Determined to Believe: Chapter 5 - God's Character is at Stake

My thoughts on this chapter are: (and know they are simple thoughts!):thinking:

  1. Can/are we making sovereignty identical with determinism?
  2. Recognizing that Scripture does show God’s sovereignty and human responsibility
  3. I believe God is absolutely sovereign. My search is going forward consider what He sovereignly ordained. Free creatures, or determined?

Am I oversimplifying this thought?


@mitwit I think that is well stated. We all agree God is sovereign, but now we need to dig into the Bible and try our best to develop a Biblical understanding of sovereignty. What does it mean that God is sovereign? What can we see for certain and what are aspects of sovereignty that are simply beyond our understanding?


A couple of points that come to mind…

Both Calvin and Arminius were surely influenced by the Martin Luther’s recent reformation; and perhaps going to far as to say that God grants saving faith was because they wanted to make sure there was nothing works about salvation?? I stumbled across this video on the ‘American Gospel’ youtube channel. (I’m not sure if this a fair representation of Catholicism either pre Reformation or after the counter-Reformation ??)

I like little diagrams (this one isn’t to scale), if we are talking about knowledge and understanding…
I am the blue dot in the diagram, the green circle shows all human knowledge inside it (past, present and future will still be finite in size), and God’s knowledge encompasses all human knowledge and also outside that as well.


Could part of the issue be: we (humans) understand free will fairly well because we are ‘inside it’. Could the problem start to arise when we read of God’s sovereignty in the Bible, and then we try to step into God’s sphere of knowledge and figure it all out and construct air-tight systematic theology?

For me, it’s not possible for me to completely understand these things, and to quote David in Psalm 139:6 (read the whole Psalm as it’s quite a good worship Psalm) “Such knowledge is too high for me, I cannot attain it.”. If you approach this area humbly, God promises to give grace to the humble, but God does resist the proud.

There is a balance between free-will and God’s sovereignty. I like to think simply the same as I am a finite human and subject to certain restraints both mentally and physically (I can’t just fly like a bird if I feel like it).

I think that an infinite sovereign God has created a finite human moral space, in which I can freely choose within the boundaries of my knowledge and human ‘finiteness’.

I did like the mathematical explanation posed by @anthony.costello here
Free Will, Determinism, and Foreknowledge (Philosophy Heavy Question), where (from what I could understand of it), God in his love and sovereignty keeps the world in such a way that each individual human has the most possible genuine chances to freely choose to respond to the Holy Spirit’s call. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”. Rev 3:20

I do think that one of the largest issues I have with determinism is it calls into question God’s character: and it contradicts (at least in my mind) the love demonstrated by action on the cross by Jesus Christ. Jesus love on the cross wasn’t some systematic theology, it was pure love. if you what to know what God is like, look at Jesus fully!

Interestingly, Lennox also mentions in his recent book on Joseph this balance also in about 3 chapters and refers to this book in the footnotes/bibliography… (very good book, with main themes about forgiveness)

just a few thoughts… I do think there comes a stage at which you wrestle with it to the limits of your own human mind, and then have to just let it rest…


@matthew.western Yes, when I think of topics such as this one these two passages often come to mind. The contrast between the image in Psalms 131 of a young child at rest in God versus the modern notion of the superman who conquers themselves and the world via their own intellect / strength strikes home. And Paul’s beautiful doxology in which he quotes Isaiah and Job, declaring the fathomless depths of the mind of the Lord. God has invited us to seek to understand Him and yet there comes a point when our understanding fails and we find our rest in knowing Him.

Psalms 131:1-3 - I am not conceited, Lord,
and I don’t waste my time
on impossible schemes.
2 But I have learned to feel safe
and satisfied,
just like a young child
on its mother’s lap.

3 People of Israel,
you must trust the Lord
now and forever.

Romans 11:33-36 - Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.


I’ve just recently joined Connect and this discussion quickly caught my eye. For better or worse I’ve been engaged in this “debate” on two fronts simultaneously, and it is quite exhausting. But in a refining way…(?)

Sovereignty and the infiniteness of God are agreed upon by both sides. But the chapter y’all are reviewing asks what each side says about the character of God. I’ve brought this up with my brothers-in-Christ and everyone gets really quiet. It seems like arguing the character of God puts each party in the OTHER party’s “heresy watch list”.

