There is perhaps no more controversial subject within Christianity than that of divine sovereignty and human choices. How can God truly control all things but let people be able to make meaningful decisions for which they are responsible? As this subject bleeds over into soteriology it leads to the great Calvinistic/Arminian divide. Calvinists, on the one hand, based on their understanding of total depravity, see the necessity for unconditional election and irresistible grace. Arminians, conversely, view total depravity differently and believe God elects on the basis of His foreknowledge of human choices. Grace is not irresistible, so says the Arminian, it is prevenient; that is, all people are given enough grace to make free will choices for or against salvation (pp. 14, 132). Alcorn has lived on both sides of these debates, having been saved and nurtured for ten years in a biblically-sound Arminian church. Eventually he moved into the Calvinism camp, but not fully, describing himself as a 4-point and a moderate Calvinist (pp. 21, 34). As a result, he understands the arguments well and writes this book to give clarity to similarities and differences between systems. More importantly, Alcorn makes a plea for graciousness, demonstrating that both sides sit within the sphere of biblical orthodoxy (see p. 27 for the essentials of orthodoxy); neither group is heretical and, while differences remain and are important, we are brothers and sisters in Christ and should treat one another as such.
Alcorn educates his readers concerning the basic beliefs and differences among the various theological systems. Those with a minimal knowledge of Calvinism and Arminianism will benefit from this discussion, aided by helpful charts that lay out the views side by side (pp. 23-25) concerning the broader sovereignty/free will debate (although the author prefers “contrary choice” over free will (pp. 59-61)). Alcorn presents four views: libertarianism (extreme Arminianism, including Open Theism), determinism (hyper-Calvinism), compatiblism (free will can co-existing with determinism) and molinism (God determines human choices through the use of middle knowledge) (see chart pp. 94-96). Chapter five is devoted to detailing these four views, and Alcorn declares himself a compatiblist. The author believes the Bible assumes we make meaningful choices (p. 62) and even renowned Calvinists agree, including Calvin and Grudem (p. 67). On the other hand, Arminians are quoted sounding identical to Calvinists on God’s sovereignty (pp. 68-69), although Alcorn recognizes that there remain differences (p. 72). Alcorn quotes strong Calvinists who see free will and sovereignty as best friends, not enemies, including Spurgeon (p. 97), J.I. Packer (p. 127), A.W. Pink (p. 179), A. Strong (p. 178) and Alexander Maclaren (p. 179). Scripture does not seem to struggle with this apparent paradox as we do (p. 29), for the Bible unashamedly says God allows real choices (pp. 140-149), even evil ones (p. 133), yet remains sovereign. The compatibilists’ position best explains this admitted mystery Alcorn believes (pp. 170-171). It “affirms man’s choices and responsibility and God’s control. No unnecessary suffering. God is actively orchestrating events to work for the good of His children, who make meaningful choices within creaturely limits” (p. 136).
Alcorn does not resolve all tensions in this debate but he offers good balance and much to consider. He rightly observes that most Calvinists live like Arminians (in that they believe they are making real and meaningful choices) and most Arminians pray like Calvinists (in that they believe that God can and will providentially act in response to prayer) (pp. 1, 31, 211). Ultimately, while beyond our understanding, meaningful human choices are compatible with God’s sovereignty (pp. 13, 26, 60).
While neither strong Calvinists nor committed Arminians will be fully pleased with hand in Hand, I believe it provides the most understandable treatise on this subject I have read. It will be my go-to book for those desiring a fundamental understanding of the pertinent issues.
Hand in Hand, the Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice by Randy Alcorn (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2014) 230 pp., paper $14.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher Southern View Chapel