Free will (vs God’s sovereignty)

@TomPettinger and I have been discussing free will and God’s sovereignty on twitter, resulting in an agreement that Tom (Pettinger – we’ll take his surname as read from now on) would write a blog post about sovereignty and I would write one about free will. Tom has beaten me to it with his offering, which is here, and should be read as a counterpart to this post. Reading it myself, I kept thinking “that’s not fair, he keeps using all those Biblical passages I don’t entirely know how to handle”, which is about the best comment I can make on why Tom’s post really must be read alongside this one.

Tom begins his post by defining some broad boundaries, i.e. the meaning of “free will”, approach to Biblical interpretation and scope of argument. As the second poster, I will add one further constraint: in this post I will attempt not to reply to Tom’s post, but rather just to make the case I promised to make. So, within these constraints, my task is to argue from the Bible for the existence of human free will. Or, put differently, to argue that God is, in some way, constrained by choices we human beings make.

As I consider this, I think I really only have one point to make, which is that there is a recurring theme throughout the Bible that God calls us to make choices and allows us to face the consequences of our choices even if the consequences are not what God wants. The obvious starting point, in this regard, is the bad choice made by Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, but I think that would be jumping the gun.

Well before Genesis 3, right back when mankind is created in Gen 1:26-30, God gives them “dominion” (all Bible quotes from the NRSV) over all living things. This is reflected in the second creation story in Genesis 2, where God actually involves the man in the creation both of animals and of the woman: it is the man who gives them all names. Before we ever get to questions of “good” and “bad” choices, God is giving mankind free rein to make all kinds of choices which are not “good” or “bad”, but just choices. It would not have been right or wrong to call the antelope “ant” and the ant “antelope” (yes, I thought that was clever, too), it would just be what it was. But, importantly, the entire history of creation is guided by the choices of mankind, with no hint that God in any way directed these choices. Indeed, “whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19).

Already, then, in Genesis 1 and 2, God is giving man choices. Many of these choices have no specific moral value attached to them. But some of the choices quite clearly are good or bad choices and, in these cases, God generally holds people to account for their choices. Specifically he tells us that these choices lead either to life or to death: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17). And, we do, indeed see this happening in the fall story in Genesis 3, which concludes with the dramatic separation of Adam and Eve from the tree of life as a direct consequence of their choice. Even though the Bible is clearly about God’s extreme preference for life, God allows the man and woman to choose death. It is as though God, himself, believes they were free to act of their own volition.

Might we argue that God intended the fall to happen? That the man and woman never really had the choice to refrain from eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? That God always intended the Bible to be somewhat longer than its first two chapters? I suppose we might, but we do not find this in the text. As far as Genesis 1 and 2 are concerned, creation was complete, it was not just “good”, but “very good”. The text “and they lived happily ever after” is entirely consistent with all that had gone before.

In fact, it is only in the light of the end of Revelation that we finally, clearly see the completion of a recreation of the heavens and the earth. To be sure, this is a far more glorious creation than ever there was in Genesis – a city now, not just a garden – but its glory chiefly stems from how amazingly God transforms the disaster and loss of Genesis 3 into victory. It is the glory of a master chess player who wins after taking over from a novice who has lost his queen, rooks, bishops and knights. This glory would dim significantly if it turned out that God had, all along, been controlling both the novice and the opponent.

I think the most natural interpretation of both the creation and the new creation, then, is that God created with the potential that the first creation would be all that ever happened. However, in doing so, he opened up a possibility over which he had no control: that the creation might rebel. God, in his sovereignty, chose to surrender some of his sovereignty. From God’s perspective, it could have gone either way from this point. I’m not saying that the chances were 50/50, though. In fact, if God were a betting man (which I suspect he is), I think he’d have had a reserve plan up his sleeve. I suspect rebellion was the far more likely outcome. But, critically, it was not certain. Creation just might have chosen not to rebel for ever. The text reads to me as though this is how it is supposed to be understood – as though we really did have the choice.

Moving along, the theme of choices in general and, more specifically, accountability for good/bad choices keeps reoccurring. Cain is held accountable for the murder of Abel, the majority of mankind were annihilated in the flood because of their choices, Sodom and Gomorrah, likewise. Then God formed a people and gave them a choice, summarised (after a long rehearsal of what had gone before) in Deut 30:19, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”. The ensuing history of Israel gives witness to the continued ebb and flow of choosing life (seldom) and choosing death (often). And, all along, the prophets cry out both the call into God’s life and judgement on those who reject this call. Examples are far too numerous to quote comprehensively, but here are a few random samplings:

“Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.” (Isaiah 1:27-28).

