Engaging views and analysis from outside contributors on the issues affecting society and faith today.

CP VOICES do not necessarily reflect the views of The Christian Post. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).

God’s sovereignty and human responsibility: A debate for the ages

Unsplash/Ben Vaughn
Unsplash/Ben Vaughn

One of the most difficult theological topics is the question of the nature of God's sovereignty, particularly over man’s actions and man’s salvation. While I don’t want to adjudicate the Calvinist vs. Arminian debate here, I hope to shed some historical light on the general conversation and help us understand the overall debate a bit better.

To do that, let’s consider two works by two theologians from early church history, Augustine’s On the Predestination of the Saints and John Cassian’s On the Protection of God. As I engage their writing and the Bible, I’ll make my position clear; you are, of course, welcome to disagree — after all, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Human nature

Get Our Latest News for FREE

Subscribe to get daily/weekly email with the top stories (plus special offers!) from The Christian Post. Be the first to know.

In On the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine commends fellow believers who have “attained with Christ’s Church to the belief that the human race is born obnoxious to the sin of the first man, and that none can be delivered from that evil save by the righteousness of the Second Man.”

What he means by this is that in Adam, the “first man,” all have fallen and are inheritors of Adam’s original sin, and therefore are rightly deserving of death and condemnation from God. The only way to be delivered from this pitiable condition is through belief in the perfect righteousness and substitution of the “Second Man,” that is, Jesus Christ. Augustine goes on to say that this belief will “abundantly distinguish them from the error of the Pelagians.”

Pelagius was a fifth century monk who believed and taught that man was born sinless and could obey God’s commands perfectly, thereby earning salvation by personal merit. While this belief was rejected as heretical in 418 at the Council of Carthage, a subtler version, called Semi-Pelagianism, continued to be taught by others.

While they didn’t go as far as to say that man could perfectly obey God’s commands and earn salvation, Semi-Pelagians argued that man deserved credit for whatever good he did produce before receiving saving grace, in essence “cooperating” with God for salvation. One can see that Cassian holds a similar view of human nature when he writes “that it may be still clearer that through the excellence of nature which is granted by the goodness of the Creator, sometimes first beginnings of a goodwill arise …”

Here, and elsewhere in his treatise, Cassian confuses what is better understood as “common grace,” or the Imago Dei in man, for an intrinsic ability within man to move towards his Creator out of goodwill.

But the Bible teaches that mankind is not mostly dead in sin but entirely dead in sin. Ephesians 2:1-3 states that “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world … [and] … were by nature objects of wrath.”  Also, in Romans 5, the Apostle Paul argues that unregenerate Christians are not morally neutral but rather God’s enemies.

Origination of saving faith

Throughout On the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine uses the proof text of 1 Corinthians 4:7, which asks: “What do you have that you did not receive?”

Augustine writes that this verse “does not allow any believer to say, ‘I have faith which I received not.’ All the arrogance of this answer is absolutely repressed by these apostolic words. Moreover, it cannot even be said ‘Although I have not a perfected faith, yet I have its beginning, whereby I first of all believed in Christ.’”

Augustine clings to Scripture to argue that saving faith is given entirely of grace, that is, unmerited favor.

In contrast, Cassian argues that “the grace of God always cooperates with our will for its advantage, and in all things assists, protects, and defends it, in such a way as sometimes even to require and look for some efforts of goodwill from it that it may not appear to confer its gifts on one who is asleep or relaxed in sluggish ease.”

By claiming that God waits to bestow grace until man first makes an effort, Cassian makes man responsible, to a certain extent, for his own salvation. Cassian argued that saving faith could find its origin in either: 1. the gift of God, or 2. the goodwill of man. This is clear when he says: “And when He sees in us some beginnings of a good will, He at once enlightens it and strengthens it and urges it on towards salvation, increasing that which He implanted or which He sees to have arisen from our own efforts.”

Augustine rejects this because he believes it would give mankind a cause for boasting. 1 Corinthians 4 makes it clear that we have no cause for any such boasting. And Titus 3:4-5 claims that “when the kindness of and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Or, as Augustine says, “therefore both in its increase and in its beginnings, faith is the gift of God.” In John 6 Jesus does not say that it is all the Father “calls” or “are already coming” that will come to Him but only those whom the Father calls.


Regarding predestination, Augustine argues for what is called “compatibilism,” that is, the belief that both human freedom (understood as our ability to act and choose according to what we most desire) and God’s sovereignty can indeed truly coexist.

This belief undergirds the doctrine of predestination, defined as “God’s sovereignty in electing some to be saved but others to be damned.” He reasons:

“Here is mercy and judgment — mercy towards the election which has obtained the righteousness of God, but judgment to the rest which have been blinded. And yet the former, because they willed, believed; the latter, because they did not will, believed not. Therefore, mercy and judgment were manifested in the very wills themselves. Certainly, such an election is of grace, not at all of merits.”

We see an example of this in Exodus when we are told that Pharaoh both hardened his heart (Exodus 8:32) and had his heart hardened by God (Exodus 11:10).

Cassian rejected this, arguing, “How can we imagine without grievous blasphemy that He does not generally will all men, but only some instead of all to be saved?” He further writes:

“For we should not hold that God made man such that he can never will or be capable or what is good: or else He has not granted him a free will, if He suffered him only to will or be capable of evil, but neither to will or be capable of what is good in himself.”

For Cassian, accepting God’s predestination meant obliterating man’s free will.

Furthermore, he thought those, like Augustine, who argued for the doctrine of predestination with conviction, were attempting to plumb the unsearchable depths of God’s wisdom in bringing men to salvation. 


What should we conclude from eavesdropping in on this historical conversation? I would argue that Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility was more biblical than Cassian’s for a few reasons.

First, Augustine rightly understood the completely depraved nature of fallen humanity, which is in total rebellion against God. This means that, second, Augustine recognized that saving faith comes from God as a gift, not based on man’s merit. Third, he also recognized and defended the biblical doctrine of compatibilism instead of the idea of the unfettered “freedom of the will.”

While Cassian did give glory to God for performing the “main share” or “chief share” in man’s salvation, he credits man with the ability to produce goodwill towards God out of his own nature. He overestimates the spiritual ability of sinful man. 

Cassian is committed to a view of man’s free will, as something given by God, which God would never “violate.”  It flows, logically, from Cassian’s exalted view of man’s nature to then argue man might originate, if not consummate, saving faith from within himself. This error culminates in Cassian’s rejection of predestination, in effect robbing God of His sovereign and eternal election of the saints and leading him to instead defend an almost unfettered free will.

While this isn’t exactly the same as the Calvinist vs. Arminian debates, there are similar themes. The great minds and the great men of our theological tradition, like Augustine, have much to teach us. And exploring the nature of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and man’s actions and salvation is always a necessary and fruitful field of study for the Christian. Regardless of where one lands, I trust we can all agree with the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10, together proclaiming:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Originally published at the Standing for Freedom Center. 

William Wolfe served as a senior official in the Trump administration, both as a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon and a director of legislative affairs at the State Department. Prior to his service in the administration, Wolfe worked for Heritage Action for America, and as a congressional staffer for three different members of Congress, including the former Rep. Dave Brat. He has a B.A. in history from Covenant College, and is finishing his Masters of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Follow William on Twitter at @William_E_Wolfe

Was this article helpful?

Help keep The Christian Post free for everyone.

By making a recurring donation or a one-time donation of any amount, you're helping to keep CP's articles free and accessible for everyone.

We’re sorry to hear that.

Hope you’ll give us another try and check out some other articles. Return to homepage.

Most Popular

More In Opinion