Randy Alcorn, author of over twenty books and founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries (EPM), asks, “Is it possible to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human choice? This is one of the most perplexing and personal theological questions. I believe the traditional approach to this debate has often diminished our trust in God and his purposes. Instead of making a one-sided argument from select verses, I’ve sought to examine the question in light of all Scripture” (personal letter to the reviewer).
This is not just another book on Calvinism and Arminianism and the related arguments that have existed for centuries, but instead offers a fresh and well-researched approach to the difficulties surrounding the differing views. It is fair, readable, and encouraging. While God’s sovereignty and a person’s meaningful choice seem paradoxical, “a paradox is an apparent contradiction, not an actual one” (p. 4). A paradox in Scripture often takes two seemingly different views and creates something new that only faith can comprehend. Alcorn does a superb job in illustrating that these two important theological doctrines can coexist.
Alcorn quips, “How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb? None. Only God can change a light bulb. Since he has ordained the darkness and predestinated the lights will come on, stay seated and trust him.” He counters with, “How many Arminians does it take to change a light bulb? Only one. But first the bulb must want to be changed” (p. 9). This light-hearted approach is soon set aside for the serious discussion that follows. Chapter 2 is devoted to those who do not know the differences between the Calvinist and the Arminian. Three helpful charts are provided that aid the reader in seeing the differences as well as the complementary agreement between these two systems of theology. Alcorn feels that opinions are often formed on what others say about each system, rather than reading for one’s own edification. He says, “Reflect on God’s Word more than on what I have to say about it. Be quick to measure my words by Scripture” (p. 33). This is key for Alcorn.
Chapters three and four take up the doctrines of “The Sovereignty of God,” and “Free Will and Meaningful Choice.” “God’s sovereignty is affirmed emphatically, yet it doesn’t swallow up our ability to choose or our responsibility for the choices we make” (p. 51). “Call it free will, meaningful choice, or anything else; it is God-given and real. If it isn’t, then our decisions and our lives are merely illusions, and calling upon ourselves or others to make any choices at all would be senseless” (p. 74).
Alcorn states, “while this book will not end the theological controversy surrounding the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom,” chapter 5, presents the “main views of sovereignty and choice [that] should shed some light on various approaches to this issue” (p. 77). Three positions are presented: libertarianism, determinism, and compatibilism (sometimes referred to as ‘soft determinism’)” (p. 77). With the aid of valuable charts, Alcorn quotes numerous sources in defining the terms: “Libertarianism means the freedom to make contrary choices;” “determinism means God’s free choices are at work in his creatures’ choices;” “compatibilism affirms that free will and determinism can coexist” (pp. 78-83). He also discusses the pros and cons of Molinism, named after Luis de Molina, and the theological concept of “middle knowledge,” or that “God has arranged the world knowing what will be freely chosen by everyone when placed in any particular circumstance . . . God foreknows the future and chooses accordingly, allowing him to accomplish his purpose as fully as if he’d predetermined every aspect” (p. 91). A helpful comparative chart is given on pages 94-96.
Chapter six asks, “Does open theism resolve the sovereignty/choice paradox?” (p. 107). Answering the claims of open theists Clark Pinnock and Gregory Boyd, and with the aid of four charts and biblical and logical discussion, Alcorn shows the fallacy of this approach to God’s sovereignty and man’s free choice. Alcorn shows the absurdity of trying to use this theology as a means of comforting the suffering believer.
Chapter seven is an extremely useful chapter and deals with the “interplay of God’s sovereignty and human choice.” Quoting J. I. Packer who says, “divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not enemies. They are not uneasy neighbors; they are not in an endless state of cold war with each other. They are friends, and they work together” (p. 127), Alcorn’s valuable interaction provides comparative charts in support of this statement. He concludes: “The God of the Scriptures is so big, wise, and powerful that he can grant truly meaningful and real choices to angels and humans alike, in a way that allows them to act freely, within their finite limits, without inhibiting his sovereign plan in any way—and indeed using their meaningful choices, even their disobedience, in a significant way to fulfill his sovereign plan. . . Choice is a bittersweet gift. Those in Heaven will always be grateful they had it and will have it always, with no fear of sin or condemnation; those in Hell will always regret that they didn’t exercise it differently” (p.149).
Chapter eight is entitled, “Meaningful Human Choice and Divine Sovereignty Working hand in Hand” (p. 151, “hand” is purposely in the lower case). Discussion and charts include such subjects as comparison of God’s freedom and ours to an oceangoing ship; God’s choices intermingling with ours; the Scriptural basis for human choice; God’s freedom of choice; the consistency of human responsibility with God’s sovereignty; and that “God’s ‘Come to me’ invitation is genuine” (pp. 152-65). However, Alcorn makes it clear that the philosophy of fatalism is not the biblical worldview. The Scripture clearly shows that God is at work in a broken world determining the “times and places of people and nations” (p. 170). Our perspective of human choice and divine sovereignty is finite, a paradox, mysterious, while God’s perspective is infinite and “multi-dimensional” (p. 172; see charts): “God sees and works in other dimensions we don’t even comprehend” (p 173).
Chapter nine presents the thoughts of men from the past holding differing views that are often found to be complimentary. C. S. Lewis, A. H. Strong, Samuel Fisk, Alexander Maclaren, A. W. Pink, A. W. Tozer, Charles Simeon, John Wesley, John Whitefield, and, of course, Charles Spurgeon quoted. Speaking of the seemingly paradoxical doctrines of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty, Spurgeon said, “They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not . . . These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity” (quoted on p. 181).
Chapter ten begins with a short story of a friend of the Alcorn’s who was raped and proceeds to tackle the questions surrounding undeserved, unexplained suffering, pain and disability. Alcorn has always held a strong biblical view of the bigger questions surrounding why God allows evil and suffering. This excellent chapter is a succinct and compressed answer to these questions, expanded in Alcorn’s book, If God is Good. Alcorn offers discussions on such topics as: God using evil to bring about good; the use of evil spirits to accomplish his purpose; God’s use of evil without being evil; God and Satan using pain for different objectives; and the coexistence of God’s permission and his control (pp. 193-99). He writes, “I deliberately focus here on God’s permission rather than God’s decrees, because it’s common ground for different theological persuasions. But I want to make the rarely understood point that divine permission is not passive and weak, but active and strong. The more power someone has, the more significant his permission becomes” (p. 200). Alcorn concludes, “Everything that comes into the life of God’s child is Father-filtered” (p. 204).
The last chapter offers concluding thoughts on the previous discussions. He ends by stating, “Regardless of our different understanding of the interworking of sovereignty and meaningful choice, all who love Jesus and are saved by his sovereign grace alone can walk hand in Hand with our God and with each other, united in praise for him” (p. 218). The reader is encouraged to “carefully examine the different views on this issue in order to gain a deeper understanding of God and of God’s design in providing us the freedom of meaningful choice. Only then can we better understand what we cannot fully understand, and learn how to communicate about the issue in a clear and compassionate way” (personal letter to the reviewer).
hand in Hand is to be applauded as one of the most valuable books available on the subject of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. It is easily understood, inundated with helpful charts, pointed illustrations, and biblical quotations, making it extremely suitable for students, professors, pastors, and believers worldwide. I highly recommend this book to our readers.