How can we discuss something as important as God’s character without; 1) getting nervous about what the other side answers, or 2) adding caveat after caveat that “God can’t be fully known”?


@sondaeeranch In what context is this debate taking place in your own life? Praying that the Lord would grant you wisdom.

I think when we encounter questions as complex as this one, we need to humbly acknowledge what we know and what we simply do not know. Once we honestly set the limits of our understanding, we can probe deeper by asking questions such as: “Why might God have chosen not to provide this information? Based on Scripture, would having this information be useful to really knowing God?” In my opinion, we in the modern era want to know the why behind all of God’s decisions before getting to know God, but God’s emphasis in Scripture is much more on knowing Him than knowing the why behind all of His decisions. We see this to be true again and again - from Abraham to Job to John the Baptist in prison. God doesn’t just drop the answers people want. Instead, He invites us to draw near - He Himself is the answer we truly need.

I think there is something very profound going on in God’s response to our hardest questions. God is not evading us or leaving us without what we most deeply need. Rather, I believe that faith and doubt are not rooted in head knowledge. Satan surely has many more answers than we do - and yet he is in rebellion against God. God wants our hearts - and giving us the information we think we need appears not to be the best route to truly saving our souls.

What are your thoughts on that line of reasoning?

Here are some thoughts on how to engage in this discussion in a way that promotes unity rather than disunity:

  • recognize that our view of sovereignty is not critical to our ability to fellowship with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ - it is a conviction or opinion; not an absolute (link to article at bottom)
  • acknowledge that the those we disagree with are doing their best to honor Christ and the Scriptures and avoid ad hominem attacks on the motives / character of those with whom we disagree (ex: no one on either side is trying to turn God into a monster or to decrease His glory)
  • pray for one another and pray together in the Spirit - I think really praying for one another brings healing. If God asks us to bless those who persecute us and pray for our enemies, how much more should we pray for those in the faith with whom we disagree?
  • understand that this debate has been going on for two thousand years and the lack of consensus should be a sign for us to approach the topic with great humility

I also think Philip Yancey’s perspective, shared in this thread, was very helpful. We need to recognize when God has not provided us enough information to make decisive claims and consider why God may have chosen not to do so.

Levels of Doctrine

Not all doctrine is equally important. Some beliefs are at the very center of our Christian faith and to deny them is to deny Christ. Other beliefs are important to how we practice our faith and are therefore the cause of disagreement between many denominations, but these beliefs do not place us outside of Christ. Still other doctrines, such as eschatology, are difficult even for very learned and godly people to understand clearly and are therefore a matter of opinion.

The below article offers a fuller explanation of levels of doctrine and gives a helpful summary list of 4 levels of doctrine.

  1. absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith;
  2. convictions , while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church;
  3. opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and
  4. questions are currently unsettled issues.

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations:

  1. biblical clarity;
  2. relevance to the character of God;
  3. relevance to the essence of the gospel;
  4. biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it);
  5. effect on other doctrines;
  6. consensus among Christians (past and present); and
  7. effect on personal and church life.

@SeanO thankfully the main conversation is in the safe confines of a walk through the book of John with brothers from my church (including one Elder). But there are two “determinists” and three “free willies” (:joy:) so the conversation can get intense. I absolutely agree with your answer regarding theological ignorance. In fact, that should be such a given that I’m not sure it’s additive to reference it much during a discussion. Mainly because the party who brings it up is often (certainly not always) trying to push back against the other whom they think are “too convinced” of their position. Yet this is the very nature of the discussion, so an appeal to God’s unknowableness is counterproductive. I guess a caveat to that last statement is when someone becomes condescending.

What I’ve come to realize and promote in my discussions is an admittance that BOTH SIDES are trying to extol the wonder and awesomeness of God. If we can confirm each other’s intentions, we can continue knowing that no one is trying to lessen God (if that were even possible).

In my conversations it has become clear that each side of the debate have different definitions for the same words. In our case we’ve come to understand that we have perceived differences in thoughts on God’s character because we actually have different definitions of words such as: 1) faith, 2) chosen, 3) good, 4) evil, amongst others. The sobering thing is that we sometimes reference the same scriptures to validate our different definitions.

All this to say we MUST trust that our brothers and sister on the “other side” love the Lord and want His name glorified above all others. If this is our starting point we can safely discuss the things (like definitions) that we really are arguing about.

