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Is God in charge? Sovereignty and freedom

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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As I write this essay, we are in the midst of an economic crisis which many experts consider to be the most serious since the Great Depression. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the latter characterized as a “downward spiral” in last week’s National Intelligence Estimate report.

The geopolitical situation continues to degenerate, with Russian ascendancy in Eastern Europe, Iranian pursuit of nuclear capability, Syria’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and the ongoing Palestinian problem.

Do you sometimes wonder if God is in charge of this fallen world? Does everything happen according to his intention? If not, how can he be the sovereign Lord? If so, do humans have free will?

Am I free to write this sentence, or are my fingers essentially an extension of God? Are you free to read this essay, or was your “decision” to do so actually predetermined by the Lord?

Such questions push us into the muddy waters of sovereignty and freedom, Calvinism and Armenianism. Did God purpose the crises of these days? If he did, what kind of God is he? Are humans free? If he did not, how can he be Lord?

Let’s wade through this theological swamp, and see if we can find firm ground upon which to stand. The next time you face crisis or suffering, you’ll need that place for your soul.

Everything is determined by God

John Calvin (1509-64) was a lawyer before he became a Christian (not to say that lawyers can’t be Christians—that’s just the order it happened for him). And so he brought an insistence on logic and consistency to his new faith. His Institutes of the Christian Religion are still fundamental to the movement known as Reform theology, promoted especially in America by Presbyterian churches.

“Five points” as later detailed by the Synod of Dort (1618-19) are typically seen to summarize Calvinist theology:

  1. Total depravity: the fall of Adam and Eve affected every part of us, our minds and our wills
  2. Unconditional divine election: we can do nothing to earn our salvation
  3. Limited atonement: Christ died only for those “elected” or chosen by God for salvation
  4. Irresistible grace: the “elect” will always accept the grace of God
  5. Perseverance of the saints: those who receive salvation can never lose it

As you can see, the five points begin with letters which make a “tulip.” A “five-point” or “tulip” Calvinist is a person who accepts each of these assertions. Some theologians opt for four or less. Those who believe in all five points maintain that God’s will cannot be defeated if he is God. In other words, if he wants one of his creatures to be in heaven, that person will be in heaven. They add that if God is sovereign over the future, he must know what choice we are going to make regarding salvation in Christ.

Most people hear this theological position and immediately respond that it’s not fair for God to choose some people to go to heaven and the rest to go to hell. Calvinists reply that if God were fair, no one could be in heaven, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In other words, none of us deserve to go to heaven; all salvation is by God’s grace.

The critic then answers that while none of us deserve heaven, it is unfair for any to be chosen unless all are chosen. None of us deserve a vaccine for bird flu, but if one is developed it would be unfair for only some to receive it. And the debate continues.

Our choices are our own

Joseph Arminius (1560-1609) believed that God made us to worship him, but noted that worship requires a choice. If someone drags you to a church service against your will, it’s unlikely that your worship will be joyous. God wants us to use this freedom to choose to love and worship him. But those who make that wise choice retain their freedom. And so they can later choose against him. They can be “saved” and later “lose their salvation.” You can choose to be married and later choose not to be, or choose to read this book and later change your mind.

This approach accepts “unconditional divine election,” the idea that we don’t deserve for God to forgive our sins and give us salvation. But as you can see, it doesn’t accept much else in the tulip. John Wesley and his followers were greatly influenced by Arminius’s position, and helped popularize it through the Methodist movement.

Getting to the heart of the problem

Since I began struggling with this issue back in college, a middle way has made the most sense to me. Walk with me through the “tulip” again. T = total depravity, the idea that sin affects every part of our lives so that we are incapable of meeting God’s perfect standards or earning a place in his perfect heaven. The Bible seems to teach clearly that all of us have in fact sinned, and that this sin affects every part of our lives. Paul spoke for me, and I would guess for you as well:

“I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24).

I can think of no part of my life which is untouched by sin. My body is decaying by the day. My mind and emotions can run in all sorts of ungodly ways. So I’m forced to be a T Calvinist.

U = unconditional divine election, the idea that salvation is God’s gift of grace, not earned or deserved by sinful humans. I know that I did nothing to earn my relationship with God except ask for it. When I became a Christian at the age of 15, I had been going to church only for a few weeks, didn’t even own a Bible, and had not yet given a dollar to the offering. I had made no changes in my life to line up with expected morality.

Paul seemed to believe that we’re all like I was, no matter how many church services we attended before trusting in Jesus: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So I’m a U Calvinist as well.

But now we run into trouble. L = limited atonement, the idea that Jesus died only for those who would trust him as their Savior and Lord. I understand Calvinist logic: God knew who would trust in his Son, and would not “waste” his death on those who would not accept his love. If I invite our entire staff to our home for Sunday lunch but know only six can come, my wife will not set out food for the rest.

