Divine sovereignty and human free will: where might they meet?

I’ve wrestled a lot with God’s sovereignty, especially how it relates to questions of election and purpose and free will. And to be honest, I’ve yet to find an explanation that clearly and substantively deliver’s both God’s sovereign authority and man’s evident free will in one, concise argument.

For a while I found myself arguing for a form of Arminianism as the best way to capture both elements, but as I consider scripture, I find myself listing more toward Calvinism, but I still am unable to adequately capture those elements without excising free will. Evidence points you to some middle road. How, as a man, am I able to adequately accept, much less explain, how God can be sovereign and man be free (whatever that means)?

When this matter blew up at my denomination’s level and I could hear my brothers and sisters demonizing each other over it, it broke my heart, but while the bruh-ha-ha is still just beneath the surface waiting to explode, again. Can I, a lone man put a stop to this? No, but maybe I can reach out and bring an idea that sustains a measure of peace.

The thought process that brought it about was sitting in a philosophy of religion class listening to the discussion between classmates about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. I was scribbling a thought, and I kept noticing two distinctives: God’s sovereign will and our accountability to it. How could these two seeming disconnected ideas come from the same position. Then it hit me, and I’m completely willing to be off base, but it seemed pretty clear to me at the time, and got my admittedly Calvinist professor thinking too:

God, being a perfect sovereign, delegated to his creation; with that delegation came responsibility; with responsibility comes accountability.

That one sentence seemed to stop the debate in that class, but it will definitely only cause more when one begins to really think about it. Free will fits perfectly because at every step it is required from both parties. It allows for man to be free to choose (whatever that might mean) and for God to be free to elect. Maybe it will need more work, what I’m starting here, but it definitely bears consideration.


  1. I tend to think of it this way: a God who has to pre-determine every thought and action of man is not as powerful and sovereign as the God who can allow men choices and still make his overall purposes come to pass. It’s obvious that you can read the Word and get both or neither view, or there wouldn’t be so much debate about it. But when I look at the overall picture, I think you really have to distort scripture to come up with Calvinism. Context, context, context.
    But the simplist way to explain it, Imo is this: God is completely sovereign and yet he allows complete free will. It’s not impossible in his reality, only in out limited minds.

    • There is no way for the “God” that you have described to make his purposes come to pass. If God has purposed that I will come to faith in Christ, and I choose not to do so, how can God still make this come to pass? What you are espousing is very close to open theism. This would mean that God has to wait and see what you are going to do before he acts. That’s a truly scripture distorting position.

  2. I hate to be a party pooper but philosophically there is no such thing as free will. It’s a pernicious myth and does not square with scripture.

    For example, you had no control over where you were born, the parents you would have, etc. In other words for every action [x] there is an antecedent [y]. Trying to evaluate your supposed “free” actions you will end up in an infinite regress. Calvinism makes perfect sense of antecedent causes.

    • Actions can only be evaluated by free and reasonable minds, and to bear the imago Dei means that a intellectual, emotional, and volitional being must exist. But one can only realize that if their will has been freed from a previously bound state. As Chesterton noted, “The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.” It is often that, when it comes to the matter of free will we often do not see it until it is passed, and we see outcome in reference to nature, and as in relation to progress.

      • I think it is best to say it as I said in the post, parenthetically. To admit that man bears the image of God means that you have to define what that quality is, and if we are indeed like God in those ways, then we must exhibit those qualities, albeit in a limited fashion and in accordance with our nature, whatever that may be.

  3. Your are attempting to limit God to your understanding of him.
    When they say: “God freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” all they are really doing is coming up with a definition of God’s sovereignty that can fit in their finite minds.
    God can still make his purposes come to pass, regardless of what I do. This is why it’s so ironic that Calvnists typically claim a high view of God. There is no mystery in a God who is merely a computer programmer.
    In regards to salvation, God obviously chose to create a world where people were able to refuse to submit their wills to him. The classic Armenian position is that he pre-knows everything, but does not pre-select anyone. This does not limit his sovereignty in any way. If he wanted a race of beings without wills of their own, he could have chosen to create that race. There would have been no need of a Savior is such a world, because not one would have had the option of refusing him.

    • Using that reasoning, it would have been better had God not revealed anything to us, then he could have been completely unknownable. Arminian theology necessarily limits God’s knowledge as he does not know beforehand what someone is going to do until they have made a choice. According to AT, God must look down the corridors of time to observe who will “freely” choose him.

      No one has asserted that men needn’t have wills. Certainly all Calvinists would assert that man has a will. However, that will is bound to sin. There is no free will with respect to choosing God or choosing otherwise. Without the Holy Spirit everyone would choose otherwise. At issue is whether you have the intrinsic capacity to overcome your own will to sin and choose Christ.

      By the way there are plenty of mysteries for Calvinism, some of which are insoluble in the Arminian scheme. For instance, could Adam have passed his probation in the garden?

    • I think that is a right track, but the problem comes in refusing salvation. It’s a problem because people do not realize their depravity (I’ve posted on the concept of total depravity also). But then the issue of suppression that Paul raises in Romans 1 arises, which is why between God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability there must be a step in there, or two as I have described it: delegation and responsibility. Those two steps cover a broad area that Calvinists seem afraid to go and where Arminians love to congregate. But, I think the failing of both is a failure to contemplate God, as he has revealed himself: eternal, powerful, loving, just, patient. If we take God as he is, not as we would attempt to pigeon-hole him, it might surprise us.

  4. ” Arminian theology necessarily limits God’s knowledge as he does not know beforehand what someone is going to do until they have made a choice.”
    This is not the view of classic Arminian theology. As stated before, He know everything that will happen, but knowing and causation are not the same.

    • You are positing a causal agent outside of God’s control. By logical necessity you have a “God” that is omniscient but not omnipotent. How is it possible for God to know something that he does not cause? This seems to be utterly irrational. This sort of skepticism leads either to repudiating the knowledge or power of God.

  5. It’s not a question of God’s power, but his character. And his character determined the kind of world he chose to create. God’s sovereignty guarantees his freedom to act or not to act, if he indeed has chosen to create a world containing motions he has not specifically caused.
    As already mentioned, you are starting with a definition of God’s sovereignty that makes it impossible for him not to control our every decision.
    But, this does not fit with the overall story of history in his Word.
    If God is micro managing our every decision, he is also by necessity the instigator of all our sins, which does not fit with a Holy God.
    Certainly, he has the power to control our every thought. But, if he chooses to do so, we are only puppets who dance only to his tune. Sin would not be an option in such a world. Man could not have fallen in that world.
    Instead, he choose to give man an independent will, so he could choose or reject God when he was called.

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