I Wonder About the Relationship of God's Sovereignty and Man's Free Will. Do You Think it Would Be an Accurate Analogy to View God as an Author, and All of Us as Characters in His Novel?

I think it has some valid aspects to it, but I also think it breaks down. (Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad analogy, just a limited one. An analogy that is limited can still illustrate a valid point.)

Where does it break down? God is capable of truly giving a free will to a human being. Authors make characters that almost seem alive to us, and to our readers. I know people who have actually prayed for fictional characters. Many readers have written to me about Little Finn, from Deadline, and Obadiah Abernathy from Dominion, and Detective Ollie Chandler from both books. Though they know they are fictitious, they speak of them as if they are real.

Readers ask me questions about a character’s future, such as “Will Ollie ever become a Christian?” I have some thoughts on that, which I’m not yet sharing, but as I’m thinking about my next novel I realize that as the author I am analogous to God in that I have the power to make Ollie become a Christian or not, or to live or die, to lose weight or gain weight, get married or divorced, or even to commit a murder. However, while Ollie will appear to have free will in the novel, he does not in actuality. Why? He can have apparent human attributes, but no true ones, because he is not a real person.

Ollie’s free will can’t be real free will since he is not a real person, but it can illustrate free will, both its reality and its limits. Authors talk about how characters become alive and get “out of control” and do whatever they wish, and write their own place in the script. I know what they mean, and to an extent I’ve experienced it, but of course this is hyperbole. The characters are NOT real, and if they seem “out of control” that is an illusion. The author is in control, and can change them, kill them or write them out of the story at any point. The fact that they cannot return the favor by killing the author illustrates that God has a control over our lives that we in no sense have over Him.

In contrast to my characters, however, I AM a real person. So God could, if he wished, give me a free will, as broad or narrow as He chooses. My free will is meaningful, as it can be real (and my choice to do evil or to obey God seems to validate its reality). My characters in a novel do not really have this free choice in a meaningful sense. We cannot create ex nihilo, as God can. We are not capable of creating real people, and therefore truly free people—but God is. Now, it is very fair to illustrate, through the fictional characters analogy, the LIMITS of human free will, since too often people imagine that they have total freedom, which clearly they do not.

On the larger theological issue, Arminianism tends to see Gods’ sovereignty through the lens of humanity’s free will, while Calvinism sees free will through the lens of God’s sovereignty. I think it’s always wisest to begin with God before we move to ourselves.

Some Calvinists, often called ultra-Calvinists, see no free will at all, but I am talking about seeing a real free will, but through the lens of God’s sovereignty (which will quickly see the inherent limits of human free will). I think that perspective is the right one. Sovereignty and free will are two paradoxical truths, both demonstrated and taught in Scripture, and both reflecting reality. However, they are not equal in their significance.

Because God is infinite and we are finite, this posits infinite all-knowing sovereignty against finite often-ignorant free will. These are far from equal opposites which balance each other out in the scales!

We don’t see how our free will is another tool that accomplishes God’s plan, but many Scriptures make clear that it does. Consider just one:

“This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:23-24)

God’s sovereignty is absolute in that nothing can thwart it or take it by surprise. But our free will is not absolute. I can choose whether to drive to Starbucks (provided my car runs and I don’t have a heart attack on the way), but I can’t choose to fly to another galaxy—nor, in fact, am I free to choose to make someone like me, stop gossiping, use their turn signal, accept Christ, etc.

Indeed, my “free” will is severely limited, not only by my lack of resources and power, but by my sin. Even as a follower of Christ (of course, some claim Rom. 7 refers to an unbeliever, but the context makes that position extremely hard to defend) Paul bemoans the fact that he desires to please God, but is still in bondage. Even our “free will” is in bondage to sin. Slaves had free choice and exercised it throughout the day—what to think about, which of their two pants to wear, what to sing. But their choice was limited.

Human free will is real, but it is not absolute. Scripture portrays it as real, but never supreme. In fact, the kings of this earth, far more free than other men, are portrayed by Daniel as falling one after the next, and we’re told, “God gives kingdoms to whoever he wishes.”

