Saturday, December 30, 2017

Revelation Introduction: Glory In Marriage

Because I am a pastor, I have officiated at a lot of weddings. One part of the ceremony will never get old to me—watching the groom watch his bride come down the aisle. That slow stroll almost always draws out of the soon-to-be-husband a big smile. I imagine that he is usually thinking, “Wow! She’s beautiful and she will be my wife!  How in the world did she agree to marry me!”  That was certainly what I was thinking on my wedding day!

Another reason I love these scenes is because they picture for us an important and powerful part of the gospel, which announces to us there is coming a time when another groom, Jesus Christ, will smile with great delight, pleasure, and love as he sees his bride making her way toward him in the new heaven and earth. Consider what we read in Revelation 21:1-2: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

There are seven joy-producing truths that verse two moves us to think about in relation to that future groom and bride.

1. Verse 2 is not just talking about a place, but more to the point, it pictures God’s people, his bride. We know this because in Revelation 3:12 it is promised by Jesus Christ to the one who conquers in the midst of a hostile and persecuting culture: “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.” Additionally, in Revelation 20:9 God’s people are referred to as “the camp of the saints, even the beloved city” (which refers to Jerusalem).  You see, in the Old Testament “Jerusalem” or “Mt. Zion” often referred to the place where God dwelt with his people in a more realized and outward way to bless them. This terminology in the New Testament is applied to God’s people with whom he is present (see Heb. 12:22; Rev. 14:1). Also, the fact that the “bride” refers to God’s people and not just a place will also be seen below from the Old Testament background to this passage.

 2. Unlike grooms and brides we see at a wedding today, this future groom (Jesus Christ) will not be standing there looking at his beautiful bride in a passive sense. You see, almost no merely human groom has anything to do with the beauty of his bride. He simply gets to enjoy and delight in the gift given to him. Yet, with our Savior, he has everything to do with the beauty of his bride. We know this because the word translated “prepared” (the Greek word hetoimazō) conveys the reality that ultimately the bride has been prepared by another in the past with the result she continues to be prepared. It is true the same verb is used in Revelation 19:7 to say that the bride prepared herself for the bridegroom. Yet, there it also says she was able to do this because it had first been graciously given to her to do by God (19:8). Christ’s bride, the Church, is able to be transformed by the renewing of her mind (Rom. 12:1-2) because of God’s transforming grace that is ours in and through Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1-11:36).

3. The preparation of this future bride, like most any bride we would see today, involves being beautified for the big day. In Revelation 21:2 we read that this bride is “adorned (from the Greek verb kosmeō) for her husband. In other words, she is put in order, given a cosmetic makeover so she is ready for her husband, most likely to bring him joy and, in this case, to honor him. Like the preparation, this cosmetic makeover is not something she merely does to herself, but can take place because the Savior has been transforming her. This beautification of the bride is primarily ethical (helping her conform to the will of God and to be conformed to the likeness of Christ: cf. Rom. 8:29; 12:1-2; Eph. 4:22-24) and doxological (i.e. helping her to worship God as she ought to: cf. Rev. 5:9-10; 14:1-5). More detailed meaning behind this preparation and adornment is also found in the Old Testament background to this verse. This lead us to the next point to ponder from Rev. 21:2.

4. The Old Testament background for the thread of teaching in Rev. 3:12 and 21:2 is found in Isaiah 62:1-4, which reads: “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”

The book of Isaiah makes clear to Judah they are heading into captivity because of their rebellion and sin (cf. 39:6-7), yet, God will save and restore them after this (ch’s. 40-66). He will do this by sending his suffering Servant to atone for them (52:13-53:12; 61:1-2). Once this Redeemer comes, empowered by the Spirit, he will not only save, but also transform God’s people so that the glory of the Lord shines through them and draws the nations to God (59:19-62:12).

Specifically, here in Is. 62:1-4, we discover that God is taking an unfaithful lewd bride (who had been forsaken by her husband for her behavior) and he is restoring her, giving her a new name, and transforming her ethically and doxologically so that nations and kings will see this new glory. The new glory will draw nations and kings to the true God, and this is why the nations and kings will be present in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:24-26). What we discover, then, in Revelation 21:2 is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Because the Church has been saved and sanctified—and so she has lived on mission as a transformed bride—nations and kings have been won! Here in Is. 62:1-4 the focus is on initial and progressive sanctification (her initial and ongoing preparation and adornment). The picture in Revelation 21:2 is the finished and fully completed result! She, the Church, is beautiful, radiant with the very glory of God, and redounding to his glory!

5. An interesting background to Isaiah 62:1-4 and the fact that the new name for God’s people is “My delight is in her” (Hephzibah), is this: By the time Isaiah wrote this prophecy, Manasseh (Judah’s most horrific, evil, and idolatrous king) was on the throne. He had certainly made the situation in Judah even more grievous than it had previously been. In 2 Kings 21:2 we learn that the name of Manasseh’s mother, the wife of the good king, Hezekiah, was “Hephzibah.” What Isaiah is saying to Judah in Isaiah 62:1-4 (esp. to the genuine believers who would either remember the reign of the good king and the name of his wife or they would at least have heard about it) is that in the future God will save and return them from their evil and idolatry to a place of fidelity to him and to a state in which God’s delight truly is in them (his bride).

6. If the content of Isaiah 62:1-4 that goes beyond the bride picture is also to be read into Rev. 21:2 (which is often how Old Testament quotes in the New Testament work, especially in Revelation), what we see here is God’s people finally fulfilling the initial purpose of mankind, and that is to serve as kings and queens, vice-regents, who serve and reign under God as those who are created in God’s image and crowned with his glory and honor—which results in their reflecting that glory and honor as God-glorifiers. This also shows that the bride in Rev. 21:2 also reigns underneath the triune God (she is a royal bride!) and redounds to his glory!