But where does the Bible require this logic regarding Jesus’ atonement? Jesus suffered the same death, whether it was for eleven original disciples or two billion Christians today. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son . . .” (John 3:16). I’m not sure limited atonement is wrong so much as I wonder if it’s irrelevant.

I = irresistible grace, the idea that those chosen by God for salvation will in fact accept his gift. This is the heart of the issue, so we’ll get back to it in a moment.

I am quite willing to be a P Calvinist, accepting the “perseverance of the saints” without question. Once I was “born again” as the child of God, it is impossible for me to go back to my condition before that event. My sons will always be my sons, whether they like it or not. Whether they feel like it or act like it or not. Once they were born as my sons, they are forever stuck in that condition.

The Arminian believes that I still possess the freedom to choose to reject Jesus, but I disagree. I no longer possess the freedom to be unborn, or to choose different parents, or to be African American rather than Anglo American. Some choices are simply not available to me. The choice to rewind the tape and return to my pre-conversion state is among them.

So my problem is with I Calvinism. Is God’s grace irresistible? I thought I made a free choice on September 9, 1973 when I asked Christ to be my Savior and Lord. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe I would have accepted his grace eventually, even if not on that day. I cannot know for certain in practical experience—I cannot reverse time and refuse salvation on that day in 1973 to see what happens next.

The issue is somewhat irrelevant regarding my salvation, since that is a settled matter. But it is much more relevant to the decisions I make in the next minute and hour. It is a crucial question when asked of other events of life such as 9-11 and the Holocaust. I don’t mind being part of God’s “elect,” chosen to accept his irresistible offer of salvation. But I very much mind being the son of a man whose early death was equally determined by God. And living in a world plagued by hurricanes and diseases which that God causes.

So we’ve diagnosed the heart of the problem: do the events of our lives just “happen,” or are each of them caused by God? Are our choices free, or not? The answers will say much about the God who wants us to trust him unconditionally.

The Bible agrees with both sides

Compounding the problem, there are passages in God’s word which seem to support each side of the debate. That’s why the argument has gone on for centuries, and this essay is unlikely to end the discussion.

Consider one of the passages cited immediately by Calvinists: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9.18). Paul was referring to Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” during the Jewish enslavement in Egypt. Exodus quotes God as saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you” (Exodus 7:3-4). The Bible repeats the assertion: “Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country” (Exodus 11:10).

These statements would seem to end the debate: God clearly “hardens” the hearts of people he does not want to accept his word and will, in this case so he could use the Exodus to liberate his people and show them his power and glory. He chooses some to accept his love and others to reject it. But the issue isn’t so simple.

The same book of Exodus also records that after the plague of frogs ended, “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said” (Exodus 8:15). Later came the plague of flies, after which “Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go” (Exodus 8:32). So, did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, or was he responsible for his own sin? Both positions seem to be taught by the text.

Again quoting Exodus, Paul reminds us that God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). He asks, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (v. 21).

He seemed even clearer when he told the Ephesians: “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:4-6).

At the same time, Paul assured Timothy that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Peter agreed: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

So which is it? Does God choose only some to be saved, or does he want everyone to be in heaven with him? The biblical answer seems to be “yes.”

We are dealing with an apparent contradiction, what logicians call an “antinomy.” If two statements are both true, we must accept them both even if they appear to contradict each other. It’s actually hard to find a fundamental biblical doctrine which doesn’t qualify. Is God three or one? Was Jesus fully divine or fully human? Is the Bible divinely inspired or humanly written?

It’s possible to ask a question for which there is no answer, committing what philosophers call a “category mistake.” How much does the color red weigh? What color is the number seven? Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it, or two mountains without a valley in the middle, or a square circle? When my brother and I were young children, we would ask our mother which of us she loved the most. She was wise enough to change the subject.

There is a way to resolve the dilemma somewhat. The passages which seem to support Calvinistic irresistible grace at least indicate that God knows what we are going to choose before we choose it. He knew how the clay would turn out, and which of the Ephesians would accept his Son. But knowing is not the same thing as determining. My wife knows that every time we go to an ice cream parlor I’ll get strawberry. She thinks it’s a boring way to live, while I see it as one less problem to solve. The fact that she knows my choice doesn’t mean she makes it.

I know the analogy breaks down—next time I might order cherry just to confuse her. But it doesn’t break down with God. He created time and transcends it. Remember, if time is a line on a page, God is the page. He’s not “looking into” tomorrow so much as he’s already there. You and I are caught in the space-time continuum, but he’s not. He sees tomorrow better than I can see today.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s already chosen what I’ll do when it arrives. I can watch you read these words, but that doesn’t mean I made you read them. Seeing and choosing are not the same. God can see the sermon I’ll preach next Easter, but I still have to write it, unfortunately.

