Volume 48 - Issue 1

Christological Arguments for Compatibilism in Reformed Theology

By Randall K. Johnson


Christian compatibilists believe that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with theological determinism, i.e., a robust account of divine sovereignty. Whereas most arguments for compatibilism stem from considerations about divine providence, human nature, or sin, we ought not to neglect christological arguments. In this paper, I present the christological arguments for compatibilism from three prominent theologians in the Reformed tradition: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and Jonathan Edwards. I conclude with some reflections on the power of christological arguments for compatibilism.

Compatibilists believe that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. Determinism is the notion that every event or effect in the world is determined by a previous cause or condition. Theological determinism claims that God himself determines every event or effect in the world. In other words, God’s sovereignty ensures that everything happens exactly how God has decreed and willed it to be. Contemporary theological arguments for compatibilism tend to arise out of discussions about divine providence, anthropology, or soteriology. But compatibilism may also be derived from Christology. In this paper, I present the christological arguments for compatibilism from three prominent theologians in the Reformed tradition: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and Jonathan Edwards. Christological arguments for compatibilism are powerful and compelling, so they ought not be neglected by compatibilists.

1. Historical Christological Arguments for Compatibilism

Calvin, Turretin, and Edwards are representatives of the Reformed tradition’s legacy of christological arguments for compatibilism. Their prominence as Reformed theologians, their writing and influence on free will debates, and their commitment to classical Christology make them appropriate representatives. By “classical Christology,” I mean the teachings about the person of Christ found in Scripture and affirmed in the ecumenical creeds. Classical Christology maintains that Christ is one person subsisting in two natures. Because he is both God and man, he is the subject both of the divine will and a particular human will. Thus, classical Christology affirms dyothelitism (two wills) and the notion that his two wills are never contrary to each other (what I call “volitional non-contrariety”). Classical Christology also affirms Christ’s impeccability: Christ cannot sin. Paul Helm writes, “Both Turretin and Edwards were classical theists, and adherents to Chalcedonian Christology. They were therefore committed to God’s infinite knowledge, power and wisdom, and the impeccability of the human nature of Jesus Christ. And both were explicitly committed to the freedom of God and of the Son of God incarnate, Jesus.”1 Calvin was likewise committed to classical Christology, Christ’s impeccability, and the freedom of God and his Son.2

Christological arguments for compatibilism appear in three forms: (1) appeals to Christ’s wills and impeccability, (2) appeals to the necessity of the incarnation and the atonement, and (3) appeals to Christ’s teaching. First, Christ was unable to sin and unable to will contrary to the divine will, that is, he was unable to act otherwise than he did. Yet, he acted freely and willingly. Therefore, compatibilism is true. Second, because of the fact of sin and God’s nature, decree, and promise, the incarnation and atonement were made necessary. Jesus’s life and death were ordered by necessity. Yet, he acted freely and willingly. Therefore, compatibilism is true. Third, Jesus’s teaching about himself and about human nature implied compatibilism.

Each of the three argument forms may be found in Calvin, Turretin, and Edwards to some degree or other (whether explicitly or implicitly), but no theologian devotes equal attention to each. In what follows, I present these historical christological arguments, attending to each theologian’s own emphases.

2. John Calvin (1509–1564)

John Calvin has had a tremendous influence on both Christology and the free will debate.3 Calvin’s writing on the nature of free will is less developed and organized than either Turretin’s or Edwards’s, so an explanation of his view requires a few more steps. Calvin is widely recognized as a theological determinist and a compatibilist, but his discussions of free will are predominantly related to humanity’s post-fall condition. In what follows, I present a sketch of Calvin’s multilayer view of free will and then show how he uses the words of Jesus to support his view.

2.1. Providence

Calvin taught that everything happens according to God’s meticulous will and providence—“nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.”4 He writes,

But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matt. 10:30) will look farther afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan. And concerning inanimate objects we ought to hold that, although each one has by nature been endowed with its own property, yet it does not exercise its own power except in so far as it is directed by God’s ever-present hand. These are, thus, nothing but instruments to which God continually imparts as much effectiveness as he wills, and according to his own purpose bends and turns them to either one action or another.5

This deterministic providence extends not only to inanimate objects, but to all events, including the thoughts and actions of human beings.6 Yet, Calvin believed that his view of divine providence was consistent with God holding people morally accountable for their actions.7 Furthermore, God does not govern merely the morally appraisable actions of free creatures, he also governs the morally insignificant actions:

Even though we have touched upon the matter above, we have not yet explained what freedom man may possess in actions that are of themselves neither righteous nor corrupt, and look toward the physical rather than the spiritual life….