7. Finally, we can say that most likely part of the reason God created marriage (based on the line of thought in Eph. 5:32 and seen in light of what we have just presented) is to help display this picture: All of us are part of the lewd bride of Christ whom the Savior saves, transforms, sanctifies, and beautifies and he does this for his glory and joy (see Rev. 21:2 [“for her husband”] in light of the OT background). Whenever we see a bride walking down the aisle toward her bridegroom and we see his joy and delight displayed, this reflects that storyline. It reflects it whether she is a virgin (which is the kind of purity to which God restores to his people [cf. Rev. 14:1-5]) or if she is not a virgin, yet now has been taken into the love and into the holy matrimony she is entering with her spouse.

Bottom-line, what we have, then, is the encouraging good news of how God is graciously working in us to beautify us ethically and doxologically for his joy and glory, as well as for our joy also!  I pray we will never again attend a wedding without thinking about this glorious hope we have in Christ.

Joyfully Being Transformed With You In Christ!


Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Is Molinism?

It was May of 1973 and I was two months shy of twelve years old. Our small United Methodist Church in Indiana had invited an evangelist, Y. D. Westerfield, from Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, to preach at special evening meetings for the week. I was not at all excited about it because my mom wanted me to attend. I hated going to church. I was finishing sixth grade, loved baseball, was very much drawn to the model of a family member who told me of his wild escapades when he was a boy, and so I would sneak a baseball into Sunday morning services with me, I would try and sit at the end of a pew and look at the window, and I would dream of more exciting things I could be doing. I had no interest in what was being said at regular Sunday services, and certainly no interest in going to more services where there was more preaching!
But there were movements, things going on behind the scenes of which I was unaware. My mom was fervently praying for her youngest child. She knew I was heading down a path that was away from God. There was also a desire in my heart for my life to be significant. And, as much as I tried to snuff it out, there was sensitivity to what was right and wrong. Little did I know that, as C.S. Lewis famously described his own conversion, the great fisherman in the sky had his hook in my mouth and was reeling me into the boat.

 I do not remember anything that the Rev. Westerfield preached that week, but I do remember that at one of the services this eleven year old boy came under great conviction of his sin, realized he was on his way to hell, and wanted nothing more than to “gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). That time is such a sweet memory for me, for it was as if light filled the vast and dark cavern of my soul. And from then on I wanted nothing more than to serve my Savior. Oh how I loved him and his Church from that day!

Yet, as I think back on that evening, the events that led up to it, the events that transpired afterward, and even of the other people who were present, so many questions arise. If God answered the prayers of my mom and worked mightily in my heart so that I would trust in Christ, in what way did my faith and repentance comprise free decisions on my part? If the Spirit of God placed within me a desire to please God, in what ways could my subsequent desires, decisions, and actions to obey God be free? If all these decisions were free on my part, in what way can we say that the sovereign God was governing me and my actions through his providence—that salvation was ultimately of him? And finally, what about other people who were present, those who heard the same messages and did not respond? Maybe some of them never responded. Are their actions free? Was God also governing them?

Molinism posits middle knowledge as a way of bringing together God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility to answer such questions—and doing this in such a way that claims to preserve libertarian human freedom. The Molinist would say that little Tommy Barnes, in 1973, was governed by God in a strong way that he was certain to trust in Jesus Christ, but at the same time, his faith and repentance were not determined, and in such a way, at the same time, he could also have rejected Christ.

 Since many readers are not familiar with Molinism’s history, let’s take a look at how it arose.

The Origin Of Molinism
Luis de Molina was a sixteenth century (born in 1535) Spanish Jesuit Counter-Reformer.[1] The Roman Catholic theologian was both committed to God’s “prevenient grace, which stirs and solicits the will of man…[that] may be either accepted or resisted by the human will”[2] and also was troubled by the sense that God’s infallible foreknowledge, implicit in those who followed the approach of Thomas of Aquinas and explicit in the Protestant Reformers, denied libertarian freedom.[3] Molina described this freedom in this way: “…given the same disposition and cognition on the part of the intellect, the will is by its innate freedom able to will or to dissent or to neither will nor dissent.”[4]

The problem Molina faced can be illustrated in this manner. If God infallibly knows that Tommy Barnes will go to a special service in May of 1973 and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, then Tommy Barnes will certainly do that. As a result, there is some sense in which Tommy is unable to avoid this, which would seem to deny libertarian free will. Yet, if Tommy truly were able to make another choice that night at the special service, then God’s foreknowledge is not infallible.
Molina and modern Molinists have rejected Open-Theism, Simple Foreknowledge Arminianism, and Calvinism in favor of a fourth approach, one that includes “middle knowledge.” This doctrine must be understood in light of the categories theologians used in Molina’s day. Both followers of Aquinas and Reformed Theologians distinguished between natural (or necessary) and free knowledge.[5] In the 17th c. Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin, for example, spoke of both natural and free knowledge—arguing these encompassed all the knowledge God had.[6]  Some Reformed theologians still speak of the logical moments of God’s natural and free knowledge.[7] Molina argued for a third kind of knowledge God possessed: Molina and his followers have set forth three logical moments in the life of God, which can be diagrammed as follows: [8]

[Logical] Moment 1: God’s natural knowledge of everything that could be.

[Logical] Moment 2: God’s middle knowledge of everything that would be.

Divine Decree[9]

[Logical] Moment 3: God’s free knowledge of everything that will happen in the actual world.”
Let’s look more closely at these three kinds of knowledge according to the Molinist model.

