Human will and God’s sovereignty

Following on from my last post, I want to pursue the idea that God is somehow sovereign over human decisions, even though man is endowed with a libertarian will and is held accountable for his actions. It’s the toughest cookie in the free-will debate. But I want first to remind you that my standpoint is what the Bible teaches, not what philosophical reflection would necessarily conclude. As I said in the last piece, an Evangelical objection must be to find a better explanation for the Biblical data, not simply cry “unfair”.

Let me start with a passage “at random”, since it happened to be my devotional reading for today – Isaiah 13. Isaiah, of course, was the prophet most quoted by Jesus. That chapter describes God’s future use of the army of Babylon to punish own sinful people. And “use” is the right word, for he describes “commanding” and “summoning my warriors to carry out my wrath.” “The Lord Almighty is mustering an army for war,” he says, for “the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the almighty.”

Is this an exercise in robotics? Not only does history tell us that the Babylonians were people like us, and even the political motivations that led to Nebuchadnezzar’s campaigns (it was apparently mainly an attempt to hold his empire together from division, rather than a Napoleonic desire to rule the world), but the chapter goes on (from verse 14) to describe God’s future punishment of the Babylonians themselves. I don’t think there’s any serious scholarly suggestion that Isaiah 13 has multiple authors – there is simply no contradiction envisaged between God’s control of kingdoms, their own free decisions and God’s punishment of those decisions.

Is this simply Old Testament theo-political polemic? If one dismisses Isaiah as an inspired prophetic work, then maybe. But the whole book carries on the same theme: what is happening, or is about to happen, is God’s own powerful activity, as contrasted to the idols of the nations who can’t predict the future because they can’t control it. But the New Testament, too, has its share in such a view of God.

Acts 4 describes, and condemns, the sinful actions of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the people of Israel in conspiring to put Jesus to death. The prayer of the apostles goes on, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” That’s quite a cast of characters to script for, but God is said to have done so. Neither is this a peripheral passage – it essentially sums up the whole early Christian explanation for the central event of the gospel: sinful men plotted, but God’s overarching purpose was in place even before they had anything to plot. The Passion was God’s unchangeable purpose to save mankind, and the means were part of the purpose.

A word here on God’s teleology. In Scripture, “wisdom” is the capacity to make a plan and choose effective means to bring it to fruition. If the means are miscalculated and fail, perhaps because they don’t take account of perverse human choices, the plan is not wise, and the planner is a fool. So this chapter of Acts is, apart from anything else, an assertion of God’s wisdom. His purpose could not fail.

Does this mean that God overturns human freedom – that he “coerced” Judas and the motley crew above into crucifying the Lord? There are, perhaps, passages that might suggest that. For example, Proverbs 21.1 says that the king’s heart is in God’s hand, directed like a watercourse wherever he pleases. But there are, as many wives and parents know, ways to get what you want without having to coerce someone’s will. You can make someone an offer they can’t refuse. If they are sentimental, you can tug at their heartstrings. If they are proud, you can feed their pride.

And if God is omnipotent and omniscient, there is literally no end to the means he might use to encourage people to want the same things he does, if not for the same reasons. This need not be in any way cynical – I met an evangelist converted through reading the page he tore out from a prison Gideon’s Bible for a cigarette paper. What would God need to do, physically, for that? Encourage the Gideon to visit the prison; stir up the prisoner’s nicotine-urge; cause the right page to fall open; whisper a suggestion to look at that particular verse…

It’s certainly the case that God need scarcely consider any interference with the human will to ensure the outworking of his purposes – provided we allow him knowledge, power, and his right to act within his creation rather than watch passively as natural law unfolds before his kenotic eyes. The story of Job is instructive (and I happened to comment on it at UD today). Here a self-determined supernatural being, Satan, challenges God over Job’s faith and is given permission to afflict him. At the end of thge book, though, the affliction is seen to have served God’s greater purpose for Job – Satan was merely his agent, though a freely volitional one. Job, of course, is more theological treatise than history, but one can see God playing to Satan’s predispositions in chapter 1, not just using but even creating an opportunity for the outworking of his still-mysterious purpose.

