No one tells him what to do or bosses him around or forces his hand. He is large and in charge. His will shall prevail in the end. How does human free will interact with this?
This post covers two attributes or perfections of God: sovereign will and freedom. Sometimes theologians treat God’s freedom and his will separately, but I have merged them under free will.
It is communicable or transferrable or “shareable” with us because we are made in the image of God and because he has given us a high degree of free will and personal sovereignty—within limits. No, it is not possible to measure the quantity of those human attributes precisely, but the Scriptures and our experience confirms them.
Let’s return to God’s sovereign free will.
What do theologians say?
Don’t be frustrated if you have to read this section over several times before it “clicks.”
Theologians make distinctions in the will of God.
The first class of distinctions is further subdivided into two distinctions: (a) God’s necessary will and (b) his free will.
God’s necessary will says that he exists and cannot will that he not exist. He eternally wants to exist as he is. He cannot will himself to be different, like becoming something other than good or love or holy or not existing at all. Call it God’s self-determination.
Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof defines it thus: It is a perfection or attribute in his Being, “whereby He, in a most simple act, goes out to Himself as the highest good (i.e. He delights in himself as such) and towards His creatures for His own name’s sake, and is thus the ground of their being and continued existence” (p. 77, emphasis original).
God delights in himself? He is perfect love, after all. No self-loathing in him!
God’s free will says that he wills with perfect freedom that things, like creation itself, exist. But there was no necessity or compulsion in his will to do them. He did them out of his perfectly free will. He created us out of his love and goodness, although he did not have to. No one can coerce him or force his hand; no one can dictate terms to him. God is perfectly free.
The second class is also subdivided into two further distinctions: (a) his secret or hidden or decretive will and (b) his revealed or preceptive will (that’s preceptive, not perceptive!).
The word decretive is related to the word decree. God’s decrees remain hidden unless he reveals them or they already happened and are visible to us or known to us. An example is his decree that called the universe into existence. We now know his secret or hidden or decretive will because we see the stars and sun and so on, and Scripture tells us he did it.
The word preceptive is related to precept, which means he reveals to us what to do, usually by his commands or precepts, like the Ten Commandments or thousands of other verses in the inspired Bible. Before the Bible existed, God used moral law, which humans can perceive through God’s gift of reason and their God-given consciences. Through moral law he revealed his will to humans.
Quick definition: The attribute or perfection of God’s sovereign free will means that he exists in himself, delighting in his existence, and is the foundation of our existence.
What do the Scriptures say?
So that this post does not get too long, I don’t quote the verses, but provide the references. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations or in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
God’s necessary will; he is self-existent: Ex. 3:14
God’s free will: Is. 43:7; 48:9-11; Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 1:12; Rev. 4:11
His secret or hidden or decretive will: Deut. 29:29; Ps. 115:3; Dan. 4:17; cf. vv. 25, 32, 35; Rom. 11:33-34; Eph. 1:8-9
His revealed or preceptive will: Matt. 7:21; 12:50; John 4:34; 7:17; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 1:10
Questions and Answers
In this complicated topic, inevitably some questions emerge. Let’s see if we can answer them—though not to everyone’s satisfaction.
1.. Is God totally and absolutely sovereign?
The Bible affirms that he is, but this has to be balanced with the biblical truth that humans have a significant amount of free will, so they can resist God’s preceptive will and cause a lot of damage to themselves and the world systems. One example among numerous others: The Seventh Commandment says not to commit adultery (Ex. 20:14), but David did with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:4). Positive evidence for free will exists when he commands us to obey. Paul said that as a Pharisee, before he met Jesus on the Road to Damascus, he achieved faultless righteousness through the law or law keeping (though he found a better way to righteousness through Christ) (Phil. 3:6). Psalm 119 is full of righteous commands, and so is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and the ethical passages at the end of Paul’s epistles. (Love! Do not get drunk! Go!) (Even unbelievers outside of Christ can decide to stop getting drunk or to love their wives so that they maintain their marriages.) Do we obey righteous commands perfectly and always? No, but we do sometimes and imperfectly.
If we had no or very little free will, then issuing these commands would be incomprehensible and needless and useless. So humans are caught between obedience and disobedience (Rom. 7:14-20), but a significant measure of free will still exists to obey or not.
Further, Satan is called the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4); the prince of this world (John 12:31); and the ruler of the kingdom of the air (Eph. 2:2). He rules a kingdom opposed to God’s kingdom (Matt. 12:25-26; 25:41); he controls to some degree the present sinful world (1 John 5:19; Rev. 12:9); he can even thwart the spread of the gospel (Matt. 13:19; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 1 Thess. 2:18). Thus God temporarily allows Satan to have a measure of sovereignty. (The good news is that in Christ we can defeat Satan in our individual lives and through the gospel defeat him in the individual lives of others.)
So, no, God does not have absolute, total control at the present time. Humans and Satan have a certain degree of jurisdictional authority–in their own jurisdiction or bailiwick. However, in the end God will have his way. He will send his Son to return to earth and to judge humanity and throw Satan in the lake of fire. Nothing or no one can or will stop this decree. Then his attributes of total and absolute freedom and sovereignty—which he has right now—will shine visibly for all to see.
2.. If God’s total sovereignty is not total, doesn’t that diminish who is, so he is not perfectly God?
No. In his pure essence he is totally sovereign, but as he interacts with humans, whom he gifted to have a large degree of free will, then he voluntarily and temporarily limits his sovereignty from a human point of view. It is much like the other attributes. If he were to display them in their fulness (e.g. his glory), humans could not take it in their fleshly bodies. They would die!
We live in the tension between the already and not yet of his kingdom. It is already partly revealed, but not yet in its entirety and full power. This is true of his absolute and total sovereign free will.
