The Sovereignty God and Human Freewill

by Michael Bremmer

Michael Bremmer

Christians acknowledge that God is sovereign, that He is King, Supreme Ruler, and Lawgiver of the universe. This we graciously believe. Yet do the meanings we give these words correspond to the reality of God's sovereignty represented in the Scriptures? What do we mean when we say God is sovereign? What is more important, what does the Bible mean by saying God is sovereign? Are Christians and God speaking the same language?

We like God reigning in a universal way, as in keeping hurricanes out to sea, or keeping the planets in their fixed orbits. We especially like God keeping traffic moving smoothly as we go to work. In these situations, we endure God on His throne, and if He obediently sits on this throne, built by our egocentric imaginations, we will lift holy hands singing, "Our God Reigns!" But what about having God on His throne in every detail of our lives, as ordaining the number of days we live, or what job we take, or what route to work we will drive tomorrow morning, or how much hair we are to have at age sixty? What about ordaining who will believe the gospel of Jesus Christ? Here, many Christians are quick to shove God off His throne crying, "We are free!" (Job 14.5; Prov. 21.1; Eph.1.11; Rom. 11.36; Acts 13.48; Jer. 10.23; Acts 16.14; 17.24-25).

Perhaps the problem is we associate human opinions or philosophical ideas to God's sovereignty, failing to consider seriously all that the Scriptures teach about God's sovereignty. More likely, however, is that our theology is so superficial that though we say God is sovereign, we are oblivious to the contradiction of denying His control over every aspect of our existence. Whatever the reason, only the Scriptures will reveal to us the meaning and extent of God's sovereignty.

By sovereignty of God I mean that God has ordained (or decreed), by an act of His sovereign will, all that has come to pass, all that is, and all that will come to pass, and apart from His knowledge, purpose, and predetermined plan, nothing will come to pass. God, says the Scriptures, "Works all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1.11). The Scriptures do not say God works some things, or most things. Much less does it say only the good things -- it says all things. "Scripture everywhere affirms that whatsoever is and comes to pass is the realization of God's thought and will . . ." (Bavinck, The Doctrine of God. P. 369). In other words, no occurrence, large or small, occurs outside the sovereignty of God -- from the number of rain drops falling on your lawn during an afternoon thunder storm, to the dramatic events of the Desert Storm war, all are within, and part of, God's divine decree. As often commented, even if one molecule is roaming "free" in the universe, God is not sovereign.

Ten thousand ages ere the skies, Were into motion brought, All the long years and worlds to come, Stood present to His thought; There's not a sparrow or a worm, But's found in His decrees, He raises monarchs to their throne, and sinks them as He pleases. -- Issac Watts

If God ordains all things, then he not only ordains the ends, He also ordains the means. As R. B. Kuiper has pointed out (The Bible Tells Me So, P. 37), not only does God ordain that a farmer's field yield so many bushels of wheat, God also ordains that the farmer plow and sow the field. Not only does God ordain a child's recovery of a serious illness, God also ordains that the child recovers because of the parent's prayers. Realizing God ordains the means and the ends helps us to comprehend how our responsibility works within God's sovereignty. For example, Arminians object to the doctrine of election because it makes the preaching of the gospel unnecessary. However, God not only ordained who will be saved, God also ordained the preaching of the gospel to accomplish the salvation of His elect.

Furthermore, the sovereignty of God means all that He decreed will come about, and in the precise manner that He decreed. No one can ignore or reject His decree. Again, this does not suggest God compels anyone to act against their will. Man's freedom to act according to his choice is within God's decree. What it does mean is, all of what God has ordained will surely come to pass, and in the manner that God ordains. The Scriptures say, "The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans from His heart from generation to generation" (Ps. 33.11). (Isa. 14.27; Ps. 115.3; 135.6; Job 23.13-14; 42.2-3; Isa. 46.10).

