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Monday, June 11, 2012

Examining Sovereignty and Free Will

No Christian can possibly claim that God does not intervene in the affairs of men. That is, we all know that God "has His hand" in stuff. We're all fairly comfortable, for instance, with the idea that God can directly affect inanimate objects, things without their own wills.

Here, let's try an example for illustration. You have an important job interview. You get ready and bound on out to your car to go to the interview and there you find that you have a flat tire. You miss the interview and don't get the job. It would be irrational for you to blame the tire. Tires do not go flat because they choose to. They are not responsible for their choices. They don't make choices. So a level-headed Christian might say, "Well, see? God must not have wanted me to have that job because He prevented me from going to that interview." All well and good.

But consider the other perspective. You have that same interview and you get out to your car and you find that you have a flat tire. Then you discover that the reason you have a flat tire is that someone slashed it. Okay, now we've moved from inanimate objects to human free will. This is the question of the day. We're pretty comfortable with the idea that God would intervene in cases of things that have no free will. The question, though, is does God intervene in human free will? Or is it "Human Free Will", an inviolable concept in which God will not intrude? He intrudes in things without free will. Will He do so in humans who have a will?

Consider, first, the proposition at hand. God is Sovereign. However, God will not intervene in matters of Human Free Will. Therefore, God is not Sovereign in matters of Human Free Will. If this is the truth, then there is one area of life in which God is not Sovereign, and if that is true, it cannot be said that He is Sovereign ... or that He can be trusted where Human Free Will is involved.

But that's just logic. What about Scripture? Remember, we want to examine the question from the explicit rather than the implicit. If the Bible states that x is true but can imply that x is not true, we will choose to conclude that x is true and our conclusions from the implication are faulty. So what does the Bible explicitly say on the subject? Does God intervene in matters of human free will?

Start, first, with the clear statement from Proverbs. "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will" (Prov 21:1). Consider that for a moment. I mean, it's quite clear, but it is also quite far-reaching. The question we are asking is the extent of God's Sovereignty. So Solomon addresses the highest human sovereign, the king. In Solomon's day, the king was the absolute sovereign of his realm. Solomon, then, is saying that the heart of the highest human sovereign is in God's hand to do with as He pleases. Or, to put it another way, Solomon (the current sovereign of Israel) was writing to his readers "My heart -- your sovereign -- is in God's hand." Arguing, then, from the greater to the lesser, it cannot be imagined that any heart is not in the hand of the Lord.

Scripture bears this out repeatedly. In Genesis 50, Joseph indicates that God intended the sin of Joseph's brothers (meaning that the sin of Joseph's brothers was part of God's intention) for good (Gen 50:20). Genesis 20:1-8 tells the story of when Abraham was frightened of losing his wife (the one God promised would bear his offspring), so he lied about her. Abimelech took her as his own, but God prevented him from sinning (Gen 20:6). In Exodus 3, God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh to set His people free. In those instructions, God tells Moses that the people will be leaving with plunder from Egypt (Exo 3:22). In Exodus 12 it happens as God said it would, and it tells why. "The LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians" (Exo 12:36). In the opening words of the book of Ezra we read that "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 ...", a proclamation that sent the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the city. Who? "The LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus." And who chose to go back to Jerusalem? "Everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:5). In Acts 16 we read of Lydia, the seller of purple, when she came to Christ. Luke says, "The Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14).

There can be no doubt, taking Scripture in its explicit statements, that God does indeed intervene in human free will to accomplish what He plans to accomplish. There can be no doubt. To argue against it is to argue against the explicit teaching of Scripture. Now, let me be clear on two other key points. First, Scripture is equally clear that we make choices for which we are either blamed or rewarded. That is, human free will does exist to the extent that we have the ability to make choices for which we are held responsible. To deny that would be an equal denial of clear Scripture. And one other absolutely clear point is that God is not the cause of evil. That argument will try to be floated when the claim is made that God intervenes in human free will. It's not true.

These may be difficult concepts. They are indeed mysteries. But mysteries are not impossibilities. We are required to hold in one hand the absolute Sovereignty of God and in the other hand the existence of Man's free will while recognizing that sin is not God's doing. It's a difficult balancing act, but not contradictory and not impossible. Denying any component of that three-sided structure will put you in opposition of Scripture on one hand and in bad standing in other parts of life on the other. If we deny God's Sovereignty by asserting Human Free Will, God is no longer Sovereign. If we deny human free will in favor of God's Sovereignty, then Man is no longer culpable. And in no case can we make God the cause of evil. No, I'm not offering a clean explanation. I'm just asking you to maintain biblical equilibrium, because the easiest thing to do is to step off on the wrong side of this question, and that's a dangerous and painful place to be.


Stan said...


You asked in another comment about how God uses evil for His purposes. Did this one help?

David said...

I asked more for you general readership, since I'm already in agreement with God's Sovereignty being able to trump Free Will. It is interesting how we freely lay the blame, or praise, at the feet of God when it is something that is out of our hands, but then deny His authority in choice. Especially when we have such clear Scripture saying He interferes with the hearts of men. I mean, you left out the 2 big ones, Pharaoh and the High Priest in Jesus' time. Scripture clearly lays the claim that God moved their hearts in a certain direction.

But, who needs clear Scripture teaching? We know better now. God is a gentleman after all... and all that other bologna.

I do think more on the culpability of Man to balance with the Sovereignty of God would have been helpful. But then you can't please everyone :p

Stan said...

It really is astounding how many times Scripture is happy to explain how God moves people to ... do things.

I suspect that the extreme resistance to "God interjects in Man's free will" is part of our natural rebellion, which, of course, is not a good thing.

Oh, and your other question. What did they say before "God doesn't want robots"? It was "God doesn't want puppets."

David said...

In fact, if you are so inclined to believe, ALL of Scripture is proof that God directly acts through people. We know that all Scripture is God breathed. He put His words in men's heads to tell His story. If He wasn't willing to intervene, we wouldn't have such coherent, complete Scriptures. Of course, if you're one of those people that believe the Bible is just one among many inspirational books, then you've got a whole host of other problems.

Marshall Art said...

God interjecting in man's free will is not in conflict with what I am prone to feel about these types of passages. It, in fact, demonstrates my point, that He is always Sovereign and can do anything He wants regardless of His granting us free will.

I also think part of the problem is in the articulation of the position you hold. When I think of "sovereign", I can't help but think of one having ultimate and absolute control. This control does is not diminished by delegating or allowing any level of autonomy, especially when the One doing the delegating is the Creator of all things. Sovereignty remains. I don't think saying He is Sovereign is the same as speaking about His Will.

David said...

Now that you mention the "puppets" thing, I seem to vaguely remember that transition from puppets to robots.

Stan said...

No, Marshall, "Sovereign" does not require ... "puppeteer". It does not require direct causation. (Indeed, as I've indicated, it cannot because God does allow choice and holds us responsible for those choices.)

From the Westminster Confession of Faith on God's Eternal Decree, here's the statement that explains the concept (not because the Confession is authority, but because it explains it carefully): "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."

Not the author of sin. No violence to the will of the creature. Whatever means God uses, it is not simple coercion of the will.

But this isn't hard to see. In human terms if a captain of a ship delegates tasks to crew members and they carry them out as required, the captain was sovereign and they had free will. Sovereignty doesn't require "robots".

Marshall Art said...

And thus, I continue to struggle with determining if we are indeed on the same page or not.

Stan said...

Me, too. I'm not sure what you mean by saying that His Sovereignty and His will are not the same thing.