If you join any of the armed forces and head off to their respective form of basic training, you’ll find yourself in an environment that is new to you, no matter your background. It’s meant to be a shock to your system. It’s meant to be nothing like what you’ve experienced before. People from all over the country come together to spend ten weeks confused, tired, and sore.
You spend the first few weeks regretting the series of decisions that led you to this moment. But before long, you realize that your drill sergeants aren’t actually robots sent from the future to destroy you. There is actually a plan in place, determined long before you arrived. Every condition and every environment is designed to elicit a particular response from you. This brings us to today’s word.
Determinism. noun. At any given moment, conditions are such that no other outcome is possible.
You may be thinking, what does this have to do with theology? Well, this brings us to the topic of free will.
John Calvin thought that “free will” was far too grand or distinctive a name for the idea it represents. With all the free will in the world, people use it to do reprehensible things that destroy lives. Do the few good things we do with our lives undo all the evil done by everyone else? Such is the conundrum of free will. You see why Calvin found “free will” too lofty of a term.
Daniel 4:35 reads, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”
We’re told that God acts according to his will. The angelic beings of heaven and the creatures of earth are all bound to act by his will, not their own. His will is unchangeable so that not one of us can alter it or do anything else. What this is saying that no one can thwart God's plan. But doesn’t it seem as though you and I make choices every single day?
Theologians have identified three ways that Scripture speaks of God’s will. God’s will can take the form of decretive will, preceptive will, and a will of disposition.
God’s decretive will is what we see in creation. God said, “Let there be light.” Did light respond, “Give me five more minutes”? Absolutely not. Light was not invited or given a choice. Light did what the creator of light told it to do. God told the sun to stand still while Joshua and his men fought their enemies. God’s decretive will is an unbreakable command, whether it is given to sentient creatures or inanimate objects.
God’s preceptive will is what we see in the ten commandments. God tells us not to make idols, but if we so choose, we can break God’s precept (or rule or commandment). These are primarily moral decisions. We see the patriarchs and Israel breaking God’s preceptive will throughout the Old Testament. We see Christians and churches breaking God’s perceptive will in the New Testament.
God’s will of disposition is an unbinding desire. We see God’s will of disposition in 2 Peter 3:9 when Peter wrote that God does not desire or will that any should perish. In fact, the dictionary definition of that Greek word for “will” (boulomai) includes desire and affection. It’s not a command but a disposition. Not every theologian agrees that God has a will of disposition (and sometimes lump it with God’s decretive will), but this kind of usage does have a lot of explanatory power for passages like these.
God’s decretive will, the first kind listed above, is deterministic. God so wills and then so orders things so as to ensure that what he says will happen does happen. Does that then mean that there are some things that God does not decree or know will happen?
Not so fast, heretic.
When we think of God, we must not think of him as simply the greatest created thing. He is wholly uncreated and is completely outside of creation. The word for this is transcendent. God, as pure being, transcends created being. If you haven’t popped some Ibuprofen yet, now’s a good time.
If you drew a circle and wrote the name of every created thing inside of that circle, you could not write God in that circle. God would be totally outside of that circle. God is self-existent and independent of everything.
If I were to build a car, I don’t become part of that car. When God made the world, he did not become a part of that world.
God has so created us that he has worked a measure of free choice into us. He is still quite responsible for creation, but as the only being outside of creation, he has worked moral responsibility into human nature. Is the Ibuprofen kicking in?
Here’s the end of the matter: God is sovereign and has determined the very steps that a man takes. And yet he has worked into that sovereign determinism our responsibility for the choices we make.
What should we take away from this? God has determined all things that come to pass, but he has not removed human responsibility from that determined outcome. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
There is simply a divine relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility that we must not tear asunder. We must be aware of falling into one of two traps:
1) God has so determined things that it does not matter what I do.
2) God’s purposes are determined by what I do.
Neither is helpful, and more importantly, neither is true.