Free Will & God’s Sovereignty

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My dormmate at college was reminded of a statement that one of his professors made in class. He stated the fact that, at times, we miss out on a lot in our experience with God by nitpicking over this or that word in a passage of Scripture, its tense and biblical usage. In a phrase: we miss the beauty of the forest on account of the trees. He is right.

However, I am also of the conviction that we miss out on a lot in our experience with God by a neglect over careful and thoughtful study of the doctrines of our faith. And, as what has been demonstrated by the ongoing and never-ending debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, doctrine (theology) matters tremendously. I think this is so because our theology expresses who we are as individuals. And when our theology is challenged, we all tend to take it very personally; that is because I am right: our theology expresses who we are as individuals (how we think and conduct ourselves, what we believe about God, man, salvation, etc.).

I do not agree with everything that Stafford wrote on the (sometimes) “thorny” issue of the sovereignty of God and the free will of His creatures, but I think he was on to something when he stated, “We cannot have it both ways; yet we must. For God the Father and man his child are both so wonderful that when we try to confine either within a logical construct or consecutive ideas, the truth (some vital part of the whole truth) escapes through the chinks in our syllogisms.

“Does that mean that we can have no theology? But as thinking Christians we must have a theology, at some points each his very own; and we must trust our several theologies for their aptness to minds of our type, yet with modest recognition of their probable inadequacy for general and exclusive acceptance.

“We are reminded of the scholastic tenet that all knowledge of God, and hence of man in relation with him, is by analogy. It is as if God were thus and so; yet God is more and other, also, than this analogy can convey . . .

“One reason why I am happy in the fellowship of the small but irenically potent world communion in which the Remonstrant Brotherhood is an honored component is that, in its evolution, it has become the Christian body which perhaps most consistently repudiates the identification of faith with any one set of religious ideas, no matter how artfully articulated.”1

I am not sure if by that last statement he is speaking of a tight, theological system encapsulated, for example, in an acronym such as that of TULIP, or a creed. The Remonstrants did produce a Confession (1621-1622), of which I have posted in part on the Arminian Manifesto website (http://classicalarminianism.com). Moreover, Arminians over the last few decades have been systematizing Arminian theology, a much needed component of Arminianism.

What are the implications in our biblical worldview if we think that humans do not have free will in any capacity? The consequences of such a worldview are not only a biblically inaccurate view of the manner in which God has chosen to work with His creatures in the earth, but also deals a devastating blow to the character of God, not to mention the introduction of a distorted view of reality.

I say that such a consequence is a biblically inaccurate view of the manner in which God has chosen to work with His creatures in the earth because of the plenitude of examples we find in Scripture of God promising to do something under a set of conditions. Thus if people will do such and such, then God will do such and such. The opposite is also true. So God can allow for human free will choices, reward or recompense them for those choices, and remain sovereign (e.g. Deut. 30).

I say that such a consequence deals a devastating blow to the character of God because God would ultimately be responsible for the evil done in the earth if in fact it is He which decreed for such and such to happen. I have often used the horrifying example of the brutal rape and murder of a seven year old girl. If there is no free will, then it was God who caused the perpetrator to perform the heinous act. That is completely and utterly unacceptable (James 1.13-15).

After keeping mankind responsible for his own free will actions, James added, “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1.17, NASB, and henceforth). By unpacking these verses bit by bit, one can conclude that it is impossible for God to cause evil. And if God cannot cause evil, then there are other forces at work which God permits.

But read this carefully: God is still sovereign; He is still working everything out “after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1.11). And in His sovereignty, He will hold everyone personally responsible for the choices they make. Moreover, His plan cannot be thwarted. However, one will search in vain for an explicit definition found in the Bible to the effect that God must control every decision that each human being makes in order to be considered sovereign. He is sovereign, period.

I say that such a consequence distorts reality because of this very thing: the Bible teaches, for example, that it is not God’s will for His regenerated children to sin (1John 2.1), but rather to be sanctified (1Thess. 4.3). It is safe to say that God does not decree, then, the sins which His creatures perform, for how could God confess His hatred for sin (Prov. 8.13) and then decree what sins we commit? What are we to conclude then? It is evident that His children sin. Is God not sovereign because His children do that which He has not decreed?

How you answer that last question says a lot about your theology. I know many, many Calvinists (Sproul included) who admit that humans have free will (though we all agree that will is limited). Both Calvinists and Arminians confess that humans do not have free will with regard to faith in Christ Jesus. God must work in the heart of the sinner if he or she is to receive Christ (though both do not agree as to how that comes about). But please, do not lump Arminians with semi-Pelagians.

We maintain that God is sovereign. We also maintain the God has granted mankind freedom of the will (though that freedom is not total, as I’ve stated many, many times). Yet, God is not obligated to make choices for His creatures in order to rightly be called sovereign. This is Arminian theology 101.

1 Russell Henry Stafford, “Faith and Wonder,” Man’s Faith and Freedom, ed. Gerald O. McCulloh (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 114-115.