Free Will God's Sovereignty
I believe this booklet will be helpful in understanding the sovereignty of God and the entire question of free will. Every Christian, it seems, believes that God is sovereign in the universe. On the other hand, man’s theology also seems to deny His sovereignty when we question them on the details. God is sovereign, they tell us, yet for whatever reason, God has chosen to relinquish His sovereignty, or His control over His creation, in order to give man a free will.
To complicate matters further, many believe that one of God’s top angels decided—by his own free will of course—to overthrow God. This Lucifer, or the devil (according to the commonly held view) was also endowed with a free will, and he convinced other disgruntled angels who were jealous of God or angry with God, for reasons unclear, to join the rebellion. The bottom line is that it is commonly believed that both men and angels have a free will and can sin or not sin by their own decision.
We do see in the Bible that man is told to choose what is right and to shun that which is wrong. Deut. 30:19 says,
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.
Again, in Joshua 24:15, we read,
15 And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Man does have a will; there is no question about that. By his will, he is called to make choices. The real question, however, is whether God’s will has any influence upon man’s will, other than through persuasion.
It is commonly believed that if man has a will at all, then it must be totally free. The problem is that this seems to conflict with what we are told in John 6:44 that no man is able to come to the Father except the Father drag him. Strong’s Concordance says that the Greek helkuo means “to drag” It is translated in the King James as “draw.” John 6:44 says,
44 No man can come to me, unless the Father who sent me draws him: and I will raise him up on the last day.
You will find this same word used in other parts of the Bible, such as John 21:6,
6 And he said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you will find a catch.” They cast therefore, and then they were not able to haul [helkuo] it in because of the great number of fish.
The same idea is expressed when fishermen drag their nets. There are fish in the net, and the fish do not have a whole lot of free will to escape once they are caught in the net. The fish do not know this, but we of higher intelligence know it. You also find this same word in James 2:6,
6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, and personally drag [helkuo] you into court?
Do the rich and powerful oppressors come knocking on your door and say, “You have a choice here. We would like you to come down to our court because we want to sue you.” I do not think they give anyone the “free will” option to decline. They put the handcuffs on you and drag you into court. That is the theme in James 2 – it means “to drag.” To drag implies that they do not have much free will in the matter. They may fight and scream all they want, but it is not their decision to make. Someone of a higher authority has already made the decision for them, and they are forced to comply. John 12:32 says,
32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw [helkuo] all men unto myself.
Here, Jesus uses that same word helkuo, which means to drag. It does not sound like men have much to say in the matter. In other words, if the expression “to drag” implies the rich and powerful are dragging you into court or the net is dragging fish into the boat, then the ones being dragged are having their "free will" overruled by a higher will. Therefore we can say that if Jesus was lifted up, that is on the cross – which He was – He will drag all men unto Himself just as He said He would do.
So the question is how this relates to the idea of free will. The word “drag” really does not allow much free will. Is there a way to reconcile these statements of God’s sovereign will with those other passages that tell us to choose? We cannot say that the Scriptures conflict. There must be a way to reconcile seemingly contradictory passages such as these.
The position of this book is that man has a will, but that will is not “free” in the accepted sense. Its freedom is subordinate to God’s will. Man’s will has God-given authority, but not sovereignty. The sovereign will of God is more powerful than man’s will. Man’s will is easily manipulated by thousands of factors outside of his control, beginning with the simple fact that he had no choice in being born or into what family, race, nation, or religious view. After that, he is taught by the will of others—his parents in particular. Parental guidance and teaching manipulates the will of the child and shapes it according to the will of the parent.
After this, the child goes to school, where his will is manipulated by teachers and fellow students. Over and beyond all this, there is the coercive will of government who know how to manipulate children to conform to their standard of behavior. The point is that our “free will” is actually the sum total of perhaps millions of manipulations that have lodged in the subconscious mind. These then determine our ability to discern and make decisions throughout life. What we think is “free will” is suddenly not quite as free as we would like to think.
Men’s manipulations are one thing, but what about God’s will in all of this? Does God manipulate us in any manner, or does He remain aloof while men and women do all of the manipulation?
We know that God teaches us and leads us by His Spirit. There are too many examples in the Bible to deny this. When He disciplines us as children, is He not manipulating our will to conform to His will? If the law threatens judgment for disobedience, is this not coercion? Is such coercion not a limitation on the “free will” of man?
