Persons of the dialog: David, Jacob Freeman
Setting: Pastor’s office, after service.
Jacob: Hey, thanks for coming in David. I understand you wanted to talk to me about my sermon?
David: Yeah, thanks for making time for me. You tackled some tough topics in your sermon, and I was just hoping to get some clarification.
Jacob: The topics of divine sovereignty and human freedom are certainly heavy topics, so I’m happy to help out in any way that I can.
David: I appreciate that. What you said about the responsibility we all have makes a lot of sense. I guess I was just a little lost on the divine sovereignty aspect of it.
Jacob: Ok, where did I lose you?
David: What do you mean by sovereignty?
Jacob: I mean that God created everything, and that He has exhaustive foreknowledge of everything that is going to happen before it happens. It also means that God upholds everything, in an ongoing fashion.
David: It’s those last two that I’m interested in. What do you mean by foreknowledge?
Jacob: I mean that He knows things before they’re going to happen. The Bible talks about God knowing our thoughts and our actions before we think or do them in the first few verses of Psalm 139.
David: That make sense, but how is it possible that God knows things before they happen?
Jacob: Well, I would say that He knows them because He’s God. Also, He is outside of time, so He sees things differently.
David: So, would you say that being outside of time is the aspect of His being God that allows Him to know everything before they happen?
Jacob: That is one way to put it. I think God’s omniscience necessarily includes His being outside time.
Jacob: There is an analogy I heard many years ago that helped me to understand the idea that God is outside of time. Imagine that you are inside a box, traveling down some train tracks. You cannot see out of the box, except for one small circle in it. This circle is fitted with a pipe, about an inch and a half or so wide. From this opening, you can see only a small fraction of what is actually there. You see small bits of scenery moving by quickly, but that is all you know. That is like us, trapped in the universe, inside time. God would be like the person who is seeing the whole thing play out on a screen. He is able to see the entire railroad, the box/pipe contraption, and the landscape.
David: I see. Since God created everything, this includes time and space, right?
David: In your analogy, it seems like God knows everything instantly, because He is outside it, and is able to see it all at once. Am I following you correctly?
Jacob: It seems like you’ve got it, yes.
David: So, did He have this knowledge prior to creating everything? Or did He create everything, and then instantly observe it, and gain the knowledge?
Jacob: That is a good question. I believe He knew everything before creating it.
David: Ok. I’ve heard the view that God knew everything before creation because everything happens via His decree. So He knows things before they happen because He created everything in such a way that they will happen how He wants them to.
Jacob: Yes. That is what the historic reformers believed, but that is not the view that I would take. I believe that God knew in advance decisions that free creatures would make, were He to create such and such a universe, and then chose to create the universe based on that prior knowledge.
David: So that all took place in the mind of God, if you will, prior to creation?
Jacob: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it.
David: I’m wondering about these free creatures then. So, He chose to create a world based on what He knew the free creatures He would create would do beforehand? That’s confusing.
Jacob: Haha, well we are getting into some pretty deep things. There have been a number of theories proposed as to why He chose to create this world instead of another. I think it has something to do with the fact that this world gives us the maximum amount of freedom, and ultimately brings about the most good or the most people that would come to salvation through faith in Christ.
David: It seems like God’s actions are dependent upon our actions, or at least the actions that we will do as soon as creation happens. I don’t think I quite understand how that works. How is it possible that God has thoughts about what free creatures will do before those creatures even exist?
Jacob: Well, I think God desires that we are free. The passages I used in the sermon demonstrated the freedom that we have. If we take that into account with the creation narrative in Genesis, I think we have a pretty solid biblical foundation for this.
David: If I remember correctly, you used Matthew 23:37, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9. Is that right?
Jacob: Those were the main texts, yes.
David: You mentioned the historic reformers before. I believe they had different understandings of the verses you mentioned.
Jacob: That is true, but I don’t think they are convincing. If everything happens because God decrees it to happen, how are we able to “freely” love God? It seems like we would be forced to love, making us like robots.
David: That’s a good question, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It occurred to me that we may have a strange aversion to being robots. Why would being robots be bad? I don’t think it’s a fair assessment of the reformed position, from my reading of it. But even if it were true, why don’t we like that idea?
Jacob: Because we know that we are free, and if we were robots, then there would be something controlling us or limiting our freedom. If someone were forced to love, that love wouldn’t be genuine.
David: That’s possible, but would it be a bad thing if the person doing the controlling were perfect?
Jacob: If everyone were saved, and nobody did anything bad or wrong, then that might be ok. Though I would still contend that our lacking freedom would mean that our “loving” God would be insincere. However, the bigger issue would be that if God was controlling everything, then He would be sending people to hell. That doesn’t seem very loving to me, especially since we know from 1 John 4:8 that God is love.
David: Well, I think we have a lot to discuss there. It’s my understanding that reformed people have always understood freedom to mean that you are only free to do what is in accordance with your nature. So, they would say that the idea of God sending someone to hell against their will is an inaccurate picture of their position. In their mind, people love their sin, and are in rebellion against God from the time they are born. So nobody is getting forcibly sent to hell against their will. A helpful analogy would be that there are two groups of people. One group God chooses to save, giving them mercy, and the other group are left to the love of their sin and rebellion, and proceed to hell, receiving justice. In the end, mercy and justice has been displayed, but there is no injustice in God. Does that make sense?
Jacob: Well, so far you have mentioned a lot of philosophy, and not very much Bible. This is why I, and by extension this church, prefer to avoid the terms Calvinist and Arminian. Those terms seem to imply that we are following various philosophies and traditions of men, whereas we seek to call ourselves Biblists.
David: I appreciate the desire to follow the Bible, as I believe all people in this discussion desire to do. I believe the Bible seems to teach compatibilism, which is the idea that the answer to the question “is this God willing or man willing?”, would be “yes.” You can see this pretty clearly in a couple examples from the Bible, though there are many. The story of Joseph shows the clear intent of the brothers to do harm to Joseph, and to sell him into slavery. However, in Genesis 45:8, and even more prominently in Genesis 50:20, we see that while his brothers intended to harm him, God clearly sent him there to ultimately bring about good. The second example is the crucifixion of Jesus. Used by people on all sides of this discussion as the supreme example of both justice and love, it is also a perfect example of compatibilism. From Acts 2:23, and Acts 4:27-28 we see that Jesus was delivered up to be crucified according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, yet in all the accounts of the crucifixion, we see the people doing exactly what they wanted to do, even going so far as to say that His blood would be upon them and their children , and not Pilate.
Jacob: That may be all well and good, but how does that apply to the issue of free will or love and being robots?
David: I merely wanted to mention that to lay some of the biblical foundation for my earlier statements. If it is true that the Bible teaches compatibilism, then it would be possible for the definition of free will that I gave above, to stand. This would allow God to be completely sovereign, controlling everything, while still giving people the desires of their hearts and not “forcing” people to do things they don’t want to do. We believe that all people are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) , and that unless God chooses to change our nature, to remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), than nobody will voluntarily choose Him (Romans 3:11). Instead, people are chosen from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) , before they are born and not based on works (Romans 9:11-13), and God will bring them to the end He has designed for us (Romans 8:29-30). If that makes us robots, then it is by Him who is perfect, and works everything according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11) , to His glory, while leaving our greatest desires in tact.
Jacob: Hmm. Well, I think there are still some problems in your view, but I’m afraid I have another appointment.
David: Thank you for giving me so much of your time. I hope we can talk more about this soon.