How (or Why) Does God Know the Future?

Arminians and even some Calvinists (along with those who claim to be neither) may struggle with the concept of God’s “meticulous sovereignty” (also sometimes referred to as “exhaustive sovereignty”). The Reformed confessions state that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” Despite the evidence from verses such as Ephesians 1:11 and Matthew 10:29 indicating this to be the case, many people resist this idea. However, all orthodox Christians agree that God is both omniscient and omnipotent.

I have found James P. Boyce to be a helpful guide in explaining why God’s omniscience and omnipotence necessitate his exhaustive sovereignty over all events. In particular, one paragraph from Chapter XIII, Section IV of his Abstract of Systematic Theology. I have quoted that paragraph below, breaking up some of the sentences and attempting to restate them in my own words, because Boyce’s writing from the 1880’s can be a little bit hard to follow for some of us “modern” folks. Hopefully my words are a faithful representation of what Boyce said in his own words.

But whence is God’s knowledge of the futurity of any events, except from the knowledge of his purpose, to cause or permit them to come to pass? 

Having established (in Chapter 9) that God “knows all the past, present, and future of all things,” Boyce now seeks to address the question of how God knows the future.  The answer, he says, is that God’s knowledge of future events can only come from His knowledge of His own purpose in causing or allowing the events.  

The knowledge of the futurity of any event, over which any one has absolute control, is the result of his purpose, not its cause. And, as God has such absolute control over all things, his knowledge that they will be, must proceed from his purpose that they shall be. 

If a person has absolute control over a future event (as God does), then that event will only take place if He allows (or causes) it to take place.  In other words, a future event only becomes certain when the one with absolute control over the event chooses to cause or permit the event to occur.  If the event is under His absolute control (and it is), then the event will not occur without His purpose in causing or permitting it.  In other words, the purpose must precede the knowledge.  God does not first have knowledge of a future event and then incorporate it into his purpose.  The purpose comes first, and the knowledge flows out of the purpose.

It cannot be from mere perception of their nature, for he gives that nature, and in determining to give it, determines what it shall be, and thus determines the effects which that nature will cause. 

Nor is it from mere knowledge of the mutual relations which will be sustained by outward events or beings, for it is he that establishes these relations for the accomplishment of his own purposes. 

Having established the source of God’s knowledge of future events, Boyce addresses two alternative explanations for the source of God’s omniscience.  The first is that God knows what will happen in the future because of his intimate knowledge of the actors who will bring the events to pass.  In other words, God knows what Joe Smith will do because He has perfect knowledge of Joe Smith’s nature, and knows what Joe Smith will freely choose to do in any and every circumstance.  Similarly, God knows the nature of wind and water, and sun and moon, and all of creation, and so He has knowledge of all future events due to this knowledge of the nature that produces these events.

The second alternative, similar to the first, is that God’s knowledge of future events is derived from his knowledge of the relationships between the actors and events that occur throughout history. In other words, God perceives the “chain reaction” set into motion by His creative act (and other acts where He directly intervenes in history), and thereby knows what other events will occur as a result.

However, in both cases, the nature of every created being and the relations between beings and events were given by God, so these alternative explanations do nothing to explain God’s knowledge of future events outside of His purposes.

To say that this nature and these relations are from God, and are not from his purpose, is in the highest degree fatalistic, for it would involve that they originate in some necessity of the nature of God, because of which he must give them existence without so willing, and even against his will. 

If one were to object, saying that the nature and relations that God created and established do not arise from His purpose, then the alternative would be that the nature and relations that came from God “had to be,” due to some essential aspect of God’s nature.  Thus, in an attempt to avoid ascribing God’s knowledge of future events to His eternal purpose (in a vain attempt to preserve libertarian “free will”), one has devised an even more fatalistic framework wherein God himself is bound out of necessity to create a world that leads to a known future.

