Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast, and we begin the week with a question from Tyson. “Hello, Pastor John. We met a couple of months back at a conference in Dallas. Very happy to have met you. My question for you is how do we know that God is sovereign? How does God use his sovereignty for the greater good, when our free will is in place? In other words, will God use his sovereignty to override our free will at times to exemplify his perfect will? If so, do we truly have free will?” Pastor John, how would you explain it?
I am not sure what Tyson means by ‘free will.’ So I may not be able to answer the question if he means something by free will that I don’t believe in. Let’s try out a definition and let the Scriptures shed light on this tension. I think Tyson will get the answer he is after, at least the best I can give it.
The definition of free will that creates controversies with those like me who believe in the sovereignty of God over the human will — not just a general statement about the sovereignty of God, but God’s sovereignty over the human will — that definition is this: man’s will is free if he has the power of ultimate self-determination.
“No one can come to Jesus, no one can believe, unless God grants him the faith.”
What I mean by ultimate self-determination is that no power outside of man himself has ultimate or decisive control over what a man chooses, at least not when he is acting as a moral agent who must give an account to God. This excludes other people, influences, and God himself. None of them would have decisive control over a person’s choices.
God and man and nature may have some influence, but this influence cannot be decisive. They may have a kind of causality, but not ultimate causality or decisive causality. Otherwise, the man would not be free on this definition that I am unfolding.
Wesleyans and Arminians insist that for a person to believe on Christ and be saved, divine influence is necessary. They call it prevenient grace — grace that has come before our faith and thus influences us toward Christ.
But this influence on the Wesleyan and Arminian understanding cannot be decisive. The final, decisive, ultimate cause of our believing Christ is not the Holy Spirit. It is not divine grace. It is our own input.
God may get the process of conversion started, but the decisive influence is provided by ourselves. This is what is meant by free will on this definition. It is ultimate or decisive self-determination.
Judas and God
Now if that is what Tyson means in his question, I can’t answer his question because I don’t think such a thing exists anywhere in the universe, except in the will of God. Only God has free will in the sense of ultimate self-determination. Here are a few of the reasons why I think that, because I don’t know whether Tyson agrees with that or not.
Jesus talked about why Judas did not believe on him: “(Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father’” John 6:64–65.
In other words, no one can come to Jesus, that is, no one can believe, unless God grants him the faith. Judas did not come to Jesus decisively, fully, savingly because it was not granted to him, as Jesus said, by the Father.
Jesus takes that truth and generalizes it to all of us and says in this very verse: “No one” — not just Judas — “can come to me unless it is granted” — unless the decisive coming is granted — “by the Father.” No one has the power of ultimate self-determination to get themselves to God. God gives or withholds the power to come. Nudges to come will not save anybody. What is given by God is the coming.
Flip of a Coin
Another reason I don’t think ultimate self-determination exists in human beings is 2 Timothy 2:24–25, where Paul says that the Lord’s servant should correct “his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”
“We make choices. We have a will. Our will is active. We are genuine moral agents.”
Repentance is the flip side of the coin of faith. Faith is on one side of the coin and faith embraces Christ. Repentance turns from embracing other false reliances. The gift of repentance is the gift of the coin. It is the gift of rejecting self-reliance and embracing Christ. It is a gift of salvation. Without the gift of God to cause us to repent and believe, none of us would be saved.
Another reason is that John says in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Self-willed faith does not bring about the new birth. Just the opposite. The new birth brings about faith. Faith is, therefore, not the result of human self-determination but of the new birth.
One more reason (among many, many more) is Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” No king anywhere on earth has the power of ultimate self-determination. So I don’t think such a thing exists, except in God. God is ultimately self-determining, but man is not ultimately and decisively self-determining.
Nevertheless — and I think this gets at what Tyson is asking about. We are responsible, accountable, for our preferences and our choices.
“We do not have ultimate self-determination, but we will all give an account to God for our choices.”
If God is sovereign over the human will, are we responsible? Yes, we are. The Bible says so over and over again that we are. Our choices are our choices. They are true choices. We have a will. Our will is active. We are genuine moral agents.
We will, as Jesus says, “give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36). Indeed, we will give an account, according to Romans 14:12, of all of our preferences and choices and behaviors. Each of us will give an account of himself to God. Human beings do not have ultimate self-determination, and we will all give an account to God for our preferences and our choices.
So instead of speaking of the will as free or not, I prefer to speak of people as free or not because that is the way the Bible does. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul says in Galatians 5:1. Christians are free from the bondage to sin and from the oppressive demand of having to perform our own salvation.
Maybe the best way to end would be to quote this great liberation from Romans 6:17–18: “Thanks be to God.” That is so important. And that is the way we should live as believers, with a heart brimming like this. “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.