More Thoughts on the Sovereignty of God and Human Freedom

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Concerning God’s sovereignty and human freedom, Bowman offers the following,

    The Reformed tradition’s insistence on God’s absolute sovereignty is related to its concern for radical aseity [that God is self-originated, self-sustained] . . . both doctrines aim to ensure God’s freedom to save humankind, in opposition to any notion of compulsion. If God does not control all events, the reasoning goes, then something beyond God’s power can threaten our ultimate destiny.
    Combined with the classical doctrines of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, this insistence on sovereignty can result in thoroughgoing determinism. With regard to the doctrine of election, this determinism takes the form of predestination: the proposition that God not only knows in advance all the details of each individual life but also has caused all these details, through them bringing the individual to a predetermined end. The Reformed tradition does not deny human freedom, but it asserts that whatever human beings do with their freedom cannot run counter to the will of God.1

As noted in the past, this definition of God’s sovereignty is rather unfortunate. It also runs the risk of (indeed it is difficult to escape) charging God with evil: for if nothing can come about except by His sovereign control of all events, then the brutal rape and murder of a seven year old little girl was actually the cause of God’s predestination or foreordination; the perpetrator could only do that which God had foreordained to come to pass. Indeed, how can he rightly be held responsible for the act? The violation was decreed by God; he could not do otherwise.

Arminianism will not tolerate such things. God governs His world ~ how can He not, He is sovereign ~ but His rights as sovereign do not necessitate that He control the actions and free will decisions of His creatures. Thus God can never be attributed with evil (James 1:13), and His creatures are morally responsible for the decisions they make.

Moreover, His creatures are also held accountable for their choices. What did Luke write? “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” And why? “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31, TNIV).

If God determines the outcome of each and every person, based not on foreseeing their choices, but by His mere decree (because He desires a certain outcome), then how can people be held accountable for their actions when He has ordained, foreordained, their outcome for them, irrespective of their choices? Is this a God who has confessed that love is part of His very nature? Is this a God who has confessed that He loves justice?

Once again, Bowman offers, The biblical witness that “God is love” has forced theology to admit that an impassible divine being [a God who is untouched or unaffected by His creatures], absolutely without social relationship, cannot be a fully adequate description of the God to whom Christ bore witness.2 Amen!

The Calvinist’s insistence that whatever free will decisions which humans make cannot run counter to the will of God is refuted by Scripture itself. James wrote, “When tempted, no-one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each of you is tempted when you are dragged away by your own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15, TNIV). Not only does God not tempt anyone to sin, He has not foreordained the sin of anyone either.

Does God always get what He wants? That is an interesting question. Here, however, is a better question. Does God want His children to sin? The answer is, No: God does not want His children to sin. By the inspiration of God John wrote, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin” (1John 2:1, TNIV). So it is not God’s will for His children to sin. Then why do they sin? How can anyone run counter to the will of God? (Though I must confess that I once heard a Calvinist admit that God ordains what sins he will commit. At least he was being consistent with his hard-determinist view.)

The trouble with determinism is that it is everywhere refuted throughout the entirety of the Bible, and everywhere assumed that responsible, moral creatures have the freedom to make choices, and these choices are not coerced by God. God has granted His creatures a certain amount of freedom of will. It is not a total freedom, and I do not personally know any Arminian who holds that God has granted people totality of freedom. Yet, people make choices (free will choices) everyday which run against the grain of God’s perfect law and will.

Perhaps I should distinguish between the varying “wills” of God . . . I’m not sure. I simply understand that God in no wise determines evil. Can you imagine a Being who hates sin but also decrees it? And yes, decreeing and permitting are two entirely different things. (I suspected that argument to be raised immediately.)

When I talk about God decreeing a thing to happen, I mean God being the cause of it happening and bringing it about. Thus God permitted the fall, but He did not cause the fall; He did not bring it about,as R. C. Sproul, Jr. insists. Could He have prevented the fall? Yes, He could have. But what kind of reality could we know if God intervened in every (bad) decision which humans make? What about the consequences of our choices?

We understand reality by trial and error. If I put my hand on a hot stove top, I will burn my hand. But what if God foreordained that every time I put my hand on a hot stove top, it would not get burned, but my dormmate’s hand would get burned? How could we understand reality? Would not reality then be subjective?

If philosophy is the handmaid of theology, then we need to think about these things. We need to think about the consequences of our theology. Is God’s sovereignty and human freedom compatible? Arminians believe so. Forlines wrote,

    The New Testament does not use the noun form of “will” to refer to the faculty or organ of choice in man. Instead, the verb form (thelo) is used (Mt. 16.24; 21.29; 23.37; Mk. 8.34; Jn. 7.17; Rev. 22.17; and others). By “will” we mean power of choice. Every command, every prohibition, every exhortation, and every entreaty made in the Bible to human beings presupposes that they are capable of making choices.3

As has been noted previously, this freedom does not include making a salvific choice whenever a person desires (which is semi-Pelagianism), for a sinful human being would never desire God’s salvation naturally. Arminians are not vying to defend that type of freedom. We all agree that a person is saved by God’s grace through faith. Arminians believe that God graces a person to freely choose Christ Jesus when that person hears the gospel and the Spirit of God convicts the heart concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16.8-11). The freedom we speak of is the God-given freedom to make choices that bear consequences; choices that God did not make for the individual.

1 Donna Bowman, The Divine Decision (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 126.

2 Ibid., 125.

3 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 314.