How is Divine Sovereignty Consistent with Human Accountability?

Matt Perman

I. Introduction. Throughout the semester we have seen that God controls everything, including and especially human decisions--both good and evil. The question this raises is, How can we be held accountable for our choices when they have all been pre-determined and brought about by God? Without claiming to have full understanding on this issue, I do believe that this question can be answered. Answering this question will not only resolve a common difficulty, but also give a richer and more accurate understanding of God's sovereignty. Therefore, remember to have proper motives. This means: make sure that your quest to understand this issue is a quest to know God better.

II. Before beginning, let us be clear on some errors regarding God's sovereignty

A. Let us never think that the sovereignty of God takes away the fact that we make choices. Always remember: Humans do make choices!

B. Often times people bring the objection that if God is totally sovereign, then our choices don't matter. But our choices are important and do make a difference because God does not exercise His sovereignty (usually) apart from our choices but by means of our choices.

  1. Take prayer for example. Our prayers for the lost really do make a difference because they are the means that God has ordained to bring about the salvation that He has decreed for them. God does not work in such a way that our prayers are totally unrelated to what He does. Rather, He causes us to pray so that He will bring to pass many of His decrees as the answers to the prayers that He also decreed. For more information on this issue, see John Piper's article, “The Sovereignty of God and Prayer,” found at under the heading, “Theology and Growth.”

C. Have you ever heard the objection, “Since God is sovereign, I'm not going to do anything”? What I have said in point B is sufficient to refute that. If you want a fuller explanation of the fallacies in such an objection, ask me for my article, “If God is Sovereign, Why do Anything?”, which is also found at the website above, under the heading, “Articles.”

D. How do you respond to people when they point to a verse where we are called to make a choice and they say, “This proves that God does not determine all things. For if he is the one who is going to make it happen, He wouldn't have told us to decide.” This objection, however, is based upon a terrible understanding, which the things that we saw in point B clear up. The choice verses in no way disprove God's predetermination of all things, because we acknowledge the fact that humans do make choices. The reality and necessity of our choices is not up for debate--both Calvinists and Arminians are agreed on that point. The issue is this: Why do we make the choices that we do? How is it that we come to choose a certain thing, and not something else? The texts calling us to make choices do not address how we make our choices, they simply acknowledge that we do make choices. Do we make choices by means of some sort of “free, undetermined will” (Arminianism), or does God cause us to willingly choose the things we do (Calvinism)? The choice verses don't address that. Thus, to read into them that humans are ultimately in control of their own choices is reading too much into the text. All the verses say that we must make a choice. They do not deny what we have seen from dozens of other verses--that God is the one who ultimately determines what we will choose.

III. The consistency of Divine Determination and human accountability

A. The solution is really very simple. There is a certain assumption that almost all of us seem to have that causes the difficulty. If this assumption is shown to be false, then the problem disappears. The false assumption is that in order to be accountable for our choices, we must have the power of ultimate self-determination (which I will call “free-will”). The power of ultimate self- determination would mean that we have the “final say” in what we will do--there is nothing causing us to do what we do. Rather, it is fully up to us what we will decide--we are the decisive determiner of our wills. We will see that this self-determining power is not necessary to, or even the basis of, moral accountability, and therefore we can justly be held accountable for choices that have been determined by God.

IV. The Scriptures seem to teach that the power of ultimate self-determination is not necessary for moral accountability.

A. Exodus 7:2-4

  1. What is Pharaoh commanded by God to do?
  2. What is the result of God hardening Pharaoh's heart?
  3. Is Pharaoh still considered guilty of disobedience?

B. We could see this in many other Scriptures.

C. This truth seems to be assumed by the Bible as a whole, for it teaches both that God sovereignly determines all things, and yet man is accountable for all his disobedience.

D. The rest of this Bible study is in two main parts. First, we will see that free-will is not necessary for moral accountability. Second, we will see that free-will is actually impossible and in fact contrary to moral accountability. It is free-will that would destroy accountability, not pre- determination.


V. Moral accountability does not depend upon whether our choices are determined, but on how they are determined. That is, divine determination does not necessarily take away human accountability. What we need to ask ourselves is, “Is it possible for God to determine our choices in a way that preserves our moral accountability?” The answer is yes.

A. We must distinguish between moral necessity and natural necessity. Moral necessity means that something is necessary because you want to do it the most. Natural necessity means that something is necessary because you are being forced to do what you don't want to do. On the flip side, moral inability means that you lack the desire to choose something, and therefore cannot choose it. Natural inability means that you lack the physical and intellectual capacity to make the choice, and therefore cannot choose it.

