Compatibilism is the term of choice for how God’s absolute sovereignty rules in the universe without stripping man’s responsibility to choose and make decisions that have real, live consequences. Like ‘Trinity,’ ‘inerrancy,’ and ‘homoousia,’ compatibilism is not a ‘Bible word,’ but it summarizes what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
Today, I want to look at a sampling of Scriptures to help explain how the Bible talks about God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. To begin with, it might be helpful to state exactly what compatibilism is. Here is D. A. Carson’s definition from his book on suffering: How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil.
(1) God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or [negated].
(2) Human beings are morally responsible creatures—[we] significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions… but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.
With this definition in place, lets consider from Scripture how the Bible describes the relationship between God’s exhaustive, meticulous sovereignty and man’s freedom to choose.
God is Sovereign Over All Things
In Scripture, there are Scriptures which speak of God’s sovereignty in unqualified, exhaustive terms. These exhaustive statements stipulate that nothing happens outside of God’s decree, power, control, or good intention.
Psalm 115:3. Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
Psalm 135:5-6. For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.
Ephesians 1:11. God “who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
God is Sovereign Over Nature
As sovereign over all things, God is naturally the superintendent and governor of all creation. No animal eats, no bird flies, no fish swims, and no human breathes but what God has not given them life, breath, and everything else (Acts 17:28).
Isaiah 46:9-11. Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it
Psalm 104:10-18. You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
God is Sovereign Over Nations
Moving from the inanimate and animalistic creatures of nature to the free choices of human governments, the Bible still portrays God as fully sovereign. He not only determines their whereabouts and success, he also determines the free actions of the greatest leaders in the world. In this way, human freedom is circumscribed (upheld, determined, and permitted) by God’s sovereignty.
Acts 17:26. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,
Psalm 33:10-12. The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
Proverbs 21:1. The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.
God is Sovereign Over the Free Actions of Men
God controls the larger effects of human civilization, and he determines the destiny of every person ever made in his image. As the sovereign creator, every human personality is God-given. He forms us as he wants us; he puts us in the family, the country, the socio-economic bracket that he will use to make us the person he wants us to be. He is the Potter, we are the clay. While we think of our lives progressing naturally over time; God creates us for the end goal of what we will become. For all of eternity, God is not thinking about who we are at age 2 or 22. God creates for who we will become. Perfectly, human history is shaping each character in God’s story according to his perfect Script. Scripture reveals God’s sovereignty over his creatures in a number of places.
Psalm 139:16. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
Proverbs 16:1. The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
Proverbs 16:4. The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Proverbs 16:9. The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
God is Sovereign over Every Detail of Life
God’s sovereignty is exhaustive; it is also meticulous. Every roll of the dice in Las Vegas and every genetic combination concocted in a lab (i.e., a test tube baby) comes from his divine decree (i.e., his particular plan established before the foundation of the world). Nothing is left to chance. Even chance, according to the Bible, is not chance.
Proverbs 16:33. The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.
Romans 11:36. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
God is Sovereign over Evil without Being Evil
As soon as we assert that God is exhaustive and meticulous in his sovereignty, the question returns: What about evil? It is a legitimate question, but one that we must answer with biblical truth, not emotional appeals. In truth, it is the emotional problem of evil that is most difficult to stomach. As humans made in God’s image, we long for justice. Cain’s blood still cries out for vindication. And yet, the justice we long for will not come until Christ returns to the earth. In the meantime, we must look to the cross and the text of Scripture to make sense of God’s good and evil world.
The story of the Bible is alone sufficient to begin to make sense of the problem. In Genesis 1-2, God’s word is created very good. But immediately in its new born perfection, man angels and man rebelled against God. The result is death, destruction, sin, and suffering. We live in a fallen world, one that is filled with all kinds of personal vice and systemic evil.
