Free Will and God’s Sovereignty

This is, of course, a very old discussion.

Jollyblogger has been posting a very thought-provoking series on the Five Points of Calvinism, and in the one on Total Depravity, he handles the difficulty of how God can be sovereign and man’s will can yet be free. Some people believe that an absolutely free will cannot coexist with an absolutely sovereign God. I happen to be one of those people.

Frequently (and I’m referring especially to a number of commenters on the above article), people who desire to maintain both of these ideas say that the two ideas are not really contradictory. In order to discover whether that’s true, we need to define our terms a little bit. What is meant by a sovereign God, for starters?

Is a sovereign God one who merely is capable of exerting control or authority over anything that He chooses to control, but who does not actually control everything? I’d contest that this violates the meaning of the idea as well as the Biblical teaching of who God is. You wouldn’t consider a king sovereign over a land if he had abdicated his throne. He’s only sovereign if he’s actually exercising kingship.

Further, the Bible is clear- God actually possesses all power. Look, for example, at the book of Job (discussed in more detail here)- it is clear that God accepts full responsibility for what happened to Job, and claims full right to make it happen, despite the fact that in an immediate sense, all He did was to “allow” Satan to cause the events to happen. God never dodges responsibility.

As another example, I posit Isaiah 10. In that chapter, God says that He is using the Assyrians as His weapon to punish Israel for their idolatry. After that, He says that He will turn around and punish the Assyrians for their pride and violence, for their reason for attacking Israel was not to glorify God, but to glorify themselves. But if God was using them as His weapon, then He is taking responsibility for the action that they performed, but also the motivation for the action, because without the motivation they never would have done what they did.

So it’s clear from Scripture, and examples could be multiplied, that God truly does control everything. Everything is ordained by Him, and part of His plan.

Now, can this be reconciled with the idea of an absolutely free will? Something is free if it does not operate under any control or coercion. If my choices are absolutely free, then there can be nothing which restrains, compels or directs those choices. But clearly if God is sovereign in the sense just described, then there can be nothing escaping His control, including my will. Therefore my will cannot be described as absolutely free. And this squares well with logic, as Adrian Warnock has pointed out here. Our wills are definitely restrained by a great many things, of which everyone is aware.

Therefore, it is not a “tension” or “polarity” to assert a sovereign God and an absolutely free will. It is a contradiction.

UPDATE: Just to clarify- I didn’t really see this article as a disagreement with Jollyblogger, though some have taken it as such. If by “truly free” he means the same as “absolutely free”, then yes, I disagree with him. But I don’t think he does mean that, and the two don’t necessarily mean the same thing. I enjoyed Jollyblogger’s article a great deal, as I do pretty much all of his stuff, which is why he’s in my blogroll. My article was aimed more at some of the commenters on Jollyblogger’s article.

2 thoughts on “Free Will and God’s Sovereignty

  1. Matt,
    Your post is interesting, and thought provoking. Yet, I remained a little troubled by it. I have two concerns.
    1. You have stated that you do not believe in free will, but you have not stated exactly what you believe? Is any freedom of the will allowed? Is it only the absolute nature of free will that you are refuting? If so, you should clarify a relationship of freedom to the will. How do we maintain moral responsibility without a free will? What then is the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the will of man? I would be interested to hear what you have to say.
    2. One is left after reading your post with the idea that God forces or coerces the will. I do not see this in Scripture. You stated that freedom is being free from necessity or coercion. How does God do this to our wills? I do not believe that it follows that God coerces the will since he ordained all events. It is hard to see in Scripture the idea that the will is forced. God does have the heart of the king in his hand, but does that mean he is forcing the king to do things against his will, or so mutilating his will that the king can be said not to be acting freely? This position seems to be out of touch with the Reformed Confessions as well. Article 16 of the 3rd and 4th Head of Doctrine in the Cannons of Dort state concerning regeneration, “so also this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks of stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force . . .” I think other instances could be found.

    Allow me also to quote once from Turretin, who purposely disagrees with your stance. “Although the will is free, this does not prevent its being determined by God and being always subjection to him. This is so because liberty is not absolute, independent, and uncontrolled (the characteristics of God alone), but limited and dependent. Otherwise if no faculty is free except it is in subjection to no one, either a free will does not exist in creatures or every second cause will be the first.” This brings me to one final question. If a will is not considered free because it is in subjection to God, then is any will free, including God? Is God not also in subjection to himself? He cannot lie we are told, therefore, is God’s will free, if he cannot contradict himself. I believe this is a problem in your definition, or perhaps restriction, of free. I look forward to your response.


  2. Lee,
    Thanks for your comment. I did not intend to establish a positive doctrine of man’s will, only to refute the idea that God can be sovereign and that man’s will can be absolutely free. And note that throughout the discussion, I used that expression- “Absolutely free”. Yes, I agree, along with the creeds and authorities you cited, that man’s will is free in some sense, but only a relative sense. Man’s will is free within the context that it was created to exist within, which is in submission to God’s will. In some other post, perhaps I will clarify this more. The only intention here was to demonstrate that if God is truly sovereign, then man cannot be free in an absolute sense. Your own quotes support this:
    “Although the will is free, this does not prevent its being determined by God and being always subjection to him. This is so because liberty is not absolute, independent, and uncontrolled (the characteristics of God alone), but limited and dependent.”
    I agree with this completely, and I don’t think it in any way disagrees with what I am saying.

    I don’t see how it can be said that man being subject to God is in any way analogous to God being subject to Himself. If I am subject to another, then I am not free, but it does not impinge on God’s freedom for Him to be subject to His own nature.

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