The force of God’s providence extends to this point: not only that things occur as he foresees to be expedient, but that men’s wills also incline to the same end. Indeed, if we ponder the direction of external things, we shall not doubt that to this extent they are left to human judgment. But if we lend our ears to the many testimonies which proclaim that the Lord also rules men’s minds in external things, these will compel us to subordinate decision itself to the special impulse of God.8

It is important to note that Calvin was not a necessitarian; he preserved God’s freedom despite the necessity of the world conforming to God’s will. He writes, “But what God has determined must necessarily so take place, even though it is neither unconditionally, nor of its own peculiar nature, necessary.”9 Helm summarizes, “The particular outcomes that He wills are thus hypothetically or conditionally necessary, and those He does not choose may be conditionally impossible.”10

2.2. The Soul

Calvin’s deterministic view of divine providence is just one layer of his understanding of human freedom. The next layer concerns the faculties of the soul considered simply (apart from the fall, sin, and depravity).11 Calvin posits two faculties of the soul: understanding (represented by the mind) and will (represented by the heart):

Thus let us, therefore, hold … that the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding and will. Let the office, moreover, of understanding be to distinguish between objects, as each seems worthy of approval or disapproval; while that of the will, to choose and follow what the understanding pronounces good, but to reject and flee what it disapproves…. let it be enough for us that the understanding is, as it were, the leader and governor of the soul; and that the will is always mindful of the bidding of the understanding, and in its own desires awaits the judgment of the understanding.12

The will is dependent and subsequent to the understanding. The will must choose what the understanding judges to be good. This view of the soul’s faculties is characteristic of Reformed compatibilism.13 The will cannot do otherwise than the understanding dictates.

2.3. Bondage of the Will

The final layer to Calvin’s compatibilism concerns the bondage of the will to sin. He writes, “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto.”14 This bondage of sin does not take away the will but the “soundness of will.”15 Because of the fall and original sin, people sin necessarily, though not by compulsion. He explains the difference between necessity and compulsion by appealing to the necessity of God’s goodness:

God’s goodness is so connected with his divinity that it is no more necessary for him to be God than for him to be good. But the devil by his fall was so cut off from participation in good that he can do nothing but evil. But suppose some blasphemer sneers that God deserves little praise for His own goodness, constrained as He is to preserve it. Will this not be a ready answer to him: not from violent impulsion, but from His boundless goodness comes God’s inability to do evil? Therefore, if the fact that he must do good does not hinder God’s free will in doing good; if the devil, who can do only evil, yet sins with his will—who shall say that man therefore sins less willingly because he is subject to the necessity of sinning?16

The bondage of sin inclines the will toward evil and away from God. The will may be inclined toward God by God’s grace alone, through regeneration by the Spirit. “Surely there is ready and sufficient reason to believe that good takes its origin from God alone. And only in the elect does one find a will inclined to good. Yet we must seek the cause of election outside men. It follows, thence, that man has a right will not from himself, but that it flows from the same good pleasure by which we were chosen before creation of the world (Eph. 1:4).”17

As I have shown, Calvin’s view of free will is complicated by three layers: providence, the faculties of the soul, and the bondage of the will to sin. These three, interestingly, align with three of the “threats” to human freedom, namely, theological determinism, psychological determinism, and bondage of the will.

2.4. Christological Support for Bondage of the Will

Calvin supports his compatibilism from the very words of Jesus. On the bondage of the will toward evil, Calvin writes, “If the whole man is depicted by these words of Christ, ‘What is born of flesh, is flesh’ (John 3:6) (as is easy to prove), man is very clearly shown to be a miserable creature.”18 “Flesh,” here, refers not particularly to the body but to whatever is opposed to the Spirit. The flesh is “so perverse that it is wholly disposed to bear a grudge against God [and] cannot agree with the justice of divine law, can, in short, beget nothing but the occasion of death.”19 A person who is born of flesh cannot do good, and he must be born again, just as Jesus declares in John 3.

Jesus taught that regeneration by the Spirit is necessary in order to have a right understanding of God (mind) and a will inclined toward God (heart); “man’s mind can become spiritually wise only in so far as God illumines it.”20 Calvin continues, “Christ also confirmed this most clearly in his own words when he said: “No one can come to me unless it be granted by my Father” (John 6:44)…. nothing is accomplished by the preaching him if the Spirit, as our inner teacher, does not show our minds the way. Only those men, therefore, who have heard and have been taught by the Father come to him.”21 Apart from regeneration, people cannot but will evil: “Do you see that people can will only evil until by a wonderful transformation their will is changed from evil to good?”22 Calvin shows that Jesus himself understood that God determines who will come to him: “Now can Christ’s saying (“Every one who has heard … from the Father comes to me” [John 6:45, cf. Vg.]) be understood in any other way than the grace of God is efficacious of itself.”23 Yet, God’s efficacious grace is not compulsion:

True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant. It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be drawn, as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself; who has formed their hearts to obey him.24

Jesus taught that all blessing comes from God alone, and apart from God’s efficacious government of our wills, we cannot do good.

