One of the prime accusations against Calvinism is that if man is predestined to salvation or damnation (unconditionally elected, saved by irresistible grace, against man’s total depravity), then man is not free to choose –or rather, man has no free will.
The Calvinistic response is:
What does it mean to say that I am free? It means that I am not under constraint. Thus, I am free to do whatever pleases me. But am I free with respect to what pleases me and what does not? To put it differently, I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal for me. But I am not fully in control of the appeal each of those actions holds for me. That is quite a different matter. I make all my decisions, but those decisions are in large measure influenced by certain characteristics of mine that I am not capable of altering by my own choice. If, for example, I am offered for dinner a choice between liver and any other entree, I am quite free to take the liver but I do not desire to do so. I have no conscious control over my dislike of liver. -Erickson, Christian Theology (page 383)
Men are free to chose, but only within the dictates of their desires. To put it another way, your desires so override your freedom (total depravity) that you cannot anything that you do not desire. One fatal flaw with this line of reasoning is that it misstates the relationship between desire and decision. In Romans, Paul discusses the war going on between two desires within him.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. -Romans 7:15
There is a difference between your desire to do something and your ability to do it. Sometimes this comes down to self control, other times it comes down to conflicting desires, and still others it comes down to raw ability. You might desire to jump over the moon, but you’re not physically capable of doing so.
So to say that we are trapped by our desires, that we cannot overcome them unless we are aided by God, is to actually make two possible statements.
- That we are unable to do what we desire for some reason.
- That we are unable to desire something other than what our “animal instincts” or “nature” commands us to desire.
The statement in #1 perfectly accords with the idea that God looks down at us and sees the desire of some to be saved, but knowing that none of us can actually achieve salvation —even come one point on a line closer to salvation without his aid— graciously reaches out across the chasm of sin and draws us to him.
The statement in #2 accords with the idea that God looks down and sees that no-one desires salvation, ever, so God “graciously” chooses to change the will of some people for his own glory (and nothing else).
The problem with #2 is that it doesn’t really solve the riddle of free will. Who gave us our nature? Well, God, of course. In fact, this is such a powerful argument that Satan uses it against Eve in the Garden. “Didn’t God give you the desire to eat? Then how can it be wrong to eat of that tree?”
Ascribing all our choices to desire doesn’t resolve the problem of free will, because God made every one of us with the desires the Calvinist wants to say controls our decisions. Ascribing our decisions to our desires (which God made) isn’t any better than ascribing our decisions directly to God.
But in saying #1, aren’t we somehow pulling down God’s sovereignty? If God’s choice is somehow compatible with man’s choice, isn’t God just a little smaller, and a little less glorious?
This sort of thinking comes from tearing God into little pieces, and then thinking of only one piece at a time. God is just over here, and merciful over there; God knows everything over here, and wills everything over there. These are human distinctions, and human thinking. humility and glory in God, for instance, or between justice and mercy.
In the same way, it is not contradictory for God to choose us because we choose him, or for us to choose him because he chose us. It is not contradictory for human choice and God’s choice to be compatible with one another.
Real choice means being able to choose against your desires, as well as with them. At the same time, God’s sovereignty must have real meaning —and sovereignty means ruling the universe in the most minute detail.