There have been countless words written about God’s sovereignty. And probably just as much has been written about human free will. Most would seem to agree that God is sovereign, at least in some measure. And most seem to agree that humans have, or at least seem to have, some form of free will. But there is a lot of debate over the extent of sovereignty and free will as well as the compatibility of these two things.
This article will attempt to articulate Gods sovereignty and human free will in a way that is both faithful to the Scripture and in harmony with each other.
What Is Sovereignty?
The dictionary defines sovereignty as “supreme power or authority.” A king who rules a nation would be considered that nation’s sovereign – one who is not answerable to any other person. While few countries today are ruled by sovereigns, it was common in ancient times.
A sovereign is ultimately responsible for the establishing and enforcing the laws that regulate life within their specific nation. Laws may be implemented at lower levels of the government, but the law mandated by the sovereign is supreme and overrides any others. Enforcement of the laws and execution of punishment will also likely be delegated in most cases. But the authority for that enforcement lies with the sovereign.
Repeatedly, the Scripture identifies God as sovereign. Most notably you find it in Ezekiel where he is identified as “Sovereign Lord” 210 times. While the Scripture sometimes pictures a heavenly council, it is God alone who rules over his creation.
In the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, we find the law code given by God to Israel through Moses. But God’s moral law is also written on the hearts of all people (Rom. 2:14-15). Deuteronomy, along with all the prophets, makes it clear that God holds us responsible for obeying his law. Likewise, there are consequences for failing to obey his revelation to us. While God has delegated some responsibility to human government (Rom. 13:1-7), he is still ultimately sovereign.
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Does Sovereignty Demand Absolute Control?
A question that divides those who otherwise adhere to the sovereignty of God concerns the amount of control that requires. Is it possible for God to be sovereign if people are able to act in ways that are contrary to his will?
On the one hand are those who would deny that possibility. They would say that God’s sovereignty is somehow diminished if he is not in total control of everything that happens. Everything must happen in the way that he has planned.
On the other hand are those who would understand that God, in his sovereignty, has granted a certain amount of autonomy to humanity. This “free will” allows humanity to act in ways that are contrary to how God might wish for them to act. It is not that God is powerless to stop them. Rather he has granted us permission to act as we do. Yet, even though we might act contrary to God’s will, his purpose in creation will be accomplished. There is nothing we can do that will thwart his purpose.
Which view is correct? Throughout the Bible we find people who acted contrary to the instruction God had given to them. The Bible even goes so far as to claim that there is no one, apart from Jesus, who is good, who does what God wants (Rom. 3:10-20). The Bible describes a world that is in rebellion against their creator. That seems at odds with a God who is in total control of all that happens. Unless those in rebellion against him do so because it is God’s will for them.
Consider the sovereignty that we are more familiar with: the sovereignty of an earthly king. This sovereign has the responsibility for establishing and enforcing the rules of the kingdom. That sometimes people break his sovereignly established rules does not make him less sovereign. Nor can his subjects break those rules with impunity. There are consequences for acting in ways contrary to the sovereign’s wishes.
Three Views of Human Free Will
Free will implies the ability to make choices within some constraints. For instance, I can choose, among a limited set of options, what I will eat for dinner. And I can choose whether I am going to obey the speed limit. But I cannot choose to act contrary to the physical laws of nature. I do not have a choice in whether or not gravity will pull me to the ground when I jump out of a window. Nor can I choose to sprout wings and fly.
One group of people will deny that we actually have free will. That free will is only an illusion. This position is determinism, that every instant of my story is controlled by the laws that run the universe, my genetics, and my environment. Divine determinism would identify God as the one who determines my every choice and action.
A second view holds that free will exists, after a fashion. This view holds that God works in the circumstances of my life to ensure that I freely make the choices that God wants me to. This view is often labeled as compatibilism because it is compatible with a strict view of sovereignty. Yet it really seems to be little different from divine determinism since in the end people are always making the choices that God wants from them.
The third view is generally called libertarian free will. This position is sometimes defined as the ability to have chosen other than what you ultimately did. This view is often attacked as being incompatible with God’s sovereignty because it allows a person to act in ways that are contrary to God’s will.
As pointed out above though, the Scripture makes it clear that humans are sinful, acting in ways that are contrary to God’s revealed will. It is hard to read the Old Testament without seeing this repeatedly. It does at least appear from the Scripture that humans have libertarian free will.
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Two Views of Sovereignty and Free Will
There are two ways that God’s sovereignty and human free will can be reconciled. The first argues that God is in complete control. That nothing happens apart from his direction. In this view free will is either an illusion or what is identified as compatibilist free will – a free will where we freely make the choices that God has arranged for us to make.
The second way these are reconciled is to see God’s sovereignty including a permissive element. In God’s sovereignty, he allows us to make free choices (at least within certain limits.) This view of sovereignty is compatible with libertarian free will.
So, which of these two is correct? It seems to me that a primary story line of the Bible is humanity’s rebellion against God, and his working to bring redemption to us. Nowhere is God pictured as less than sovereign.
But throughout, humanity is pictured as acting contrary to God’s revealed will. Repeatedly we are called to act in a certain way. Yet by and large we choose to follow our own way. I find it hard to reconcile the Bible’s picture of humanity with any form of divine determinism. To do so would seem to make God ultimately responsible for our disobedience to his revealed will. It would require a secret will of God that is at odds with his revealed will.
Reconciling Sovereignty and Free Will
It is not possible for us to fully understand the sovereignty of the infinite God. He is too high above us for anything like complete understanding. Yet we are made in his image, bearing his likeness. So, when we try to understand the love, goodness, righteousness, mercy, and sovereignty of God, our human understanding of those concepts should be a reliable, albeit limited, guide.
So, while human sovereignty is more limited than God’s sovereignty, I believe that we can use the one to understand the other. In other words, what we know of human sovereignty is the best guide we have toward understanding God’s sovereignty.
Recall that a human sovereign is responsible for making and enforcing the rules that govern his kingdom. That is likewise true of God. In God’s creation, he makes the rules. And he enforces and judges any violation of those laws.
Under a human sovereign, the subjects are free to follow or disobey the rules mandated by the sovereign. But to disobey the laws comes at a cost. With a human sovereign it is possible that you might be able to break a law without getting caught and paying the penalty. But that would not be true with a sovereign who is omniscient and righteous. Every violation would be known and punished.
That the subjects are free to violate the king’s laws does not diminish his sovereignty. In a like manner, that we as humans are free to violate God’s laws does not diminish his sovereignty. With a finite human sovereign, my disobedience might derail some plan of the sovereign. But that would not be true of an omniscient, omnipotent sovereign. He would know my disobedience before it occurred and have planned around it to be able to fulfill his purpose in spite of me.
And that seems to be the model described in the Scriptures. God is sovereign and is the source of our moral code. And we, as his subjects, follow or disobey. For obedience there is reward. For disobedience there is punishment. But his willingness to allow us to disobey does not diminish his sovereignty.
While there are some individual passages that would seem to support a deterministic approach to free will, the Scripture as a whole teaches that, while God is sovereign, humans do have a free will that allows us to choose to act in ways that are contrary to God’s will for us.
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Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.