The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God

June 5, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

God’s Omniscience (Part 2)

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

In the previous article, God’s omniscience—including His self-knowledge; His knowledge of everything past, present, and future; and His hypothetical or middle knowledge (the knowledge of all things possible)—was addressed. In this article, the issue of man’s free will in light of God’s foreknowledge will be discussed.

It bears mention at this point that not all theologians agree that God is fully omniscient and that He knows the future. There have been a small minority of theologians who have offered other views, stating that God knows all the past and present, but only knows what happens as events take place, and doesn’t know the future. Some have stated that God knows all that is possible to know, but state that there are some things that are not possible for Him to know. These theories contradict what both the Old and New Testament have to say about God’s knowledge. As shown from scriptures in the previous article (God’s Omniscience, Part One), God’s knowledge encompasses all things—past, present, and future.

Theologians throughout history have agreed that God is omniscient, knowing past, present, and future, in accordance with what Scripture says. They also agree that, according to Scripture, humans can make free choices—that they have what is commonly called free will, which allows them to freely choose their actions.

The question, however, arises: If God has foreknowledge of what choices humans will make in the future, does His foreknowledge make the choices certain and therefore not really free choices? Christian denominations today have, in general terms, two different ways of looking at this question. I say “in general terms” because there is some divergence of opinion among believers even within the same denominations.

Generally speaking, there are those who believe that God knows the future and everything everyone will do, but that His foreknowledge does not mean that He is determining what they will do; rather, He simply knows in advance what free choice they are going to make, because He knows the future. His knowledge of what they are going to do in no way interferes with or affects their choices. Thus man has free will. The common term for this point of view is Arminianism, or the Arminian point of view, named after Jacob Arminius (1560–1609).

The second general point of view is that God knows what is going to happen in the future because He has, since before the world was created, ordained or decreed everything that is going to happen in each person’s life. Thus God has foreknowledge because of His foreordination of all events. This belief holds that even though God has foreordained the choices individuals make, humans freely choose what God has foreordained them to do. According to this position, humans make willing choices and aren’t aware of any restraints by God on their decision making, even though those restraints exist. The name of this point of view is Calvinism, named after John Calvin (1509–1564), one of the most influential Protestant reformers. It is also called the Reformed position.

I will only touch on these two general outlooks in brief in this article, as these two differing views have much more to do with God’s providence and whether God predetermines who is going to get saved and who isn’t, and are discussed at length in a subsequent article. Both the Calvinist/Reformed position and the Arminian position use the Bible to back up their beliefs, and both have full theological explanations for why they believe as they do. I am not presenting their positions in full, nor the Bible verses they use to support their positions, as those are incorporated into subsequent articles.

In this article I quote theologians from both positions. They both state, in so many words, that their positions are scriptural. In reading some of the quotes below, it is clear that there is disagreement. However, in spite of the disagreement, both positions believe in salvation by grace, that Jesus is the only way to salvation, as well as all of the other major Christian doctrines.

The Calvinist Position

John Calvin took the position he did regarding God’s foreordination because of his strong emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty. As Calvin saw it, God must control all things because He is sovereign, and if He’s not in control of all things, then He’s not sovereign. In articulating his understanding of God’s foreordination, he expresses that God is the primary cause of all that happens on earth, but He causes things to happen in a way that is hidden and thus it’s not evident that He caused it. To an observer, there is something else that caused it, which he calls the secondary cause. An example of this would be rain. The Bible says God brings the rain. Science says that rain is caused by the laws of nature—that water evaporates, forms into clouds, grows heavy and eventually falls to the earth as rain. Calvin would say that both things are true: the rain is caused 100% by God and 100% by the laws of nature.

Wayne Grudem, a Reformed theologian, explains it as follows:

The divine cause of each event works as an invisible, behind-the-scenes, directing cause, and therefore could be called the “primary cause” that plans and initiates everything that happens. But the created thing brings about actions in ways consistent with the creature’s own properties, ways that can often be described by us or by professional scientists who carefully observe the processes. These creaturely factors and properties can therefore be called the “secondary” causes of everything that happens, even though they are the causes that are evident to us by observation.[1]

When applied to human actions, this doctrine means that all things that people do are foreordained by God as the primary cause, and that people do what God has foreordained. However, they have no awareness that they are doing these things due to the primary cause. Even though they feel they are doing these actions of their own volition, they are actually the secondary cause. Nevertheless, they are held accountable for their actions.

Many who disagree with this doctrine, myself included, say that Calvinism comes very close to saying that God is responsible for the sins people commit, because if it is the case that He foreordains all that people do, then God foreordains people to sin.

Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem makes the following point about the issue of sin and foreordination, which shows that there is some difficulty in the Reformed position as far as explaining God’s role when it comes to sin:

We have to come to the point where we confess that we do not understand how it is that God can ordain that we carry out evil deeds and yet hold us accountable for them and not be blamed Himself: We can affirm that all of these things are true, because Scripture teaches them. But Scripture does not tell us exactly how God brings this situation about or how it can be that God holds us accountable for what He ordains to come to pass. Here Scripture is silent, and we have to agree with Berkhof that ultimately “the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”[2]

According to the Reformed position, God knows the future primarily because He foreordained it, being the primary cause. While Calvinists believe that God knows all the past, present, and future, they differ from the Arminian position on why He knows the future, as they believe He knows it because He decreed all events before the world was created.

