Today we want to explore what logic and the Bible have to say about Election, Predestination & Free Will. I know the moment I mention these terms that many of you are filled with questions and concerns. I know that because of the questions you asked some weeks ago
At what point does our responsibility for our actions meet God’s sovereignty?
Where does the line between our free will and God’s sovereign will begin and end? What do we have control over and not have control over?
Are we puppets? Do our prayers matter? Do our lives mean anything?
How can God hold us accountable for sin when he must choose us for us to be saved?
Those are good, hard, important questions. And, I want to give you my honest answers. I also want to reassure you that you do not have to agree with me on these issues. In fact, you don’t have to believe anything in particular regarding these issues to be a welcome and appreciated part of this church body. But you did ask the questions—at least some of you asked. Understanding that no answer I give can possibly be the final answer my hope is to give you a framework by which you can see how God’s sovereignty and free will might fit together.
In any discussion like this it’s important that we carefully define our terms so that as much as possible we are on the same page as to their meaning. So what we mean and don’t mean by free will is crucial. Right now scientists and philosophers are wrestling with whether any such thing as free will actually exists. These people are asking, Are we merely the present effect of a long string of causes and then in turn the cause of many other effects? Are our choices simply the predetermined results of our DNA, our environment, the way we were raised? Or, are human beings self-determining and free creatures, completely in control of ourselves, possessors of free will; and capable of making different choices in the same situation? Many are concluding that free will is simply an illusion.
I do not agree. I think we do have free will; but I mean something very specific when I talk about free will. I mean that we have the ability to make real choices with real consequences. But I do not mean that we are free to make those choices without anything influencing what we choose. Think about all the factors influencing the choices we make—factors about which we had no choice:
Place of birth;
Time of birth. Consider all that comes with just those two factors and how they influence our choices—language, culture, opportunities for education and advancement, religious heritage. Some other things we didn’t choose that shape who we are:
Birth parents and whoever raised us
Genetic codes: Gender, IQ, Body type
The influence which those factors have over our choices is one reason many say we have no free will. Such people hold to a philosophy called determinism which means that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could happen.1 The choice we made was the choice we had to make because of prior causes. Remember The Matrix? In the midst of lots of martial arts and gunplay was an exploration of determinism and free will. The woman on the right is one of the main characters in the film know as The Oracle. Listen to this interplay between her and Neo as she offers him some candy
Neo: Do you already know if I’m going to take it?
Oracle: Wouldn’t be much of an oracle if I didn’t.
Neo: But if you already know, how could I make a choice?
Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice. You already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. Is Neo merely the construct of a machine with his choices already programmed? Or, can he make unexpected, free choices? If I were a pure materialist, if I saw human beings as nothing more than physical machines, highly advanced computers, then I would probably accept determinism and agree that all of our choices were simply the necessary results of prior causes and circumstances. However, as Christians we believe we are spiritual beings and that neither our bodies nor our history exercise determining control over our choices. That means that there are also spiritual factors, not just physical factors, which influence our choices
Our flesh: We have inherited a sin nature. It inclines us toward evil.
The world is that system created by all those fleshly natures that naturally leave God out. The world further entices us away from God.
The devil and his demons seek to deceive, to blind, to destroy us.
God, and his angels, and his people also play a role in our choices.
To me it seems reasonable to think that these spiritual forces play a greater role in shaping our decisions than any of the physical factors. Either way the point of all this is to demonstrate that we cannot speak of free will in an absolute sense. Our wills and our choices are powerfully influenced by both physical and spiritual forces.
So the question then for us is not whether our wills are influenced by other internal and external forces but how those forces affect our wills in the decision making processes. Consider one of the earliest verses bringing together the intentions of God and the intentions of people: Genesis 50:20You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. One action; two purposes human and divine. Whey Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery they intended to do him harm. God’s intention was to do good and save many lives. What the brothers willed to do precisely carried out the will of God. There is no hint here of the brothers being forced to do what they did. They made a real choice and by their choice carried out the will of God.
Let’s jump to a couple of passages in the New Testament. Acts 2:22-23 "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. Several important truths emerge from these verses. First, the crucifixion was an outworking of God’s set purpose. We know that is was predicted by Israel’s prophets hundreds and thousands of years before it happened. And if our understanding of the book of Daniel is correct then even the timing of the crucifixion was predetermined. So that means there was no way that Jesus was not going to be betrayed and crucified when he was. God determined the date and the manner of the death of his Son, Messiah Jesus.
