Free Will and God's Sovereignty

By Mark King

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I am a Calvinist (if I have to label myself) and I think to some extent the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery. But in some cases, I think Calvinists have been too strong in their explanations. Let me do the best I can. And of course, I think we need to look to Scripture to get the answers.

First of all, it is clear from Scripture that nothing falls outside of God's sovereignty. For that reason, to some extent, everything that happens is part of his plan. If someone commits a terrible sin, God could have prevented it if He had wanted to. Think of the terrorist attacks of 911. Could God have prevented those? Absolutely! He could have done it by changing the minds of the terrorists, but he could have done it by having them get caught before they had a chance to carry out their plan. Perhaps He did prevent one attack by using the passengers who overpowered the terrorists on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Perhaps there are countless other attacks that He has prevented and we simply don't know about them. On one level, we can say that anything that happens is God's will in that He did not prevent it from happening. We can rest assured that no matter how bad a particular event is, God has a purpose and a plan to use evil to overcome evil and bring about good. We simply cannot see the whole picture. On another level (and using a slightly different definition of "God's will") we can say that it is never God's will for people to sin — He is against it and has commanded people not to do it. As a parent, I can understand this. There are things my children do that I am against. In some cases, I could physically prevent them from doing the thing that I oppose. However, even though it is "against my will" I allow them to do it because they need to learn from their mistakes. So on one level it is against my will, yet on another level, it is my will that they do what they have planned because I allowed them to do it.

Does this mean that God causes people to sin? Scripture is clear: "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone: but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed." (James 1:13-14). God does not entice anyone to do evil. It is our own nature to be enticed by it. However, that does not mean that God can't direct our own evil desires in such a way that his plan is furthered.

What about free will? I believe that people are free to do what they want to do. The problem is, our wills have been corrupted by sin — we don't want to please God. "As it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Romans 3:10-12). The only way any of us will ever come to faith in Christ is that God moves in our hearts before we ever started looking for Him, convicting us of sin and of our need. When we finally "choose" Him, it is only because He has been pursuing us, and has turned our hearts toward Him.

Somehow, God is sovereign over everything that happens. Yet His sovereignty has allowed enough human freedom so that we are responsible for the choices we make, and the choices we make have real consequences. There are several passages in Scripture where we see God's sovereignty and human choice working hand in hand. The authors of Scripture can refer to both in the same context without seeing a contradiction.

Peter, preaching on the Day of Pentecost: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:22-23). So Peter says that Jesus' death was according to God's plan, yet the people who crucified him are guilty.

Paul endured all kinds of hardships in his gospel ministry. Why would he do this? "Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Timothy 2:10). Paul does it so the elect (those whom God has chosen to save) will actually be saved. You might expect him to say "God is planning to save certain people, so why should I go through all this hardship if God is going to save them anyway? The reality is that God has chosen to save people through the proclamation of the gospel, so Paul will go through hardship, knowing God will use it to save people.

Finally, I like this last example because it is not as theoretical or theological. In Acts 27, Paul is on a ship for Rome. I quote the text below and will make some comments along the way. Picking up in verse 13:
When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: "Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.' So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island."

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Published 3-5-15