Christ has given a testimony of his benefits clear enough so that they cannot be spitefully suppressed…. “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He does not say that we are too weak to be sufficient unto ourselves, but in reducing us to nothing he excludes all estimation of even the slightest ability. If grafted in Christ, we bear fruit like a vine—which derives the energy for its growth from the moisture of the earth, from the dew of heaven, and from the quickening warmth of the sun—I see no share in good works remaining to us if we keep unimpaired what is God’s…. Now Christ simply means that we are dry and worthless wood when we are separated from him, for apart from him we have no ability to do good, as elsewhere he also says: “Every tree which my Father has not planted will be uprooted” (Matt. 15:13, cf. Vg).25

Apart from Christ, our wills cannot be inclined toward good.

2.5. Christological Support for Moral Responsibility

Even though Christ taught that people are born into flesh and are unable to incline their wills toward God apart from regeneration, people are still moral agents responsible for their actions. Calvin shows that Jesus himself taught moral responsibility.

First, even though anyone who does good, does so by the grace of God, people are rewarded for their good works:

While the Lord enriches his servants daily and heaps new gifts of his grace upon them—because he holds pleasing and acceptable the work that he has begun in them, he finds in them something he may follow up by greater graces. This is the meaning of the statement, “To him who has shall be given” (Matt. 25:29; Luke 19:26). Likewise: “Well done, good servant; you have been faithful in a few matters, I will set you over much” (Matt. 25:21, 23; Luke 19:17; all Vg., conflated). But here we ought to guard against two things: (1) not to say that lawful use of the first grace is rewarded by later graces, as if man by his own effort rendered God’s grace effective; or (2) so to think of the reward as to cease to consider it of God’s free grace.26

Calvin explains, “[God] rewards, as if they were our own virtues, those graces which he bestows upon us, because he makes them ours.”27 The good works that God does through people are worthy of praise.

Second, despite the fact that no one can come to the Father unless he be drawn by the Father, Calvin shows that Christ still saw exhortation as important: “Christ does not neglect the teacher’s office, but with his own voice unremittingly summons those who need to be taught within by the Holy Spirit in order to make progress.”28 That Christ saw exhortation as valid and necessary implies moral responsibility. If people are not morally responsible for their actions, they would not need to know how to live in a right relationship with God and their neighbor.

Third, Calvin addresses the objection that if people do not have the ability to do good on their own, then the reproofs in Scripture are pointless. Calvin points out that Jesus prays for his people: “Hence also Christ asks the Father to keep us from evil (John 17:15, cf. Vg.).”29 That Christ prays for his people is evidence that the reproofs in Scripture are not pointless. And the fact that reproofs are important is evidence for moral responsibility.

Calvin sees a three-tiered determinism: God’s efficacious providence, the understanding’s determination of the will, and the bondage of sin. Calvin makes a christological argument for compatibilism by appealing to Jesus own teachings on the necessity of God’s grace.

3. Francis Turretin (1623–1687)

Francis Turretin, like Calvin, was a theological determinist.30 He argues that the divine decree necessitates all events in history: “All things were decreed of God by an eternal and unchangeable counsel; hence they cannot but take place in the appointed time; otherwise the counsel of God would be changed, which the Scriptures declare to be impossible (Is. 46:10; Eph. 1:9).”31 Moreover, all things are preserved, concurred, and governed by God’s will in providence.32 But, he argues, “Predetermination does not destroy, but conserves the liberty of the will. By it, God does not compel rational creatures or make them act by a physical or brute necessity. Rather he only effects this—that they act both consistently with themselves and in accordance with their own nature, i.e., from preference (ek proaireseōs) and spontaneously (to wit, they are so determined by God that they also determine themselves).”33

Turretin makes both an implicit and an explicit christological argument for compatibilism. His implicit christological argument comes from the conjunction of the necessity of Christ’s mediatorial work and his free and willing obedience. Turretin’s explicit christological argument for compatibilism is in a discussion about free will considered absolutely.34

3.1. Christ’s Work as Necessary and Willing

Turretin argues that Christ’s person and work were absolutely necessary—not a simple absolute necessity but a consequent absolute necessity, that is, following God’s will to redeem humanity, the incarnation and atonement were absolutely necessary.35 First, the incarnation was necessary on account of “sin and the decree of God concerning the redemption of men.”36 The incarnation was necessary “as God cannot deny his own justice, he could not free men without a satisfaction being made first. Satisfaction could not be made to infinite justice except by some infinite ransom (lystron); nor could that infinite ransom (lystron) be found anywhere except in the Son of God.”37 Moreover, God’s work of redemption could be performed only by the God-man.

