Do Human Beings Really Have Free Will? How Does That Fit with God's Sovereignty?

God is not the author of evil. Neither, however, is He ever the victim of evil. His hands are never tied by evil. He’s never painted into a corner by evil. When Jesus went to the cross He didn’t fall into Satan’s trap—Satan fell into His. Wills were being exercised, but men weren’t calling the shots—God was.

God is not only more powerful than any evil-doer, He can take the worst evil and use it for the highest good. Overstatement? No. Was the crucifixion the greatest evil ever committed by Satan and fallen man? Yes. Was it ordained by God to produce the greatest glory for God and the greatest good for men? Absolutely. We can’t figure out how that works. (Why should we expect our finite minds to understand the workings of the infinite God? Isaiah 55:8-9) Fortunately, our inability to understand how it works never diminishes the sovereignty of God.

I certainly believe in man’s free will, but also believe it has clear limits. Some go to one extreme and think of us as automatons with no true freedom to choose, mechanical men wandering the deck of a ship, some destined to clean the decks, some stuck in the engine rooms, some to steal purses. They think free will is an illusion. All is fate or sovereign design. They cite Romans’ reference to people who are “vessels of wrath created for destruction,” but there are many other passages that invite people to come and choose and drink freely of the water of life.

Others err, though, in envisioning us as fully free to determine the course of our lives, captains of the ship, capable of doing whatever we wish, taking the ship to any harbor and destiny, without fear of the ship sinking or our plans being ultimately thwarted. In some cases, they see Him as a deistic God who got it started then abandoned ship, with no real interest or control. We’re on our own, and we’re “captains of our fate.”

A more biblical analogy, I think, is that we have true freedom to walk the ship, to choose when and where we eat, whether or not we befriend other passengers. We can do good or evil. We can stay on the ship or even jump overboard. But we do not have control over exactly where the ship is going, the sway of the sea, the weather—sunshine or storms—and whether we ultimately live or die. Some things are determined, even when we don’t know the timetable, our death among them. (“No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death,” Eccles. 8:8.)

vintage boatUsing the illustration of the Titanic, these people were free to make meaningful choices, both moral and immoral, and indeed they did so. They were not free, however, to snap their fingers and go back in time, causing the ship this time to miss the iceberg. Nor were they able to keep the Titanic from sinking, no matter what they did. You and I can’t make this world into something that will avoid its inevitable destruction by fire (2 Peter 3). But we can certainly help the needy, bring the gospel to the lost, feed the hungry one at a time, pray, and serve our God in meaningful choices each day.

It is not fate, randomness, or nothingness which control these things, nor is it a whimsical pagan god with limited powers, duking it out with competing gods, and only time will tell who wins.

In John 9, the disciples wanted to attribute the man’s blindness to human sin, either his or his father’s. Jesus corrected them: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” We sometimes back away from thinking God actually makes someone handicapped. We attribute deformity and imperfection to human sin and to Satan, and there’s a half truth in that, but only a half truth (and all heresies are half truths). God said to Moses, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). Notice God doesn’t merely say “who allows man to be deaf or mute or blind” but “who makes him that way.”

Here’s a little quiz. Don’t look ahead, but say the first thing that comes to your mind in answer to each question.
     1. What’s the opposite of good? (Say it aloud.)
     2. What’s the opposite of black? (Say it aloud.)
     3. What’s the opposite of God?   (Say it aloud.)

If you answered “evil” to one and “white” to two, you were correct. But if we answer “Satan” or the devil to number 3, we’re dead wrong. (Yet in my experience that’s exactly what most Christians answer.)

Satan is not the opposite of God. He is the opposite of Michael, the unfallen archangel. This is not a semantic trick—this is the truth. God has no opposite. To make a created being the opposite of the Creator results in many other heresies, not the least of which is thinking that Satan and God are battling to see who can pilot the ship, with the results in question. This is Star Wars theology, not the Bible. Who will win, the dark side or the light side of the force? Dualism is a heresy many Christians buy into without realizing it. We make Satan too big—but far worse, we make God too small.

Yes, Satan is called the “god of this world,” but this is set in an overall context with God being absolutely sovereign. Satan isn’t anywhere close to being all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, or anything else that God is. He is capable of great evil influence, but he is ultimately a dog on a leash. (That doesn’t mean God is responsible or accountable for Satan’s actions—indeed, God is accountable to no one.)

