we cannot be held morally responsible.

Free will is perhaps the most perplexing philosophical mystery. It gives rise to many deep questions. Do we have such a thing as free will? Do we really have a choice when we make a choice? Or are our choices completely pre-determined by our character and circumstances? If our choices are pre-determined, should we be held morally accountable? Is free will possible in a determinist world, where all our choices can be completely explained in terms of prior causes? Or does free will require an element of chance? Can God fully predict all our human choices? How can we reconcile human free will with divine sovereignty?

Many philosophers believe that human free will is impossible in a deterministic world, where all events and choices are fully predictable (at least by God). This has led to either a denial of the existence of free will or to a denial that the world is deterministic.

The statistician D. J. Bartholomew asserts in his book God of Chance (1984) that the universe must contain chance in order to have room for genuine human freedom and moral responsibility. Consequently, Bartholomew believes that many worldly events were not specifically planned by God. God can therefore not be held responsible for the undeserved suffering that his creatures may experience.

Again, I remind the reader that the word ‘chance’ refers here not to mere coincidence or human ignorance. Rather, a chance event is one that happens without a sufficient cause. A chance event, in this sense, is one that is inherently unpredictable. The quantum events of the atomic world, for example, are often said to involve chance. The existence of chance has major implications regarding God’s interaction with the universe and his knowledge of the future.

In the previous chapter we discussed the possibility of chance in the quantum realm. There we noted that quantum events can be explained without resort to chance. Moreover, we concluded that chance is inconsistent with God’s sovereignty, as manifested in his creation, providence, and full foreknowledge of future events.

Nevertheless, in spite of these considerations, many Christians believe that human free will is one aspect of creation that must be genuinely chance-like. It is widely thought that determinism rules out human freedom and responsibility. Thus, for example, the Oxford theologian Keith Ward (1999:12) argues that the universe, if it is to generate freely creative beings, must be indeterministic (i.e., the future must be open or indefinite, not determined). Similarly, Nancey Murphy (1995:355) asserts that indeterminism is needed for human moral responsibility, since determinism makes God responsible for evil. Arthur Peacocke believes that human free will rules out the possibility that God fully knows the future (1993:122).

The question of how human free will relates to divine sovereignty is a basic issue that has been much debated throughout history. There are two main positions. The first says that humans are to some degree autonomous (i.e., self-governing and independent of God). It says that we are free agents who make our own choices, in isolation from God’s plan. The second says that our character and circumstances make our choices completely predictable by God, our Creator; our choices form part of God’s overall plan.

What Is Human Free Will?

Before comparing these two positions, let us first define what we mean by human free will. By free will we mean the freedom of the will to choose and act of itself, without coercion. Such freedom we experience when we deliberate about a decision (how to vote in an election), make a choice (I decide which candidate I prefer), and actualize that choice into a physical action (I direct my hand to put a mark beside the chosen name).

Human free will surely requires a genuine ability for us to make a mental choice. It involves also the power to convert this mental choice into a physical action. My mental choice may depend on various abstract, non-physical factors such as, for example, the moral qualities of the candidates running for office. Hence, human free will certainly implies physical indeterminism, in the sense that a physical event (raising my hand) might have a non-physical (i.e., mental) cause. In the same physical situation different non-physical factors (my character, beliefs and moral standards) might well cause me to choose and act differently.

Free will entails that we make our choices freely, without coercion. We should be free to choose what we want, in accordance with our own character, history, and moral standards. Such freedom is essential for moral responsibility. To be morally responsible we must make our own decisions. They may not be forced on us contrary to our will. Responsibility for our actions implies that we have a measure of control. Only then can we be held accountable for our free decisions and subsequent actions.


Most Christians will concur that we have a will, that we make genuine choices, and that we are morally responsible. But now we come to the central point of contention. Are our decisions fully predictable? In the same comprehensive situation, with the same external conditions plus the same internal (i.e., mental) characteristics and circumstances, would the same person always make exactly the same decision?

There are two responses to this question, representing two different notions of free will. Those who answer ‘yes’ believe in a freedom of spontaneity. We choose and act as we please. As long as our acts are expressions of what we want to do they are to be regarded as free, even if what we want is in some way determined. This notion of freedom is compatible with determinism. Hence it is commonly called compatibilism or ‘soft’ determinism (as opposed to the ‘hard’ determinism of Crick’s materialism).

The compatibilist argues that our choices are always based on reasons, even though we may not always be fully aware of them. Our choices are made in accordance with our character and experiences. Hence God, who knows us perfectly, can surely predict our free choices. Our choices are free because they were willingly made by us, rather than coerced against our will.

