Sovereignty, Puppetry, and Freewill

Hello Pastor Jim,

Recently I have been watching your videos on YouTube of your messages and sermons about the Sovereignty of God, Calvinism, predestination, and Reformed Theology.

I am greatly encouraged by the messages but still confused because of how I was raised. People in the church I attended said Calvinists do not evangelize and they [Calvinists] think people are robots with no free will to love God.

So here are my questions:

  1. Are all events on earth already preordained by God?
  2. Do we have a “free will?”
  3. Are we robots already programmed?
  4. How does the aspect of love play into this if we are just puppets?

I understand your perplexity.  It takes time to sort through the things you’ve been taught and separate traditions from valid doctrines. One of the most difficult aspects of learning and embracing what the Bible actually says is un-learning our traditions, assumptions, and presuppositions.

The things that you’ve written here are typical responses to Calvinism.  For instance, people who do not know their church history will often claim that Calvinism inhibits evangelism.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is, some of the greatest revivals in history were led by Calvinists.  The first universities planted on U.S. soil were established by Calvinists.  Some of the most enduring missionary societies were established by Calvinists.  So, the claim that Calvinists do not evangelize is mere folly.

The following bit of history is from my book By Grace Alone (which is available as a free pdf download on the GCA website), including a pericope from David Steinmetz’s book Calvin in Context.

Calvinism, as it is commonly called, has a rich European history, but it finds its most striking influence during the foundation of these United States. Owing to Martin Luther’s commitment to reform, the church that bears his name was founded on the teaching of God’s election and determinate predestination. John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, held these doctrines. Early American history reveals that the vast majority of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were Calvinistic Presbyterians. The Congregationalist Churches of early America were once bound by these doctrines. And the original Baptists were avid predestinarians, which is why their modern counterparts advertise themselves as “Free-Will Baptists” to distinguish themselves from their ancestors.

This English Calvinist strain was strengthened by the Dutch Calvinists of New York and New Jersey, the German Reformed of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies.While not all settlers in the New World were Protestant and not all Protestants were Calvinist, nevertheless there was from the very beginning a strongly Calvinist influence on American thought and institutions. Calvinists founded universities, pioneered the New England town meeting, insisted on the separation of powers in the federal government, played a prominent role in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and even promoted such characteristic institutions of frontier revivalism as ‘the anxious bench’ and the ‘camp-meeting’… In short, although Calvinism is not the only ingredient in American intellectual and religious history, it is such an important ingredient that no one can claim to understand American history and culture without some appreciation of its Calvinist heritage.

Or, let’s look at it this way:  Calvinistic theology is drawn directly from biblical, Pauline doctrine.  Of all the New Testament writers, Paul wrote the most complete arguments in favor of God’s absolute predestination and electing grace.  Yet, Paul devoted his life, his wealth, his health, and everything in him to the work of evangelism.  Calvinists follow Paul’s example.  We teach everything that the Bible says and we do everything that the Bible instructs.  We evangelize vigorously because we do not know who God’s elect are.  And in reality, Calvinism inspires evangelism because we know that God’s word will not return to Him void; it will accomplish what God intends for it to accomplish.

So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:11)

So we preach the good news full of hope and expectation.  By contrast, a person who believes in man’s autonomous free will has to fight the uphill battle of trying to convince someone to make a decision that is completely contrary to their nature and self-interest.  The Calvinist is convinced that only the power of God changing a person from the inside will result in salvation.  Therefore, the only tool we need is the truth of God’s word.  And we know His word will be successful; His people are out there and they will respond.  That takes a tremendous weight of pressure off of our shoulders and places responsibility for salvation exactly where it belongs — in God’s hands.

As for the robot argument, this YouTube sermon may help:

Basically, when someone poses the “robot” argument (also known as the “that would make us puppets” argument), it’s evidence that they have a sub-biblical anthropology.  They think human beings are essentially good, capable, and willing to follow God if you just give them sufficient inducement.  But, the Bible says just the opposite.  Psalm 53 and Romans 3 come to mind.