Second,this verse demonstrates that people make real choices for which we are morally responsible. Notice those who nailed Jesus to the cross are described as ‘wicked’ men. They chose to do evil. They weren’t puppets; they weren’t forced. But, what they intended for evil God meant for good.
Third,this means that the violation of God’s moral will was part of God’s set purpose in his sovereign will. Follow me now. God’s moral will is revealed in the Bible—what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. His moral will concerns that which is good and right for us to do. So was it morally right and good for the Jews, Pilate and his soldiers to crucify Jesus—to kill an innocent man? Was it God’s will? No and yes. ‘No’ it was not God’s moral will to crucify an innocent man; but ‘yes’ it was God’s sovereign will for Jesus to die on the cross. Jesus’ death was a violation of God’s moral will but it carried out the set purpose of his sovereign will. Evil is included in God’s plan and is under his control—that is, unless you want to say that God is not all powerful or that he is not good or that there is no such thing as God. But that’s a question we’ve already addressed that if you missed it you can listen to on the web. The biblical picture is that God uses evil for his own good purposes though he himself is not evil and is not the author of evil.
This is a mystery. But the outworking of God’s plan is more than God looking down the corridors of time to see what would happen and then responding to our choices. God is involved shaping and directing the choices we make. Acts 4:27-28 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together…to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. The ESV jumps right into the subject. Here’s how they rendered the last phrase: Herod and Pilate conspired to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place. God wasn’t just reacting to human choice; he was shaping human choice.
Proverbs 21:1The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. Lest we think God only does this with important people and important issues. Proverbs 16:9In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps. Now jump to the New Testament and what the apostle Paul says about God’s work in our lives. Philippians 2:12-13Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
God is not a passive by-stander waiting to see how he should respond to our choices. More significantly than anything else that might shape our choices God is working in our lives to influence our wills and energize our actions. Yet he does this without violating the reality of our own morally responsible choices. In a very inadequate manner I can illustrate this from my son’s life. When he was a little boy—preschool—he loved to lock me in the closet. When I came home, went into the closet, and began taking off my suit, I’d hear this little giggle from the far side of the house as he would run into my bedroom and with great delight slam the closet door trying to lock me in there. The thing was I could get him to do that any time I wanted. All I had to do was to say very loudly, “I guess I’ll go into the closet now.” Whatever he was doing he’d stop, run in giggling and slam that door. He did it for his own reasons. It was his own uncoerced choice. But he did exactly what I wanted him to do. If I as a human father could do that, what do you think our heavenly Father can do? Beyond all we can possibly imagine.
And he does it for all things. He is sovereign over his creation. We could go to so many verses. Consider these two: Isaiah 46:9-10 Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.1 Chronicles 29:11Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. God is God. He is king and ruler and sovereign over all creation. And he will do what he pleases to do with anything and anyone in creation.
Some Christians have so exalted the freedom and power of their own wills such that the sovereignty of God has come to mean, “God can do anything with me that I give him permission to do.” Really? But if that’s true of you it’s also true of all God’s moral creatures. Would you want to say that God can do no more with Satan than Satan gives him permission to do? That God can do no more with evil people than they give him permission to do?
I understand human will as relative free will. This means that under God’s ultimate and sovereign will I am free to make real, morally responsible decisions. The Westminster divines wrestled with this issue as they composed the Westminster Confession in 1646. They wrote, "God ordains whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature; nor is the liberty, or contingency, of second causes taken away, but rather established." God ordains whatever comes to pass: big things, little things, good things, evil things—he ordains everything which has or ever will take place in the course of history. But at the same time he does not violate the will of the creature. It is his will that sustains our will.
We make real decisions with real consequences that precisely carry out the preordained will of God. Garry Friesen, in his book, Decision Making and the Will of God, writes “God’s Sovereign will...will certainly be fulfilled. It will not be frustrated by men, angels, or anything else. The sinner who tries to defy God’s plan may shake his fist to the heavens, but God will determine how many times he shakes it and whether that man will live to shake his fist tomorrow.”
God is God. We are not. Most people I talk with find the sovereignty of God a very comforting truth. They speak of it frequently and are happy it’s true with the exception of one particular part of life. People who are comfortable with the sovereignty of God in almost all areas of life become very uneasy when it’s applied to the doctrines of salvation and the discussion moves to election and predestination.
