To correctly answer the question, “Was it not possible for Peter to have done anything other than what he did?” one must have a biblical understanding of free will and predestination. While both terms are found in Scripture as compatible realities, they are actually difficult to put together.1 Putting together Peter’s denial of Christ and Christ’s foreknowledge of Peter’s denial can be problematic if one has a deficient view of free will and predestination. Hence, it would be necessary to have a biblical understanding of free will and predestination that is founded on sound theology and anthropology for one to argue that Peter was bound to deny Christ three times and was personally responsible for his actions.
Dr. Tim Sansbury provided a helpful distinction between inclination and ability that can shed some light on free will. While Peter had the ability or the freedom to not deny Christ three times, his spiritual immaturity caused him to deny Christ. Peter’s “brokenness has borne fruit into an inability not to sin.”2 Hence, given his spiritual immaturity and brokenness, Peter’s denial of Christ was bound to happen. It is important to note that Peter was not forced to deny Christ three times; it was his personal choice. The fact that Peter “wept bitterly” (Lk. 22:62) proves that he knew he was responsible for his actions. Sansbury explains, “Free will is the statement of what we can do. If we had no free will, then we are not responsible for our actions.”3 Furthermore, I believe compatibilism offers an explanation that can remove the tension between free will and predestination. Sansbury notes, “Compatibilism says there are many choices under ‘can’ and only one under ‘would’ because it is your choice.”4 Peter had the “capacity but not the will” to remain faithful to Christ despite the risks involved.5 While he can deny Christ or remain loyal to him, Peter will just do one.6 In this case, he would only deny Christ. Sansbury concludes, “There is no incompatibility between free will and predestination. What we need is not more freedom but a different person who is being free.”7
Moreover, a biblical understanding of the doctrine of God allows one to agree with the statement: “God knows the future exhaustively because he has decreed the future exhaustively.”8 Since Jesus Christ is God, he has the ability to know what Peter would do not just because he is aware of Peter’s frailty but because he is eternal and omniscient. Hence, Jesus’ foreknowledge of Peter’s denial shows how free will and predestination are compatible when they are understood through sound theology and anthropology. Not only is there no tension between them but the Scriptures also show how they both work together to fulfill God’s plans in ways that magnify His sovereignty even over the sinful actions of man. Frame concludes, “So it is not the control of God over our actions that compromise our responsibility. Rather, it is worldviews that deny God’s control and affirm libertarian freedom that destroy our responsibility. God’s control supports our responsibility, by providing a personal context in which alone our choices can have meaning.”9
I believe this understanding can provide a biblical worldview that enables pastors like me to minister to people who cannot seem to reconcile free will and predestination. Furthermore, it can equip the church to engage in apologetics in a way that is not threatened by complex issues that atheists use to discredit the Christian faith.
1 Tim Sansbury, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL. Lesson 3, August 9, 2019.
2 Tim Sansbury, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL. Lesson 18, December 22, 2020.
3 Tim Sansbury, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL. Lesson 3, August 9, 2019.
8 Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 253.
9 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2008), 47.