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Sovereign God and free will: Can both be true?

iStock/shuang paul wang
iStock/shuang paul wang

The subject of divine foreknowledge and human free will has been a longstanding and complex issue, often leading to more questions as we delve deeper into understanding it. The question arises: Can humans genuinely possess free will if God possesses omniscience and has a predetermined plan for everything? Or are we simply following a preordained path as glorified robots?

As we engage in this deep theological and philosophical discussion, we must maintain a respectful and consistent balance between God's sovereignty and human free will. As the brilliant mind of Augustine so eloquently penned in his classic work, On Free Choice of the Will, "We are in no way compelled either to preserve God's prescience by abolishing our free will, or to safeguard our free will by denying (blasphemously) the divine foreknowledge. We embrace both truths and acknowledge them in faith and sincerity, the one for a right belief, the other for a right life."

We see the harmony between God's sovereignty and human freedom illustrated throughout the Bible, especially in the story of Joseph. Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, but God used this horrific act to save the people of Israel from famine ultimately. In essence, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, but God orchestrated their actions to fulfill His plan to save His people from a future famine.

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Similarly, in the New Testament, we see that God controls everything that happens, but He works through human beings to accomplish His purposes. Luke records Peter preaching, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23 ESV). Peter's sermon presents a fascinating interplay between God's sovereignty and human free will. Peter points out that Jesus' death on the cross was ordained by God and orchestrated by the hands of evil men. As a result, a large group of people repented and chose to be baptized, influenced both by the work of the Holy Spirit and their own free will (see 2:37-41).

So, how do we reconcile this idea of God's sovereignty with human free will and moral responsibility? 

Let us start by gaining a clearer understanding of who God is. God is not constrained by any defining factors that dictate His identity or compel Him to act or create in certain ways. Similarly, God does not cause anything that runs contrary to His nature. Instead, God acts according to His own will, which is identical to His nature. In Isaiah 46:9, God proclaims, "I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'" 

As an Eternal Being, God is the efficient cause of His choices. He freely chose to create humanity from the goodness of His morally free nature. Thus, he predetermined salvation for anyone who chooses to be saved according to His divine will. As Paul declares in Ephesians 1:11, "We have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will (ESV)."

In contrast, God, who is Perfectly Free, gave us a perfect gift, freedom, which is the absolute good. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were created by God as morally free agents. They could choose whether to eat the forbidden fruit or not, giving them the option to obey or disobey God's clear command.

However, it is essential to emphasize that while we can choose whether to accept or reject God's gift of salvation, our ability to make choices does not mean we can do whatever we want. Our choices are limited to what is consistent with our nature. For instance, a person can choose to walk across a bridge or decide not to, but he cannot choose to fly over the bridge because his nature hinders him from doing so.

Similarly, a person cannot choose to make himself righteous, as his inherent sinful nature prevents him from canceling his guilt (Romans 3:23). It is God who freely offers (never forces) His unconditional love and grace to the willing (elect). Therefore, God does not coerce or override humans' free will since it is not in His nature to violate the freedom He gave us. God is the author of salvation, and we are the beneficiaries of it. This is a relationship between two parties, not a manipulation of will.

Furthermore, while God may have foreknowledge of all events, including an individual's choice to accept or reject salvation, He has established secondary causes — such as moral agency — through which these decisions are made while operating within the framework set by divine foreknowledge. 

The relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will is a complex and profound theological topic. Nevertheless, throughout the Old and New Testaments, we see that God's sovereignty does not negate the existence of human free will. Instead, it suggests that God's foreknowledge and predestination work harmoniously with human choices. Though God predetermined to save humans from sin and death, it is up to the individual to decide whether to receive or reject God's salvation and be responsible for their choices and actions (see John 1:12; Romans 10:9–10).

Understanding that God is the source of salvation and works through various means, including human choices, allows us to reconcile these two biblical concepts. The belief that God knows everything, including our decisions, does not negate our free will but demonstrates His omniscience and sovereignty over all. This perspective helps us appreciate the intricate beauty of how God's plan for salvation unfolds through both divine will and human agency.

Jason Jimenez is the founder and president of Stand Strong Ministries and is a respected Christian-worldview speaker, and faculty member at Summit Ministries. He is the best-selling author of Hijacking Jesus: How Progressive Christians Are Remaking Him and Taking Over the Church, Challenging Conversations: A Practical Guide to Discuss Controversial Topics in the Church, and Parenting Gen Z: Guiding Your Child through a Hostile Culture.

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