God’s Sovereignty and Human Will
God’s Eternal Attribute of Sovereignty
The Bible tells us that God is sovereign. This is one of his eternal or infinite attributes. God is referred to by the term Sovereign Lord countless times in the Bible. The prophets of the Old Testament addressed God as the Sovereign Lord in many of their prayers, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel. The New Testament Christians also recognized God as the Sovereign Lord. But what is sovereignty? And if God is sovereign over everyone, how do we reconcile it with human free will?
An ancient king confessed God’s sovereignty
Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) learned about God’s sovereignty through a humbling experience. After bragging about himself and his power, God intervened and he temporarily lost his mind, and as a result, control of his kingdom. After he recovered from his insanity, he issued a proclamation to the Babylonian people:
The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people. (Daniel 4:17)
The Old Testament prophets confessed God’s sovereignty
Moses recognized that the pagan idols of the surrounding nations had no real power, and they were not really gods at all. Only the Creator God was sovereign over the universe:
Sovereign LORD, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? (Deuteronomy 3:24)
The prophet Jeremiah also confessed that God is sovereign over the entire cosmos. He rules over it because he made it.
Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. (Jeremiah 32:17)
The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s sovereign power over death and despair:
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:7-8)
When his kingdom comes into its full strength, God will destroy the power of death. Death is now being used by the devil and his subjects to rule the world, but only for a limited time. God will end that rule at a time of his choosing, as described in the 19th chapter of Revelation.
What is God’s sovereignty?
From just these passages alone we learn that God rules over:
- nature and the entire cosmos
- the lives and affairs of humans
- life, suffering, and death
- the kingdoms of the world
- the powers of evil
In other words, he rules over everything. God as the Creator of the physical universe has absolute right and full authority over the physical world. God’s sovereignty encompasses his omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience over all creation, in and outside of time and human experience.
It should be comforting for believers to know that a good God rules over the details of our lives: our health, our jobs, our food and water supplies, and everything that affects us. God’s sovereignty is based on the fact that he is also:
- all powerful
Without these attributes he could not be sovereign. That God is sovereign also allows us to pray with confidence. By definition, prayer is asking God to use his sovereign powers to intervene in our lives and on our behalf. If God was not sovereign, why would we even bother to pray?
What sovereignty is not
Some people associate the term sovereign with the word “control.” But the two words are not synonymous. The preferred term to use when discussing sovereignty is “rule.” In relation to the physical universe, God rules and sustains all things by his physical laws (laws of nature). The natural world offers no resistance to God as it is fully in compliance with his will.
But with respect to human beings, the word sovereign takes on a different connotation: to rule over. Why is that? Because God gave humans volition, meaning we can make decisions. He created us as free agents. We have been given the right to make independent decisions—good choices as well as bad choices.
Sovereignty does not mean God controls all people. It means he possesses supreme or ultimate authority over all people. He still gives humans ability to make choices but holds them responsible for their actions.
Some Christians also confuse sovereignty with predeterminism (Or determinism). Predeterminism is the belief that God predetermines all events and even the actions of humans. Some churches teach doctrines that are very close to this. It is very similar to fatalism, the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. But if we see God in this light, he then becomes a total dictator. He determines what people do and when they do it. He even predetermines the thoughts, intentions, and motives of people. If taken to a logical conclusion, God is directly responsible for all the evil that people do, as well as the good.
God is all powerful, but this does not require that he predetermines all events. That God is all-knowing and omnipresent does not require it either. Fatalism cannot be found in the Bible—this is totally incompatible with the nature of a loving God. It is a fact that humans tend to resign themselves to a negative situation and relinquish hope when they believe the outcome is predetermined. God’s desire is that we have hope, by believing his promise that he will bless those who trust and love him, now and in the future.
It has been argued that God also predetermines (or “predestines”) and elects who will have faith and be saved, and who will not. But the biblical doctrines of predestination and election are not the same as predeterminism or fatalism, which are not biblical. I discuss these topics in more detail in my articles Predestination in the Bible and Who are the elect in the New Testament?
God’s grace offered to all
In Psalm 86 the Psalmist declares that God is good and is merciful to those that call out to him:
You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you. (Psalm 86:5)
This passage and so many others reveal that God has mercy on all who seek him. Christ commanded his followers to share this message of God’s grace to everyone. The doctrine that God has predetermined who will find his grace is not the message God has commanded us to preach. The message that we are to be spreading was that given in the gospel of John:
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
The very reason God commands us to share this good news is to encourage people to seek him so they can find him and experience his grace.
