Can Voluntary Goodness Be Guaranteed

The Moral Government doctrine that God is voluntarily good, that his holiness is a choice that he maintains, rather than a constitutional attribute outside his control, is a doctrine that many people find troubling. It seems to shake people’s confidence in the reliability and trustworthiness of God. In another essay [1] I examine the basis for assurance in God’s character and attempt to show that our confidence in God is not based on a theory of the nature of his holiness, but on its manifestation in what God has said and done.

This doctrine causes such hesitation that even in Moral Government circles writers pause to affirm the implication that voluntary holiness in God means he could sin, even though this is not likely to happen. This essay is an exercise in intellectual honesty whose intention is to examine the credentials of arguments put forth to deny God could sin, even though his holiness is voluntary. It is not our purpose to undermine our confidence in God’s faithfulness, but simply to demonstrate the weakness of arguments of this sort. This essay does not seek to affirm anything about the reliability of God’s holiness, but to deny certain arguments that seek to establish it on other than moral grounds. The reader should refer to the essay referred to in footnote number 1 for an affirmative treatment of this subject.

Argument From Timelessness

It is clear from the writings of Charles Finney he believed holiness was voluntary in God, but denied this meant God could sin. His reason for this conclusion is clear in The Heart Of Truth.

His character, whether holy or sinful, must be unchangeable. As he can have no new thoughts, and consequently no motives of any kind whatever to change. [2]

The reason Finney indicates for denying the possibility of a change of character to God is consistent, but one which 20th Century Moral Government advocates have seen wise to reject. Finney held to the “eternal now” understanding where God is timeless and all his acts, thoughts, and so forth are simply given, frozen in the eternal present. The problems with this view of God’s nature are numerous, as I have indicated elsewhere. [3] Such recourse is not available to those who espouse the Moral Government system as presented by Gordon Olson and others.

Argument From Omniscience

Winkie Pratney draws attention to another reason Finney gave for denying God could sin, one which carries on the surface more feasibility for 20th Century Moral Government advocates who wish to deny the implications of voluntary holiness. Although Finney offered it in the theological context of God’s timelessness, it does not require that belief.

Finney argues for God’s goodness on the basis of his omniscience: “He could not but know all the reasons in favour of benevolence and all the reasons against malevolence. He could not by any possibility be ignorant of the reasons on either side, nor so divert his mind from them as that they should not have their full influence in deciding his character and confirming it forever.” [4]

On the surface, this sounds similar to the Greek belief that sin arises through ignorance. Socrates (and Plato after him) felt man’s basic moral problem was one of knowledge. He did wrongly because he did not understand what was truly good. Each man pursued what he believed was good, but the good man’s belief was correct. This Greek view confused the objective and subjective sides of righteousness. Ignorance does account for objective error in doing good. Even people with pure motives fail to achieve perfect goodness in the objective sense. But Socrates failed to acknowledge that even if a person knew what was right in a given case, he could still intend to do otherwise. If all men meant to do what they thought was right, and acted on this intention, all men would be humanly holy. Sin is not an act of ignorance, but a refusal to do what is perceived as good. This is the subjective side, the side of intention, and is where moral character must be assessed.

Is Finney claiming we sin because we do not know what is right? A cursory reading of Finney’s theology would lead us to conclude this is not his view. Finney believed men were only guilty for what they knew and disobeyed. What then is the meaning of the Pratney quote? It seems clear Finney believed absolute knowledge in God would prevent the sinful choice, implying that temptation tricks us into thinking we will benefit from some forbidden act, and our limited knowledge allows us to believe this lie. It is not that we believe the true good is in a different direction, for if this were the case it would be right to take the different course. Rather, we choose to compromise what we believe to be the true good, for lesser good we feel will be satisfying. After we sin, we feel terrible and the lie is out. It did not give us what we thought it would. Before this we believe a lie of what the temptation promises us, in the face of what we believe we should do. God could not be deceived in this way, because he would have absolute knowledge of the real result of sinning in such a fashion and could not be tricked by the lie.

It seems clear temptation can take this form. We must deny it always does. Many sins seem committed inspite of the belief they are going to be regretted, inspite of the belief the satisfaction is not worth how we will feel after. But the immediate pleasure is offered, and received, even though regret can follow. While God could not be tricked by a lie, would he be incapable of choosing inspite of knowledge, to do the wrong thing for a lesser value than what is the right thing?

Swinburne’s Perfectly Free Being

An attempt to deny this possibility to God, and one which explicates the necessary element in the argument which Finney’s comments leave implicit, is argued by Richard Swinburne in The Coherence Of Theism. Swinburne’s book attempts to demonstrate the concept of God is a coherent one that could have factual application. The discussion which interests us is his description of what it would mean for God to act of his own free will, and his idea that God is “perfectly free.”

To say that of God that he acts freely would seem to be to say at least the same as of man – that God’s actions result from his choice and that his choosing has no full explanation.

However, the theist wishes to say something more about God. He wishes to say that while men are quite obviously influenced, although perhaps not fully determined, by precedent causes, God is quite uninfluenced by such factors. Human choices are obviously influenced by many causal factors, factors which act upon us as it were from without. . . . Such causal factors incline or ‘pull’ us towards doing one action rather than another. It is in such situations that men suffer temptation. Their reason tells them that A is the right action to do, but their body ‘pulls’ them as it were towards not doing A. Yet on our normal understanding of God, no causal factors over which he has no control act from without on God. His freedom is unimpaired by sensual desire or nervous impulses. A person who is not influenced in his choices by any causal factors I will call a perfectly free person. [5]

Additionally setting the stage for us Swinburne stresses that when a person acts freely, he always acts from some motive, be it a reason or an irrational factor.

