Free Will vs. Sovereignty
After a bit of to and fro with the amiable Rev. Brazier on Twitter, we decided to give ourselves a bit more room (a blog post each) to explore a very important issue: do we have free will, or is God fully sovereign? The following is my effort, and despite huge temptation to deviate into related topics or other arguments from reason and analogy, the aim is to keep this confined to what the Bible says on this specific issue.
That said, allow me to make two introductory points. The first is obvious: We must define free will. Clearly man has a will. You can choose to have a few more drinks, or to steal from the collection plate. But what constitutes free will? The only meaningful definition is the ability to make all of these choices – or more generously, any of them – without external influence, cajoling, persuasion and so on, including from God. A cat, we are lead to believe, can choose between luxury and value cat food, but no one would argue that a cat is a “free moral agent”. This is the fundamental idea on which most Christians seem to agree: you must choose to “invite Jesus into your life”, “say yes to God”, “pray the prayer” and so on.
But is this a “free choice”? My part will be to argue that the Bible says no, because God is entirely sovereign.
Secondly, I would like to briefly explain how I will approach scripture. I do not believe the Bible contradicts itself, neither do I believe God is a liar. So if a verse says, for example, “God is love”, I see no reason to accept any argument that He is not, unless there is an equally clear verse that says “God is not love”. Now, there are many verses that call into question how God is love, or how this is to be understood in the light of other revelations about God’s character, but I maintain that if you have a tricky verse which seems to suggest God might not be love, you need to pray for more understanding because that is not the correct interpretation.
Does this mean I advocate taking everything at its most wooden and literalistic interpretation? Absolutely not. The Bible is vastly complex, requiring not only careful study to understand it but, more importantly, spiritual illumination. I am a layman with no great claim to either but shall do my best.
Finally, let us realise that the stakes could not be higher. Wherever someone insists on the existence of free will, it inevitably merges with the claim that men will choose to be annihilated or receive eternal torment or separation from God rather than be saved. Thank God, literally, that this is not the case.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying ” You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:15-17
Everyone knows that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, ate the forbidden fruit and where chucked out of the garden of Eden. But wouldn’t it have been easier if God had created two trees, one good, one evil? That would make life so much simpler! Don’t eat the evil fruit, eat the good fruit. They used their free will to eat the evil fruit, and the rest is history.
But that is not what happened. Instead it is one tree of both good and evil. What?! Couldn’t they have bitten the “good half” of the apple?! And it isn’t even as simple as “good and evil”, it’s “knowledge of good and evil”. Isn’t knowledge a good thing? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to know the difference between good and evil? And if good is to live by God’s laws, and evil is to break those laws, then surely God already expected them to know the difference because they seemed to (sort of) grasp what they should or shouldn’t be doing, fruit-wise.
Mighty tomes have been written about what all this means, but clearly it is not as simple as “God told them not to so something naughty, but they did it, so they got into trouble and all of us into the bargain”. I don’t feel I’ve done more than scratch the surface of Genesis with my understanding (“Types in Genesis” by Andrew Jukes is an excellent way to start) but my impression is that it is something to do with mankind’s self-realisation. Did Adam do things which we would now consider sinful before even eating that fruit? Did God know they would eat the fruit eventually? Was this part of God’s plan to ultimately make children in His perfect image? I think so.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If The Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15
Admittedly there is a difference between our ability to make choices in the here and now and our ability to say what will happen in the future. Nevertheless, this verse makes it clear that what will happen follows God’s will, not ours, and that our decisions are fairly inconsequential compared to what God desires to happen. It is not a far stretch to suggest that a similar boast might be “this year I will stop gambling and be a better person” – to which I expect James would equally add, “…if God wills it!”. But why does God have to will it? Why can’t we do it ourselves?
The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Psalm 14:2-3
Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. Jeremiah 13:23
For the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be. Indeed, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:7-8
This last verse is a profoundly important scripture, and different translations only help us to understand it more (not always the case). Older versions translate “phronēma tēs sarkos” more directly as above – the mind of flesh, or carnal mind – but newer versions try to explain this further by translating it as “the natural mind” or “the mind governed by human nature.”
