God’s Foreknowledge & Man’s Free Will As Seen From A Compatibilist’s Point Of View

God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will

Psalm 147:5 says that God’s understanding is infinite. Infinite in this verse is the Hebrew micpar and means the same thing as it does in English—i.e., “having no boundaries or limits.” Now, if God’s understanding has no boundaries or limits, and understanding is predicated on knowledge, then it follows necessarily that God’s knowledge has no boundaries or limitations. Such knowledge would be “unsearchable” by mere finite creatures, and this is exactly what the Bible says (cf. Romans 11:33). In other words, the Bible teaches that God “knows all things” (1 John 3:20). This kind of knowledge is what the theologians call “omniscience.” By definition, omniscience or “all-knowingness” encompasses the present, the past, and the future (i.e., the then, now and not yet), and undoubtedly includes genuine foreknowledge, which includes prescience. This is evidenced by many Bible passages. In what follows, I’ll be pointing out a few of these.

Just before he died, Moses was told by God of the future apostasy of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 31:16-21). In doing so, God was not just declaring what He planned to do in the future, He was making it clear He knew what human beings would be doing in the future of their own free wills. In Acts 2:23, the apostle Peter taught that Jesus was delivered up “by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” He went on to say to the Jews, “…you have taken [Jesus] by lawless hands, have crucified [Him], and put [Him] to death.” This teaches that God’s plan to deliver up His Son was made in view of what He foreknew the Jews and Romans would do—viz., that given the right circumstances, they would cause Jesus to be crucified. Again, in Romans 8:28-30 and 1 Peter 1:1-2, we are told that God foreknew certain individuals, of their own free wills, would obey the gospel and be conformed to the image of His Son and, as such,  would be God’s “elect” in connection with Jesus Christ. This means that God’s foreknowledge of those who would be conformed to the image of His Son came before their election and predestination. Since God chose them “in Christ” before the creation of the world, it appears obvious that they and their free-will actions were foreknown by God before the world began (cf. Ephesians 1:4; Acts 2:23). Therefore, there is no reason for the Bible believer to ever doubt God’s genuine foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of His creatures.

Calvinists assert that God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are completely irreconcilable. Again, they are wrong! The Bible teaches that God has foreknowledge (and we will look at some biblical examples of these momentarily). Therefore, God’s foreknowledge is a fact. Likewise, the Bible teaches that man has free will (and we have already examined some of these passages). Therefore, man’s free moral agency is a fact. Consequently, Calvinists or anyone else who claim that God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are incompatible are teaching that which is contrary to God’s word.

A Little Simple Logic

Notwithstanding, Calvinists and other determinists attempt to vindicate their position by arguing as follows:

Necessarily, whatever God foreknows comes to pass
God foreknew that x would come to pass,
therefore, it follows that
Necessarily, x will come to pass.

And so, the determinists argue, if God foreknows the future, then all things come to pass necessarily, and this means that man’s free moral agency and true contingency are eliminated and were never more than a non-determinist’s illusion. But, and this seems difficult for some, the above reasoning embraces a logical fallacy. According to the rules of logic, the conclusion of an argument can be necessary only if both of the premises are necessary. But in the above argument, only the major premise is a necessary truth. The minor premise is not a necessary truth because it is not necessary that God know x. Instead, He could have known y. Consequently, the proper conclusion to the above syllogism is:

Therefore, x will come to pass.

Now, from the fact that God foreknows that x will occur, we may be sure that x will, in fact, occur; but, and here’s my point, it is not necessary that x occur. It is, indeed, possible (because man is a free moral agent) that x might not occur. This having been said, we do know, according to the above syllogism, that x will truly occur because God foreknew it would. However, the fact that God knows I will act a certain way in the future does not mean His knowledge causes me to act this way. For if, as a free moral agent, I choose to behave differently, God’s knowledge about this behavior will also be different. In other words, if God foreknew I should do x, then I will do x. Yet, as a free moral agent, I have the power not to do x, and if I were not to do x, then God would not have known I will do x. This means that while God’s foreknowledge is chronologically prior to my action, my action is logically prior to His foreknowledge. Now, what all of this means is that the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women are not establish by God’s foreknowledge; instead, God’s foreknowledge is determined by the reality of the future events themselves, whatever they finally wind up being. The fact that God, from His viewpoint in eternity, knows such actions “ahead of time” does not mean these events will happen because God sees them; rather, they are going to happen because of the genuine free moral agency of those involved. Again, the fact that God knows them ahead of time does not, in any causative sense, make them happen.