But we still haven’t solved my problem. If God’s omniscience means that he saw the current economic crisis before it happened, that’s one thing. If his sovereignty means that he caused it, since nothing can happen outside his will, that’s something else entirely.

God is so sovereign he can choose not to be

Here’s how I understand the relationship of God’s sovereignty to my freedom: the Lord has chosen to give me free will so that I can choose to worship him. But he knows that freedom isn’t free if it’s determined. So he has chosen to honor the free will he gave me, to limit himself by my freedom.

This decision is in no sense a depreciation of his sovereignty, since he made it himself. My authority as the pastor of our church is not lessened by my decision not to exercise it over every decision we make. If our deacons told me I could not choose the hymns we’ll sing next Sunday, that would be one thing. If I decide of my own volition to allow our worship pastor to make that decision, that’s something else.

God wants us all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) and salvation (1 Timothy 2:4), but not all choose to accept his love. He chooses to honor the free will he has given us, so that we can make this decision in complete freedom. So far, so good.

But what about events which occur without human choice? Hurricanes and earthquakes are obviously not chosen by those they victimize. We can say that natural disasters are the result of Adam’s sin, and we’d be right (Romans 8:22). But they are not the result of your sin and mine. Has God also limited himself regarding the consequences of Adam’s free choice to sin? In other words, has he decided to honor Adam’s freedom by allowing the natural disasters and diseases which it still causes?

If so, why does he sometimes intervene when they occur? He clearly manipulated nature at the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, and his Son’s resurrection from the dead. Jesus healed blind eyes and diseased bodies. According to James, he still does (James 5:13-16).

So it doesn’t seem to me that God’s decision to honor our freedom explains why he allows disasters and diseases which are not its consequence. I understand that God allows evil and suffering which results from misused freedom. And I can accept the premise that he permits nothing he will not use for his glory and our good. But does he cause these bad things to happen? He certainly caused the Flood to devastate the human population, and the Red Sea to collapse on the Egyptian armies. He causes the plagues and destruction recorded in the book of Revelation. Does he cause all that goes wrong in nature?

Does God cause all natural suffering?

I still haven’t answered my question: did God cause the current world problems, or merely permit them? Most of us have done nothing to cause them—we didn’t pass laws to deregulate the banking industry, or issue bad loans, or invade South Ossetia. We didn’t cause Hurricane Ike to devastate Galveston. None of this is our fault. So, is it God’s? You have experienced enough undeserved suffering to ask the question as well.

Here I am helped by the pattern of Scripture on the issue. Whenever God causes natural calamity or personal disease in the Bible, he always explains why. He brought about the Flood because of the rampant sinfulness of humanity, and gave Noah a century to warn the people before the rains came. He initiated the plagues of the Exodus in response to Pharaoh’s sin and to show his people their God’s miraculous power over the mightiest nation on earth.

He sent Joshua to destroy the Canaanites not only to give his people a land but also in response to the wicked sins of those who inhabited it (cf. Genesis 15:16). He raised up oppressors to persecute his people when their sins demanded such justice (cf. Judges 2:10-15). He brought about the demise of the houses of Eli and Saul because of their sins against him (1 Samuel 2:30-36; 13:13-14). Each time, they were warned before judgment fell.

His people were captured by Assyria and Babylon, but not before his prophets had predicted such doom if they did not repent. Because King Herod “did not give praise to God,” “he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to increase and spread” (Acts 12:23-24).

A good father does not punish his children without explaining why. I would not take the car keys from my sons in college and expect them to figure things out on their own. Jesus taught us, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). So I can assume that my Father would not initiate physical death or pain to punish his children without telling us so.

As a result, I can conclude that he did not cause my father’s death as punishment for his sins or mine. At this writing, it has been 28 years since his death. At no point before or since has God given me any indication that sin led to my father’s passing. If our family is being judged for something we’ve done wrong, we certainly haven’t been told what it is.

I am aware of no word from God which warned Galveston to repent before the hurricane struck, or South Ossetia to repent before the Russian army arrived. God can indeed initiate natural disaster and human suffering, but always for a reason. All across the Bible, he told people what it was. Since his nature doesn’t change (cf. Hebrews 13:8), it seems reasonable to assume that he still does.

Suffering for good?

But what of suffering caused by God for the sake of spiritual growth? God required Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, not because he wanted the boy to die but because he wanted his father to trust him unconditionally. He required his priests to step into the flooded Jordan river so he could show them what happens when we trust him completely.

Could it be that God caused my father’s death and all the innocent deaths I have witnessed in order to produce spiritual maturity in those who have survived them? Could he have caused the current financial crisis in order to call us to stronger faith in him? Again, it seems in Scripture that God does not initiate such tests without making clear his intention. He can use anything which happens for our spiritual good (Romans 8:28). But when he intentionally causes suffering for such a purpose, it seems that he notifies those who are to grow as a result.