“I will utter my judgements against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me” (Jer 1:16).

“Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11).

“Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgement goes forth as the light.” (Hos 6:4-5)

“on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Zeph 2:18)

In all of this, the impression is given that we have a choice to make between life and death. God calls us to choose life. He exhorts us. He pleads with us. He demonstrates the advantages and disadvantages. He lets us face the consequences of our actions hoping that these might teach us. Sometimes he even acts directly, physically constraining our actions. And all along he says, “Look! See! This is how it is, you have a choice between life and death. Choose life!” You have a choice, you have a choice, you have a choice! We’re definitely meant to get the impression that we get to choose and that we really can choose to do what God does not will.

The NT continues the same themes, but with a clearer emphasis on what choice it is we have to make: whether to believe and trust in Jesus and follow him. John 1:12 says “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” But this power is given only to those who “received” and “believed”. Romans 8 picks up this theme, saying that those who are specifically “in Christ Jesus” are sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit and there is no condemnation on them. In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly calls us to “repent” and he says “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3). And he tells parables about judgement for making the wrong choices. Those who choose to “abide” in Jesus will grow, flourish and bear fruit but those who don’t will be cut off from the vine and destroyed in the fire (John 15). He speaks of a day of judgement to come when he will “separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt 25:32). Those on the wrong side of the judgement will be told to “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).

Paul, too, distinguishes between an old life and a new life and speaks of the choices we make and judgement. So, for example, “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5:5).

And, ending it all off, with repeated and clear references all the way back to Genesis, Revelation speaks of the new creation in which only the good will be saved, whilst the bad will be destroyed: “Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’” (Rev 21:7-8).

Again, in all of this there is a sense that we have moral choices to make and they are our own choices. It may be that we don’t really have free will in these matters, but that is not what is presented.

Still, we have to guard against Pelagianism. We are not saved by our own actions. We cannot be. Only Jesus can save us by his atoning work and through the Holy Spirit. So where is the choice? I think it lies in the countless small offers of grace which God holds out to us every day. Every time we have the option to sin, God also holds out the offer of the Spirit’s way. Sometimes we make good choices and we align ourselves with the Spirit, allowing the Spirit greater dominion in our lives, giving the Spirit greater control over our future choices. We become “slaves to the law of God” (Rom 7:25). Sometimes we make bad choices and we align ourselves with the flesh (or whatever Paul meant by sarx), allowing the flesh greater dominion, giving the flesh greater control over our future choices. We become “slave to the law of sin” (ibid.). This is reflected in Paul’s theology of justification by faith. We choose to trust in Jesus and his saving work: “to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). To trust Jesus is our choice.

This, at any rate, is approximately where I was in my thinking before my conversation with Tom. God is, of course, sovereign – but in his sovereignty he chooses to surrender some control to us human beings. He forms us as volitional agents, “in our image” (Gen 1:26). He chooses to share his free will with us. But there are consequences to this. A use of free will for evil has no future. It leads to death and God allows that to happen even though he is all for life.

The trouble with this view is that it casts God as someone who is willing to allow vast numbers of his beloved creatures to end in destruction. Neither Tom nor I are comfortable with this idea and questions about universalism hover clearly in the background of our conversation. Could it be that God will eventually save all? Maybe God is just that good a chess player (to return to an earlier metaphor). To be sure, all are separated from the tree of life in Genesis 3, but perhaps, when all is said and done, God will have opened the way back to the tree of life for all of us. I’d like to think that.

But this isn’t what I find in the Bible. The prophets (especially Isaiah) always speak of God’s good future after all the impending/present unpleasantness of judgement, but they speak of it for a “remnant”, not for all. Jesus tells us the gate is narrow which leads to life (Matt 7:13-14) and most seeds do not take root because the soil is poor and some plants are weeds (both in Matt 13). Paul speaks to those who are “in Christ”, but always in the context of the majority who aren’t. And capping it all off, the end of Revelation, which in so many ways mirrors the beginning of Genesis, concludes with Jesus saying “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood.” (Rev 22:14-15). Not all will be permitted back to the tree of life, after all.

