Apologetics Thursday – Verses on God Ordaining Free Acts

By Christopher Fisher

Matthew of learntheology.com lists verses in which he claims God “ordains” the future free actions of human beings.

Third, contrary to open theism, Scripture affirms that God knows and ordains the future free actions of human beings (e.g. Genesis 50:19–20; Isaiah 10:5–19, 40–48; Acts 4:27–28; Psalm 139:16; John 6:64). For me, the only way to do justice to this Scriptural affirmation is to embrace a biblical compatibilism. However, open theist advocates reject this alternative with very little argumentation, due to their acceptance of a libertarian view of human freedom. But the cost is indeed great. No doubt, their view is a logically consistent view, but is it a biblical one? Probably the strongest reason they give for accepting the libertarian viewpoint is the perceived advantage it has in solving the problem of evil. But is this the only viable solution? Again, I disagree.

But does God both “ordain” future free actions and “ordain” in the sense that the author (Matthew) would have the reader believe? People like Matthew just assume that if God does not control all things in minutia, then God must be impotent. This is not defensible. Even very unpowerful people can “ordain” free will acts. I can ordain that people give me money for my furniture. All I have to do is post a classified ad with a reasonable price. Can Matthew explain how his idea of God’s “ordaining” differs from my “ordaining” that people buy my Craigslist furniture? We are not let into Matthew’s secret. Matthew avoids discussing the verses he quotes, possibly because it would be impossible for him to prove his beliefs from the texts.

The texts he lists do not imply what he wants to prove:

Gen 50:19 Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?
Gen 50:20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.

This text shows that God repurposed the evil of Joseph’s brothers. It would be strange to say that God needed to force the brothers to be evil to get Joseph to Egypt. Couldn’t God have just asked Joseph to walk? Couldn’t God just have then ordained Pharaoh to accept Joseph into his court? Here is one of an infinitely number of scenarios which skips the entire part of Joseph’s brothers being evil:

God ordains Joseph to walk to Egypt.
God ordains Pharaoh to see Joseph and appoint him as a ruler.

No evil necessary. But this verse (instead of showing God making irrelevant events to effect His will) shows God’s planning to effect His will in spite of human evil. God uses evil actions for good. Nowhere in the text states that God “ordained” that the brothers sin.

For anyone to take this text as saying: “God forced the brothers to be evil to Joseph in order to place Joseph in a good place” makes God into a strange being, using weird methods to do things that could be done much easier without ordaining people into evil. It is unnatural.

Isa 10:5 “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hand is My indignation.
Isa 10:6 I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, To seize the spoil, to take the prey, And to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
Isa 10:7 Yet he does not mean so, Nor does his heart think so; But it is in his heart to destroy, And cut off not a few nations.

In Isaiah, God is shown to have a tenuous relationship with Assyria. Assyria is used by God. And how does God get Assyria to do what He wants? The immediate text states that they have “hearts” out to “destroy”. So God looks at their motivations and then lays in front of them an object that they could take. God calls this “whistling” in Isaiah 7:

Isa 7:18 And it shall come to pass in that day That the LORD will whistle for the fly That is in the farthest part of the rivers of Egypt, And for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.

So, God does not snap His magic fingers to make people do things. Instead, God uses motivations. Isaiah is clear that after Assyria is done, God then will punish Assyria for their evil. God did not force Assyria to do evil, and thus they are guilty of their own crimes. If God were to have forced Assyria to kill and plunder, then God would be to blame. Instead, God plans to punish.

But Assyria could repent before judgment. In Jeremiah 18, God is very clear: if Assyria were to repent of their evil then God would repent in turn of the evil God “thought to do to them”:

Jer 18:7 The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it,
Jer 18:8 if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.

So Jeremiah contradicts how Matthew would have the reader take Isaiah. Assyria could repent and could avert judgment. Although God had declared “evil” against Assyria, if Assyria repented then God would not do what He “thought to bring upon it.” There is no reason to think that Assyria is fated to action, and every reason to believe it is not. Does Isaiah ever assume that Assyria is fated? There is nothing in the text to assume so.

Isaiah is not the case of God “ordaining” free will actions insomuch as the president of the United States passing a law forcing people to buy health insurance (on the pain of fines) is not “ordaining” free will actions. This is God using motivations to effect His plans, not magic.

Act 4:27 “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together
Act 4:28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.

What was “determined before to be done”? Did it require Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles (Romans), or the Jews? If one of those actors were missing, would God’s determined plans have failed? The text does not assume that the plan operated any differently than God’s plan to use the Assyrians. No fatalism necessary. We learn from Jesus that the crucifixion did not have to happen! That God used people to enact His plan is testimony to His power, not fatalism.

This is just another case of God using the motivations of people to make His plans come true.

If Pilate or Herod had repented, Ezekiel 18 states very clearly that God would repent of judgment against them:

Eze 18:21 “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
Eze 18:22 None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.

If the Jews or the Gentiles repented, Jeremiah 18 makes it clear that God likewise would not do what He thought He was going to do to them. The message is very consistent throughout the Bible: people do not have to be evil. If they repent, then God repents.

Psa 139:16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.

This verse is about fetology. That is the immediate context before and after. Matthew doesn’t show that this has anything to do with fate. And because names in the Book of Life can be stricken out (Exo 32:33, Rev 3:5, Rev 22:19), there is no reason to pretend some sort of fatalistic understanding of how this “book” operates. There is every reason to think it is dynamic and responsive to events as they occur.

Joh 6:64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.

Reading this verse in context gives a very different impression than Matthew would have people believe:

Joh 6:61 When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you?
Joh 6:62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?
Joh 6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.
Joh 6:64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.

“When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this.” Jesus figured out that his disciples were questioning Jesus’ teaching. “When” Jesus figures this out, Jesus confronts them. Jesus did not always know when the disciples were going to complain or if they would, but when Jesus figures it out then Jesus confronts them. Jesus knew from the beginning of his ministry that his disciples were weak and which ones these were. It does not take omniscience to evaluate your disciples.

In fact, the Bible is clear that Jesus is not “omniscient”:

Mar 13:32 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

In Matthew’s article on learntheology.com, on his list of verses that prove that God “ordains” human free will action, Matthew imports many wild assumptions that are not supported by the texts nor the context of the texts. Matthew does not in any sense prove his views on “ordaining” but just assumes them. The text of the Bible is unified in opposing Matthew’s view of how God operates. The very texts he quotes often refutes Matthew. His ideas cannot just be assumed onto the text.

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