In my view, this view of God’s activity is consistent throughout Scripture, from Genesis (“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish wahat is now being done…”) to Revelation (“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”) But if it should turn out to be the case that there are places where the only possible interpretation implies God’s overcoming of human will directly, yet without negating human responsibility, this is one of those instances where genuine mystery must surely be permissible. We do not even really understand human will, let alone God’s relationship to it. Are we going to accuse the Holy Spirit of incoherent theology, or, in the end, let God be true and every man a liar?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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13 Responses to Human will and God’s sovereignty

  1. Cal says:

    I was listening to Michael Horton and he put it a good way:

    That hyper-calvinists and arminians (I think he mischaracterized here from an academic rather than popular level, but its irrelevant) think of God’s freedom and our freedom as pieces of a pie, arguing who has more parts of the pie. Rather how Scripture paints is that human will is like a mini-pie inside of the pie. The concentric rings of decision are separate, we can be free agents and so can God without conflict.

    However he would say (as a Calvinist) that God’s foreknowledge accords the actions of men into his plan actively, not reactively. God already knows what man will do in every possible situation from eternity and acts. To say this is a lack of freedom is perhaps saying we lack the freedom of the creator, but since we cannot fathom eternity nor the fact that God is not a being (but the very grounds of being, not saying He is not a person), these circles never interfere.

    (I’ve been on a reading binge on sovereignty, calvinism/arminianism and freedom 🙂 )

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Yes, that seems pretty consisten not only with the Bible, but with Calvin at his best moments. I was going to include something on eternity/foreknowledge but it was too long already (actually I forgot!).

    As soon as one has an Augustinian view of God outside time, or even a more “Newtonian” view of perfect foresight, it’s easy to get bogged down in thoughts that since the future’s inevitable, we’re not really free. Which is a complete illusion, since it’s our decisions that have determined our bit of the future.

    It’s like a mouse in a game park the size of Europe complaining that, because there’s a boundary fence out there somewhere, he’s nothing but a prisoner.

  3. Cal says:

    I’d say its more along the lines of the boundary fence actually being an ocean and, not being capable of swimming the ocean, the mouse saying the ocean has imprisoned him.

  4. tragicmishap says:

    Jon we are actually very close. I respect Calvinists for viewing Scripture, as I do, as the data which must be explained by any theology. The main point of disagreement is about salvation. There\’s very little in these two posts about which we would disagree. I understand you believe in free will within the framework of salvation, but as a Calvinist you require that in order to be actually saved from a state of unbelief God must first do a work within you. I say that God did a work within creation, and that every individual man is free to choose within that larger framework whether to follow the way of salvation or damnation. I believe this is compatible with Scripture. I have written quite a bit on it but decided it was too long to post here. Here is my basic conception of the relationship between God and Man:

    (1) The Act of Creation: God creates man in His image with an eternal spirit which grants free will.

    (2) The Act of Judgment: God chooses to create the path to damnation through Adam and the path to salvation through Jesus Christ.

    (3) The Act of Submission: Man chooses the path to damnation or the path to salvation.

    (4) The Act of Justification: God gives the Holy Spirit to those who chose to enter the path of salvation and denies it to those who chose the path to damnation. He validates man’s choice in reference to His will and judgment which is already manifested in the creation of the two paths. To those who chose salvation, God gives the Holy Spirit and the ability to love Him in return and exist in harmony with Him. To those who chose damnation, He shuts the door in their faces forever by not giving them the Holy Spirit, which means they cannot love Him or exist in harmony with Him.

    After I wrote this about a year ago, I realized quickly that you could easily assign one part of the Trinity to each Act of God, and human free will to the Act of Man (Act 3). Christ is the actor for Act 1, God the Father for Act 2, and the Holy Spirit for Act 4. If you would like, I can post more from what I have written, but I’m curious what you think of it.

  5. tragicmishap says:

    Also I am not “sadly named.” The name comes from a satirical song making fun of a false internet rumor that one of the band members who wrote the song had died. It’s a funny commentary on the internet written in the middle of its rise almost fifteen years ago.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Welcome to the blog, Tragic!

    I guess my 2 pieces would have been shaped a bit differently had I been writing about God’s sovereignty. As it was I was trying to defuse the accusation that I object to freedom, not only from the discussion with you on UD, but from my frequent writing about the “freedom of nature” styff at BioLogos and elsewhere.

    The literature on free will is so voluminous and deep that I don’t want to get into a full discussion on it here. But I’m interested, given your thesis of an entirely un-bound liberty of will, how you account fior the difference between the Old and the New Covenant (and why a New is needes at all) in the light of foundational passages like Jer 31.31 ff Ezek 36.22ff?

