Compatibilism is an attempt to reconcile the theological proposition that every event is causally determined, ordained, and/or decreed by God (i.e., determinism, not to be confused with fatalism)—with the free will of man. Promulgated originally from a philosophical viewpoint by the Greek Stoics and later by numerous philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, and from a theological viewpoint by theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin, the compatibilist concept of free will states that though the free will of man seems irreconcilable with the proposition of determinism, they both do exist and are “compatible” with one another.
The foundation of the compatibilistic concept of free will is the means by which “will” is defined. From a theological viewpoint, the definition of the will is viewed in light of the revealed, biblical truths of original sin and the spiritual depravity of man. These two truths render the definition of “will” in regard to fallen man as “captive to sin” (Acts 8:23), a “slave of sin” (John 8:34; Romans 6:16-17) and subject only to its “master,” which is sin (Romans 6:14). As such, although the will of man is “free” to do as it wishes, it wishes to act according to its nature, and since the nature of the fallen will is sinful, every intent of the thoughts of the fallen man’s heart is “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, cf. Genesis 8:21). He, being naturally rebellious to that which is spiritually good (Romans 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14), “is bent only on rebellion” (Proverbs 17:11). Essentially, man is “free” to do as he wishes, and he does just that, but man simply cannot do that which is contrary to his nature. What man “wills” to do is subject to and determined solely by his nature.
Here is where compatibilism makes the distinction between man having a free will and being a “free agent.” Man is “free” to choose that which is determined by his nature or by the laws of nature. To illustrate, the laws of nature prohibit man from being able to fly, but this does not mean that man is not free. The agent, man, is only free to do that which his nature or the laws of nature allow him to do. Theologically speaking, though the natural man is unable to submit himself to the law of God (Romans 8:7-8) and unable to come to Christ unless the Father draws him to Him (John 6:44), the natural man still acts freely in respect to his nature. He freely and actively suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) because his nature renders him unable to do otherwise (Job 15:14-16; Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Jeremiah 13:23; Romans 3:10-11). Two good examples of Jesus’ confirmation of this concept can be found in Matthew 7:16-27 and Matthew 12:34-37.
With the distinction between free agency and free will defined, compatibilism then addresses the nature of the free agency of man in respect to the theological proposition known as determinism and/or the biblical truth of the omniscient nature of God. The foundational issue is how man can be held accountable for his actions if his actions were always going to occur (i.e., the future is not subject to change) and could not have been anything other than that which occurred. Although there are numerous passages of Scripture that address this issue, there are three primary passages to examine.
The story of Joseph and his brothers
The first is the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37). Joseph was hated by his brothers because their father, Jacob, loved Joseph more than any of his other sons (Genesis 37:3) and because of Joseph’s dreams and their interpretation (Genesis 37:5-11). At an opportune time, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to traveling Midianite traders. Then they dipped his tunic in the blood of a slain goat in order to deceive their father into thinking Joseph had been mauled by a beast (Genesis 37:18-33). After many years, during which Joseph had been blessed by the Lord, Joseph’s brothers meet him in Egypt, and Joseph reveals himself to them (Genesis 45:3-4). It is Joseph’s discussion with his brothers that is most pertinent to the issue:
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:8).
What makes this statement startling is that Joseph had previously said his brothers had, in fact, sold him into Egypt (Genesis 45:4-5). A few chapters later, the concept of compatibilism is presented:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
The Genesis story tells us that it was, in fact, the brothers who sold Joseph into Egypt. However, Joseph makes it clear that God had done so. Those who reject the concept of compatibilism would say that this verse is simply stating that God “used” Joseph’s brothers’ actions for good. However, this is not what the text says. From Genesis 45-50, we are told that (1) Joseph’s brothers had sent Joseph to Egypt, (2) God had sent Joseph to Egypt, (3) Joseph’s brothers had evil intentions in sending Joseph to Egypt, and (4) God had good intentions in sending Joseph to Egypt. So, the question is, who sent Joseph to Egypt? The bewildering answer is that both Joseph’s brothers and God did. It was one action being carried out by two entities, the brothers and God doing it simultaneously.
The commission of Assyria
The second passage that reveals compatibilism is found in Isaiah 10, a prophetic warning passage for God’s people. As divinely promised in Deuteronomy 28-29, God is sending a nation to punish His people for their sins. Isaiah 10:6 says that Assyria is the rod of God’s anger, “commissioned” against God’s people to “seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.” Notice, however, what God says about Assyria:
“Yet [Assyria] does not so intend, Nor does it plan so in its heart, But rather it is its purpose to destroy And to cut off many nations” (Isaiah 10:7, NASB).
God’s intent in the Assyrian invasion is to inflict His righteous judgment against sin, and the intent of the Assyrians is to “destroy and cut off many nations.” Two different purposes, two different entities acting to bring about this purpose, in one, single action. As we read further, God reveals that, although this destruction is determined and decreed by Him (Isaiah 10:23), He will still punish the Assyrians because of the “arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness” (Isaiah 10:12, cf. Isaiah 10:15). Even though God Himself had infallibly determined the judgment of a disobedient people, He holds those who brought the judgment accountable for their own actions.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ
The third passage of Scripture that speaks of compatibilism is found in Acts 4:23-28. As revealed in Acts 2:23-25, Christ’s death on the cross was carried out by the “predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” Acts 4:27-28 further reveals that the actions of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel had been determined and decreed by God Himself to occur as they “gathered together against” Jesus and did “what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Although God had determined that Christ should die, those responsible for His death were still held accountable for their actions. Christ was put to death by wicked men, “yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isaiah 53:10). Once again, the answer to the question "who put Jesus to death?" is both God and the wicked people—two purposes carried out by two entities within a single action.
There are other passages of Scripture that pertain to the concept of compatibilism, such as God hardening the hearts of individuals (e.g., Exodus 4:21; Joshua 11:20; Isaiah 63:17). While compatibilism seems bewildering to us (Job 9:10; Isaiah 55:8-11; Romans 11:33), this truth has been revealed by God Himself as the means by which His sovereign decree is reconciled with the will of man. God is sovereign over all things (Psalm 115:3, Daniel 4:35, Matthew 10:29-30), God knows all things (Job 37:16; Psalm 147:5; 1 John 3:19-20), and man is held accountable for what he does (Genesis 18:25; Acts 17:31; Jude 1:15). Truly, His ways are unfathomable (Job 9:10; Romans 11:33), and so we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).