Compatibilism Explained

Man’s Free Actions in God’s Plan

In my last article, we began to explain how men still have free will, though God has decreed all that takes place before the foundation of the world. Paul says that God has determined everything that man does, even to the borders established between nations.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

Acts 17:24-26 KJV

To reconcile these seemingly contradictory ideas, we must understand what the true nature of man is. In a later post, I will defend the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity. There will be further explanation there, but for now, I will briefly show that men act according to their nature.

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

Romans 5:12 KJV

We recognize that all men are under a federal headship, where they receive in their being a nature according to that of their federal head. Through the physical descent of Adam (note that this verse requires Adam to be an actual figure, not merely an allegory), all men receive a nature that is inclined to sin and rebellion against God.

Behold, I in iniquity Was form’d the womb within; My mother also me conceiv’d in guiltiness and sin.

Psalm 51:5 SMV


And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

Genesis 8:21 KJV

Because of this nature, men act according to their strongest inclination. For the unbeliever, that inclination is to sin. God knows this. God also knows what specific factors will elicit specific responses from men. God presents these factors, and the man reacts. The man reacts according to his own free will, according to the strongest inclination of his heart, but God, being the one who presented the factors, is ultimately the one who brought the action about. Remember the verse we saw this in last time?

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

Isaiah 45:7 KJV

Let’s look at a clear example of this shown in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.

Luke 23:34 KJV


Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:

Acts 2:23 KJV

It is clear here that the men who crucified Christ acted in every way according to their own free will. Yet, Peter says in Acts 2 that Jesus was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” God not only knew that this event would happen, he actually planned it out and caused it to take place at a specific point in earth’s history.

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

Revelation 13:8 KJV


Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you,

1 Peter 1:20 KJV


But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,

Galatians 4:4 KJV

Not only did the men who crucified Christ act according to their free will, they committed a great sin and came under judgement for the act, similar to the example of the Assyrian king that we looked at last time. Christ pleads for their forgiveness, and Peter describes them as men with “wicked hands.”

God’s Commands in Light of Compatibilism

Those who are familiar with the Scriptures will remember that there are innumerable verses that describe God imploring men to make a choice to follow him. Most notably, “chose this day whom you will serve” in Joshua 24:15, or “today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” in Hebrews 4:7. Considering what we have just seen on the nature of man’s will that is clear from the Scripture, we must examine what these commands mean for not all men as a whole, but what they mean in terms of the nature of the believer and the nature of the unbeliever.

For the unbeliever, the moral commands are universally met with an inability to do what is commanded.

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:7-8 KJV


But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

Hebrews 11:6 KJV

The ability to please God comes through faith, faith comes through grace, and grace is given by God, not chosen by man. Can a man choose to have faith? No, faith is God’s gift.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

Ephesians 2:8 KJV

For the believer, the moral commands are met with an ability and desire to act them out. Due to this grace given by God through faith, believers are new creatures in Christ, recipients of the Holy Spirit, are now being transformed into the likeness of Christ, and are able to perform actions that unbelievers can’t, like renewing their minds to think according to the things pertaining to righteousness. We like unbelievers still act out of our inclination to do what we desire most, the difference is that our desires have been regenerated, and we desire to obey the commands of God, where the unbeliever does not.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17 KJV


But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.

Galatians 4:4-6 KJV


But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

2 Corinthians 3:18 KJV


But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:

Colossians 3:8-10 KJV


I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Romans 12:1-2 KJV

God Presents Effecting Factors

We have seen that man acts according to his nature, and I briefly mentioned that God causes factors to be presented that will affect the choice man makes. He is not the direct cause of the choice, any choice made is purely from the man, yet God uses the choice according to his plan since he can effect the choice made using regulatory factors. We will see some verses that demonstrate this.

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:

Exodus 13:17 KJV


I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.

Jeremiah 23:21-22 KJV


Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

Matthew 11:21-23 KJV


But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

1 Corinthians 2:7-8 KJV

We must confess that God knows not only what will happen, he also knows everything that could happen. We must be careful with this, however, because this is also a confession of the molinists. The molinist would say that God knows all alternate possibilities, but chooses to actualize the possible universe that is most in accordance to what he desires. Molinism calls this doctrine “middle knowledge,” and they fall into error by bringing libertarian free will into the equation. In this system, ultimately, God is not in perfectly control of what happens, but the decisions of his creatures will affect what choice he makes. We have seen already how this does not hold up in Scripture when we discussed how no man is able to counsel the Lord or affect his decisions.

God Does Not Change

In conclusion to this topic, we will see that God does not change how he acts. He does not change those eternal decrees which he makes. This is foundational to the rest of reformed doctrine. The God of the old testament is the same God of the new testament. He acts in the same ways, according to the decrees he has made before time.

The firm foundation of the earth of old time thou hast laid; The heavens also are the work which thine own hands have made. Thou shalt for evermore endure, but they shall perish all; Yea, ev’ry one of them wax old, like to a garment shall: Thou, as a vesture, shalt them change, and they shall changed be: But thou the same art, and thy years are to eternity.

Psalm 102:25-27 SMV


For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

Malachi 3:6 KJV


Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

James 1:17 KJV

We can trust God to fulfill the promises he has made, because it is not according to his nature to change.

Finally, I must say that while we have been given a wealth of knowledge relating to the nature of God, we cannot even comprehend a minuscule percentage of the fullness of his being. We saw in several places that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and we cannot understand his nature fully. Our finite minds can never understand it, neither on this earth, nor in glory. If at any time we think we have been able to confine God to our understanding, we must repent of our prideful boasting in knowledge. The extent that we can understand is what has been revealed in the Scripture, but I argue that there is more clarity in the Scriptures on this topic than many Christians care to admit. Too often we appeal to mystery in these things, when in reality we do not make enough of an effort to search the Scriptures to know what God has revealed about himself.

Stay tuned to this series as it continues. Starting in the next post, I will begin explaining the Reformed doctrine of soteriology (the doctrines of grace, Calvinism, or TULIP) from the Scriptures.

Christian Herring is a member of Redeemer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Christiansburg, VA. He is a husband and father.

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