A Closer Look At Molinism
God’s natural or necessary knowledge is his knowledge of all that could happen, in other words, the possible worlds that could be. This knowledge:
…refers to that part of God’s knowledge which he knows by his very nature…. Included here is God’s knowledge of all metaphysically necessary truths and all possible truths. Thus natural knowledge, properly conceived, is that part of God’s knowledge which could not have been different from what it is. It follows from this that the content of God’s natural knowledge is independent of his will…. [Natural knowledge is] logically prior to any act of will on God’s part….[10]

Thus, what is being asserted in God’s natural knowledge is that, “He knows all possibilities, everything that could happen…. These fully formed possible scenarios are generally called possible worlds. There is an infinite upon infinite number of possible permutations of how things could have been.”[11] What is more, “a central feature of God’s natural knowledge is that the content of this knowledge is essential to God; indeed this is why such knowledge is natural. It does not depend on God’s will, but necessarily belongs to God’s omniscience.”[12] In other words, God, by his very nature, has this knowledge.[13]

The second kind of knowledge that theologians of the Middle Ages, as well as Molina, posited is God’s free knowledge—his knowledge of the world that he did make and all that will happen, all that will be actualized in that world. “The free knowledge of God comprehends everything that has/is/will happen in this existent and contingent world.”[14] It is called “free” since it is based upon God’s free decision to create the world that is and not another. It is also called free because it “has its source solely in his mind and will.”[15] In other words, free knowledge:

…refers to that part of God’s knowledge which he knows by his creative act of will. Included here are truths which refer to what actually exists (or will exist). Since free knowledge comes from God’s creative act of will, it follows that the content of that knowledge is contingent. It includes only metaphysically contingent truths, or truths that could have been prevented by God, if he had chosen to create different situations, different creatures, or not to create at all. Thus, free knowledge can be characterized as dependent upon or logically posterior to God’s will.[16]

Molina and Molinists assert that God freely chose to “actualize” the world that is, and, “Of the infinite possibilities available to God, He was under no compulsion to choose this one. Yet He chose a world that contains free moral agents—angels and humans—who make genuinely free decisions”[17]—namely, the world that is. “According to the theory, middle knowledge is similar to natural knowledge in that it is prevolitional, or prior to God’s choice to create and therefore its truth is independent of God’s determining will. Likewise, it is similar to free knowledge in that the truths that are known are contingent (not necessary) because, in the mind of the Molinist, they are dependent on creaturely will.”[18]

William Lane Craig explains how the three kinds of knowledge relate:

For example, [God] knows whether Peter, if he were placed in certain circumstances, would deny Christ three times. By his natural knowledge God knew in the first moment all the possible things that Peter could do if placed in such circumstances. But now in this second moment he knows what Peter would in fact freely choose to do under such circumstances. This is not because Peter would be causally determined by the circumstances to act in this way. But God knows which way Peter would freely choose. God’s knowledge of Peter in this respect is not simple foreknowledge. For maybe God will decide not to place Peter under such circumstances or even not to create him at all. Middle knowledge, like natural knowledge, thus is logically prior to the decision of the divine will to create a world.[19]

Given only natural knowledge and free knowledge, according to the Molinist, there is not sufficient explanation of God’s knowledge to posit why he made the world he did and why or how his manner of creation preserves libertarian human freedom and also how it successfully addresses the issue of pain and evil (why did God create a world in which there is sin?). So, Middle knowledge is affirmed, which is God’s comprehension of all that would happen if certain things were different or if certain things were true.[20] In other words, “God’s middle knowledge comprehends everything that would happen if God had been willing to decree its occurrence.”[21]

To put it another way, this involves “God’s knowledge of possibilities involving human choice (the ‘counterfactuals of freedom’ as they have been called), ”[22] i.e. all counterfactuals of (libertarian) free choices.”[23] This knowledge allows God to know that if he made a different world than what he did, what would happen in that world.[24] So, for example, if God made a world in which the Jews and Jewish leaders of the first century had ignored Jesus, God knows what events and decisions would come out of such a world. He also knows if he made a world in which those same Jewish leaders and Jews had accepted Jesus as Messiah, what events and decisions would come about as a result. God also knows what would have happened with Tommy Barnes had the United Methodist Church in Belleville, Indiana not invited a special speaker to hold special services in May of 1973.

“The content of God’s middle knowledge can be seen as a virtually infinite number of propositions of the form, ‘If person P were in situation S, then P would freely perform action A.’”[25]
Kenneth Keathley adds: “An important note to make…is that God does not perceive what free creatures would do, but rather He conceives their choices within Himself. That is, God does not look forward in time to ascertain what decisions [people] would make; instead He innately knows all free choices due to his omniscience.”[26] Keathley adds that “the source of that knowledge is not the creature…[but] God Himself.”[27]

So, this is an introduction into the view known as Molinism. Coming into contact with this view has been the catalyst for my going back and revisiting divine sovereignty and human freedom. In our next blog I will briefly touch upon some strong points of Molinism and also introduce some problems.

Joyfully Exploring Divine Sovereignty And Human Freedom With You,

Tom Barnes

[1] Travis James Campbell, “Middle Knowledge: A Reformed Critique” (accessed from on April 20, 2015), 1; “Luis de Molina,” in Catholic Enclyclopedia (accessed at on April 20, 2015).

[2] William Lane Craig, “Middle Knowledge: A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?” in Clark H. Pinnock, Ed., The Grace God God And The Will Of Man (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), 141.

[3] For the reality Molina was motivated by the implications of Thomistic Theology and Reformed Theology, see Robert R. Cook, “God, Middle Knowledge, And Alternative Worlds,” Evangelical Quarterly, 62 (1990): 294. See also James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), 34.

[4] Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione Concordia, 4.2, cited in Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 1-2. This is a classic and typical way of describing libertarian or indeterministic freedom.
Keathley, Salvation, chapter 3, argues for what he wisely calls soft indeterminism, an indeterminism that is not absolute. Rather, choices, he recognizes, are limited by character—in the case of humans—and character in turn is shaped by previous choices. In this book I will argue for soft determinism.

[5] Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 4. See also John D. Laing, “The Compatibility Of Calvinism And Middle Knowledge,” JETS, 47, 3 (September 2004): 456; Craig, “Rapprochement?” 145; and William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility Of Divine Foreknowledge And Human Freedom (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf And Stock Publishers, 199, repr.), 119ff.