Second, Turretin sees a necessity in the nature of Christ’s mediatorial work. It was necessary that Christ fulfills the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king: “the acts of a Mediator could not be performed otherwise. For two things were necessary: that he should act for us with God (ta pros ton theon) and for God with us (ta pros hēmas).”38 His prophetic office is shown to be necessary “(1) From the necessity of a revelation because there can be no knowledge of God and divine things without a revelation …, (2) From the method of salvation because no means of salvation was given except faith …, (3) From the oracles of the Old Testament which promise that prophecy, which must necessarily be fulfilled.”39

Third, Turretin affirms that Christ’s satisfaction was necessary. Satisfaction was of “absolute necessity, so that God not only has not willed to remit our sins without a satisfaction, but could not do so on account of his justice.”40 Christ legitimately takes the place of sinners and satisfies God’s wrath because he meets the following conditions:

(1) A common nature that sin may be punished in the same nature which is guilty (Heb. 2:14). (2) The consent of the will that spontaneously and willingly (without compulsion) he should take that burden upon himself: “Lo, I come to do thy will” (Heb. 10:9). (3) Power and dominion over his own life so that he may rightfully determine respecting it: “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (Jn. 10:18). (4) The power of bearing all the punishment due to us and of taking it away as much from himself as from us…. (5) Holiness and immaculate purity, that being polluted by no sin, he might not have to offer sacrifice for himself, but only for us (Heb. 7:25–27).41

Christ’s death, then, was both voluntary and necessary. Christ “willingly took the punishment upon himself.”42

Turretin derives the necessity of satisfaction from the justice of God, the nature of sin, the sanction of the law, the preaching of the gospel, the greatness of God’s love, and the glory of the divine attributes (namely, his holiness, justice, wisdom, and love).43 The Christ event is not necessary merely for our salvation, that is, if we are to be saved, then God must save us. Rather, it was necessary that God act in this way for God to be God (given the fact God’s decision to redeem humanity).

The fact that Christ’s incarnation and mediatorial work were necessary is not a direct argument for or proof of compatibilism. But implicit to this necessity is that Jesus was incarnated at the right time, was perfectly obedient in his life and death, and was an appropriate satisfaction to God—and that it could not have been otherwise.

3.2. Indifference Not Required for Christ’s Freedom

Turretin produces an explicit christological argument against the notion that freedom requires indifference. For Turretin, freedom consists in rational willingness, not in indifference. By “indifference” in this case, he means “in a compound sense … whether the will (all requisites being posited; for example, the decree of God and his concourse; the judgment of the practical intellect, etc.) is always so indifferent and undetermined that it can act or not act.”44 He denies that freedom consists in such indifference:

First, such an indifference to opposites is found in no free agent, whether created or uncreated: neither in God, who is good most freely indeed, yet not indifferently (as if he could be evil), but necessarily and immutably; nor in Christ, who obeyed God most freely and yet most necessarily because he could not sin ….45

Although, necessarily, Christ could not have sinned, he was still free.

Turretin poses the objection, “That Christ, although he never sinned, still was not absolutely unable to sin; and that it is not repugnant to his nature, will or office to be able to sin?”46 In other words, the objection states that Christ was peccable; he could have sinned. He answers:

We answer that far be it from us either to think or say any such thing concerning the immaculate Son of God whom we know to have been holy (akakon), undefiled (amianton), separate from sinners; who not only had no intercourse with sin, but could not have both because he was the Son of God and because he was our Redeemer (who if he could have sinned, could not also have saved us).47

It is not the case that Christ merely did not sin; he could not sin. Turretin affirms Christ’s impeccability according to both his person (“he was the Son of God”) and his work (“he was our Redeemer”).48

According to Turretin, freedom consists in “(1) the choice (to proairetikon) so that what is done is not done by a blind impulse and a certain brute instinct, but from choice (ek proaireseōs) and the previous light of reason and the judgment of the practical intellect; (2) the voluntariness (to hekousion) so that what is done may be done spontaneously and freely without compulsion.”49 Thus, being rational is coextensive with being free. “Hence it follows that it is an inseparable adjunct of the rational agent, attending him in every state so that he cannot be rational without on that very account being free; nor can he be deprived of liberty without being despoiled also of reason.”50 The obedience of Christ, then, consists not in his ability to obey or disobey (because he was “immutably determined to obey the Father”) but that he obeys willingly.51

4. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

Jonathan Edwards is perhaps the most widely recognized defender of Reformed compatibilism.52 In order to show that liberty of indifference was not necessary for moral responsibility, Jonathan Edwards argued that Jesus’s actions were necessary, and yet, they were morally praiseworthy. In section 3 of part 2 in Freedom of the Will, he argues two points:

And, first, I would show, that his holy behavior was necessary; or that it was impossible it should be otherwise, than that he should behave himself holily, and that he should be perfectly holy in each individual act of his life. And secondly, that his holy behavior was properly of the nature of virtue, and was worthy of praise; and that he was the subject of law, precepts or commands, promises and rewards; and that he was in a state of trial.53

In what follows, I trace Edwards’s argument.