God's sovereignty encompasses all that comes to pass, even sin; however, God never forces anyone to act contrary their will; therefore, He is not the author of sin. When we sin, we do so because we choose to sin. That God has even ordained sin will not sit well with everyone. Yet, if Jesus is in fact the "Lamb slain before the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13.8) then sins appearance into the world and our redemption through the atonement, were decreed by God before creation and the fall; however, Scripture is clear that God is not the author of sin (Ja. 1.13).

Finally, God's sovereignty is not arbitrary. His rule is not one of some ill-tempered despot, frequently the caricature given by those denying God's sovereignty, rather His sovereignty is one of wisdom, holiness, and love. God is sovereign -- and He is our Father. Jesus, when referring to God's sovereignty, said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs on your head are numbered. Therefore, do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Mt. 10.29-21) (Ps. 92.15; 1 Jn. 1.5).

Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill He treasures up his bright design And works His sovereign will. --Copwer

The question that naturally arises from a Biblical view of God's sovereignty is, Do we have free will? Before we can adequately answer this question, we must first establish what we mean by free will. The Bible teaches that God is sovereign. Our conscious teaches us that we are able, and responsible for our choices-- and that our choices are just that, our choices. Any view of freewill must allow for both these elements. If freewill means the freedom to choose without any influence, "to make choices without any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition," then the answer is no; we do not have freewill. If, on the other hand, freewill means the ability to choose what we want, then the answer is yes. The former view is known as contrary choice, the latter free agency.

CONTRARY CHOICE

The Arminian idea of contrary choice is that in any given situation, irrespective of any bias, inclinations, motives, or influences, the will can choose one alternative as effortlessly as another. In other words, according to this opinion, the will is not necessarily determined by anything, but is self determining. Consequently, in any choice, for freewill to exist, there must be the power to the contrary. This notion of freewill, according to Gorden Clark, is "The absence of any controlling power, even God and grace, and there the equal ability in any situation to choose either of two incompatible courses of action" (Predestination, P.113).

However, reason and Scripture tell us that the will is not self determined, but is determined by the one making the choice. Unless the act originates within us, that it is the consequence of our reason, feelings, bias, et cetera, it is not moral act. If, for example, I am inclined to choose in a particular direction, being motivated by the strongest desire at that time, yet my will, being self determined, chooses otherwise, then how is this a moral act? How can God hold me responsible for it?. Charles Hodge rightly notes: "If a man when filled with pious feeling can will the most impious acts; or, when filled with enmity to God, have volitions of a saint, then his volitions and acts have nothing to do with the man himself. They do not express his character. And he cannot be responsible for them" (Systematic Theology, vol. 2, P. 304). Furthermore, if the will acts without motive, then how can God judge it moral or immoral? Our experience and Scripture, both teach us the same act can be at one time right and another sinful. What makes the difference is motive -- the reason for the act. However, in the view of contrary choice the will can act without motive

Is it possible for one to choose pain over pleasure, or poverty over riches without any reason, to choose one over the other without any motive? Common sense instructs us that this is not possible. We all choose according to what we prefer, and what we prefer is according to our dispositions. To be truly free means I choose, and I choose not because I am forced by something outside myself, but I choose according to my own desires and preferences. Even if a man puts a gun to my head and hands me a book saying, "You will read this book or I will blow your brains out" and I read the book, its still my choice and therefore free. I look at the book and seeing that the book is not a very long book, and I prefer to live, so I choose to read the book ( From Dr. Kennedy). I know my choice is truly free because it is the result of what I prefer -- I prefer life to death and I choose to read the book.

An Illustration sometimes used to understand this problem is that of a lion. Lions are carnivores, eating only meat. If one offers a lion fresh meat, he will gratefully devour it. However, offer the lion some hay for his meal and he will not eat it. If only offered hay for his meals, then the lion will eventually die of starvation, or perhaps - with justification - consume his foolish caretaker. The point is, it is not that the lion is physically unable to chew and swallow hay, but eating hay is against the lion's nature. He is a lion, not a donkey. We do not make choices in a vacuum. We can only exercise true freewill as we choose according to our nature. Dabney illustrates: "I make this appeal to a company of aspiring young ladies and gentlemen: Come and engage with me of your free choice in this given course of labor; it will be long and arduous; but I can assure you of a certain result. I promise you that, by this laborious effort, you shall make yourselves the most despised and abused set of young people in the state.' Will this succeed in inducing them? Can it succeed? No; it will not, and we can justly say, it cannot. But are not these young persons free when they answer me, as they certainly will, No, Teacher, we will not, and we cannot commit the folly of working solely to earn contempt, because contempt is in itself contrary and painful to our nature.'" (The Five Points of Calvinism, P. 16)