[6]Francis Turretin, Institutes Of Elenctic Theology (3 vols.; ed. James T. Dennison Jr.; Trans. George Musgrave Giger; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 1:212-13, cited in Paul Helm, Terrance L. Tiessen,“Does Calvinism Have Room For Middle Knowledge? A Conversation,” WTJ, 71, 2 (Fall 2009): 437.

[7] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation And Sovereignty (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, Kindle Edition), 150. See also Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 102.

[8] The following diagram is taken from Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 2. Campbell adds: “One will find a similar diagram in William Lane Craig, What Does God Know? Reconciling Divine Foreknowledge And Human Freedom (Norcross, Ga.: Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, 2002), a popular booklet expounding Molinism.
That these three kinds of knowledge have a logical and not temporal relationship, see Craig, “Rapprochement?” 145; and William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God: The Compatibility Of Divine Foreknowledge And Human Freedom (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf And Stock Publishers, 1999, repr.), 129-130.

[9] By divine decree we mean God’s eternal purpose by which he has chosen all that will come to pass (the actual world with all its creatures, events and facts that exists).

[10] John D. Laing, “The Compatibility Of Calvinism And Middle Knowledge,” JETS, 47, 3 (September 2004): 456.
Craig, The Only Wise God, 129, explains that included in this natural knowledge are the “laws of logic.”

[11] Keathley, Salvation, ch. 1.

[12] Craig, “Rapprochement?” 146.

[13] Craig, The Only Wise God, 129.

[14] Campbell, Middle Knowledge,” 3.

[15] Paul Helm, “Molinism 101,” 1 (accessed from Ligonier ministries on April 22, 2013).

[16] Laing, “The Compatibility:” 456-57. See also Craig, “Rapprochement?” 146; Turretin, Elenctic, 1:212-13.

[17] Keathley, Salvation, ch. 1. As will be shown below, I believe that the Molinist position cannot consistently argue for such a free creative act of God and such free works of providence given their commitment to indeterministic human freedom.

[18] Laing, “The Compatibility,” 457. Andrew A. Postiff, “The Theological Viability of Middle Knowledge” ( A Paper Presented To  W. Combs For Seminar In Soteriology, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006), 4, adds: “Natural knowledge does include possibilities, but middle knowledge further limits these possibilities to those which are in harmony with the free wills of creatures. And by the point that God’s free knowledge has been ‘settled,’ there are no more open possibilities, but God knows all circumstances and all the decisions that free creatures will make in them.”

[19] Craig, The Only Wise God, 130.

[20] This knowledge for God is posited based upon all the subjunctive conditionals in Scripture. Also, it is asserted that since God is omniscience, this omniscience would include all possible actions or outcomes that could happen if certain things were true.

[21] Campbell, Middle Knowledge,” 4.

[22] Helm, “Molinism,” 2; Campbell, “Middle Knowledge,” 4-5.

[23] Campbell, Middle Knowledge,” 5.
Keathley, Salvation, 35: “A counterfactual is a conditional statement that has two distinctive features: (1) It involves a condition that is contrary to fact….; and (2) it expresses a truth that belongs to this actual world.”
Craig, “The Middle Knowledge View:” 120: “Counterfactuals are conditional statements in the subjunctive mood….”

[24] Craig, “Rapprochement:” 147, further explains: “…[God] knew what Peter would do within any possible order of circumstances, then, given the decision of his will to bring about a certain set of circumstances, God knew what Peter [will] in fact do.”

[25] Laing, “The Compatibility:” 457. Laing adds: “It should be noted that the actual existence of P or the occurrence of S or A is not necessary for God to have this knowledge” according to the Molinist position.

[26] Keathley, Salvation, 39.

[27] Keathley, Salvation, 39. Craig, “Rapprochement:”147, cites Molina himself: “[God] saw in his own essence what each such will would do with its innate freedom were it to be placed in this or that or, indeed, in infinitely many orders of things—even though it would really be able, if it so willed, to do the opposite….”
Postiff, “The Theological Viability:” 4-5, adds that the Molinist asserts, “…God knows each creature so well that he knows what free choice the creature would make in any possible circumstance.” He then explains: “In the literature this is called the doctrine of supercomprehension.”
These assertions, in part, are set forth to answer the grounding objection set forth by some opponents of Molinism, namely that there is not sufficient ground for God to have middle knowledge in regard to all future truly free human choices and actions.

Monday, October 30, 2017

What Kind Of Freedom? Part 3

Any Christian who believes the Bible is the only ultimate binding source of divine authority for their life ought to realize that the main way the Bible defines genuine human freedom is this: The ability to do that which is one’s greatest preference at the moment. Additionally, one must see that genuine freedom is also compatible with a strong sense of causation behind the desired decision. This is not only the way I define compatibilism, it also seems to be the kind of freedom found in Philemon 14.

In this post I will examine that verse to see why I believe this to be true.

The Letter’s Message
As Paul and Timothy write to Philemon (v. 1)—the latter being the primary author (in light of the use of the first person singular from v. 4 on)—Paul appeals to Philemon, a wealthy Colossian Christian (see Col. 4:9, 17) and host of a house church (vv. 1-2), to receive back and be reconciled to Onesimus, a slave who most likely stole from Philemon and then fled. In the providence of God, Onesimus meets Paul in Rome, becomes a Christian, and now there is a desire to make things right with his master.

In the midst of Paul’s appeal in behalf of Onesimus (verses 8-20), Paul describes the transformation of Onesimus (vv. 8–12) and then affirms how helpful the slave would be to Paul in his current imprisonment (vv. 13–14). Yet, he then turns his attention to the relation of Onesimus and Philemon, asserting that God has been sovereignly involved in this situation perhaps so that the master may receive the slave back now as a fellow Christian (vv. 15–16) who will therefore be all the more useful to Philemon. He concludes with a direct appeal for Philemon to take Onesimus back as he would receive Paul himself (vv. 17–20).

