Does God violate our free will?

By Robin Schumacher

The idea of free will, as some Christians define it, is not something that can be supported either philosophically or biblically. [1] There is another assertion that many believers make, which is that God would never violate a person's free will. Usually this claim is articulated in one of the following ways:
  • "God never forces Himself on anyone."
  • "God does not drag people kicking and screaming into His kingdom."
  • "God doesn't violate our free will when it comes to making a decision for Him."
C. S. Lewis put the idea this way: "Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo." [2]

The thought that God never violates what people want to do and the choices they make is something that gets repeated so often that a lot of Christians simply accept it as a biblically-supported fact. But is it?

A Reminder About God's Sovereignty

The word "sovereignty" is generally defined as a "supreme and independent power or authority". From a theological perspective, the term means "of God, His absolute right to do all things according to His own good pleasure." [3] The Greek word for sovereignty is dynastes, which signifies "one who is in a position to command others".

The Bible's perspicuity of the subject of God's sovereignty is unmistakable. A few examples from Scripture include:
  • "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps" —Psalm 135:6
  • "For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'" —Isaiah 46:9-10
  • "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'" —Daniel 4:35
  • "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted." —Job 42:2
So it's clear that God is in control over His creation. But does God's sovereignty actually extend to what we do and the choices we make?

God's Sovereignty Over the Individual

There is little debate among Christians that God is in charge of our lives, even down to the smallest detail. On this truth, the Bible says:
  • "But now, O Lord, You are our Father, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand." —Isaiah 64:8
  • "The Lord said to him, 'Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'" —Exodus 4:11
  • "Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.'" —Jeremiah 1:4
  • "Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?" —Lamentations 3:37–38
But what about the decisions we make? Does God's sovereignty extend that far? Once again, Scripture is unambiguous in what it says:
  • "The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes." —Proverbs 21:1
  • "The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord." —Proverbs 16:1
  • "The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." —Proverbs 16:9
  • "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." —Proverbs 16:33
  • "Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand." —Proverbs 19:21
  • "I know, O Lord, that a man's way is not in himself, nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps." —Jeremiah 10:23
Examples abound in the Bible, demonstrating God's sovereignty overshadowing people so that His plan is carried out. For example, God clearly says that He brought the Egyptian Pharaoh who oppressed Israel into power and hardened his heart so that he would not let the Israelites go until God allowed: "But for this purpose I have raised you [Pharaoh] up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. . . . The Lord said to Moses, 'When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go'" (Exodus 9:16, 4:21).

Even so, some Christians argue that people can still resist God and deny Him what He desires. However, let's ask ourselves: Could Abraham have said "no" to God? Could Jeremiah have declined his divine appointment as a prophet? What about Paul? When Jonah ran in the opposite direction of Nineveh, did God respect Jonah's free will rejection or did he ultimately end up where God wanted him?

On this matter, Paul asks the rhetorical question, "Who resists His will?" (Romans 9:19), with the answer obviously being "no one".

Does this mean that God is responsible for the evil acts that humanity commits? Absolutely not. Instead, we see God redeeming the free will evil acts of humanity to bring about good, even in the midst of evil, in a most breathtaking fashion.

For example, Joseph's brothers in the Old Testament had nothing but evil intentions toward him, but God used them to deliver their whole family as well as the nation of Egypt from disaster (Genesis 50:20). In the New Testament, we see Peter reference both the sovereignty of God and the free will acts of men in the death of Christ: "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).

So contrary to what some Christians teach, God does not work in a reactionary mode based on what we do, nor does He ever have a "Plan B" waiting in the wings to run with in case His initial plans are thwarted by our decisions.

Why God Must Violate Our Will

Moreover, where each person's salvation is concerned, let me suggest that it is absolutely necessary for God to intervene with each individual in a way that runs contrary to that person's natural inclinations and desires. The fact of the matter is this: unless God violated our "free" will, no one would ever be saved. Further, I guarantee that when you pray for the salvation of someone, this is exactly what you ask God to do.

The Bible says that everyone is born dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), are by nature alienated from God and under His wrath (Ephesians 2:3), lives in a natural state of rebellion against God such that no one seeks Him on their own (Romans 3:11), views the gospel as foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18, 2:14), and is morally incapable of accepting God's saving ways (Romans 8:6-7). Scripture also declares that all humanity is enslaved to sin (Romans 6:20), hostile towards God (Colossians 1:21), and unable to come to Christ unless the Father draws them (John 6:44, 65).

In other words, Scripture declares that everyone is in a state where, unless God changes the will of a person, they remain in a position from which they are unable to perceive God's saving grace and will never receive Christ as Savior.

This is why it is absolutely necessary for God to "violate" our "free" will, which is not free at all; our will is enslaved to sin. In the same way that Jesus violated Lazarus' "deadness" and raised him from a state of death so he could live again, every Christian is also raised back to life from their spiritual deadness so that they become born again (John 3) and able to live for God.

The Way We Pray Says it All

These truths are exactly in line with the way the vast majority of Christians pray, whether they accept the fact that God must violate a person's "free" will so that they can be saved or not. If you believe this to be incorrect, think about it this way: When you pray for a loved one, do you say, "God, please save Bob, but don't go so far as to violate his free will. Do your best to persuade him but don't go any further"? Or do you instead pray, "Please, God, break through Bob's rebellion and overcome his stubborn resistance to you so that he'll be saved"?

John Piper, in his usual logical style says:
"What do you want God to do for Him? You can't ask that God overcome the man's rebellion, for rebellion is precisely what the man is now choosing, so that would mean God overcame his choice and took away his power of self-determination. But how can God save this man unless he acts so as to change the man's heart from hard hostility to tender trust?

"Will you pray that God change his mind so that he truly sees the beauty of Christ and believe? If you pray this, you are in effect asking God no longer to leave the determination of the man's will in his own power. You are asking God to do something within the man's mind (or heart) so that he will surely see and believe. That is, you are conceding that the ultimate determination of the man's decision to trust Christ is God's, not merely his.

"What I am saying is that it is not the doctrine of God's sovereignty which thwarts prayer for the conversion of sinners. On the contrary, it is the unbiblical notion of self-determination which would consistently put an end to all prayers for the lost. Prayer is a request that God do something. But the only thing God can do to save a lost sinner is to overcome his resistance to God. If you insist that he retain his self-determination, then you are insisting that he remain without Christ." [4]
That being the case, ask yourself: Is that really what you want? If not, and you're someone who holds to the notion that God will not violate our will, then perhaps it's time you rethink your position.

[1] See my article, "Do You Have Free Will?" on The Christian Post.
[2] The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, letter #8
[3] Easton, M. G. (1996). Easton's Bible Dictionary (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
[4] The Sovereignty of God and Prayer by John Piper

Image Credit: Alisha Funkhouser; "Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?"; Creative Commons

comments powered by Disqus
Published 3-19-13