God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will

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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 hardmade 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.”

Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 4): Answering More Objections

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In my first post about objections to God’s sovereignty, I addressed the objection that if God is sovereign, then he is the cause of sin.

In this post, I want to address the objection that goes something like this: If God decreed everything that would happen, this makes us puppets, and takes away any real choice that we would make. In my opinion, misunderstanding the nature of how God makes his decree leads people to this conclusion. In my former posts, here, here, and here, part of my argument included the fact that God is able to decree the free choices of humans. That God decreed those free choices by no means takes away free will — it simply means that God can be and is sovereign over even the free actions of man.

Louis Berkhof says,

This objection [that God’s sovereignty takes away our free choices]…ignores the logical relation, determined by God’s decree, between the means and the end to be obtained. The decree not only includes the various issues of human life, but also the free human actions which are logically prior to, and are destined to bring about, the results.

In short, God’s decrees include our free choices. And what this means is that although God has planned to include my actions and choices in his plan, my choices are still my choices. Many argue for instance, that within a world where everything is decreed, prayer and evangelism are meaningless. But in fact, this is again misrepresenting God’s sovereignty. When it comes to answered prayers, God decided before hand to accomplish his purposes in and through our freely offered prayers. God dwells outside of time; so although I make my prayers in the year 2014 (or whatever year), God can decree to answer my prayers before the world even existed, and even use them to accomplish his purposes. To me, this makes prayers all the more important. God has designated the means to his own end, and my freely offered prayers are included in it. As Berkhof says, we cannot ignore the logical relation between God’s ends, and the means to his end.

Wayne Grudem has some more helpful insight with this objection. He says,

In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on [subjective] experience and intuition, not on specific scripture texts. Scripture repeatedly indicates that God works through our will, our power to choose, and our personal volition, and it consistently affirms that our choices are genuine choices, that they have real results, and that those results last for eternity…

[However], the kind of freedom that is often assumed by those who deny God’s providential control of all things is a freedom to act outside of God’s sustaining and controlling activity, a freedom that includes being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything external to ourselves. Scripture nowhere says we are free in those senses. That kind of freedom would be impossible if Jesus Christ is indeed “continually carrying along things by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and if God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

I think Grudem makes some good points here. First, just because we choose to do something doesn’t mean that God didn’t ordain to permit and use your free choices. Subjective experience alone cannot confirm or deny anything.

But also, Grudem makes a great point that no one is completely free, or outside of God’s providence. This would be impossible — even God’s permissive will is under his sovereign control. While we may say that we willfully and freely make choices in the sense that God in no way forces us to make the decisions we do, still God sovereignly decreed to permit and use those free choices, making them certain.

Grudem then critiques the theological idea that God simply foreknows everything, but does not decree anything. I found it immensely helpful. He says,

Others [who disagree with this idea of God’s sovereignty] say that God knows the future [simply] because he is able to see into the future, not because he has planned or caused what will happen…

[However, this] response fails to render our choices free in the way that [they] wish them to be free. If our future choices are known, then they are fixed and therefore predetermined by something (whether fate or the inevitable cause-and-effect mechanism of the universe). And if the are fixed, then they are not “free”…

I think that this is exactly right. Whether God decrees or not, if he foreknows the future, this means he foreknows a fixed future. And this means that the free will we may want doesn’t really exist, because the future God foreknows is fixed.

More than that, if the future is not certain because of God’s final decision, then what makes it certain? Fate? Nature? Random coincidence? Either way you slice it, something has to make the future fixed. While we do make free, non-coerced, unforced choices, these choices are either fixed by God’s decision, or by another force unknown to us.

With that said, I believe that God is able to render certain free-will actions, and that this by no means takes away man’s free choices. It simply means that God is the ultimate authority over all that has, is, and will happen. It certainly does not make us puppets.