On the Sovereignty of God and the Free Will of Man.
God is Sovereign. In the end, God will have His way. But meanwhile, today, God doesn't always get His way. This explains why there is evil in the world, and why we have the power to choose between good and evil. He has given us each free will, with which we choose.
The modern resurgence of Calvinism in Christian circles has brought forth many discussions about the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. Historically (in theological circles), the terms “sovereignty” and “free will” have been thoroughly hashed, and rather over-defined, in my opinion. Consequently, the student of Calvinist theology often enters into discussions on the topic with a considerable set of definitions and presuppositions to which the average Christian layman is not privy. This leads to disagreement, not because the layman doubts God’s sovereignty, but because he takes the meanings of the words “sovereignty” and “free will” at face value, whereas the Calvinist argues from a much more “educated” perspective in which the words have very complex, sometimes convoluted meanings which can only be discerned through extensive study of the writings of historical theologians.
I love theology, but I love God’s people more. Thus it grieves me to watch someone’s understanding of God come under fire due to a razor’s-edge definition of terms, and what really amounts to the mincing of words, and an argument over semantics. Yes, I believe we should be very clear in our thinking, and the pursuit of a clearer understanding of sound doctrine is a worthy one. But let us not destructively cut across the grain of someone’s relationship with Christ over the exact meaning of a word, please. I have seen this happen too many times, especially by young Calvinists who have learned some stuff and now feel empowered to wield their sword of knowledge in their effort to “demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God.” (2 Corinthians 10:4,5).
The logical fallacy that ensnares the Calvinist indeed centers around his own consideration of the sovereignty of God. Watch closely...
A Christian may say to an atheist, "God is sovereign in my life. Is God sovereign in yours?" See, the atheist will answer, "No, for I don't believe god exists."
Now, is the atheist lying?
The Calvinist will insist that the atheist is lying, on the grounds that God is sovereign, period. Others, however, will observe that, though God is ultimately sovereign, the atheist has excercised his free will to insist not only that God is not sovereign, but that He doesn't even exist.
As Christians we all understand that in this fallen world, everyone has their own version of reality. Yet we Christians have come to understand that there is only one ultimate reality, and we thank God that He, by His grace, has brought us into it.
Now, within that framework, we might recognize that the atheist is not lying, but rather, is expositing his own reality. He just doesn't know what he's talking about, because, unbeknownst to him, his ultimate reality entails eternity in hell, after the ultimate sovereignty of the One whom he has eschewed comes to bear upon his own personal reality. It is a sad, tragic event that should have been averted, and there is only a sense of loss.
But if the atheist is lying in claiming that God is not sovereign in his life, we have a conundrum: If he has free will, he is lying of his own accord… except that if he is lying, then he [necessarily, from basic logic] is being purposefully deceptive, and therefore, though he is telling us that God is not sovereign in his life, God actually is sovereign, and he knows it, else it wouldn't be a lie.
Add to this the Calvinist definition of God's sovereignty, and we come to the rub. According to the Calvinists that I have spoken with, if God is not in direct control of everything that goes on, then He is not sovereign, and since the Bible tells us that God is sovereign, He must therefore be in control of everything that goes on. This, I believe is the Calvinist's error—this important and pivotal definition.
The Bible clearly states that God is sovereign, so let us take that as a given. The Bible does not tell us, however, that God is in direct control of everything that goes on, in so many words. This is a conclusion that requires inference on our part. In other words, in order for us to come to the conclusion that God is in direct control of everything that goes on, we must infer it as fact, based on our assumed definition of sovereignty.
And this is the reason Calvinists cannot bear to consider that man might have a free will—because man's free will negates the possibility that God is in direct control of everything that goes on, and hence (for the Calvinist), His sovereignty.
This brings us back to the conundrum, and explains why the Calvinist view of God's sovereignty does not withstand rigorous logical scrutiny...
The Calvinist will assert that our atheist friend is not telling the truth, for God's sovereignty is absolute, thus God is sovereign over the man's life whether he knows it or not. In this sense, most Christians would likely agree, though some may not. I have no problem agreeing that God is sovereign over the atheist's life (apart from the atheist's knowledge thereof), as long as we allow for the atheist to be expressing his own free will in asserting otherwise. In other words, it could be God's sovereign will for the man to lie. But if we disclaim that the atheist has free will, we make God the author of his lie, since now the atheist can only automatically say or do that which God is making him do or say.
Therefore the notion that sovereignty necessarily equates to direct control over every detail is invalidated.
Furthermore, if God's sovereignty means that He directly controls every action of every person, then what is grace? What is forgiveness? What could possibly be the meaning of "gone astray?" How could any of us have ever departed from the will of God? Indeed, what, then, is sin?
If sin is disobedience to God, and God's sovereignty means that He is in direct control of our every thought, word, and deed, then how is it that any of us has sinned?
The only answer is that the sovereignty of God does not infer direct control, and that man has a will of his own which can either be aligned or misaligned with the will of God.
This definition of sovereignty furthermore squares with my own observations and experience with the concept of sovereignty and its out-workings in our world. A king (the Sovereign) of a nation has, generally, ultimate authority over all that goes on within his realm, whether immediate or eventual. He is not, however, in direct control of everything that goes on. One might say that my analogy is logically invalid, since the man we're talking about (the king) is not God, and is therefore incapable of direct control of everything, whereas God, being omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc., is in fact capable of direct control over everything that goes on. This is true, but it does not invalidate the analogy. For there are many things that a king could control, but which he chooses not to; because he delegates—he entrusts various activities to the administration of his ministers. And God does the same thing.
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.
—1 Peter 4:10 NIV
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
—1 Corinthians 4:1-5 NIV
This passage, in my estimation, speaks volumes regarding God's sovereignty! "… wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden…" See, we are not automatons. He is not directly controlling us. Instead, He has entrusted certain things to us, and it is up to us how faithfully (by His grace) we will discharge our duties and responsibilities. God is most certainly Sovereign over our universe, and there will come a time when His sovereignty shall be made fully manifest in the immediate—a grand, final culmination of the Sovereign Will of God.
Today, there are millions who doubt the sovereignty of God. On that day, however, there will be no doubt! At a certain point, God's forbearance will have run its course; He will no longer wait for us to repent, and His sovereign decree regarding punishment for sin shall be carried out with a finality, the likes of which no living being has ever before witnessed!
THIS is the sovereignty of God, my friends. And let us thank God that that day is not here yet! For each of us still has opportunity to repent.
I have asserted in past discussions that "God doesn't always get His way." I have been labeled a heretic for this statement by some who interpret it as a denial of the sovereignty of God. I disagree, because I don't subscribe to their definition of sovereignty, which I find to be overly simplistic, and, quite frankly, childish. God is not a bully. He does not deal with us through direct manipulation. Rather, he reasons with us, and waits patiently for our wills to come into alignment with His own good and perfect will.
Our spiritual regeneration, our sanctification, is not monergistic in nature. It is not accomplished solely by God, apart from our own participation (though He is the author and finisher of our faith). It is synergistic. Otherwise, why would He give us the immense gift of the indwelling of His Holy Spirit? He can make animals speak, and they do not have His Spirit. Could He not make us do His will by force? Yes, but He doesn't. There is no scriptural example of "sanctification by force." Our sanctification always involves our participation. Why?
It is because God has made us more noble than the animals. He has given us a free will—something that transcends basic instinct—something that looks more like God—as though we were created in His own image.