In his book What the Bible Says About God the Creator, Jack Cottrell (an Arminian theologian) quotes three Reformed theologians on this point.[3]

What God foreknows is certain, not because He foreknows it, but because of the fact that He has decreed it.—L. S. Chafer[4]

Furthermore, this knowledge does not depend on any foresight, but is according to His own sovereign good pleasure. We know things only because they exist, but for God they come to exist if He has known them first.—Morton Smith[5]

We are up against a problem here, which we cannot fully solve, though it is possible to make an approach to a solution. God has decreed all things, and has decreed them with their courses and conditions in the exact order in which they will come to pass; and His foreknowledge of future things and also of contingent events rests on His decree.—Louis Berkhof[6]

The Arminian Position

Those holding the Arminian position strongly disagree with the Reformed position. When it comes to knowing the future, they believe the reason God knows it is because He is eternal, because He sees all of time at once, not because He ordained all that happens. They do not believe that God has foreordained the actions of every person. If that were the case, then mankind would not in fact have free will. Their position is that people make decisions without interference from God.

Cottrell states:

This [Reformed position] explanation of the foreknowledge of God must be rejected primarily because the concept of an absolutely predetermining eternal decree is not a biblical doctrine and thus cannot be the basis of God’s knowledge of the future.[7]

We conclude that the only view that preserves both the integrity of God’s foreknowledge and the integrity of human free will is the view that God foreknows future contingent choices simply because He is the transcendent God who stands above time and knows all things in an eternal now.[8]

When explaining the differences between the Reformed and Arminian positions, Wayne Grudem gives a very clear explanation of the Arminian position:

Those who hold an Arminian position maintain that in order to preserve the real human freedom and real human choices that are necessary for genuine human personhood, God cannot cause or plan our voluntary choices. Therefore they conclude that God’s providential involvement in or control of history must not include every specific detail of every event that happens, but that God instead simply responds to human choices and actions as they come about and does so in such a way that His purposes are ultimately accomplished in the world.[9]

Foreknowledge and Free Will

God knows the future not because He foreordained or decreed all that is to happen, but because He’s infinite. All of time is present before God. He sees it all at once, and therefore knows all future events before they occur.

William Lane Craig expresses it this way:

I think a better response to this problem is … to say that foreknowledge does not equal foreordination. I think it’s better to say that God knows in advance what choices people will freely make and that the free decisions of human beings determine what foreknowledge God has of them, rather than the reverse. The foreknowledge doesn’t determine the free decisions; rather the free decisions, in effect, determine the foreknowledge.

One way to think about this is that God’s foreknowledge is like an infallible barometer of the weather. Whatever the barometer says, because it’s infallible, you know what the weather will be like. But the barometer doesn’t determine the weather, the weather determines the barometer. God’s foreknowledge is like an infallible barometer of the future. It lets you know what the future is going to be, but it doesn’t in any way constrain the future. The future can happen however free agents want it to happen, but you just can’t escape this infallible barometer, God’s foreknowledge, tracking whatever direction the future will take.[10]

Just because God knows what choices people will make doesn’t mean that He is causing the choices—He simply knows ahead of time the choices they will freely make. Because God knows the future, He knows what choices you will freely make; but His knowing what you are going to do in no way influences your decision. Humans have free will. Their actions are neither decreed nor foreordained.[11]

God has unlimited intellectual capacities—they are greater than all things created, including space or time, things or persons. He knows all things actual and all things possible. He knows our thoughts and intents as well as our actions. He knows everything.

Implications and Applications

God’s omniscience has implications for humanity. One implication is in regard to God’s blessings, such as protection, comfort, supply, and care.

The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward Him.[12]

O Lord, all my longing is before You; my sighing is not hidden from You.[13]

Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love, that He may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.[14]

Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.[15]

Another implication is regarding God’s knowledge of our sins and the evil deeds and intents of the wicked. All men sin, and God knows every sin. For believers, those sins are forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and God says He won’t remember them. This is best understood as His not remembering them against us any longer, because they are forgiven and therefore we won’t be punished in the next life for them.

I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.[16]

There are evil people who think that they are free to do what they want with no consequences, and who think there is no God who will judge them. But God sees their actions and knows their hearts, and in the Day of Judgment they will understand that He has seen and remembered all they have done, even if they felt it was hidden when they did it.

You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, “No one sees me”; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.”[17]

Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”[18]

His eyes are on the ways of a man, and He sees all his steps. There is no gloom or deep darkness where evildoers may hide themselves.[19]

My eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from Me, nor is their iniquity concealed from My eyes.[20]

I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.[21]

When the time comes for God to judge all people, His judgment will be true and right. There will be no need for interpreting actions or intentions, because the omniscient God perfectly understands both, as He knows everything.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New Revised Standard Version (NRS), The New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV).

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press 2000), 319.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press 2000), 330.

[3] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Creator (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 282–83.

[4] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), I: 196.

[5] Morton H. Smith, “The Attributes of God,” p. 372.

[6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 67–68.

[7] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Creator (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 283.

[8] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Creator (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 284.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press 2000), 338.

[10] William Lane Craig, The Doctrine of God, Defenders series, Lecture 7.

[11] There are many more aspects to the discussion of foreordination versus free will which are not covered here but will be addressed in further detail in future articles.

[12] 2 Chronicles 16:9.

[13] Psalm 38:9.

[14] Psalm 33:18–19.

[15] Matthew 6:31–32.

[16] Hebrews 8:12.

[17] Isaiah 47:10.

[18] Isaiah 29:15.

[19] Job 34:21–22.

[20] Jeremiah 16:17.

[21] Revelation 20:12–13.