On Sunday morning at Capitol City, we leaned hard into the idea of the sovereignty of God. Because God is absolutely sovereign, we said nothing happens apart from his will or outside his will. He is the ultimate cause behind every action, every decision, and every event. We observed that this notion is summed up well by the Lord himself, speaking through the prophet Isaiah: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me…I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please’” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
After one of our services, someone approached me and asked, “So you’re going to write a blog post on God’s sovereignty and free will, right?”
I both laughed and groaned when he asked, mainly because I’m not remotely capable of sorting out those two important biblical concepts. There are many biblical texts, like the one cited above, that suggest strongly that God acts to accomplish his purpose no matter what people will. At the same time there are other texts that suggest (just as strongly) that every decision we make is a free decision, made without constraint from any outside force. So the question is really a loaded one. How do those two seemingly opposite ideas fit together?
Well, as I said, I don’t pretend to have the answers on this one. But the more I thought about this question and the issue in general, the more I realized that one word in particular is incredibly significant in the conversation. That word is and.
And allows for tension, and tension on this issue is critical. If God’s sovereign will and our free will are opposite ends of the rope in a game of philosophical tug-of-war, we want there to be tension in that rope. We want to feel the weight of the argument on each side, to be pulled by each idea in two seemingly opposite directions. And accomplishes that tension. God is completely sovereign and humans are responsible for the decisions they make according to their free will.
Theologians and philosophers are generally inclined to take those statements a few steps forward and clarify or nuance them in some way, but I’m content with their tension. I’m content with the and. Mainly because it seems that Scripture is content with the and.
Notice the tension, for example, in Acts 27. Paul is sailing for Rome when his ship encounters a ferocious storm. The lives of all on board are threatened, but God speaks to Paul and promises that all on board will be spared. Paul tells his shipmates, “I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost…Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood behind me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul…God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you’” (Acts 27:22-24). God, in his absolute sovereignty, promises that none will die because of this storm.
And yet the decisions of these sailors, made by their free will, still matter. Some time later, while the storm is still battering the ship, several sailors attempt to escape from the ship in a lifeboat: “In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea…Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved” (27:30-31). These men had to choose, by their free will, to stay on board or they would die.
The tension of and exists so clearly in this story. God was sovereignly working to save these sailors. And they had to chose to obey him or they wouldn’t be saved.
Yes, our finite human minds would like to be able to sort out that tension more clearly. No, our finite human minds aren’t capable of truly and completely doing that. But God is infinite, and the way he works in his creation reflects that. Let’s embrace the tension of and, realizing that ultimately it’s a reflection of how big and praiseworthy our God is.