God says “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness. I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). Our tendency is to try to be God’s PR people by absolving Him of all disasters. Sure, we can link them to the curse on the earth due to the sin of man, and yes demons do seek to bring disasters on us, but by distancing God from disasters (in a misguided attempt to defend his goodness—which needs no help from us) we end up with a deistic God who just lets the universe go wherever it will, run amok because of our sin. That kind of God isn’t vitally involved in our lives. He does not work all things together for good, like the true God of the Bible.

In 2 Cor. 12, why did Paul stop praying after the third time that God would remove his thorn in the flesh? Because God made it clear He had intended this affliction for His glory and for Paul’s good.

Why was Paul inflicted with his disease or handicap, his thorn in the flesh? “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor. 12:7).

Notice Paul says Satan gave him his thorn in the flesh. But He simultaneously sees the larger picture—God gave him his thorn in the flesh. Clearly Satan does not give us adversity to keep us from becoming conceited. He wants us conceited. This passage attributes “a messenger of Satan” as something given with God’s intention for our good and His glory. Paradoxical? Yes. Contradictory? To pea brains like ours, yes. To God, no.

Like Joseph in Genesis 50, to his brothers: “You intended it for evil, God intended it for good.” God intended the selling of a boy into slavery for good? That may sound dangerously close to attributing evil to God, but Joseph’s perspective was exactly right. Satan always intends evil for evil. God never commits evil, but in His sovereignty He intends evil for good.

As Isaiah 53:10 says of Jesus, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer”—not simply it was the will of man and will of Satan, but God managed to bring some good out of it so it wasn’t quite as bad as it would have been.

Many of us try to get God off the hook by saying he has nothing to do with sickness and tragedy, that these things are done by men and Satan—they are the result of the fall, not of God’s will. But in doing so we distance God from the suffering in our lives.

We are right to try to distance God from the commission of evil—Scripture does this—but we are wrong to distance Him from being sovereign over evil. Spurgeon suffered from a very painful malady and said something like “If I did not believe God sent me this affliction, I would despair.” Being an insulin dependent diabetic was orchestrated by God to increase my sense of dependence on Him. Being sued by an abortion clinic for 8.2 million dollars was orchestrated by God to take me out of a pastoral ministry I loved to do what He really wanted me to do. God’s hands weren’t tied by my genetic propensity toward my disease (result of the curse), nor by the vengeance of child-killers (result of human sin and demonic strategy). He didn’t merely “make the best of a bad situation.” He took a bad situation and used it for His highest good. So much so that I can no longer think of it as a bad situation—it was a severe mercy, a grace disguised in hardship.

If this were not true, anyone facing a terminal illness would have to believe that they had experienced bad luck, that God is either not as powerful or not as loving as He claims to be. Parents who’ve lost children would have to believe their death was a cosmic accident, and wouldn’t have happened if only they hadn’t been at that place at that time or if others hadn’t been on the road or if only this or if only that. We can drive ourselves crazy with this. But embracing God’s higher purpose in events that are painful and even tragic is an affirmation of God’s greatness. This is not fatalism. It is faith in the promises and character of God.

God is sovereign over the ifs. He is never taken by surprise, never perplexed, never faced by circumstances out of His control. He is not only the main character in the drama of redemption. He is the author. He is not responsible for sin, yet He orchestrated a perfect plan, to His glory, in which sin had a part as the dark backdrop of His everlasting light. Could He have prevented sin? Of course. Can He prevent murders and rapes? Of course—and I’m confident He does so every day. But for those that do happen, they do not sneak by Him while He watches helplessly (as Rabbi Kushner suggests in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Better question: why do good things happen to bad people?) God’s sovereignty reigns without Him being held accountable to us. He stands before no one’s judgment seat—we stand before His. As Lewis put it, He is not a tame lion. (From time to time I read the last five chapters of Job. This is a great cure to the disease of thinking God owes me an explanation for what He does and doesn’t do.)

This doesn’t mean we don’t have free will, but it certainly means the free will of finite created beings isn’t anything near absolute like the free will of Creator God. It means that the will, decree, and glory of God are the life-breath of the universe. Everything—including the real choices made by Satan, the angels, and every person who’s ever lived—is subordinate to and secondary to the providence and glory of the one and only God. In other words, it’s not about us, it’s about Him. We’re not the point—He’s the point.

“For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you, so as not to cut you off. See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.” (Isaiah 48:9-11)

For more related to the subject of suffering, see Randy’s book If God Is Good, as well as the devotional 90 Days of God’s Goodness and book The Goodness of God

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries