(December 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 11)
The issue that we have been dancing around for the last several papers, and now must seriously address, has to do with the sovereign nature of God. Our context, so far, has been that of pain, suffering and evil in this world. And while this continues to be a good springboard into our discussion, it certainly does not exhaust the pool of topics and questions emerging from the subject. The broader discussion must include the whole gamut of problems that swirl around the “sovereignty of God” vs. the “freewill of man” debate.
As we approach this theme we immediately recognize two obstacles that menace our progress: First, this is a huge, emotionally laden subject that has long divided the Christian community. I won’t pretend that this four-page paper will do anything more than scratch the surface and probably please few of my readers. On the other hand I would like to attempt to offer a balance that I believe is often missed. The other obstacle has to do with the strong hatred of God’s sovereignty even among many Christians. While it is rare for a believer to actually admit that they do not believe in a sovereign God, many deny it when dealing with the particulars. We have seen examples of this in our last three papers on pain, and we will document the widespread denial of God’s sovereignty found in open theism in our future papers. Perhaps Charles Spurgeon said it as well as anyone when he wrote,
There is no doctrine more hated by worldlings, no truth of which they have made such a football, as the great, stupendous, but yet most certain doctrine of the Sovereignty of the infinite Jehovah. Men will allow God to be everywhere except upon His throne. They will allow Him to be in His workshop to fashion worlds and to make stars. They will allow Him to be in His almonry to dispense alms and bestow His bounties. They will allow Him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of Heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends His throne, His creatures then gnash their teeth; and when we proclaim an enthroned God, and His right to do as He wills with His own, to dispose of His creatures as He thinks well, without consulting them in the matter, then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on His throne is not the God they love. They love Him anywhere better than they do when He sits with His scepter in His hand and His crown upon His head. But it is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon His throne whom we trust.
Blessed Be the Ties That Divide?
While Spurgeon seemed to have the unbeliever in mind in the previous quote, it is not uncommon for the child of God to struggle with the same issue, either through ignorance or rebellion. Let’s take a moment to stake out the opposing viewpoints, which historically have been represented by Arminians and Calvinists, and now open theists.
There are a number of distinctions between Arminian theology and Calvinism, but the only one I want to address at this time is the opposing views on the sovereignty/freewill controversy. Arminians believe that God knows all things, past, present and future, but God does not determine all things. In order to allow for freewill in humans, God cannot force His will upon mankind or else they would not be free agents and therefore responsible for their actions and choices. God can look into the future (foreknowledge) and know with certainty which people will choose salvation, invent cures for diseases, bomb buildings, and all else, but He seldom sovereignly determines what they will do. Of course God can and does intervene in the affairs of the human race in order to prod, persuade and move them in the directions He desires, but the choice as to how they will act is theirs not His. God, under the Arminian system, is more a passive watcher of the activities of His creations than He is an almighty determiner of those activities. Arminianism seeks to safeguard the freewill and responsibility of man, but does so at the expense of the sovereignty of God.
The open view has a lot in common with Arminianism, especially its emphasis upon its defense of the freewill of man. But openism differs significantly in a number of places. For example, open theologians teach that God has indeed determined certain things about the future, and because of His great power has guaranteed to bring these things about. But most things about the future are “open,” that is, undetermined by God and dependent upon the free choices of God’s creatures. This sounds much like Arminianism until we learn that under the open system, not only does God not determine the future, but He does not even know the future. In other words, while God knows all things that are knowable, even He cannot know the future because it has not happened yet and even God cannot know the unknowable. God did not know beforehand, according to this view, that Islamic fanatics would crash jetliners into the Trade Towers. He learned about and experienced this tragedy only as He watched it unfold, first in the minds, and then in the actions, of the terrorists. So under the open view not only does God not determine much of the future, He doesn’t even know what will happen. This gives ultimate supremacy to man and his free choices, which will determine how the future turns out.
