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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Can man be free if God is sovereign?

Having looked at several Arminian prooftexts, and having spent a number of weeks in Sunday School looking at the issue of God’s sovereignty, it may behoove us to look at the issue of freewill.  Those who reject the notion of God’s meticulous sovereignty in general, and unconditional election in particular, usually do so for two reasons.  First, the doctrine conflicts with their view of God.  Second, the doctrine conflicts with their understanding of human freewill.  It is this second reason on which I would like to focus for a short while.

Because the doctrine of God’s meticulous sovereignty teaches that God ultimately controls all things, including human decisions for both good and evil, the Arminian mind rejects it.  It is assumed that if God is in absolute meticulous control, humans cannot make meaningful decisions.  They are puppets, robots, chess pieces, etc.  They have no freewill.

However, Arminians believe (and rightfully so) that God did not create us to be puppets.  He gave us the ability to make choices.  Furthermore, God holds us responsible for the choices we make, whether for good or for evil.  Therefore, it cannot be that our choices are caused by something outside of ourselves.  So the doctrine of God’s sovereignty creates a tremendous tension with the concepts of human choice and responsibility.  The tension is unbearable for them, so they reject the notion of God’s sovereignty altogether or modify it so as to make room for what they view is genuine human freewill.

This may sound inflammatory – I certainly don’t mean for it to be so – but when it comes to understanding how God’s sovereignty relates to man’s freedom, the Arminian starts with his understanding of his own freewill and then trims God to make Him fit within that framework.  The Arminian takes what looks like two contradictory doctrines and he rejects the one that threatens his freewill. 

I believe that we need to allow the Bible to tell us who God is.  Once we’ve done that, then we should trim our understanding of human freewill to fit within that framework.  If you’ve been in Sunday School over the past several weeks you know that the idea that God is not meticulously sovereign over all things cannot be taken seriously.  Scripture is repeatedly crystal clear on the issue: God works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11).

Does that mean that we must reject the idea of freewill in order to relieve the tension?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I contend that the tension need not be there at all.  There is a way to understand God’s sovereignty and human responsibility so that one does not need to deny one in order to hold the other.  We do not need to reject freewill…we just need to define it biblically.

But before we do that, I’d like to take some time to introduce and take apart the erroneous definition that so many people hold.  It is this definition that causes some to reject God’s sovereignty.  Most theologians call it “libertarian freedom.”  Some call it the “power of contrary choice.”  Libertarian freedom states that at the moment of choice, I am free in making that choice if when I choose one option, I could have chosen otherwise.  For example, I am free in choosing french fries only if when I choose french fries I could choose not to have french fries or to have something else.  If that is not the case, according to the definition of libertarian freedom, I am not free.

This is the definition of freedom that is held by those who hold to Arminian theology, as well as its offshoots, open theology and process theology.  To them, this is a nonnegotiable truth – if we do not have libertarian freedom, we do not have freewill at all.

For the Arminian, libertarian freedom is what makes our choices meaningful and what justifies God in holding us responsible for our sin. “If we are not free to do otherwise, then how can we be held accountable for what we choose and do, they argue.”[1]

This is ground zero for Arminian theology.  It all starts here.  This is bedrock, undeniable, absolute, sacred truth.  Any truth claim that contradicts or denies libertarian freewill must be rejected.  So, the notion that God meticulously controls all things must be rejected because if He controls all things, His sovereignty denies man his libertarian freedom.

Let’s apply this Arminian thinking process to my own salvation: “Is God sovereign over salvation? No.  If God decided before the foundation of the world that Greg Birdwell would be saved from his sins, Greg Birdwell could not have libertarian freedom.  If God is sovereign, then when Greg chose to be saved, Greg could not have chosen not to be saved since God already decided that he would be.  But since the fact that Greg Birdwell has libertarian freedom is undeniably true, God cannot have chosen that Greg would be saved.  Greg must be free, therefore God must not be sovereign over salvation.”
The bottom line is this: libertarian freedom is incompatible with the meticulous sovereignty of God.  I happen to agree with the Arminian on this point.  But whereas I would reject libertarian freedom, the Arminian rejects the meticulous sovereignty of God, since to the Arminian libertarian freedom is nonnegotiable.

This definition of freedom puts the Arminian in the difficult position of having to reject the plain reading of scores of texts in both the Old and New Testaments.  If you’ve been in Sunday School recently, you may already be nodding your head.  Think about our theme verse for the study on God’s sovereignty, Ephesians 1:11 – “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”  To the Arminian, this doesn’t mean what it says, because if God is working all things, then man can’t be working anything.  That’s a denial of libertarian freedom, therefore this verse must mean something other than what it says.

What other verses don’t mean what they say (in light of the supposed overriding truth of libertarian freedom)?
Genesis 45:8  8 "Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.  (Read chs 37-45 to get the full affect.)

Exodus 4:21  And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Joshua 11:20   For it was the LORD's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses.

1Samuel 2:25b But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death. (Start in v22 for context.)

1Kings 12:15   So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.

2 Thessalonians 2:11-12   11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.

Psalm 33:10-11  10 The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples11 The counsel of the LORD stands forever, The plans of His heart from generation to generation.

Psalm 105:25   He turned their heart to hate His people, To deal craftily with His servants.
Proverbs 21:1  The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.

Job 12:23-25  23 "He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away.  24 "He deprives of intelligence the chiefs of the earth's people And makes them wander in a pathless waste25 "They grope in darkness with no light, And He makes them stagger like a drunken man.

Acts 4:27-28   27 "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

This is but a small sampling of the verses, among other longer passages, that cannot mean what they say if libertarian freedom is undeniable truth.  I strongly encourage you to take a look at each of these references in their contexts.  The contexts do not allow for a different understanding than the plain reading of the verse above.

Next time, we’ll look at some biblical and logical/philosophical arguments against libertarian freedom.  Before then, I challenge you – find a single verse in all of Scripture that teaches this definition of freedom. 

            [1]Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 64.

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