Are The Sovereignty of God and Free Will Incompatible?

, posted by Evan Minton

“If God  is all sovereign then free will is impossible. If people have free will then God is not sovereign” is what one Calvinist said to me once. I’ve heard this complaint a few times since then. I honestly don’t see how he’s right though. It seems self defeating to me to say that an all sovereign God cannot choose to give the creatures He creates freedom of choice. After all, He’s sovereign! He can do anything He wants, right? He can give human beings free will if He wants to, right? If He’s not allowed to, then how is He sovereign? Perhaps we need to ask the Calvinist “Who are you O man to question God?” as they love to ask us so often. Perhaps we need to ask the Calvinist “who are you to say whether God can give human beings free will or not? Are you seriously judging God?” The “Who are you O man…” sword can cut both ways you know. God can certainly give human beings free will if He wants to and if He does, we can have confidence that He has very good reasons for doing do. One of the reasons, as I’ve pointed out in a few blog posts in the past (particularly regarding the problem of evil and suffering), is that if human beings don’t have free will, our love for God and for each other would be worthless. For love to be genuine there must exist the possibility not to love. Otherwise, we’d just be a bunch of robots programmed to do good or evil, and programmed to love God and each other, and we’d be no more moral or immoral than a puppet. However, on theological determinism, God determines both good and evil.

God is sovereign. Just because He’s not a grand puppet master in no way means He’s not sovereign. God gives us His laws and punishes us when we disobey them (unless we repent and get redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who took our punishment on Himself so we wouldn’t have to be punished). Just because God’s not a puppet master doesn’t mean he’s not sovereign. Being sovereign means having authority over people. God has authority over us. In His sovereign decree, He has issued that everyone who places their trust in Christ will be redeemed and forgiven of their sins while those who don’t will pay the price themselves in the fires of Hell. He has predestined the criteria for our salvation from the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1). God also sovereignly chose to give men free will, to let men make their own moral decisions. God sovereignly decreed that we have a choice between serving Him and serving sin (see Deuteronomy 30:15-19, Joshua 24:15, Romans 6:16). In His sovereign decree, God chose that Israel would be the nation in which the messiah would come into the world while the nation which descended from Esau did not (this, by the way, was what Paul was actually talking about in Romans 9, not unconditional election of the individuals unto salvation). Arminians believe in all of the above.

He is the King of kings. He makes the laws we are to obey. He gets say on who gets into Heaven and who doesn’t (and His decree is that all of those who choose to place their trust in Christ will get in, whilst punishing those who have sinned and didn’t repent, though the Lord desires that all repent). He makes the rules for us to obey, and no one can change His divine laws that He has decreed. No one can overpower God and force Himself into Heaven. No one can overthrow God and make himself king of kings (as Satan wants to do). The Arminian doctrines of grace do nothing to overthrow the sovereignty of God.

A friend of mine gave an analogy recently with regards to this topic. He said that libertarian freedom does not make God unsovereign. For example, he said a parent might allow his child to make mistakes, but just because he chooses to let his child make the mistake doesn’t mean he’s not in charge. The parent is still very much in charge indeed. Likewise, God is sovereign when he allows people to do things which are not according to His will. Just because He gives people libertarian freedom in no way means that God is not in charge. Of course, I guess it would all depend on your definition of “sovereign”. If what you mean by “sovereign” is a deity who has decreed every tiny motion of every single atom and subatomic particle and every word, thought, and deed in the universe, then yeah, Arminianism makes God unsovereign by that definition. But that’s not the definition I think of when I think of God being “sovereign”. Calvinists must redefine the term “sovereign” in order for their accusation to hold water.

Objection: “If God gives people free will to do something other than God’s will then ‘all things’ would not work out according to God’s will.” – How so? There are two aspects of God’s will. There’s what God desires and what God allows. This is where it gets complicated; I always have a hard time articulating this concept of God directing us while not interfering with free will. A simplified example is in the 2nd paragraph down from this one.

Let’s say that it’s God’s will that I be at a certain place at a certain time, how is God going to get me there without interfering with my free will. Well, He could cause or allow something to happen to me that would influence me in my decision making so that I would choose to do the thing that God wants me to do.

