[This Article Is Part Of The Freedom Incursion Series]
There is a fundamental disconnect for many Christians between the sovereignty of God (that is, that God is in control of all things) and the presence of free will among humans. Of particular note is when humanity’s use of free will places us in modes of operation that clearly violate the will of God. If God is in control, how is it that we see such a widespread and inherent rebellion against Him and His kingdom? After all, doesn’t the very idea that things are happening against His will suggest that He is not in control after all?
This is a great question, and one that has a long history of Christian response and reflection. In some theological traditions, the response has been to present human will as an illusion, that God is ultimately in charge of our decisions, and that our perception of human agency is just that: a perception. Our choices are written long before we ever come into existence, and we live out the play. This succeeds in retaining God in control of all things, but it also presents serious ethical issues when faced with the reality of evil. It also fails to account for any Christian concept of a relational purpose to creation. Without choice, God’s hope for a relationship with His creation bears no more substance than the illusion of our agency. This is, I think, a high unsatisfying conclusion.
Other theological traditions place the ball squarely in our court. We are responsible for our own decisions, and are free to make them without imposition. There are, of course, consequences to decisions, both good and bad. However, the future of humanity ultimately comes down to us. We shape our own destiny. The problem with this is that it strips God of control, and robs the eschatological vision for the future of mankind. We no longer look towards a glorious hope, a heaven that breaks into our reality, climactic renewal of humanity and creation. God may still be around, but we have stripped Him of His power. This, too, is highly unsatisfying.
The Glory Of Free Will
Perhaps there is a middle path that strikes a balance between the two. Perhaps, rather than free will operating in opposition to the sovereignty of God, free will could be the greatest expression of that sovereignty. Imagine a God wise enough, good enough, and powerful enough that He could create humanity, imbue us with the capacity for agency – even the capacity to reject Him utterly – and still have a means of accomplishing His great purposes. Imagine a God who can hold in tension our wills and His, and work towards a reconciliation in a glorious Kingdom marked by unity and beauty. Imagine divine sovereignty and human will in beautiful harmony.
I would argue that, rather than seeing our freedom as a barrier to the purposes of God, we see it as a necessary ingredient. If God is love, as Scripture declares Him to be, then God is also relational. Love is engaging; it is not complete until it lavishes itself upon a beloved. Love is also reciprocal; it eagerly desires the beloved to lavish love in return. God creates a beloved to pour Himself upon. He then imbues that beloved with the ability to return that love freely.
Therein is the crux. In order to truly be capable of returning love in any meaningful way, we also have to be capable of rejecting that love. In order to be capable of returning or rejecting, we must have free human agency to do so. The struggle for humanity began with the use of our autonomy to reject that love, to reject the will and desire of our king, and to look to ourselves in His place. With this came the corruption of this world’s goodness.
The Beauty Of Divine Sovereignty
Thankfully, God is still good despite our own rebellion. God is still love. God is still faithful. It is here that we find the beauty of His sovereignty. Rather than remove our capacity for choice, which He certainly could have done, He chose a path infinitely harder, infinitely more faithful, and infinitely more glorious. He chose to come after us.
From the beginning we see a God at work in redemption. Adam and Eve hid due to the shame of their nakedness, and God wanted relationship. So, even before exiling them from the Garden, He clothed them. We see Him throughout the pages of Scripture doing something remarkable: He engages sinful humanity. At times this is with spectacle and power, a pillar of fire leading a fleeing Israel through a parted sea. Other times this is soft and subtle, a gentle whisper to a prophet hiding from a murderous queen.
In fact, over and over again we see the pattern of a just and holy God accomplishing His purposes – not in spite of sinful humanity, but through sinful humanity. The list of patriarchs and saints reads like a who’s who of brokenness: Jacob was a thief, Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, and Peter was a traitor. These are the righteous ones.
The beauty of God’s sovereignty is that He takes our brokenness and redeems it. God’s control is not found in how He prevents us from working against Him, it is found it how He collects the tattered threads of our lives and weaves from it a beautiful tapestry. Our free will, even our rebellion, is essential in the grand purposes of God’s creative intent. We display the reality of free will in our ability to choose to love or reject Him. God’s sovereignty is displayed in His ability to redeem even the darkness. It is in His redemption that we see the greatest display of sovereignty; it is also in His redemption that we find our greatest reason to choose love.