By Scott Christensen
Trying to grasp the theological conundrum of God’s sovereignty and human free will is like pitting Batman against Superman. A standoff seems inevitable. Surely one of the two must be sacrificed.
Historically, Arminians and others have answered this dilemma by positing a version of free will known as libertarianism, which sacrifices a robust view of God’s sovereignty. Some Calvinists sacrifice free will altogether in order to preserve a high view of divine sovereignty. However, many others have championed an entirely different way of making sense of human freedom without compromising the sturdiness of God’s meticulous providence. This view is known as compatibilism, and it seeks to clarify the matter from a biblical perspective.
Given the long history and heated debates, you would think that libraries would be overflowing with books that exhaust this fiery topic. Alas, it seems a matter too hot to handle for most. Only a handful of treatments seek to explain God’s causal determination of all things, including our choices, without undermining human freedom and responsibility.
What follows is my definitive list. These books (or portions thereof) are in order of the date they were written. It is too difficult to grade their worth.
1) The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards (1754)
This classic work on Calvinistic compatibilism has retained strong appeal over recent years (mostly with scholars). It is densely written and requires tremendous concentration to read and comprehend, but diligence is a faithful rewarder.
2) The Doctrine of God by John Frame (P&R, 2002)
John Frame is my favorite theologian. The Doctrine of God is a massive but highly readable tome on theology proper. Frame devotes about sixty-five engaging pages to defending the classic Edwardsian view of divine sovereignty and human freedom with a particular application to the problem of evil.
3) Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will by R.C. Sproul (Baker Books, 2002)
No list would be complete without the venerable Reformed theologian R.C.Sproul. In Willing to Believe, Sproul traces the notion of free will throughout church history, canvassing the thought of key thinkers: Pelagius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Edwards, Finney, and Lewis Sperry Chafer. You don’t need to go far to see where Sproul stands.
4) The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty by James Spiegel (Crossway, 2005)
The first two chapters of The Benefits of Providence dive into the deep end of the pool marked compatibilism. But Spiegel provides you with two flotation devices clarity and simplicity, to help you to keep your head above water .
5) How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson (Baker Academic, 2006)
In about forty-five pages, Carson distills some of the weightier thinking from his work Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. He carefully defines and defends Calvinistic compatibilism and provides many scriptural examples that show that every choice we make has a dual explanation—one divine and the other human.
6) No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God by John Feinberg (Crossway, 2006)
No One Like Him contains roughly one hundred pages defending Calvinistic compatibilism. The writing contains a good deal of technical philosophical and theological concepts. But if you want tight, carefully crafted arguments for this view, there is no better work.
7) A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2008)
Few have a better grasp of Jonathan Edwards’s view of divine sovereignty and human freedom than Sam Storms. In A God Entranced Vision of All Things, Storms contributes an excellent chapter called “The Will: Fettered Yet Free.”If you plan to dive into Edwards’s Freedom of the Will, you better start here first.
8) Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? by Thaddeus Williams (Rodopi, 2011)
I can’t tell you how much I treasure Thaddeus Williams’s little-known gem. This book critiques a common reason for adopting the libertarian view of free will: the belief that our relationship with God is meaningful only if we have the ability to equally love or hate him. Williams masterfully dismantles this argument with biblical compatibilism.
9) Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy edited by Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Founders Press, 2012)
If you want only one shot at seeing how to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility, read Bruce Ware’s chapter in Whomever He Wills. “The Compatibility of Determinism and Human Freedom” is the clearest and most succinct defense of the dual explanation for our choices I am aware of.
10) What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty by Scott Christensen (P&R, 2016)
Okay, here we go. Scott Christensen (me) has done his best—standing wobbly on the shoulders of these and many other giants—while writing What about Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty. This is one of the few full-length books on the subject. In it, I tackle answers to all the questions you wrestle with when walking into one of Christian theology’s trickiest mazes.
Would you like to learn more?
Along with What about Free Will? I’ve prepared a video Q&A, answering the most commonly asked questions about God’s Sovereignty and free will.