The unexplainable tension that exists between God’s sovereignty and human choice extends beyond the issues of election and predestination. Both religious and nonreligious people find themselves wondering about how much of life is beyond their ability to influence.
People with or without faith in God can be heard saying with some degree of resignation, “Whatever will be will be.” Some say this as if deferring to forces of impersonal fate. Others consciously assume that it is a personal God who has predetermined the circumstances of their lives.
I encountered this fatalistic response when a man told me about his sister whose husband had abandoned her and their small children, then added, “Well, God predetermined this for her, so there must be a reason.” A friend of mine has such a strong conviction that God has predetermined everything, that he has concluded: Prayer changes nothing— except us.
Many assume that such responses harmonize with faith in a powerful God who has eternally foreordained whatever happens. But is that what the Bible tells us?
The Scriptures indicate that we are able to make choices that affect God. They describe a God who freely interacts with us as He gives us freedom to make our choices. The Bible seems to teach that only part of what happens has been eternally predetermined. That’s an idea we will now explore.
God, as we meet Him in the Bible, takes a genuine interest in people and reacts to what they say and do. He does not seem to be boxed in by an allencompassing script that covers everything that happens. Yes, He has a predetermined goal and a predetermined way of bringing history to a close. But the Bible indicates that God, in the process of reaching His predetermined outcome, gives us genuine freedom. Certain Bible passages lead us to believe that God in some mysterious way lets our choices be a factor in the shaping of history. In this atmosphere of real but limited freedom, the God of the Bible makes at least five choices: (1) to become genuinely involved with us, (2) to react to us as He pleases, (3) to make sovereign choices, (4) to reveal what He wants to reveal, and (5) to use evil for the accomplishment of His good purposes.
God Is Free To Become Genuinely Involved With Us. From beginning to end, the Bible presents God as involved with His imagebearers in a mutual giveand- take relationship. In the opening chapters (Gen. 1:28–4:16), God tells Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it, and then forbids them to eat the fruit of one tree in the garden. When they disobey Him, He confronts them and pronounces judgment. When God sees them vainly trying to cover their sense of shame, He provides them with garments.
This pattern continues through the Scriptures. God continually interacts with His image-bearers— making known what He expects, promising blessing for obedience, threatening punishment for disobedience, acting in mercy and judgment. And in all of it, God describes Himself as emotionally vulnerable—sometimes pleased, sometimes disappointed, sometimes hurt, sometimes suffering with His people when they suffer, sometimes agonizing over them, and always ready to forgive those who repent.
This genuine involvement with us culminated in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the purity, compassion, sorrow, and self-sacrificing love of Jesus, we see God’s supreme revelation of Himself. He is not at all like the untouchable, immovable God of Scholastic Theology who works only to carry out what has been eternally decreed.
God Is Free To React To Us As He Pleases. The Bible also exalts God’s freedom by showing us that He exercises His sovereign right to choose how He will respond to our prayers and our conduct. He chose to give Hezekiah the extended life he requested (2 Ki. 20:1-11), but He withheld from Paul the request to remove his “thorn” (2 Cor. 12:7-10). He chose to be patient with David when he committed a sin for which the Law demanded death (2 Sam. 11–12), but He killed Uzzah for inadvertently touching the ark, something only the Levites were permitted to do (2 Sam. 6:1-11). God chose to endure Manasseh’s rebellious behavior for many years, giving him a great deal of time to repent, but He gave his wicked son Amon only 2 years of kingship (2 Chr. 33:10-25).
The Bible writers describe God responding to sin as He chooses and as the situation unfolds. They never say He treated people according to an irresistible eternal decree. We may not be able to understand why He responds differently. But He has given us reason to trust His infinite wisdom, goodness, love, justice, and mercy.
God Is Free To Make Sovereign Choices. God sometimes makes choices that appear to be absolutely unconditional. We saw this in His choice of Isaac and Jacob (Rom. 9:6-13). He “knew” Jeremiah before he was born, set him apart, and appointed him to be a prophet (Jer. 1:5). Before John the Baptist was conceived, God told Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son who would become the forerunner of the promised Messiah (Lk. 1:11-17). After making a personal appearance to Saul of Tarsus, the Lord said of him, “This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15).
