The Sovereignty of God and the Freewill of Man
ACTION Philippines Field Conference 2015
Before I dive in to this first topic of our conference I want to give reason as to why the topic “The Sovereignty of God and the Freewill of Man” has been included in the conference. The overall thrust of the conference is to motivate us unto being better stewards of our resources acquired. As I mentioned in my promotion for the teaching theme of the conference several months ago at a team meeting, it is important that we understand that stewardship does not end when we board that final flight home. We raised funds for ministry, and hopefully we applied those funds in the manner in which we indicated when we raised them, but what about after we are gone? Can we wash our hands of whatever takes place after we have gone and chalk it all up to the “sovereignty” of God?
In my ministries I spend time trying to explain to pastors and leaders as to why it is important that we teach God’s truth in a manner that the people can understand and thus in turn formulate their own action points. It is not wise for a teacher to only “tell” people what to do, as you will be developing people who are unable to discern and make any adjustments when it is required of them to do so. Most believers want to be told what to do, and that is just fine for many pastors as they want to be able to tell people what to do and know that they will respond accordingly. But this is not the healthiest means to grow believers as they are unprepared for the times false teachers start introducing destructive teachings. Yet on the other hand, I also see Bible teachers who like to dazzle the congregation with their well-prepared sermons only to have the congregation walk out of the worship center with nothing. My own wife once told me that pastor “so-and-so” was a better teacher before he went off to seminary. What she was saying is that he was better able to communicate at a level where the common person understands before he was trained in structuring a message in a linear and intellectual manner. I have addressed this issue with several pastors and their comments are something as such: “we need to teach at levels that challenge people to higher levels of understanding and comprehension.” That sounds nice, but the people are walking out with nothing and as a result no life change is taking place.
We as missionaries are guilty of such grandiose assumptions, such as the latter part of my simile that I just shared, when we assume that “if we build they will come;” they being the future funds that we currently provide for our staff’s livelihood, the workers that are needed to sustain the ministries that we start, and the leadership that is essential to keep the ministry moving forward into the future. At the church that I am currently aiding a decision was made to announce future job openings that we project will evolve, and the first to indicate interest is a man, who is married, has a family, and who happens to work for a para-church organization that is wholly funded by one missionary; a missionary who at any time may no longer be on the mission field.
This session is intended to squelch Christian fatalism that is often cloaked in the veneer of the expression “God is sovereign.” Believe you me, I do indeed have a high view of God, and furthermore, I have, what I feel is, a solid logical framework for the sovereignty of God as it correlates to the free-will of mankind. This framework has formed within me theological convictions that pulls the rug out of any fatalistic notions and forces me to deal with a reality that there is a dichotomy in life that at all times God is sovereign but my decisions do matter.
We are going to be looking at selected scriptures that demonstrate the sovereignty of God in action and then we will take a jet-tour through Romans and see human liberties working hand-in-hand with God’s sovereign will. Yet there is one last bit of house-keeping that I need to take care of before we get to the heart of this session; for the record, the vantage point from which I will present my premises is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism but rather a contemporary understanding of Molinism that has been introduced to me in the teachings of William Lane Craig. We do not have time in this session to discuss what Molinism is but for a quick snapshot you should understand that I will be presenting propositions that are under-girded with the notion that God knows how everyone will respond in any set of circumstances, and based on Him pre-scripting history, and His intimate awareness of who we are, He, through the exercising of His providence, orchestrates all events so that we are constantly in places where we freely make our own choice, but the ramifications of that choice are working towards the outcome of His will. (Acts 2:23 (NASB95) — 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.) The three key factors for all of this to work are: 1) God knows how we will freely respond [foreknowledge], 2) God has predetermined history, and 3) God orchestrates all events so as to create the environment where we can freely choose [providence].
