The “Why” Question

Sproul_blog2Dr. R. C. Sproul which comes from the Greek word for “goal” or “end” (telos), is the study of purpose. The “why” questions are purpose questions. We seek the reasons things happen as they do. Why does the rain fall? Why does the earth turn on its axis? Why did you say that?

When we raise the question of purpose, we are concerned with ends, aims, and goals. All these terms suggest intent. They assume meaning rather than meaninglessness. Despite the best attempts of nihilist philosophers to deny that anything has ultimate meaning and significance, the perennial question “Why?” shows that they haven’t been successful. In fact, even the cynic’s glib retort of “Why not?” is a thinly veiled commitment to purpose. To explain why we’re not doing something is to give a reason or purpose for not doing it. Purpose remains in the background. Human beings are creatures committed to purpose. We do things for a reason—with some kind of goal in mind.

Still, there is complexity in this quest for purpose. We distinguish between proximate and remote purposes, the proximate being what is close at hand and the remote referring to the distant and ultimate purpose. To use a sports analogy, the proximate goal for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is to make a first down. Making a touchdown is the more remote goal. A goal that is even further off for the team is to win the game. Finally, the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. Continue reading

God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility in Harmony

packer-245x300“the living God, who created the entire universe and actively upholds it in being (otherwise it would vanish away, and so would we as part of it), knows everything that has been and now is and foreknows everything that will be just because, in a way that totally passes our understanding, he plans and decides and controls everything that takes place. From inside (and we are all insiders at this point) the cosmos appears as a huge interlocking system of cause and effect, the working of which scientists can examine, map out, and within limits predict because the processes all operate with what appears as built-in regularity. But Christians know what science can never find out, namely, that all the processes of nature are willed and sustained directly by the Creator, every moment, down to the smallest detail, as also are the free-flowing thoughts that run through our minds, and the dreams that befuddle us while we sleep, and the self-determined, accountable decisions about what we will and will not do that we make in a steady stream throughout our waking hours. Let us say it clearly: all the regularities of nature, including the functioning of our own minds and bodies, are as they are because God wills and keeps them so. Nothing would be as it is – nothing, indeed, would exist at all – were it not for the active will of God…

To affirm God’s sovereignty over everything around us, within us, happening to us, and issuing from us takes nothing from our certainty (which Scripture confirms) that all our thoughts, words, and deeds, including all our motives, purposes, attitudes, and reactions, are truly our own, not forced upon us from outside but coming out from within us, so that we are in truth responsible subjects, open to assessment both by other people and by our own consciences, and finally by God himself. Rather it adds to our certainty that, as our continued existence and all our living really involve God, so God really involves himself in an overruling way, somehow (just how, no creature can conceive), in all our circumstances, motives, actions, relationships, experiences, joys, pains, pleasures, griefs, and ventures, which form the situational reality of our daily lives.”

J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom, Guard Us, Guide Us: Divine Leading in Life’s Decisions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 199-200.


What is compatibilism?

they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; but human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God’s sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent.
Carson right argues that “We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.”

“Hundreds of passages,” he suggests, “could be explored to demonstrate that the Bible assumes both that God is sovereign and that people are responsible for their actions. As hard as it is for many people in the Western world to come to terms with both truths at the same time, it takes a great deal of interpretative ingenuity to argue that the Bible does not support them.”

Carson briefly works through a number of representative passages: Genesis 50:19-20; Leviticus 20:7-8; 1 Kings 11:11-13, 29-39; 12:1-15 (cf. 2 Kings 10:15; 11:4) 2 Samuel 24; Isaiah 10:5-19; John 6:37-40; Philippians 2:12-13; Acts 18:9-10; and Acts 4:23-30. I’d encourage readers to study each passage in context and see if they comport with Carson’s two statements above.

After looking at Acts 4:23-30, Carson makes this telling comment:

Christians who may deny compatibilism on front after front become compatibilists (knowing or otherwise) when they think about the cross. There is no alternative, except to deny the faith. And if we are prepared to be compatibilists when we think about the cross—that is, to accept both of the propositions I set out at the head of this chapter as true, as they are applied to the cross—it is only a very small step to understanding that compatibilism is taught or presupposed everywhere in the Bible.

Elsewhere he writes, “At Calvary, all Christians have to concede the truth of these two statements [above], or they give up their claim to be Christians.”

I especially appreciate Carson’s conclusion as he locates the deepest foundation of compatibilism:

So I am driven to see not only that compatibilism is itself taught in the Bible, but that it is tied to the very nature of God; and on the other hand, I am driven to see that my ignorance about many aspects of God’s nature is precisely that same ignorance that instructs me not to follow the whims of many contemporary philosophers and deny that compatibilism is possible. The mystery of providence is in the first instance not located in debates about decrees, free will, the place of Satan, and the like. It is located in the doctrine of God.


Carson’s popular-level writings on compatibilism can be found in chapter 9 (“A Sovereign and Personal God”) of A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 145-66; and chapter 11 “(The Mystery of Providence”) of How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 199-228. For a more technical treatment (based on his doctoral dissertation), see Carson’s Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspective in Tension.

For more technical discussions on the philosophical nature of freedom and responsibility, see the chapters in John Feinberg’s No One Like Him. Among the best things I’ve read—accessible but philosophically informed—are the relevant chapters in John Frame’s The Doctrine of God.

For a brief overview of passages on God’s absolute sovereignty, see this post.