Notice that the Bible does not say that God has the capacity to know all things, which He certainly does. Instead, the argument is that God actually “knows all things” (1 John 3:20). Now, if God knows all things, what is it that He does not know? Remember, the Great Intelligence of the universe is writing to His intelligent creatures. Consequently, not only does He teach us through direct statements and approved examples, but He also expects us to come to necessary conclusions about what He has written. By direct statement, the Bible teaches that God “knows all things” (1 John 3:20). By direct statement, the Bible teaches that God’s understanding is without boundaries or limits (cf. Psalm 147:5). So, if God’s understanding is infinite, and understanding is established through knowledge, then it follows necessarily that God’s knowledge is also infinite. Truth is, there is not anything God does not know and this whether we’re talking about the then, the now, and the not yet!

Some Claim God Cannot Know The Future

Calvin’s starting point was that God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are mutually exclusive. Calvin opted for God’s foreknowledge at the expense of man’s free will. Others, while rejecting Calvin’s false system, have believed his premise. Consequently, they have opted for man’s free will at the expense of God’s foreknowledge. Presently, there are New Testament Christians who are taking this position. Giving lip-service to the omniscience of God (i.e., they acknowledge God knows the past and present perfectly), they claim that because the future does not yet exist, God cannot know what does not yet exist—unless He, by His decretive will, intends to bring these events to pass. They claim passages that depict God as knowing the end from the beginning (cf. Isaiah 46:10; Romans 4:17) are really examples of God’s omnipotence, not His foreknowledge. God, they claim, simply cannot know the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women. These brethren are just as wrong as the Calvinists they condemn. All the Bible passages that show God foreknowing the future, contingent, free will choices of individuals and groups (and we have mentioned some of these earlier) testify to the error these brethren espouse.

On the other hand, there are brethren who believe that God has the capacity to know all things, but for reasons known only to Him, He chooses not to know some things. Unlike those who say God cannot know, this group does not take their position for philosophical reasons. Instead, they take their position because the Bible does seem to be saying there are things God does (did) not know (e.g., Genesis 18:21 and 22:12), and as they are wont to say, “We all know the Bible does not contradict itself.” True, the Bible does not contradict itself. Therefore, if the Bible teaches that God knows all things, then passages like Genesis 18 and 22 must be interpreted in light of this truth. In fact, a fundamental rule of Bible interpretation says that we must understand Scripture in its normal sense unless a literal interpretation contradicts other clear teaching found in God’s Word. Not doing this, in my opinion, is the error one makes in thinking these passages negate the all-knowingness of God. (If you disagree with me, I would be very interested to know what you think Psalm 147:5, Romans 11:33, and John 3:20 are saying about God’s omniscience.)

Mixing Apples And Oranges

In their defense, many who take the above position argue that just as God being all-powerful does not mean He has to be doing everything He can do, being all-knowing does not mean that God must actually know everything He has the capacity to know. What seems to many like iron-clad logic is nothing more than a non-sequitur (i.e., an argument that does not logically follow the premise or evidence). Therefore, comparing omniscience with omnipotence is like confusing apples and oranges. Yes, it is true that being all-powerful, definitionally, does not mean one has to be engaged in doing all things. On the other hand, by definition, knowing all things means knowing all things. Being all-powerful infers only ability. On the other hand, being all-knowing infers not only ability but the actual knowledge itself, which, in God’s case, is universal. Expressly, God is not just claiming He could know all things if He wanted to, but that He truly does know all things! Those who wrongly believe Genesis 18 and 22 to be teaching that God has chosen not to know some things are simply explaining away, by their literal interpretation of these passages, the plain teaching of those scriptures I have cited which clearly teach the all-knowingness—past, present and future—of God. It is evident they must think the passages I have cited mean something other than what they actually say. But whether one agrees with me or not, the task before every honest exegete is to harmonize two seemingly contradictory teachings—viz., God knows all things; God does not know some things—and do it in a way that does no harm to the integrity of either set of passages.

Resolving An Apparent Dilemma

Here is how I resolve what otherwise appears to be a dilemma. In Genesis 18:21, we are dealing with an unusual circumstance. God, who is omnipresent, which means He is equally present to all of space simultaneously, has, on occasion, entered space at specific points and become present in it for a specific purpose. The theologians call these occurrences “theophanies.” This seems to be the case in Genesis 18:21. In verse 1 of the chapter, it says, “Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.” In verse 2, it mentions “three men.” Whether these three men are manifestations of the triune nature of God, or whether the other two were angels, is not clear. What seems clear is that this is, in fact, a theophany. In entering the time-space continuum, God, who is infinite in His being, willingly, and somehow, without ceasing to be who He is, allowed Himself to be subject to the finite. It’s mind-boggling, I know. Nevertheless, this appears to be the clear import of Scripture. Let us now look at Genesis 18:21 with my interpretation interjected in brackets:

I, [who have somehow subjected Myself to the time-space continuum] will go down [not from heaven, but down the way geographically] now [not in eternity, but right now at this moment, subject to time and space] and see [i.e., learn experientially in time and space] whether they have done [and, more importantly, continue to do “now”] altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me [in eternity, not limited by time and space]; and if not [i.e., if they are no longer doing what I knew they were doing before I allowed Myself to be subject to time and space], I [God subject to time and space] will know [experientially].