On the other hand, those who answer ‘no’ believe in a freedom of indifference. We have the freedom to choose either of two different actions with equal ease and out of no necessity. We have the freedom to act contrary to our nature. Our decisions are not fully determined by our character and history. This is called libertarianism. Since the word libertarian is sometimes used also in connection with certain political and social theories, I stress that I use this word here only in connection with free will, as defined.

Freedom within Uncertainty

We shall consider first libertarianism. Libertarians contend that our will is genuinely free only if our choosing is not pre-determined by external and internal conditions. They assert that our motives and beliefs may incline us toward a particular choice, but they should not guarantee it.


Libertarianism assumes that our choices are not entirely caused by such things as character and circumstances. This implies that our choices are, at least to some extent, indeterministic. Only thus, with an element of pure chance, might the same agent choose differently in identical situations. Hence Bartholomew asserts, ‘The reality of chance is not merely compatible with the doctrine of creation but is required by it . . . only in a world with real uncertainty can people grow into free responsible children of their heavenly Father’ (1984:145).

Not all libertarians believe that our choices require an element of randomness. The evangelical theologian Norman Geisler (1999), for example, contends that human decisions are neither determined nor uncaused but, rather, self-caused. Now, the issue is not whether a human self makes its own decisions, after due deliberation and without external coercion. That much is granted by compatibilists. The issue is whether the circumstances and constitution of the self fully determine its decisions. Will the same self, under the same conditions, always make the same decision? Libertarians answer ‘no’. But then we must ask: what is the decisive factor in making a choice, if not the internal constitution of the self and its external circumstances? What other cause can there be? The inevitable implication of libertarianism is that the self’s decisions are, at least to some extent, uncaused.

The libertarian lack of a sufficient cause implies that our decisions involve an essential element of genuine chance. Such a position faces much the same difficulties as quantum chance. For one, the notion that our choices are to some extent uncaused contradicts the basic principle of sufficient reason (i.e., that nothing happens without a sufficient reason). Hence David Hume (1777:105), arguing against libertarian free will, writes, ‘Liberty, when opposed to necessity, not to constraint, is the same thing with chance; which is universally allowed to have no existence.’


Libertarianism faces a further weakness. How can we ever prove that our decisions are not fully determined by causes? Theologian R. K. McGregor Wright (1996:52) notes that belief in libertarianism seems to require omniscience. There may well be subtle causes we are not aware of. As the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked, ‘The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.’ The assertion that pure chance is necessary for free will is no more than a metaphysical assumption.

Human free will is often linked to quantum events. For example, neuroscientist Sir John Eccles (1994:146) believes that quantum uncertainty leaves room for humans to act in the physical world. Yet, as we have seen, quantum mechanics does not require nature to be inherently chance-like. Determinist interpretations of quantum mechanics are possible. Moreover, no relation between quantum effects and mental choices has ever been found. For example, there is no evidence that the human mind can influence where a photon will hit a photographic plate or when a radium atom will decay.


Libertarianism, to the extent that it requires an element of chance, seems to entail that I make choices based on no good reason but, rather, capriciously, somewhat like flipping coins. Yet, as physicist Henry Stapp (1993:92) notes, any play of chance would falsify the idea that I, from the ground of my essential nature, make a true choice.

Indeed, uncaused, random events, occurring without sufficient reason, are beyond our control. They do not enhance our human free will at all. Philosopher Richard Taylor (1974:51) remarks, ‘The conception that now emerges is not that of a free man, but of an erratic and jerking phantom, without any rhyme or reason at all.’

How can I make any practical plans, if I do not have control over my choices? Imagine that I set out to fly an aircraft from London to Vancouver. Keeping the aircraft safely aloft and on course will keep me very busy. It will require many quick decisions. How can I hope to arrive at my planned destination, if all my actions involve an element of chance? In that case I cannot predict how I shall act. I may do things that will astonish, not only my passengers, but even myself.

Further, if my free acts are outside my full control, how can I be held responsible? Responsibility is closely tied to causation. I cannot be held responsible for something I did not cause or intend to cause. As theologian Terrance Tiessen (2000:247) points out, moral responsibility requires our acts to be intentional. Hence random actions are not free in the sense required for accountability. Wright (1996:47) asserts that chance events cannot be the stuff of character. To be of good character means that our moral actions are reliably predictable. We cannot be held responsible for actions of the will unless these are tied directly to our character. In short, chance undermines, rather than bolsters, moral responsibility.