If we make decisions based upon limited knowledge, can God not alter our decisions by revelation or a word of knowledge? Saul intended to persecute Christians in Damascus (Acts 9), but then God intervened and gave him knowledge of Himself. This altered his will, and Saul was converted to Christ. God was not aloof that day. He was not helpless in the face of Saul’s “free will.” This raises a serious question: If God could change the heart of Saul by an act of His sovereign will, then why does He not do so with all men? Could He not convert all men to Himself by such a revelation process? After all, the only reason men do not love Jesus Christ is because they do not yet know Him.
It is obvious that God does not reveal Himself to all men as He did with Saul. It is not for us to question God in this, but to try to understand why He reveals Himself to some but not to all. John 6:37 says,
37 All that the Father gives Me shall come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out.
Whomever the Father has given to Christ will come to Him. How do we know this? Because the will of God is backed up by His power. He is able to do His will in the earth. He is not helpless in the face of man’s will. He is still more powerful, more intelligent, and more sovereign than any man on earth or any spiritual being. His reasons for not revealing Himself to all men in this present age are beyond the scope of this book, but the fact remains that His sovereign will is not at all hampered or hindered by the will of man—not even in the matter of his personal salvation. God could immediately cause all men to be saved by appearing to all men and revealing Himself.
Those who decide to come to Christ by their own “free will” are the people whom the Father has revealed Himself. He reveals Himself to those who have been given to Jesus Christ by the prior will of God. “All that the Father gives Me shall come to me.” There is Someone behind the scenes Who has called these people and revealed Himself to them. Therefore their response is, “I want to come to Christ.” They think it is all by their own free will, but yet God has played a hidden role in the background, choosing to remain anonymous.
This does not bypass man’s will. It does, however, keep man’s will subordinate to the will of God. When God reveals Himself to man, he finds that God is irresistible. He wants to believe in such a God, and he then does so by his own human will. His will is not exactly free, but it does exist, and it is a factor.
To use a contrary example, if a man in a remote part of the world has never heard of God, and God does not reveal Himself to that man, it can hardly be said that he rejected God of his own free will. It can be said, however, that God chose not to reveal Himself to that man in this present age. As we have shown in other writings, God will reveal Himself to all men in due time. He has not chosen to burn the majority of men in hell forever, as a hard-core Calvinist would teach. Calvin had some revelation on God’s sovereignty, but he did not have the revelation of the restoration of all things. Thus, his teaching was unbalanced and portrayed God as a hard-hearted monster.
Whom God has chosen to reveal Himself, these will in turn choose Him by their own will. God directs their paths so that they will indeed come to Him sooner or later.
Because God does not directly supercede our human will, it is easy for men to think that their will is free. We hold this illusion of free will in our immaturity. Once we begin to grow up and understand who God is, we see that He really is the Sovereign of the universe. Then we begin to understand that our will is merely a response to His will. The more we come to know Him, the more sovereign He seems to become, and the less free our will seems to be.
The Theology of Free Will
So the question becomes, why do men feel the need to question God’s sovereignty and establish the idea of their own free will? What is behind this need to question God’s sovereignty? What is the motive behind it that is so strong that people feel absolutely obligated to maintain free will, and without it their entire universe falls apart? There are three basic motives for the maintenance of free will among men.
The first element is human pride and man's need to do something in himself in order to be saved. Man wants God to think that he (man) has come to Him on his own initiative, so that God will be pleased with man’s decision. In other words, he says, “I have some participation in my salvation. It is a cooperative effort between God and me. God can do nothing without me, as much as I can do nothing without God.”
We hear much about this cooperative effort. Certainly, our will ought to be in agreement with His will. My question is: Who is it that implanted the idea within our heart to make us cooperate with God? Could we have done this without some prior act of God? Could we come to God apart from the leading and drawing of the Holy Spirit? I do not believe we could do so. Yet the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to give us the revelation by which our will may “cooperate” with God.
And so, Christian believers have no reason to be proud of their decision which they made to follow Christ. Rather, they should have an attitude of gratefulness that the Holy Spirit called them. Nor should they be offended if God should call others in the age to come.
The Adamic Self-Life
The second motive behind the idea of free will is that the Adamic self-life is still very much alive. The self-life wants to maintain itself and survive. It does not want to die. It is the carnal mind, and it uses man’s ego to focus upon man. It makes man's will the originator of all his decisions. Man becomes the measure of all things, as philosophers have said. Essentially, at its core it is a humanistic view of the world.
