Are Sovereignty and Free Will Mutually Exclusive?
One of the questions that I have struggled with for many years is the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Are these two things mutually exclusive? Is there a middle ground between these two concepts that preserves the integrity of both? To set the stage let’s take a quick look at each independently.
According to Webster’s 7th new Collegiate Dictionary a sovereign is one who exercises supreme authority within a limited sphere. One who enjoys autonomy. Sovereignty is having supreme power, esp. over a body politic. A human example of someone with sovereignty is a king. A king has supreme authority over his kingdom. He can dictate the affairs of his subjects according to his will. In the purest sense there is no higher authority in a kingdom than the king. His word is law.
When we speak of sovereignty as it relates to God we are speaking of His divine authority over all of creation and beyond. God has the authority to do whatever He desires according to His will. God is not limited by anything outside of Himself. Throughout the Bible we encounter examples of God’s sovereignty. For example Acts 17:26. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. Another example is in Proverbs 21:1. The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. These examples and many others show that God is supreme.
Free will is the ability to choose. As persons created in the image of God we have been given a will. That will allows us to make choices in life. Unlike animals or plants that act primarily by instinct and are controlled by predetermined limits, human beings have the ability to interact with their environment and make creative choices. We are not bound by instinct to always do things the same way. This is a manifestation of the creative power of God in us.
We can see the exercise of our free will every day in the myriad of choices that we make. Some of these choices are small and not very important. Some of these choices are of great significance and shape the course of our lives. As Americans we pride ourselves in our freedom; in our right to choose for ourselves the direction we will go.
The Bible also speaks of our free will. In the book of Joshua we see Joshua confronting the people of Israel with a choice concerning who they would serve. "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." (Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV)) In the book of Acts Peter confronted his audience with a choice. After boldly proclaiming the truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection he challenged the people to choose to follow Jesus. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38 (NIV))
Now here is the central issue before me. When it comes to a person becoming a follower of Jesus is it God’s sovereignty, man’s free will or some combination of both? I want to leave the question there for now. I believe in both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, so I find myself caught in the middle. What do you think?