There is another difficulty with libertarian free will. How are we to reconcile it with divine sovereignty? Libertarianism holds that humans are, at least to some degree, uncaused causers, an attribute normally limited to God. This puts a severe restraint on God’s powers. Bartholomew acknowledges, regarding the existence of genuine chance:

But such a view . . . places limitations on the manner in which God can interact with creation. It implies, for example, that the vast majority of events are not directly planned by God to achieve some immediate and specific end (Bartholomew 1984:145).

In our discussion of quantum events we already noted the difficulty of fitting in chance with the notions of God as Creator and Upholder of the universe. The same problems arise in connection with libertarian free will.

The biblical view of providence attributes all events to God’s purposeful plan. This includes human choices. We are ‘predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’ (Eph. 1:11). We are told, ‘Both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done’ (Acts 4:27-28). Or, as Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring it to pass ... to save much people alive’ (Gen. 50:20). Joseph’s brothers wilfully followed their sinful inclinations. Yet even their sinful choices formed part of God’s comprehensive plan.

Creatures, unlike God, can neither create from nothing nor sustain themselves in being. They, and their powers, continue to exist only through God’s providential power. It follows that all the actions of creatures must likewise depend on God’s sustaining power. Hence creatures cannot act independently of God. Ron Highfield, responding to a defence of libertarianism by open theists (recall that Open Theology posits that the future is open, so that even God does not yet know it), comments,

Acknowledging that God must act for the agent and its powers to continue in existence and yet contending that God need not - indeed, for the sake of our freedom, must not - act in our action so that it may have being . . . lands open theism in a self-contradiction (Highfield 2002: 296).

Libertarian freedom requires that an action of an agent, to be free, must originate and be carried out independently of God. This contradicts God’s sovereignty, which is essential to his nature.

Even if our decisions were to lack sufficient secondary causes, this still leaves the direct, primary causation of God. However, attributing our choices directly to God makes God responsible for our sinful decisions. This defeats Murphy’s argument that libertarianism is necessary to make humans - not God - responsible for their sins.

Moreover, as we noted in our discussion of quantum events (Chapter 11), it is inconceivable that an all-powerful, all-knowing God could make a creature so sophisticated that God would not be able to predict its every action.


Libertarianism poses problems also for God’s omniscience, particularly regarding future events. The biblical God foreknows the future fully, in all its details. If our future decisions are inherently uncertain, how can God foreknow them? If God knows our decisions beforehand, does this not imply that they are fully predictable?

One might conjecture that, if God were timeless, he would not literally foreknow anything. Yet, as William Craig (1987:65) points out, the statement, ‘God knows timelessly that some event occurs in my future’, is still true prior to the event. One is thus still faced with the problem of how God can have certain knowledge of an as yet uncertain future.

On what basis can God know what libertarian decisions I shall make next year? Some libertarians appeal to Molina’s concept of middle knowledge, which we discussed in the previous chapter. This referred to God’s knowledge of how men would act in hypothetical situations. There are a few biblical incidents that suggest that God has such knowledge. For example, God told David that the men of Keilah would betray David if he were to stay in Keilah (1 Sam. 23:12). Thus forewarned, David left Keilah and the hypothetical event never took place. Also, we are told that the people of Tyre and Sidon would have repented if the mighty works of Jesus done in Bethsaida and Chorazin had been done there (Matt 11:21). However, such divine middle knowledge implies that identical agents in identical situations make identical choices. How else could God know how we would act in a hypothetical situation? It follows that God’s middle knowledge does not help libertarianism.

How, then, according to libertarianism, does God know our future decisions? It might be thought that such a question is impious. How can we presume to ask how God knows? Yet, we may expect God to act coherently. One might conjecture that perhaps God’s view of the future is like consulting a crystal ball or previewing a film. But what makes the crystal ball or film? What forms the future, if not God? The notion that God simply foreknows the future, without predetermining it, entails that there exists an independent force that forms the future. Such an independent force, we just saw, contradicts God’s sovereignty. The sovereign God of the Bible has complete knowledge of the future because he has decreed all that comes to pass.

On such grounds the Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) refuted the famous humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), who defended libertarian free will. Luther, in his book The Bondage of the Will, writes:

For if we believe it to be true, that God foreknows and foreordains all things; that He can be neither deceived nor hindered in His Prescience and Predestination; and that nothing can take place but according to His Will, (which reason herself is compelled to confess;) then, even according to the testimony of reason herself, there can he no ‘Free will’ - in man, in angel, or in any creature! (1525: Section 167).

Luther’s affirmation of the sovereignty of God led him to embrace a compatibilist view of free will.