In this way alone could God be said to know, and yet not to purpose them. His knowledge would arise from knowledge of his nature, and of what that nature compels him to do, and not from knowledge of his purpose and of his will involved in that purpose. This, and this alone, would make equally certain and known what will come to pass, without basing that knowledge upon his purpose; 

Boyce perceives no other option that would preserve God’s knowledge of all future events without having purposed for those events to occur.  The only alternative is to claim that the certainty of all future events arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, and thus it is God’s knowledge of Himself that is the source of His knowledge of all future events.

but it would not only be destructive of his free agency and will, but, from the nature of necessity, would make the outward events eternal and prevent the existence of time, and the relation to it of all things whatsoever.

As was noted previously, by linking God’s knowledge of future events to an essential aspect of His nature (rather than His purpose), free agency and free will are destroyed; however, this also gives rise to yet another problem.  If the certainty of an event depends on a necessary aspect of God’s nature, then the event cannot be a future event.  If the event arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, then the event must always exist; it can never “not be,” since it arises as a necessity out of His nature.  Therefore, all events are eternal and the passage of time cannot exist.

Soteriological Summary


Grace is optional.  Man is inherently capable of obeying God.  As the first man, Adam typified the choice that every human makes to obey or disobey God.  His “original sin” was simply the first sin, and sets a bad example for the rest of humanity, but did not change the subsequent nature of mankind or destroy man’s ability to obey.  As the “second Adam,” Jesus sets a good example of a man who consistently obeyed God.  Jesus’ death on the cross is not necessary for man’s redemption, but represents the ultimate act of selflessness to inspire man to endure suffering and sacrifice his own desires.

Analogy:  A man is swimming in the ocean.  He can make the decision to swim to safety, where God stands on the shore calling, or he can ignore God and stay out in the water where he will eventually drown.


Grace is necessary, in part.  Man is inherently capable of hearing God’s voice and choosing to obey, but his ability to actually obey has been damaged (the result of inheriting a corrupted nature from Adam).  In response to man’s decision to obey, God extends his grace to enable man to obey.

Analogy: A man is close to drowning in the ocean.  If he tries to swim to shore, he will in fact drown.  He sees and hears God on the shore, and he calls out to God for help.  In response, God provides a life jacket so that the man may safely swim to shore.


Grace is necessary, but not sufficient.  As a result of Adam’s sin, man now has a sin nature that is so thoroughly corrupted that he has lost all ability to please God.  However, God in his grace, has extended prevenient grace to all men, effectively counteracting total depravity, leaving man still depraved (totally depraved, in and of himself), but now with the undeserved (and foreign to his own nature) ability to respond to God’s gift of salvation.  Man can choose to accept God’s grace, receive a new nature, and rely on God’s grace for salvation, or he can choose to reject God’s grace and remain in (or, at a later date, return to) his depraved condition.

Analogy: A man is drowning in the ocean, and has lost consciousness.  God awakens the man, places him on a lifeboat and begins pulling the man to shore.  As long as the man does not intentionally get off the lifeboat, he will be saved.

Calvinism (aka Augustinianism)

Grace is necessary and sufficient.  As a result of Adam’s sin, man now has a sin nature that is so thoroughly corrupted that he has lost all ability to please God.  The only way for man to respond positively to God is for God to replace the dead heart of stone with a new nature, a nature that is inherited from Jesus instead of Adam.  As a result of God’s regeneration, those whom God has elected will freely respond in obedience to God.

Analogy: A man has drowned in the ocean.  God sends Jesus to breathe new life into the man and carry him to shore.

Combating Semi-Pelagianism

Some thoughts from Arminian theologian Roger Olsen about what other non-Calvinists should (and shouldn’t) believe:

[M]ost American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.  Classical Arminianism strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work.

[C]lassical Arminianism agrees with Calvinism that a sinner is incapable of making the right decision without the influence of God’s prevenient grace.

Classical Arminianism says there is no point in salvation where the sinner-being-saved is autonomous. Arminius talked about it in terms of “instrumental cause” and “efficient cause.” God’s grace is always the efficient cause of any good that we do. Our free will, enabled and assisted by God’s grace, is the instrumental cause of conversion.

[C]lassical Arminianism affirms the necessity of supernatural assisting grace for any good that a person does including the first exercise of a good will toward God.

