Free will and divine sovereignty

The reconciliation of the paradoxical realities of human free will and divine sovereignty has challenged theologians for two millennia. Various systems have been proposed, tending variously to emphasize either free will or sovereignty; all most likely missing the truth to greater or lesser degrees. While biblical teaching on the intersection of free will and sovereignty is sufficiently equivocal to render doubtful any claim of certainty, a lack of absolute confidence in any one position should not prevent us from concluding that certain views are clearly false.

One such view emphasizes divine sovereignty at the expense of human free will to such an extend that the individual’s moral choices are viewed as ultimately originating only from God’s will, to the exclusion of man’s. This position is usually associated with Calvinism, though it is doubtful if a majority of Calvinists now or throughout history have espoused it. In fact, the great Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon offered a different perspective on free will that is worth noting:

I see one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. (Emphasis mine.)

It is when divine sovereignty looms so large that we deny the reality of human free will that we fall into the error I am now addressing: to paraphrase Spurgeon, God predestines, and that is all. In the following paragraphs, I will consider what is meant by “free will,” how real human freedom can exist in a universe ruled by a sovereign God, and finally, why God’s testimony regarding his own nature tells us that humans possess free moral will.

When I speak of a creature having free will, I mean that its choices originate within itself; in other words, that the mind which chooses for the creature is in fact its own. This idea of free will forms the basis of our concept of criminal intent. If someone carried out a crime while under hypnosis, we would pity him as a victim, not condemn him as a criminal, because he was not acting on the basis of his free will. It was not his mind which chose to commit the crime.

If human free will is real, then when Cain killed Abel, King David slept with Bathsheba, and Judas betrayed Jesus, they did so because they chose to. It was their minds which decided to commit the act. This means they could have also chosen not to do so, because choice cannot exist without real options. We laugh at Henry Ford’s promise that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” because it is oxymoronic – a choice without a choice. We can only say that Judas chose to betray Christ for 30 pieces of silver if we also believe he might have chosen not to do so. Otherwise, we can only say that Judas did betray Christ, much as one says that a flat tire caused a car wreck or a spooked horse caused a broken arm.

If we affirm this view of free will, are we diminishing divine sovereignty? After all, if the creature’s mind determines its actions, then the Creator’s mind does not. Only one ultimate cause is possible. Either God decided that Cain would kill Abel, or Cain decided that Cain would kill Abel. Even if God decided that Cain would kill Abel, while causing Cain to think he came up with the idea on his own, Cain’s perception does not alter the fact that his intention ultimately originated in God’s mind. If free will is real – if Cain decided “out of his own head” to kill Abel – then not all events originate in the mind or will of God.

If this means that human free will forms some sort of inviolable barrier to God’s will, divine sovereignty is certainly diminished, or rather, destroyed. (There is no such thing as semi-omnipotence.) However, free will does not necessarily entail a diminution of divine power. An NFL linebacker who refrains from flattening his son in a game of backyard football in no way diminishes the strength he chooses to restrain. Similarly, an absence of divine determinism is better understood as “God does not,” rather than “God cannot.” God’s covenant with Noah means he will never again send a worldwide flood, not because some obstacle prevents him, but because he chooses not to. If God chose to sovereignly grant to men the capacity to make free moral choices, the subsequent existence of human free will testifies not to a diminution of his power, but only to the fact that with God “there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

As a practical matter, however, it may be difficult to see how God could truly command the course of history while allowing humans the freedom to choose their actions. What if Judas had chosen not to betray Jesus? Let us suppose God had a “second-string betrayer” lined up. What if he also chose not to betray the Christ? And so on. If men are truly free to choose, how can any future event be certain?

While a full explanation of how this might be possible is beyond the scope of this article – and perhaps beyond the scope of the human mind – we catch an interesting hint in Mordecai’s words to Esther when she feared to approach the king on behalf of her people. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther’s choice determined her fate, but God’s will would ultimately be fulfilled regardless.

Jesus seemed to make a similar assumption when he told his disciples, “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” Jesus would be betrayed. He would die. That much was settled. But the man who did the betraying would still bear the responsibility for his choice.

This concept of moral responsibility brings us to the crux of my argument that God’s revealed nature requires the existence of human free will. It is interesting to note that in Spurgeon’s comments quoted above, he apparently considered free will so intertwined with moral responsibility that he completely substituted the one for the other by the end, writing only, “man is responsible.” A legal principle going back from our criminal laws through the common law to early Hebraic law is the mens rea, the “guilty mind.” The mind which directs the crime bears the guilt. When terrorists use children or mentally-disabled people to carry out suicide bombings, we direct our horror at those who recruited and directed the attackers, because it was they who planned the carnage. They bear the responsibility. What matters is not whose body carries out the guilty act, but whose mind and will are responsible for it.

This fundamental moral principle creates an apparently insurmountable problem for the view that God’s sovereignty means that he chooses our actions for us. We are told God is so holy that he cannot even tempt us (James 1:13-14), let alone commit evil. If, however, God’s mind is the ultimate originator of every human choice, that means he causes every evil, every perversion, every cruelty, that we see around us. It is not twisted warlords who kidnap and train child soldiers in African. It is God. It is not the serial killer who tortures his victims. It is God. We can only Paul’s cry, in a different context: “May it never be!”

The problem is that twisted evil, like every other effect, requires a sufficient cause. Torture, rape, and murder don’t just spontaneously occur. A mind directs them, and that mind is responsible for them. Either these evils originate with man, or they originate with God. There are no other options. If the latter, then evil flows from God just as surely as does good, and we are forced to ask if we can even meaningfully distinguish between the two. If good and evil originate from the same source, we are left with a pantheistic morality, where good and evil are just different parts of the universal pattern. This is a god who cannot be shoehorned into anything close to the Being we find in scripture.

If a good God cannot be responsible for evil, and God is good, we can safely conclude that he is not responsible for evil. Having already seen that the mind which conceives evil is ultimately responsible for it, it follows that evil cannot originate in the mind of God, which leaves only one other possibility: the mind of man. The choice to do evil, then, is made by man, and man alone. The choice does not surprise our omniscient God. It does not please our loving God. It does not confound our omnipotent God. And it does not originate with our good God.

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