Therefore, any good ‘theodicy’ must hold together Creation and Fall. It must also incorporate all the biblical data on the subject, and thus affirm that God is both uncompromisingly good and that in his sovereign wisdom he has both permitted evil and actually uses evil to accomplish his divine purposes without himself ever being evil. This relationship of God’s goodness to the world’s evil has led many Christians (and non-Christians) astray, but if we keep ourselves anchored to the text, we can find solid ground.
Here is a sampling of the Scriptures that (1) affirm God’s goodness and (2) affirm God’s active permission of evil in his world.
James 1:13, 17. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one… Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Isaiah 45:5-7. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.
Lamentations 3:37-38. Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come.
Compatibilism in the Bible
Finally, it is worth noting places in Scripture where man’s evil actions accomplish God’s good plans. It might seem odd that evil can be used for good. But perhaps another analogy might be used.
By itself, chemotherapy does terrible things to the human body. But in the hands of a skilled oncologist, it has the capacity to kill cancer and save a life. So it is with evil. God who is never tempted by evil has used evil men to accomplish his purposes. He sends men and angels with evil natures to do what they by nature will do. For instance, God gave Satan freedom to afflict Job with boils, but only so that Job’s faith would be proven. And in the end, God’s power would be manifest and Job’s life would reflect the image of God’s Son—a righteous sufferer who is rewarded a double portion for what he lost. Or in the case of Paul. Satan sought to afflict Paul, but the end result was a more humble apostle whom God used more powerfully in his weakness (2 Cor 12).
Therefore, in Scripture there are places where God uses evil to accomplish his purposes, but never does he do evil. There is a significant difference. Some logicians might argue that such use is illogical, but it is not unbiblical. In fact, on the basis of God’s word, we have to trade in our understanding for the more perfect wisdom of divine revelation. We can look at two examples in Scripture to see how human evil is condemned by God and simultaneously used by God.
Genesis 45:8; 50:20. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt… As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Acts 4:23-28. When Paul and John were released, Luke records, “They lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’— for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
More positively, there are numerous places in Scripture where God empowers and enables his people to do what he commands them to do. In other words, Scripture’s imperatives demand men to put sin to death (Rom 8:13), to obey God (Phil 2:12-13), or to be holy (1 Thess 4:3), but in each instance, God also supplies this men with the power to obey. This is the flipside to compatibility. Not only does God use the free actions of evil men to accomplish his good purposes; he also gives men new natures, so they freely choose to do his will. This is he promise of the New Covenant. God writes the law of God on human hearts, thus causing them to walk in his statutes (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26-27). You could say that Christians are both truly free in Christ (John 8:32) and truly constrained (Rom 6:16-19). In fact, Scripture uses both descriptions.
Other Instances of Compatibilism
Christians are slaves of Christ and thus free men. By contrast, only those who are constrained by the Spirit have freedom. Those free from Christ have no true freedom; they are ensnared by sin and shackled to the grave. Thus, perhaps one of the best testimonies to compatibilism is in the life of a born again believer. Instead of rejecting the law, the commands of God—for the Christian—are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). They are a delight (see all of Psalm 119). In this way, compatibilism is seen in the glad-hearted obedience of the Christian.
At the same time, it should be noted that those who are Christians and experience the power to say no to ungodliness and yes to God, have a measure of freedom that unbelievers do not have. Unbelievers, who are dead in their sins, are incapacitated from doing anything that pleases God. They are spiritual dead and morally incapable of seeking God. They must be born again by the Spirit of God and the Gospel. In this way, compatibilism finds a final application in the regenerating work of salvation. Men are made alive by the Spirit and in turn they repent and believe. God’s sovereignty in salvation does not trump man’s free will, but God in his plan of redemption, changes the nature of man (or woman) by means of the life-giving word, and thus the man with a new nature has the will and the power to respond to the gospel call.
All in all, the doctrine of compatibility is vital for understanding how God governs the world, superintends world affairs, controls chance events, and saves sinners. It is a glorious subject to ponder and one that Scripture speaks of with great regularity.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss
 D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 179.
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