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A Plea for Calvinistic Compatibilism

An Essential Component to Biblical Soteriology

John Calvin alerted us on the first page of his Institutes of the Christian Religion that “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (1.1.1). For both theological and practical reasons, I think Calvin was right. We must know God to know ourselves, and vice versa.

And when it comes to our understanding of salvation, we need to know how God’s sovereignty and human action relate to one another. That’s why Calvinism matters. It is important because at its foundation Calvinism is not about five points, or about debates regarding predestination or the extent of Christ’s atonement. It is driven by a much more basic and fundamental purpose: to understand God and ourselves correctly.

Evangelical Calvinism

Compatibilism serves as a most helpful way of seeing the relationship between God and humans when it comes to an individual’s salvation. Don’t let the term “compatibilism” throw you off just because it sounds like something in a philosophy textbook. It’s really not hard to understand. Consider Jesus’ words: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . . . All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:35, 37). Who’s responsible in a person’s salvation? Human beings are truly responsible; God is completely sovereign. That’s what compatibilism highlights.

D.A. Carson usefully defines compatibilism in this way: On the one hand, “God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.” On the other hand, “Human beings are morally responsible creatures—they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent [i.e., dependent on something outside himself].[1]

Or, as Bruce Ware has noted: “God’s determination of what people do is compatible with their carrying out those those determined actions with genuine human freedom and responsibility.”[2] “Compatibilism,” as I use it, is just shorthand for “evangelical Calvinism,” because it defines the heart of a biblical Calvinist’s understanding of salvation.

A Necessary Paradox

We should be compatibilists because the Bible everywhere assumes compatibilism. Scripture never uses the word “compatibilism,” but we see it everywhere—just like we see the truth of the divine “Trinity” and biblical “inerrancy” even though those specific terms are not employed. In fact, compatibilism is assumed on just about every page of the biblical text. Think about it. From beginning to end, God presents himself as the sovereign King who creates, who rules, who works all things according to his plan, and who does everything he does so that he would be glorified. This grand metanarrative of Scripture is explicitly taught or assumed throughout the Bible. Likewise all throughout the Bible God gives people commands and both holds them accountable when they fail to meet them (“don’t eat from this tree,” “circumcise your hearts,” “he who does not believe [in Jesus] is condemned already”) and grants them the promised reward when they meet the condition (“Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness,” “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”). Compatibilism serves as a most helpful way of seeing the relationship between God and humans when it comes to an individual’s salvation Click To Tweet

God is absolutely sovereign. At the same time, people are truly responsible. That’s compatibilism. That’s evangelical Calvinism.

These two biblical truths may be hard for us to hold together at the same time with our finite minds. That’s probably why various theologians prefer to call this compatibilistic reality an “antinomy” or “paradox”[3] Whatever we label this reality, we’re not allowed to pick one side of the equation and run with it or even to emphasize one side over the other. Scripture won’t let us do that. In fact, two equally grievous errors result when Christians have lost the balance.

The Errors of Arminians and Hyper-Calvinism

Neither Arminians nor hyper-Calvinists preserve the duality of Scripture’s witness. Instead of holding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility together in tension, they prioritize one of them and in the process deny the force of the other. In order to prioritize human responsibility (in the guise of “free will,” an undefined reality assumed but not proved from Scripture), Arminians teach that God limits his sovereignty. Their logic is this: since God requires faith from individuals for salvation, he limits his intervention in their activity of faith, and he gives them all the ability that they lost in Adam (called “prevenient grace”) so that they all have the ability and the opportunity to trust Christ. Otherwise it would be unjust for God to hold persons accountable for things they couldn’t do themselves. God’s sovereignty, then, acts by his gift of prevenient grace to persons. He does not intervene in his sovereignty to cause them to be born again. In this sense, then, Arminians prioritize human ability over divine sovereignty when it comes to salvation.[4]