Cause we’re not REALLY arguing about God’s character or sovereignty


As I reread my last post I realize I’ve bumped the conversation off the main topic. Oops. Sorry.

Now, back our previously scheduled program: what does determinism mean for God’s character?

(Discuss amongst yourselves)…


@sondaeeranch No worries - while it is good to stay on topic, if the Lord leads I think it is profitable to take tangents. I really liked this observation you made:

In my conversations it has become clear that each side of the debate have different definitions for the same words. In our case we’ve come to understand that we have perceived differences in thoughts on God’s character because we actually have different definitions of words such as: 1) faith, 2) chosen, 3) good, 4) evil, amongst others. The sobering thing is that we sometimes reference the same scriptures to validate our different definitions.

This observation that the same Scriptures are used to bolster different definitions of words like chosen or faith is extremely significant to our discussion. Because as soon as we see that happening, we must check ourselves to see if we are really reading the text in context or bringing our preconceived notions to the text. Sometimes the text may not prove either definition. Great point!


Which makes the interpretation of Scripture an intimidating exercise. Yet it isn’t supposed to be! The Bible is for everyone. So we discuss and debate. Beautiful. I love how God wants us rubbing elbows together and looking each other in the eye! In the end it’s all about relationships. Ours with Him and ours with His bride.

So is “faith” reserved for Christians and ONLY given by the Holy Spirit at salvation? Or is it something we all have and we can place it in whom or what we choose? This is where my discussions with my church brothers reached a stalemate :sleepy:.


@sondaeeranch That is a very interesting discussion you guys are having :slight_smile: If I am understanding your discussion correctly, I would want to make a distinction between the concept of faith as generally defined and Biblical faith in God. Faith, in the dictionary, is simply defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Based on that definition, we could have faith in the goodness of humanity, the explanatory power of science, or in the goodness of God.

Biblical faith, on the other hand, is trust in God rooted in His self-revelation to us and His faithfulness to His people and to us personally in the past. Contrary to what many seem to think, Biblical faith is evidence based. It is rooted in our experience of the living God and our trust in His character as demonstrated through the historical person of Jesus Christ.

The debate generally revolves around this question, “Are we capable of placing our faith in God or does God have to place faith in us? Is repentance the result of faith God has already placed in our hearts or is it an act of faith on the part of the individual?”


Yup. Those are the questions we’re asking each other. The next step is figuring out what each other means by “spiritually dead”.

Though faith IS evidence based, it is spiritual in nature. So if we are born spiritually dead (comatose), without any capacity to understand spiritual things, then “faith” MUST be given to us by God during regeneration.

But if “spiritual deadness” doesn’t mean ‘unaware’, but simply ‘separated from God’, then God can speak to us and call to us and draw us to Himself; giving us the reason/evidence we need to switch our faith from something/someone else to Him.

Knowing these definitions allows me to celebrate the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit with my Calvinist friends, while also celebrating God’s draw on our souls with my Arminian friends!

Definitions matter. But what I’m finding is few people are willing to change their definitions for fear of sacrificing intellectual honesty (myself included). We CAN, however, translate from Calvinism to Arminianism, or vice versa, and celebrate what each other MEANS by their words without getting bogged down in arguing that word’s definition.

If I think about it, a willingness to have this type of translational discussion can only flow out of mutual love for one another. So human unity comes not from oneness, or sameness, but from Love! Sounds a bit christianese, but i think it’s true at the deepest heart level.

Love the discussion and each persons point of view! I don’t understand everyone’s point of view…but they’re all interesting!!


@sondaeeranch It’s so encouraging to hear that you guys are having translational discussions where you earnestly seek to see things from the other person’s perspective and celebrate the way in which they desire to honor God while still maintaining your own intellectual integrity :slight_smile: We need more of those going on in the Body.

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A great statement I think. I believe this to be true. I think of 1 Cor. 14: 26-33. The church ought to be edified,though each has have a docrine, a revelation, an instruction, etc, and if we are not careful and keep love as the bond, we can lapse easily into contempt and rejection. Division.

I am 63 years old and in my life span, I have seen a lot of this very thing. I have also witnessed many who love and respect, in decency and honor, learn and grow in love and faith by God’s good grace, even with differing interpretations of those secondary or third things.