Reconciling God’s sovereignty with human free will
Both God’s sovereignty and human free will are undoubtedly found in Scripture, and to deny either leads to great doctrinal error. But it’s difficult for some people to imagine how God can be all-powerful and sovereign, and still allow other beings to have free will. How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction? To answer that question, we should look at both God’s nature and human nature.
God possesses infinite intelligence, volition, individuality, emotion, and creativity. He also made us in his image, which means that these same attributes can be seen in humans, but to a much smaller degree. These attributes that God possesses infinitely humans also possess, but finitely. We also possess the attribute of volition, but to a limited, finite degree. So human will is but a small version of God’s will. So, humans are endowed with a will as a reflection of the created image of God. But this in no way diminishes God’s sovereignty.
Our will is subordinate to God’s
God is present and active everywhere. Psalm 139 states:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me…. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand on me. (Psalm 139: 1-3)
God’s will is clearly greater than man’s will—in fact it is infinite, and this is why he is sovereign. His presence surrounds us and hems us in on all sides. It is over us and encompasses our every thought and move. Our will is finite, so it is limited and restricted—by God and his infinite attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, transcendence, and eternality. Humans have the power to make independent decisions, yet our will is always subordinate to God’s will.
So, it’s clear that God’s sovereignty is much greater than human will, in that God’s will is stronger (in fact infinitely strong). “Free will” is really kind of a misnomer. Our will is not totally free since it can operate only within the confines and limits set by God. We cannot choose to do anything we want—we can only choose to do what God allows us to do. We cannot do many things, even things we might want to do, because we are not all-powerful. Only God is all-powerful.
God’s sovereign gift of free will
In the Bible God’s sovereignty means that he rules over a kingdom inhabited by free agents. He doesn’t make all of the decisions, but he presides and rules over all of his subjects. He also has complete power over his enemies, but exercises that power at select times, for the purpose of judging or even forgiving and restoring.
It is evident then that although God is totally sovereign, in his sovereignty he has given humans free will. He can do this because of his sovereignty, not in in spite of it or in opposition to it. Humans have free will because God has sovereignly ordained that we have it. It is because God is sovereign that we have free will.
Freedom in Christ
I believe that God has given us humans a tremendous amount of freedom. Sometimes I’m tempted to think he gave us way too much. But he’s in charge, not me.
As our loving Father, he doesn’t dictate our every move or force compliance to his desires every second of our lives. No earthly father would ever parent their children this way, and God does not parent us this way either. He gives people guidance and blessing, but does not micromanage. God warns us that disobeying his commands will bring pain and heartache, but he does not force obedience.
So, we must conclude that God honors our free will choices, even when they are bad. But his desire is that our will is transformed and conformed to his will, so our lives reflect his nature and glory.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Ruling with Christ
Not only do believers have freedom in Christ, the Bible states that they will rule with Christ. Someone may ask: Isn’t God the only and supreme ruler? How can you have more than one ruler in a kingdom?
The answer to this is very simple: delegation. Leaders and managers have people under them and they delegate their authority to them. The same is true in God’s kingdom. He delegates authority to those under him—to angels, and to his people.
The Apostle Paul admonished the Corinthian church for their inability to resolve internal conflicts among them:
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! (1 Corinthians 6:1-3)
We are given the privilege of ruling with Christ, and along with it come authority and responsibility. It is amazing that the followers of Christ will participate in the judgment of the world, and even of the angels!
Kings and priests
A good king allows an abundance of freedom for his subjects. Only an evil king micromanages and dictates their every move. Because God is good, he gives us freedom. In this present life God doesn’t dictate our every decision, and he doesn’t control our every move—he inspires, leads, and empowers. In this way we live as his people under God’s rule, but we also rule with Christ. Not as robots, but as free agents that are empowered, commissioned, blessed, and protected by the Great Sovereign King.
Peter proclaimed to the church:
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
When God saved us, he freed us from slavery to sin and death. Now we are conquerors—warriors in God’s kingdom against the forces of evil. God has also made us kings and royal priests in his kingdom, very high positions indeed. Christ promises to us who believe the authority to rule the nations:
To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. (Revelation 2:26-27)
The future glory of God’s kingdom
Revelation also describes the glory of the future city of God:
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. (Revelation 21:23-24)
Who are these kings of the nations it refers to? They are those who will rule with Christ! May we all live in the hope in that God’s rule will soon be complete.
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
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