So an agent has to have some reason if he is to do an action A. . . . If a man has strong sensual desires, it makes sense to suppose that he judges that over all it would be better to refrain from doing A than to do A but nevertheless intentionally does A. . . . But the suggestion that a man might see refraining from A as over all better than doing A, be subject to no non-rational influences inclining him in the direction of doing A and nevertheless do A, is incoherent. [6]

The clincher is when we put the fact of God being perfectly free of all non-rational influences together with this explanation of temptation.

An omniscient person who is also perfectly free will necessarily do right actions and avoid wrong ones – since, . . . he will necessarily do those actions which he believes right and avoid those which he believes wrong, and . . . being omniscient, he will hold true beliefs in this field. [7]

The argument is impressive, and one 20th Century Moral Government advocates might hold. Like them, Swinburne also believes God must be a being of duration, rather than timeless, and that his holiness must be voluntary. But with the introduction of the concept of God being “perfectly free,” Swinburne secures this view of God’s character from the possibility of sinning. God must be perfectly holy since he is perfectly free and uninfluenced by any but rational factors in his decisions. It is this element of being influenced only by reason that is the idea implicit in Finney’s statement, which Swinburne brings out into the light. What are we to make of this?

Is God Only Influenced By Reason?

First, we must be clear what constitutes non-rational factors. Swinburne refers to sensual and nervous impulses, pointing directly to our bodies as their source. Since God is believed to be incorporeal, he would be uninfluenced by such things. It is assumed only physical beings can have emotions and desires. This is the scholastic view that God is impassable, uninfluenced by desire or emotion. God does not feel.

This is not the God displayed in scripture. There God feels, regrets, mourns, rejoices, is jealous, is angered. The Bible shows God as a personal being who has feeling, emotion, and desire, as well as rationality. If God was impassable, Swinburne’s argument might stand. Biblically it does not.

Second, Swinburne seems to fail in his understanding of morality. How could the sense of value and obligation so inherent in moral consciousness arise in a being incapable of feeling? Morality is rational but it is much more than rational. It appears to be the result of our whole rational emotional makeup. Right and wrong seem intertwined with value and good. Without the emotive side, there would be no morality, no goodness in God. God must understand and feel as we do if he is a moral being to whom praise and blame is attributable. If he feels he can be influenced by wrong feeling.

Is God Praiseworthy?

This last point brings out the final problem with Swinburne’s argument. God is an object of worship and praise. Swinburne himself understands such homage is only due to beings who are free in their moral actions. He says:

If P’s choice to do action A is fully explained by a brain state, or by his genetic make-up, or by his upbringing, affecting him in accord with natural laws, then, given the brain state or the genetic make-up or the upbringing, P could not but have chosen as he did – as a matter of physical necessity. In that case he is hardly to blame or praise for doing it. For the ultimate responsibility for what P did is not P’s but goes back much further in time. [8]

To use Swinburne’s terminology, holiness in God is a part of his “genetic makeup.” He cannot help doing good. He does good “of necessity.” Swinburne calls this perfectly free. I call it not so free. Being left with no choice is not freedom. Exactly where God must be free to be praiseworthy, Swinburne has him bound by chains. He is not capable of other action; cannot be influenced by wrong motives. Yet we are to praise him for doing the only thing he could, as if this is worthy of our veneration.

Swinburne would attempt to answer this charge by saying what he denies is praiseworthy is when one acts outside of one’s own intentions. It is intentional action that is praiseworthy or blameworthy, but action caused by brain states or genetics is not truly intentional. This is a fair distinction. Swinburne’s perfectly good being is not caused to act this way, he simply has no other choices. What he chooses, he chooses freely, but he does not have the full range of choices to give him a moral choice. This brings back memories of the Calvinist explanation that man is accountable for his wrongdoing because he chooses freely what he “wants,” even though what he wants is determined by a nature he did not choose. Just as such determination eliminates true blame for the “sinner” it must also remove true praise for God’s “holiness.”

Free Being Or Moral Being?

What Swinburne’s argument really says, as did Luther’s in The Bondage Of The Will [9] concerning the sinner, is that God is free to choose in matters of no moral importance, hence he has freedom. He can only choose the good in matters moral. Hence, he is not free morally. This being the case, as Luther’s sinner is not a moral agent, so Swinburne’s God must be denied the title. Freedom to choose between good and evil is a condition of being a moral agent. Holiness is the free choice of the good, in the presence of the equally possible choice of the evil. Swinburne’s God lacks this, and is not a candidate as a Moral Government solution to the implications of God’s voluntary goodness.

I am unaware of additional arguments that attempt to deny voluntary goodness implies the possibility of sin. Those we have examined do not work. God is good. God is faithful. He is worthy of our highest praise and trust because this is a voluntary disposition that he has exercised for eternity. He is a solid foundation of hope.


1. Assurance Of God’s Faithfulness
2. Finney, Charles G., The Heart Of Truth (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1976), pg. 99.
3. Good, Kel, The Eternal God (unpublished manuscript).
4. Pratney, W.A., The Nature And Character Of God (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1988), pg. 188.
5. Swinburne, Richard, The Coherence Of Theism (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977), pg. 144-145.
6. Ibid, pg. 147-148.
7. Ibid., pg. 202.
8. Ibid., pg. 143.
9. Luther, Martin, The Bondage Of The Will (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1976).

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

Leave a Reply