Has God elected some to salvation and not others? Are some predestined to salvation and others predestined to hell? Ho do we do put verses like 1 Timothy 2:3 and Ephesians 1:3 together? God…wants all men to be saved …he chose us … he predestined us. How do those fit? Two main responses have been given.
Some reconcile these verses based on a particular understanding of God’s foreknowledge. From passages like this in 1 Peter it’s clear that election is in accordance with God’s foreknowledge of all that will happen in history. Many then conclude that election according to foreknowledge means that God knew from eternity past who would believe in Jesus so those who would believe became his elect. For such people God’s sovereignty does not extend to salvation. In this understanding people are elect because they believed. God’s choice is the result of their choice.
Personally, I think just the opposite. I think people believe because they are elect. Their choice is the result of God’s choice. So in my understanding God’s foreknowledge is much more than a prior passive awareness of what was to happen. Foreknowledge cannot mean just prior knowledge if God is all-powerful. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Whether God has decreed all things that ever come to pass or not, all that own the being of a God, own that He knows all things beforehand. Now, it is self-evident that if He knows all things beforehand, He either doth approve of them or doth not approve of them; that is, He either is willing they should be, or He is not willing they should be. But to will that they should be is to decree them.”2 Did you follow that? If God allows something to happen then in some sense it must be his will for he could change it if he wanted to change it. If he wanted to change it and couldn’t, then he wouldn’t be all powerful. But if he’s all powerful and didn’t change it then he wanted it or willed it to happen. So I think foreknowledge means more than prior passive knowledge. It means a knowing and approving according to God’s will. And that knowing and approving would extend to those who chose not to believe as well.
So how then do we put 1 Timothy 2 and Ephesians 1 together?
We go back to consider the two different aspects of God’s will once more. God’s moral will could also be called his will of desire. This is what is morally pleasing to God that may or may not happen. God desires all men to be saved; but we know that will not happen. God’s sovereign will could also be called his will of decision. This is what God has decided that will actually happen in the course of history. Some actions which are the result of unbelief like the crucifixion of Jesus violate God’s moral will but fulfill his sovereign will. The same is true of everyone who does not believe. Their choice violates God’s will of desire but fulfills his will of decision.
How then is it fair for God to condemn those he has not chosen? The answer here is similar to the one we developed in response to the question of how God could justly condemn those who had never heard the Gospel. That message is also on the web. But let me draw out a couple of particulars in this regard. Romans 3:10-12As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." These words are not hyperbole. They are an accurate description of who you and I are in our flesh. The sin we have inherited from Adam has influenced, has corrupted our wills and desires. Left to ourselves we do not desire God. Left to ourselves we would always, freely choose to reject God and his offer of salvation.
In election, God turns no one away who desires him. Picture this: we are all moving, even running away from God. In his grace God graciously turns some back to him that we may believe. That is election. That is why Jesus said this in John 6:44 "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Of all the things which influence our decisions only God is sufficient to overcome all the other influences to change our desires so that we might desire him and choose to believe in Jesus.
God is sovereign over all things. And under his sovereignty we make real decisions with real consequences that matter for time and eternity. I don’t know how that fully works but I believe it to be true from what I see in the Scriptures and what I saw illustrated in how I could elicit my son’s response to my words.
The sovereignty of God in all things—including salvation—should be our comfort. He is good and loving and just and does all things well. If you come to him he will not turn you away. So let us remember how wonderfully secure we are because it is God who ultimately governs our lives—God and not chance, God and not our enemies, God and not some random virus or bacteria, God and not the devil. Because God is sovereign, because he good and evil, we really can trust that he is working all things—everything—for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
Those are not theoretical words. God’s purposes are good; but they are not always easy. There are times in my life that I’ve cried out, “Oh God this is so hard. I don’t know if I can do this. I know I can’t do this without you. O Lord sustain me and carry me because I trust that you are good.”
That’s the question isn’t it. Are you glad that our lives are in the hands of an all-loving, all-wise, all-powerful, all good Heavenly Father? The older I get the more I realize how little I control. How little I understand about the consequences of my decisions. Even the most powerful among us is just a passing page on the record of history. God remains forever And, I am deeply grateful that God does not leave me to my own devices even when it comes to salvation. I praise him that he drew me to Jesus and saved me. I hope you do the same.