George MacDonald speaks of this divine election as “God’s choosing certain persons for the specific purpose of receiving first, and so communicating the gifts of His grace to the wholeworld; . . . [not] the choice of certain persons for ultimate salvation, to the exclusion of the rest” ( The World Of George MacDonald, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1978, p.93). Who can say that God does not have the right to choose whomever He wills to carry out His loving purposes?
God Is Free To Reveal What He Wants To Reveal. In my role as a pastor and a Bible teacher, I have been asked many questions to which I could give no informed answer. Questions like: “When we get to heaven, will we see our baby who died?” “Will infants and small children be resurrected in small or grown-up bodies?” “Will our resurrection bodies, though perfected, be similar to the ones we have now?” “What kind of duties will we have in heaven?” The Bible doesn’t give us specific answers to these and many other questions. We may be able to deduce from some Bible passages reasonable answers to certain questions, but our conclusions will always be speculative. The fact is that God has chosen to reveal everything we need to know to be saved from our sins and to be the kind of people He wants us to be. He withholds information that would serve no purpose except to satisfy our curiosity. In this we trust His wisdom.
God Is Free To Use Evil For Good. The Bible repeatedly shows God using the evil of people to accomplish His good purposes. The sale of Joseph into Egypt by his envious brothers was the means by which He gave Jacob’s family a place where they could multiply into a nation (Gen. 37–50). He used Rahab’s lie to save the lives of Israel’s spies (Josh. 2). He used the lies of false prophets to bring His judgment on Ahab (1 Ki. 22). He made the wicked rejection and crucifixion of Christ the means of atoning for our sins. And He used Israel’s unbelief as the occasion for opening the door of salvation to the Gentile world (Rom. 11:11).
God uses evil, but the Bible affirms that it is impossible for God to be the author of sin, to tempt anyone to sin, or to help anyone to sin (Dt. 32:4; Hab. 1:13; Jas. 1:13; 1 Jn. 1:5). Peter declared that Jesus was handed over to wicked men “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23) and affirmed that Herod, Pilate, the Jews, and the Romans did “what Your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27-28). These statements do not imply that God caused the indescribable cruelty perpetrated by the Jews and Romans. Taking these two passages together, we see a blending of God’s eterna l “set purpose” (that Jesus would be crucified to provide the atonement) and His “foreknowledge” (that wicked men would hate Jesus enough to do all they did to Him). God permissively willed, but did not eternally predetermine, all that occurred.
Puritan theologian William Ames observed that the “will of God does not imply a necessity in all future things, but only a certainty in regard to the event. Thus the event was certain that Christ’s bones should not be broken. . . . But there was no necessity imposed upon the soldiers” (Essentials Of Evangelical Theology, Donald G. Bloesch, Vol.1, pp.47-48).
God’s sovereignty is most certainly a sovereignty of the ends— but not necessarily of all the means to those ends.
OUR FREEDOM God is free to be God and we are free to be morally responsible beings who live in His presence and genuinely choose belief or unbelief, obedience or disobedience, submission or rebellion. To a pagan audience Paul declared, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Through nature (Rom. 1:18-20), conscience (Rom. 2:14- 15), and the voice of wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33), God has given all mankind some knowledge of His power and moral nature. But because all of us are spiritually dead by nature (spiritually separated from God), we would never find God if left on our own. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). God was moving in us before we moved toward Him. This abolishes all pride and self-confidence.
The apostle Peter described what God did and is doing in and for us:
In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
We do not come to God nor remain in relationship with Him on our own. He bought us through Calvary’s price. He moved in us before we moved to Him. Therefore we can trust Him to keep us through faith until the day we reach His predetermined goal for us.
Salvation is always initiated by God. He always is the One who seeks us out and by His Spirit enables us to believe. Yet we are left with the choice to accept or reject the undeserved kindness and mercy He offers us.