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What is compatibilism?

D. A. Carson provides a good introduction when he argues that the following two propositions are both taught and exemplified in the Bible:

  1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.
  2. Human beings are responsible creatures—that is, they choose, 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 rightly 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.

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28 thoughts on “We Are All Compatibilists at the Cross”

  1. Matti says:

    I think Carson goes way too far in asserting that those who do not hold to compatibilism are not Christians at all. This issue has never defined anyone in or outside of Christianity or even orthodoxy.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Hi Matti: If you go back and read Carson’s quote you’ll see that he didn’t say what you say he says.

      1. Godismyjudge says:


        He says “There is no alternative, except to deny the faith.”

        God be with you,

        1. Matthias says:

          Many Christians, whether they are mistaken or still hold to some sinful remnant, will deny the faith to varying degrees. While Christians can be forgiven for that, nevertheless we cannot but call it a denial of the faith. How else is it to be corrected except by first identifying it as something *needing* correction?

    2. Daryl Little says:


      He didn’t say that Christians who deny compatibilism deny the faith, he said that those who deny compatibilism “at the cross” deny the faith.

      Which, of course, is true. Who killed Jesus? The Jews, the Romans or God Himself. Who’s idea was it? All of them. Who did it freely? All of them.


      1. Matti says:

        I see your point here. On closer look the compatilism Carson seems to put forth seems not to be compatibilism in the sense of weak determinism. This is what I assumed at first.

        Free will sovereignty are not in contradiction, because we can understand the sovereignty in the Molinist sense too, God reigning through his exhaustive knowledge of the decisions free moral agents.

  2. Paul Franks says:

    My issue with this is that it implies non-compatibilists do not believe in the sovereignty of God. This seems quite uncharitable since we do believe in it. We just understand God’s sovereignty differently. (See, as an example, William Lane Craig’s fairly accessible book *The Only Wise God*.) What I think Carson, and you, mean is to say is that “God is absolutely sovereign (and that sovereignty must be spelled out in our compatibilist terms)”.


    1. Matthias says:


      I’d contend that you believe (I only assume, given the WLC reference) a truncated version of what the Bible teaches concerning God’s sovereignty. What I do not understand is how God’s meticulous providence and sovereignty (what you refer to as “absolute sovereignty,” perhaps?) as compatibilists understand the Bible to teach it, nullifies man’s responsibility. Where, precisely, would the conflict lie? Where in nature do we see an example of such conflict? Where in the Bible? Any example would *need* to include the God of the Bible, uniquely, if we are to keep God unique from his creation.

      I suppose you can take this as my friendly challenge to you, or to whomever else this applies (if you don’t believe in how I’ve represented it).


      1. Godismyjudge says:


        Your challenge begs the question. We don’t assume the bible teaches determinism or compatiblism so the burden is on you to show that passages like Acts 4:28 teach determinism. If middle knowledge is a viable option for understanding Acts 4:28, then you haven’t met that burden.

        God be with you,

        1. Matthias says:


          Thanks for the reply.

          I suppose I should ask, what’s your reason for not holding to compatibilism? Is it primarily exegetical (which would be the best way to go), or philosophical? (pardon the dichotomy. I’m not necessarily saying they’re opposed; just giving a distinction).

          My challenge for non-compatibilists is, if compatibilism is not a faithful interpretation of the Bible’s texts on God’s sovereignty, why? There must be some inconsistency in compatibilists’ interpretation somewhere if compatibilism is wrong, yes? In my experience, the “will of man” is cited in response (I would allege that this itself begs the question). And so I ask, where in either nature or the Bible is man’s responsibility for sin/crime nullified by an “absolute sovereignty”? If there are no examples to that effect, I do not think non-compatibilists’ criticism stands.


          1. Godismyjudge says:

            Hey Matthias,

            Asking me for reasons to reject compatiblism is like asking me to prove a negative. It’s your burden to prove that determinism and compatiblism are true.

            However, I do think libertarian readings of certain passages are much better than compatiblist ones. For example, I argue here for a libertarian reading of 1 Cor 10:13 and against compatiblist readings.


            I do think someone compatiblism implies contraditions (we can and cannot choose otherwise). For example, Calvinists say John 6:44 denies man can choose Christ, but compatiblism says we can choose otherwise in the sense of “if we wanted to” or “absent coercion”. But there’s no compulsion or mental handicap preventing unbelievers from choosing Christ, so per compatiblism they can choose Christ. So they can and cannot choose Christ.

            God be with you,

            1. Matthias says:


              Thanks for the link, I’ll bookmark it.

              Showing that there’s a contradiction in an opposing position isn’t the same as “proving a negative.” My reason for rejecting the idea that Christ is not God, for example, is that it causes contradiction between Christ’s claims about himself and other claims the Bible says regarding Christ’s Creatorship. I haven’t proved a negative there. But I have given a reason.

              Compatibilism does not hold that two seemingly contradictory ideas (God’s sovereignty, man’s culpability/responsibility) are nevertheless “compatible.” It simply holds that the two ideas are not contradictory, period.

              (As an aside, John 6:44 says “unless.” There is a conditional.)

