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Compatibilism

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There are some theological concepts that I continually find myself explaining to people. This is one of them. I first heard James White explain compatibilism in his debate with George Bryson. I was glad to see him spell it out in his book Debating Calvinism –five points, two views with Dave Hunt.

What follows is that excerpt from the book beginning on page 42, and is used by permission. I encourage all of you to visit Dr. White’s web site, buy and read some of his books (my favorites are The God Who Justifies and The Potter’s Freedom), and buy and watch some of his debates. All are available at his web site store.

 

“COMPATIBILISM

If, as we have seen, the Bible teaches the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and that He has a purpose He is accomplishing in all that happens as part of His divine decree, what of the obvious fact that man makes choices and God holds him accountable for them? Despite the constant misrepresentation of the opponents of God’s sovereignty, to fully appreciate the biblical evidence is to recognize that God’s decree does not make Him the author of sin. As the 1689 Confession says:

From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners. Neither, by reason of His decree, is the will of any creature whom He has made violated; nor is the free working of second causes put aside; rather it is established.5

The biblical relationship of God’s sovereign decree to the creaturely will of man has been aptly called “compatibilism,” the belief that these two things are not contradictory but compatible with one another, when viewed properly. This truth is presented in numerous passages of Scripture, such as Genesis 50:20, where Joseph, in the presence of his brothers, refers back to their betrayal of him: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

One sinful action (the betrayal and sale of Joseph into slavery) is in view: Joseph’s brothers meant their actions for evil. But in direct parallel, God meant the same action for good. Due to the intention of the hearts of Joseph’s brothers, the action in the human realm was evil. The very same action as part of God’s eternal decree was meant for good, for by it God brought about His purpose and plan. One action, two intentions, compatible in all things. Joseph’s brothers were accountable for their intentions; God is to be glorified for His.

The longest, clearest presentation of compatibilism is found in God’s use of Assyria as an instrument of judgment on the rebellious people of Israel:

“Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I send it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of My fury
To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy
And to cut off many nations.”…
So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.”
(Isaiah 10:5–7, 12)

In one passage we have God’s holy intention of judging His people through the means of Assyria—yet God holds Assyria accountable for her sinful attitudes in being so used! God judges them on the basis of their intentions, and since they come against Israel with a haughty attitude that does not recognize God’s power and authority, they too are judged. This is compatibilism with clarity: God uses the sinful actions of the Assyrians for the good purpose of judging His people, and yet He judges the Assyrians for their sinful intentions. God’s action in His sovereignty is perfectly compatible with the responsible, and culpable, actions of sinful men.

By far the greatest example of compatibilism is found in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. The early church confessed:

Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. (Acts 4:27–28)

One action, the great sacrifice of the Son of God, is in view. Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews were all gathered together against Jesus. Their actions were obviously sinful. Their intentions were evil. Yet, the Word of God is clear: They did what they did because God’s hand and purpose predestined it to take place. Were they accountable for their intentions and desires? Of course. But was the certainty of the Cross and the sacrifice of Christ ever dependent upon man’s will? Never. It happened according to the predestined plan of God and is therefore completely to His honor and glory. One action, part of the divine decree, sinful on the part of the intentions of the men involved, and yet fully in harmony with the holy purpose of God, to His glory and praise. Man’s will, God’s sovereign decree, compatible with one another. This is the biblical teaching.

 

5A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of 1689 Rewritten in Modern English (New York: Carey Publications, 1997), 3:1.