As human beings we are in love with the idea that we are in control of things. I think it is an especially acute problem for human beings in America. We think we can make it happen, win the day, command our destinies...it is a fun ride until reality smacks us around a bit. The truth of the matter is that much of life is utterly out of our control. We did not choose where we would be born, who would be our parents and a myriad of other things about our lives. Yet we want to be in control and we know that our choices do matter greatly in how our lives turn out.
In Daniel chapter four we witness the final chapter of God's education of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The lesson which is taught is quite clear: God rules in the affairs of people and nations on the earth. Theologically we use the term Sovereignty to describe God being the highest rule and authority known. There is simply no throne or power above that of the creator God. Yet this does bring questions. If God is Sovereign and is accomplishing his purposes how do my choices affect the outcomes of life? Are my choices subject to God's direction as well? How free is my free will? If God is Sovereign, then why does he permit certain things to go down?
In a previous junk drawer we discussed God's sovereignty and rule over both good and evil. You can read that online if you like. This week we want to do something just a bit different; we want to discuss the relationship of God's Sovereignty and our responsibility. In other words, how does God's rule over all things interact with my choices to do some things. To do this I want to begin by defining what we mean by these two terms. I will then discuss the scope of these and how we avoid any sort of contradiction by setting one authority above another. Next I want us to chew on the nature of our free will and several philosophical definitions. Finally, we will close by discussing our nature as creatures and how we respond to God in humility , faith and following.
Sovereignty of God- As briefly stated above, when we say God is sovereign, we mean that there is no higher rule, reign or authority that exists. God is in control of all things and by providential leading brings them towards his desired ends. There is great wonder, glory and mystery in the Sovereignty of God. It is a teaching that brings great comfort to believers as well as a deep sense of human dependence. Yet when seen in a skewed manner, God's sovereignty can cause some to think that his rule makes our choices, our lives, our journeys as somewhat inconsequential or unimportant .
Human Responsibility- Though God is sovereign, he has created human beings, male and female in his own image (Genesis 1:26, 27). Furthermore, God calls us to co-rule and reign with him on the earth as stewards. He has vested us with dominion in the created order and we are to follow him in what he has called us to be. By our very nature, we have been created to be responsible to God for how we represent him and steward our lives and the created order. There is high human responsibility to a Sovereign God which is taught in the Scriptures.
In Scripture we see God's sovereignty and our responsibility clearly taught in many places. In the narrative of Daniel we see quite plainly that God is teaching us as well as various players in the story that he rules and reigns supreme over all. He is the one who changes the times and seasons and sets up kings and removes them (Daniel 2:21). His is the dominion which is an everlasting dominion and his Kingdom will last through all generations (Daniel 4:34). Additionally, the prophecy of Isaiah teaches us that there is no God but God who rules over all things and declares the end from the beginning in the story of history (Isaiah 45). His purposes will stand, all that he wishes to accomplish will be accomplished (Isaiah 46); he is the Sovereign Creator God.
At the same time, our lives are lived actively by either following him or in rebellion against him. To bow the knee, to follow him, to love him, worship him, trust him is an act of our wills, but our wills are hardened so that we need his enabling grace. We are truly guilty before God for our sins and we are responsible for the choices we make. We are responsible and God is still in control of all things. At this some might think that sovereignty and human decisions are at odds with one another or produce some sort of contradiction. There is no contradiction as long as we are not ultimately free and God ultimately sovereign. The scope of our freedom is either limited by God's rule or God's rule is limited in some sense by the scope of human freedom. I think is helpful to look at the scope of sovereignty and our freedom as a way to understand this a little better.
Scope-What's on Your Plate?
If we think in terms of ownership and responsibility the tensions between sovereignty and our responsibility resolve much more easily. It is clear from Scripture that God created and is therefore the owner of all things. Psalm 24:1 teaches us that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that all things were created by him and for him (Colossians 1:16). If God is the owner of all things, then he is responsible for all things.
- Everything is on God's plate-he is responsible and sovereign in all things
- Some things God places on your plate-we are responsible for our lives and that which is entrusted to us as his stewards
Think about it. If I were absolutely free to do anything and everything, then God could not accomplish anything in my life contrary to my will. Absolute human freedom and absolute sovereignty actually are contradictory. Yet if God is absolutely sovereign and I am responsible for what he puts before me then we have no contradiction. Yet the nature of human free will and responsibility has puzzled thinkers in every age and I think looking at some things philosophically is appropriate. So I want to pose what may sound like a crazy question-do we really have free will?
Do we have Free Will?
A question such as this can usually be a bit unnerving to us as we know we set alarm clocks, choose to get up (mostly), go to work and make decisions about how we act and treat others, et al. It seems that I will likely choose to buy a new Palm Pre smart-phone some time 2009. It is just self-evident that human beings posses something that many times is called free will.