In the YouTube video, I reviewed the various New Testament passages that describe the human condition from God’s point of view.  You mentioned previously that you have been taught that Calvinism eliminates man’s “free will to love God.”  The truth is, the Bible eliminates man’s free will to love God. Nowhere in the Bible are human beings spoken of as being willing and capable of loving God unless God Himself awakens and quickens them.  Calvinism simply places the emphasis where it belongs — on God’s will instead of man’s.

Now, with that bit of introduction out of the way, let’s address each of your questions individually.

Are all events on earth already preordained by God?

The short answer is: Yes.

All Christians agree, in essence, that God is in charge of the really large events.  But the Bible also declares that God feeds the animals, hangs the stars, determines the days of every man’s life, and settles “the whole disposing” of things as minute as casting lots.  In other words, anyone who says that God is not in charge of everything in His universe must be able to tell us exactly where the line of demarcation is. What things is God in charge of and what things are beyond His scope?  Based on clear Scripture, I would inquire, what part of God’s creation does He restrict Himself from?  And where is He absent?

The Bible declares that He is everywhere, has all knowledge, and even gives Himself the proper name “God Almighty.”  So, if He has all the power, knows everything, and is everywhere, then there is nothing in His universe that escapes His grasp, is hidden from Him, or which He does not empower.  Otherwise, we would have to argue that He is limited in His knowledge and presence, or that there is another power in His creation that is separate and distinct from Him.  And that, biblically-speaking, is an impossible argument to win.

 Do we have a “free will?”

The term “freewill” has been utilized in Christian circles for so long that the concept is simply assumed to be true, despite the lack of clear biblical evidence. For instance, the only place in the entire Bible where the actual terminology “freewill” exists is as a type of Old Testament offering. But importantly, that word never shows up in the New Testament. Now that fact, in and of itself, does not automatically undermine the concept of free will. The word “Trinity” is also not in the New Testament, but the concept is plainly and repeatedly displayed. So, what we really have to determine is whether the concept of “free will choice,” as a part of the salvation process, is ever mentioned, implied, or stated in the New Testament.

Here are the facts: wherever the will of man is referred to in the Bible it is always in the negative. In other words, because human beings are sinful, their will is equally depraved and is therefore limited. To say it more simply, human beings cannot act outside of the confines of their nature.

My YouTube teaching video “Thinking About Free Will” may prove helpful in this regard.

According to the Bible, our wills are limited by our inability —

Can the Ethiopian change his skin Or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.  (Jeremiah 13:23)
So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.  (Matthew 7:17)
Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  (John 8:43)
…the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8)And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest?  (Luke 12:25-26)
There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. (Romans 3:11)

Given our inability to do good, choose God, or enable our will against its nature, salvation must be the result of grace on God’s part and never the result of the “free will” decisions of any human. And the Bible states that repeatedly and emphatically.

For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. (Romans 9:15-16)
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  (John 1:12-13)

But, here’s the really essential point — if free will (as the modern church defines it) were indeed an essential element in salvation, then the passages that deal with salvation should actually mention it. But, they don’t. You can read through every portion of Scripture that deals with eternal salvation and you will find words like: predestination, election, and “according to His will.”

But never — never once, not a single time — will you read the word “freewill.”

That really ought to tell us something. The language and concept of freewill in salvation is glaring in its absence.  So, why is it so popular among confessing evangelicals?  Despite the textual evidence, human beings love the idea that they contribute something to their salvation. It just seems more “fair” that way.  And, our egos being what they are, we want to insert ourselves into the process in some significant way so that we can assure ourselves on the basis of our own actions and behavior.  It is, for lack of a better term, human nature.  Corrupt, fallen, prideful, arrogant, rebellious human nature.

Now let me be clear. I am not denying that human beings have a will or that they make decisions. What I am saying is that the human will is not truly free in any libertarian sense. The human will is limited by our incapabilities, resulting from our sinfulness. The fact that we make choices does not prove that we can choose anything we would like. As Romans 3:11 says, we cannot simply choose to understand, nor can we choose to seek God. And that is a very serious limitation.