The Calvinist believes that God not only knows the future, He determines the future. God is the ultimate cause behind the universe, and nothing happens that is beyond His sovereign control. Yet, and this is the hard part for many to grasp, He does all of these things without violating the freewill of man. J. I. Packer, an indisputable Calvinist, states, “God’s control is absolute in the sense that men do only that which He has ordained that they should do; yet they are truly free agents in the sense that their decisions are their own, and they are morally responsible for them.”
A Biblical Case for Divine Sovereignty
Christians of every stripe claim to believe in the sovereignty of God. But many renege when sovereignty is defined as God’s right to do whatever He pleases, whenever He pleases, to anyone He pleases, without seeking anyone’s permission. And yet the Bible teaches exactly this. Let’s look at some samplings.
Psalm 135:6 –
Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, the seas and in all deeps.
Isaiah 14:27 –
For the Lord of host has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back.
Isaiah 46:9-10 –
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 not been done,
Saying, “My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”
Other good Scriptures on the subject include Psalm 33:8-11; Isaiah 10:5ff; 41:21-23; Proverbs 21:1; Daniel 4:34-37; Jeremiah 18:4-6; and Isaiah 43-48, which is perhaps the most comprehensive section on the sovereignty of God found in the Bible.
A Biblical Case for Freewill
On the other hand, the Scriptures teach with equal authority the freewill and responsibility of the human race. That this is true hardly needs proof-texting. The Word of God is replete with calls for humans to believe, repent, obey, choose, etc. In addition, people are held accountable for their actions, attitudes, choices and even beliefs.
Problems arise when we attempt to fuse together the concepts of a sovereign God and the freewill and responsibility of man. D. A. Carson frames the tension like this in his excellent book on the topic, “If God is absolutely sovereign, in what sense can we meaningfully speak of human choice, or human will?” On the other hand, Carson continues, “Must God be reduced to accommodate the freedom of human choices? Does significant human responsibility so lean on power to the contrary that God becomes contingent?” In other words, do sovereignty and freewill cancel each other out? Is it possible to maintain that both are true, at least in some sense and to some degree, or must one be sacrificed for the sake of the other? Is there no choice but to polarize around one position or the other?
First, we must be humble enough to recognize that we do not have all the pieces to this puzzle. While I am absolutely certain that God sees no contradiction at all between the two truths, the same cannot be said for us. No position that we can take is without problems.
It is when we forget this and claim that we have the final word to this divine riddle that we end up in trouble. I find myself in substantial agreement with Carson when he writes,
It seems to me that most (although not all) of the debate can be analyzed in terms of the tendency toward reductionism. I have argued at length that a fair treatment of the biblical data leaves the sovereignty-responsibility tension restless in our hands. If a person disagrees with this conclusion and seeks final solutions to the problem, we will enjoy little common ground in the debate. Suppose, for example, that my opponent is so impressed with God’s sovereignty that he constructs his theological system out of all the texts and arguments which support this important truth, and then with this grid filters out evidence which could be taken to call some of his theological system into question. My instant response is that his procedure is methodologically indistinguishable from the person who first constructs his theological system out of those texts and theorems which seem to support some form of human freedom and who then filters out elections and predestination passages until he can safely defuse them by re-defining them. The name of the game is reductionism. In fact, reductionism doesn’t really work. Even if we discount the fact that it plays with the evidence selectively, reductionism never solves or eliminates the sovereignty-responsibility tension, but only changes its shape.
Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not in the end two doctrines at odds, at least in the mind of God. While we may not see logically how the two fit together, ultimately they must for God’s Word declares both to be true. When all the dust has settled we will find that these two seemingly opposites are not at war. They are not enemies but friends, and rather than fight over them they should both be embraced.
God is absolutely sovereign. Nothing occurs outside of His will and control. Nothing happens that He has not determined, even if we do not understand God’s methodology. At the same time, God so created man that his actions are free; his choices are his own; he is responsible for how he lives. Such a conclusion perhaps satisfies very few, but I believe it is faithful to the biblical data that we have been given. To God none of this is a mystery. One day, in glory, He will most certainly unravel all of this for us. In the meantime, let us rest in our all-wise and powerful God as we live for His glory.