Philemon 14
In verses 13-14, Paul clarifies that though he would very much like to keep Onesimus with him as a helper—by implication treating him as a freedman—nevertheless, Paul knew this would not be right. Paul does not want Philemon to be forced into treating Onesimus differently now that the latter has returned. He wants the master to treat him differently because he truly wants to do so (14). Verse 14 reads: “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” 

There are three terms Paul uses in this verse to address free choice on the part of Philemon. We will look at each of them in turn so we can grasp how Paul views human freedom.

To begin, Paul did not want to do anything without Philemon’s “consent” (gnōmē). Elsewhere Paul uses gnōmē to refer to the results of the thinking process—i.e. a judgment or opinion—what one believes to be true (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10; 7:25, 40; 2 Cor. 8:10). In this context the translation “consent” (ESV; RSV; NASB; NKJV; HCSB; NIV; NLT) is good. In other words, Paul desires Philemon to have heard Paul’s rationale for having Onesimus stay and to have agreed that it was good and thus to have agreed before Paul kept the slave with him. 

It appears that what Paul is writing here in v. 14 not only applies to having Onesimus stay with Paul (which Paul did not pursue), but also to Philemon receiving Onesimus back with a different relationship. This is implied from the likelihood that this letter was sent to Philemon by Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9) and so as Philemon read it, Onesimus would have already been back in his presence. So, what Paul says in v. 14 refers not merely to the possible scenario (if he had kept Onesimus in Rome), but also to the actual situation—i.e. what Philemon will do with Onesimus now. The implication is that Paul desires Philemon to think through the rationale from Paul and to treat the slave differently than he had previously—because this truly is his desire.

The second significant term Paul uses to speak of Philemon’s free choice is this: Paul did not want goodness shown to Onesimus to be “by compulsion” (anagkē). This term is used elsewhere by Paul to refer to a decision and action that one carries out that he has not truly come to desire in his heart (2 Cor. 9:7). That appears to be the meaning here. Paul does not desire that Philemon would engage in a decision or good action that is forced upon him and that goes contrary to what he truly wants.

It appears that in these first two terms used by Paul he is primarily emphasizing that he would prefer Philemon to make a choice to change his view of and relationship with Onesiumus—and most likely to forgive him—that does not by-pass Philemon’s intellect and affections.

However, before moving on, we must not miss that in verses 6 and 21 Paul clarifies that the good actions are ones which Philemon should do; they are ones which would be to Christ’s glory! So, there is very strong influence and causation present in the context of this lack of will-by-passing-compulsion.

The third significant term Paul uses is found in the last phrase: “but of your own accord” (hekousios). The word hekousios is used only here in the New Testament. It is used several times in the LXX to refer to a “freewill offering,” i.e. an offering for which there is no specific obligation to make, but is made simply because one desires to do it (Lev. 7:16; Nu. 15:3; 29:39; Ps. 119:108).  It is used in classical Greek literature to refer to something that is opposed to legal compulsion (BAGD, 243).

Nine Reasons To See Compatibilistic Freedom In Philemon 14
Because this last term (hekousios) is one of the few places in the Bible where explicit mention is made of “free will” (as seen in an earlier edition of the ESV) or a concept very close to this, it is important to focus in on this word even further. I believe there are nine reasons why this word should be understood to refer to a concept more resembling what Calvinists have termed compatibilistic freedom rather than libertarian freedom.

1. Philemon is a brother in Christ, a “fellow worker,” who hosts a church in his home. Paul believes him to be one who is changed and therefore can and should love others graciously, with a changed heart (Philemon 1-2 [cf. Rom. 12:1-21; 15:1-7; Eph. 4:1-5:2; Phil. 2:1-4f., et al.]). In other words, the fact that the indicative (what has happened to change the Christian) logically precedes the imperative (what a Christian ought to do) in Paul’s theology elsewhere would suggest at the very least that Paul is not expecting Philemon to make a decision whose movement starts in his own heart apart from God’s previous saving and transforming grace. What is more, there is nothing in this letter that would suggest Paul believes this decision by Philemon would be done in such a way that it is not accomplished as part of the “all things” which God works after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). So, to summarize this first point, Paul most likely sees Onesimus as having the general moral ability to do what is right toward Onesimus. And, whatever Philemon chooses to do as a free act can, at one and the same time, happen because it is what God has ordained to take place. In other words, it can be free and caused.

2. Paul believes Philemon to be one who has love toward Jesus Christ and the saints already (5). This undergirds the love and action toward Onesimus to which Paul is calling the wealthy saint. It is a motive that should move strongly or determine his choices in regard to Onesimus. In other words, Paul believes the Spirit of God has so changed Philemon that he has the moral ability to love Onesimus as he should.  

3. Similarly to the previous reason, Paul himself has experienced the love of Philemon and it has brought him joy and comfort (7). He believes that Philemon will respond to Onesimus in a similar fashion. In other words, there exists in Philemon antecedent character, convictions, and affections which should move him to make the choices Paul also would desire. So, Paul believes the Spirit of God has so changed Philemon that he has the moral ability to love Onesimus as he should, and this change should shape whatever desire Philemon has toward Onesimus and what actions he takes. An additional strong influence is Paul’s argumentation that he believes the Spirit will use to bring Philemon to the right decision.

4. Paul seems to utilize significant rhetorical strategy in order to persuade Philemon to act toward Onesimus with a changed relationship and brotherly love (cf. the entire letter, especially 16, 17). In other words, Paul is bringing upon Philemon strong influence toward a particular decision. As in all Paul’s epistles, he believes the Holy Spirit will use the very reasoning and word of God he shares to bring readers to Christ-like and God-glorifying decisions. And so, strong influences and even divine causation can bring about free choices (those for which the person has the strongest preference at the moment). In other words, the Spirit of God can move Philemon to the point he also has the particular moral ability to make the right decision and can actualize that decision.