Hyper-Calvinists make the opposite error. Holding, as they do, that God is truly sovereign in people’s salvation, they wrongly deny real human responsibility. One of their central tenets is that one’s ability limits one’s responsibility. Since sinners outside of Christ are dead in sin (a biblical truth), hyper-Calvinists aver, they are not responsible for not responding to the gospel summons (an untruth). Dead people don’t do anything, after all. We shouldn’t preach the gospel indiscriminately to all persons since we’re telling non-elect people to do something—repent and believe—that they can’t do. We need to wait until we can tell who the elect are by the effect that sitting under the factual teaching about Jesus brings on them (these are so-called “sensible” sinners); when they start to squirm as they contemplate being outside of Christ, then we can press the claims of Christ on them. And only then.[5]

Here’s the irony: even though they seem to be diametrically opposite each other, Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism are related to each other in their opposition to evangelical Calvinism. Unable to hold on to both ends of the compatibilism spectrum, they deny one end in favor of the other. The results in both cases are devastating: Scripture does not give us leeway to believe one truth and to deny another. We must hold both even if we feel the tension.

Eschewing the temptation to pull apart what Scripture holds together, and avoiding the errors of both Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism, we should be evangelical Calvinists, i.e., compatibilists. We are bound to do so because of the clear words of Scripture. Notice these compatibilistic passages of Scripture having to do with the sovereignty of the Lord and responsibility of persons when it comes to salvation.[6]

A Biblical Argument for Compatibilism

We begin with two texts speaking of Christ’s death.

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:23).

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 (Acts 4:27-28).

Who put Jesus to death? Scripture doesn’t give us just one answer. Wicked people who planned and acted freely did it. And God determined that he would do it, and he did so through moral agents acting freely. In other words, “God determines what someone does, and yet they are held responsible for their actions.”[7] God acts. People act.

We see the same compatibilistic pattern when it comes to the conversion of sinners. First, notice these instances from John’s Gospel. John presses on his readers their responsibility to come to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Yet John reports in the next verse that those who received Christ were those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:13). Sinners must receive Christ. And to do so they must be born from above by God.

Later our Lord said, “The Son gives life to whom he will” (John 5:21), a statement of his absolute sovereignty in an individual’s salvation. Yet, people are guilty if they refuse to come to Jesus: “you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him” (5:40, 43). They could have, and should have, come to Jesus; yet they refused to do so. Only those Jesus willed to come to him came.

Persons are held responsible for coming to Christ: “whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (6:51). However, only those God sovereignly chooses will come to Jesus: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44); “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (6:45). John assumes the reality of compatibilism in a person’s salvation.[8]

Second, Luke assumed compatibilism in his description of the actors in early Christians’ conversions. Notice these three reports in Acts.

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul (Acts 16:14).

When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed (Acts 18:27).

Luke doesn’t feel the need to explain the tension. He assumes it. God sovereignly acted to save persons. In the same moment, the people acted freely and responsibly. God determined and acted. People acted.

It’s not just John and Luke who assume compatibilism in salvation. We could look at other passages such as Matthew 11:25-30; Romans 9:11-24; 10:8-17; and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. Consider just one of them: “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Pet. 2:8). Unbelievers are accountable for their disobedience. Yet that very disobedience was determined by God. The latter doesn’t make the former any less grievous. Both are true, even if we can’t explain exactly how. In fact, the New Testament authors—just like the Old Testament authors (see Exod. 7:3, 13, 22-23; 8:15; Deut. 29:4, 18, 20; 30: 6, 19-20)—adopted a compatibilistic lens when explaining salvation.[9]

So should we. We should be compatibilists, or evangelical Calvinists if you prefer, because that is what the Bible teaches. Let me end by giving us two examples of how a compatibilistic understanding of salvation should impact us.

Compatibilistic Prayers for a Compatibilistic Mission

First, we are compatibilists when we pray for a person’s salvation. Of course we are, because we pray to a sovereign King, the one who controls everything in his creation. The one who listens to his children pray. The one who delights in our petitions and is eager to give us good things. We pray because we know he can act, and when he intervenes he does so in a decisive manner. J. I. Packer is surely correct, then, that our Arminian brothers and sisters betray their real doctrine of God when they pray. They don’t pray for God to do 99.6% of the saving but then leave it up to the individual’s free will. No, they pray, “God, save her.” “Lord, have mercy on her.”[10] Evangelicals pray big prayers asking for God to do his work of re-creation in others because we’ve experienced that very re-creative work ourselves. We’re asking him to do for others what he’s for us. Evangelicals, then, believe that our God is sovereign. That’s the first part of the compatibilistic pole. Evangelicals pray big prayers asking for God to do his work of re-creation in others because we’ve experienced that very re-creative work ourselves. Click To Tweet

Yet, in the very act of praying we do something: we pray! We act. We’re not fatalists, holding to some blithe que sera sera notion that things are just going to work out however they’re going to work out. We know that though God is sovereign, his sovereignty functions to move us to do things, things like praying. Praying for someone’s salvation. Praying that Christians would be active in sharing their faith, just like the apostle Paul asked the Colossian Christians to pray for him (Col. 4:3-4).

