Reconciling God’s sovereignty with humanity’s free will has been a perennial challenge among evangelicals. Perhaps no discussion has spilled more ink and strained more relationships in the history of Christianity. If God is sovereign, controlling every aspect of this universe, how can we believe humans are really free moral beings? Conversely, if humans are truly free, how can God be authentically sovereign?
God’s sovereignty is clearly seen in Scripture. “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”, declares the Psalmist (Ps 115:3). Solomon observed: “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD” (Pr. 21:30). When Job addresses God, saying, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2), he is acknowledging God’s absolute sovereignty.
The Scriptures also present people as having ability to make free moral choices. After he led Israel into the promised land, Joshua challenged them: “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Jos 24:15). Grieved over Jerusalem’s refusal to accept his messiahship, Jesus said: “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt 13:34).
It is naïve to think that this short column will resolve all difficulties inherent in maintaining divine sovereignty and human freedom, but a few biblical statements can point us in the right direction.
Joseph, responding to his brothers’ fear of retaliation for their ill-treatment of him, assured them, saying, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Ge 50:19-20). The brothers had schemed to hurt Joseph, but God sovereignly used their freely chosen evil deed to accomplish a good purpose, the preservation of Israel.
When encouraging the Philippian believers to continue growing spiritually, Paul wrote: “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Php. 2:14). Here Paul tells us that, along with the ability to live obediently, God also provides the motivation. He both prompts us and enables us to do what we ought to do as believers.
We must humbly acknowledge our inability to find a total resolution to this tension – by faith we must accept the clear teaching of Scripture. We are presented with a God, who by definition, rules the universe. And yet this sovereign God allows us to make choices everyday, and while we freely exercise those choices, he unfailingly accomplishes his will.
It was Moses who said: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Dt. 29:29). This verse is not intended to help us avoid hard questions, but rather it is a reminder that believers live by the clear commands of God, leaving the secret decrees of God with God.