So we come back to my main point. God clearly seems to be calling us to make a choice: to accept his offer of new life or to choose our own path. He warns us that choosing our own path ultimately leads to death and destruction. He expends vast amounts of effort to persuade us to accept his offer. But in the end, the choice whether to “repent and believe” is our own. God, in his sovereignty, seems to have chosen to constrain himself by allowing us this choice. In other words, in this one regard we have free will. That is how the text reads.

Some other thoughts

Personally, I find the arguments above fairly convincing. However, reading Tom’s post, I find he also makes a very strong case. Part of the trouble is that we are both quoting selectively from the Bible. Any full understanding must take into account all that both of us have argued.

As I ponder this, one thought which occurs to me is that we are both making assumptions about the word “all”. When I argue that all those who reject God will die, I assume that this group is not empty. Certainly it is presently not empty, but maybe, just maybe, there will, in the end, be no dogs, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters or anyone who loves and practises falsehood (Rev 22:14-15). And maybe the very threat that all such people will be left outside the heavenly city is exactly what is needed for us all to eventually see the light and choose to let God have his way with us.

Alternatively, there is another use of “all” with which we must wrestle. When Jesus says “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), what does he mean by “all”? Could it be that he is speaking of a time frame in which only those who accept God’s call are left? Traditionally, people understand the Christian message to offer a choice between eternal blessing in heaven and eternal torment in hell. Neither of these understandings is strongly supported by scripture. The much clearer choice is between eternal life and destruction. Could it be that the “all” who God redeems is exactly that set of people who are extant beyond judgement?

Both of these suggestions may seem to be mere semantic games. But perhaps we should take them more seriously. Some of the things the Bible speaks of are beyond any experience we have ever had and they stretch our languages beyond breaking point. It may at least be worth rereading the scriptures with these two possible understandings of “all” in mind.

My second further thought concerns the problem of evil. This also lurks in the background of my conversation with Tom. One of the best ways of dealing with the problem of evil is to respond that the Bible attests that, at the very least, humans and angels have sufficient free will to rebel against God. If, as Tom suggests, we do not really have this free will, if God really is sovereign over all the choices of humans and angels, then the existence of evil seems to be laid at the feet of God himself.

On the other hand, taking the view for which I have argued, we are confronted with a loving God who is willing to allow most of us to go to destruction. Neither of these is comfortable thoughts. It seems to me that a rereading of the Bible with these two questions in the back of our minds is also required.

The moral hazard

Tom and I have briefly discussed the moral hazard implicit in a view that God is sovereign and that it is his responsibility, ultimately, to bring us all to salvation. What, then, is to stop us saying, “In that case, I choose a life of hedonism”? Well, perhaps, this is a rather extreme caricature. But, as a clergyman, I see deep seeds of truth in this concern. It is my almost universal experience in funeral ministry that the bereaved family harbour a vague sense that the world is basically good and providential and that their loved one is now in heaven. Yet they and the deceased have clearly lived with very little sense that there is any need to surrender one’s all to the sovereign God. They have bought the fleshly message that one should live for oneself and they have also bought the Spiritual message that God saves us. And they hold these two views together with no sense of contradiction in their minds.

That is worrying. But perhaps the real moral hazard is in dulling the church’s urgency in rescuing our neighbours from destruction. To listen to our conversations, we are far more concerned about church decline/growth than we are about all the people out there who are walking in darkness. Jesus always had an urgency in his call to “repent and believe”. So did the apostles, especially Paul who spent so much time travelling far and wide and speaking to anyone he could about the call to new life. I do wonder whether the Church’s present malaise stems partly from thinking that God is basically in control and will sort everything out. But, then, perhaps this also stems from a wrong understanding of sovereignty. So often we simply don’t trust God to be good for the promises he makes. We’d like to tell people the good news, but we give up at the first impossibility (which usually involves money or vulnerability). We do not trust God to overcome these obstacles.


Well, that’s it. Rereading both posts, it seems to me that there is more thinking and praying to be done. Perhaps, also, some of the ensuing conversation will bring further illumination.

4 thoughts on “Free will (vs God’s sovereignty)

  1. Hi Tom, and many thanks for suggesting this extended conversation. I didn’t want to keep adding “…a response” blogposts, and so I’m going to raise a few points about your post here in the comments. Please feel free to do the same – I think a dialogue will be more interesting than repeated monologues!