B. If God determined our choices by means of natural necessity and natural inability, that would destroy our moral accountability. But since He determines our choices by means of moral necessity and moral inability, our accountability is preserved. For example, if God has ordained for you to make choice X, He does not physically force you to choose it and then hold you accountable for that choice. Rather, He so disposes things such that choice X is your greatest preference, and so you choose it in accordance with moral necessity. That, then, is a genuine choice and you can be held accountable for it. We will now look more closely at this.

VI. Everything that happens has a cause.

A. What is a cause? It is what makes something the way it is. Causes are necessarily connected to their effects. X is the cause of Y if the occurrence of X makes certain the occurrence of Y.

B. Our lives are based upon this axiom that everything that happens has a cause behind it. We could not live our lives without it. For example, you could not trust your own memories without this truth. Rather than knowing that I remember asking Heidi to marry me because the actual event caused that memory, I would have the confusion of wondering if that memory just arose in my mind for no reason at all. I would have to have serious doubts about whether we were engaged or not. Again, nobody expects a raging tiger to pop into existence in the middle of the room for no reason at all.

VII. Therefore, all of our choices have a cause.

A. We all know that it would be absurd to think that our choices happen for no reason at all. Very often we say to one another, “Why did you do that?” or “What made you so mad?” or “What's the reason for that choice?” We speak this way because we all understand that there are reasons--that is, causes--that make us choose what we do.

B. The causes that are behind our choices are not natural causes (see above). They are moral causes. That is, our choices are caused by reasons. Saying that our choices are caused is simply saying that we have reasons behind what we do.

VIII. We always choose according to the reason that we think is best.

A. In other words, you always choose the thing that is most agreeable to you. You always choose the option that you have the greatest preference for.

B. There are several arguments supporting this:

  1. It is self-evident to us all. If you examine the way you act, you will find this to be true.
  2. If you could choose contrary to your greatest preference, then that would mean that the weaker influence could overpower the stronger influence--which is a contradiction.
  3. Choosing contrary to your greatest preference would be equivalent to choosing without a cause--which we have seen to be impossible.

C. But what about, for example, when someone chooses to study for a test when they really would have found greater enjoyment in going to a movie? In that case, the person desired the long-range benefits of the good grade that studying would bring more than the short term enjoyment a good movie would have brought. In and of itself, the movie would have been most enjoyable. But all things considered, studying was more preferable.

IX. It is common sense that being “determined” by your greatest preferences in now way diminishes moral accountability.

A. Could a criminal honestly say, “I can't be held accountable for robbing the bank because its what I had the greatest preference for”?

B. When you are presented the option of either steak or liver, and you choose steak because you prefer it more, do you conclude that you are a robot?

C. Why did you come to Bible study tonight? Do you feel like a robot because there is a reason which determined your choice?

X. How God determines our choices and preserves our accountability

A. It is now easy to see how God's sovereignty and our accountability perfectly cohere. God simply arranges the situation so that the option which we find most appealing is the choice that He has ordained for us to make. In other words, if God wants us to choose option A instead of option B, He works things out so that option A is the one that we find most appealing. Thus, God is in sovereign control, yet we are choosing what we want most and are therefore making real, genuine choices that we can be held accountable for.

XI. But we don't determine our preferences. How, then, can we be held accountable for the choices that necessarily flow from them?

A. This objection misses the point. Right, we don't determine our own preferences. But that doesn't matter. Moral accountability does not depend upon whether your choice is determined or not, but on how your choice is determined (as we saw earlier). The whole argument is that since our choices are determined by means of our strongest preference, this determination is consistent with moral agency. It doesn't matter that you didn't make the choice preferable. All that matters is that it was preferable.

B. Look at it this way. We all know that moral necessity does not destroy our accountability. Therefore, the ultimate cause of that moral necessity (God) would not destroy accountability either. Choosing according to your greatest preference does not stop being consistent with moral accountability just because God directs it by His sovereignty.

C. Remember what we saw last week about how God is behind good and evil in different ways. He does determine sinful preferences, but not in the same way that He determines good preferences.

XII. It would be impossible for us to determine our own preferences

A. Someone may agree that we always choose the option that we most prefer. But they may try to object that we choose the thing that we will most prefer, and thus we are still ultimately in control and have a free-will.

  1. However, this is refuted by our own self-examination. Reflect upon the way you make choices. Did you make coming to Bible study tonight reasonable to you? Or did you discover this preference in yourself, and act accordingly?
    1. A few may say, “But I had to work up the desire to come.” But why did you choose to work up that desire? Surely because you saw that it would be preferable to prefer to come to Bible study. And was that preference chosen too?....Further, how did you work up that desire--by a sheer act of your will, or by looking at reasons that it would be good to come?
  2. This objection is also refuted by the fact that it results in an absurdity. If you could choose your preferences, we would have to ask, “Why did you choose those preferences?” The answer could either be, “no reason,” or it could be “because those are the preferences that I preferred most.” If there was no reason, then you made this choice without a cause, which is impossible. If you chose preference A because that is what you had the greatest preference for, however, that is only backing the dilemma up one step. Why did you have a preference for that preference? Because you preferred it most?...As you can see, this would result in going back forever, without there ever being a first cause.
  3. Thus, our preferences must ultimately be determined by God's predestining plan. For we cannot ultimately determine them ourselves, nor can they just come to pass with no cause.
  4. Do remember, however, that our preferences are generally according to who we are. That is, God uses your character to bring about your preferences, and thus they are truly your preferences because they are in accordance with who you are.