So while human free will is not absolute, divine sovereignty is absolute. So absolute that it uses the fall of Satan and human sin to accomplish his purposes, some evident, some hidden. Consider the tragedy of Joseph and his brothers. They betray him and sell him into slavery and the abuse that accompanies it. Years later he said, “You intended it for evil but God intended it for good.” Consider what that means. He didn’t say merely, “God used it for good,” but “God intended it for good.” This indicates God had certain intentions related to Joseph’s slavery, even though his brothers were fully accountable.

Only this view allows us to relax. A good friend was raped. I would never say God made this evil thing happen. But I can tell you God has used this brutal, ugly, repulsive thing to accomplish some great and holy purposes. (Including the child she gave birth to and placed for adoption in a Christian home.)

It’s also true, and sometimes surprising, how close we can agree in some central areas with those who think very differently than we in the matters where Calvinism and Arminianism collide. Though I am a Calvinist (for the most part), and my friend Jim is an Arminian (for the most part), we both loved and were shaped by A. W. Tozer, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. Schaeffer was a Calvinist, the other two sometimes sound very Calvinist but other times quite Arminian (Tozer once said, “I’m a Calminian”).

While I come out on perseverance of the Saints/Eternal Security as a Calvinist, I don’t think it’s nearly as easily discerned and scripturally as many do. Some act as if only a moron could not see how obvious Scripture is on this, and therefore John and Charles Wesley and Charles Finney and other Arminians were morons.

See my collection of verses cited by Arminians and by Calvinists on this. Now, really, if we had only the verses cited by Arminians, wouldn’t we all think it obvious that we COULD lose our salvation? Though I conclude otherwise, it is only because I see a greater clarity in the other verses. But Scripture is certainly not self-evident on this, and there is much ambiguity. Systems of thought tempt us to ignore ambiguity and simply confidently affirm what we believe and ignore Scriptures which challenge it.

Sometimes Scripture leads me to believe certain things that seem logically incompatible with other biblical teachings. In such cases people often rely not on Scripture, but on the logic that goes with the particular theological system they have embraced. See my thoughts on limited atonement, which have gotten me considerable email from 5-point Calvinists who say I am really a closet Arminian, even though I agree with the other 4 points.

Here’s a further statement and dialogue with someone on limited atonement.

Here’s another objection from a 5 pointer, and my response.

And here is one last response.

I do not try to be a Calvinist. I try to be a Biblicist, and maybe 80% of the time my understanding of Scripture matches Calvinism. The other 20% of the time it falls somewhere in between Calvinism and Arminianism. So am I a Calvinist? Yes, but more by accident than anything, certainly not by choosing to be Calvinistic, then from that point forward automatically believing everything that Calvinists believe. I came into Calvinism through the back door. What concerns me is the people who don’t go to the Word first, but hear a prominent teacher, then make themselves see all Scripture through that grid.

I encourage people to study Scripture, not choose a system. Choose to believe Scripture and go where it takes you. If you end up a Calvinist, as I did, I tell them, so be it, but don’t start interpreting passages a certain way because “that’s how Calvinists understand this passage.”

By analogy, I have friends who are diehard Republicans. They can’t bring themselves to disagree or ever vote against a Republican (even when their positions violate Scripture). Now, I appreciate the Republican platform on abortion (though I wish there was more consistency and energy in acting on it), and completely oppose the typical Democratic stance on abortion. I do agree with certain Democratic ideals related to the poor (but often disagree with the strategies). So I am mainly a Republican, but if a prolife Democrat (there are some—my latest prolife book is endorsed by the president of Democrats for Life) ran against some of our pro-abortion Republicans I would vote for her in a heartbeat. Hence, I am a Republican almost incidentally and sometimes regretfully. I do not allow that label to dictate my beliefs and morals. I have voted for independents and people in other parties, including the Constitution Party. Perhaps eventually that will be my party, but even if it is, it will be because it reflected my beliefs, not because it determined them.

Calvinism v. Arminianism is somewhat different, of course, but the analogy holds for the most part. We should not be afraid of supporting an Arminian belief if a text seems to warrant it. (We will likely have to balance it by other passages, but not necessarily reject it.) Ideally, I think our theological label should be something tagged on us by others at the end of the day, not something we lift up as a banner that henceforth becomes the lens through which we look at Scripture.

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