How does God’s sovereignty over every life not make each of us robots? Where is the place for human willpower and decision-making? And how does God govern over it all? Great questions from a listener named Max in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“Pastor John, thank you for all your episodes over the years. This podcast nourishes my soul. But I am also thickheaded, and a lot of important theological points come to me very slowly. Can you explain again how God’s sovereignty over human decisions and actions comes through his control over our affections, such that we are not robots responding moment by moment to individual commands and prompts in situations, but he is in control of our decisions as we freely choose what we want? I think I’m on the verge of understanding you and Edwards and the Reformed tradition on this, but can you make this all clear in ten minutes (so Tony doesn’t scold you for going long again!)?”
Well, the likelihood that I could put in ten minutes what two thousand years of church history has not succeeded in completely clarifying for the best of minds is not very likely. But there aren’t many things more important than the sovereignty of God in our personal lives and how we make choices.
The way we think about this does have implications for how we worship and serve and persevere as Christians, so let’s make a stab at it. I’m going to lay out seven points in what I think is a biblical view of the relationship between the human will and God’s sovereignty. Each one could have a book written about it, so these are simply pointers with biblical passages to think about.
1. Devastating Bondage
Until someone is born again by the power of God’s Spirit, all human beings, ever since Adam, are spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4). They are darkened in their understanding, hardened in their hearts (Ephesians 4:18).
They cannot grasp spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 2:14). They are rebellious against God (Romans 8:7), spiritually dead in trespasses (Ephesians 2:1), enslaved to sin (Romans 6:6), and unable to please God (Romans 8:8). That’s point one. Pretty devastating bondage.
2. Loving Darkness
All people are still responsible in that condition — accountable to God. They are liable to judgment because this darkness that they are in, this slavery, holds them and has its power over them not against their will or against their desires, but precisely because of their will and because of their desires. In other words, they love sin.
Jesus said in John 3:19, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works for evil.”
The problem is not that we lack light, but that we love darkness. This is not a bondage against people’s will. This is a bondage because of their will.
3. Unhindered Sovereignty
This deep evil in all human hearts does not limit the complete sovereignty of God over all things, including the fallen human will.
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hands of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).
“The Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God” (Ezra 6:22).
In Genesis 20:6, God said to Abimelech, the pagan king who had not committed adultery with Sarah, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me.” In other words, God was ruling in the will of a pagan king.
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:1).
“In this city [Jerusalem], Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [gathered together] to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
God is profoundly, thoroughly in control of the fallen will of man.
4. A New Will
By the sovereign, regenerating, life-giving, blindness-removing, hardness-replacing, light-shining work of the Holy Spirit, God replaces blindness with the light of reality. He breaks the deceptive bondage of sin and sets people free.
“We are not controlled or coerced against our desire or against our will, but by means of new and powerful desires.”
That’s what it means to be saved; that’s what it means to be converted or born again. Second Corinthians 4:6 reads, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That’s the meaning of conversion.
Romans 6:20–22 says it this way: “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”
This slavery to God — now in the regenerate, in the born again — is the same kind of slavery that we had to sin, in this sense: It’s not a slavery contrary to our will. We were enslaved to sin because sin looked so good and desirable to us. Our will was all in with sin. Now, we are enslaved to God because God looks so good and so desirable to us. Our will is all in with God. That’s what happened in the new birth.
5. True Freedom
This new slavery to God is true freedom for three reasons.
Like slavery to sin, it is completely willing. We are not controlled or coerced against our desire or against our will, but by means of new and powerful desires.
These new desires, unlike the desires for sin, accord with — agree with, are in harmony with — what is true and beautiful and lasting: God’s righteousness. They align with God’s way. According to John 8:32, we’re not being deceived. We have been set free from deception.
This new slavery to God is true freedom because our former so-called “freedom” ended in everlasting death. Our new freedom, our slavery to God, ends in eternal joy. You’re not really free if you’re doing what you want to do, and you are miserable because of it for all eternity. You’re free if you do what you want to do and don’t regret it a million years.
6. According to Plan
This new freedom does not limit the complete sovereignty of God over all things, including the redeemed human will. God is working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. God is doing this through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory (Hebrews 13:21). Yes, not to us, but glory to him forever and ever.
This doesn’t mean we can’t grieve the Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30). But it does mean that God lets himself be grieved as part of his larger purpose, which always comes to pass. It says in Ephesians 1:11 that he works all things according to the counsel of his will. In this new freedom, God is still sovereign over our wills.
7. Mystery Remains
God’s way of ruling the redeemed will not compromise our responsibility or nullify the freedom which is true freedom. How can this be? That’s probably the nub of the question that’s being asked: How can this be?
“When you see Christ, it awakens such an authentic savoring of Christ that the Bible says, ‘There is freedom.’”
I doubt that we will fully understand that until we get to heaven. There is a glimpse of how it might be in 2 Corinthians 3:17–18: “Now the Lord is the Spirit [Jesus is the Spirit], and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed [this is what freedom looks like] into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Then he adds again, “For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
He begins with, “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” That’s where he begins in verse 17. Then he ends, “This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” In other words, it seems like he’s saying this: when the Spirit of God transforms us to God’s will — to love God’s will and to conform to God’s will and thus reflect the glory of God — this is true freedom.
The reason it is true freedom is that this transformation is happening through beholding the glory of the Lord, not by any kind of coercion, but by beholding the glory of the Lord. We’re compelled by savoring Christ. That compelling savor is awakened by seeing Christ. That seems to be at the heart of what freedom is in Paul’s understanding.
When you see Christ for who he is, it awakens such an authentic, freeing, savoring of Christ that he says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Of course, there are many more questions. For some of them, I doubt that we will have answers until we see Jesus face to face. But I think these seven points are biblical and crucial for enjoying our freedom in Christ and living worshipfully under the glorious sovereignty of God.