Sovereignty & Free Will

 As we prepare our hearts for Easter, I’ve been walking through a series of sermons on the attributes of God. My greatest desire is to have our people know God better so they will love Him more.  We’ve looked at His uniqueness and His holiness. There is none like God. He is holy and set apart. This week we come to an attribute that ties all the attributes together. We are looking at the sovereignty of God. Put simply, as the word itself hints at, our God reigns (Isaiah 52:7).  God is above all, superior to all He is in control of all our God reigns. In His sovereignty, there is nothing that happens that is not allowed by or caused by God. God’s sovereignty is His absolute rule and control over all creation. When looking at the sovereignty of God, it does not take long for someone to ask, “How about man’s free will?”  In light of that question, I want to submit to you a short theological answer to the balance between the sovereignty of God and man’s free will.

Allow me a simple note.  I realize I am trying to make a very complex issue probably too simple.  I know there are many avenues to traverse when looking at the teachings of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.  I’m not directing this blog to the many incredible scholars but to the “common” person sitting in the pew of my church.  I want them to know the basics of the argument and to know this is not an either/or debate but believing a balanced view of sovereignty and free will is well within the boundary of orthodoxy.

There are basically two large schools of thought. First, there is libertarian free will.  This camp is most rooted in Arminian theology and is fleshed out in the teachings of Jacobus Arminius.  Libertarian free will states that man is free to make choices that have not been predetermined by any outside agent.  They would argue that libertarian free will is essential for moral responsibility. In this school, a person has the power to act or refrain from action at any point.

On the complete other side of the debate is a school of thought called determinism.  This school of thought is rooted in John Calvin and is best expressed in Calvinism. In determinism, all events that happen are preordained, predestined or predetermined by God.  Within this camp, there is a group that stands as “hard determinist” which completely takes away man’s freewill and places all responsibility on God.  There is also a “soft determinist” thought that allows for the sovereignty of God but also allows for the man’s free will.

Are these two schools mutually exclusive?  Are they the only option Scripture allows?  Even a cursory reading of the Bible will show both the free will of man and the sovereignty of God.  For good verses on free will see: John 5:40, John 7:17, Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 29:13, Ezekiel 18:30-32 just to name a few. Even the theological teaching of temptation obviously implies the person’s ability to choose right or wrong.  Temptation makes no sense without free will. The sovereignty of God is also an obvious teaching in Scripture. For verses on the Sovereignty of God see Psalm 115:3, 1 Chronicles 29:11-12, Job 42:2, Isaiah 46:9-10 and Psalm 103:19 to only name a few.  The basic nature of God demands sovereignty.  I think we can actually see a strong tension between free will and sovereignty in John 5 and 6. You see throughout the text that only the Father draws man and no one can come to the Father unless drawn by him (Sovereignty, election etc.).  But you do not look far in John 5 and 6 to see over and again, “anyone who believes has eternal life” (free will, man’s responsibility, etc.)

Who is correct in this debate?  The Arminian school seems to take God out of the equation while the more hyper-Calvinist seems to take the man out of the equation.  In my life, I’ve found that so often when there are two diametrically opposed views, the truth is often found somewhere between two poles. This is true in politics, theology, and life. Allow me a chance to offer you a more balanced perspective. It is what theologians call compatibilist freedom or sometimes called “soft determinism.”  I have found this to be a very good balance between the two views. This view says free will and sovereignty are compatible with each other.

Compatibilism affirms that man freely chooses what God has determined He will choose. In this view, God is sovereign and rules and reigns over all things. Man is free to choose but will not choose against his nature and desires.  Due to the effects of the fall, man’s nature is corrupted, and he is unable to choose contrary to his broken nature unless God intervenes.

Millard Erickson is helpful to us.  Here are a few quotes from his Christian Theology book[1]:

– “God, foreknowing the infinite possibilities, chooses to bring to existence the individual who will freely decide to respond to every situation as God intends.” (in notes on page 329)

– “… I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal to me. But I may not be fully in control of the appeal each of those actions holds for me. (328)

– “I am free to choose among various options. But my choice will be influenced by who I am. Therefore, my freedom must be understood as my ability to choose among options in light of who I am. And who I am is a result of God’s decision and activity. (329).

– “Most of the time, however, the picture is more like God making his will so persuasive and attractive that persons willingly and even joyfully accept it and carry it out.  As an old song put it, ‘He didn’t compel them against their will; he just make them willing to go.’” (331).

– I have adopted the compatibilistic view, not because Scripture explicitly teaches it, but because it fits better with the teaching regarding God’s plan…” (331)


In other words, you are free to choose but your freedom is limited to God’s plan and purposes for you. God has given you freedom but he has limited your freedom in how He created you, where you live, and by the person you are.

I think A.W. Tozer can help explain this better. In his classic work, “The Knowledge of the Holy” he acknowledges “one of the marks of God’s image in man is his ability to exercise moral choices.”[2].  In the chapter on sovereignty, Tozer gives a very good balanced view. He writes, “Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it… Man’s will is free because God is sovereign.” [3]

Tozer also gives us a very good illustration that seems to balance the two views very well.  “An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool.  Its destination has been determined by proper authorities.  Nothing can change it.  This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty.  On board the liner are several scores of passengers.  These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree.  They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port.  Both freedom and sovereignty are present here and they do not contradict each other.”[4]

There are none who are totally free except the Triune God alone.  God has rendered certain the end, His plans will not be thwarted. Is man free? I think Erickson is very helpful here as well and sums up my thoughts and allows us to see the tension between sovereignty and free will. Erickson writes, “We conclude that if by freedom is meant a random choice, human freedom is a practical impossibility.  But if by freedom is meant the ability to choose between options, human freedom exists and is compatible with God’s having rendered our decisions and actions certain” [1](332).  God is sovereign and man is free.  You will be responsible for the choices you make in life.  Like Moses, I say to you, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:29).  It is your choice and you are responsible.  I pray God is drawing you to Himself.

In closing, let me remind you, “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us…” (Deuteronomy 29:29).  There are truths God has not fully revealed to us.  We are also reminded we know in part (1 Corinthians 13:9) and we can affirm with Paul, “Oh the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God. How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable his ways” (Romans 11:33). Don’t be so arrogant to think you know it all or even can fully comprehend the sovereignty and free will of man.  In the tension of the two, there remains a mystery that only God comprehends. Therefore, leave the tension, accept the mystery, trust in His sovereignty and worship our great good and wise God.





[1] Erickson, Milard J., Christian Theology Third Edition, Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2013

[2] Tozer, A.W., The knowledge of the Holy, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 29.

[3] Ibid., 110-11

[4] Ibid., 111


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