Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
Divine sovereignty, which is that God exercises efficacious, universal, and loving control over all things, is compatible with human freedom in that humans are free to do what they want to do, although God is sovereign over our desires.
The sovereignty of God is the same as the lordship of God, for God is the sovereign over all of creation. The major components of God’s lordship are his control, authority, and presence. To discuss the sovereignty of God, though, is to focus particularly on the aspect of control, though this should not bracket God’s authority and gracious presence out of the discussion. The control that God exercises over all things is both efficacious and universal; there is not one thing outside of his control. This even extends to human sin and faith. However, people still remain free and God remains innocent of sin. This is because humans have the freedom to do whatever it is that they want, while their desires are in turn decided by their natures, situations, and, ultimately, God.
The term sovereignty is rarely found in recent translations of Scripture, but it represents an important biblical concept. A sovereign is a ruler, a king, a lord, and Scripture often refers to God as the one who rules over all. His most common proper name, Yahweh (see Ex. 3:14) is regularly translated Lord in the English Bible. And Lord, in turn, is found there over 7,000 times as a name of God and specifically as a name of Jesus Christ. So, to discuss the sovereignty of God is to discuss the lordship of God—that is, to discuss the Godness of God, the qualities that make him to be God.
The major components of the biblical concept of divine sovereignty or lordship are God’s control, authority, and presence (see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 21–115). His control means that everything happens according to his plan and intention. Authority means that all his commands ought to be obeyed. Presence means that we encounter God’s control and authority in all our experience, so that we cannot escape from his justice or from his love.
When theologians discuss divine sovereignty and human freedom, however, they usually focus on only one of these three aspects of God’s sovereignty, what I have called his control. This aspect will be in focus in the remainder of this article, but we should keep in mind that God’s control over the world is only one aspect of his rule. When we consider only his control, we tend to forget that his rule is also gracious, gentle, intimate, covenantal, wise, good, and so on. God’s sovereignty is an exercise of all his divine attributes, not just his causal power.
God’s Sovereign Control
It is important to have a clear idea of God’s sovereign control of the world he has made. That control is a major part of the context in which God reveals himself to Israel as Yahweh, the Lord. That revelation comes to Israel when that nation is in slavery to Egypt. When he reveals his name to Moses, he promises a powerful deliverance:
But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. (Ex. 3:19–20)
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (Exo 6:7–8)
God shows Israel that he truly is the Lord by defeating the greatest totalitarian empire of the ancient world and by giving Israel a homeland in the land promised centuries before to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Nothing can defeat Israel’s sovereign. He will keep his promise, displaying incredible controlling power, or he is not the Lord.
God’s control is efficacious:
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Ps. 115:3)
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. (Ps. 135:6)
The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand, that I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my mountains trample him underfoot; and his yoke shall depart from them, and his burden from their shoulder.” This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? (Isa. 14:24–27)
Also henceforth I am he [Yahweh]; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” (Isa .43:13)
…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:11)
‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens. (Rev. 3:7)
Not only is God’s control efficacious, it is also universal. It governs every event that takes place anywhere in the universe. Firstly, the events of the natural world come from his hand (Ps. 65:9–11, 135:6–7, 147:15–18, Matt. 5:45, 6:26–30, 10:29–30, Luke 12:4–7). Secondly, the details of human history come from God’s plan and his power. He determines where people of every nation will dwell (Acts 17:26). Thirdly, God determines the events of each individual human life (Ex. 21:12–13, 1 Sam. 2:6–7, Ps. 37:23–24, 139:13–16, Jer. 1:5, Eph. 1:4, James 4:13–16). Fourthly, God governs the free decisions we make (Prov. 16:9) including our attitudes toward others (Ex. 34:24, Judg. 7:22, Dan. 1:9, Ezra 6:22).
More problematically, God foreordains people’s sins (Ex. 4:4, 8, 21, 7:3, 13, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, Deut. 2:30, Josh. 11:18–20, 1 Sam. 2:25, 16:14, 1 Kings 22:20–23, 2 Chron. 25:20, Ps. 105:24, Isa. 6:9–10, 10:6, 63:17, Rom. 9:17–18, 11:7–8, 2 Cor. 2:15–16). But lastly, he is also the God of grace, who sovereignly ordains that people will come to faith and salvation:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:4–10)
Therefore, salvation is God’s work from beginning to end, doing for us what we could never dream of doing for ourselves.
If we need any further evidence of the efficacy and universality of God’s sovereign control, here are passages that summarize the doctrine:
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph. 1:11)
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33)
So the question posed by the title of this article is very pointed. Granted the overwhelming power of God’s sovereign control, its efficacy and universality, how can human freedom have any significance at all?
The term freedom has been taken in various senses. In our current discussion, two of these are particularly relevant: (1) compatibilism, which is the freedom to do what you want to do, and (2) libertarianism, which is the freedom to do the opposite of everything you choose to do. Compatibilism indicates that freedom is compatible with causation. Someone may force me to eat broccoli; but if that is something I want to do anyway, I do it freely in the compatibilist sense. Alternatively, if you have libertarian freedom, your choices are in no sense caused or constrained, either by your nature, your experience, your history, your own desires, or God. Libertarianism is sometimes called “incompatibilism,” because it is inconsistent with necessity or determination. If someone forces me to eat broccoli, I am not free, in the libertarian sense, to eat it or not eat it. On a libertarian account, any kind of “forcing” removes freedom.
In ordinary life, when we talk about being “free,” we usually have the compatibilist sense in mind. I am free when I do what I want to do. Usually, when someone asks me if I am free, say, to walk across the street, I don’t have to analyze all sorts of questions about causal factors in order to answer the question. If I am able to do what I want to do, then I am free, and that’s all there is to it. In the Bible, human beings normally have this kind of freedom. God told Adam not to eat of the forbidden fruit, but Adam had the power to do what he wanted. In the end, he and Eve did the wrong thing, but they did it freely. God’s sovereignty didn’t prevent Adam from doing what he wanted to do.
Our earlier discussion shows, however, that according to the Bible human beings do not have libertarian freedom: As we have seen, God ordains what we will choose to do, so he causes our choices. We are not free to choose the contrary of what he chooses for us to do. Scripture also teaches that the condition of our heart constrains our decisions, so there are no unconstrained human decisions, decisions that are free in the libertarian sense.
People sometimes think that we must have libertarian freedom, for how can we be morally responsible if God controls our choices? That is a difficult question. The ultimate answer is that moral responsibility is up to God to define. He is the moral arbiter of the universe. This is the exact question that comes up in Romans 9:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:19–24)
This passage rules out any attempt to argue libertarian freedom as a basis of moral responsibility.
Nevertheless, we should remember that even this passage presupposes freedom in the compatibilist sense: God prepared the two kinds of vessels, each for their respective destiny. He made the honorable vessels so that they would appropriately receive honor, and vice versa. When a human being trusts in Christ, he does what he wants to do and therefore acts freely in the compatibilist sense. We know from that choice that God has prepared him beforehand to make that choice freely. That divine preparation is grace. The believer did not earn the right to receive that divine preparation. But he responds, as he must, by freely embracing Christ. Without that free choice of Christ, prepared beforehand by God himself, it is impossible for anyone to be saved.
- Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines
- Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority
- Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology
- D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. See book summary here.
- J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
- John Frame, The Doctrine of God
- John Frame, No Other God: a Response to Open Theism
- John MacArthur, “What is the Relationship Between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility?”
- Scott Christiansen, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with Divine Sovereignty. See book summary here.
- Vern Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God. See book review here.