The carnal mind that we received from Adam has a strong sense of self-preservation. It does not want to be crucified with Christ. It wants to live so that it may exercise its will in our lives. The human will is the primary expression of the “old man” (Rom. 6:6). Those who are strongly attached to the idea of “free will” probably do not realize that it is the “old man” that is fighting for its survival. Thus, to deny freedom of expression for the will of man is unthinkable. Yet in reality, such a mindset is a characteristic of carnality, not spirituality.
Justifying God in an Evil World
Thirdly, and perhaps most important for our purposes, the reason for the free will idea is the need to explain the existence of evil in the world in a way that does not make God liable for it. In other words, if God is sovereign (we are asked), then why does He allow all this human suffering to take place? People always bring up all of the terrible events that happen and continue to happen. If God really were sovereign, then why does He not do something about the world's problems? Surely He cannot be held responsible! Evil men are responsible, not God.
Christian theologians and philosophers have proposed two main solutions to this third question. One group says that they do not really understand God’s purpose for evil, but they know that God will work all things out for good (Romans 8:28). In other words, God creates evil (Is. 45:7; Amos 3:6) but always for a good purpose in the end.
The other solution is that God is not really responsible, that it is all caused by mankind and/or the devil who inspires them. This preserves the sovereignty of men or of devils and makes God an observer and helper of mankind when they ask for help.
Man’s Will Responds to God’s Will
Whoever initiates the action has the greater will. If man must initiate the action and God can only respond to man’s prayers, then man’s will is greater than God’s will. In effect, man manipulates God, and God complies with the will of man. This really comes down to a question of who is God? Is man God? Or is the Creator still God?
But if God initiates the action, and man responds by his human will, then God is still God. But if God is the responder, then man is his own god, and the Creator is his powerful but obedient servant.
Jeremiah had something to say about this: Jeremiah 31:18 says in The Interlinear Bible,
18 I have surely heard Ephraim moaning over himself, saying, “You have chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bull not broken in. Turn me, and I shall be turned, for You are Jehovah my God.”
By the Spirit, Jeremiah compares Ephraim to a bullock plowing a field, as if praying to his master to turn him in another direction. To turn means to repent, to go in another direction. But the bull cannot turn unless the master turns him. In other words, the farmer is the one responsible to turn the bull in the right direction as it is plowing the field. This particular “bull” is the tribe of Ephraim (Deut. 33:17).
God is clearly shown to be “at the reins,” so to speak. He is the One in control of the bullock. So Jeremiah is showing that God has to initiate everything – otherwise it will not be accomplished. The bullock, then, by his own will responds to the will of his master.
Jeremiah 17:14 also tells us,
14 Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved: for Thou art my praise.
Once again the prophet shows us that God initiates the action. None of us will be saved unless God has done something first to initiate man’s response. No man can come to the Father, except the Father drag him. If God has ordained some event from the beginning (call it “predestination” if you want – the “P” word); if He has determined something and ordained it, then it is going to happen, BUT it will seem as if it happened naturally or by the will of man.
Again, who is the cause and what is the effect? Man’s flesh cannot initiate any good thing. In my flesh is no good thing (Rom. 7:18). James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” One of the greatest gifts God can give us is the gift of repentance. Romans 2:4 that “the kindness of God leads you to repentance.” If God leads us to repent and begins to drag us to the Father, then we should stop giving our human will so much credit for repenting. We should praise and thank God for giving us this good and perfect gift.
If God does not turn us – which causes us to respond by turning to Him – there is no way that we will even want to believe in Him. Thus, the very fact that you have a desire in your heart to know God is proof that God has already done something in your heart. There is no need to doubt or wonder if God has really called you. Of course He has called you. Otherwise, you would have no interest in knowing God—or even in reading a book like this.
If God drags you to Himself and reveals Himself to you, causing you to turn to Him, is this response done by your “free will”? Man would always like to take credit for his turning to God, his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his Savior, as if his salvation is based upon his own free will decision. To many theologians this is the only thing that gives salvation any legitimacy. They believe that if God exercises His will or interferes in any way with man's decision to come to God, then somehow this goes against the nature of God. But that theology is only a philosophy of man, for there is no Scripture that teaches this. The term “free will” does not even appear in Scripture. It is only a tradition of men.