The Sovereignty of God
Now the first issue that we want to study is the sovereignty of God. We will do so by starting with a quick look at Ezekiel 1:15-21. Yet before we look at this section of scripture let’s gain a grasp of the context of the passage. In Ezekiel 1:1 we note that Ezekiel has the privilege of having the door of heaven opened which allows him to look into the throne-room of God. Then in Ezekiel 2:3-4 we note that Ezekiel is being sent out, or commissioned, for ministry. The overall context is Ezekiel’s call to ministry. If we were to study further into chapters two and three we discover the intensity of that calling, if Ezekiel did not fulfill his ministry, then he would be held accountable [this is libertarian freedom]. Back within the context of chapter 1, we see that the verses preceding the passage that we will be looking at, reveal that there are four angelic beings surrounding the throne of God. (If the number is figurative or literal is irrelevant to our discussion.) From these four creatures lights go forth, (Ezekiel 1:13) and these lights are thought to be, by various commentators, angelic beings doing the work of the Lord’s bidding. Notice if you will the presence of the “spirit” in Ezekiel 1:12 and again in Ezekiel 1:20. You will notice that it is the “spirit” that is dictating the movement of the four angelic beings. Is this the Holy Spirit that we are looking at? More than likely as the “spirit” is functioning in a similar manner as the Holy Spirit when He directs the affairs of the Church in the book of Acts. Then in the verses following the passage that we will be looking at is the throne of our Lord. What we are seeing is a hierarchy of organizational structure. First we have the Lord on His throne, we then have the Holy Spirit guiding the movement of the four angelic beings, and then you have what is likely angels being dispatched by the four living beings to engage in the affairs of the Lord.
Let’s now look at our passage for consideration:
“Now as I looked at the living beings, behold, there was one wheel on the earth beside the living beings, for each of the four of them.” “The appearance of the wheels and their workmanship was like sparkling beryl, and all four of them had the same form, their appearance and workmanship being as if one wheel were within another.” “Whenever they moved, they moved in any of their four directions without turning as they moved.” “As for their rims they were lofty and awesome, and the rims of all four of them were full of eyes round about.” “Whenever the living beings moved, the wheels moved with them. And whenever the living beings rose from the earth, the wheels rose also.” “Wherever the spirit was about to go, they would go in that direction. And the wheels rose close beside them; for the spirit of the living beings was in the wheels.” “Whenever those went, these went; and whenever those stood still, these stood still. And whenever those rose from the earth, the wheels rose close beside them; for the spirit of the living beings was in the wheels.” Ezekiel 1:15–21
I want us to focus on the wheels. Some things that we need to understand about the wheels are, first, according to Keil and Delitzsch, they are not of a chariot, as there is no chariot found within the context. Keil and Delitzsch believe that “the sense is: the wheels were, in their motion and rest, completely bound by the movements and rest of the creatures, because the spirit which ruled in them was also in the wheels, and regulated their going, standing, and rising upwards. By the רוּח (rûaḥ-spirit) the wheels are bound in one with the cherub-figures, but not by means of a chariot, to or upon which the cherubim were attached.” Keil and Delitzsch don’t attempt to explain what the wheels are but only what they do. So therefore if the wheels were not of a chariot (MacArthur calls the wheels a “war machine”) then the question arises “what do the wheels represent?” Let’s look at some excerpts from Ironside’s “Expository Notes on Ezekiel, the Prophet:”
“Wheels, with their ever-recurring revolutions as they move on through the ages, suggest the great changes to which men and nations are subject. Nothing is at a standstill; everything is in constant motion. This is as true in nature, the material universe, as in the moral and spiritual realms. Solomon marveled as he watched the great wheel of the world go round.”
“We say that history repeats itself. This is but another way of saying that the wheels are continually revolving.”
“And there are wheels within wheels, so arranged that we cannot follow their intricacies. But we see them everywhere, different principles working at one and the same time, in the world, in politics, in the church, in all phases of human society. So true is this that the mind becomes bewildered trying to keep all the different movements in mind, until we are tempted to think that all is utter confusion, and there is neither order nor sanity in the universe. But the spirit of the living creature is in the wheels and all are controlled by a higher power than the merely human, or blind chance, or what men call fate. Moreover, there are eyes in the wheels, and these speak of intelligence and careful discernment and discrimination.”
“And so as the wheels move on, though so high that we are unable to comprehend fully what God is doing, we may rest in this precious truth, that nothing moves but at His command or by His permission.”
