The Sovereignty of God and Humanity’s Free Will

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What is it about your theology that you feel you must let go of in order to hang on to something else? Some have claimed that Calvinists must let go of free will in order to hang on to God’s sovereignty. Others have said that Arminians have to let go of God’s sovereignty in order to hang on to free will. Question: Cannot both be held on to?

Now, some will say that I am starting to sound more like an Amyraldian than an Arminian ( Those four point Calvinists want it all! Really, all I am asking is, Why can God not be considered sovereign AND human beings experience free will? After all, Arminians believe this is the common experience we all share in God’s world every day. Let me explain.

One aspect about Arminianism which I truly admire is its view on God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will and accountability to Him. The Arminian senses no strain between God being sovereign and people having free will. You will never hear an Arminian say, “I’m having trouble reconciling God’s sovereignty with man’s free will.” Yet, it is how one comes to define those terms where disagreement crops up between Calvinists and Arminians.

For the Arminian, God is completely sovereign. He rules and reigns over His creatures, and He can do whatever He wants (Ps. 115.3). However, that does not mean that God can do evil. Even God is limited as to what He can do. He cannot, for example, do anything which is contrary to His nature (be unholy, cease to exist, make a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it, etc.). God has limits. Here, Calvinists and Arminians agree.

I would even go so far as to say that God limits Himself according to His own goodness, love, holiness, justice, and counsel within the Godhead. If He so chose, God could reveal Himself in all of His glory to all of humanity today. That choice, however, would be the ruin of all human existence (Ex. 33.20). So God hides His face from us, not because He does not love us, but because He does love us.

The fact that God is sovereign does not run contrary to Arminianism in the slightest. In my opinion, Calvinists run up against a wall that is fixed between God’s sovereignty and human freedom (and accountability) because of their defintion of sovereingty. When Calvinists say that they believe in God’s sovereignty, what they mean, at least as far as His sovereignty in salvation is concerned, is that God has the right to elect one person unto salvation and reprobate another. But I ask: Where did that definition come from? Where in the Bible is it stated that God’s sovereignty must be defined in those terms?

They have, in my opinion, backed themselves into a corner by inaccurately defining sovereignty. And because of this, they necessarily come to a place where only proclaiming “antinomy” can ease their consciences; for in their view, God’s sovereignty and human freedom are incompatible, even if both things are taught in the Bible.

The moral and/or ethical question of God’s sovereignty concerning election aside, where does one find the Calvinists’ definition of sovereignty? Is it assumed? Is it implied in a verse(s)? Did Paul or Peter give that definition somewhere in the Bible? Did Jesus Himself say that God’s sovereignty includes the idea of whom He would or would not elect unto salvation?

At the same time, we need to carefully define what we mean by human freedom. We ceratinly do not mean that humans are completely free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. And why is this so? Well, at the risk of sounding inconsistent, we would have to concede that a person’s freedom is governed by God’s sovereignty.

Are people as bad as they could be? No. And why not? Because of God’s common grace. It is thought that if God should remove His restraining power (2Thess. 2.7), people may run amok. Even among regenerated people, some are not as good as they could be ~ that blade cuts both ways. So, how can a balanced view between God’s sovereignty and human freedom and accountability be maintained?

Both Calvinists and Arminians teach that God must work in the hearts and minds of people if anyone is going to be saved. And while both sides draw different conclusions as to how that happens, still, both camps believe that humans are not as free as they think, and that God remains sovereign.

My suggestion for the Calvinist is to maintain that free will genuinely exists, in part, not in total, and also uphold God’s sovereignty. Clearly, people freely reject Christ Jesus every day, do they not? And clearly, the Westminster Confession teaches that God “makes His elect willing” to receive Christ. Though the Arminian will protest the language of “making someone willing” to do anything (an apparent contradiction), still, according to Westminster language and usage, God makes His elect willing.

My suggestion for the Arminian is to defend God’s sovereignty while maintaining a balanced view of humanity’s free will. God is in complete control and that teaching should never be diminished. If God were not in control, if He were not sovereign, He could not be God. Though we (Arminians) believe that God frees a person’s will in order for him or her to freely choose Christ Jesus as Savior, it was still His grace and love for human beings which initiated such a choice: so, He deserves all the praise for a believer’s salvation.

In this short post I am aiming at encouraging both sides of the debate to not let go of one biblical teaching in order to hang on to another. God is sovereign, and man is free. God does not have to control free will decisions in order to be considered sovereign, unless, of course, you believe that God is the cause and instigator of evil as well as good.