    The first is a simple point we all need to bear in mind as we read the scriptures, regarding our honesty. You say I mention scriptures that you “don’t entirely know how to handle”, and I think that’s commendably honest. But if I was being cynical I might suggest that “handle” means “how to rationalise with what I’ve already decided is true.” In any debate, particularly when it comes to doctrine, we must surely be open to the idea that we have (perhaps for a long time) got the wrong end of the stick?
    I say this with humility because the conclusions I outline in my post are new to me, despite the fact that I have been an active, church-going, believing Christian all my life. I know very well that to suddenly be confronted with something that contradicts the doctrines you hold dear is disconcerting.

    I will address some of the scriptural arguments you make, but particularly interesting to me are your parting thoughts. I did wonder (after our Twitter interactions) about how many of the concerns you have stem from your experience as a clergyman, and the charge: “why not live a life of hedonism?”. My question in response would be, “is anyone, without God’s grace and the work of the holy spirit, saved by trying to shun a life of hedonism?”. You say yourself we must avoid Pelagianism, and yet the question you pose belies the view that somehow, choosing not to live a life of hedonism is at least partially responsible for our salvation. If you were to ask me “as God is sovereign, can I then go out and live selfishly?” to which my answer is “yes, absolutely you can.”

    But before you do so, you need to understand a few things: firstly, that you will never, ever enter the kingdom of God in such a state. And secondly, that the very fact that you want to do such things shows the degree to which you are yet carnal, that your flesh has not died with Christ. If that is appealing to you, if endless worldly pleasures are your idea of “heaven”, then please, go right ahead. But I can tell you with certainty that these choices will bring you destruction.

    Now, just like the prodigal son, I also believe that this destruction will ultimately be for your own benefit as it will – eventually – lead you to understand your need for a saviour. You know that God judges our hearts, our inward appearance rather than outward. So tell me – could the prodigal son have happily chosen to humble himself before his father without the destruction of the pig pen? Despite all the lust, greed and selfishness he clearly harboured? I don’t think so! Look at Psalm 119:71 “It was GOOD for me to be afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.”

    If you feel that the church’s duty is to “tell people how to live”, and that the only way we will not sin in the future is because of the fear of judgement, then I can understand your concern. But that doesn’t sound like a vision of heaven to me, it sounds exactly like the Old Covenant (well, not exactly, but you catch my drift). When God promises to write his law upon our hearts, this is not simply some kind of internal tattoo, so that we never forget what we mustn’t do. When the laws were on tablets of stone, God says “though shalt not covet” – an external imposition onto our sinful flesh so that we understand what it is to sin. But when it is written on our hearts, it is not an external imposition, but a beautiful promise: “though shalt not covet!”, in other words, “I am doing work in you so that I promise you, you will never covet again! Because you will not want to! It will not be in your nature! You will be a perfect image of my likeness!”

    As for removing our impetus for spreading the word, again, this is the self-aggrandising carnal mind sneaking into play. “God needs me, He can’t do it without me”. God can do anything He wants. He doesn’t need you in the slightest, but He delights in using you. Our approach to evangelism should be very much the same as it is to giving; not “God can’t do it without my money, and I’m obliged to give” but “everything belongs to God, and I have the privilege of playing a small part in this”. If you want to see what it looks like when people feel driven to evangelise by fear (for themselves or others), just look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  2. Yes, a dialogue in the comments does seem like a good idea. I suggest responding to the post each time rather than the last comment, otherwise the nesting will quickly reduce each reply to a column of single words. (On my blog at any rate).

    So, yes, point about “handle” == “rationalise” is well made. And I do expect that one or both of us will be stretched by this conversation.

    For the most part, I agree with the things you say, especially how God uses the mess we get ourselves into to bring us to himself. And you quote the prodigal son as an excellent example. However, I am not sure I would quite call the son’s pig pen experience “destruction”. It occurs to me that the parable might have had a different ending. The son might have begun to blame the father and to hate the father. (This is irrational, yes, but all too human). The son might then have said to himself, “My father is still living in luxury, I will go and steal from him”. The son might thus begin a furtive life which continually descends into greater degradation, feeding ever more on his hatred until there is nothing human left in him. Think Tolkien’s Gollum. Or consider the cat in C S Lewis’s “Last Battle”. This is a creature which eventually makes so many choices against Aslan that it become irretrievably lost.

    The thing is that the Bible does suggest this kind of annihilation (e.g. the gardener burning the dead branches in John 15). It also suggests a less extreme cleansing by fire experience for those who turn to God (or, in the John 15 metaphor, branches being pruned). And this pruning (rather than burning wholesale) seems to be very much what God wants for us.

