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Free Will or Predestination? Yes. Understanding The Doctrine of Concurrence

The following is an excerpt from Brannon's new book, What Every Christian Should Know: Understanding and Defending Biblical Truths. For full details and to order please click here:

Scripture assures us that God’s ways and thoughts are far above ours—as far as the heavens are above the earth, in fact (Isaiah 55:9). This greatness of God brings us face to face with aspects of the way He’s created things that we cannot fully grasp, even though we can explain that some of these incredible things are actually true. One such issue is described by the doctrine of concurrence. 

Although it is closely related to God’s providential sovereignty, the doctrine draws us deeper into certain characteristics of God’s sovereign will that demands an explanation all its own. If we want a thoroughly biblical worldview, we have to understand how God’s sovereignty interfaces with mankind’s free will. This interaction is a longstanding point of conflict among theologians, but it is a conflict that is totally unnecessary for those who accurately and openly embrace the full teaching of Scripture.

Free Will or Predestination? Yes.

The term free will is a “loaded” term. Yet it seems obvious that people have the freedom to make certain decisions for themselves. For instance, I’m free to buy a pick-up truck if I want one and have the money. I can even decide whether I want a Toyota Tundra or a Ford F-150. In a more “theological” realm, though, you might wonder, “What about sinners? Do sinners have the free will to be anything but a slave to sin?” And the answer to that is “No.” A person who has not repented of sin and been regenerated through faith and repentance has no choice but to be a slave to sin. Unrepentant sinners may feel like they’re free to do as they please, but we know from Scripture that they are, rather, completely in bondage to sin. Any freedom they feel is an illusion.

Although many people take the position that one or the other—free will or predestination—is the only answer, Scripture is clear that both are true, and I want to unpack this critical reality for you. The Bible teaches that man does have a free will to make certain decisions, and by his own free will does sin and is held accountable, but all the while, God is sovereign and in complete control.

As contradictory as these two ideas seem, they actually run together. Understanding this concept is crucial to appreciating the character and nature of God Almighty. To credit Him with anything less than the full truth of these seemingly contradictory ideas is to lessen the immensity of the God of Creation. The doctrine of concurrence can also be called the doctrine of confluence, and I think you’ll find the dictionary definition to be especially helpful. Confluence is a “coming or flowing together, meeting or gathering at one point, such as the flowing together of two or more streams.” It is the place where two streams meet to combine a single, larger stream. They create a greater truth, if you will, than either stream by itself. So, God’s sovereign control over everything “flows into” the free will He has given us and creates a greater reality within which we live. This apparent contradiction is known as an antinomy, in which two things that would seem not to be true at the same time actually are. 

This stands in contrast to the concept of open theism I’ve already discussed. The power of seeing these truths working together shows how weak an explanation of free will it is that God chooses not to know what we are going to do. It grieves me that outspoken and popular teachers like Greg Boyd from Minneapolis/St. Paul promote open theism. Too many people trust what such teachers say and as a result, are drawn into a false understanding of Scripture. 

To give you an idea of how anemic open theism is, note this assertion by Greg Boyd: “So, God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.”58 God can’t know? That doesn’t sound like an omniscient God to me, and it’s not. So let’s look at the scriptural background for the doctrine of concurrence.

The Framework for Our Choices 

The Bible sets up an amazing framework within which we can grasp this truth. For starters, look at the most well-known verse in Scripture: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV, emphasis mine). The word whoever has significant implications. God desires that no one should perish, but that all should come to repentance—whoever will, a clear indication that people can choose what God offers. This is what many people call free will or man’s responsibility.

Contrast these words of Jesus with scriptures that teach what people would call predestination or election: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37, NKJV). We see God grants repentance by “giving” people to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 7:9, we also see that only when the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sins will they manifest godly sorrow that leads to repentance unto salvation. 

So, do we see man’s responsibility? Yes. Do we see predestination, that you were chosen from before the foundations of the earth? Yes. With our finite minds, it’s difficult to understand, but we see both teachings in Scripture. As I’ve studied this issue, I’ve identified four key points that provide a basis for understanding the doctrine of concurrence.  

1) Man’s free will and God’s total sovereignty are not contradictory.  

Let’s look again at my mundane example of choosing a truck to buy. As I said before, I’m free to buy a Toyota Tundra or a Ford F-150, but it is really up to me to decide. From a purely human standpoint, some would argue that I’ve been manipulated by advertising and therefore am not truly making a “free will” decision. The argument implies that we have to take into account our sinful desires which push us into doing all kinds of things that are not in accord with the moral will of God. We may have a free will, but then again, what is driving our choices? So, perhaps we do not really have free will in all areas.

To use another travel-related example, suppose I exit from the Interstate, wanting a Big Mac for lunch, but see only a Burger King restaurant when I get off the highway. If I drive up to the window and ask for a Big Mac, the person there will not sell me one because the restaurant has only Whoppers. So, I have to order a Whopper if I want something to eat. It’s not the choice I wanted, but it’s my only option. Am I freely choosing to order that? No, I didn’t really have any choice other than to leave without having lunch. 

This analogy reflects people who are not regenerated through faith and repentance. They have no choice but to serve sin. So, even within the concept of free will itself, there is a sort of gray area. One problem people have with rejecting the truth that free will and predestination are not contradictory is that they apply a standard to theology they don’t apply to other areas of study. Do we think gravity isn’t real because we don’t fully understand it? No, we see it at work and accept that it is real. Do we not believe in cells or atoms because we don’t fully understand the complexity of them? Of course not. We know that both are real, regardless of our level of understanding. Even biologists stand in awe of what they do know about cells as evidenced by this observation:   

Even if we know all there is to know about a cell and how it works, we would still be baffled how nerve cells create emotions, thoughts, behavior, memory, and other perceptions. [They] cannot yet, if indeed ever, be described in the language of molecular biology.  

Isaiah 55:8-9 puts this issue into perspective: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” Similarly, Romans 11:33 says: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

People may argue that, because unrepentant people are slaves to sin, they have no responsibility. But if that were true, God would not have placed His moral law—a reflection of His character and nature—on our consciences so we would know right from wrong. The conscience enables us to know the right choices. So, man’s conscience makes us accountable. The conscience bears witness that we have violated the character and nature of God. That’s why we feel guilty when we sin. Even a thief knows stealing is wrong unless his or her conscience has been seared—meaning the person has sinned over and over until God finally gives the person over to that sin and he or she no longer feels guilt (a very dangerous point for someone to get to). 

This is true of all kinds of sin. When people commit adultery, they feel guilty. When they lust, they feel guilt. When they hate someone else, they feel guilty. Why? The moral law, that universal content of the law placed on our hearts and our minds, tells us so. According to chapters 1 through 3 of Romans, our consciences bear witness to sin, and so, make us responsible.  

To read this full chapter and the other chapters in this book click here to order now: