There’s a roughness along the edges of the Reformed doctrines of grace—a difficult dilemma that may have crossed your mind at some point. People usually express the concern in statements that run something like this: “I just can’t believe that God would drag people into heaven against their will, kicking and screaming!”
Such reactions reveal a clear misunderstanding of how God works in people’s lives. And yet, when we hear terms like “irresistible grace” and “overcoming grace,” it’s easy to see how miscues of this sort might emerge in people’s minds. The concern that many people have at this point is whether God forces people to love him—which wouldn’t be love at all!—or if we freely choose to love God.
Faced with the possibility that overcoming grace might reduce someone to a choiceless robot, some Christians begin dusting off their vintage audio cassettes from the band Rush and begin wailing along with Geddy Lee:
There are those who think that life
is nothing left to chance,
a host of holy horrors to
direct our aimless dance.
A planet of play things
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive…
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will.
But do the Reformed doctrines of grace really claim that God saves people against their wills?
Does God direct every detail of our lives to the point that our deeds are an “aimless dance”?
And, if he doesn’t, where in God’s overcoming grace is there space for human freedom?
So What If God Did Violate Our Free Wills?
Now, first off, let’s suppose for a moment that God did turn sin-infected zombie rebels into his children despite their kicking and screaming. My children have spent plenty of time kicking and screaming in the pediatrician’s office, quite convinced that getting a shot is the worst idea since finishing a serving of Brussels sprouts. And yet, I choose to violate their wills for the sake of their life and health.
And what about instances when someone adopts an infant from an abusive home or rescues an unconscious person from a burning building?
Should adoptive parents leave a child to be abandoned and abused until she can make her own choices about her family situation?
Or should we wait until the person wakes up and expresses an explicit desire for life before pulling him from the structure engulfed with flames?
Even we, with our limited wisdom, ignore people’s wills to save their lives.
So what if an infinitely-wise God did bypass the free wills of hell-bound rebels and cause them to become his beloved children because he knows what they need better than they do? There are worse fates, after all, than being dragged kicking and screaming into a life of infinite love and light.
As it turns out, though, neither the New Testament nor any Reformed confession of faith declares that God saves people against their will. There is plenty of space in overcoming grace for human freedom and divine sovereignty, and we don’t have to choose one over the other.
Did God Push You Down the Stairs?
Did you hear the one about the Calvinist who fell down five flights of stairs? He got up and said, “Well, I’m glad that’s over with.” It’s an overtold joke and not particularly humorous in the first place. It does, however, highlight a common misperception that Calvinists believe in a God who predetermines everything to the point that no space remains for human freedom. Yet that’s not at all what Calvinists have historically confessed.
(And, by the way, there are a lots of Calvinist jokes that are less cliched than the Calvinist falling down the stairs, like the one about the Calvinist who built a baseball scoreboard. They had to remove the scoreboard from the ballpark because it kept posting the final score before the game began.)
So what do the Reformed confessions of faith have to say about human freedom?
Well, according to the pastors at the Synod of Dort, God does not deal with “people as if they were blocks and stones, nor does the Spirit’s work “coerce a reluctant will by force” (3/4:15). In another Reformed confession of faith written later in the same century, it’s stated that God has given every human being the gift of “natural liberty.” And here’s what the Abstract of Principles, penned by nineteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists, has to say about how God governs the world:
“God, from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs, and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”
“Free will and responsibility”?
A calling that refuses to “coerce a reluctant will”?
So much for the caricature that Calvinists believe in a God who drags people into heaven kicking and screaming!
Who Chose Your House, Your Spouse, and Your Striped Socks?
But let’s take this charge against the Reformed doctrines of grace as seriously as possible and admit that, sometimes, it does seem like some Reformers denied free will. Martin Luther, for example, penned a work entitled On the Bondage of the Will—a writing that Luther meant to dismantle the very notion of free will!
But what Christian theologians meant by “free will” in past centuries was far removed from what this phrase means to people today.
Among the sixteenth-century Reformers as well as their heirs and opponents, “free will” described a human capacity to make choices in our own strength that result in progress toward salvation—and that’s what the Reformers so strongly rejected.
Luther’s point in On the Bondage of the Will was that, since our wills are enslaved to sin, none of us will ever choose to pursue God’s way of righteousness apart from God’s work of grace (John 6:65; 8:34). The pastors at Dort put it this way:
“If the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, we would have no hope of getting up from our fall by our own free choice, by which we plunged ourselves into ruin when still standing upright.”
And so, the sixteenth-century debates about free will weren’t about whether God fated your fall down five flights of stairs or if you possess the liberty to choose your spouse, your house, and the striped socks you pulled out of the dryer this morning. Luther clearly affirmed that human beings enjoy a measure of freedom in the things “beneath us”—in the ordinary, day-by-day choices we make. And, in the words of Richard Muller, when “Calvin indicates that we are deprived of free choice, … he certainly does not mean … that a person is not free to choose between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.”