Consider also the question of character. We judge so and so to be a person of good character. We can do this only because we intuitively know that one's acts originate from within, that the will is not self determined, but is determined by the one who we believe to be of good character. Furthermore, How can we trust someone except by believing that such a person to be an honest person and, therefore, acts honestly with us. Yet, if the will is self determined how can there be any trust at all? How can one trust the character of another? Should I believe that my wife can either kiss me or slap me in a given situation because the will is not determined by anything, but is above motive, even character?

FREE AGENCY

Calvinists deny freewill, at least the Arminian's view of it. We do not, however, deny that we are able to choose and to shape our own destinies. The Westminster Confession of Faith says: "God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty that is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil" (Chapt. 9 section 1). Free agency teaches "A man is free not only when his outward acts are determined by his will, but when his volitions are truly and properly his own, determined by nothing out of himself but proceeding from his views, feelings and immanent disposition, so that they are the real intelligent and conscious expressions of his character, or of what is in his mind" (C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, P. 285). We have liberty of will because the choices we make are our choices. True freewill means I, as a free agent, can choose what I want. This is freewill. If I want "A," but my will chooses "B," then I am not free. I am a slave to a will that acts against me.

IS CERTAINTY CONSISTENT WITH FREE AGENCY?

Can the acts of free agents, as defined above, be made certain without destroying liberty, that is, the ability to choose? Arminians argue no, certainty violates freewill--at least as they define freewill. For the will to be truly free, so the argument goes, it must be able to choose between alternatives, that for the choice of "A" to be truly free there must be the ability to choose "B." Therefore, certainty cannot coexist with freewill. If it is certain I will pick "A," then I cannot pick "B" and the choice of "A," therefore, is not a free choice. This all sounds very convincing, but the premise that for a choice to be free one must be able equally to choose between alternatives, even incompatible alternatives, is false. According to this logic, God is not free. What in this universe is more certain than God cannot do wrong? Is He therefore not free because He does what is right? Is Satan not responsible because he can do no good? In heaven, the saints are free form sin. Are they therefore no longer free because they can no longer choose sin? Conscious and Scripture affirm that all sin. Every person born will sin -- whether he chooses to be an Arminian, Calvinist, or Pagan. This is certain. Are we then not free because it is certain we will sin? Does this certainty take away the freedom of choice? If so, then how can God hold one responsible for that sin? Scripture, however, teaches otherwise. By the decree of God, the death of Christ for the sins of other people was made certain; yet Christ says: "For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father" (Jn. 10.17-18). Can anyone more forcefully assert freewill? Nevertheless, Scripture says: "This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God . . ." Can anyone more forcefully assert the certainty of this event? The verse goes on to say: "This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, YOU nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death" (Acts 2.23). Can anyone more forcefully assert human responsibility? Christ death was certain, He freely gave it, and those who killed Him God holds responsible.

Unless one denies God's omniscience, -- which many do -- then God foresees all our actions. If God foresees these actions, then they must be certain, otherwise God foresees that which is not. However, the certainty of these foreseen acts do not take away our liberty. We know that even if God foresees an event and is therefore certain, we choose freely. A classic example is Peter's denial. Christ predicted that Peter would deny Him. Could Christ have been wrong? Christians must answer no, for our Lord is God. Consequently, it was certain that Peter would deny Christ at the appointed time. Yet, if certainty removes liberty, then why does Peter weep over his actions? Why did he not reason with himself, "well, I could do nothing about it, I did not have a choice!" Because despite the certainty of the event, Peter realized that the choice to deny Christ was his, and he was responsible for it.

