The Divine Paradox of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice

I once spoke to eighty college students about a sensitive theological question: “Can true Christians lose their salvation?” First, I asked them to commit themselves to a yes or no answer. I separated them, according to their answers, on opposite sides of the room, breaking them up into small groups.

Next I gave everyone a handout featuring twenty passages of Scripture. After reading these aloud, the students were to discuss in their groups and decide: “If these were the only Scripture passages I had, would I answer the question yes or no?”

Tensions rose. On both sides of the room, students looked confused, and some were angry.

Only afterward did I explain that I’d given each group different handouts consisting of entirely different passages. The Scriptures each group was given appeared to teach an answer exactly opposite to the position they’d said they believed.

My main take-away was that we need to establish our positions in light of all Scripture, not just our preferred passages that support what we wish to believe.

The issue of whether Christians can lose their salvation is one that involves matters of God’s sovereignty and human choice. The question typically gets one answer from those called Arminians (“yes”) and the opposite answer from those called Calvinists (“no”). John Wesley is seen as the classic Arminian, while John Calvin (surprise!) is the classic Calvinist; but, trust me, neither Calvin nor Wesley were idiots (which I wanted to help those eighty college students understand).

These jokes are light-hearted illustrations of the two views:

How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?

None. Only God can change a light bulb. Since He has ordained the darkness and predestined when the lights will come on, stay seated and trust Him.

How many Arminians does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one. But first the bulb must want to be changed.

How do you confuse a Calvinist?

Take him to a buffet and tell him he can choose whatever he wants.

Calvinists have their TULIP; what flower do Arminians prefer?

The daisy. Why? “He loves me, He loves me not. He loves me, He loves me not…”

(TULIP is an acronym representing Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. These “five points of Calvinism” were stated at the Synod of Dort in the early 1600s in response to five assertions of the Arminian “Remonstrants.”)

In terms of belief in the Bible and love for Christ, Calvinists and Arminians have a lot in common. Most Calvinists live daily as Arminians do—freely making choices for which they take personal responsibility. Most Arminians pray like Calvinists—believing a sovereign God can and does change people’s hearts, swaying their wills.

Better questions than “Are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?” are “What does the Bible actually teach?” And “Do you believe it?” Let’s trust all of God’s words, not just the ones that fit neatly into a preferred theological system or church tradition.

We can agree that God is sovereign and all-powerful without agreeing about how He chooses to exercise His power.

God is “the Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!” (Psalm 24:8, ESV). The rhetorical question “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” implies the answer no (Genesis 18:14; compare Jeremiah 32:27). Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Jesus said, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

God is the “Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18; Revelation 1:8). He is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20, ESV). John the Baptist said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9, ESV).

God’s sovereignty is real, but not every statement people make about it is true. Scripture emphasizes God’s sovereignty, yet it fully recognizes the role of evil people as well as Satan and demons.

Scripture makes clear that Satan and demons in fact have a powerful influence on the course of events in this world (see 2 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Timothy 4:1; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 12:9). An emphasis on God’s sovereignty should not undermine or negate horrible evils.

In a sovereignty-only perspective, human choice can become buried so deep that it’s nominal, essentially an illusion. “Since God is sovereign, it really doesn’t matter how we live. Even if I choose sin, it will be according to God’s plan. Why should I work hard at my job, my marriage, or my parenting when my effort doesn’t matter and it’s all in God’s hands?” Yet Scripture is full of verses that contradict such a conclusion. When Moses said in Deuteronomy 30:19, “Choose life in order that you may live” (NASB), surely he wasn’t saying, “God has predetermined all your choices, so although you imagine you’re choosing, it’s really God making you choose rightly or wrongly.”

When Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, ESV), didn’t he mean they really could choose, and that whether they chose either idols or God, it was genuinely their choice? We should of course call upon God to empower us to make right choices. But that’s not the same as calling on God to make our decisions for us.

What about the many passages of Scripture that show the tragic results of sin? When Achan’s sin resulted in the death of his family (see Joshua 7:10–26) and when Herod killed children in an attempt to murder Christ (see Matthew 2:16–18)—were these not real choices which God permitted and used, but which He did not determine in the sense of causing anyone to sin?

No Calvinist pastor says to his congregation, “Your choices don’t matter, since God has sovereignly predetermined everything, including your sins and your Arminian theology!”

No, he admonishes his people to repent and avoid sin, and to change their theology by choosing to believe something different. Doesn’t every sermon call on people to make good choices? And aren’t most of those choices ones that can actually be made?

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). God has given all of us the capacity to make right choices; doesn’t the fact that we often make wrong ones suggest that we, as well as God, are involved in determining our life direction?

Biblically, God’s sovereignty is affirmed emphatically, yet it doesn’t swallow up our ability to choose or our responsibility for the choices we make.

God’s sovereignty and our meaningful choices are the parallel tracks that allow the train of our faith to move smoothly in the right direction.

Excerpted from Randy's book hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice.

Photo: Unsplash

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