The Calvinistic doctrine of predestination states that God has chosen who will live and who will die. That Christians are unconditionally elected for salvation or damnation.

However, how does this fit the idea of Free Will? If it's God that is choosing whether we turn to him or not, do we not really have free will?

(Please, Calvinistic views only.)

  • "Calvinistic views only"? So you have your answer already... :)
    – Click Ok
    Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 14:08
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    @ClickOk The point of asking questions and requesting answers from a specific point if view is to get a good understanding of that view. Asking this question didn't mean Richard is a Calvinist any more than my asking my Muslim neighbors about their faith makes me a Muslim. Questions on this site are only to learn about views, not to make determinations about which views are right and which wrong.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 19:40
  • @Caleb: You don't understood me. I'm stating that Calvinist view about that subject is "A". Another views are "B", "C", "D"... If he asks the Calvinist view, the answer is "A", indenpendetly if it's right or wrong. I've put the ":)" smiley on the end to show a "just kidding" air to comment, see?
    – Click Ok
    Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 22:40
  • @Caleb: I'm studing a bit about Calvinists to know about "hipercalvinistes", "moderated calvinists", "etc"... but I have nothing against, instead, I think that if I study a bit more maybe I turn myself a calvinist too!
    – Click Ok
    Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 22:42
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    @ClickOk I'm not asking "Does the Calvinist doctrine of predestination mean that they believe in predestination?" I'm asking how they reconcile this belief with another belief I hold (free will). I'm not asking for definition. I think I made that completely obvious.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 11:36

4 Answers 4


First of all, Calvinists do believe in free will. This point is often mis-understood by non-Calvinists; but the position that men don't actually have free will and control over their own choices is not Calvinism but hyper-Calvinism -- a deterministic view that goes far beyond that of it's namesake Calvin and the general constituency.

With that out of the way, the most important thing about the Calvinistic understanding of free will is that men are free to make choices, but only capable of making choices according to their nature. We can make any choice we like inside the scope of the kind of beings that we are but cannot make choices outside the scope of that nature or that defy it.

This is essentially the same sense in which we are limited physically. As humans we have finite power. The ability to levitate or spontaneously generate fire is reserved for the heroes of the Silver Screen. As humans we can affect our surroundings only insofar as we have the power to do so. But that power cannot change our nature. We can choose to eat healthy and exercise and not jump in front of moving trains -- and thus possibly extend our lives -- but we are still mortal and we cannot prevent our own eventual death. Whether through old age or sickness, we will die. Statistics are clear on this point. Our free will may allow us to live longer than if we had made other choices, but it will not allow us to not die at all. It is according to our nature.

In a similar sense, Calvinists believe that man has free will and is sovereign over the aspects of his life insofar as he has been granted these rights by God. However, we believe that man is, by nature, dead in sin. This means that it is not within the realm of possibility to "choose" salvation. A sick man may choose to take medicine and thus affect his own healing, but a dead man can do nothing to change his fate. This is the doctrine of total depravity and outside the scope of this question.

Calvinists believe that God is sovereign over salvation. That is his domain and for him alone to choose. The how that God chose to use, however, is quite interesting. First he extends us Grace. He sent his Son, he paid the price, he made a propitiation, he died for the ungodly, he ... he ... he. Then he holds all this out in front of us and he calls us. This call may be heard by many but only those who have been chosen are given the grace to respond to it, and through the hearing of the call are given faith and literally made into new beings -- resurrected from death to life -- born again as spiritual sons. This birth process isn't something we choose, it's something that is done for us. It's grace: unmerited favor. Something we could not do and would not choose to do had not God done something on our behalf first.

Calvinists may believe that God predestines people to be saved but they believe that man's limited scope means that we don't know who those people are. Furthermore as recipients of Grace we are called to share this news -- this free grace -- the Gospel, with all. We don't only preach to some. We preach it to all. Who God chooses to change into people that respond to the call is his business, but our business is inform everyone of the choice. Jesus called people to make choices, so do we.

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    Wow, this answers it very clearly. Thanks so much!
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 13:35
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    +1 for a great answer to something that I as an Arminianist have a lot of difficulty understanding objectively. In your statement ".. but they believe that man's limited scope means that we don't know who those people are.", how widespread/official/orthodox is this? I ask because many Calvinists that I have talked to seemed to be pretty certain both of their own election and of the status of many others. Is this merely enthusiasm or misunderstanding on their part (or my part) or is it a doctrinal difference among Calvinists? Commented Nov 11, 2013 at 20:13
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    Thanks for explaining this clearly, I now see how Calvinists do believe in free will. It seems to me that most Christians would not disagree that God extends different levels of mercy to different people (Matt 11:23), but Calvinists take it further to mean that to some, mercy is not extended at all. Is my simplistic view correct?
    – Beestocks
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 16:44
  • @Beestocks, I would say yes. Romans 9 deals with this exact issue.
    – Matt Davis
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 15:39
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    @RBarryYoung We may have strong evidence to cause us to believe after the fact, but none of us know before the fact. If I have a bag of seeds and plant them, some of them will grow into full plants, others will not. When they are grown, I can know that seed succeeded. Before I planted them, I had no idea which would grow. So, I must plant them all. God already knows which will grow, but because I don't, I must work to give them every chance. The Bible teaches evidence of salvation after salvation, but nothing of how to tell before they are saved.
    – DKing
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 16:26

In Calvinism, it's a paradox. God absolutely chooses whether a person can be saved, but a person is also responsible for his choice to serve and obey God.