But as noted, which will be repeated several times, when he wraps up human history and takes charge, then his attribute of total and absolute sovereign free will—which he has right now in his essence and being—shall shine for all to see.
3.. So does God’s will get frustrated?
God himself and his will in its pure nature is never frustrated, as if things catch him by surprise or off guard. But his revealed or preceptive will can get frustrated when people break it. However, his decrees will never get frustrated, any more than humans can stop the sun from shining or Christ from coming back.
4.. Does God sovereignly establish and ordain all governments?
At first glance, the Scripture indicates that he does (Prov. 21:1; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 13:1-2), but a more careful examination of Rom. 13:1-2, for example, reveals that this is a general statement. Generalizations exist everywhere in Scripture, like the Proverbs. A classic example is in Matt. 19:26, which says, “With God all things are possible.” But we must not over-interpret that verse, for it is not possible to God to violate his holiness and turn evil, for example. General statements, even with the word all in them, have exceptions. All does not always mean “all”!
Knowing this, therefore, we can avoid these absurdities:
God ordained the evil Nazi government, yet God ordained the allied governments, which rightly destroyed the Nazi government.
In the US, God ordained the slave states to enshrine slavery in their founding documents, yet God ordained the free states, which rightly defeated the slave states in the Civil War.
No, those paired statements are incompatible, for God is not both righteous and unrighteous.
Once again, God has given humans a significant measure of free will and temporarily allows Satan a measure of free rein and reign. So, as noted, God’s absolute and total sovereignty is not yet shining in its full revelation at this present time from a human point of view, but one day he shall halt satanic and human governments and take all of it over for himself. That’s the theme of the entire book of the Revelation.
5.. What about human sin and God’s sovereignty?
Humans have a significant measure of free will, a gift from God’s decree, and he does not violate it. People voluntarily sin, and Satan can tempt them too (1 Chron. 21:1; Matt. 16:23; Acts 5:3; 1 Thess. 3:5). God did not ordain or decree humans to commit sin, which would violate his attributes of holiness and righteousness. He foresaw and foreknew they would sin, but he did not cause them to do it. Let’s not confuse his foresight and foreknowledge with his causation. (He foresaw and foreknew the rise of the Nazi regime, but he did not cause it.)
But since by decree he graciously gave humans a certain measure of free will, he indirectly permitted sin to enter the world. In giving free will to us, he decided to risk the possibility of sin entering the world. But only in free will is love possible. “Love” that is forced is not love. Androids don’t love. People do.
6.. Does God have any sovereign control over human free will?
He coaxes and draws people to himself through their consciences over time and by revealing his will to them through Scripture, the preaching of the gospel, and even by giving tailor-made, special revelations, like dreams or visions. He even knows what we will choose, given the right circumstances, so he produces or orchestrates circumstances so we can choose rightly. So he can influence human free will, but he does not stomp on it or even control it. He uses persuasion.
7.. But how much free will do humans have relative to God’s sovereignty?
As noted in the Introduction to this post, no one can measure human free will, as if one could count up molecules under a high-powered microscope. But Scripture and our private, inner experience teach us that we have a large degree of free will.
8.. How does human free will and God’s sovereignty relate to our salvation?
To summarize the previous points, humans have enough free will to resist God’s call and grace in their lives and are therefore responsible for their own decision to reject him. But they do not have enough free will to stride into God’s presence without his grace and to save themselves. Self-induced salvation denies too many Scriptures about God’s gift of faith and grace. They may as well join other religions in which people have to work for their salvation or nirvana. In biblical Christianity, he draws them to himself.
Bottom line: God woos and courts us, not rapes us.
The big picture in the global Church
It should be noted at a website like this one that Pentecostals, a variety of Charismatics on the Protestant side, and many Baptist denominations, whether Charismatic or not, believe that humans have a large degree of free will, while many (but not all) in the Reformed traditions, whether charismatic or not, minimize it, in comparison.
Further, Christian philosophers who come up with explanations (theodicies) for human or moral evil versus God’s omnipotence (all-powerful) and love and goodness also posit a large amount of human free will to resolve the conflict. Humans, not God, are the cause of and are responsible for moral evil.
So, once again, there is a balance between God’s sovereignty and human free will. The debate will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, which the endless debate on social media proves. If there were an absolutely clear answer, the debates and discussions would cease. So I suggest you don’t spend much time on it. I don’t.
But you decide.
How do I know God better?
Let’s return to the subject of this post—God’s freedom and sovereignty.
God created the universe out of his perfectly free and sovereign will. He did not have to, but he did. He knows it backwards and forwards, every part and parcel. You are part of his creation. He knows you thoroughly, completely. Therefore it is best that you submit your free will to his sovereign control. It may be difficult at first because your free will can morph into stubbornness and arrogance. Many humans refuse to submit to anyone.
But do you really know God? He is love. He is good. He is for you, not against you. He wants the best for you.
Once you realize that, your heart melts. You surrender to his sovereignty—his sovereign love and goodness.
A warning, though. Sometimes God leads you through trials according to his will, which life itself is also full of (1 Pet. 3:17; 4:19; John 16:33). But he will sustain you.
And for the record, in your trials, he did not cause disease, for he is good. (If you believe God gave you cancer, then why go to the doctors? Aren’t you breaking God’s will?) Jesus spent all his ministry healing people, not putting diseases on them.
But whatever happens to you through your trials, God will get the ultimate triumph and victory, making all things work together for good (Rom. 8:31-39). Trust him.
Surrendering to the totally sovereign God is still the best decision you can make. He is wooing you and courting you right now. It’s time to give him your entire life, not gradually, in small parts and in bits and pieces. Completely. Now.
Then God will lead you to great things—to know him better.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Sovereign and Free