Notice that I have emphasized the word “now” by putting it in bold letters. This is because I believe this word to be the key to understanding this passage. God, who knows the past, present, and future, confines His knowing to the “now” of the time-space continuum. Are we supposed to think that the self-existent, eternal, infinite Spirit who is God did not really know everything that had been happening in Sodom and Gomorrah? 1 John 3:20 makes it absolutely clear that God is greater than our heart (He knows our heart as well as every other heart) and knows all things. Consequently, whatever Genesis 18:21 means must be understood by the context, and the context clearly indicates a theophany. And so, the theophany must be taken into consideration when trying to understand this passage. When I debated a brother who teaches that there are some things God cannot know, he at least admitted that God knew the past and present perfectly. Now, some are wanting me to believe that the all-knowing God does not even know the past and present perfectly. This, of course, is the only conclusion one may come to if Genesis 18:21 is to be understood literally and apart from the “now” context. Consequently, this conclusion is not, nor can it be, true.

We now come to what I consider the more difficult passage. In Genesis 22:12, the angel of the Lord says to Abraham,

Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me (emp. mine).

Although the “angel of the Lord,” who some think may be the pre-incarnate Christ, is involved in this episode, the unusual circumstances associated with a theophany are not a part of the context. Even so, as has already been pointed out, the Bible teaches that the self-existent, eternal, and infinite Spirit who is God “knows all things.” So, once again, citing a fundamental principle of hermeneutics, the current passage cannot be interpreted in a way that would negate clear and unequivocal passages which teach that God knows all things.

As we think about this situation, it is interesting to note what the self-existent, eternal, infinite Spirit who is God knew about Abraham before He ever “tested” him. In Genesis 18:17-19, the Lord said:

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.

In other words, God knew that Abraham would pass the “tests” of faith, which included the one mentioned in this passage. To disregard this information, as well as the truth about God’s “all-knowingness,” is to make a serious mistake when trying to understand this passage.

Yes, taken literally, the passage does appear to be teaching that God learned something about Abraham that He had not previously known. But, if God really does know all things, and if He, therefore, knew Abraham would pass all “tests,” then Genesis 22:12 cannot be teaching what it seems to be teaching.

I admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable making this kind of statement. Nevertheless, I am confident this is the correct way to view this passage. Paul was not the only inspired writer who wrote things difficult to understand, which, if we are not careful, can be twisted to teach something completely contrary to the truth (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). Our responsibility is to “Be diligent to present [ourselves] approved to God, [as workers] who [do not] need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This is not always easy, but if we work hard at it, then we, too, will pass the “test.”

I believe the key to understanding Genesis 22:12 is to be found in places like Deuteronomy 29-30, where God promises to give life or death and blessings or cursings, depending upon one’s obedience to His Word. Do what is right and one is blessed; do what is wrong and one is cursed. This is a principle taught many places in the Bible, and although we do not expect to hear the voice of the “angel of the Lord” today, nevertheless, if we serve the Lord faithfully, He will bless us; if we disobey Him, He will curse us.

God is all-knowing. However, He has graciously agreed to deal with us where we are in the space-time continuum. In Genesis 22:12, I have once again emphasized the word “now.” This is because I believe the key to understanding this passage, like the key to understanding Genesis 18:21, is the “now” context. Namely, in the now of Abraham’s time and space, the voice of the angel of the Lord could be heard audibly, and God is acknowledging His blessing on or appreciation of Abraham at a very critical time and place in his “walk of faith.” In fact, the word “know” in this passage is sometimes translated “to recognize, admit, acknowledge, confess, declare, or tell.” So, in harmony with the rest of Scripture, and without doing any violence to the words of this passage, Genesis 22:12 is not teaching that the all-knowing God of the universe did not really know whether Abraham would pass this critical test. He is, instead, acknowledging His appreciation of Abraham’s faithfulness. In other words, He is declaring, “Abraham, I have been testing you…and you have passed the test!”

As has been demonstrated, there is nothing in God’s word that limits His knowledge, not even man’s free will. Therefore, with the apostle Paul, we exclaim:

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:17).



    1. Thanks, Bob. I appreciate that over the years you have taken a strong position in support of God’s foreknowledge. It is an attribute/characteristic of God that is coming under strong attack, especially from the open theists among us.

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