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Balancing God's Sovereignty and Humanity's Free Will

Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, and author of Biblical Prayer for Today's Believers: Transform Your Prayer Life (available on Amazon).

Who Gets to Choose?

Christian theologians are divided over how God's sovereignty and humanity's free will interact with each other.

According to Calvinists, those who believe in Jesus unto eternal life do so because God chose to make them believe in Jesus so they will be saved; and, those who do not believe in Jesus fail to do so because God chose for them to not believe in Jesus so they will be lost. God must first give salvation and eternal life to the human, and only then will the human repent, believe the gospel, and love Jesus.

However, according to Arminians, it is the human who must choose to repent and believe in God. God loved every human, and He sent Jesus Christ to die for the sins of every human so that any human who believes in Jesus may be saved. God does not wish for anyone to perish. Instead, He wishes everyone to have eternal life—however, He allows every human to make his own choice.

Then, there is the Molinist view: Molinists believe that God has placed every human in the place, time, and situation that will most likely enable the individual to repent, believe in Jesus, and love God. From this point of view (as I understand it), every human being gets to make a choice, although he is greatly influenced by the setting in which God placed him.

The problem for each of these theological views is that the Bible doesn't outright explain how God's sovereignty and humanity's free will interact. Instead, the Bible simply tells us the events, what happened; and, then it leaves it up to us to make sense of these events. Look at one extreme example of this situation:

"But the one who endures to the end will be saved." (Matthew 10:22, ESV)

According to this verse, only the ones who endure to the end will be saved. However, the context does not indicate whether the ones who endure do so because God made them endure to the end, because they had a strong will, or because they were in the right place, time, and situation to make the choice.

And, by the way, what does it mean to endure to the end, and what kind of salvation was Jesus talking about —salvation from social death, physical death, spiritual death, or something else?

Sovereignty vs. Freedom

I believe both God's sovereignty and humanity's free will exist in the Bible. However, although God is powerful enough to direct and control all things at once, He has chosen not to control the human will. Instead, He has given humanity free will—that is, every human being gets to choose whether to follow God or to follow anything else other than God. Thus, free will exists because God, in His sovereignty, created it and allows it to operate. If God ever chose to end free will, free will would end—but God allows it to continue to exist and operate.

What this means is that you can actually choose to repent, believe in God, and love Him, or you can choose to reject Him and oppose Him. The choice is really yours—God isn't making you do what you choose to do.

So, the choices God makes are (1) to allow you to choose and (2) how to respond to your choice. However, the choice you make is actually your own choice. In this way, then, God remains sovereign, and you remain free.

[In the Bible, we see God's sovereignty in verses like Isaiah 46:10, Daniel 4:35, and Psalm 115:3. We see humanity's free will in verses like Genesis 2:16-17, Joshua 24:15, Deuteronomy 30:19]

Freedom vs. Limited Choices

Nevertheless, the freedom God has given you is limited by the number of choices God has given you. Jesus put it this way: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Luke 11:23, ESV)

What this means is that, although it may seem to you that you have a limitless number of choices, God has really only given you two choices: be for God, or be against God; follow God, or forsake God; receive Jesus, or reject Him. There is no middle way.

Why are things this way? Things are this way because God, in His sovereignty, has decreed this must be so because it is right for it to be so.

[We also see limited choices in Joshua 24:15, Deuteronomy 30:19]

Knowledge vs. Doing

God already knows what choice you will make—but, how God knows this is a mystery. Maybe, God is really good at statistics, or maybe God is really good at reading people. Perhaps, God can actually see the past, present, and future at once—who knows! The point is that God knows what choice you will make, that He will let you make your choice, that He will let your choice stand, and that He will respond to you according to the choice you make.

So, even though God knows what choice you will make, the choice you make will actually be your choice: He will not make the choice for you.

[In the Bible, we see God's foreknowledge of people's choices in verses like Deuteronomy 31:20, 1 Samuel 23:12, Daniel 11:36)

Sin vs. Grace

Sin is definitely a factor that influences your choice. Left alone to sin, you would never choose God. However, God has given you (and every human being) everything you need to make a true choice despite the presence of sin in your life and in this world (universe, cosmos).

First, God created you according to His own likeness. This means that you were created to make choices—it's in your nature, and sin doesn't change that (sin may influence the choices you will make, but it doesn't take away your ability to make choices).

Second, God is still at work in the world through His general revelation, His word (including the gospel), and His Spirit. The work of God through these factors is powerful enough to help you choose God despite the presence of sin in the world and in your life. Consequently, every human is equally enabled to choose God.

So, even though you really are making your own choice, you making a real choice is all possible thanks to God's grace: remember, He created us in His image, and He has given us general revelation, specific revelation, and the work of the Spirit in the world to help us make the right choice. Thus, God didn't abandon humanity to the tyranny of sin—God has given us the help we need to make a real choice.

[For God's image, general revelation, and the work of the Spirit see the following verses: Genesis 1:26, Romans 1:19, John 16:8]

Man's Glory vs. God's Glory

Finally, Calvinists often argue that if God wants someone to be saved but that person isn't saved, and that if someone for whom Christ died is lost, then God is not glorified—and therefore, grace must be irresistible and Christ's atonement limited. Of course, I don't buy this argument: God is always glorified!

Whether those whom God loves are condemned, and whether Christ died for those who are lost, God is still glorified because (1) humans made a real choice—something God wanted them to do—, (2) He saved those who humbled themselves before Him, and (3) He condemned (defeated, destroyed) all who in unrighteousness rejected Him. God is always glorified because everything works the way He intends it to work.

[See Proverbs 16:4, Isaiah 45:24, Romans 9:22]

Repent and Believe

"Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30-31, ESV)

It seems to me that the idea that humans do not make a choice to repent and believe in Jesus is foreign to the Scriptures and the gospel of Christ. There are many passages, such as the one above and such as Acts 2:38, in which people are called upon to make a real choice about their relationship with God. Unless we believe their words and message were flawed, we must accept the plain meaning of such passages: the sovereign God calls on people to repent and believe—God wants people to make a real choice.

© 2021 Marcelo Carcach

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