Libertarianism has various negative theological implications. One consequence is that it diminishes the gospel message. Indeed, Martin Luther believed that the essential issue at stake in the Reformation was precisely the denial of human (libertarian) free will. At the end of The Bondage of the Will Luther praises Erasmus, whom he is rebutting, for raising the matter:

You alone, in pre-eminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down, though in vain! You, and you alone, saw what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once (1525: Section 168).

To Luther, the denial of libertarian free will was the foundation of the biblical doctrine of grace. He held that the principle, sola fide (by faith alone), must be based on the broader principle, sola gratia (by grace alone). A faith based on man’s will is similar to a salvation based on works. It is then up to man to save himself. Rather, faith is itself a gift of grace: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:8). Hence Luther stressed that our salvation is due entirely to God’s merciful intervention in our hearts.

Another casualty of libertarianism is God’s knowledge of the future. Open theists correctly note that libertarianism is inconsistent with divine foreknowledge. Their prior commitment to libertarianism thus leads them to deny that God has full knowledge of the future.

Libertarianism also affects divine sovereignty. Human autonomy and genuine chance imply that some areas of the universe are not fully under God’s control. They are independent of God. This entails a reduced God, who no longer upholds all things by the mere Word of his power. Wright (1996:59) contends that libertarianism leads eventually to process theology, discussed in Chapter 9.

The Bible is very insistent on God’s comprehensive sovereignty and foreknowledge. Any denial of these thus requires also a rejection of the corresponding biblical texts. However, once we pick and choose which portions of the Bible to uphold, we have undermined any genuine biblical authority. This contradicts the Christian worldview, which requires us to judge all our thoughts in the light of Scripture, rather than vice versa.

To sum up, libertarianism faces serious problems. It is based on an unprovable assumption. Its reliance on chance contradicts the principle of sufficient reason. It introduces a fatal lack of control that destroys our freedom and responsibility. Theologically, it undermines God’s grace, sovereignty and omniscience.

Why, then, is libertarianism so widely held? Mainly because it is thought that the prime alternative, compatibilism, is even worse off. Let us then examine the case for compatibilism.

Freedom within Reason

Compatibilism, unlike libertarianism, holds that our choices are fully caused. We make decisions for reasons, in accordance with our character and circumstances. In the same circumstances the same person will always make the same decisions.

Our choices are therefore quite predictable to someone who knows us well. How often, for example, does my wife comment to me, ‘I knew you would say that’? Consider, then, the predictive ability of God, our Creator, who knows us completely. The author of Hebrews writes:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:12-13).

And David elaborates:

O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me (Psa. 139:1-6).

God, who knows us perfectly, even our inmost thoughts and intents, surely knows exactly what future decisions we shall make.

There are three common objections to compatibilism: (1) it reduces us to puppets, (2) it is equivalent to fatalism, and (3) it removes moral responsibility. Let’s examine each of these claims.


Compatibilism should not be confused with physical determinism. Physical determinism is the notion that all our thoughts, choices and actions are ultimately completely explicable in terms of purely physical laws and concepts. This is the materialism of Sir Francis Crick. In this case our thoughts and choices are just illusions and we are indeed reduced to mere puppets.

Compatibilism, on the other hand, is a much wider form of determinism. It gives proper recognition to the important role of our mind, beliefs and choices. There is a real self, who deliberates and makes decisions. Yet the self makes its decisions for reasons, determined by its character and wants.

Previously (in Chapter 6) we noted that physical determinism implies we are physically determined to believe whatever we believe, regardless of its truth. Hence the rational defence of physical determinism is self-refuting. That critique does not apply to compatibilism. Although what we believe is still determined, the determining process now includes our beliefs, our ideas of rationality and also our assessment of the truthfulness of the belief in question. What we believe therefore does depend on the truth of any particular belief. If our thinking apparatus were foolproof, then our thinking, though determined, would nevertheless be determined to produce only true beliefs.


Compatibilism implies that God, with his complete knowledge of all his creatures and their decisions, can fully predict all future states of the world. It follows that God knows the future completely. Moreover, God fully knows also how that future would change if he were to alter some current detail. God can thus completely plan how the future will enfold.

Does divine foreknowledge leave room for human freedom? A common objection is that, if God knows that tomorrow I shall mow my lawn, it is therefore true that I shall mow my lawn. Hence I do not have the power to refrain from mowing my lawn. Thus I am not free.

Such reasoning confuses determinism with fatalism. Determinism means that all events are rendered unavoidable by their causes, which include our choices and actions. Fatalism, on the other hand, holds that all events happen unavoidably, regardless of our choices and actions; there is nothing we can do to escape our fate.