5. The language of verses 8-9, 14 does not demand that the movement must start in the heart of Philemon apart from the work of God’s Spirit, apart from the decisive decree of God, and apart from any decisive persuasion on the part of Paul.  It is preferable (especially in light of what we discovered about the first two terms) to take the language as primarily focusing upon the need for true desire and willfulness on the part of Philemon that does not by-pass his own intellect and affections, rather than as a choice that is not caused or determined. In other words, Paul believes that the Spirit can move Philemon from merely a general moral ability for the right decision to a particular moral ability wherein the right decision is actualized and it will remain a genuinely free choice.   

6. In v. 21 Paul writes, “confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Even though Paul is not commanding Philemon how he must act toward Onesimus and even though he wants Philemon to act in accordance with what he truly wants to do, he also believes that changing his view toward Onesimus and acting graciously toward him in Christian love is the right thing to do—i.e. what the Spirit of God would have him to do. Since this is the case, Paul believes Philemon will do what is right, what he should do because he wants to do it—and this because, as a transformed Christian, he wants to please God and God wants him to do it. This verse, as much as any in the short letter, implies that Paul believes Philemon will do what is right because he is a changed man  and because, as a result, he wants to please God (his desires have been transformed). As such, though Paul wants the movement to come from Philemon’s heart, it does not have to be ultimately from his heart only and thus does not have to be decided apart from previous movements (both divine and human)! This is consistent with compatibilistic freedom, not libertarian freedom.

7. According to verse 6, part of doing what is right in this case is doing it “for the sake of Christ” (eis Christon). This is part of Paul’s appeal to the spirit of Philemon, which has been transformed by the Spirit of God and is now being led by that Spirit. Paul believes the Spirit will use these words to persuade Philemon freely to do what is right, that which glorifies Christ. After all, the regenerate person has been delivered from moral blindness (2 Cor. 4:4) to the kind of general moral ability wherein he sees God’s glory in Christ (2 Cor. 4:4) and desires to honor Christ (Phil. 1:20-23).  

8. Paul’s closing words, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” strongly suggest that Paul believes the transforming grace of Jesus Christ must be behind true Christian action (including love) and thus moves the heart of the saint (in this case Philemon) to do what God desires (see Titus 2:11-14). Paul is not suggesting that a person has the power in herself, apart from the Spirit of God, to do what which is right. It must be by saving and transforming grace.

9. Finally, Paul’s means of persuasion and what he desires from Philemon are very similar to the manner in which he seeks to persuade the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8-9.  There he brings to bear upon them strong reasons for giving, wants their giving to be something they truly want to do, and believes God’s Spirit will graciously work in them so that their actions will show the reality of their profession and will glorify God. In other words, it is compatibilistic freedom.

If the understanding of Philemon 14 that I have just set forth is accurate, the end result is this: If Philemon freely (i.e. with his consent and according to his preference) chooses to accept back Onesimus as a brother, treat him differently, and be reconciled to him—as he should do for the glory of Christ—the following antecedents would have moved, caused, and determined this choice: God’s predestination; Philemon’s regeneration and justification; his ongoing transformation by the Holy Spirit; his conviction that what pleases God is important; his desire to glorify Jesus Christ; his love for Onesimus; the Spirit working through the power of the Word of God; and perhaps a respect for the Apostle Paul, just to name a few.   As can be seen, then, this entire process of choice on the part of Philemon is very consistent with compatibilistic freedom.

What I have argued in my explanation of this text is that how Paul sought to influence Philemon, what he believed about the transformation of the wealthy Christian, and the expectation of how he would respond, all are in line with compatibilistic freedom—and that the choice Philemon would prefer to make is the one Paul sought to convince him to make, and, at that point he could not genuinely make the alternate choice, because he would not want to do so.[1]

So, genuine human freedom from Paul’s perspective is what the Calvinist would term compatibilistic freedom.

Before leaving the subject of human freedom, in my next post I will address some additional problems found in the concept of libertarian freedom.

Joyfully And Freely Following Our Sovereign God With You,


[1] One of the interesting realities about libertarian freedom is this: for it to be true, a person must be able to choose at the moment of decision that which is not his strongest preference. Aside from this kind of phenomenon not being able to be demonstrated, it also introduces a strong possibility that such “free” decisions must be haphazard and not even what is in accordance with what the mind reasons to be best. It seems odd to me and not in accord with how we make choices. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What Kind Of Freedom, Part 2

In my last post I began interacting with a friend of mine, Tim Stratton, of Free Thinking Ministries, on what kind of freedom humans possess. I jumped into the dialogue by interacting with a June 8, 2017 Free Thinking Ministries post, in which Tim contends that Molinism is a biblical position. He primarily focused upon five different biblical passages (one being a cluster of passages). He argued that each taught libertarian freedom, i.e. that a genuinely free person can think and do otherwise than what he is currently doing and ultimately that person has the ability to choose to think or do other than what he chooses or thinks. Additionally, libertarian freedom means a person’s decision is made within himself and not decided by causes external to himself (and external causes would include God).

I also explained that I hold to a view of freedom known as compatibilistic freedom, i.e. a decision is free if the person making it truly wants to make that decision, regardless of the level of causality or what kind of alternativity is present. Alternativity refers to the ability to do other than what one chooses. So, if a person chooses to eat cheese cake at his birthday party, he also has the ability to choose not to eat it.

In the previous post I also said I had three main responses to Tim’s biblical arguments for libertarian freedom. The first was that I agree with much of what Tim said about ability in those passages. In other words, my point is one that British philosopher and theologian, Paul Helm, has made multiple times: The compatibilist can say much of the same things that one can say who advocates for libertarian freedom. For example, the person advocating libertarian freedom speaks of people changing their mind or responding to a rational argument or making a decision that flows from their own will. Yet, compatibilism, if properly understood, can say the same things. So, I outlined some of these places of agreement.