XIII. Why free-will is impossible

A. Free-will must ultimately admit that our choices are uncaused--which we have seen to be impossible. For if there is a reason that we make the choices we do, then our choices are determined--and hence not free (in their sense, free means undetermined). In other words, the essential objection to the belief that we posses ultimate self-determination is similar to the objection we earlier gave to the idea that we choose our own desires. On the Arminian view, we must ask the question: Why did the agent choose to make the choice that he did? Was that a result of his choice as well? If not, then the act was not self-determined and thus is not consistent with moral agency on the Arminian's view. If it was a result of choice, then this only backs the problem up a step. For, why did he choose to make the choice that he did? Was that choice also a result of previous choice? As should be clear by now, this problem keeps going back and back forever. There can be no end to it, but instead it results in the absurdity of an infinite regress--a chain of causes that has no beginning.

  1. Often times one holding the Arminian view will try to evade this reasoning by saying that the agent "just chooses." But this is begging the question, for it is simply repeating the difficulty and therefore leaves the whole objection unaddressed. The issue is not whether the agent chooses, but how does the agent come to chose? Further, the statement that the agent "just chooses" is equivalent to saying that he acts without a cause. But, as we saw earlier, it is impossible for anything to happen without a cause.

XIV. The idea that we “could have done otherwise” is impossible.

A. It is often claimed that in the will is neutral enough to choose either way. Therefore, the agent is able to choose other than he does. Obviously, if God's sovereignty is true, our choices cannot ever be other than they were. The Arminians often claim that the “ability to do otherwise” is essential to moral accountability, and thus Calvinism destroys moral accountability. However, since this is a moral inability and not a natural inability, accountability is preserved. Further, we will now see that moral ability to do otherwise than you do is impossible.

  1. If the will is in a state of indifference--if it is neutral enough to go either way--then it cannot act at all. It is the proverbial situation of the donkey stuck between two bails of hay that he has an equal desire for, and so he ends up starving to death. If you don't have a predominant desire for either choice, how can you make any choice at all?
  2. But if you do make a choice from indifference, then that choice is by definition random--that is, without a cause. Why? Because if a choice can go either way, then that means that there is nothing that necessarily brings about the choice. But a cause, by definition, is something that necessarily brings about its effect. Thus, if there is nothing theat necessarily resulted in you choosing a particular choice, then there was no cause to the choice. As we saw earlier, it is impossible for anything to happen without a cause.
  3. Thus, the dilemma is insolvable. If the will is neutral enough to go either way, it cannot act. But even if it could act, the choice would be random. But how could we be held accountable for random choices?

B. Thus, all of our choices could not have been otherwise--that is, they were morally necessary.

XV. Why we are not puppets

A. Humans are self-aware, puppets are not.

B. Humans make choices, puppets do not.

C. Humans use logic, puppets do not.

D. Humans have emotions, puppets do not.

E. Humans have preferences, puppets do not.

F. Humans act in accordance with their preferences, puppets do not.

G. Humans consciously do what is determined for them, puppets unconsciously do what is determined for them.

H. Humans understand why they are doing what they are--they act for a reason; puppets do not.

I. Puppets are determined by physical necessity, humans by moral necessity.

XVI. Applications

A. Praise God that He provides so much incentive for action, and be humbled by our absolute dependence upon Him.

B. Marvel at the great wisdom of God in that His Sovereign Kingship over mankind is consistent with His moral government of mankind.

C. Find greater confidence in the great truths of God's sovereignty.

D. Recognize that if you want to change something about yourself or others, you must usually do so indirectly. That is, you cannot, by an act of your “powerful free-will,” just choose to stop doing something you dislike. It is important to have a decisive turn in this way, but the way you preserve it is by acting upon your emotions and understanding so that you will sees more clearly the reasons for changing and that your wills preferences change. If you want to change your behavior, put yourself in position for God to change your preferences.

E. Thus, for example, to be more holy we must soak up the truth of God's word and delight in Him so that we build up in ourselves a preference and joy in Him that is greater than all else. Then, when tempted to seek satisfaction apart from Him, we will refuse.

F. Be glad that we are not puppets, and yet God is sovereign.


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