When talking about God’s goodness or his sovereignty versus man’s freedom to choose, the problem of evil always tends to crop up.
If God is good, why does so much evil happen? If God is sovereign over everything, how would anyone but God be responsible for their choices, good or evil? Why is there evil? Libertarians says that God gives us the freedom to choose. Yet evil is not just a singular problem. As Thaddeus Williams writes that “the theist faces a plurality of problems with evil” (5). In fact, “we face a tangled web of problems, both abstract and concrete” (66). Answers to these problems cannot only be theoretical or merely philosophical, but they must be biblical and practical too. We need to be able to meet the problems of evil head on.
In Part One of his book, God Reforms Hearts, Thaddeus Williams aims to debunk the Rational Free Will Defense which claims that “authentic love requires free will” (4). Many who defend “free will” do so by saying God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to reject him, for there wouldn’t be a relationship if their love and obedience were forced or coerced. Love requires libertarian free will. Williams agrees that love cannot be reduced to something akin to a computer program, where the maker of the program (say, a game) creates the character to stay faithful and true to him. That isn’t a real relationship. The character is merely programmed to do that. But Williams shows, through examples of Libertarian proponents (i.e., Gregory Boyd, Hank Hanegraaff, and Vincent Brümmer), how Libertarian free will “turns out to be a significant threat to authentic love” ().
Libertarian love requires that a person has three freedoms: Freedom from the Machine (all physical powers), Freedom from the Gunman (all coercive powers), Freedom from the Heart (all internal desires). This is called the Axiom of Libertarian Love. One’s will and ability to choose one option or the other is what gives them their freedom. But Williams counters this and asks in what sense “Freedom from the Heart” is a desirable option? Freedom from the Heart says that no matter what your internal disposition is for your “significant other,” you have the freedom to choose against them.
If you fall in love with someone, you hope they love you back. Is it really “freedom” if their heart yearns for you but they simply say, “No, thanks. I don’t choose you simply because I can choose to do so”? Any natural person would say that “significant other” didn’t really love you. A father loves his son simply because that son is his own. He is his flesh and blood. According to the Axiom of Libertarian Love (which contains the three freedoms mention above), since the father is unable not to love his son, that would, by definition, make his love inauthentic.
In Part Two, Williams examines the Moral Imperative Argument which claims that because humanity “ought” to follow God’s rules, they “can.” Yet John’s Gospel counters this notion, as does looking back through history at all the failed “utopian” societies. The Grievous Resistance Argument (put forth by open theists) claims that when we suffer God grieves with us, for us, and even because of us. This is because “divine grief implies human autonomy.” We can choose to sin against God, and it hurts him. However, this also means that when we suffer evil, while we share some sort of unity with God (since he grieves with and for us), we have no stability. Evil just happens. According to open theists, God didn’t see it coming so he couldn’t stop it. There was no purpose to the evil. Worse yet, it will happen again and again.
Finally, the Relational Vision Argument claims that “relationship implies resistibility.” Williams points out that while humans can neither force nor guarantee other people will love them, God is not human. God is divine, and he transcends our finite interpersonal abilities. Libertarians make the herculean leap from “we cannot guarantee love” to “God cannot guarantee love.” But “does the Bible credit God with the unique ability to guarantee authentic love” and to do so “without trampling our personhood” (pp. 131, 134)?
In Part Three, Williams answers this question in the affirmative. Yes, God can guarantee authentic love without trampling our personhood. Williams lists five models of how divine action works with human hearts, moving from libertarian to non-libertarian, each represented by it’s proponent:
- Heart Persuasion (Pelagius)—God externally persuades someone’s heart by showing his character and saving intentions;
- Heart Cooperation (Cassius)—God works internally to strengthen any weak notion someone might have toward God;
- Heart Activation (Arminius)—God works internally against moral depravity, “bestowing a new ability to respond positively to him in love”;
- Heart Reformation (Augustine)—God works internally to effectively change the moral orientation of someone’s heart to willingly choose God and to be unable to choose otherwise; and
- Heart Circumvention—This is a sort of “no man’s land,” a sort of “modified pantheism” where man becomes just a machine. God acts in some way that bypasses a person’s heart so that any love for God comes about through divine force, not of that person’s own ability to love God (139).