So I assume that suffering is initiated by God as punishment for sin or motivation for spiritual growth only when he says so. He will not allow us to plead ignorance before him on Judgment Day. If we are intended to repent or grow as a result of something he has caused in our lives, we’ll know it.

Every time I’ve experienced conviction or punishment for sin, the reasons for my suffering were very clear to me. Those times when it seemed obvious that God led me into difficult circumstances for the sake of spiritual growth, I knew what was happening. When I spent a college summer serving as a missionary in East Malaysia, I encountered the loneliest days of my entire life. But I knew going in that it would be so, and that my Father wanted me to learn to depend more fully on him.

So I conclude that God permits natural suffering and death, but only causes it when he tells us so. He did not initiate the innocent deaths I have witnessed, though he permitted them as a consequence of misused freedom or this broken world. He did not cause the economic crisis, though he intends to redeem and use it. I’m grateful that my Father does not cause suffering in capricious ways, that he does not initiate innocent pain or death without a redemptive reason.

We live in a fallen world

God created our planet and allows it to function according to the laws of nature. Even in the Garden of Eden, a fall from a tree would have hurt. Since the fall of creation, natural disasters and diseases are part of life. God allows them to occur in the same way he would have allowed Adam to cut himself on a rock. But they’re not his fault or choice.

In the same way, my father’s heart disease was not caused by God but by our fallen world. A baby’s death was not her fault but Adam’s. Hurricane Ike was caused by atmospheric conditions which were affected by the Fall. God permitted what he could have prevented, for reasons we’ll not understand fully on this side of eternity. But he did not initiate them.

I’m aware that critics may question the difference. If God permits what he could prevent, isn’t he as liable as if he caused the suffering in question? If I allowed a child to fall from a crib when I could have stopped him, I would be as guilty as if I had pushed him. If God permitted my father’s heart disease when he could have prevented or healed it, isn’t he as culpable for it as if he caused it?

Perhaps he’s culpable, but he’s not capricious. He does not cause pain without a perfect reason. And he does not initiate suffering unless we know at least some of the reasons why. The rest of the time he permits the natural order to continue, and redeems the suffering it causes.

God permits all that happens, or he is not all powerful. He initiates only that pain which he explains to those who suffer, or he is not all loving. And he redeems all that occurs in his creation, or he is not both. How could he do anything else and be our perfect Father?

So, who’s in charge?

To summarize, here’s the way I’ll view the question of sovereignty and freedom from now on. First, God permits or causes all that happens outside of human decision, either as the result of the natural processes he has created or his own intervention in his creation. The trees and squirrels I can see outside my window right now are the direct expression of his sovereign will.

Second, God has chosen to honor the free will he has given us. He wants us all to be in heaven but knows that some will refuse his love. His grace is unconditional but not irresistible.

Third, God permits or causes innocent suffering such as natural diseases and disasters. Unless he permitted or caused my father’s early death, he has no power to permit or cause anything else in the natural order.

Fourth, he permits rather than causes that suffering which is not the result of sin or intended directly for spiritual growth. There are times when he does bring suffering as judgment on sin or to mature our faith. But we will know when our pain is intended for such purposes. And so he permitted rather than caused my father’s death.

Last, he redeems all he permits or causes. Because he is holy, he can allow or create only that which is for his highest glory and our best good. Even when I cannot see evidence of that good, I must trust that it exists now and in eternity. I don’t have to understand an airplane to get on one. I don’t have to understand all the ways God is redeeming my father’s death to believe that he is. Now I see God through a smudged, dirty window, but one day I will see him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). And be able to ask him some very hard questions.

I cannot imagine how God could have arranged things better than he has. Given that we must be free if we are to worship God and love each other (Matthew 22:34-40), he had to give us freedom and then choose to honor it. The result is a fallen world filled with fallen people. He must permit these consequences and the natural suffering they produce, or we’re not truly free. But since he wants to redeem his fallen creation, he must be free to act within it both to judge sin and to encourage faith. Since he is love, he must redeem all he permits or causes.

Now, where is this issue yours? How has God disappointed you? What undeserved suffering have you experienced? You can believe that your Father permits or causes nothing he will not use for his glory and our good, or you can believe that he is capricious and unloving, or powerless, or nonexistent. You have no other options.

We can decide not to trust God because he has disappointed us. Since a doctor’s advice didn’t help me with my migraine headache, I can choose never to trust physicians again. But then I’ll never know that I can.

It’s a step of faith, to be sure. But refusing to trust doctors doesn’t hurt the medical community so much as it hurts me. Refusing to trust God with my unexplained pain doesn’t hurt heaven so much as it hurts me. Choosing to trust means that we might be disappointed by God. Choosing not to trust guarantees it.

Which choice is yours?