The more I consider the mysteries of the Christian faith, the more I must admit that there are things that the Bible affirms, that the human mind cannot possibly comprehend in its fulness. The Trinity, for instance, God’s unity and diversity, must be affirmed, but will never be understood. Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot possibly be explained philosophically. To be Christian, we must affirm these complex and amazing doctrines. Another doctrine that is mysterious is God’s kingly sovereignty over mankind, even over all of history.
Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God works all things to the purpose of his will. Logically, if God works all things to the purpose of his will, his will therefore comprehends all of history, and is subservient to his sovereign purposes. And because all history is subservient to God’s purposes, we must also affirm that God’s will includes the free actions of men, both good and evil. And if mankind’s free actions are included in God’s sovereign rule, we must conclude that God can and does use our choices for his greater and more supreme good.
And yet, even though God is sovereign over history, we must also affirm that mankind is free. All men are free in regards to their choices, and are not coerced by God in any way. The choices we all make are genuinely ours, both good and evil. And this means that God holds all men accountable, and judges them accordingly (Heb 9:27). Even Paul affirms this, by saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). Do you see here how Paul worked hard, made free choices, and yet he can say at the end of his life that it was God made him who he was. There is in this verse, both God’s sovereign will, and Paul’s free choices. They do not contradict, nor do they cancel out one another. And so biblically, God’s sovereign will and man’s free choices go hand in hand.
And while many Christians would heartily agree with Paul that God sovereignly brings about good in his people, what about evil? Is God sovereign over evil as well? Can he work through our evil to bring about his good? And if he does work through evil to bring about his good, does this make God complicit in that evil? Some Christians reject God’s sovereignty because they believe it is impossible for God not to be culpable for evil acts over which he is sovereign. And of course, when I speak of God’s sovereignty over evil, I am in no way saying that God is the cause of evil. However, I will affirm that God does, in his wisdom, decree to permit, use, and bring a greater good out of evil (Job 2:10).
However, again, just because our minds cannot comprehend this does not make it unbiblical. God is by definition God, and his sovereign workings in this world are both good and wise, even if we cannot understand exactly how he can be sovereign and not the cause of evil.
But this is where we must submit to God in the mystery. God is sovereign. Man is free. Even within the Reformed doctrine of election, God chooses us, but we also choose God! And the choices we make are no less our choices, even though they flow from God’s sovereign choice of us. Free will and sovereignty. The Bible affirms both.
John Calvin has some good insights on submitting God in his sovereignty. He says,
Therefore no one will weigh God’s [sovereignty] properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence. Hence it happens that today so many [men] assail this doctrine with their [philosophical arguments]: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves. Also they rail at us with as much wantonness as they can; because we, not content with the precepts of the law, which comprise God’s will, say also that the universe is ruled by his secret plans. As if what we teach were a figment of our brain, and the Holy Spirit did not everywhere expressly declare the same thing and repeat it in innumerable forms of expression.
But I believe that Calvin has good insight here when he tells us to humbly submit to God in this doctrine, even though we may not completely understand it. I will finish with CH Spurgeon’s answer to the question of free will and God’s sovereignty. He wisely said, “I never try to reconcile friends—they are both in the Bible.”