Also, whenever man’s “will” is referenced in the Bible, it is always in the negative.  “You were not willing…”   “You do always resist the Holy Spirit…”  “You will not come…” etc.   That is completely consistent with what the Bible teaches concerning man’s natural state.  Sinful humans are free to sin.  But no sinful human is free to do what is righteous, what is just, or what is holy.  In fact, there is no man who does anything that is good.  And there is no one who ever sought God.

And that leads us right back to the topic of Biblical Anthropology.  The first tenet of Reformed Theology (the “T” in the tulip acrostic) is Total Depravity.  If you start there, then the entire rest of the five points fall perfectly in line.  But if you deny that humans are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), then you will end up advocating for human capability and wind up in direct opposition to the clear declarations of Scripture.  It’s really just that simple.

Are we robots already programmed?

I offered a brief reply to this statement earlier, but let me also offer a bit of audio wherein I addressed this very question:

Puppet Argument

 How does the aspect of love play into this if we are just puppets?

The question of love is used as a “red herring” by those who oppose Calvinism.  They assume that human beings are free to love God or not love God according to their own “free will.”  But, as I wrote above, if the biblical description of mankind is accurate then no natural human being has the capacity to love God.  In fact, they hate Him with a vengeance.  They are referred to as His enemies:

 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Romans 5:10)

The biblical reality is that only after God quickens and enlightens a person can they truly love God.  I get weary of hearing preachers say, “Only love that is freely given his genuine love!  Calvinism says that God forces His love on us.  Forced love is not real love.”  Norman Geisler went so far as to say that Calvinism posits a form of “divine rape.”

“Irresistible force used by God on his free creatures would be a violation of both the charity of God and the dignity of humans. God is love. True love never forces itself on anyone. Forced love is rape, and God is not a divine rapist!” (Norman Geisler, “God knows all Things,” Predestination and Free Will, (ed.) David Basinger and Randall Basinger (IVP, 1986), p. 69 ).

What sad rhetoric such men have to stoop to in order to avoid what the Bible says.  Again, the fact is that humans will never “freely” love God until God removes their hatred and enmity and puts His divine spirit within them.  And, as I have argued openly and often, God is indeed irresistible in every aspect of His character and dealings with mankind.

So, how does the aspect of love play into this?  It is God’s divine and eternal love that resulted in the grace that saved fallen sinners like you and me. In response to that reality, and as a result of His quickening power, we loved Him.  But, as in all things, God is the “first cause.”  He does not love us in response to our love.  We love Him because He first loved us.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.  In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. (1John 4:7-11)

Don’t allow people to mischaracterize Calvinism and tell you that it limits evangelism, does damage to man’s free will, makes us robots and puppets, or reduces divine love to forced rape.  I think you can see that those are all emotion-based arguments, not Biblical arguments.  People are naturally suspicious and afraid of things they do not understand.  I wish more of Calvinism’s critics would take the time to understand it before they begin criticizing it.

Grace and peace,

Jim Mc.

By Grace Alone is available via this link:

Featured photo: “Delusions of Grandeur” by Megan McClarty

4 thoughts on “Sovereignty, Puppetry, and Freewill

  1. Shauna Bryant

    Excellent response and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I am going to link this on my wall as I hope a few people might read it….! OK – have to comment on the photo – simply awesome. Visually striking when you think of how God sees us and how we see ourselves.

  2. Pam Sharp

    Loved it!!! Pastor Jim, there are very few who can convey what the Scriptures say quite like you do.
    I once was blind and now I see. I think I hear the copier clicking into action. Copies for everyone because you said it better than I ever could!
    Thanks be to God!

  3. Louis Laudencia

    Pastor Jim, I wish I could tell the gospel the way you do. Whenever I see, hear or read you I always think that what you say and write is what I always had in mind but never got to express it. We christians really have different souls and callings yet have one spirit and one hope, the blessed and Holy One.


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