4.1. Jesus’s Acts Were Necessary

Edwards affirms the essential features of classical Christology, and in particular, dyothelitism, volitional non-contrariety, and impeccability. He writes, “It was impossible, that the acts of will of the human soul of Christ should, in any instance, degree or circumstance, be otherwise than holy, and agreeable to God’s nature and will.”54 Edwards makes eleven points to support this position. Most of his points are appeals to God’s promises and their necessary fulfillments in Christ, but he also references Christ’s impeccability. Therefore, we might categorize Edwards’s arguments into the second and third forms of argument: appeals to Christ’s wills and impeccability, and appeals to the necessity of the incarnation and atonement.

First, “God promised so effectually to preserve and uphold him by his Spirit, under all his temptations, that he should not fail of reaching the end for which he came into the world; which he would have failed of, had he fallen into sin.”55 “Through God’s help, he should be immovable, in a way of obedience, under the great trials of reproach and suffering he should meet with ….”56 Edwards cites Isaiah 42:1–8; 49:7–9; and 50:5–9 as proof of God’s promise, and Matthew 12:18 as his promise fulfilled.

Second, likewise, God promised that the Messiah would be successful in his office of mediator (e.g., Pss 2:6–7; 110:4) which required perfect obedience. He writes, “God’s absolute promise of any things makes the things promised necessary, and their failing to take place absolutely impossible: and in like manner it makes those things necessary, on which the thing promised depends, and without which it can’t take effect.”57

Third, again, God promised “that God would give them a righteous, sinless Savior” (e.g., Jer 23:5–6; Isa 9:6–7).58 The New Testament confirms the fulfillment of these promises, for example, “Luke 24:44: ‘That all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me.’”59

Fourth, these promises are meant for our comfort because they “show it to be impossible that Christ should not have persevered in perfect holiness.”60 These promises were solemn and often made with an oath, for example, Genesis 22:16–17 wherein God swears by his own Name to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham. Edwards considers the argument of Hebrews 6:17, which comments on Genesis 22: “Wherein God willing more abundantly to shew to the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath; that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation.”61 Edwards explains that in Hebrews 6, “the necessity of the accomplishment, or (which is the same thing) the impossibility of the contrary, is fully declared.”62

Fifth, “all these promises imply, that the Messiah should perfect the work of redemption; and this implies, that he should persevere in the work which the Father had appointed him, being in all things conformed to his will…. And therefore it was impossible, that the Messiah should fail, or commit sin.”63

Sixth, God promised Mary and Joseph that Jesus would save people from their sins (Matt 1:21; Luke 1:32–33). It would be impossible for Jesus to “fail of persevering in integrity and holiness” because that would be inconsistent with God’s promises to Mary and Joseph.64

Seventh, because God eternally decreed that Jesus would provide salvation, it would be impossible that Jesus would fail in his mission.

God could not decree before the foundation of the world, to save all that should believe in, and obey Christ, unless he had absolutely decreed that salvation should be provided, and effectually wrought out by Christ. And since … a decree of God infers necessity; hence it became necessary that Christ should persevere, and actually work out salvation for us, and that he should not fail by the commission of sin.65

Eighth, God made a promise to the Son before the ages that through the Son, salvation would come to people (cf. Titus 1:2). It would be inconsistent with this promise for the Son to fail in holiness.

Ninth, in a related way, it would be inconsistent for the Son to fail to do the will of the Father on account of the Father’s promise to the Son. Edwards explains, “If the Logos, who was with the Father, before the world, and who made the world, thus engaged in covenant to do the will of the Father in the human nature, and the promise, was as it were recorded, that it might be made sure, doubtless it was impossible that it should fail; and so it was impossible that Christ should fail of doing the will of the Father in the human nature.”66 Thus, Christ says, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book” (Heb 10:7; cf. Ps 40:7–8).