Let’s say it’s God’s will for me to be with a certain woman. Let’s call her Linda. God wants me to end up marrying Linda. How does God get me to pair up with a woman who lives on the other side of town without controlling our minds and determining us to meet at a certain location? How will He do it? Well, God could cause (or permit) both Linda and I to have our cars break down so that we would both go to one of the local mechanics. God influenced both of our decisions by putting something in our paths so that we would freely choose to go to this location so we would meet up with each other at the exact same time, chat while waiting for the minor problems on our cars to get fixed (let’s say it’s a problem so small that it could be fixed in 30 minutes or less) and at the end of the chat, I end up getting her phone number and a planned date. We then date for a couple of years, fall in love and I get her hand in marriage.

Now, I could just as easily put off getting my car fixed until tomorrow, since I have free will and God does not interfere with peoples’ free will. But, God knew ahead of time how I would choose to respond, so He did what He knew would get me to respond in the way He wanted me to (i.e getting my car down to the shop). If that wouldn’t have worked, God would have put something different in our paths to get us to meet. Perhaps He would have allowed us to both get moderately injured so we would meet in the hospital. Perhaps he permitted my dog to get away from me so that, while chasing him, I would come into contact with Linda, who was jogging (I wasn’t determined by God to chase after my dog, but I didn’t want him to run out into the street and get killed, so I freely chose to go after him). Perhaps God was putting things in our path from years and years into the past influencing decision after decision after decision, just letting the dominos fall for a long time so that we would have our fateful encounter.

God can put things in our lives to influence our decision. We can still reject it though. For example, If God wanted me at the hospital at a certain time, to witness to a certain person, He could, for example, allow me or cause me to get into a non-fatal wreck that would injure me so that I would freely choose to go to the hospital. I could be an idiot though and choose not to go even though I’m injured. But because I’m injured, that would be a great influence on me to choose to go. God could put something else in my path as well to get me to go. Thus, God’s will would come about without affecting my freedom of choice. Every Libertarian would tell you that external factors influence our decisions, but they don’t determine them. The person himself is ultimately responsible for whether the external influential factors lead him to commit an act.

I personally think the television show “Touch” (which aired on Fox and, like the majority of Fox television shows, got cancelled after a very short time) does a good job demonstrating how a lot of things can work together to bring about a single outcome. The show has nothing or at least very little to do with God, but the plots of some of the episodes, I think, demonstrates my point of multiple… “ingredients” you might say, in bringing out a certain ideological outcome.

So, I would say that often times things really don’t work out the way God wants it to (wills it to), but again, there are two different aspects of God’s will. His preferred/initial will and his permissive will. God sometimes permits things He doesn’t want in order to bring about an outcome that He does want. To give a personal example, God allowed me to suffer terribly in my pre-Christian life. I still bear emotional scars from those days. While God doesn’t want His creatures to be miserable, He is willing that none shall perish but that all shall come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) and my suffering ultimately led me to a place of brokenness which made me turn to Jesus for help and, of course, led to my spiritual salvation. Jesus wanted me saved more than He didn’t want me to be miserable. And again, this really relates to the problem of suffering, Jesus may allow things to occur in this life which may be contrary to producing happiness in us, but, like a good parent, the Lord wants what’s BEST for us, not necessarily what will make us happy. Parents do this when they make their children eat vegetables that taste yucky to them. Eating the said vegetable doesn’t make the child happy, but it does make them healthy. And that’s the end goal of the parent. The parent wants what’s best for his child, and what’s best for him may not be what will make him happy (at least not in the short term). God is the same way. He wants what’s best for His children, and what’s best for us may not be what makes us immediately happy.

God is a macro-manager, not a micro-manager. God directs things through certain external influence, but He doesn’t determine people’s actions. If God wanted to be a divine puppet master, He could be. Certainly, being omnipotent means He can do anything that’s logically possible, and it’s logically possible to determine people’s actions. But God saw that it was best to let his creatures be free so that our moral actions would be either praiseworthy or contemptible unlike that of a puppet.