    I also agree with your comments about the motivation for spreading the word. My concern, though, lies more in the direction of a competing word being spread, one which says, “God is basically nice and will sort everything out in the end”. This suggests to people that they never need to make a choice to allow God in. I guess, then, that we have to gamble that this path will lead inevitably to the crisis you describe (perhaps, though, not until death or even after that), and that the crisis will be short of annihilation and that the person will always choose to return to God when faced with the crisis. My alternative prodigal son story (which does reflect the way I sometimes see people responding) suggests otherwise.

    One further thought is that there may be a paradox at work here. It may be that God can only save us (perhaps even all of us) if complete destruction is a very real possibility. At the last, it might just be that standing on the edge of the abyss, staring into its depths, is the only thing which will finally teach us that “my way” has no future. In other words, we might both be right.

    Moving on, you make a very interesting suggestion about the law written on the heart being an indicative statement, rather than imperative. I notice that “covet” is qal imperfect in Hebrew and indicative in Greek. Which fits (I think – my Hebrew is very rudimentary). Although, in the LXX at least, some of the commandments use the imperative. I’ll have to give more time to this when I have a chance.

    Hopefully I will have some time soon to reply to your blog post.


  3. I’ll address a few of the scriptural references in your post if I may…

    The first relates to the dominion we have over the earth: it is a delegated dominion, and authority (or rather, liability) always rests with the creator, the owner, the delegator. Frankenstein is responsible for the havoc wreaked by his monster. You would be responsible if you allowed your child to use your car and they crashed it. If you put someone in control and they mess up, you have to sort it out.

    But I am interested in this idea of God making us in His image which involves free will – where does it come from? I’ve heard it before but I cannot find a scriptural basis for it; only the reasoning of men who assume that, as we do not physically resemble an invisible God, “free will” must be this vital way in which we are made in His image.

    The question then must be: if man was *fully* made in God’s image at the beginning of creation, why did he sin? Is God’s image a sinning image? You might want to argue that we all now sin because of Adam (“in Adam all die” – which weirdly people can believe, and yet they will not believe that “in Christ all shall be made alive”). But why did Adam sin?
    I think God is making us in his image. We are the clay, He is the potter, and some of us will be fashioned into vessels used for dirty work, smashed and then re-made. “We are being conformed to His image”, with the understanding being that when this process is complete, we will never sin again, it will not be in our nature because our nature will be HIS nature! If this is not the case, then we are left with (yet another) difficult question: when will God take away this “wonderful gift of free will”? Most people agree we won’t be sinning “in heaven” (inaccurate, but you know what I mean), but why is that? What will be different about when we’re in heaven compared to when Adam and Eve were in the garden?

    I also want to consider your mentioning of the various times people are asked to repent, asked to choose etc. throughout the Bible. Again, going back to my point about how we approach scripture: the fact that God asks us to do things is, in my opinion, almost always to teach us something. Back in the garden, God called to the man, “where are you?”. Are we to believe that God did not know where they were? (This I think is yet another wonderful example of God speaking to man as a parent would a child. “What have you done?” Indeed, later we see, “where is your brother? Where is Abel?” – like He didn’t know.) So, I cannot see how the fact that God asks us to make a decision proves in any way that He does not already know the outcome.

    Next I’d like to mention the various wrathful judgements, destructions, desolations and so on. These are very serious and very scary prophecies and I do not wish to diminish them. But they are not “the end” (when Christ has destroyed all earthly dominion, authority and power, put all under His feet and hands the kingdom to His Father) and they serve a purpose. And what is that purpose?

    “When your judgments come upon the earth,
    the people of the world learn righteousness” ~ Isaiah 26:9

    People learn righteousness through judgement. The lost sheep (apollumi – the “destroyed” sheep, ruined, perished…) is sought out by the good shepherd. Judgement has a purpose. Do we really believe that God teaches the people of the world righteousness, right before He annihilates them or condemns them to eternal torment?

    You mention those outside the heavenly city – the fornicators, sorcerors, idolators – but those who wash their robes may enter the city by the gates. Would these be the same gates that will never be closed? And inside the city, the tree of life, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations?

    • Apologies – I had this open for a while before posting and didn’t see your previous reply – please feel free to delete it for the sake dialogue/clarity!

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