The remaining two responses to Tim I take up in this post and in a following post. They are: 1. I have a few important disagreements with Tim on what he says about ability from these passages. (I actually began introducing this response in the first post as I delineated what I mean by different kinds of ability humans can possess) 2. These passages are best explained as advocating compatibilistic freedom. I will deal with these responses together as I look at each of the passages. I will look at the first four passages in this post and then the last one in a subsequent post.

Deuteronomy 30:14
This text reads: “But the word is very near you. It is on your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” To understand this verse we need to see it in context.

Deuteronomy 30 is part of the third sermon Moses preached to Israel while they were positioned to enter into the Promised Land (1:1-5a). In this third message the leader sets before the nation the blessings and curses of the covenant (ch’s. 27-28), then leads them in renewing their commitment to the covenant with God, which includes words about what will happen if they do not keep the covenant (29). Then in chapter 30 he teaches the people the importance of repentance in the future if and when they turn away from God (and the text strongly suggests they will!)—so covenant blessings can be restored (30:1-10).

In the first ten verses of the chapter it is important to note that in such future repentance, God’s heart transformation will (and must) lie behind it, a transformation that will enable them to love Yahweh their God with all their heart and soul, that they may live (30:6). This “circumcision” of the heart is a work of God’s grace whereby he removes their stubbornness and gives them the desire to respond positively to him (cf. Dt. 10:16).   This positive response results in their obeying the voice of the LORD and keeping his commandments (30:8)—fueled by their faith in God (30:10).

In verses 11-14 Moses challenges those who would conclude that the righteousness of God is attained through self-effort, rather than faith-fueled obedience. Since “this commandment” (v. 11) is the only place in Deuteronomy we find the singular of mitzvah (“commandment”), it most likely refers specifically to the command to repent and trust in Yahweh, to seek him in the event of future rebellion, a command found in the immediately preceding context. This would be opposed to the plural of this word found throughout the rest of the book (sometimes along with “statutes”) that refers to the totality of the Law (e.g. 10:12-13).

The point that Moses makes in 30:11-14 is that this call to return to Yahweh is not one that is so far off that a person has to ascend to the skies through self-effort or go beyond the sea. Rather, the word (i.e. the word of God, the Law) is in the mouth and heart of a person who has been changed by Yahweh (this last clause is added because of the context of verses 1-10).  In other words, the doing of God’s will, the following of him, is by his grace that transforms—a grace available to all kinds of persons without distinction, rather than by super-human efforts done only by a select few. This appears to be how Paul understood this passage in Romans 10:6-8.  So, life comes by God’s grace and is available to all without distinction. 

So, to use the different kinds of ability to choose I introduced in the previous post, it is better to see this passage as consistent with the idea that people possess the natural ability to respond to God in faith and obedience (they have the faculties to do so). However, they do not possess the moral ability (including the desire) to respond to God in the ways he commands, for the purposes he commands, and to the extent he commands. For this moral ability to be present, there must be an effective work of God’s grace. In fact, the language of this text causes the reader (especially the New Covenant reader) to lean forward toward those later Old Testament promises in which God said he would cut a new covenant with his people that would change them from the inside out and enable them to carry out his will (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-27). With such a work of grace, then surely the person can say that the doing of God’s will is in us, not far from us, and can be done without some kind of additional extraordinary strength.

So, to read Deuteronomy 30:14 as if any person has full ability to respond to God positively without a previous effective work of God’s grace seems to ignore the context. In other words, they do have natural ability. Yet, the corrupt nature of man’s heart leaves him ever unwilling to respond positively to God. His can’t is actually a won’t! To understand this text in its context supports the compatibilistic freedom of the Calvinist, a freedom that argues that the positive response of faith, repentance, and obedience will arise only from God’s effective and decisive previous work in the heart.

1 Corinthians 10:13:
This text reads: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Here we discover several pertinent points.

To begin, when we face temptation to sin, we can be assured that none of us is facing a temptation that goes beyond what other humans have faced.

Next, when we face temptation to sin, we can be assured that God is sovereign over that temptation. Though God does not author sin or tempt us to sin (cf. James 1:13), nevertheless, he can limit the level of temptation so it fits with the general moral ability of the Christian, or he can provide grace such that the general moral ability of the person matches the temptation. Part of the way he does this is to provide a way of escape so the person can endure the temptation and not give into it. Here Paul may be thinking of other believers who come along to pray with, for, to exhort, and to encourage the person (Heb. 3:12-14; 10:24-25; James 5:19-20), or he may be thinking of the Spirit bringing to the Christian’s memory biblical promises that help him escape (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Cor. 7:1). Whatever Paul has in mind, he is not suggesting that a Christian has the ability within herself alone to say, “Yes,” to God and “No” to temptation without a previous, effective, and decisive work of God.[1] Nor can she do so without the ongoing work of God’s Spirit in her from moment to moment applying the person, power, presence, and work of Christ.

What Paul appears to be promising to the Christian is general moral ability in all cases of temptation. However, in line with God’s immeasurable combination of causative and permissive governance in the believer, along with whether or not the believer is putting sin to death and pursuing holiness (i.e. disciplining self unto godliness and forming positive habits), and whether or not they are trusting in Christ at the time to be obedient, will determine whether or not they possess particular moral ability at the time. We can say that the presence of particular moral ability to avoid sin in the Christian is always ultimately brought about by God’s saving and transforming grace—and through the intellect, affections, and will of the person. The lack of particular moral ability in the Christian is due to the person not resting in the promises of God and also due to their own sin.[2]

2 Corinthians 10:5; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:8:
In regard to this cluster of passages, Tim writes that they call us to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ and we are responsible to act upon this and can act upon it. So far so good. A compatibilist, as I wrote in my previous post, can and should agree. But then he writes: “Our thoughts are not causally determined and forced upon us from external sources; we possess the ability to think otherwise…. Which is not even possible on a deterministic view as many Calvinists affirm.”