Fatalism is a fallacy. It fails to take into account that my will is an active cause that helps to determine my future. Clearly, our choices do make a difference. Else there would be no point in getting out of bed in the morning or driving your car with your eyes open. The fact that our decisions are predictable does not detract from their effect on the future. Although we cannot change the future we can surely help determine what the future will be.

It is sometimes said, even by Christians, ‘You won’t go before your time.’ This saying is fine, as long as its intent is to stop us from undue worry about things beyond our control. It is certainly comforting to know that everything is ultimately in God’s hands. However, this gives us no excuse for irresponsible behaviour, such as, for example, driving an unsafe car at high speed. The time of our death is often closely related to our prior actions. Thus, while our time is surely foreknown by God, it may well have been set largely by our own foolish decisions.

Further, God’s knowledge of our future decisions does not, in itself, influence our decisions. How could it, seeing that we have no access to such divine knowledge? Hence divine foreknowledge in itself does not constrain our freedom. Were our decisions to be different, God’s foreknowledge of our decisions would be correspondingly different.

Such considerations apply also to the need for prayer. One might ask, if all things are determined by God’s eternal plan, why should we bother to pray? The proper answer to this, as Terrance Tiessen (2000:239) notes, is that God has foreseen our prayers and his responses to them. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims, ‘Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear’ (Isa. 65:24). Our prayers help determine the future. They are part of God’s eternal plan.


The most common objection to compatibilism is that it seems to lead to a denial of moral responsibility. Compatibilism implies that all the causes of my choices have previous causes. The series of causes that formed my character goes back to my birth, and even before that. All my character traits, dispositions, wants, and so on can then be traced to prior conditions, such as genetics and environment, beyond my control. Had these conditions been different, I would have been different. How, then, I might ask, can I be held accountable for my choices?

Compatibilists reply that all that is required for moral responsibility is that we wilfully act upon our wants, regardless of how these were formed. We shall elaborate upon this in the next section. First, we shall examine several other views.

The Christian philosopher William Hasker argues that, if compatibilism were true, I could not have acted differently, even had I wanted to. How, he asks, could I have wanted something different from what I want? Since my wants are determined, my freedom to choose is illusory. According to Hasker, real freedom requires that I should be free to change my wants. Hasker concludes that compatibilism is incompatible with moral responsibility (1983:36). This, in turn, Hasker takes to be a strong argument for libertarianism, which he deems to be the only alternative.

Suppose, however, that I were free to change my wants. On what basis would I choose my new wants? On the basis of my present character, with all its wants? That would lead back to compatibilism. Nor does a random change help, for that removes my wants from my control. Thus, Hasker’s objection has no substance.

As we saw, libertarianism, to the extent that it requires chance, is even less compatible with moral responsibility. Although Hasker denies that libertarianism requires chance, he offers no explanation of how libertarianism can be indeterminate without some degree of chance. Nor does he explain how libertarianism can establish moral responsibility.

If moral responsibility were indeed undermined by both compatibilism and indeterminism, where would that leave moral responsibility? As we saw earlier, Derk Pereboom, in his hook Living without Free Will (2001), argues that we have no moral responsibility. He maintains that we can be held morally responsible only if we are the ultimate causal source of our actions. Pereboom contends that, according to our best scientific theories, our world is wholly governed by the laws of physics. Factors beyond our ultimate control cause all our actions. Hence, we are not morally responsible for any of them.

Pereboom concludes that, since we cannot be held morally accountable for our actions, we should therefore change our notions of justice. A murderer, for example, should not be held morally responsible for killing. Therefore Pereboom urges that he should not be given a severe punishment, such as death or imprisonment. Instead, the courts should aim at modifying his criminal behaviour, perhaps through rehabilitation programmes. Obviously, one’s views on free will and responsibility can have serious implications for society.

Leaving aside the perplexing question of how moral and rational ‘oughts’ can function in a world completely determined by physical laws (see Chapter 7), Pereboom’s reasoning still seems incoherent. He affirms that, even though we are not morally responsible for our actions, they can be judged to be morally good or bad. Further, Pereboom clearly expects courts and judges to respond to moral ‘oughts’. Yet, if we are not responsible for our actions, as Pereboom claims, surely this applies equally to judges as well as criminals. How, then, can Pereboom venture to instruct us in how we ought to treat criminals? In doing so he presumes that we are in fact morally accountable, thus contradicting his central thesis.


Contrary to the claims of Hasker and Pereboom, compatibilism does not destroy moral responsibility. This becomes clear when we examine what morality entails. Morality has to do with the rightness and wrongness of actions. In practice, we hold someone responsible for a crime, if that crime was directly caused by an intentional action based on a wilful, informed choice, with full knowledge of the wrongness of the act and the consequences of doing it.

