Human freedom and divine sovereignty

I was recently listening to R.C. Sproul in an audio series on divine sovereignty when he made an argument which is rather common in such discussions, that total freedom for man and absolute sovereignty of God are mutually incompatible. If man is absolutely free, then God cannot be fully sovereign; if God is absolutely sovereign, man cannot be completely free. Sproul took the position that God’s sovereignty is absolute, while man’s freedom, though real, is limited and bounded by that sovereignty. He pointed out that the existence of “one maverick molecule,” that is, a single molecule which is truly free from divine control and capable of acting contrary to God’s will, creates at least the possibility that any or all of God’s plans might be undermined. Since God’s plans cannot be frustrated, nothing in creation can be absolutely free.

While I agree with Sproul’s point as regards his maverick molecule, in making his overall argument he is unclear on the meaning of “freedom” and thereby reaches a conclusion which is misleading at best. In fact, man may be absolutely free and God absolutely sovereign without contradiction, depending upon what is meant by the word freedom.

When we speak of human freedom, we can mean one of three things: freedom of action, volitional freedom, and freedom from obligation. Working in reverse order, freedom from obligation refers to a state in which there is no “ought,” nothing which a man should do, regardless of whether he actually does it. This is the sort of freedom demanded by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that God cannot exist because “man is free, man is freedom,” and therefore there can be no “infinite and perfect consciousness,” for such a being would necessarily imply an objective Good that would have some claim upon man.

I introduce this sort of freedom first in order to dismiss it from the discussion, because Sproul, I, and any orthodox Christian would agree that man is not free from obligation; indeed, I would argue that such freedom is an ontological impossibility. It is the other two sorts of freedom which Sproul appears to conflate.

Freedom of action is the freedom to do whatever we please. Man does not have absolute freedom of action, and a moment’s reflection would suffice to convince even an atheist of this point. Sartre himself, apostle of freedom though he was, acknowledged that one’s circumstances are necessarily limiting. Even the freest man is not free to fly like a bird, breathe underwater, or exist in multiple locations at once. The world around us imposes multitudinous constrains upon our actions, most of which are so routine that we don’t even notice them.

As Christians, we would add God to the list of things which can constrain our freedom of action. The Red Sea blocked the Egyptian’s freedom of action and a sudden appetite for grass blocked Nebuchadnezzar’s, while a large hole in the ground effectively constrained that of Korah and his household. One could open practically any page of Scripture and find an example to support the point that our sovereign God, against whose will even Satan himself is powerless, can and does limit our freedom of action. If God could not constrain our freedom of action – or that of any would-be maverick molecules – he would indeed cease to be sovereign.

But there is a third and more morally significant kind of freedom: volitional freedom. This is the freedom to choose. When we speak of “free will,” we mean volitional freedom. It could be defined as the freedom to select from an array of options whichever one is most appealing to us at the moment of decision.

I said this freedom is more morally significant than the freedom to act, and that is because this freedom is the source of good and evil deeds. Our choices are the stuff of vice or virtue. Without choice a “bad” act is not sinful. This is why, for example, the church has always carefully distinguished between rape and adultery. On the other hand, a “good” act absent volition is not virtuous. If a man absentmindedly stumbles and knocks another out of the path of a falling brick his act was certainly convenient for the one who was saved, but it was hardly morally praiseworthy. Going all the way back in time to the Garden, Adam’s sin lay not in eating the fruit, but in choosing to eat it. Had Satan somehow compelled Adam to consume the forbidden fruit against his will, the Fall would not have occurred. The act of choosing matters. In fact, morally it is all that matters.

One may be volitionally free without possessing absolute freedom of action. Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi, were severely constrained in their freedom of action, but they could still choose to respond to their situation in whatever manner they chose. In fact, man is always and absolutely volitionally free. The choice, whatever it is, is always ours to make. This, not due to any inherent power on our part, but merely because the sovereign God has decreed it so. If we were not free, then God could not justly hold us guilty for our sin, because, as noted earlier, free choice is a necessary ingredient of sin. To quote Augustine, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

How, then, does man’s volitional freedom coexist with divine sovereignty? Very easily. Remember that volitional freedom does not imply freedom of action. Our maverick molecule (or, perhaps, angel of light) may choose to rebel against God, but the actualization, circumstances, and fortunes of the actual rebellion are all controlled by God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Man may choose whatever he will, but God determines the result. As the old proverb reminds us,

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The omnipotent, omniscient God who holds in his hands all horseshoe nails, horseshoes, horses, riders, battles, and kingdoms is as little threatened by the freedom he has granted to his human creation as a doctor is troubled by the freedom of an infant to kick while being delivered. As Mordecai reminded Esther when she quailed at the thought of risking her life to save her people, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Her choice rested in her hands alone, but the ultimate end was not in doubt.

Absolute human freedom of action is indeed incompatible with divine sovereignty. But a blanket statement that human freedom is incompatible with the absolute sovereignty of God ignores the more morally significant freedom of volition, because it is in fact possible for man to be completely free to choose without compromising the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation.

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