For Ironside the wheels represent the cycles of life. The government that oversees our political environment, our church and ministry life, our family life, and whatever the other cycles may be that affect our lives. Now maybe Ironside took a little liberty at giving definition to what the wheels are, but the consensus is that this passage deals with God’s sovereign rite and ability to rule, and this would be important in mobilizing Ezekiel unto his ministry. Yet what exactly is sovereignty? There are three aspects to sovereignty; the first is governance, the second is the power and ability to execute the desires of governance, and the third is territory and the subjects within the territory to be governed. To be sovereign is to have the authority and ability to rule over a territory and subjects. We see all of this present in our passage – or within the greater context. We saw a hierarchy of organizational structure and this correlates with governance. We then saw God’s power and ability as demonstrated by the dispatching of the angelic beings as well as the presences of the Spirit. Last, we understand the territory and subjects by the fact that God is dispatching Ezekiel to pronounce judgment on both Israel and the nations, which is the overall thrust of the book. Yet before we move I what to distinguish the difference between sovereignty and providence.
Sovereignty is, as we just defined, the authority and ability to rule over a territory and subjects. Providence on the other hand is to exercise power and knowledge to guide human destiny towards a predetermined end. Providence could be thought of as a virtually composition attribute combining sovereign authority, omniscience, and omnipotence. It is interesting to note that these three attributes, which make up providence, are also present within the text. The eyes see thus illustrating that God knows; angels are dispatched thus illustrating authority; and the Spirit is present which is the “seat” of the power of God.
The Free-will of Man
Next we need to understand that mankind does indeed have some form of free-will. Now how “free” the “will is” is highly debated. As a matter of fact, everyone does not necessarily embrace, from a theological perspective, free-will. Dr. Craig states in his Defenders podcasts transcripts “Luther, for example, held that human beings are, as he put it, free in things below but bound in things above. That is to say, Luther was willing to grant that human beings have freedom of the will with respect to earthly affairs…” Furthermore “But, when it comes to things above (that is to say, spiritual matters), there man’s sinfulness has bound his will so that man is not free to choose for God and to appropriate his grace. Rather, this must come entirely from God’s side. It is God who elects and chooses and saves whom he will.” Dr. Craig continues with a second example: “Calvin was even more stringent in his view of the bondage of the will. Calvin would not even allow freedom in things below. For Calvin, in virtue of God’s sovereignty and providence, everything is determined by God. So Calvin emphasized the doctrines of total depravity – that every aspect of the human person is fallen and infected with sin.”
Yet even with such a hardline stance most would agree that when it all boils down humans do have some form of will and the greater need is for us to understand one’s definition. Craig, when responding to a question regarding a statement made by Sproul, stated “The Calvinist – and he [Sproul] is a Calvinist – will sometimes say, “Yes, we are free in the sense that we are not coerced into doing what we do. We do it voluntarily.” But they [Calvinist] would say we don’t have freedom of the will because what we will is determined by God. So they would say that freedom is compatible with determinism.” This last section is hearsay and spontaneous comments, yet they do illustrate how when a person is cornered, we will acknowledge some form of libertarian freedom.
To say that God’s is utterly sovereign over mundane aspects of human life and our day-to-day decisions takes a stretch of intellectual imagination. All of my socks are Gold Toe and I try to always buy the ones that are cut above the ankle yet below the calf. I bought numerous pairs maybe six of seven years ago and most have worn out and have since been discarded, yet a few pairs remain, but the elastic has lost its elasticity. I then bought a few more pair three or four years ago and they are still holding strong. To say that God is utterly sovereign over the mundane aspects of life and He has determined if when I reach into my sock drawer that I will pull out a newer pair or an older pair begs the question “how does He go about orchestrating this event when all my socks are just tossed into the drawer and if I happen to see a newer pair I will likely grab it?” Now you may think that this is silly, yet as a new Christian I watched two Calvinist debate this actual topic. At that time I realized that it was a hollow discussion. [At times I feel that Calvinists are overly sensitive regarding the sovereignty of God in that libertarian freedom can somehow tarnish His sovereignty. For me the exalted position is God being sovereign in-spite of freewill.]
