Recently I was asked to lead a Bible study on the doctrine of predestination. One of the questions that always comes up when people think deeply about this doctrine is how God’s sovereign plan and selection of people to be saved relates to human free will and responsibility. The nature of free will, justice, personhood, and other concepts all come into thought. In this post, I just want to deal with a particular idea about free will and what the Scriptures teach concerning it. A common objection to the doctrine of predestination is that it seems (to some) to take away free will from human beings. If God chose who would be saved before He created the world, then did people really have a choice at all in regard to their salvation? If we step back and look at the bigger picture, we see that this question is actually just a more specific form of common objections concerning how God’s providence and human free will relate. This is what I want to specifically address in this article now.
For an example, we can look at any verse in Scripture that talks about God directing events. If God is governing all things (which the Bible teaches He is), then what can be said about the choices we as human beings make? I’m sure I won’t cover all of that there is to say in this article, but I will present biblical information and hopefully clarify some things.
What is God’s Providence?
When I speak of God’s providence, I speak of the fact that God is actively involved in His creation, directing and governing all things in creation so that they reach the intended end He has for them, in accordance to His perfect will (Ephesians 1:11 is a good reference). The Bible is full of verses and stories giving broad and specific instances of God’s involvement with His creation. God is not indifferent to His creation. God did not fashion His creation and then step out of the way and allow it to operate independently of Him, which would make Him an impersonal God (a deist view). No, the Scriptures teach that God is actively involved with His creation and is sovereign over His creation, and that He interacts with His creation in a personal way. And the extent to which the Scriptures tell us that God is involved is amazing. I will try to illustrate this beautiful and comforting truth of Scripture and then connect it to a biblical understanding of free will.
To What Extent Is God Involved With Creation?
There are so many Scriptures that could be used to show God’s providence that I cannot possibly list them all here. But here is a sample (all references are from the ESV translation unless otherwise indicated):
“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Proverbs 16:33
“In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Psalm 139:16
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5
“I know, LORD, that a person’s way of life is not his own; no one who walks determines his own steps.” Jeremiah 10:23, CSB
“A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” Proverbs 20:24
“A person’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.” Proverbs 16:9, CSB
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” Proverbs 16:1
From this very small sampling, we see that God’s governing of creation is extensive. God planned and formed our days before He created the world (Psalm 139:16), nobody who lives determines his own way (Jeremiah 10:23), and even the most seemingly insignificant or random events have their outcome determined by God (Proverbs 16:33). The instances talked about in these verses ranges from broad to specific, and so we can conclude that God is involved with and governs everything in between as well. From the grandest design of the entire universe to the smallest detail of your life such as your current location, what time of the day it is when you’re at that location, and what number the dice lands on the next time they’re rolled, are providentially governed by God. And all of those things are orchestrated by God in such a way so that His perfect will is done. All things, including sin, are within God’s providence.
I plan to start a study of systematic theology within the next couple of months, where I will deal with God’s providence in greater detail. For now, I want to move on to what we can say about free will.
We Are Not Free In the Commonly Understood Sense of Being Free
So if God works in such a way with His creation, what can we say about our free will? Are we truly free creatures? Yes! We are free in the greatest sense that creatures created by God can be free. We make willing choices that we desire to make, and our choices have real effects and consequences. God never forces anyone to make a decision. All decisions that we make are made because we choose to make them. Even John Calvin and other calvinistic individuals will speak of us being free in some sense.
However, we are not free in the way that many understand it. Many understand free will to mean that we are the ultimate cause of our choices and that we are the final determining factor in the decisions that we make. The Bible does not teach this. Many think that in order for us to be making real, free choices, and that in order for us to be accountable to such choices, then the choice must come from no cause outside of ourselves. With God’s providence in view, this does not seem like a biblical understanding of our free will.
So, we are presented with a choice. We can choose human philosophy, which says that we must be the final determining factor in order for a choice to be considered free. Or, we can agree with the Bible and say that we are not the ultimate cause and do not have the final determining power of what happens. This is difficult to wrestle with, because it is a natural human thought that to have free will means we have complete and total control of our decisions and operate independently of everything else. But again, we are presented with a choice. And if the Bible presents something one way and it is contrary to what a natural fallen human mind would think, then that is the way we should believe it. We are free creatures, because God has created us with a will and the ability to choose, and He ordains that decisions we make are free choices.
Noting a Common Misunderstanding
A point that is often confused by many and that has led some to conclude that there is a contradiction in the Christian worldview is that some view God’s providence ending where human will begins. In other words, some believe wholly that God is providential over all things, but that His providence is somehow not present when the decision is made.
Let me try to provide an example. When someone chooses to sin, they have just made a decision that is displeasing to God and that will have destructive consequences. God never approves of sin and never desires people to sin (Psalm 5:4-6). In such a situation where one sins, some will think that God’s providence means He will ultimately turn and use the situation for His glory and His will. This is true. However, it is not true in the sense that the person who committed the sin or the circumstances surrounding it were not under God’s providential care the entire time. It is not just that someone chooses to sin and then God providentially finds a way to respond and turn it for His glory (although this is true). I think that a biblical view would hold that God is working through the sin and the circumstances and decision in order to work all things “according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). And He does this in every situation at all times. God’s providence does not diminish while human free choices are being made, and human free choices are not made independently of God’s providence.
My short summary to all of this is to say that God does in fact work in His creation in such a way to govern and direct all things at all times. However, He does this in such a way that He upholds our ability as creatures to make real, willing choices that we are accountable for. We cannot fully understand how all of these things work together, but we can and must accept it as true because it is what the Word of God teaches. Even if it makes no sense to us as fallen humans and we cannot comprehend it fully, if it is the way the Bible presents it then it is true nonetheless.
Undoubtedly, many people are wondering right now about how it is that God can be providential over people’s lives in the detail that is given in Scripture yet not be guilty of sin or in some way desire people to sin. This and other questions come up in this discussion. This is another topic that I hope to address soon but will not address here. For now I will say that the Bible teaches that God does work through sin, is providential over sin, and the Bible even says in some places that He indirectly causes sin. However, the Bible is also clear beyond any doubt that God never makes people sin, He never desires sin, He never approves of sin, He commands people not to sin, He hates and abhors sin, and He is never guilty of sinning Himself.
As I said above, I do plan on making a study of systematic theology and sharing it on the site. And, if time permits, I will write another article addressing how God’s providence and evil are presented in the Bible.