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God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will (2)

The following article is from the February 2015 issue of the Covenant Reformed News, a monthly publication of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, N.Ireland.

God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will (2)

In last month’s News, I began a discussion of two questions that came to me, both dealing with related subjects. (1) The first concentrated on God’s foreknowledge, arguing that to believe in foreknowledge is foolishness, for it implies contradictions in God Himself that are beyond resolution. (2) The second, a series of questions, had to do more with man’s free will. This latter question appealed to the biblical narrative of the fiery serpents that attacked Israel because of their murmuring (Num. 21:4-9) and the fulfilment of the brass serpent, of which Jesus speaks in John 3:14.

(1) I will deal with divine foreknowledge first. We must remember, in talking about God’s counsel (for foreknowledge is a decree in God’s counsel), that the divine counsel is eternal. This does not mean that God Himself and His counsel are without a temporal beginning and a temporal end. It means that God’s counsel is timeless, without time, above time, not in any way affected by time, since Jehovah Himself is timeless.

We are so totally controlled by time that we cannot even form an idea of divine eternity. Eternity means that we cannot speak of "when" God does something (as the questioner does), for "when" implies time. We cannot speak of one work of God preceding another work of God in eternity, for one thing preceding another is something characteristic of time. All the decrees of God are eternally before His mind and they are so without change.

The terms (a) foreknowledge, (b) election and (c) predestination refer to the same decree of God, but they look at that decree from different points of view.

(a) God’s foreknowledge is His eternal knowledge of His purpose to glorify Himself through Jesus Christ and the salvation of the church. This foreknowledge of salvation in Christ includes God’s eternal foreknowledge of the cross of Christ as the means of salvation (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).

It must never be forgotten, however, that God’s knowledge of something is not like our knowledge. I have knowledge of a black walnut tree that once stood in my backyard. But I knew that tree only after the tree was there. God knew that black walnut tree before the tree was there.

In fact, because God’s counsel is the living will of the living God, His knowledge of that black walnut tree was the cause of the tree’s existence. And so it is with all things.

God is omniscient, not because He is able accurately to predict the future, but because He determines all that takes place in time in His eternal counsel.

(b) Election refers to the same decree of God to save His people in Christ, but with this word the emphasis falls on the fact that He chooses with absolute precision and final determination those whom He wishes to save. "To elect" means "to choose."

(c) Predestination in Scripture also refers to God’s eternal will to save His people in Christ, but looks at God’s decree from the viewpoint of its purpose or destiny. That purpose is to take His elect into everlasting fellowship with Himself in Jesus Christ. Predestination also refers to all that God determines to do to attain that goal.

(2) I turn now to the issue of man’s free will. The question we face is this: Does fallen man have the natural ability to choose to do good or evil? We are not talking about Adam before he fell. Nor are we talking about man today who may choose to send you a letter or to refrain from sending it, to eat a T-bone steak for dinner or a hamburger, to buy a Ford car or a Mercedes. The question asked—and the question that has been asked a thousand times—is this: Does a totally depraved man possess the moral ability to choose to do that which pleases God and meets with His approval. Or, as it is so often said nowadays, does sinful man have the spiritual ability to accept the salvation offered him in the gospel? Is man’s salvation determined by his own choice?

The question is an ancient one. Even in Augustine’s day (354-430), the question had to be faced. In those days, the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians taught that man had a free will and that God saved only those who wanted to be saved by their (alleged) free will. Augustine most emphatically denied it. The Roman Catholic Church most emphatically taught it and killed those who denied it. All the Reformers, without exception, denied free will, as did the Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout Europe. The Arminians taught it; the Synod of Dordt, representing the Reformed churches in the whole of Europe denied it. And so it is today: there are those who teach free will and there are those who deny it, who rightly insist that total depravity is total depravity and not partial depravity (Rom. 3:9-20).

Let those who teach free will admit that they are in doctrinal agreement with the Roman Catholic Church on this point. So important was the question that Martin Luther, whom we esteem as a great Reformer, wrote a book against Erasmus, a humanistic representative of Roman Catholicism, called The Bondage of the Will (1525). Luther understood the importance of the question. In answering Erasmus, Luther complimented him on dealing with the one, most important and most crucial, issue that divided the Reformers from Rome. If Erasmus was right, Luther insisted, there was no reason to reform the church and split from Rome.

It is well, as the questioner suggests, that we understand that other crucial doctrines are involved. Some of the most important are: whether Christ died for all men absolutely or for His elect alone (John 10:11); whether God loves all men or His elect alone (Rom. 9:13); whether God gives grace to all men or to His elect alone (II Tim. 1:9); whether God wants all men to be saved or whether He wills the salvation of His elect people alone (Matt. 11:25-27); whether all men have the ability to be saved or whether wicked man will always reject the gospel—unless God Himself saves him (John 6:65).

The question is of utmost importance. It divides between orthodox, believing Christians and heretical theologians who stand outside the stream of the church of Christ here on earth. Let no man belittle the issue.

The only answer that anyone can give is that the church of Christ since Pentecost to today, including Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and the Romans, all the great creeds of the church and all the greatest theologians, have held to this one position: Man’s fall resulted in his total depravity, that is, his total inability to do any good and his ability to do only what is evil. This includes his will: the will of fallen man is totally unable to do anything pleasing to God; it is totally unable to contribute even 0.001% to a man’s salvation; it can do nothing but hate God (Rom. 1:30).

I have recently completed an extensive study of the teachings of the church on this very question. I cannot duplicate the results of that research here. The evidence is conclusive: there have been heretics without number who have denied the doctrine of the slavery of the will, but the true church has consistently and without reservation condemned such errors and held to the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God in the salvation of sinners. The church has always taught (and one need only read its confessions to see this) that man is totally depraved; that Christ died only for His elect people who were given Him of the Father; that God loves His people, but hates the wicked; that God saves a people chosen from all eternity and bestows on them, and on them only, His grace; that His grace cannot be resisted; that those chosen by God will be saved so that all of them will live forever in covenant communion with the Triune God (Ps. 11:5-7; John 6:39-40; 10:27-29; Rom. 8:30-39; Eph. 1:3-14).

I shall deal with the passage in Numbers 21 to which the questioner calls our attention in the next issue. But I want to make a few more remarks in this connection.

The question is not to be answered in terms of what we would like or what we think ought to happen. The question is ultimately—and it is a question every one of us has to answer, for there is no escaping it—Do you choose to go along with the Roman Catholic Church on this crucial question? Do you want to join in the raucous cacophony of far and away the majority of the church world that thinks it knows better than God what He ought to do? Do you want a God who waits upon the will of man to decide whether or not to be saved? Do you want a Christ whose death is so ineffectual that it cannot save those for whom He died? Must Christ everlastingly wring His hands in despair that so many whom He loved and wanted to save actually go to hell?

I do not want that kind of God or that kind of Christ. He cannot do me any good. If even an iota of this glorious work is left to me, I shall perish. I know it. I know with it with such absolute certainty that Paul’s glorious doxology is the one that I rejoice to sing: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain" (Gal. 2:20-21).

Any other God but the sovereign God, in whose hand is the king’s heart so that "he turneth it whithersoever he will" (Prov. 21:1), is an idol, a humanistic invention that makes God small and helpless, and raises man to a level with the divine.

Prof. Herman Hanko, emeritus, PRC Seminary

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 15
  • Issue: 10
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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