If Jack, a sane man, deliberately sets his neighbour’s house on fire, knowing full well that it is illegal and that it may cause injury or death, would we not hold Jack morally responsible for his misdeed? The critical factor is that Jack’s choice was his own choice, rather than one forced upon him. We might not hold him responsible if he acted at gunpoint or under hypnosis.

Moral responsibility does not require that there are no reasons for our decisions. The freedom needed for moral responsibility is not a libertarian freedom from causation but, rather, a freedom from coercion by forces outside ourselves. Such is the freedom underlying moral responsibility.

What, then, of the argument that, since Jack did not cause his own nature, he is therefore not morally responsible for his actions? It fails. Moral responsibility, as outlined above, involves merely our present capabilities. We are morally responsible when we can act upon our own wants, in accordance with our own will, regardless of how our wants and will may themselves have come to be what they are. We would still hold Jack responsible, even if his vicious character were due largely to an unhappy childhood.

In fact, our nature is such that we intuitively know we are responsible for our actions. We take ownership over our decisions. Our own conscience, a deep sense of guilt and shame, convicts us of our misdeeds. Within our innermost self, we know we cannot shift the blame for our actions on to our past or our parents.

Such considerations also refute a widely held defence of homosexual behaviour. It is often argued that homosexuality is caused by one’s genetic makeup and, hence, the homosexual is not responsible for his behaviour. Whether homosexual desire is indeed genetically determined has still to be proven. Perhaps it is due more to upbringing and life experiences. Perhaps it is more like an addictive habit. However, no matter how one came to have homosexual desires, the fact remains that the homosexual willingly chooses to act upon these desires, knowing that it is sin. Thus, he can be held morally accountable.

We conclude that compatibilism does not erase moral responsibility but establishes it. Moral responsibility exists because we make our choices for reasons. Hence we can be influenced by reasoning, criticism or the prospect of reward or punishment. The knowledge that we shall be held accountable for our actions is itself a factor that influences our actions. On such grounds David Flume (1777:104-107) asserted that it is only on the assumption of determinism that there can be moral responsibility.

The Bible and Responsibility

Thus far we have discussed various philosophical factors regarding moral responsibility. Ultimately, however, morality is established by God. He sets the absolute standards for right and wrong. He assesses our degree of responsibility. He rewards and punishes our actions. The Bible is thus the most pertinent authority to consult on moral responsibility.

What does the Bible teach about responsibility? We can summarize its main teachings as follows:

1. We are held accountable for all our deeds and words, even though these are determined by our heart:

A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say to you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matt. 12:35-37).

Judas is held responsible, even though his betrayal of Jesus was predetermined: ‘And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!’ (Luke 22:22).

Since we are held responsible for all our voluntary decisions, we are responsible also for the extent that these have formed our character through developing bad habits, addictions, and so on.

2. Our hearts are enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:20), so that of ourselves we have no ability to change them. ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14). ‘So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God’ (Rom. 8:8).

The Bible does not support the notion that inability limits responsibility. Man’s heart is sinful from birth and is beyond man’s ability to change. Yet he is still held accountable. The key fact is that we sin willingly. Indeed, ‘Men loved darkness rather than light’ (John 3:19) and, ‘Knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, [they] not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them’ (Rom. 1:32).

Adam, the first man, was created good and upright, in the image of God. Though good, he was not yet perfect: he had the potential to fall. He could freely choose between good and evil. He had the capacity to serve God. Unhappily, Adam chose not to serve that glorious purpose. Giving in to the devil, he wilfully subjected himself to sin and death. Thereafter man became enslaved to sin.

Adam was not forced against his will to eat the fruit. Nor did he do it arbitrarily. On the contrary, Adam did it for reasons sufficient to himself. He acted knowingly, willingly, and spontaneously, with no violence being done to his will. God created Adam as he was; God knew that Adam’s nature and circumstances would lead to his fall. Yet Adam was held fully responsible for his actions.

Fallen man is free to do what he wills, but his will is not free in the sense that it can determine itself. As Henry Stob (1978:152) notes, man responds to his nature, which is what it is, either by sin or by God’s sovereign grace. This leaves human responsibility fully grounded. Nothing more is required for holding a man accountable than his acting with the consent of his will, however much his will may be determined by nature or nurture.

3. Salvation is offered to all who hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). Yet we are so inclined to evil that, of ourselves, we reject God’s merciful offer.

Jesus remarked, ‘No one can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him’ (John 6:44). Only the almighty operation of the Holy Spirit can change our sinful hearts. ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). This is a free gift of grace, entirely unmerited by us. ‘By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Eph. 2:8-9). And, ‘For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:13).

