Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition

I recently received the following inquiry about an alleged problem for Calvinism:

This problem is explained in a new book I’ve been reading, The Challenges of Divine Determinism, by Peter Furlong (a theist who’s agnostic about the reality of divine determinism). Furlong calls this problem the problem of contrition, which lies in the observation that (to put the basic point briefly and crudely) in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did, and so one’s will must be in some sense aligned against God’s to repent. Of course no Christian wants his will to oppose God’s.

A very interesting challenge! Some thoughts in response (bearing in mind that I haven’t read Furlong’s book):

1. Calvinists routinely distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will.1 The first concerns God’s eternal decree, which infallibly comes to pass, while the second reflects God’s commands for mankind as an expression of his holiness. Thus, God willed preceptively that Joseph’s brothers would not sin against him, but he willed decretively that they would do so (hence Gen. 50:20). As such, we should clarify that when we say “and so God willed one to sin,” we’re speaking specifically of God’s decretive will. There’s no opposition to God’s preceptive will implied here; on the contrary, the reason we wish we hadn’t sinned is precisely because our sins are contrary to God’s preceptive will!

The Repentant St. Peter (Goya)2. Having drawn this distinction, we can be more precise about the challenge posed. The alleged problem is that in order to be truly contrite, one must wish that God had decreed otherwise than he did in fact decree. But why exactly is this problematic? Would so wishing imply that God made some kind of mistake in decreeing as he did? Would it imply that God shouldn’t have decreed what he did? That doesn’t follow at all, as far as I can see. Presumably God could have decreed otherwise than he did (i.e., God had alternatives open to him; nothing necessitated what he actually decreed) and if God had decreed otherwise, he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.2 Wishing that God had decreed otherwise needn’t imply any deficiency on God’s part (e.g., that God could have decreed something better than what he actually decreed).

3. It strikes me that if there is a problem here, it isn’t a problem merely for contrition but for any counterfactual wishing. Suppose my favored candidate loses the election and I think to myself, “I really wish Jones had won.” If God decreed that Jones would lose, my wishing that Jones had won implies that I wish God had decreed otherwise! So if there really is a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with contrition per se.

4. What’s more, if this is a problem, it isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. Molinists also hold that God has an infallible decree, albeit one conditioned by God’s middle knowledge. So if a Molinist truly wishes that he hadn’t sinned, he is also wishing that God had decreed otherwise (specifically, that God had “weakly actualized” some other “feasible world,” some possible world in which he doesn’t commit the sin in question).

5. Christ’s wrestling in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-44) may be instructive here. Surely in some sense Jesus wished that his Father’s will were otherwise, otherwise his prayers in the garden make little sense. Jesus knew perfectly well that it was his Father’s settled will for him to go to the cross, but he still desired that things be otherwise. Was this a wrongful desire on Jesus’s part? Surely not! (Note that one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to appreciate this point.)

Obviously I don’t offer this as an example of contrition, only as a case of someone non-sinfully wishing that God had willed otherwise. Of course, Christ obediently subordinated his (entirely understandable) desire not to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the will of his Father. In the end, Christ’s overriding wish was to do his Father’s will. (Praise God!) But that doesn’t mean his other desires weren’t genuine desires.

6. Reflecting on it further, I’m not sure this is even a strictly theological problem, because one can formulate non-theological versions of the problem of contrition. Suppose a young man has premarital sex with his girlfriend. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter whom the man loves dearly. In fact, the couple decide to get married and raise the girl together. Later on, the man experiences a religious conversion and becomes convicted that premarital sex is morally wrong. Should he sincerely wish that he hadn’t engaged in premarital sex? In some sense, yes. But if he hadn’t done what he did, his daughter would never have been born. So is he implicitly wishing that his daughter had never been born? Presumably not!

This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have wishes with logically inconsistent implications (or alternatively, to coherently wish for what isn’t possible). I think it is, although a defense of that claim will have to wait for another occasion. The only point I’m making is that the problem of contrition, if a problem at all, isn’t a problem for divine determinists alone. It can be turned into a problem for everyone. Conversely, if it isn’t really a problem in general, there’s no reason to think it’s a problem for Calvinists in particular.

  1. For a robust exegetical defense of the distinction, see this classic article by John Piper.
  2. It’s true that some Calvinists have taken a necessitarian position with respect to God’s decree, but that isn’t an essential tenet of Calvinism simpliciter.

2 thoughts on “Calvinism and the Problem of Contrition”

  1. I’d like to add a further reply, which is really a way of building on the example you give in (6). It concerns this part of the argument:

    “in order to repent for one’s sins in the fullest way, one must wish to have never sinned in the first place–but if divine determinism is true, and so God willed one to sin, this means that one must wish that God had not willed what He did…”

    That implicitly assumes something like a closure principle. There is a movement from

    (1) I sinned by doing X


    (2) God willed that I sinned by doing X.

    If divine determinism is true (with proper qualifications about what “willing” means so that equivocation is avoided), (1) entails (2). But entailment is not identity: (1) is not the same proposition as (2). So the argument assumes something like the following principle: if I wish that (1) had not been true, and (1) entails (2), then I must also wish that (2) had not been true. That is, the argument assumes that “wishing that something had not been true” is closed under entailment.

    This assumption is false. “Wishing that X had not been true,” like “believing that X” or “desiring that X” are what philosophers call intensional contexts, which means that you cannot substitute (even necessarily) co-referring terms (terms with the same extension, or propositions with the same truth-conditions) and preserve truth. I can desire to have lunch with the smartest person I know; the smartest person might be the smelliest person, and I may know that; but it does not follow that I desire to have lunch with the smelliest person I know. The same applies even when the relationship is a necessary one (like entailment). That’s a bit harder to see with examples; mathematical ones perhaps serve best. Suppose I really wished that 19+16 were 29, because that would mean I was 29 years old instead of 35 (as I do the math from my birthday to the present day). What I wish is a necessary falsehood, and as such entails everything, including that Steph Curry is 8 feet tall; it doesn’t follow that I wish that Steph Curry was 8 feet tall.

    Another way to putting this same point: “Wishing that,” like all propositional attitudes, is sensitive to descriptions. I can both wish and fail to wish the same state of affairs under different propositional descriptions.

    All that is to say: I can wish that I had not sinned, recognize that if I sinned then God willed that I sin, without thereby also wishing that God had not willed that I sin. I can deplore and wish otherwise my past action under the description “my sin,” without deploring and wishing it otherwise under the description “God’s will.” Equivalently: I can deplore one aspect of the situation (that it is MY SIN), while celebrating another (that it is God’s will).

    So even if it is true that both (a) I should never wish God’s will to be otherwise and (b) repentance requires wishing my sin to be otherwise, divine determinism doesn’t imply that if I wish my sin to be otherwise, I must also wish God’s will to be otherwise.

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