Can God be sovereign and humans still have free will? Are our destinies simply set?
Philip K. Dick was arguably the most influential science fiction writer of the late twentieth century. Several of his works, adapted as screenplays, explore the concept of free will. In Blade Runner we are brought face to face with the tension between genetic control and genuine feeling. The Adjustment Bureau pits choice against fate, as Matt Damon’s character attempts to alter the master plan for his life.
It all brings up an interesting, age-old question: Is it possible for there to be a sovereign God and for humans to have free will?
The stakes are high in this debate. If we surrender free will, life becomes bleak and hopeless. If God possesses exclusive control over our destinies, why should we do anything? What difference does anything make if life is all mapped out? If we surrender divine sovereignty, life loses transcendent meaning and purpose. We exist and then we die. The better the choices we make, the more apt we are to survive the race of the fittest, but for what—the mere propagation of our species? On the one hand we are left with unfeeling determinism, and on the other, a free-falling individualism.
Millions of people view the Bible as a source for knowing God. What does the Bible have to say on the topic of will?
A Glance at the Bible
There are stacks of biblical texts that underscore divine sovereignty, and even more that appeal to human will.
For example, the story of Job opens with a dialog between Satan and God. Satan questions the naked free will of “righteous Job.” Satan is convinced that without God’s sovereign hand of protection, Job will freely renounce God. Satan asks God to remove all aid and then is permitted to wreak havoc in Job’s life. The story concludes with Job expressing his steadfast hope in a sovereign God: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”1
The will of Job meets, with hope, the sovereign plan of God. Avoiding the extremes of cold determinism and aimless individualism, Job presents divine sovereignty and human choice as entirely compatible.
In fact, the Bible consistently puts sovereignty and choice together:
- “To humans belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue.”2
- “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”3
- “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”4
These texts appeal to our heart and ability to act, while at the same time recognizing that God ultimately determines the action. We are responsible, and he is sovereign. Decisions are made from the heart, while God is sovereign over those decisions.
Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? How can those two things be compatible?
The Nature of the Will
The apparent contradiction is resolved when we understand the nature of the will. The will expresses our heart’s desire. Whatever we want most, we do. The will surveys the motives in the heart and always, always acts upon them. To give a Western example, if I desire a new TV, my will acts on that desire, and off I go to Best Buy.
But what happens when there are competing motives? What if, on the way to Best Buy, you stop at the ATM machine—and get held up? The thief tells you that if you don’t empty your entire account and give it to him, he will take your life. You really want your money—and you still want that TV—but you decide to give it all to him so you can live.
In that instance, were you prevented from exercising free will? Not at all. You simply did what you desired most. Being an ever-so-smart person, you desired to live more than you wanted a full bank account or a new TV. Whatever you desire most, your will acts on.
Now we have stumbled into the matter of freedom. We often conceive of freedom as the absence of constraints. We think, “To really live, we need to be free to do whatever we want, free from restrictions.” Freedom, we argue, is the path to true flourishing.
But if we think on this, we’ll quickly see it isn’t entirely true. What would happen if every country in the world abolished all laws? Would that “freedom” increase life or decrease life? We all embrace certain restrictions because we know they lead to human prosperity.
Or consider the self-imposed restrictions of every musician in an orchestra. They willfully restrict their “freedom” to play however they want. Instead, they play the notes indicated on their music. What happens? Are the musicians oppressed, angry, and put down? No, they actually flourish. The restrictions enable them to create sounds they could never manage on their own—beautiful symphonies.
Putting It All Together
Now what does this have to do with God and free will? As a sovereign God, he imposes restrictions for our good. He composes the notes to life. He establishes moral laws so that we will flourish, but he does not force us to carry out these laws. In fact, we are free to do whatever our hearts desire.
If we desire to break the law, we do. If we want to reject God’s salvation in Christ, we can. We all make genuine choices, decisions that align with our heart’s desire. But this freedom is also the problem.
We are free to live for ourselves—even for others—but we are unable to live for God. Apart from gracious divine intervention, we simply don’t make God the north star of our life. As a result, we don’t gain Job-like confidence that, even in suffering, God has good purposes for us. Our wills are bound to broken hearts.
Consequently, we find it unappealing—if not impossible—to embrace God’s sovereignty, because deep down, we really want to be in charge. We want to make the rules. We want to set our own course, and it doesn’t include the path of self-denial and submission to God the Father. Our broken hearts have convinced us that true joy and flourishing are found outside of God.
A New Heart
What we all need isn’t a free will (we already have that) but a new heart. We need new capacity to choose God, to love his ways, and to embrace his “restrictions” as the path to true life.
Jesus is the only person who did this perfectly. His heart was pure. He chose to follow the Father’s will, even when it meant suffering and death. He did it for us—for stubborn, short-sighted people who insist on their own way. He gave up his right to live so that we don’t have to die. If we relinquish our fixation on self-sovereignty and receive God’s gracious, righteous love and forgiveness, we will actually find true life.
When we come under the umbrella of God’s will, we are showered with the grace of true freedom. Transcendent purpose meets genuine, heartwarming choice. When we follow God’s master plan in Christ, we actually discover true love.
We come face to face with the only man who can love us perfectly and truly. If we receive it, that love gives the heart a whole new capacity to trust God’s sovereignty. In Jesus, we have the opportunity to flourish.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson