Do humans have free will?

Free Will and God's power

Many Christians find themselves in between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they want to affirm the Biblical teaching that God is in control of all things. On the other hand, they also want to affirm the Biblical teaching that humans are free, and can be held responsible for their actions. But these two teachings can seem incompatible; how can one reconcile these contradictions?

The tension arises on two different levels. It arises in God’s “general” providence over all things and God’s more “specific” providence in his salvation plan. This tension, though, is not new to the Church. Different theological traditions and denominations have attempted to resolve this tension in various ways, all the while remaining true to the Biblical witness. Some traditions minimize the role of God’s providence; others argue that God’s providence is compatible with human free will—and there are many more views beyond these.

We’ve compiled here a list of some of the most important texts on the issue. Issues of free will and God’s providence became a central focus after the Reformation, especially during the Calvinism-Arminianism debates. Since then, they have remained a central focus of Christian theology. Here, arranged chronologically, are some important texts on the matter. They present a variety of views on how to understand the relationship between God’s providence and human free will.

  • Address to the Greeks by Tatian (120-180) In this early work, Tatian argues against the Greek conception of fate, and suggests that humanity, through its own free will, brings about sin and wickedness.

  • City of God by St. Augustine (354-430) In the City of God, St. Augustine argues that human freedom is compatible with divine foreknowledge, and that all things are under the “laws of [God’s] providence.”

  • Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) In the Summa Theologica, St. Aquinas argues that human beings do have free will, and that God has divine governance over all things, but exercises his governance through things other than himself.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (1509-1564) Institutes of the Christian Religion contains Calvin’s important and influential treatment of divine providence and human free will. Calvin argues that all events are ordained by God, but this does not undermine moral responsibility. He also responds to Scriptural objections to his view.

  • On Predestination by James Arminius (1560-1609) In this treatise, James Arminius distinguishes between several different kinds of predestination in the Christian tradition, and ultimately adopts a weaker view than that of Calvin’s.

  • Synod of Dort (1619) The Synod of Dort convened to address the teachings of James Arminius and his followers. The Synod ultimately denounced those teachings, reasserting Calvinism by formulating the five points of Calvinism.

  • Doctrinal Divinity by John Gill (1697-1771) In his detailed analysis of salvation, Gill describes in clear language the various doctrines of salvation—the pardoning of sin, justification, adoption, sanctification, etc. Though Gill doesn’t explicitly discuss these doctrines in terms of sovereignty and free will, much of what he says is relevant.

  • Sermons on Several Occasions by John Wesley (1703-1791) Wesley’s theology is often found in his sermons; here we see him demonstrating the important practical consideration of the occasionally archaic debates about God’s sovereignty, and advocating a softer view than traditional Calvinism.

  • Lectures on the Doctrine of Election by Alexander C. Rutherford (1854) In his Lectures, Rutherford focuses on election in the doctrine of salvation. Rutherford opposes Calvinism, and instead defends what he takes to be the actual Biblical teachings on the matter.

  • Sovereignty of God by A. W. Pink (1886-1952) In his work on this topic, Pink defends a Calvinist understanding of predestination, and explains the value of the doctrine for believers.

  • Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner (1901-1990) In this classic work, Boettner defends Calvinism; using Scripture and reason, he argues for God’s sovereignty, providence, and the five points of Calvinism— TULIP.

Some additional works worth consulting:

Written and compiled by Tim Perrine, CCEL Staff Writer