Tenth, Edwards argues that if it were possible that Christ should fail in holiness, then “the salvation of all the saints, who were saved from the beginning of the world, to the death of Christ, was not built on a firm foundation.”67 He continues, “[I]f Christ’s virtue might fail, [David and, by extension, the saints of old] was mistaken: his great comfort was not built so sure, as he thought it was, being founded entirely on the determinations of the free will of Christ’s human soul: which was subject to no necessity, and might be determined either one way or the other.”68

Eleventh, Christ himself, was confident in his future glory even in the midst of trial and temptation. If Christ could have failed in holiness, he “would have been guilty of presumption, in so abounding in peremptory promises of great things, which depended on a mere contingence; viz. the determinations of his free will, consisting in a freedom ad utrumque, to either sin or holiness, standing in indifference, and incident, in thousands of future instances, to go either one way or the other.”69

4.2. Jesus’s Acts Were Morally Praiseworthy

Having shown that it would be impossible for Christ to have failed in holiness, Edwards proceeds to show that Christ’s acts are indeed morally praiseworthy. Edwards poignantly states, “If there be any truth in Christianity or the holy Scriptures, the man Christ Jesus had his will infallibly, unalterably and unfrustrably determined to good, and that alone; but yet he had promises of glorious rewards made to him, on condition of his persevering in, and perfecting the work which God had appointed (Is. 53:10, 11, 12; Ps. 2 and 110; Is. 49:7, 8, 9).”70 Christ was promised success and reward for his obedience, and his future success and reward were themselves motivation for his obedience (Heb 12:1–2; Rev 3:21).

Edwards finds it absurd to deny Christ’s virtue on account of his not having liberty of indifference. He writes,

And how strange would it be to hear any Christian assert, that the holy and excellent temper and behavior of Jesus Christ, and that obedience which he performed under such great trials, was … worthy of no reward, no praise, no honor or respect from God or man; because his will was not indifferent, and free either to these things, or the contrary; but under such a strong inclination or bias to the things that were excellent, as made it impossible that he should choose the contrary.71

And if Christ is not virtuous, then we ought not to imitate him. Yet, Scripture urges us to imitate Christ in his obedience and suffering in order to share in his reward (e.g., John 15:10; Rom 8:17; 2 Tim 2:11–12; 1 Pet 4:13).

Scripture teaches that God was pleased with the righteousness of Jesus. “The sacrifices of old are spoken of as a sweet savor to God, but the obedience of Christ is far more acceptable than they.”72 In addition to Isaiah 42:21, Psalm 40:6–8, and Matthew 17:5, Edwards partially quotes John 10:17–18 which I provide in full in a modern translation: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (ESV). Edwards explains that in this text, “Christ tells us expressly, that the Father loves him for that wonderful instance of his obedience, his voluntarily yielding himself to death, in compliance with the Father’s command.”73

If Christ’s acts were not praiseworthy, then the heavenly hosts were mistaken. Edwards cites Revelation 5:8–12:

The four beasts and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having everyone of them harps, and golden vials full of odors … and they sung a new song, saying, thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; for thou wast slain …, and I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the beasts, and the elders, and the number of them was ten thousand times then thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.74

God rewards Jesus “far above all his other servants” (e.g., Phil 2:7–9; Ps 45:7).75 And there is no doubt that Jesus’s reward is a true reward: “a benefit bestowed in consequence of something morally excellent in quality or behavior, in testimony of well-pleasedness in that moral excellency, and respect and favor on that account.”76

Finally, in the same way that Adam was in a state of trial in the Garden of Eden, Jesus, too, was in a state of trial. “The last Adam, as Christ is called (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:14), taking on him the human nature, and so the form of a servant, and being under the law, to stand and act for us, was put into a state of trial, as the first Adam was.”77 Jesus’s situation satisfied the conditions in which subjects are rightly considered to be in a state of trial, “namely, their afflictions being spoken of as their trials or temptations, their being the subjects of promises, and their being exposed to Satan’s temptations.”78

5. Reflection

Compatibilism is the dominant position in the Reformed tradition regarding free will.79 Reformed theologians, with Calvin, typically see a three-tier determinism: a robust divine providence (theological determinism), a view of the soul that considers the will to be dependent on the final dictate of reason (psychological determinism), and a moral inability apart from grace (bondage of the will). Despite determinism, these theologians see human beings as significantly free moral agents—worthy of praise or blame.

Christological arguments for compatibilism are common in the Reformed tradition. These arguments come in three forms: (1) appeals to the teachings of Jesus Christ, (2) appeals to Christ’s wills and impeccability, and (3) appeals to the necessity of the incarnation and atonement.80 I have shown that Calvin appeals to the teachings of Jesus Christ to support his view of humans’ inability to do good apart from the grace of God, and yet, humans are morally responsible agents. I have shown that Turretin and Edwards appeal to the necessity of the incarnation and atonement while simultaneously affirming Christ’s willing obedience. I have also shown how both Turretin and Edwards reject the notion that freedom requires indifference by appealing to Christ’s impeccability and volitional non-contrariety. Although most contemporary arguments for compatibilism involve discussions about divine providence, human constitution and moral psychology, or sin and regeneration, there is a rich tradition of christological arguments for compatibilism in Reformed theology.