              In any case, I do appreciate the interaction.


              1. Matthias says:

                I made a mistake. I did not mean to imply that there is a contradiction between Christ’s claims and the Bible’s claims about him. “Inconsistency” might be a better word there.

              2. Godismyjudge says:


                It’s been my pleasure. I believe Christ is God because of the passages that teach Christ is God. I believe compatiblism is contradictory for the reasons given above. The word “unless” in John 6:44 does not remove the contradiction.

                God be with you,

              3. Matthias says:


                As far as I’m aware, “compatibilism” simply describes the relation between the Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty and the Calvinist understanding of sin and punishment with consideration for man’s depravity. I suppose it should be a given that we consider them to be “compatible.”

                God has ordained every detail of whatsoever comes to pass. This includes the capacity of man’s will, as well as the direction in which that will is exerted, and the punishment in response. I think your objection is geared more toward the depravity of man than what “compatibilism” per se addresses?

                John 6:44 says, essentially, that man cannot choose Christ *on his own* (hence, “unless”). “Choosing” something toward which your “desire to choose” is not oriented is an absurd concept, as Jonathan Edwards spells out with tiresome detail in his Freedom Of The Will. “If we wanted to choose Christ” we could. But it would *also* mean we have been regenerated by the Spirit in order to do so, because the Spirit removes whatever sinful coercion exists. The entirety of systematic needs to be taken into account, and so this is not contradictory.

                I’m not quite sure what you mean by “can and cannot choose otherwise” being a feature of compatibilism. Perhaps it’s what I described toward the end of my last paragraph?


  3. Admittedly not a great week for me to be making corrections, but: compatibilistm?

  4. There is some equivocation here that is worth noting. If by “compatibilism” Carson means:

    [1] God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.


    [2] Human beings are responsible creatures—that is, they choose, 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

    then Molinists can be “compatibilists.” In fact, Bill Craig references Carson’s work in his classes to get his students to see how God is both sovereign over human affairs and human beings are morally responsible. He just denies causal determinism is true and that it is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility. So ironically enough, an “incompatibilist” with respect to freedom and determinism can be a “compatibilists” in the Carsonian sense. Therefore, the “compatibilism” of Feinberg and Frame is not the same as the “compatibilism” of Carson, because both Feinberg and Frame believe causal determinism is compatible with human freedom.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Thanks, Adam. This is a bit tricky, because Carson is not providing a philosophical discussion per say. But another way of coming at this is to ask whether God’s “absolute sovereignty” is compatible with LFW. I think Carson would say no (as would I). So that would put him in the same camp as Frame and Feinberg.

  5. A question that follows this discussion: “If God is sovereign and desires that all be saved and none perish, why doesn’t God decree what He desires?”

    Certainly an absolutely sovereign God could have decreed a world without the possibility of sin. So why is the world the way it is?

    I suggest at least four considerations:

    First, when God originally created the earth and gave it to humanity, He declared all He provided to be “very good.”

    Secondly, the apostle Paul wrote, “For by one MAN sin entered the world and death by sin…” (Rom. 5:12, emphasis mine).

    Thirdly, and most importantly, God has decreed a world without the possibility of sin – the new heavens and new earth. “Nothing impure will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27; cf. Rev. 21:3-5; II Pet. 3:13).

    Only those who (in this world) have confessed with their mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believed in their heart that God raised Him from the dead will enter this perfect world.

    Finally, the emphasis of Scripture is that those who reject God’s provision; those who choose not to believe will come under his wrath (John 3:16-18, 36). This reveals the extent of God’s respect for human responsibility (cf. Josh. 24:14-15) but also provides hope for those who are too young or unable to make this kind of decision.

  6. Steve Long says:

    Many “non-compatibilists” also affirm compatibilism when it comes to the inspiration of Scripture. The overwhelming majority of conservative evangelicals agree that God inspired the very words of Scripture, while at the same time rejecting the idea that the human writers were simply taking dictation.

  7. I have often made similar observations. However you want to explain the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, holding the two in balance is important for upholding Christian orthodoxy. I would also say that this is central to building a healthy common ground between Reformed and non-Reformed systems of theology.

  8. Andrew Moody says:

    I really like what Carson means by “compatibilism” but I don’t think it’s the right word.
    Mostly it is used to describe a deterministic situation where people think they are acting freely but, aren’t (since their decisions arise out of their circumstances/biology/upbringing etc).
    But Carson doesn’t seem to mean that people are only apparently free but that their real freedom never trumps God’s sovereignty. I think this is “antimony” not compatibilism (unless we call it weak compatibilism).

    1. John Stott captured this well: “Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But however we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (The Cross of Christ, pp. 95-96).

  9. Bud Brown says:

    Kenneth Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty” adds an interesting perspective on compatibilism in his exposition of Molinism. He offers several cogent arguments to the effect that compatibilism is in fact determinism packaged to make it more palatable. It defines freedom not in libertarian terms but in terms of “acting within one’s nature”. His argument won’t persuade everyone, perhaps not many at all, but it is worth a read to help refine one’s views of compatibilism.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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