Our natural mind cannot choose to please God. Where is the free will in this? Unless God’s spirit is within you, you are incapable of pleasing Him, or of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Would not most Christians agree that this is what is needed to be saved? Paul understood that there is no such thing as a free will; either you are a slave to your human nature, making the same predictable mistakes, or you have put that slave master to death and have “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27). This is not an instant or overnight process. Paul clearly still struggled with elements of his flesh that refused to die but even then, this is referred to as captivity, not some liberated free moral agency.
So, the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. Romans 7:14-15 (NLT)
Those who believe in true free will have an answer for Paul: it’s your choice, Paul. You can stop doing those things if you really try. This human-centric, polarising, Disney-fication of scriptural truth insists that only good things come from God, never bad things (He only ever wants to give you a big hug), and they therefore refuse to believe God when he states that “I make peace, and create evil: I The Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7). You can unnecessarily try to soften this truth by translating the Hebrew word ra’ as “calamity, adversity” rather than “wickedness, evil” as it is understood in almost every other context in the Old Testament (including with respect to that pesky tree), but this hardly changes the implication. And when you try to argue that God is not in control of all things, good and bad, you miss the purpose of such suffering:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with The Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Here Paul speaks of a thorn in his flesh – a persistent and unpleasant weakness that keeps drawing attention to his human nature, his carnal mind. Much speculation has gone into the nature of this “thorn”, but the important thing to realise is this: the whole point of this “thorn” was to benefit Paul (to stop him becoming conceited), and yet he prayed for it to be removed, because it was causing him to suffer. Not only that, but Satan and his messengers were performing the roles God created for them; Paul “was given a thorn” by God, through Satan. It must have been from God because it was for his good; was Satan trying to helpfully prevent him from being conceited? God ordained it, it had a purpose, it was part of the plan. But it was fleshly adversity, and therefore administered by the “prince of this world.”
This is foretold in Ecclesiastes:
It is an experience of evil that God has given to the sons of humanity to humble them by it. Ecclesiastes 1:13
There’s that word again: ra’. Evil, wickedness, disaster, calamity. God brings it upon us for good. We end up refusing this truth when we lack the faith to believe that God uses all things for good, eventually.
Let’s move on:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, Ephesians 1:11
“…The Lord gave and The Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21
Man’s goings are of the Lord; how can a man then understand his own way? Proverbs 20:24
Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps. Jeremiah 10:23
For he has sent a season for every event and every deed… Ecclesiastes 3:17
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”; Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it. Isaiah 46:10-11
Are there any things which God does not work according to the counsel of His will? Are there any things for which God has not sent a season? Are people’s lives their own? Is it for them to direct their steps? Is there any part of God’s good pleasure that He will not accomplish? There surely comes a time when you have to stop trying to twist, hyper-contextualise and undermine scripture and just believe what it says. But let’s stick in Isaiah for a while because it has more to teach us about God’s sovereignty.
Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few; for he says: “Are not my commanders all kings? As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?”
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones…” Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! Isaiah 10:5-15
Firstly, God uses the king of Assyria to punish His people. But God then punishes the king of Assyria. Why? For being so proud as to think he was in control, when in fact he is simply fulfilling God’s plan. Isaiah compares this to a comedic image in which a stick lifts the person holding it, or as we might say, the tail wagging the dog.
Now let’s be clear about something: did God put it into each individual soldier’s mind to slay the soldier in front of him during this Assyrian invasion? No. God does not need to force us to sin; we volunteer for it. We choose to sin, because it is in our nature. But precisely because it is in our nature, it is in no way “free will”. Each decision we make is a result of a million different factors: the time and place of our birth, whether our mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy, how we were treated at home and at school, and so on. And all of these things play out exactly as God has planned.
Another example of “free will” turning out to be planned by God all along is in the story of Joseph. Remember how his brothers hated him, and plotted to kill him, and sold him into slavery? And yet when he meets them in Egypt, he reveals to them the true nature of events:
…Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me.” And they came closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Genesis 45:4-5
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Genesis 50:20
This is another profound verse, and there is one crucial observation: God didn’t mop up the consequences of free-willed evil and somehow fudge it to turn out well. He is sovereign. It was His plan that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God uses evil for good, unlike sinful men who do evil because they mean evil. God can and will bring about good not from but through evil, in this age or the next – yet He Himself is not evil. This does not justify our evil intentions or actions.