Common sense leads us to believe that which pair of socks you may choose, and the fact that you can choose, does not diminish the glory of God. There is an allowance for free-will! But the issue is not if there is an allowance, but rather if our liberty trumps the sovereignty of God. I think that, for most Christians, this will be the real issue. But this allowance for liberty now begs the question at which point does freedom end? In other words, when will God, if He does at all, trump our freedom? The crux of the dilemma is usually centered on salvation. So with that said let us look to scriptures and see if we can discover if free-will exists within the topic of salvation. We will do so by gaining an overview of salvation and the factors that intercept with free-will as presented in the Book of Romans, and then we will go a little deeper into the subject in Romans chapter nine.
In Romans 1:16 we read: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.“ Here in this introductory verse I want us to take note of three things: first are the players and they are Jews and Greeks, second is what is required of the players and that is to “believe,” and last take note that there is a causative and it is the “gospel.” The Jew and the Greeks are to believe the gospel! Straightforward!
Romans 3:28 “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Romans 3:30 “since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.”
Romans 4:3 “For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.””
Romans 4:13 “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.”
Romans 4:20 “yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God,” [Speaking of Abraham]
Romans 5:1 “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,”
Romans 6:13 “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” [A choice is to be made]
Romans 8:5–7 “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace,” “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so,” [Again, a choice is to be made]
Romans 9:30–32 “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith;” “but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.” “Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,” [A right choice was made, a wrong choice was made]
Romans 10:4 “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” [Yet again, believe]
Romans 10:8–11 “But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching,” “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;” “for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” “For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”” [Here we see a choice as well as a response is required]
Romans 10:13 “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”
Romans 11:14 “if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them.” [I will just leave this one for your own interpretation but due note the word “jealousy”]
Romans 11:20 “Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear;” [Faith contrasted with unbelief]
Romans 11:23 “And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” [Shifting unbelief to believe]
What we have just seen is a thread woven through the Book of Romans that presents the necessity of someone to believe, or have faith, in order to bring about an end. We know that the end is justification. In this context “faith” is to sustain what you “believe.” Now in order to believe something there needs to be an object in which one is to believe. Or, if we have faith there needs to be some type of data, or message, or object that we place our faith in. In the context of the Book of Romans that object is the gospel. The gospel is the causative and any action required by man is limited to believing in the message. This scan of the book of Romans highlighted this fact. Man is to believe; salvation is by faith. All mankind must do is hear and believe. Most of us know this; but now let’s correlate this theme that we have underscored, a theme that provokes human liberty and free-will, and see how it fits specifically with Romans chapter 9.
Paul states that God will have mercy on whom He chooses and He will harden whom He chooses (Romans 9:18) and often we see this as God looking at a broad spectrum (humanity) and narrowing it to those whom He has elected. But that is not what Paul is saying here! Paul is looking at a very narrow spectrum, the Jewish people, and he sees God widening the spectrum to now include Gentiles. Thus we should not see election in this context as God rejecting the non-elect. But now maybe you are thinking that God is seen here as rejecting Esau and this is a narrowing action! Paul is quoting Malachi and in this context both Jacob and Esau are representative of a corporate community. In Malachi God hates Esau the community for the way they treated Jacob the community. What about where Paul is quoting Genesis in Romans 9:9-10, 12? The quotes are pulled from prophetic passages, and I will explain how this fits in shortly. Now the point of Romans 9 is to demonstrate that to be included into the corporate community one must believe. Theologians go back and forth as to whether “believe” is a work or not a work, but what we can say about “believe” is that it is an intellectual exercise on the part of the person. As Paul is clear that salvation is by grace alone and not works, and at the same time, to be included in the corporate community, that has been expanded in Romans 9 from that being just Jews to that which includes everyone who believes in the gospel, we should understand that believing the gospel is not a work. The question now arises that if we believe something is it an act of the free-will or an act of God’s grace?
The works of salvation are all found in the gospel; God became man, Jesus died to appease the holiness of God, the Holy Spirit resurrected Jesus Christ, and even our justification, sanctification, and future glorification are all a result of us being born of the Spirit. On the whole we understand that to intellectually believe something takes place from within ourselves and is under most circumstances seen as an act of human libertarianism, not divine intervention. The primary arena where the clash over faith being an act of the human will or divine grace is right here in the arena of one’s salvation. We have no issues in thinking that if a person believes what they read in the news that it is an act of one’s free-will. The issue here is regarding ones salvation.