1 John 1:11-12 says,
11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not. 12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
Thus far it sounds like man has free will. But then John continues in verse 13,
13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
It is not the will of the flesh; it is not the will of man; it is not blood lineage. It is done only by the will of God. Of all the gospel writers, John makes the clearest case for God’s sovereignty. Was John unaware of the debate over free will? No, for this issue was debated just as hotly in his day as it is in ours.
There were three Judean schools of thought in those days. The Essenes believed that God was totally sovereign. The Sadducees believed that man had total free will. The Pharisees were in the middle, believing that God “helps” people to do good. These same schools of thought have come down to us today, and the debate has continued in every seminary.
God does all things by the counsel of His own will. Eph. 1:11 says,
11 In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.
To absolve God of any responsibility for evil in the world, many Christian theologians today feel the need to take back most of God’s sovereignty. First they attribute the sovereignty to God, and then they take it all back and give most of it to the devil and to man. Free will, when taken to its logical conclusion, removes all sovereignty from God leaving Him totally impotent to do anything but stand on the sidelines and threaten people with ever-increasing punishment. He stands there and hopes and hopes and hopes that somebody will listen, but He is impotent to actually do anything. Little wonder, then, that so many Christians live in fear of the devil, rather than by faith in God. While they express faith in God with their lips, they go home believing that God is in serious need of help to accomplish His goals on earth.
I think that most people agree that God did not have to do it this way, if He had so chosen at the beginning. But, most of them say that God did do it this way, because, for some mysterious reason not explained in the Bible, He had to preserve man’s free will. Some go so far as to insist that God had to preserve the free will of angels also. Remember we are taught often that the devil sinned by his own free will. So with fallen angels exercising their free will in the spirit, and men exercising their free will in the world, God is largely shut out of His own universe.
It would be incredible to me if God had to stand on the sidelines wringing His hands, hoping that people would turn to Him. He stands there in despair when things do not go His way—but the devil has no such constraints. “The devil made me do it,” because (they say) the devil is not a gentleman, but God is. God set the rules limiting Himself and His own will in the affairs of men, so He cannot do anything about our decisions. However, the devil has free will, they say, even if God does not. The devil has not set any rules for himself, so he is free to impose his will upon everyone.
When the Spirit of God inhabits your body, you still sin because of your own free will, right? But when the devil inhabits your body and you still sin, then you have no free will – the devil made you do it. Why is this? We are told that the devil can override your free will, but God cannot. Is there not something wrong with that belief? Is it any wonder that in the end the devil wins at least 99% of humanity?
Who is Really Sovereign Here on Earth?
Has the devil taken sovereignty, and has God abdicated? Is that the kind of God we serve? When you stop and think about it, to leave free will intact in man creates a very scary situation in the world, because if God is on the sidelines and cannot override man’s free will, then how can God prophesy anything? There are books out there today that even agree with that premise. They say, “That’s right, even God does not know what is going to happen yet because man has not decided, and the devil has not decided.” God has no control over the situation, they say, and therefore, God does not know everything.
Well, perhaps their gods do not know everything, but my God does. We do not serve the same God.
We might ask ourselves, how much free will did the Apostle Paul have when he was converted? A light came and threw him on his back, the light shined in his eyes, and a voice out of heaven spoke to him. Put yourself in his shoes. Would you have said “no”? Paul called himself the chief of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15. God saved the chief of sinners by throwing him down on the ground, conscripting him, and saying, “You will follow Me from now on,” totally overruling Paul’s free will. This may be treated like an exception to the rule. But ask yourself one thing: what if God did that to every human being in the world? How many non-Christians would the world have today?
If the rules of free will have been established from the beginning, then apparently God set aside those rules when it came to the Apostle Paul. This is not fair. How can anyone believe that God really does want to save all mankind, and yet He reveals Himself to only a few? If He really loved all mankind, would He not do with all men as He did with Paul? Of course. And He will do just that in due time, as I explained in my book, Creation’s Jubilee.
The fact of the matter is that if God wanted to save everybody on this very day, He could do so very easily. All He would have to do is to repeat what He did to the Apostle Paul. Throw everyone down and say, “I am Jesus, the One that you are persecuting.” Who would argue with Him? In fact, look at some lesser situations. Every time there is a genuine revival meeting, where the Holy Spirit moves in power, you see them turning to Him and repenting. Why does God not do this all of the time? We would not have the situation in the world today if He did, but He has chosen not to do so.