The Holy Spirit does not work faith in everyone. Not all but many, ‘a great multitude which no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues’ (Rev,. 7:9) - the elect, are thus saved: ‘He hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will’ (Eph. 1:4-5). ‘And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48).

Some Christians argue that such election is based on human-generated faith, which God merely foresees ahead of time. One difficulty with this explanation is that it implies that God does not fully foreordain the future. As we noted before, God’s sovereignty entails that all that happens occurs in accordance with God’s eternal decree. Hence, if God foresees our faith, this requires that he has also chosen the world to be such that our faith would come about. Out of all possible universes, God chose that one in which the elect consist precisely of those whom he wanted to be saved.

God could have created each human to have such a character and such experiences that the elect - and only the elect - would of their own free will choose to believe in Jesus Christ. In such a plan, salvation would then depend both on God’s sovereign decree of election and on human choices. It is clear from the Bible, however, that this is not how the elect are saved. As we noted above, the special and powerful operation of the Holy Spirit is needed to bring even the elect to faith.

4. One may object that this is unjust. How can God blame us if our actions are the inevitable consequences of the heart and nature he has given us? This question is addressed in Romans 9:

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy . . . Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy? (Rom. 9:14-23).

We are responsible to God because he is the Creator and we are his creatures. The potter has the authority to make of the clay what he wills. Responsibility entails accounting for our actions to a higher authority. The ultimate authority is God. God is responsible only to himself. Responsibility is what it is because of the power and authority of God. God’s will sets the final standards for morality and justice. Who are we to argue with God?

One might ask, if election is not based on human faith or works, on what basis does God choose his elect? To answer this question we can go no further than the words of God to his ancient people: he set his love upon them and chose them simply ‘because the LORD loved’ them (Deut. 7:7-8). God’s electing love is free, sovereign, unconditional. It is not drawn forth because of anything good or desirable in the object of that love. That is why the Apostle Paul quotes the Lord’s words to Moses, ‘I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’

The Problem of Evil

The main reason unbelievers give for rejecting Christianity is the problem of pain and suffering. It is often argued that, if God is all-loving he would want to stop all pain; if he were all-powerful he could stop the pain; yet there is pain in the world; hence, God must be lacking in either love or power.

Process theologians assert that God does not have the power to destroy evil. He just persuades, but never coerces. Since this solution to the problem of evil denies God’s sovereignty, it is not a viable Christian option.

Similarly, the (libertarian) free-will defence of Alvin Plantinga and others posits that, since God has left us free, evil is not in his control. However, as we noted s earlier, since libertarian free will calls for indeterminism, this removes the responsibility for evil from man. The responsibility is then shifted either to uncaused chance, which denies God’s sovereignty, or to God as the primary and only cause, which makes God directly responsible for our evil decisions. Either option is biblically unacceptable.

What does the Bible tell us about the existence of evil? We note first that, in the Bible, evil is the opposite of good. Evil has a broader meaning than sin. Physical evil refers to pain and suffering; moral evil refers to sinful thoughts, words and actions.

The world was created good: ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Gen. 1:31). Moral evil entered our world through the fall into sin of Adam and Eve. God punished them by introducing pain, sorrow and death; he also cursed the ground (Gen. 3:16-19). Much pain and suffering is clearly due to the moral evil of human selfishness and wickedness. Other physical evils may come in the form of droughts, plagues and other natural disasters that are due to the curse on nature.

Eventually, Christ will completely conquer evil, so that pain, sorrow and death will be no more (Rev. 21: 4). Meanwhile, God uses physical evil to punish wickedness (Amos 3:6), to chastise sinners (Heb. 12:5-7), to deepen our faith (James 1:2-4) and to prepare us for glory (2 Cor. 4:17).

Nothing happens that is not foreordained by God as part of his plan. God is the ultimate cause of all that happens. This includes physical evil. God proclaims, ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things’ (Isa. 45:7). ‘Shall there be evil in a city and the LORD has not done it?’ (Amos 3:6). ‘The LORD has made all things for himself; yea even the wicked for the day of evil’ (Prov. 16:4).

Nevertheless, God is not responsible for moral evil; he is not the author of sin. God himself does not sin. God is wholly good: ‘A God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he’ (Deut. 32:4). Nor does God himself tempt anyone: ‘God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man’ (James 1:13).

The sin that God has foreordained all comes to pass through secondary causes. ‘But every man is tempted, when he is drawn .1 way of his own lust, and enticed’ (James 1:14). The moral responsibility of sin remains with those who actually do the sin. Man is held accountable for his own voluntary choices, however predictable they may be. Man is directly responsible for his sins and their consequences of pain and suffering.