    Thanks for the explanation on the “TM” handle. It makes sense – I myself have writtn about 160 songs since I died :-). A lot of them are on my website if you’re bothered.

  7. tragicmishap says:

    First of all the will is not entirely unbounded. The Act of Judgment is clearly a bound upon the will. The pathway to damnation and the pathway to salvation are distinct and specified by God. Not only are the pathways chosen by God but also the gateways are chosen by God. The will is not free to abstain from this choice. You must choose one or the other. (Rom 6:17-18) Travelers on both pathways will find themselves constrained by God in various ways. In fact the only reason I commented here was because I saw your view as so close to mine except for one thing: the choice of the gateway.

    It is interesting that you ask me about the Old and New Covenants. That’s something I have only just recently been coming to grips with, before I even looked at your comment. In fact I was just looking at Jeremiah 31 and of course Hebrews 8 where it is quoted. I went back and read through the entire book of Hebrews just to see what the author had in mind when he was talking about covenants.

    I’m very familiar with Reformed teachings on the Old and New Covenants. I was even in a Bible class explaining the significance of the design of the tabernacle, an argument referred to by the author of Hebrews but never made explicit there.

    For most of Hebrews, the author refers to the covenants as Jeremiah did: old and new. Reformed tradition understands this temporally as the switch between the Old and New Testaments. I believed that for a very long time. I now believe that “old” and “new” refer not to when the covenants were enacted but to when they were revealed. In the end, the author of Hebrews calls what he has been heretofore referring to as the “new” covenant the “eternal” covenant. (Heb 13:20) Eternity is the timeless state of God. Both covenants always existed. This is not to say that Christ’s death and resurrection was only a symbol. This is to say that God has always recognized the eternal covenant hinging on Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, and the fact that people living before Christ didn’t know about it doesn’t mean they don’t fall under it. You don’t believe that Moses and Elijah are in hell do you?

    So in temporal terms there was no “change” in the eternal reality “when” Christ died and rose again. Christ’s death and resurrection was always an eternal reality. As the author of Hebrews is fond of stating, Christ died once for all. Considering chapter 11, it’s obvious he meant once for all people past, present and future.

    Because of that, I prefer to call the two covenants the “covenant of faith” and the “covenant of law.” The argument being made in Hebrews is that all those people living with only the Old Testament revelation were saved by faith, just as Christians are. In fact the covenant of faith preceded the covenant of law, meaning the Mosaic law, by quite a bit. (Gen 15:6) The argument about Melchizedek is particularly telling. The entire purpose of comparing Christ to Melchizedek (Gen 14) is to make the case that Christ’s priesthood is above the law and the Levitical priesthood and also preceded it, so to speak. He used Melchizedek precisely because Melchizedek’s priesthood came before the revelation of Mosaic law. So was it even proper to call the “new” covenant the “new” one? Only in the order of its revelation, not in actuality.

    The covenant of law was therefore always imperfect and incapably of saving anybody, even practicing Jews before Christ. In Romans 9-11 Paul makes it clear that there were Jews under the law whose hearts were hardened and were not children of the promise. Esau was not; Jacob was. Paul is establishing that salvation is not hereditary but rather according to the promise, and the promise was given to those who had faith, not those who were ethnically Jewish or those who followed the Mosaic law, the covenant of law. He has been arguing and continues to argue in Romans that salvation is by faith. Jesus, in his arguments with the Pharisees, often calls into question points about the Mosaic law. I believe He was always right about this, and didn’t suddenly become right just because He died and rose again.

    In short I think it’s mistake to call them the “old” and “new” covenants if one means this temporally. The “new” covenant should be understood as eternal and the old as temporary. Temporary meaning not that there was one covenant of law that held for a certain period of history and then didn’t hold, but as many different covenants of law for many different times and places that must all “perish with use.” (Colossians 2)

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi TM

    We’re largely in agreement on the time-considerations of the covenants. My take on things is a bit more developed (or erroneous, depending on one’s opinion), in that I consider the adressees and mediators of the various covenants. This is based on some rethinking of later Reformed covenental theology. I won’t quote chapter and verse – it’s not that hard to find Bible references.

    The first covenant in order of precedence is the eternal covenant between Father and Son, on which all God’s dealings with man depend – so that all is Christocentric. By implication that makes connection with your idea of the covenants being eternal, quite apart from specific mentions of the law being eternal and Christ’s being slain, and the redeemed chosen in him, from before the foundation of the world.

