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Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom November 20, 2006

Posted by larrylaz in Scripture Meditation.
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Joe,

I understand there was a question in Blog Nation as to the connection between the sovereignty of God and the free will of human beings.  I’m not exactly sure what the precise question is, but I hope the following will be helpful, or at least a good starting place for us to discuss all this further.  What is written beginning in the next paragraph until the end is something that I wrote for Koinonia after a week in which I had preached from Romans 9 about the sovereignty of God in salvation.  It’s a bit longer than my typical post, but I think it is all pretty important so I haven’t made any changes to it:

Sunday’s message might have given some the impression that I am anti-free will.  Many people think that faith in a sovereign God who decides who will and who will not believe before anyone is born eliminates free will.  But I don’t think it does.  I am not against free will; it just seems to me that the people who talk about free will don’t think about the freedom of the will from a biblical perspective.  I thought it would be good to share with you some thoughts on how free will and the sovereignty of God mingle together. 

Would it surprise you that there are only two places in the New Testament where the phrase, “free will” is used?  The Old Testament law has lots to say about “free will offerings” but only two times in the New Testament is that phrase used.  The first one is Philemon 14:

“I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.”

This verse seems to indicate that free will consists in the ability to do things in accordance with our desires.  Paul does not want Philemon to feel forced into leaving his servant to aid Paul in his imprisonment, but rather he wants Philemon to do it freely; that is, because he wants to do it. 

This provides us with a good definition of free will: it is the ability to make choices based on our highest desires.  Because we have free will, I am free to pick apple juice instead of orange juice if I want to.  Robots can’t do this because they don’t have desires.  But humans can, because we have free will.

But the question remains, “From where do my desires come from?”  And here is where we see the sovereignty of God come in.  The other verse using the phrase “free will” is 2 Corinthians 8:3.  Here’s the context:

1We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will,

The Macedonians gave generously even in the midst of poverty and affliction, and they gave of their own free will.  They gave because they wanted to.  But where did their desire come from?  Paul tells us in verse 1: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia …”  It was the grace of God moving upon their hearts that led these precious people to give so generously.  Free will and the sovereign grace of God both bringing about an act are not incompatible, so long as we understand what free will is: the ability to choose in accord with our desires.  And the grace of God is powerful enough to give us our desires.

This mingling of divine sovereignty and human freedom is even clearer later in this chapter, in 2 Corinthians 8:17.  Again, here’s the context:

16But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you. 17For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord.”

The phrase translated here “of his own accord” is the same Greek word translated “free will” earlier in the chapter.  Notice that in verse 16 Paul thanks God for putting into the heart of Titus the same care for the Corinthians that he had, yet in the same sentence he says that Titus’ care – exhibited in his going to visit them – was “of his own accord”.  Isn’t that amazing?  Titus cares about them enough to visit them of his own free will, yet Paul is thanking God for putting it into his heart to care for them!  If it was of his own free will, then why is Paul thanking God for it?  Because Titus’ free will consists in his being able to make choices in accord with his desires, but God is the sovereign heart-turner who puts into the hearts of his people to be caring.  As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”

Titus’ “own accord” (and ours) is dependent on God.  Man is free to do what pleases him, yet the desire to come to Jesus is given by God.  So Jesus says in John 7:37, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”  And anyone who wants to come can come freely.  Yet in John 6:44 , Jesus had said, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  God alone is able to put it in our hearts to come to Him, and when He puts in our hearts to come, we will come freely, of our own accord. 

Hopefully this clarifies what I think the Bible means when it uses the term “free will.”  It is not the final determining power to choose between good and evil.  The Bible is clear that human beings are enslaved to sin, not free (See Romans 3:9-12 and 8:7-8, John 8:34 for just a few of numerous examples).  But it is indeed a marvelous human privilege that God has created us with the ability to make choices in accord with our desires, and an even greater wonder that while we were dead in sin, He put in our hearts to come home to Him.

Larry

 

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Comments»

1. trueberean - December 2, 2006

A balanced article on this topic. One point to consider, the grace of God. Is it given to select few or to all? Titus 2:11 seems to point to latter.


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