When the world comes along and says that it does not believe in a God who would allow all of these evil things to happen, they may have a point because God could stop it at any point that He so chose. But the church does not like that solution. Their solution is that God is not responsible because God is basically helpless. Be assured: God is not helpless; God is sovereign, and He can change the effects of evil any time He wants. The world is often more justified than the Church, because they at least assume that God must really be sovereign if He is God at all. The Church often wants to water down His sovereignty to the point where God is totally impotent, a helpless giant in the sky.
The question is not resolved by removing sovereignty from God; the question is resolved by understanding why God does things the way He does. That takes more study and work and knowing who God is in order to understand the real solution to the world's problems.
The Bible teaches quite clearly that all men will be saved, but each in his own order (1 Cor. 15:22-28). I do not know why God chose me in this present age to turn to Him, while He waits for the age to come before causing others to turn to Him. That is a matter of God’s will alone. But Scripture reveals many times that all mankind will be reconciled in the end, and that the purpose of His judgment is to correct men, not to punish them forever. Where it appears that God teaches “eternal” judgment, the word is aionian, “pertaining to an age.” It does not mean never-ending. For further evidence of this, see my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law.
Sin is Reckoned as a Debt
We know that all sin is reckoned as a debt. When we sin, we obtain a debt to the law. The law has set up its liability laws so that if you sin against your neighbors, you owe them restitution. Therefore, it is reckoned as a debt. This is why Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Luke’s version of it says, “Forgive us our SINS; for we also forgive every one that is INDEBTED to us.” God reckons sin in terms of debt.
In man’s way of thinking debt continues forever and ever. It is always eternal punishment. But God’s laws are not that way. (And man has the nerve to say that the Old Testament God was merciless and unloving!) We are like the man in Matthew 18 who owed ten thousand talents, a huge debt that he could not pay. So the man, his wife, his children, and all that he had, were sold for payment.
23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children, and all that he had, and repayment to be made.
Think about this. Adam was given a wife, children, and dominion over all the earth. This represented “all that he had” – the whole earth. When he sinned, all that he had was sold to sin, and sin held the debt note until Christ paid that debt. Because Christ paid our debt note, we have now become His servants (Rom. 6:18) just as Paul described himself in Romans 1:1,
1 Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.
The debtor in the parable above was given grace when he asked for forgiveness. He lost it by refusing to forgive other men’s debts, because as we judge others, we will be judged by the same standard of measure (Matt. 7:1, 2). Believers will be “saved yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). Jesus said that some of His servants would be judged with “few stripes” and some by “many stripes” depending upon their knowledge of His will (Luke 12:45-48). This does not mean they will lose their salvation, but that they will be held accountable to some extent at the Great White Throne judgment, when all the dead are raised—some to life, and some to judgment (John 5:28, 59).
The parable above is thus incomplete, because the point of the parable was to warn believers that they should forgive their neighbors who trespass against them, even as God has forgiven them for trespassing against Him.
The Jubilee Ends All Debt
How long was the debt to last for the man in the parable of Matthew 18? There is a year of Jubilee that limits all liability for debt. This is God’s law. We do not have the authority or the sovereignty that would allow us to sell ourselves into debt so far that the year of Jubilee could not free us. We do not have that right; nor did we ever have that right or authority, because we do not own us. You do not own yourself. You have limited authority over yourself, and when you marry, you relinquish to your spouse even more of your authority.
Ownership is ultimately from God. God owns; we have only limited authority. When we talk about ownership – such as when we say that we own our land or we own our house – we must recognize that in the eyes of God we do not really own the property. God owns all the land (Lev. 25:23). We have authority over it that is always limited by God’s sovereignty and His law. God has laws that limit our liability for debt. When we go into debt, there is a time in which to pay the debt. But there is a Jubilee year that limits the liability for all debt.
That is done out of God’s sovereignty. It is a comfort to me to know that when all the evil is happening out there in the world, and all this debt to sin is being incurred by so many people, it makes no difference if they owe a trillion dollars or six dollars. The Jubilee can handle all of it. There is no amount of debt where the law of Jubilee no longer applies to you. The Jubilee will cancel a six-dollar debt and a trillion-dollar debt equally well with one stroke of the pen. It is called God’s law, and His law is so merciful.
So we raise the question: Could God save every man by the same method that He saved Paul? Or, were the rules of free will set aside in the case of Paul? Did Paul receive preferential treatment? If God demonstrated His ability to turn the chief of sinners and cause him to repent, why does He not do it more often? So if God does not exercise His sovereignty and save everyone now as He did Paul, who is liable for lost souls?