Here’s another example of men meaning evil but God meaning good:
…Then his father and his mother said to him, “Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she looks good to me.” However, his father and mother did not know that it was of the LORD, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines. Now at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel. Judges 14:3-4
Samson’s entirely carnal lusts fulfil God’s plan to discipline the Philistines. Who was in control here?
Because we make choices, it seems like we have free will. It really does seem that way; if you ask anyone in the street whether or not they have free will, they will say that they do. But this is part of the foolishness of unbelief, not to mention the deception of Satan. When people become Christians, they are encouraged to pray and to think something like this: “Jesus, I want you to be king in my life. I want to put you in control, and follow you wherever you take me.” That is a wonderful sentiment, and I don’t belittle it. But one day God will teach each one of us the same lesson He taught the king of Assyria: we were never in control. You thought you were doing some damage? You were the axe, not the hand! We make our own plans, but the result is God’s doing. (Proverbs 16:1)
Even so, it was you that finally said “yes” to Christ, wasn’t it? Well, actually…
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:44
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32
The word “draw” sounds so gentle, doesn’t it? God entices us, tempts us, like Elliot leaving sweets for E.T. Where else do we see this verb – helkuō – in scripture? Well, the same word is used when the disciples hauled the net full of fish onto the shore. It is the same word used to describe how rich people drag others into court to be sued. It is also the same word used when Paul and Silas are dragged into the market place, and when Paul was dragged from the temple. Do we think that the crowds tempted Paul from the temple with his favourite treats?
One day, Jesus will drag all people to himself. We only come to Jesus when we are hauled – sometimes kicking and screaming – by the Father. And we recognise this in our testimonies, don’t we? “Oh yes, Jesus found me! I was stubbornly doing xyz but God brought me to my knees and I had to acknowledge Him as Lord!” It is so common to hear a testimony that involves someone looking back and realising God was in control every step of the way, but mysteriously this gets entirely forgotten about when we invent the doctrine of free will. “No one else can make that decision for you… God will never force himself upon anyone, it must be your free choice…”
“By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” Isaiah 45:23
This could not be clearer. And yet people allow passages such as…
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14
…to suggest that the other passages are not true, or are somehow nullified by their context. Because we have to choose which gate to enter, don’t we? And many choose the gate that leads to destruction, don’t they?
Yes, they do. But God clearly states that every tongue shall swear allegiance to Him. So what do we do? There are two options; we can either say God in fact lies or contradicts Himself, or we can say that our understanding of “destruction” needs to be revised, and that just because you choose the gate to destruction does not mean you will not one day be dragged to Jesus, bow your knee and swear allegiance.
Now, let’s turn to the ever-controversial Romans 9.
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. Romans 9:10-18
I used to beaver away, trying to support the Arminian view of these passages against the evil Calvinist view. And it can be done – just about, though not always easily or convincingly. If you consider who “served” who out of Jacob and Esau, you can see that yes, it is perhaps referring to their houses (nations) because Esau never personally served Jacob as an individual.
I still think the Calvinist view is evil, but not because of predestination. Predestination is only evil if you are predestined for something terrible. I do understand the desperation of those trying to show that despite scriptural evidence, we are responsible for choosing God, because then at least we all have a chance of escaping hell. But what I learnt was even more wonderful – none of us are destined for eternal torment. We are all predestined to be united in God.
So now I have no need to scrabble around trying to prove that Pharoah could have softened his own heart, or that somehow God only hardens people’s hearts when they have decided to reject Him of their own free will (sort of like “well fine then, I didn’t want your help anyway!”).
And what is Paul’s next line?