    I go with the concept penman mentioned in his posts of an initial covenant of works (I prefer “Adamic covenant”), broken by Adam and so leading to death.

    The covenant of God with Noah (as head of the surviving race) replaces it in God’s general dealings with mankind, essentially establishing common grace, and final, rather than immediate, judgement. Unconditional, note, except as concerns individuaL accountability.

    Then it gets interesting as salvation history begins in earnest through, as you mention, Abraham. His covenant is a covenant of faith and as Paul points out, is the basis of all salvation to the extent that he describes it as “the gospel in advance”.

    One can therefore see the Mosaic covenant as an initial outworking of that for the nation of Israel corporately (note that their calling is irrevocable, though individual Jews may fall from it through unbelief). There’s a fascinating sequence in Deuteronomy where the abrogation of the Mosaic covenant through apostasy is prophesied, but a new deliverance promised on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, rather than the Mosaic.

    Finally, passages like those I gave you announce (at the very point of the judgement and exile) the new covenant in Christ (I’d specify “New” in relation to Israel’s experience and its historical outworking through the Cross, though foreshadowed in Abraham and, indeed, applied to all those faithful OT saints).

    In my view the key differences are (a) the value of Christ’s sacrifice is such as to wipe out all the believer’s sin forever as per Hebrews, (b) to replace the command of the law to individuals with the grace of an obedient heart created in the Spirit and (c) the overflow of Christ’s work beyond Israel to all humanity (making it a new thing for Gentiles as well). In this way the irrevocable call of God, through grace, becomes applicable to human individuals rather than only to Israel as a nation. Christ achieves for us what Adam, as the first priest, could not.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I missed out the covenant with David, which unconditionally established the role of a Davidic, messianic, mediator-king to be the source of Israel’s salvation. That opens up a whole raft of Christocentric understanding of the Israelite kings and even the apparent oddity of such a role for a king when, apparently, God (under Samuel) was pushing for a direct Theocracy – the key to that is the king of God’s choice, rather than that of the people’s sinful desires.

    I should add the note to how all the covenants that don’t fail (essentially the Adamic and Mosaic) emphasise strongly what God will do, rather than what man ought to do. Isaiah 59 relates.

  10. Cal says:

    That’s interesting Jon, do I hear a bit of Kline in your thoughts?

    So would this be a fair formulation: the eternal covenant always between Father and Son, Union as it were, is sort of opened up to us on the Cross, in the break of His body and shedding of His blood? We don’t share quite the same covenant, it is the creaturely version of it?

    Also, would you not say that Adam was under a covenant of grace? Violating the one command, was an act of rebellion and autonomy and he fell from this grace. Something like that?

  11. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Perhaps the way I’d see the eternal covenant is that, by union with Christ, we come to share in all Christ’s blessings – that would explain concepts like our reigning with him, participation in the judgement of angels etc. It also explains why we are said to be chosen in him before the creation of the world – and why Christ talks about the sheep the Father has given him, whom he has to gather. So the “New” covenant would refer specifically to the gospel, which is the means for us to participate in Christ and, hence, in all that Christ has through his covenant with the Father.

    Regarding the Adamic covenant, I diverge a bity from the idea of it as a works-covenant. As you’ll see if you read the first of my articles linked on the new blog, I prefer to see the prohibition as a covenant stipulation, the covenant itself being signed, sealed and delivered at the Creation by grace , and involving being given every blessing and permission to do … anything except eat of the forbidden tree. The old theologians (even before the Reformation) talked about original righteousness being a gift of grace too. But the possibility of sinning and thus breaking the covenant makes it inferior to the final covenant in Christ… otherwise, all we have in him is the chance to repeat the whole sorry saga over again. That’s why it’s so important that an understanding of salvation is centred on what Christ has done, and not on we must do – otherwise, willy nilly, it’s back to the British Heresy.

  12. Cal says:

    I agree on the second point. That is why the idea of imputed righteousness is important over infused righteousness. Now I don’t agree with many formulations of imputed righteousness that isolated it outside of Union with Christ, one of the most important themes of Paul. However, the main boon from its statement over infused righteousness is that this covenantship (as righteousness is) is not our own but our union with Christ and therefore “alien”. Otherwise given infused righteousness, we are repeating Adam’s covenant.

  13. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Cal – forgot to answer your question on Kline: the answer is, no known dependence!

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