I will deal with each clause individually.

I disagree with Tim’s assertion, “Our thoughts are not causally determined.” To be precise, what the Calvinist means by saying one’s thoughts are causally determined is that they flow from antecedent movements of their heart and decisions, which the Bible makes clear in explaining how humans make choices (e.g. Mt. 7:17-18; 15:18-20; 1 Cor. 2:13-14; Eph. 2:1-10).[3] The second intent of the Calvinist is to say that all such antecedent movements, decisions, and current decisions are determined by God and realized through an immeasurable (from the human perspective) combination of causative and passive divine acts of governance. The result is that man acts freely and responsibly, to do what he desires to do. At the same time, God, in absolute sovereignty, exercised through meticulous providence, works to bring about all he has foreordained.

Yet, when God works decisively in a Christian to give general and/or particular moral ability, he works upon the will (cf. Phil. 2:13), he enables the person to desire to do what is right and so he is not forcing them from an external source. So, I disagree with Tim’s implication that this is what Calvinists teach, namely that God forces upon people an action from an external source.

In Tim’s last two clauses he suggests that according to Calvinist thought a person does not have the ability to think otherwise. The implication would be that a person could not change their mind. This is simply not accurate. Take, for example, a person’s decision to eat cheese cake or not. Each person has the natural ability to eat it or not. One person may have the general moral ability to say, “No,” because they have done it many times previously. Yet, given the fact they have not eaten anything all day previous to the offer and they have not developed a strong disciplined approach to their eating (a habit), they may lack the particular moral ability at that moment, which simply results in a strong desire to eat that is not off-set by a greater desire not to, so they eat. Another person, because they have developed a habit of disciplined eating and saying, “No,” may possess the particular moral ability to say, “No,” and so they do so. A greater affection (e.g. their desire to maintain their weight loss) offsets the desire for the cheese cake at that moment. Yet, in each situation, the Calvinist believes the person can change their decision. What the Calvinist does not argue is that the person has the power to choose what they do not want (in accordance with their greatest desire at the time). What the Calvinist does believe is that whatever choice is made, it is not only free, but also in accordance with God’s absolute sovereignty, exercised through an immeasurable combination of his active and passive governance.

2 Timothy 1:7:
This text reads: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Here I merely note two things. To begin, Paul is clearly speaking of what God has done in Christians (which Tim recognizes), so these effects or characteristics flow out of a previous gracious work of God (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5-6).

Second, I would simply note that the word translated, “self-control” (sōphronismos) does not necessitate that a person is controlling himself by himself, as if he is the only cause of the control, which, if I understand Tim correctly, he seems to be arguing. In fact, a word that has an overlapping field of meaning and so is translated “self-control” (egkrateia) in Galatians 5:23 is said there to be part of the fruit of the Spirit (i.e. what the Spirit produces). What both texts seem to be saying is that one must control self, but this does not demand that the desire or ability to control self arises only in the person at that time and does not have other internal antecedent causes and/or external causes. In fact, it demands also the causation of the Holy Spirit!

The best forms of Calvinism reject any sense of monocausality, i.e. that in our decisions there is only one cause of a decision. It is recognized there are multiple causes. Some forms of Calvinism seem to suggest God is the only cause of all things and so man is not free in any sense or responsible. At the same time, some advocates of libertarian freedom can, at times, sound as if they are suggesting a free act must arise only from the person without any other causes. The best forms of Calvinism reject both.

This can be seen in the state that both Tim and I call home, Nebraska. Many young men and women here grow up to cheer for the Nebraska Cornhusker football team freely. Though I would argue that desire flows from the will of the fan and so is free, it is not only the will of the fan that decides it. There are multiple causes, not the least of which is living in this state and growing up in a family that cheers for the Huskers.

I realize I have not answered all questions or scratched all itches in just two posts. That will take many more to unpack the Calvinist view. I plan to keep plugging away at this and trust it will be of help to all who read the posts, whether they agree or not. I have certainly been very positively impacted by interacting with Tim and his writing on the subject, even though I do not agree with him on all things.

In my next post I will take up Tim’s final passage he mentioned (Philemon 14) and, along the way, will introduce more on what the Calvinist believes about freedom and why libertarian freedom is rejected. After this, I will move on to explain about God’s absolute sovereignty exercises through his meticulous providence and how this includes both causative and permissive governance.

Joyfully Following Our Sovereign God With You And Loving Those Who Disagree With Us,


[1] This is in line with the larger context of 1 Corinthians, in which Paul argues that in order for a person to accept the things of the Spirit of God, the gospel in particular, demands a previous effective and decisive work in them, as well as an ongoing work (2:13-14).

[2] Such an understanding, then, demonstrates how God can ordain all things in his absolute sovereignty, worked out through his meticulous providence, and yet with the result he is not responsible for sin, his grace is necessary for man’s righteous acts, and in both cases man acts responsibly and freely in the compatibilistic sense.
[3] In all of these passages in the cluster, if the reader looks at the preceding larger context, she will find Paul’s emphasis upon a previous effective gracious work in the person that is necessary for both general and particular moral ability to be present to trust in and to follow Christ. For example, in Eph. 6:10, just two verses prior to the verse Tim cites, the reader is commanded, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength that comes from his might” (author’s own translation). When Paul goes on to delineate the spiritual armor the believer has at her disposal to fight the enemy, it is understood that both this armor and the ability to use it are given through Christ. The spiritually dead person is made alive by God so she can carry out the works that God prepared for her to do (Eph. 2:1-10) and must continually trust in Christ to have the ability to stand against the enemy.