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? Romans 9:19-21
Again, I know full well that if you chase this quotation back to Jeremiah you will find reference to nations rather than individuals, and people being given the opportunity to turn from their ways and avoid disaster. But it doesn’t change the fact that Paul obviously knows what he is saying about the sovereignty of God, because he predicts the question “how can I be blamed if no one can resist God’s will?” Why would anyone ask that question if his point clearly refers to only nations? And if God plans for a certain nation to perform a certain action, how is it possible that all of the people within that nation still have free will and can (presumably) repent on an individual basis? Does God say, “sorry folks, I know you’ve all come to me separately with your sacrifices and apologies, but I’d already decreed that as a nation you’d receive punishment, so bend over…”
Before we leave Romans 9, consider how you would answer that semi-rhetorical question: “For who can resist His will?”. The answer is obvious, but apparently people still think “I can!”
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” Acts 9:3-5
This could be any of the myriad scriptures that relate God’s powerful self-revelation to individuals in the Bible. Saul’s conversion to Paul, however, is perhaps the most tangible, the most thrilling and the most important. Paul is vitally important to the writing of scripture, the establishment of the early church and the dissemination of the Gospel. We cannot surely believe that God “took a chance” on him responding as he did! No, Christ floored him. He bowled him over, blinded him, shouted in his ears. Why? Because he had a purpose for Paul.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. John 15:16
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10
Does God have a purpose for each of us? Is there any of us for whom God does not have a purpose and a plan? So why does he not do the same to everyone? The answer often given is “that would take away our free will”. So are we to assume that Paul’s free will was less important than ours? God will give you free will, unless you’re one of those seemingly indispensable people who He needs for particular, strategic tasks. Like the police commandeering your car; it’s rare, inconvenient and potentially costly but at the same time you feel somewhat honoured – is that it?
No. God can, and perhaps may, do that to any of us, so why doesn’t He? Because that’s not part of the plan. But if God could pin us all down and blast us but doesn’t, do you think His plan is going to be more grand, more successful, more elegant and glory-filled than a mass blinding, or less?
Nevertheless, in desperate places across the world, particularly where people are in the grip of terror from Islam extremists, God is undermining people’s free will on a regular basis with dreams and visions largely unheard of in the modern Western world.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13
We hear a lot of prayers in which people ask for God to “give me the strength to…” do whatever task needs to be done. But how many times do we hear people ask, “Lord, make me do this. Change my will so that I will want to do this.” Nevertheless, scripture plainly states that He works in us, not only to do but to will, according to His pleasure. And why “with fear and trembling?” Because how much progress we are going to make with our salvation is a constant surprise to us! If is not our free will but God working in us both to will and to act, we have no idea how we are going to cope with the challenges that await us. Will God give us the faith to endure them, or will we be broken by them? Either way, we can trust that God will give us what we need.
A Practical Challenge
When we were discussing this in soundbites on Twitter, Tom Brazier said he was concerned that I was trying to excuse people from their actions, in response to my point that people argue for free will partially to excuse God from the suffering we see around us. (The other reason of course is that they wish to feel important, to feel in charge – a classic example of the carnal mind.) I assume he says this because he feels the church should show people how to live, and if God is sovereign and all His plans will be accomplished why should they bother?
It’s true that I believe God is ultimately responsible for His creation. He dug a pit, and we fell into it, therefore He is liable for the cost of this situation (Exodus 21:33-34) irrespective of why Adam and Eve did what they did or we do what we do. Free will is a side issue in this regard; ownership is the important factor, according to God’s own law (which, let us remember, is spiritual, and written for our benefit).
But in truth, the revelation of God’s sovereignty is utterly humbling. If you had been born to Kim Jong Un’s family, with his genes and his experiences, you too would be an egotistical despot – you are no better than him. I know you’d like to think you are, and that you choose not to oppress and torture others with your own free will, but you’re not, and you don’t!
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? 1 Corinthians 4:7
Why are you not like Kim Jong Un? By God’s grace. Because He has chosen you for nobler purposes.
So the practical challenge to Christians unsure of the truth about free will is this: as of tomorrow, try it. Try living as though God is sovereign, and everything that happens – including all of your own actions – are ordained by Him. Just see whether or not you feel lead to become more hedonistic, selfish and justified in your sinful actions. Given that accepting God’s sovereignty is a big part (in fact, the biggest part) of putting the carnal mind to death, I somehow doubt it.