Adam and Eve were enticed by Satan. How did Satan acquire his wickedness? We are told of the devil: ‘He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there was no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it’ (John 8:44).

Calvin notes that the words ‘abode not in the truth’ imply that Satan was once in the truth (Institutes Lxiv.16). He was created a good angel but fell into sin. His initial sin seems to have been pride (see 1 Tim. 3:6). The descriptions of the kings of Babylon (Isa. 14:12-15) and Tyre (Ezek. 28:11-19) seem to symbolize Satan, at least to some extent. We infer that Satan wanted to be like God. How did Satan come to be tempted? The above words, ‘when he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own’, suggest that Satan’s depraved nature originated wholly from within himself. Satan is held fully responsible for his wilful rebellion, even though God had created Satan as he was, knowing that Satan’s nature and circumstances would lead to his fall. God, evidently, had created Satan good but with the potential to fall. The details of Satan’s fall have, however, not been revealed to us.

One might ask why God made a world where evil was inevitable. Would it not have been better for him to create a perfect world − like the future heaven − from the start? The elect, to be sure, are amply rewarded for their suffering. But, one might wonder, if God is so merciful, why are all people not among the elect?

This question is all the more pressing in the light of passages such as 1 Tim. 2:4 that indicate that God desires the salvation of all men. What restrains God’s desire to save all men? Libertarians might reply that it is God’s higher commitment to human self-determination, with its implications for deepening the relationship between God and man. A compatibilist response is given by the theologian John Piper:

My answer to the question about what restrains God’s will to save all people is this: it is God’s supreme commitment to uphold and display the full range of his glory through the sovereign demonstration of all his perfections, including his wrath and mercy, for the enjoyment of his chosen and believing people . . . This everlasting and ever-increasing joy of God’s people in all of God’s perfections is the shining forth of God’s glory, which was his main aim in creation and redemption (Piper 2000:339).

Thus, although God has compassion for all men, his commitment to the glorification of his sovereign grace restrains him to save only those whom he chose to be his elect.

God has a morally sufficient reason for everything he does, including all the suffering and evil that he foreordains. ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Rom. 8:28). Since God himself is good and righteous we may be assured that God’s purposes will be fulfilled in goodness and righteousness. As the Reformed theologian Robert Reymond suggests,

The ultimate end which God decreed he regarded as great and glorious enough that it justified to himself both the divine plan itself and the ordained incidental evil arising along the foreordained path to his plan’s great and glorious end (1998:377).

The ultimate end of all things is the comprehensive glorification of God himself in his righteous judgments against his enemies, and his great mercy and grace to his people through Jesus Christ.

This answer may not satisfy worldly conceptions of responsibility and justice. Critics may say that the problem of pain shows that the Christian worldview is inconsistent. However, to demonstrate inconsistency in any worldview one must use the presuppositions and definitions of that worldview. In this case, then, one must use biblical definitions of love, goodness, responsibility, justice, evil and so on. By such definitions, as we have shown, there is no contradiction. Contradictions occur only when humanistic notions are imposed on the Christian worldview.

The issues that we have discussed are very deep. Remaining questions we must leave unanswered, since they ultimately concern limners of the hidden will of God, into which we may not pry. Here we must refrain from vain speculation and humbly abide by the wise words of the Belgic Confession (1561; revised 1619) in its discussion of God’s providence and the existence of evil:

Nothing happens in this world without His appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed . . . And as to what He does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from 115, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which He has revealed to us in His Word, without transgressing those limits (Art. 13).


In conclusion, a libertarian view of free will entails that our decisions are not fully caused. This defeats, rather than supports, the notions of human choice and responsibility. To the extent that it leaves our decisions to the primary causation of God, it makes God directly responsible for our evil decisions.

On the other hand, a compatibilist view of human freedom stresses that we wilfully make our decisions for sufficient reasons, in accordance with our nature, beliefs and desires. Since this is so, God, our Creator and Sustainer, who knows us completely, can fully predict all our decisions and actions. The Bible teaches that we are fully accountable for what we knowingly will and do. Although God foreordains everything that occurs, humans are responsible for the evil that they do.


John Byl is Professor Mathematics and Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He gained his Ph.D. in Astronomy at the University of British Columbia and is the author of God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe, also published by the Trust.

This article is taken from The Divine Challenge: on Matter Mind Math & Meaning, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, pp. 210-236.

 Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board

Return to the Main Highway

Calvinism and the Reformed Faith