Christological arguments are especially powerful and compelling for several reasons. First, Jesus Christ is a real, historical person who is free and morally praiseworthy, and yet, he could not sin or act contrary to God’s plan and promises. Jesus is a concrete example of the compatibility of freedom and determinism. No other person in history is as clearly morally praiseworthy; and no other person in history is as clearly determined to act unwaveringly according to God’s design.

Second, the incarnation and atonement are the center of Christianity, the Bible, and the gospel. These are not peripheral matters but core doctrines and the focal point of all history. Because the incarnation and atonement are part of—indeed, central to—God’s plan, the Bible uses the strongest language to describe their necessity, for example, “Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:11); and “God decreed [the mystery of the gospel of Christ] before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2:7). The necessity and importance of the incarnation and atonement underscore the usefulness of christological arguments for compatibilism. To argue that Christ could have done otherwise than to live sinlessly, obey the Father, fulfill God’s promises, and realize God’s eternal plan is to undermine the foundation of Christianity.

Third, Jesus’s teaching bears divine authority. If Jesus’s teachings imply compatibilism, then God’s own words imply compatibilism. Of course, all Scripture is inspired and authoritative, so this point is not to suggest that the book of Matthew, for example, is more important than, say, the letter to the Romans. Rather, this kind of christological argument for compatibilism is employed especially against those who might claim that Jesus was uninterested in or ambivalent to the issue of freedom and divine sovereignty—that only Paul was concerned with freedom—or, worse, that free will is a Hellenistic (or even modern) debate read into the text rather than out of it. For these reasons, Christological arguments for compatibilism ought not be neglected by compatibilists.81

[1] Paul Helm, Reforming Free Will: A Conversation on the History of Reformed Views on Compatibilism (1500–1800) (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2020), 151.

[2] See Book 2 of John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960). For a summary of the Reformer’s contribution to Christology, see Robert Letham, “The Person of Christ,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 313–46.

[3] For Calvin’s Christology, see Henri Blocher, “The Atonement in John Calvin’s Theology,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical & Practical Perspectives: Essays in Honor or Roger Nicole, ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 279–303; Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 220–31. For Calvin’s view of freedom, see Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 157–83.

[4] Calvin, Institutes 1.16.6.

[5] Calvin, Institutes 1.16.2.

[6] Calvin, Institutes 1.16.

[7] Calvin, Institutes 1.17.5.

[8] Calvin, Institutes 2.4.6.

[9] Calvin, Institutes 1.16.9.

[10] Helm, Reforming Free Will, 85.

[11] For Calvin’s view of the soul, see Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, 129–56.

[12] Calvin, Institutes 1.15.7; cf. 2.2.2.

[13] Helm, Reforming Free Will, 195–232.

[14] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.5.

[15] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.5.

[16] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.5.

[17] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.8.

[18] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.1.

[19] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.1.

[20] Calvin, Institutes 2.2.20.

[21] Calvin, Institutes 2.2.20.

[22] Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defense of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice against Pighius 3.308, ed. A. N. S. Lane, trans. G. I. Davies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 110–11.

[23] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.10. And God’s efficacious grace places a necessity on the receiver: “Again, as Christ formerly affirmed that men are not fitted for believing, until they have been drawn, so he now declares that the grace of Christ, by which they are drawn, is efficacious, so that they necessarily believe.” John Calvin, John Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (Altenmünster: Jazzybee Verlag, 1847), 1:183.

[24] Calvin, Commentary on John, 1:182.

[25] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.9.

[26] Calvin, Institutes 2.3.11.

[27] Calvin, Institutes 2.5.3.

[28] Calvin, Institutes 2.5.5.

[29] Calvin, Institutes 2.5.11.

[30] There is a significant debate as to whether Turretin was, in fact, a theological determinist and compatibilist. Some scholars argue that Turretin was not a compatibilist; for example, Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde, eds., Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010); cf. Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017). In response to Muller and the authors of Reformed Thought on Freedom, see Michael Patrick Preciado, A Reformed View of Freedom: The Compatibility of Guidance Control and Reformed Theology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019); Helm, Reforming Free Will; Helm, “Francis Turretin and Jonathan Edwards on Compatibilism,” Journal of Reformed Theology 12 (2018): 335–55. Turretin’s arguments about the necessity of the incarnation and atonement and Christ’s impeccability are, themselves, reasons to believe that he was a compatibilist.

[31] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), 1:320.

[32] Turretin, Institutes 1:501–5.

[33] Turretin, Institutes 1:508.