Williams surveys each view, compares them to each other, and assess how they line up with Scripture. He believes Heart Reformation is the most biblically satisfying option. He refers to this (starting in Part One) as the Axiom of Unforced Love. We do not lose our freedom; rather, we are able to say “yes” to loving God. He only reforms our ego-centered heart into an “ego-liberated heart” that loves him (151). This holds the biblical tension of love being both a “divine act promised” and a “human act commanded.”
- Deuteronomy 6:4–6 says, “’Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.'”
- Deuteronomy 30:6 says, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
In Deuteronomy 6:5, Moses tells Israel to love God with their whole hearts and selves, but in 30:6 Moses declares that the Lord will circumcise their hearts so that they will love God. Circumcision leads to fulfilling the covenant’s requirements.
Let’s compare these verses with the five models of divine action and human hearts:
- Heart Persuasion (Pelagius) would say that because God said they ought to do this, that it must mean they have the ability to do it. But that disregards Deuteronomy 29:4, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Unlike the morally competent humans Pelagius imagined, Israel was “morally dull-hearted, blind, and deaf apart from the internal activity of God” (155).
- Heart Cooperation (Cassius)—God will circumcise Israelite hearts as a result of their obedience (Dt 6:5). But if Israel could already meet the obligation of loving God with all their hearts on their own, then they would have met the covenant requirements. Inward heart circumcision would be redundant.
- Heart Activation (Arminius)—Jeffrey Tagay says that the inner circumcision “implies only that God would remove impediments that prevent Israel from voluntarily following God’s teachings” (156). Yet there is no indication in the text of Deuteronomy 30 that heart circumcision will bring about anything other than “actualized love” (157). God isn’t going to circumcise their hearts just so they can turn and deny him. Williams writes, “Heart circumcision is an internal sign of a positive covenantal relationship with God” (156). Following Tagay’s logic, an Israelite could be in a “positive covenantal relationship” with God due to having a circumcised heart but still deny and refuse God. That is a complete contradiction.
- Heart Reformation (Augustine)—Love God! But know that your love for him comes from his work in you (see Jer 4:4a; 31:33; 32:39–40; 33:18; Ezek 18:31; 11:19–20; 36:26–27). Love comes from a willing heart, and a willing heart comes from God (161).
- Williams doesn’t take up the conversation of Heart Circumvention here. He has refuted it enough by this point in Part Three, though he does occasionally bring it up again.
Williams picks up texts from John and Thessalonians that enhance his argument and shows that we really wouldn’t want libertarian freedom.
Williams also picks up God and the problem(s) of evil. To oversimplify the chapter, God can work in our lives. We pray for God to breakthrough family tragedies, hatred, addictions, abuse, injustice, and the rejection of the gospel. Jeremiah 32:17b says Nothing is too hard for God. In what world would we want a God who says, “I answered “Yes” to your prayer for that person to be saved, to love me with their whole selves, and to obey my instructions, but, in the end, they said ‘no.’” It would be as if he said, “I tried my best, but failed.“ Rather, God does work, and it’s exactly what we pray for.
I think Williams has given a worthy defense of compatibilism. He is rigorous in his approach, yet linear and logical. This isn’t light reading, but neither is it extremely philosophical and out of reach for the dedicated layperson. This is a book that will point you in the right direction of how God works with our hearts and against evil. Pair this with Scott Christensen’s What About Free Will?, D. A. Carson’s Praying With Paul, How Long, O Lord?, and Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility, and J. I. Packer’s Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.
- Author: Thaddeus J. Williams
- Paperback: 281 pages
- Publisher: Lexham Press (August 11, 2021)
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