Some Arminians argue that God is indeed sovereign, but this does not mean He controls ever single detail. For example, one writer states: "The Bible shows God's sovereignty to be such a magnitude that it is enough for him to decree his will and, without him having to even lift a finger to make it happen, history will inexorably end where God wants it to arrive. In other words, God sets objectives and determines the out come. But he does not have to control the process in order to reach the out come." (Christianity 101, P.41). Not considering the fact that no Scripture can be produce to support this view, and that Scripture states otherwise (Eph. 1.11; Dan. 4.35), it is very difficult to imagine how God can make the end certain unless those details that arrive at the end He equally makes certain. Prophecies illustrate well my point. God said Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. Is there any doubt that this event God has made certain by decree? However, how is it possible for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem without equal certainty of bringing Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem? God has decreed all that comes to past, even the "process" that assure the arrival of Mary and Joseph to the appointed time and place. We could go on looking at prophecy after prophecy and show that apart from the working out of the so-called details, their fulfillment not only becomes unlikely, but impossible.

We end this article with a look at the many verses in the Scriptures that support the Calvinistic view. These verses collectively show that: (1) God is sovereign, but he does not rule as humans, merely decreeing an end and allowing His subjects the "freedom" to work out the details for themselves. God, according to Scripture, works All things after the counsel of His will. (2) People are free to choose what they want, and are free because the choice is theirs. (3) Certainty does not violate human freedom.

SCRIPTURE REFERENCES

"Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works ALL things after the counsel of HIS will" (Eph. 1.11).

"And we know God causes ALL things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8.28).

"Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him? Who could say to Him, what art Thou doing?" (Job 9.12).

"But our God is in heaven, He does whatever He pleases" (Ps. 115.3).

"The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these" (Isa. 45.7).

"And 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 hast Thou done'" (Dan. 4.35).

"Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything to difficult for Me?" (Jer. 32.27).

"The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation" (Ps. 33.10-11).

"Remember the former things long past, 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 been done, saying, My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish ALL My good pleasure" (Is. 46.9-10).

"This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of Godless men and put Him to death" (Acts 2.23).

"For truly in this city there gathered were gathered together against Thy Holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur" (Acts 4.27-28).

"For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure" (Phil. 2.13).

"Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the Most High that both good and ill go forth? (Lam. 3.37).

"It is I who says to Cyrus, He is My shepherd! And He will perform all My desire" (Is. 44.28). "So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I have sent it" (Is. 55.11).

"For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11.36).

" Thus I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.' And they did so" (Ex. 14.4).

"But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today'" (Deut. 2.30)

"The Absalom and all the men of Israel said, The counsel of Hushai the Arcite is better then the counsel of Ahithophel.' For the Lord had ordained to thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel, in order that the Lord might bring calamity on Absalom" (2 Sam. 17.14).

"But Amazuah would not listen, for it was from God, that He might deliver them into the hand of Joash because they had sought the gods of Edom" (2 Chron. 25.20).

"Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia--in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah--the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing . . ." (2 Chron. 36.22).

"The kings heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes. (Prov. 21.1).

"For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled" (Rev. 17.17).

"And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness" (2 Thess. 2.11-12).

"The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps" (Prov. 16.9).

"Mans steps are ordained by the Lord, how then can man understand his way?" (Prov. 20.24).

"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" (Jer. 10.23).

"From His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works" (Ps.33.14-15). "Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God;" (Gen. 45.8).

"For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2.13).

"Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will raise evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before you eyes, and give them to your companion, and he shall lie with your wives in broad daylight'" (2 Sam. 12.11).

" Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you'" (1 Kg. 22.23).

"He has turned their heart to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants" (Ps. 105.25).

"But He is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does. For He performs what is appointed, and many such decrees are with Him" (Job 23.13-14).

"I know that Thou canst do all things, And that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted" (Job 42.2).

© Copyrighted Revised 05.20.04

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