Free Will v. Divine Sovereignty–An Issue Settled in the 5th Century

Alright, so I may have overstated things a bit in my title. There are of course subsequent debates on this issue, e.g., Erasmus v. Martin Luther,[1] Arminianism v. Calvinism, and of course the frequent debates in Christian college dorm rooms. And don’t forget what may be Jonathan Edwards’ most famous book, Freedom of the WillBut, all of these can trace back in some sense and in some form to the “original” debate between Pelagius and Augustine[2] in which the good side, the right side, won. (Yeah, I’m biased.) Augustine–the “winner” of the debate as opposed to Pelagius who was declared a heretic–settled the debate… kinda, sorta, …well, at least in my opinion. Augustine explained how human choice, human responsibility, called “free will” by many, is compatible or “fits” with God’s sovereignty (hence the typical “Free will versus God’s sovereignty” is not an appropriate way to describe the tension).

The following quote from Augustine is what originally upset Pelagius and started the subsequent debate:

Grant what thou commandest and command what thou wilt.

Pelagius didn’t exactly like the “Grant what thou commandest” part. For Pelagius, moral obligation meant moral ability (see below).


Before we look at Augustine’s writings, we will need to examine the heresy that spewed from Pelagius, against whom Augustine reacted. Pelagius said things such as the following:

He [God] has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he  [the man] could not help for he [God] is holy.

We say that is is possible for a man to be without sin. [Really now?!]

Everything good and everything evil . . . is done by us, not born with us. We are not born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil; we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice. . . .

The following beliefs were attributed to Pelagius (whether or not they are true is another matter):

Adam’s sin injured himself alone, not the human race.

There were men without sin before Christ’s coming.

New-born infants are in the same condition as Adam before the fall.

It is not through the death or fall of Adam that the whole human race dies. . . .

[Pelagius affirms] that a man can be without sin, if he choose.

Whether or not the latter list is actually what Pelagius taught (probably) or not, his own statements condemn him. I’m no church historian, but he has a far too optimistic view of the human condition (e.g., man is able to keep God’s law). Pelagius clearly denies original sin. In fact, he seems to view sin in terms of merely wrongs actions and does not have a category for sinfulness, being sinful. For Pelagius, one is a sinner because he sins. Biblically, one sins because he is a sinner, he has a sinful nature from which his sinful actions stem. Consequently, Pelagius understand’s man as having a free will, i.e., a will unintruded upon by the inclination to sin, a will free and able to obey and follow God apart from divine grace.


Augustine on the other hand stated the following regarding “free will,” grace, and God’s sovereignty:

A man’s free choice avails only to lead him to sin, if the way of truth be hidden from him.

The wills of men are prevented[3] by the grace of God, and that it is God who makes them to will the good which they refused.

To the saints . . . who are predestined to the kingdom of God by the grace of God, the aid of perseverance which is given is . . . that kind which brings the gift of actual perseverance . . . by means of which they cannot but persevere. . . . Since they will not in fact persevere unless they both can and will . . . their will is so kindled by the Holy Spirit that they  can, just because they will, and they will just because God works in them so to will. . . .

He [God] reserved his own gift whereby they should most irresistibly will what is good, and most irresistibly refuse to forsake it.

[Describing humans in their sinless eternal state as proof against what we call an indeterministic or libertarian view of freedom] It does not follow that they will not have free choice because sins will have no power to attract them. Nay rather, it will be more truly free. . . . The first freedom of choice [i.e., given to Adam] conferred the ability not to sin . . . ; the new freedom will confer the inability to sin. . . .

[Using God’s freedom as further proof…] God is unable to sin . . . It surely cannot be said that God himself has not freedom of choice, because he is unable to sin?

Now this free will . . . will be the more free the more it is healthy; and it will be the more healthy the more it is subject to the divine mercy and grace. . . . How can a will be free if it is under the domination of unrighteousness?

[So key!] This freedom of will . . . is not therefore removed because it is assisted.[4]


Due to Augustine’s understanding of the fallen, sinful condition of humans, he recognized man’s inability to respond to God positively apart from divine grace. Yet at the same time he believed that God’s sovereign grace and human freedom are not incompatible (what we call compatibilism). Although God’s grace effectually and unfailingly works in people to prompt a positive response to Himself (e.g., saving faith/repentance, perseverance, obedience) this does not eliminate human freedom from the matter. God does not compel people against their will. He mysteriously works in people resulting in their willing. As we might say, he realized “free will” is actually an oxymoron. That is, for one’s “will” to be truly “free,” choices must be arbitrary, random, and uncaused (even by one’s own “will”); and for one’s choices to be one’s “will,” they must not be “free” but constrained by one’s desires, which are constrained by one’s nature, which in our case is complete sinfulness (aka, total depravity). –Hence the need for grace.

… Well, thanks Augustine!


[1] Mentioning Martin Luther provides a great opportunity to reflect upon the importance of this issue–human freedom. Erasmus was Luther’s opponent in this debate on human freedom. He wrote against Luther with On the Freedom of the Will to which Luther would later respond with On the Bondage of the Will. During the Reformation Erasmus noted that his central disagrement with Luther was not concerning Luther’s view on the mass or indulgences but concerning his doctrine of man, namely human freedom. In response Luther said, “You alone have gone to the heart of the problem instead of debating papacy, indulgences, purgatory, and similar trifles. You alone have gone to the core, and I thank you for it” (Roland L. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther {New York: Penguin Books, 1950}, 196). Was Luther over-exaggerating? During the Reformation, was a debate over human freedom more central than debating the papacy, sacraments, or indulgences? Luther saw that behind Catholicism’s errors was an overly optimistic view of the human ability, the human’s ability to earn, cooperate, initiate participation with, or even respond to grace. Luther realized that an error at the level of human freedom inevitably lead to a plethora of errors in other doctrines such as sin and salvation, errors which we still see evidenced today in many contemporary theologies.

[2] For example, Luther was an augustinian monk and Calvin was heavily influenced by Augustine.

[3] The idea here isn’t “to prevent.” On the contrary, this language is where we get the term “prevenient grace.” The idea here then is that God’s work of grace is previous to man’s act of the will.

[4] The following quotations a taken from Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 55-61.

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