Because we know the end of the story—that in heaven there will be people from every tribe and people and language and nation gathered around the throne worshiping Jesus (Rev. 7:9)—we pray that God would raise up cross-cultural missionaries to go to the nations with the gospel, following the commission of our Lord (Matt. 9:37-38; 28:18-20).[11]

God’s sovereignty should fuel our praying.

Second, God’s sovereignty should also fuel our sharing the gospel with lost people. We have seen above how Luke recorded the conversions of new Christians through a compatibilistic lens in Acts. Think about the apostle Paul. He believed in the particular sovereignty of God in an individual’s salvation (e.g., Eph. 1:3-14 or Rom. 8:28-9:26). But this belief didn’t lead Paul to be fatalistic. He writes that the only way for persons to believe is if messengers of the gospel take the good news to them and tell it to them so that they can receive Jesus (Rom. 10:9-17). And he lived out what he believed. Think about all the suffering the apostle endured as he brought the gospel to lost people (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:24-29). Consider one example from his ministry. He was abused for preaching and even stoned by Jewish opponents who hated the gospel Paul was preaching. Their mistreatment of Paul was so severe that when it was all over he appeared to be dead (Acts 14:19). Yet the apostle got up and soon was out again—preaching the gospel! (14:20-22) And so should we. We believe that God will sovereignly save his elect. And we know that he will do so as they hear the gospel and that we have an obligation to take the gospel to them (John 3:16-21; Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 12:30-31).[12]

Whether or not you call yourself a “compatibilist,” or an “evangelical Calvinist,” is beside the point. What matters is that all of us hold tenaciously to the realities that compatibilism defends: God is completely sovereign, and human beings are truly responsible. May we rest in his sovereignty while acting courageously in those areas he commands us.



[1] D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 201.

[2] Bruce A. Ware, “The Compatibility of Determinism and Human Freedom,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, ed. Matthew Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2012), 213 (italics original).

[3] J. I. Packer prefers “antinomy.” See his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1961), 18-23. Anthony Hoekema’s preferred term is “paradox.” See his Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 5-6.

[4] The most accessible treatment of Arminianism, by an Arminian, is Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006). Another helpful Arminian work is Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Random House, 2002). For my fuller critique of Arminianism in these areas, see Shawn D. Wright, 40 Questions about Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2019), 59-73.

[5] On hyper-Calvinism, see Iain H. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), and John Piper, Andrew Fuller: Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Mission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016). I critique hyper-Calvinism in 40 Questions about Calvinism, 231-36.

[6] I define compatibilism and show several instances of it in 40 Questions about Calvinism, 83-100.

[7] Ware, “Compatibility of Determinism and Human Freedom,” 221.

[8] See Robert W. Yarbrough, “Divine Election in the Gospel of John,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 47-62.

[9] For other instances of compatibilistic texts in Scripture, see John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 155-68.

[10] See Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 18-20.

[11] I explain why Calvinists should pray as well as be active in evangelism and missions in 40 Questions about Calvinism, 261-72.

[12] I defend the notion that Calvinists must be active in freely offering the gospel to everyone in 40 Questions about Calvinism, 273-78.

Shawn D. Wright

Shawn D. Wright serves as a professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Wright came to Southern Seminary after serving Southern Baptist churches in New England. He has been active in church planting and pastoring and currently serves as one of the pastors at Clifton Baptist Church. In addition to teaching at Southern, he is active in teaching on the mission field and to missionaries. In addition to contributions in journals, Wright co-edited Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant In Christ (Broadman and Holman,  2007) with Tom Schreiner and is the author of 40 Questions About Calvinism (Kregel, 2019). He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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