Obviously, it's crazy to deny any free will at all - Christian or Non-Christian, we make choices every day, some good and some bad. Total Depravity tells us that we will always (and effectively this means we can can only) make bad choices left to our own devices. See Romans 8:5-8 (NIV):

5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

So we do have a sort of free-will (a limited free will, really, that limits us to doing evil). Calvinism differs from Arminianism in that Arminianism holds that the decision to serve Christ isn't a work but a choice, and hence the above passage doesn't preclude people from choosing Christ, even though they do have sinful inclinations.

Then, once God has enlightened our minds with the Gospel and given us His Spirit, we have more free will - to do good and to do evil - but we are to remind ourselves that we ARE God's children and should limit ourselves to doing good only (as we were limited to doing evil before we believed): Romans 6:16 - 18:

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

In summary for your question, we can't use what free will we have to turn to God (according to Calvinism), since we're using all of our free will to rebel against God. God must do all of the work. If this seems unfair, consider that all deserve God's Wrath and yet God chooses to save any at all.

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    You wrote, "Obviously, it's crazy to deny any free will at all - Christian or Non-Christian, we make choices every day, some good and some bad." That is begging the question, a common logical fallacy. You are concluding that which you have to prove by restating it ("We have free will" = "we make choices"). Since you mentioned Non-Christians, I thought I would speak up for non-Christian determinists who don't believe in free will. It's not only not "crazy", it is a defensible philosophical position, and, in my view, the correct one.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 1:40
  • @Chelonian, the questioner writes "Please, Calvinistic views only." Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 16:50
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    @ThomasLHoladay I know, that's why I didn't provide an actual answer along these lines, merely a comment in which I correct a misstatement in an answer. This correction could help clarify the general concept of free will so that discussion of it in regards Calvinist doctrine is more fruitful. For example, if one dismisses the idea of determinism as "crazy", then it rather confines the discussion of Calvinist predestination to only a "free will version" of it. But that would be premature and unfounded by references. Instead, one should be open to the possibility of a determinist Calvinism.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 17:03
  • Having read "Bondage of the Will" by Martin Luther, I think our definition of free will is off ... Check it out, I think it's a must-read for Christians.
    – SonShawk
    Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 1:42
  • According to this answer the Calvinistic view is strongly contradicted by the Bible in many places. God does NOT choose who is being saved and who is not. God explicitly made the gift of salvation available to everyone. This is clearly stated in multiple passages in the Bible. And it is also stated that it is man's freewill to accept this gift or not.
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 15:38

According to the definition of free will that you provide, Calvinists do not believe in free will. The basic text for this question is Calvin's Treatise against Pighius, but it is also addressed in his Institutes:

7. That man is necessarily, but without compulsion, a sinner establishes no doctrine of free will

In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion... (Institutes 2:2:7)

Calvin here outlines two definitions of free will:

  • Definition 1: Man acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion.
  • Definition 2: Man can freely choose between good and evil.

Calvin accepts the first definition and rejects the second. Your question asked about the freedom to be able to turn to God, which is a good act. For Calvin, fallen man does not have this freedom and therefore does not have free will as understood by your question. In general Calvin eschews the label "free will," as is seen in the same section of the Institutes.

Definition 1 may give the impression that Calvin understood our acts to be free in the colloquial sense of libertarian free will, but this would be a mistaken impression. Calvin believed that the will was necessitated--that every act of human will was necessary and could not be otherwise than it in fact was. That was his battle cry against Pighius: the will is necessitated but not coerced. For Calvin, necessitation by external forces is coercion, but necessitation by internal forces is not. So while he believed that our actions are fully determined by our nature and inclinations, because these things are not external to us no coercion occurs. Pighius retorted with common sense that if our acts are necessary and thus unable to be changed, then they are not free. (Cf. Bondage and Liberation in Calvin's Treatise against Pighius and Did Calvin believe in Freewill?, each by Anthony N.S. Lane)


Im very impressed with Caleb's explanation of God's Sovereignty and Calvinism as opposed to hyper-Calvinism and those who hold to Man's Free Will choice. God has put it into my heart to delve into this apparent paradox for the last few years. Ive heard the TULIP view and the Man's Free Will views. Both have support in the Scriptures, and both can be taken to a hyper extreme to the point where they become useless.

H.A. Ironside, {In the Heavenlies (Ephesians), pages 27-28} handles this apparent paradox with his Door to Salvation analogy. Its purpose is to find a way to simplify this debate, but as with most analogies do, loses some of the resolution along the way. Caleb helps with that loss of signal integrity.

I cannot improve Caleb's comments, but I can hopefully add another perspective. That being that the doctrine of Sovereignty is best taught to believers as a blessing to know that their salvation is secure, and that the responsibility of who we shall serve is a call to those who have ears to hear the call of God so that they can exercise their faith through grace. Everything God does is done with love, grace and mercy. At judgement day, no one will be able to righteously claim that God was not just. Now human "fairness" is not exactly aligned with God's plan. For His ways are not Man's.

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