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Do you mean theological determinism or natural determinism? I ask because theological determinism would fit the ANE and the Greco-Roman way of life. In short if we keep god happy then we are all happy. The big question for them was how is this accomplished? Temples? Idols? Offering? Rituals? and the list goes on.
If we contrast that to 2nd temple Judaism I think that I am safe in saying that they felt that at least the birthright and the instructions, Torah. Before I continue I know that every Jew of the 1st century was not in lock step with his Jewish neighbor much less his gentile neighbor. But because Lennox is ultimately appealing to the Biblical record and because Paul is given credit for the greatest portion of what we call the Christian doctrine I think it fair to make the following observation.

I think the idea of determinism was baked into the Jewish culture in two ways.

  1. One view is that the great happenings of the day require close attention, are heavy with meaning. We have therefore to center our interest in the lively, important news of the day. The consequence of this approach to life, in the history of Judaism, is a yearning for the end of time, the conclusion of history, and the coming of the Messiah.
  2. The other view is that what people should attend to is the everyday life of the home and the village, which, after all, they can do much to shape. History is something to be endured; it cannot be affected. Life at home goes on and on through time. It is, in its way, timeless, a kind of eternity. The cycle of life, birth, maturing, marriage, child-bearing, old age, and death, and the succession of days and weeks, months and seasons, year by year—these recurring patterns form a kind of eternity. And it is that timeless world of sunset, sunrise which is to be shaped and reformed.
    Neusner, J. (2006). Between Time and Eternity: The Essentials of Judaism (p. i). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

If you look at this closely I think you will see that there was already a division on the subject of who was in, who was out and what if anything could a poor boy do about it.
The point that I am trying to make is that even before the Greco-Roman it appears to me that great Jewish minds were already mulling this over as Rabbinic thought and teaching were being transmitted from one generation to the next.
Food for thought.


@Jimmy_Sellers Do you know during what time period Jewish scholars began to ponder these questions? Was it postexile? Were these topics common in Babylonian or Egyptian thought? This would be a very interesting topic to do a deep dive on :slight_smile:


I’ve never sensed a tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. A king can be sovereign with the right and power to control everything in his subjects’ lives, but he could choose to let them pick their own careers. The king doesn’t become less sovereign by letting them have choices.

Am I defining sovereignty the wrong way? Does there have to be a tension between sovereignty and free will?


@Jennifer_Wilkinson I really like the simplicity of using a king and his subjects as an analogy :slight_smile: No, I do not think that there must be tension between free will and sovereignty. Your definition is legitimate, since it is actually the definition of sovereignty that is being debated.

Think of the definition for sovereignty being on a scale from 1-4. In all cases, God has absolute authority and rule, but as you move towards 4 God determines more and more of what individuals do. The tension between free will and sovereignty starts to become much more pronounced once you are including 3/4 in your definition of sovereignty.

  1. God rules over the nations and has the right / power to judge each individual
  2. God is intervening in history to move towards a predetermined end (including salvation history)
  3. God determines who is saved
  4. God determines literally everything that happens

I think if your definition of sovereignty only includes 1/2, then there is not as much tension with free will.


@Jimmy_Sellers I like your point that perhaps there has been an even earlier influence that impacted the thinking of man. Probably, if kept going back and back, we would eventually end up in the Garden of Eden where this wrestling of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man began:grinning:

This idea of who influences what in our lives is always a fascinating study to me. What really has influenced all my thinking in life? Why do I accept some people’s influence and not others? I am not always sure.

John Lennox pointed out the influence that the Stoics had on Christianity. I was just curious if any one has studied up on the influence that the Epicureans may have had on early Christianity as well? I think they were the other group of philosophers that Paul talked with on Mars Hill.

I like @SeanO question #3. I can sometimes become weary of the debate on God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, especially in the Christian camp. Even though I do enjoy debate:grinning:. One thing I like to ask when I get into a debate on this sort is do you believe in holy living? Hopefully we can all agree to that. Then what does that look like and how is it fleshed out? That seems to me to be a more important question to answer than trying to understand the sovereignty of God and man’s free will. As important as that question is. This question looks at a question of God’s character that involves His sovereignty and man’s free will, as I see it. God said “be ye holy as I am holy”.
Just some food for thought here as well



If you want a thorough study on the epicurean influence on the current state of religion in the world you will like the NT Wright 2018 Gifford lectures, Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology and New Creation. (This will be available in book form this year) Here is the link to the first lecture, there are eight. But this lectures broaches the epicurean influence(s) on modern day worldviews. Warning these lectures are addicting, be careful. :grinning: