Kings, shires, knights, even the Crusades! What do you think of when you hear “sovereign” or “kingdom”? For me, it’s the medieval ages with castles, peasants, and kings jockeying for power. What does a kingdom look like now? Countries and nations with presidents, prime ministers, and other forms of political government.
The Bible uses these terms to describe God’s rule over his creation. When we discuss God’s sovereignty, Kingdom, and creation, these ideas scare us deep down inside. Why do we have such explosive debates and arguments about God’s sovereignty? In truth, we’re not arguing over whether God is sovereign or not.
The most robust theological debates about God’s sovereignty and human free will come from Calvinists and Armenians. Calvinists trace their theological heritage to John Calvin while Armenians point to Jacobus Arminius.
Calvinists staunchly believe that God is completely sovereign, that nothing can bend or break his will. Their approach is often programmed and mechanistic. They don’t like free will and think that it places his sovereignty in jeopardy. Armenians come from the other side of the tracks. They hold so dearly the idea of free will that they believe God takes every human opinion into account and human choice can change God’s will. I state up front that most likely neither of these views are perfectly represented. I wanted to get a general sketch for our discussion.
I’m the black sheep of the argument. I agree and disagree with both sides of these extremes. I think you can hold some of each of these extremes. I believe that the true nature of the sovereignty/free will debate lies somewhere in the middle. Let me introduce the TULIP Calvinist system and the Arminian system. But these theological arguments only go so far and then leave us hanging in a philosophical stalemate.
John Calvin didn’t create the TULIP system. His followers eventually created and defended it. It became a popular way to express Calvinistic leanings. Let me list and define the TULIP points for you:
- Total Depravity – All humans are completely depraved and love sin so much that they could not be saved on their own or find God. God must reach them in some way.
- Unconditional Election – God chooses certain individuals before the creation of the world to be saved. Only these will come to Christ. Everyone else is eternally condemned. Some crassly suggest that God chooses the rest to go to Hell.
- Limited Atonement – Because only a certain number of people are chosen by God for salvation, Jesus’ atoning work on the cross was only done for the elect.
- Irresistible Grace – God’s grace is irresistible to the elect. They cannot not follow Jesus. They are forced to be obedient to God.
- Perseverance of the Saints – The elect will always persevere despite the trials they face. They can’t do anything to lose their salvation. Some have popularized, “Once saved, always saved.”
In all my years of studying this subject, this is the best I can do to explain it in such a short space. You should read more on both of these camps, and everything in between. This is essential because we’re talking about salvation! This is no minor doctrine or opinion. We’re talking about how people come to know and follow Jesus.
- Works Don’t Save – Every person must be given God’s grace as a gift.
- Human Free Will – more robust than in Calvinism, a person must choose or decide to follow Christ. They must have faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.
- Jesus Died for All – His sacrifice is not limited to the elect, but is offered to every person, whether they accept or reject it.
- Falling Away from Grace – a believer can become an apostate, or fall away from the faith. This is not easy, but it is possible.
God’s sovereignty and human free will are not opposed to one another. Scripture is full of examples of both. It gives examples of humans choosing their own path against God’s will. We see times where human free will plays into God’s already preferred will. We can look at all of the different ways God’s will is fulfilled, but he is always sovereign. That’s not really the issue. The issue is how much we trust God!
Whatever God wills happens. His sovereignty is based on his place as Creator of the Universe. If I design a website, it is subject to my creative whim. I can change all kinds of things about it. It can’t complain or resist. God has allowed humans to resist his will. That is part of free will. The Bible allows for both of these. Since God made creation, he is completely sovereign over it.
When we debate God’s sovereignty versus human free will, we debate from a human perspective. I imagine God sits in heaven on his throne and chuckles as we try to figure this out. Our understanding of God’s sovereignty and our place in it has to do with our perception of how he rules time and space. We think we are entitled to a say in the matter because we contain his image, marred as it is.
Throughout the Bible God puts us in our place when we try to Monday morning quarterback his decisions. God responds to Job in the midst of his suffering (Job 39 and following). In Jeremiah’s Potter and clay image, the clay has no right to challenge the Potter (Jeremiah 18:1-4). Abraham and Sarah conspire to fulfill God’s promise with Ishmael instead of waiting for Isaac to be born (Genesis 16). I believe we are concerned about sovereignty and free will because we have control issues.
Our history keeps us from believing one Person can have complete control over everything. Whether it is political, social, or any other type of authority control, it’s never worked out. One person with all the power is a very bad thing. Sir Francis Bacon coined the often quoted, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
He’s right concerning human beings. Images of kings, presidents, and other authority figures conjure violence, injustice, and force. That’s what happens when fallen, sinful humans seek absolute power. But power belongs to God, not us. Power is entrusted to us to steward.
When we think we can converse with the Almighty, we feel a sense of immortality. The question of God’s absolute control never comes into play on our deathbeds. We are painfully aware that we can’t choose to live or die.
We try to take control of everything we can get our hands on. We have no idea what God’s doing until we look back, and then we want to tell him what he should’ve done. We all have problems with someone else driving the bus. It’s not about who’s will is greater but about trusting God with our entire being.
We are the control freaks. If we can’t control the world around us, we hold onto the illusion we are in control of ourselves. We seek to create a mirage of our own ability and power. Our weakness is in finding out that we don’t trust God with absolutely everything in our lives. We would rather be in the driver’s seat, not be driven by him.
Does our will matter within the larger bounds of God’s will? Some say yes and others say no. We must get over the fact that we are not on God’s speed dial. What would the world be like if the person with all the power was all good and wanted the very best for us?
All we can see at present are the pains we’ve suffered while God has been at the wheel. Funny how we only remember the bad times. And they were meant for our growth. How else would we grow but through hardship? It’s an excellent tool to strengthen our faith muscles. If we really believed God is sovereign and good, we wouldn’t question him even through trials. But the moment trials strike, we suggest an alternate route to the Driver.
Our greater need isn’t mapping out the sovereignty/free will issue. It’s learning to fully trust without abandon the Lord who is all good. In the midst of suffering and trial, is our heart dead set on God’s goodness? When we see evil, we ask why he doesn’t eradicate it and create the new heavens and new earth right now.
Sovereignty opens up the closet and exposes our skeletons. We don’t solve these questions in one sitting. With each new trial, we once again go round and round in our heart, despite what our heads proclaim. We all question God and his ways from time to time. We are human. We only know evil power. God is the only one who wears power the perfect way. He truly is just and good. When trial comes, we must hold on to these truths. Turning to God and trusting him in the midst of trial is the best path ahead. Only by leaning on Jesus will we pass the test of faith. May we find in our suffering that God is indeed good and trust him more, lean on him more, and put our hope in his goodness rather than the mirage of our control. May we trust God with our everything always.