Sunday, March 23, 2014

God, Free Will, and Sovereignty

I suspect that all of us, at some point in our life, have asked or heard one of the following questions:
  • Why did God let a person I love die?
  • Why didn’t God save my job (or health)? 
  • Why did God cause the hurricane in the Philippines? 
  • Why didn’t God heal my marriage? 
All of them are some version of, “Why did this happen on God’s watch? What does this say about God’s character and nature?” To answer this, we have to take a look at sovereignty. Sovereignty is simply “supreme power or authority.” A sovereign is a king. It’s not a word that resonates with us. After all, our nation fought to be rid of a king.  Thomas Jefferson wrote to Washington in 1788:

“ I was much an enemy to monarchies before I came to Europe. I am ten thousand times more so, since I have seen what they are. There is scarcely an evil known in these countries, which may not be traced to their king, as its source, nor a good, which is not derived from the small fibers of republicanism existing among them.”

This dislike of a ruling nobility and a longing for self-rule has probably built momentum since then.  We still see it in pop culture (think of the recent hit “Royals”), and we increasingly hear that “nobody can tell me what to do.” When I googled “sovereignty,” these were the top three news stories:
  • “Will U.S. Sovereignty Be Lost at Sea?”
  • “Ukraine Defends Its Sovereignty.”
  • “CIA Drone Violates Pakistan’s Sovereignty.”
They all have to do with self-rule.  Our history, culture and even our definition of words clash with the claim of the Bible: God is the sovereign, the King, the one who created and now rules over everything, including us. He sees all things that can be seen, knows all things that can be known, can do all things that can be done. Nothing in creation escapes is out from under his “supreme power and authority.” The question is, “What does that mean?”

Every Christian perspective on God’s sovereignty agrees that God is the Primary Cause of all that exists because He created it. 
We understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." (Hebrews 11:3) 
Things happen because God, the Creator and Ruler, makes them happen as an ongoing active cause, or because things and people respond to the rules and order God put in place in the beginning.So here’s the question: if God is sovereign – He is the ultimate creative power; he made it, He owns it, He rules over it – what role do we play? There are at least three different ways of understanding how God’s sovereignty effects our lives.(These categories provide very broad overviews; I recommend you follow up with the resources at the end of this post). **

1. God’s sovereignty compels (or coerces) us


The most extreme form would say that everything happens because God makes it happen. Every time something happens, God made it happen. It couldn’t be otherwise.
  • ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’ (Isaiah 46:10)
  • "Surely as I have thought, so it will come to pass; and as I have purposed, so it will stand." (Isaiah 14:24)
  •  "For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who shall disannul it? His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?" (Isaiah 14:27)

And the end of the day, sovereignty means that anything God wills, will happen – and He wills everything that happens.

2. God’s sovereignty allows us


God has settled in his mind that there are certain things he’s going to do. However, God in his sovereignty allows for human freedom and natural law to impact the world. In this perspective, a sovereign God has limited Himself in order to accomplish good things: a cause and effect world, and people whose lives have moral significance.  God is permissive, not coercive.
  • "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)
  •  “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not willing anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”  (2 Peter 3:9-10)

At the end of the day, sovereignty means that God has willed to permit us some freedom to accept or reject His will. I like how Katherine Rogers explains this idea in relation to the miracles that Jesus did. “[Jesus] almost always waits for some input or participation from those He came to serve. He waits for those who need to be cured to ask for His help, or for their friends and relations to do so… Often the healing process is initiated when someone in need of a cure touches Him. He does not tell the hungry crowds to just “feel full”; He waits until the disciples bring him loaves and fishes, which He then distributes. His mother has to pester Him and the water has to be brought to Him before He changes it into wine. And his disciples have to wake Him up before He quells the raging wind and quiets the seas.” 

3. God's sovereignty directs and redeems us (providence). 

  • History. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:20 ).
  • Nations. I know the plans I have for you…” (to the Israelites in captivity, Jeremiah 29:11-13)
  • People. “You intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
At the end of the day, sovereignty means that God has willed to providentially direct and redeem whatever happens.
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Christians have spent a lot of time over the centuries wrestling with which one of these best captures the idea of God’s sovereignty.  Ultimately, I think they all boil down to this question: What is this sovereign like? Can God be trusted? The Bible uses many adjectives to describe God’s nature, but I think they all hinge on one thing: Is God good?
“Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is deeply, thoroughly good; His beautiful, loving kindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 106:1)
That phrase is repeated constantly in the Old Testament: goodness, connected with beautiful, loving kindness. That’s the million dollar question. Do I believe God is good? Do I trust the character and nature of God? If I don’t, no explanation will be good enough. I will always second-guess why God allows the world He does. But if I do, any explanation may be helpful, but it will be unnecessary. 
  • Why did God take my Dad?
  • Why doesn’t God save your job (or health)? 
  • Why did God cause the tsunami in the Philippines? 
  • Why didn’t God heal your marriage? 
We might be able to find some reasons, but ultimately, in the deep way that keeps us awake at night, we don’t know.*** But is God good? That’s the question. Do I trust Him??? Timothy Keller summarizes well:
“[Jesus is] not under my control. He lets things happen that I don't understand.  He doesn't do things according to my plan, or in a way that makes sense to me.  But if Jesus is God, then he's got to be great enough to have some reasons to let you go through things you don't understand.  His power is unbounded, but so are his wisdom and love…If you have a God great enough and powerful enough to stop your suffering, you also have a God who's great enough and powerful enough to have reasons you don't understand."  (from King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus)
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ENDNOTES


*“Did foreknow” is used five times in the New Testament. In all cases it means God knows all things ahead of time (Acts 26:51 Peter 1:202 Peter 3:17Romans 11:2) not that he orders all things ahead of time. In Chapter 10 Paul prays that Israel will be saved even though they are the foreknown and predestined.  He then tells the Gentiles there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – “the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses those who call on him.” In Chapter 11, Paul says that God did not reject Israel “whom he foreknew,” then says “what they sought they did not obtain.” In other words, the section in its entirety seems to use “predestine” as a way to convey foreknowledge of what will be freely chosen (or rejected).

Romans 11 wraps up this discussion in verse 32: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, notes, “Certainly it is not "all mankind individually, for the apostle is not here dealing with individuals, but with those great divisions of mankind, Jew and Gentile. And what he here says is that God's purpose was to shut each of these divisions of men to the experience first of an humbled, condemned state, without Christ, and then to the experience of His mercy in Christ.”

**For a more detailed discussion of three ways in which Christians have tried to understand God’s sovereignty and man’s free will/responsibility, check out these articles at Theopedia: “Calvinism” (http://www.theopedia.com/Calvinism); Arminianism (http://www.theopedia.com/Arminianism); and Molinism (http://www.theopedia.com/Molinism)/

***Christian philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga has this to say about the “why” question as it relates to free will: “A world containing creatures who are significantly free… is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil.”

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