So let’s graph the salvation process on an imaginative timeline. Prior to creation God pre-scripted history. (Pre-scripting, or pre-ordaining, coupled with foreknowledge, or prior intimate knowledge of a person, are the grounds on which God can have middle-knowledge.) He did this taking into consideration all of His attributes that needed to be exercised, including His holiness, His justice, His love and mercy, His omniscience, and His omnipotence. In order for God to be the greatest possible being in whom is no greater being, He needed an environment where He could exercise being Himself. Thus He creates a universe where there will be sin and evil, brought on by creatures who were created perfect yet chose to rebel, and here He can exercise His holiness and justice. He creates an environment where sin produces beings that do not love Him but whom He can love. He also creates an environment where there are free-willed beings so as to exercise His sovereignty and omnipotence. After God determines what is needed environmentally, He knows that there will be beings whom He can demonstrate His love, mercy, wisdom, and so forth. He has an intimate understanding of these beings and foreordains some to believe the gospel which will be His means to effectively calling these beings unto Himself. Once the beings are conceived in their mother’s womb, He fashions them in some unknown way. These beings are born in an environment where He is generally calling all beings unto Himself, through General Revelation, yet due to their inherent sin nature they do not respond. God in time, unfolds the gospel message which is the means by which He can effect His calling. Then, through His providence, as implemented by His orchestrating all events by the sending forth of angelic beings (which we saw in Ezekiel 1) to bring people to places where they will freely make a choice that is in accordance to the will of God, He sends the gospel message via a messenger who shares that message, someone else hears the message, and then they either freely believe or rejects that message.
In no way does this imaginative timeline pose a challenge to neither God’s sovereignty nor His grace. Libertarian free-will is not only a requisite for the exaltation of God’s sovereignty but is also the means by which His grace can flow. The sovereignty of God and the free-will of man must co-exist in order to maximize the opportunity for God to be Himself. We are not puppets on a string, but God does know how we will respond in any given set of circumstances and He has directed the circumstances surrounding us so that before us are choices where we will freely make decisions according to our will, and these decisions cause effects that are in accordance to His predetermined end.
This brings us to the crux of this session; not only is this dichotomy of the co-existence of sovereignty and free-will a part of salvation, sovereignty and free-will is the dichotomy of reality. Prophecy in scriptures is God doubling-down by declaring the result which can only come about if He remains actively providential. When God said that the older will serve the younger, He was declaring that which He will bring about according to His choice. The inspiration of scriptures came about by God orchestrating the lives of men to experience what they experienced, and then they wrote it all down. God has an appointed time for each of us to die, but yet if you live a healthy life and take your medicine you will live longer. Prayer, and why we pray are all a part of us co-operating with God! All of these examples illustrate how we as free-willed beings co-operate with God in the unfolding of His plan. God is not limited by our free-will! God’s graciousness is not challenged if we believe the gospel, its magnified! Man makes his plans but God directs the steps! Yet note that man does make plans.
Some Implication for Missionaries
The implications for us as missionaries is, one – we should be evangelizing for mankind must hear the gospel, but two – if we are indeed going to be a true steward of the funds that we raise then we must plan for the ministry to be sustained throughout the duration of the lifespan of what we build, be it either the lifespan of a physical structure or the lifespan of a worker who places their dependence upon us for their livelihood. To say that “the Lord will provide” or “God is sovereign” is, intellectually, a form of Christian fatalism. God works in conjunction with your free-will, not at the suppression of your free-will. Not only is it true that “where there is no vision, the people perish,” where there is no vision your ministry will perish after you are gone. We cannot have our grandiose assumptions that all will be well and that God will do it all. To co-operate means that both parties must function in some manner. I want us to end by reading the admonition that God gave Ezekiel as He was summoning up his call:
Ezekiel 3:17–21 (NASB95) — 17 “Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. 18 “When I say to the wicked, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 19 “Yet if you have warned the wicked and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself. 20 “Again, when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I place an obstacle before him, he will die; since you have not warned him, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. 21 “However, if you have warned the righteous man that the righteous should not sin and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; and you have delivered yourself.”
In like manner; the choice is yours – missionary.
Posted on 14 Mar 2015Author Jim CraigCategories ACTION Philippines
Previous Previous post: The Rest of the Story from the Selma 50th Anniversary March
Proudly powered by WordPress