This is a hotly-contested topic, as it has been for hundreds of years. This is usually a debate between those Protestants descended from the Arminian tradition (who stress man’s free will) and Calvinists and Lutherans (who stress God’s sovereignty).
Today Methodists and, generally, Baptists descend from the Arminian tradition. They tend to believe that God’s grace is resistible, as opposed to Calvinism which argues that 1) God has predestined all the elect unto salvation before the foundation of the world and 2) that God’s grace is irresistible.
The question is this: is the idea that God predestinates the elect and foreordains all things in history that come to pass logically incompatible with the idea that man has free will?
The Bible tells us that both are true. But is this a logical contradiction?
BASIC LOGICAL ARGUMENTS
Dr. Bahnsen gave a lecture (download it for free by clicking here) in which he addresses this very question. He begins with Jonathan Edwards’ logical argument, which goes like this:
1st – All things “x” are foreknown.
2nd – If “x” is foreknown, then “x” is not contingent.
3rd – Therefore “x” is not contingent.
“Contingent” means subject to chance. Edwards began with the authority of the Bible as his first premise (Ephesians 1:11-12) which clearly speaks of the foreknowledge of God.
If “x” is foreknown, then it is certain in advance that “x” will take place. If someone thinks they know “x” in advance, but event “x” doesn’t take place, then they didn’t really know it in advance. It was not a certainty afterall.
Dr. Bahnsen also discusses another line of reasoning that competes with Edwards’. It goes like this:
1st – The future is contingent.
2nd – If “x” is foreknown, then “x” is not contingent.
3rd – Therefore, “x” cannot be foreknown.
This competing line of argumentation begins with a very different premise: the future is left to chance. It is outside of God’s control. Both arguments agree on the common axiomatic middle principle: If “x” is foreknown, then “x” is not contingent. But the results are very much different.
Depending on your starting point, you either affirm God’s foreknowledge or contradict the Bible. The Bible is clear that God has foreknowledge of all events. But if you begin with a premise driven by a human impulse — a future that is left to chance such that man has ultimate free will — then you destroy God’s omnipotence and omniscience. You contradict the Bible and undermine its authority:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)
Calvinists and Lutherans — those of the reformed tradition — often don’t even accept the 1st premise of the second argument at all, so for them the entire second argument is untrue.
Arminians can begin with the first premise of either argument, but Dr. Bahnsen discusses the fact that they tend to get into trouble in their reasoning in both cases. Those of the Arminian tradition assert the truth of God’s foreknowledge more often than not (the Bible is rather clear about it, and they believe the Bible), but they do not like the logical outcome that following the premises leads to.
THE OUTCOME IN A UNIVERSE WHICH HAS ROOM FOR CHANCE
God foreknows events, and they will certainly come to pass. He does not make mistakes. Dr. Bahnsen discusses the idea of “omnipotence”. He says that one person may argue for an omnipotent God that knows all things in advance by necessity. He then says that another person may argue that an omnipotent God doesn’t necessarily have to know all things in advance.
His point is that the Bible’s definition of an omnipotent God is one who knows all things in advance, and accordingly that is the definition we should use. There is no stronger foundation that we can stand on than the rock of Biblical authority. Otherwise, we build upon sand.
IT’S COMFORTING, NOT THREATENING
Though some Christians (and many more nonbelievers) feel threatened by God’s preordaining all of history, Dr. Bahnsen points out that whenever anyone brings up God’s foreknowledge in the Bible it is as a comforting fact.
We can thank God that our salvation is secure because of his foreordination. Nothing can separate us from the love of our savior, Jesus Christ. Not any random thing in all of creation because there are no random things. The security of our salvation is ensured because God is lord of all heaven and earth.
Now, consider the alternative: If God has not foreordained whatsoever all that comes to pass, that means that some things in history take place contingently, by chance. They’re not under our control or under God’s control. If there are some things in history that take place that are outside of God’s hands, then we have no assurance that there is nothing in heaven and earth that can separate us from the love of Christ.
There might be some crazy thing, some chance event of history that happens that, even though God wanted us to be saved, rips us from His love.
This is threatening, NOT comforting.
WHO WOULD GOD PRAY TO?
As Dr. Bahnsen puts it, who would we pray to? We know that prayer changes things. God answers prayers. But if there were random events left to chance, outside of God’s control, then who could God pray to so that He could have an effect on history and answer our prayers in the realm of events beyond His direct control?
If there are things outside of God’s control, then that means there are events that happen that are meaningless. This leaves us in a horrible universe in which God doesn’t actually have all power to bring things to pass within his meaning.
That means that all who want to be saved and come to Christ may not actually be able to. This would be a terrible reality.
God’s foreknowledge is a threat to those who know they are living in sin and have not repented. It means they cannot save themselves. It attacks their pride because it means they are not the author of their own fate. It means they are neither autonomous nor posses absolute sovereignty — the sovereignty that belongs only to God.
They feel the heat.
THE CERTAINTY OF GOD’S LOVE FOR US
But for the repentant sinner who knows that had not God specifically chosen him to be the recipient of His grace then he would be lost to hell (think: Paul), God’s foreknowledge and predestination are a comfort.
He knows that, if it weren’t for God’s love, he would never have chosen to come to Christ and be saved and turn away from his sinful nature. He knows that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Nothing in this world can threaten his salvation. He can take comfort in Jesus’ words when he said:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)
In part 2, we will take a look at the freewill line of argumentation that Dr. Bahnsen develops and demonstrate from a different approach why God’s foreknowledge and man’s freewill are not logically incompatible.