[34] Turretin writes, “Free will can be viewed either in the genus of being and absolutely (as belonging to a rational being in every state); or in the genus of morals and in relation to various states (either of sin or of righteousness)” (Institutes 1:665).

[35] Turretin parts ways with Augustine, Aquinas, and many of the Reformers by rejecting a mere hypothetical necessity of the incarnation and atonement. For example, Augustine writes, “we must also show, not indeed that no other possible way was available to God, since all things are equally within his power ….” Augustine, De Trinitate 13.10, 2nd ed., trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 2015). Aquinas, likewise: “In the first way [i.e., the sense of necessity “when the end cannot be without it”] it was not necessary that God should become incarnate for the restoration of human nature. For God with His omnipotent power could have restored human nature in many other ways.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III q.1 a.2, trans. Laurence Shapcote (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2012). Cf. Calvin, who writes, “Now it was of the greatest importance for us that he who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man. If someone asks why this is necessary, there has been no simple (to use the common expression) or absolute necessity. Rather, it has stemmed from a heavenly decree, on which men’s salvation depended. Our most merciful Father decreed what was best for us.” Calvin, Institutes 2.12.1.

For Turretin, the incarnation and atonement were not necessary merely because of the divine decree to bring about an incarnation and atonement (i.e., on account of the divine will); rather, the incarnation and atonement were necessary because of the divine nature.

[36] Turretin, Institutes 2:301.

[37] Turretin, Institutes 2:302.

[38] Turretin, Institutes 2:394.

[39] Turretin, Institutes 2:398.

[40] Turretin, Institutes 2:408.

[41] Turretin, Institutes 2:421.

[42] Turretin, Institutes 2:422.

[43] Turretin, Institutes 2:422–25.

[44] Turretin, Institutes 1:666.

[45] Turretin, Institutes 1:666 (emphasis mine).

[46] Turretin, Institutes 1:666. Similarly, Wilhelmus à Brakel argues, “The Lord Jesus Christ could not will to be either obedient or disobedient to His Father. He could not do anything but be willing to obey His Father. Was not His will absolutely free? … In all these things there is an absolute freedom of will, but there is no neutrality as far as being willing or not willing to do something, or to will a certain thing or its opposite. Thus, freedom of the will does not consist in neutrality, but is one of necessary consequence” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, reprint ed. [Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 1992], 1:409).

[47] Turretin, Institutes 1:666.

[48] Turretin, Institutes 1:666.

[49] Turretin, Institutes 1:667.

[50] Turretin, Institutes 1:667.

[51] Turretin, Institutes 1:667. Cf. Calvin, who writes, “And truly, even in death itself his willing obedience is the important thing because a sacrifice not offered voluntarily would not have furthered righteousness…. And we must hold fast to this: that no proper sacrifice to God could have been offered unless Christ, disregarding his own feelings, subjected and yielded himself wholly to his Father’s will” (Institutes 2.16.5).

[52] For an introduction to Jonathan Edwards, see Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, eds., “Jonathan Edwards,” in Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 193–233. For more on Edwards’s compatibilism, see Preciado, A Reformed View of Freedom, 183–216.

[53] Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey, The Works of Jonathan Edwards 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 281.

[54] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 281.

[55] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 281.

[56] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 282–83.

[57] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 283.

[58] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 283.

[59] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 284.

[60] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 284.

[61] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 285.

[62] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 285.

[63] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 286.

[64] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 286.

[65] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 286.

[66] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 287.

[67] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 287.

[68] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 288.

[69] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 288–89.

[70] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 289–90.

[71] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 290–91.

[72] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 291–92.

[73] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 292.

[74] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 292.

[75] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 293.

[76] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 293.

[77] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 293.

[78] Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 293.

[79] For example, see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, new ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 106–8, 247–48; Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 355–62, 431–34; John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 148–68, 809–44.

[80] Each of these christological arguments may be found in contemporary Reformed theology. For the first appeal, see Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 79–81; John Frame, The Doctrine of God, A Theology of Lordship (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 142; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 434.

For the second appeal, see D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, reprint ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1994), 157–60; Bruce A. Ware, “The Gospel of Christ,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 320–33; Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 94–95.

For the third appeal, see Paul Helm, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 213–16; Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, 157–60; John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 518, 766–67; Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 89–90; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 433.

[81] I would like to thank Steve Wellum, Bruce Ware, Paul Helm, Guillaume Bignon, and Torey Teer for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts.

Randall K. Johnson

Randall Johnson completed a PhD at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and teaches at Scholé Christian Tradition in Louisville, Kentucky.

Other Articles in this Issue

Studies on Genesis 3:15 often debate whether the seed of the woman refers to an individual or a collective group...

This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge...

Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24...

This essay considers the concept of the eternality of human memory and what the Christian may expect to remember after death...