(If you are just now joining us in this series on free will and the sovereignty of God, it would be beneficial for you to read the first two posts here and here.)
Can man be free if God is sovereign? The answer is yes, if we have a biblical definition of freedom. As you recall, the most common understanding of human freedom, referred to as libertarian freedom, states that I am only free if when I chose"A", I could have chosen "not-A." I have argued that a more biblical definition is that of compatibilist freedom, which states that I am free when I do what I most want to do. Compatibilist freedom is the only definition of freedom that accounts for the clearly biblical teaching that God is in meticulous control of all things and that man makes meaningful choices.
Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture. In my Bible reading just this morning, I read 2 Samuel 17. This chapter comes in the middle of the account of Absalom’s coup against his father David. Absalom has entered Jerusalem (after David fled from Jerusalem), and then seeks the counsel of Ahithophel as to how to proceed against David. Ahithophel gives his advice. Then Absalom seeks a second opinion from Hushai. After hearing from Hushai, “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel’” (2 Sam 17:14).
Then comes a crucial editorial comment at the end of v14, For the LORD had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the LORD might bring harm upon Absalom. The Hebrew literally says “the LORD commanded to break the counsel of Ahithophel.” In other words, God determined that the counsel of Ahithophel would not be heeded.
Libertarian freedom utterly fails to explain how this can be. In order for libertarian freedom to be true, Absalom must have been able to not reject the counsel of Ahithophel. But that is impossible. Why? Because God determined that Absalom would reject it. On the other hand, if we apply compatibilist freedom, everything fits. Absalom was free when he chose to reject the advice of Ahithophel because that was what he most wanted to do. God did not force him to do it – Absalom wanted to.
We find a similar example in 1 Kings 12. Rehoboam has become the king of Juda and has received conflicting advice about how to treat the people. The older men advise him to lower the taxes of the people, so that they will serve him faithfully. The younger men advise him to raise the taxes so as to command their fear of him. Rehoboam foolishly takes the advice of the younger men. Why? V15 tells us, 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.
Again, is it possible that Rehoboam had libertarian freedom, that is, that he could have rejected the foolish advice of the younger men and accepted the good advice of the older men? No, because God determined to bring about the events just as they happened.
We could look at scores of other similar references. When Israel plundered Egypt in the Exodus (Ex 3:21-22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36), when Assyria waged war against Israel (Isa 10), when Cyrus gave orders for the rebuilding of the temple (Isa 44:28-45:14; 2 Chr 36:22-Ezra 1:11), when Judas betrayed Jesus (Acts 1:16-17), and when the Jews and Gentiles crucified Him (Acts 2:23, 4:23-28), we see men choosing to do what God had already ordained. They could not have chosen otherwise, yet they were not forced – they did what they most wanted to do, which is the definition of compatibilist freedom.
What about God’s freedom? Does God have libertarian freedom? When God does good, is He also free to do evil? No. Scripture teaches that God can only do good, He cannot sin (1 John 1:5; Jas 1:13; Psa 92:15). In what sense is He free then? He always does what He most wants to do. God has compatibilist freedom.
The main reason people have difficulty with this debate is that they don't want to live with the mystery it creates. It’s easier to just deny God’s absolute sovereignty. Even if you accept the definition of compatibilist freedom, there is still the question of how what I most want always coincides with what God has planned. There will always be an element of mystery here. But there are some clues in the Word as to how this might work.
We know that God restrains evil. When Satan afflicted Job, he could only do those things that God allowed him to do (Job 1-2). God restrained Satan from inflicting certain calamities on Job. We also see that Satan needed God’s permission to sift the disciples like wheat (Luke 22:31). Likewise, the demons needed Jesus’ permission to enter a herd of pigs and drown them (Mat 8:31-32; Luke 8:32-33). God restrained Abimelech from violating Sarah (Gen 20:2-6). So it seems evident that there are many evil deeds that the sin nature would do were God not restraining it. This is evidenced by the fact that Satan afflicted Job in absolutely every way possible within the parameters that God gave him.
We could think of the sin nature as a raging river and God’s sovereignty like a dam. He is perfectly capable of restraining the entire river for eternity. But where a certain act of evil accords with His sovereign plan, He opens a hole in the dam allowing that certain act to take place. When that act takes place, it is at the same time both what God has ordained and what the sin nature most wants to do. Every evil act desired by the sin nature that does not coincide with God’s sovereign plan, He restrains. So God controls evil indirectly by allowing certain evil acts to pass through and restraining others. He does not cause evil, but He selectively allows the sin nature to do what it already wants to do.
On the other hand, we also find in Scripture that every good thing finds its origin in God (Jas 1:17). The good things that we do in the process of sanctification come as a result of the good that God is willing and working in us (Phil 2:12-13). God put it into the heart of Nehemiah to do the work that he did (Neh 7:5). Jeremiah prophesied a future in which God would cause His people to live righteously (Jer 31:9). So, it could be said that the good things we do are the result of God giving us the desire for them. That is why He receives all the glory. God controls good directly.
In the end, this is a question of whether or not we are going to believe the Bible. As we have seen repeatedly, the Bible teaches that God is in meticulous control of all things and that man makes meaningful decisions and is held responsible for those decisions. (The truth of those two things excludes the possibility of libertarian freedom.) Whether we understand how the two work together or not, we have to acknowledge that both are completely true, if we believe that Bible is the inerrant Word of God. To deny one or the other is not a viable option without denying the inerrancy of Scripture.
The definitions of both libertarian freedom and compatibilist freedom are taken from Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).