As we begin a discussion of free will, it should be known that among secular philosopher types the belief that we have free will is laughable. Most people who do not believe in God or any spiritual reality such as human souls, simply believe we are biological machines predetermined by causal chains of events determined by the laws of physics. For instance the Center for Naturalism, an organization dedicated to promoting naturalistic thought and policies, makes the following statement on their web site:
Practically speaking, naturalism holds that an individual's development and behavior are entirely the result of prior and surrounding conditions, both genetic and environmental. Naturalism, therefore, denies that persons have contra-causal free will - that something within them is capable of acting as a first cause.
As a Christian, I do not believe we are simply determined by genetics and environment and that the world itself is not a closed system of cause and effect based on the laws of physics. We hold that both God and human beings are capable of meaningful actions in the world. Yet this quote brings up a distinction in discussions of free will in that it uses the term contra-causal free will to distinguish its views. This brings up an important distinction in discussions about human choice, one that even Christians differ with one another about. First two quick definitions:
- Contra Causal or Libertarian Free will...this is a version of free will you might call: really, really free, free will. It holds that that a person can make genuinely free decisions without any other causation but the person's will. Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland defines it this way: "When an agent acts freely, he is a first or unmoved mover; no event causes him to act. His desires, beliefs and so on may influence his choice, but free acts are not caused by prior states in the agent."1
- Compatibilism-Our choices are in accord with other factors and never uncaused or unconditioned. Past choices, our environment, our character development and virtue, God's working, our current desires all weigh into our decisions.
While the naturalistic determinist believes our choices are compatible (or more precisely dictated to us by) with genetic and environmental determinism, there are also Christians who believe our choices are free, yet God may guide them when he chooses to do so in order to achieve his purposes. Another way of looking at this is that God has freer, free will than we do. I do not find this troubling as it seems evident that God is God and we are not.
In arguing that human freedom and God's sovereignty are compatible, Christian philosopher and theologian Bruce Ware makes an excellent point: "human freedom that is compatible with God's meticulous sovereignty2, then, cannot be libertarian or contra-causal freedom, but must instead truly be a freedom of one's strongest inclination, desire, and volition. That is, our freedom consists in our choosing and doing according that what we are inclined most, or what we desire most, to do."3 Dr Ware's contention is not that we do not choose to do anything, but rather human beings choose what they are most inclined to do or what they desire most.
We do not wish to say that our choices are not free in a limited sense; we do make choices and we are responsible for them. Yet we do want to say is that God can indeed act in the lives of human beings, changing their minds and wills. In fact, Scripture teaches us that human beings, if left to their own desires, will not seek God and will not submit to his rule. People become followers of Jesus precisely because he intervenes to change us and give us new desires and inclinations (See Romans 3 and Romans 8 in particular). Whereas one day we did not desire to love God, read Scripture, worship Jesus, etc. something happens and we are changed. We now find Jesus to be a treasure and we actually desire to love and follow him. This is not dependent on our free will but is rather a sovereign work of God. Jesus told his closest friends on earth: you did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to bear much fruit, fruit that will last (paraphrase of John 15:16). We are indeed chosen by God, saved by God and changed by God to become followers of Jesus. All of this is by grace, not because of anything we are or anything we do (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Unlike the secular determinist, we do believe that God can act in the world and we can make choices. Yet we also believe that God is in control and bringing about his will, a purposeful working in history. So in some sense, God is sovereign and determines everything, yet uses the choices of our lives as means to accomplish his ends.
How God's Sovereign rule and our choices and responsibility interact is a puzzling mystery around which followers of Jesus have wrestled for years. We do not intend to solve the issue here. Yet as we see in the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, God wants us to know without question that God rules and his Kingdom will be established despite our pride and rebellion. We far too often think we are the masters of the universe and the captains of destiny; we are not, and it is good news to realize this and follow the one who graciously leads all things.
Our Response to God's Initiative
One of the most difficult things about becoming a follower of Jesus is realizing that you are not in control. It sometimes makes us afraid to let go of the steering wheel of life and trust someone else with ultimate things. Yet our wise and loving Creator desires for us to come to him by faith, to put our hand of trust into his and then follow. The irony of it all is that by yielding to a sovereign God we find our greatest joy. We may go to sleep at night knowing that God is on point and that we can rest. We need not persist in our self-deception that we are the little god of our own lives; such small deities always disappoint. Yet knowing the God who made us, leads us and forgives us in Christ leads us to a place of life and peace forever.
God freely came to the earth in person of Jesus to show us who he is. God freely came to the earth in Jesus to die for rebels and bring them home into a relationship that truly satisfies. God loves freely, he is calling to you, if you sense his Spirit beckoning you to come home, then freely respond with the desire and the grace he is giving.
1 J.P. Moreland and Garrett J. DeWeese, Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005) 124. Emphasis added.
2. Meticulous Sovereignty means that God is in control of all things in life, not just a few things here and there.
3. Bruce Ware, God's Greater Glory-The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 27. Dr. Ware's discussion of Sovereignty and Free will in this book is a must read for Christians who desire to take seriously the teachings of Scripture regarding the sovereignty of God. See pages 24-26 in summary and chapter 3 in detail.