[W]hat we should all be criticizing is the rampant popular semi-Pelagianism of American folk religion.

taken from Roger Olson’s blog and comments at“a-statement-of-the-traditional-southern-baptist-understanding-of-gods-plan-of-salvation-“


Calvinism in John 3

Recently, I was reading a passage from the third chapter of John, home of the world’s most familiar verse, and was struck by several verses that reflect God’s sovereignty in the choice of his elect.

Verse 19 says, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

The contrasting verse is verse 21, which says, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

It seems to me that this is not a case of men seeing the light of Christ and then evaluating how they should respond.  It’s not like they were presented a choice and could go either way.  On the contrary, their response was predetermined by who they were.

Those who love the darkness do so because they are evil doers.  Those who accept Christ do not become lovers of truth as a result of coming into the light; rather, they come into the light because God has awakened them to the truth.

Going back up to verse 8 (and preceding), Jesus compares the Spirit (Gr., pneuma) with wind (also pneuma).  He says that a re-born spirit is the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is like the wind in that it “blows wherever it pleases.”  The main point is that spiritual rebirth is a very real thing despite the mechanism being unseen.  However, the passage also implies that the Spirit is not only the “mechanism” that does the regeneration, but also the reason why regeneration takes place.

John 3:16 (and 15) is frequently read as if belief is the criteria for being born again, which is in turn the criteria for eternal life.  However, that is not what Jesus said.  He simply said that those who believe will have eternal life.  I contend that it makes more sense in the context of the chapter to think that those who have been born again are those who will believe.  In other words, spiritual rebirth is the criteria for belief, not the other way around.

A Tense Calvinist

My wife likes to say that she is a “Calvinist with tension.”  I’ve been thinking recently about what that means.  Of course, she would be the best person to explain the meaning of what she says, but I’m more given to precise definitions than she is, so I’m going to delve into my thoughts about it.  Who knows, maybe she will adopt my definition and incorporate it into her meaning!

A necessary component of developing precise definitions is understanding how people interpret the things they hear.  I’m going to make some assumptions about what people think about a “Calvinist with tension,” but the most helpful thing would be for you to tell me what you think when you hear this.

One of the things I assume people hear in this statement is a distinction from a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist or a militant Calvinist who is completely unwilling to listen to objections or arguments from another point of view and thinks non-Calvinists are either uninformed, deceived, or worse.  That sort of Calvinist does not feel any tension; instead, they are rigid in their beliefs.  I would say that this understanding is, at least in part, a proper part of what it should mean to be a “Calvinist with tension.”

It’s also possible that hearers may interpret this as saying, “I consider myself a Calvinist, but there are aspects of Calvinism that I have doubts about.”  The understanding here is that the speaker favors Calvinism over other formulations, but isn’t really satisfied that Calvinism has the right answers.  While this is probably true for some people, I do not think this is a good understanding of what I would mean if I said I was a Calvinist with tension.  I think this understanding infers that the speaker is a Calvinist “for lack of a better option.”  If someone could show them a system that relieved their “tension” (doubts about Calvinism), they would gladly accept this other system in lieu of Calvinism.

In contrast, I would not define “tension” as doubts, but as a realization that some aspects of Calvinism may be difficult to grasp (not only for others, but for myself!).  I understand why people might have objections to Calvinism, and I recognize that some of these objections stem from principles that are true.  There are not always simple, cut-and-dried explanations that are satisfying.  It’s not a matter of a simple proof-text for all issues.  The tension comes from the very real need to reconcile things that are true that seem to be at odds with each other.

I think that an intellectually honest Arminian must also be an “Arminian with tension.”  This need not mean that they are not convinced of the truth of Arminianism.  It means that they don’t see objections as smoke-screens or man-made resistance to their position.  Instead, they recognize that a human explanation of divine truth may not be satisfactory to everyone.  There is limitation on both ends, in the human who gives the explanation and the human who listens to the explanation.

I believe that Calvinist positions are faithful to what the Bible teaches, but there is a tension between two (or more) different directions someone may take on an issue, and it is not always easy to explain how everything fits together.