There exists no ambiguity in the biblical record regarding God’s absolute sovereignty over everything. Nevertheless, people struggle to harmonize God’s extensive control over all and human responsibility. Usually the problem sounds something like this; “If God declares the end from the beginning, and nothing happens that has not been accomplished by His hand, then how can God justly hold men accountable for their actions?”
My most honest answer is, “I don’t know.” That being said, the Bible clearly teaches both. Although I find it confusing, thankfully, God does not. I must embrace the two tracks without feeling compelled to exceed what is written in Scripture. Thankfully, understanding everything about the unfathomable riches of God is not a prerequisite to discipleship. God’s knowledge and wisdom far exceed my own (Isa. 55:8-9).
In an effort to understand the scope of biblical truth, I share the following insights.
- God’s Sovereign Decrees: Divine Determination. In Romans 9:6-21, the apostle Paul lays out the fact of God’s divine determination. Despite traditional birth-order blessings, God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael to be the descendant through which covenant blessing would come (Rom. 9:6-9). Similarly, God chose Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:10-13). As if to make it clear that God’s choice was unmerited, Paul qualifies that the choice was made when “they were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad” (Rom. 9:11). Finally, Paul illustrates God’s sovereign determination by hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Rom. 9:14-18). According to His good pleasure (Ps. 115:3), God exercised His sovereign right to strengthen Pharaoh’s hatred of Israel for the purpose of demonstration His glory and superiority over the Egyptians and their gods. God has mercy on whomever He desires, and He hardens whomever He will. The point is clear. God does whatever He wants. He sovereignly determined the course of events to accomplish His purpose. This is why Paul anticipates objections. “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Rom. 9:14). Or, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” (Rom. 9:19). The point is clear. God does whatever He pleases at any time and in every place (Ps. 135:6; Isa. 46:10).
- Man’s Simple Decisions: Self-Determination. The anticipated Roman objection to Paul’s teaching on God’s control over mankind actually makes sense to us. After all, who can resist God’s will? The obvious answer to this question is no one (Job 42:2). But, what about man’s freedom? Although I don’t know how to unravel this conundrum, it is helpful to consider man’s faculty of choice.
Freedom of the Will, in my opinion, is one of Jonathan Edwards’ greatest works. In it, he describes the will as the mind choosing. He goes on to say that when the moment of choice arrives, man will always choose according to his strongest inclination at that moment. Consider that a person’s inclination is born out of what he desires, and desires are a reflection of man’s nature.
At this point, it is important to make a distinction. There is a difference between free will and free choice. The former speaks of an unfettered and uninfluenced will. The latter speaks of the mechanism of choice being exercised without compulsion. If one accepts Edwards’ premise, which I do, the mind can only choose according to the strongest inclination. But, if one is completely free of influence (inclination), then how will the mind ever choose? It’s absurd to think that we choose things apart from our desires. Even when options are limited to bad and worse, we choose the option that we believe to be most desirable. Nevertheless, even when our options are diminished, we choose freely. No one is forcing us to choose one over the other. This is self-determination. You choose freely in accordance with your strongest inclination and desire.
Man’s choices are both determined and free. They are determined by God’s ultimate sovereignty under which all things exist. Yet, they are self-determined because man freely without compulsion chooses according to his strongest desire.
Let me try to give you a visual handle. These two truths are like the two rails of a train track. They never intersect and they are both leading in the same direction. The only way for the train to move forward is to use both rails and maintain their distinct positions. On the one rail, God ordains everything for His divine purposes. On the other rail, we choose freely making us responsible for our choices.
I think Paul hints at these two realities at work in our sanctification when he says, “So then, my beloved, just as you have obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).