rebelling against low expectations

God’s Rule and Man’s Freedom

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In this article, I will attempt to briefly take part in a rich, detailed, and historical debate involving aspects of biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and philosophical inquiry. The intimately intertwined topics of discussion are God’s sovereignty, man’s will, and the relationship between them.

These are matters which are heavily laden with conflict, confusion, mystery, and emotion. But they are also matters too important to be ignored or confused about, especially when God’s Word teaches on them with such beautiful and compelling clarity.

My humble request is that you, reader, would engage in what follows with humility, sobriety of thought, and an openness to the challenging of long-held beliefs.

God’s Exhaustive Foreordination

“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,…” – Ephesians 1:11

“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.’” – Genesis 50:19-20

‘Predetermine/foreordain’ – to determine in advance.

No Christian will dispute the fact that God spoke the entirety of creation into existence, ex nihilo (out of nothing). Something (the universe) did arise from nothing (non-existence) because of the will and action of an all-powerful, eternally self-existent Being.

However, what Christians have argued about, even up to the present age, are the following questions: 1) Does God sovereignly govern and order the affairs of His creation? 2) If yes, how much of creation does God sovereignly govern and order? (i.e., Is it some or all? Does God’s governance and ordination extend to the hearts and deeds of men made in His image?).

How then should we, as fellow Christians, settle our disputes over the things of God? I believe, in any theological dispute, the matter ought to be settled by going to God’s Word, our ultimate authority, and making our case from the data of the text, as to what the proper conclusion should be. Anything else would be an affront to God and a waste of our precious time.

From these two texts alone, though there are many more, I believe we can derive God-breathed answers to the two questions which were posed. From Ephesians 1:11 alone we can answer both questions, but Genesis 50:19-20 provides us with even greater specificity. I will answer our two questions by way of attempting to faithfully paraphrase the content of Ephesians 1:11 and Genesis 50:19-20.

The God who created all things is also sovereignly governing every detail of history according to the counsel of His decretive will, which is the pre-determined plan for history from beginning to end. This secret and sovereign decree of God includes the predestination of those whom God will have mercy on, the faith and good works of those whom He chose to save, and all the evil actions of men. God has foreordained every detail of history and is sovereignly bringing it to pass so that the glory of His mercy will be displayed and worshiped in believers and so that the glory of His justice will be displayed in the eternal punishment of rebellious creatures.

Ephesians 1:11 not only speaks directly to God’s predetermination of the eternal salvation of all believers, but then extends that predetermination to include “all things.” God is working all things, every detail of history, according to His will and plan. He is bending everything to His will, as it were, for His name’s sake, for His own glory.

Genesis 50:19-20 is a text that pushes this idea to an uncomfortable conclusion: God even foreordains the evil acts of men. Linguistically, the “it” that God intends is the same evil that the brothers intended for Joseph. The meaning of the passage is that God brought to pass, according to His eternal decree, the evil that the brothers did to Joseph, though He purposed their evil for a good end while the brothers intended the destruction of Joseph. And this conclusion is a root of much of the opposition to God’s exhaustive foreordination in history.

It is argued that if God has predetermined the evil acts of men, then, by necessity, God becomes the author of evil (the so-called Problem of Evil). But this argument assumes that God must violate man’s freedom of will in order to bring about their evil actions, an assumption which finds no biblical warrant (James 1:13). To believe that God brings about the evil actions of men while preserving their freedom and responsibility in doing the evil, is simply to say that the Almighty God can do things that have not been revealed to us and that we cannot fathom.

Moreover, the problems caused by rejecting God’s exhaustive foreordination seem to be far greater than the illusory problem of evil. If God does not govern every detail of history, then who or what does? And how then can we agree with Scripture that God is absolutely sovereign? If God does not predetermine the actions of men, then how can He be all-knowing? If man’s actions are not predetermined by God, then how is God not forced to be continually learning and responding to events in time that He could not foreknow?

And if God has not predetermined all events in history, are not Possibility and Chance more ultimate than God’s will? And would this not destroy the causal principle, abstract classes, and, hence, the possibility of human knowledge?

When we evaluate the positive testimony of Scripture alongside the absurd fruit of rejecting God’s predetermination of all things, our only faithful option is to affirm God’s sovereign governance over all things, including the hearts, minds, wills, and actions of men.

Man’s Freedom of Will and Moral Responsibility

The second most common objection, after the claim that God’s exhaustive foreordination makes Him the author of evil, is that God’s predetermination of the actions of men removes all freedom of will from man. If God predetermines everything, then man is made into an impersonal automaton, and God into a coercive tyrant. And in this scenario, God could not justly punish man for wrongdoing.

This objection has a mix of right and wrong. It is right in its rejection of man being defined as some sort of soulless robot. But it is wrong in the fact that it reasons from God’s predetermination to the conclusion of man’s loss of freedom and moral responsibility. As we’ll see, God’s predetermination does not, and cannot, necessarily imply man’s loss of freedom.

Let’s look at one of many texts of Scripture which establish man’s freedom of will and moral responsibility (two concepts which entail one another):

“For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done.” – Matthew 16:27

Based on this text, we can reason from man’s moral responsibility to the conclusion of man’s freedom of will. The Lord is going to repay each person according to his deeds. This means that man is going to be held accountable for all his deeds. All of man’s deeds have moral value and will be evaluated and judged by God for their conformity to His character, or lack thereof. Now, how can God justly hold man accountable for actions which were not freely done, with free actions being defined as actions which flow from internal thoughts and desires and are not externally coerced?

If the actions of men are not free but coerced, God cannot be just in punishing actions which were evil, yet not freely committed. If the actions of a man were coerced by some external force, they cannot properly be said to be that man’s actions. Therefore, the very fact that God will hold men accountable for all their actions necessarily implies that all of those actions were freely committed. It necessarily implies man’s freedom of will and moral responsibility.

Compatible or Not?

So, with God’s freedom and right to govern the history of His creation defended, and man’s freedom of will and moral responsibility established, the only thing left to do is to discuss whether these things are compatible. As alluded to earlier, the final question at hand is this: Can God predetermine the free actions of men?

It is at this point in the discussion that I dare to say that the answer to this question is what primarily determines where one lands in understanding the salvation of God. I believe that if your answer is “no,” your only options are to pull God’s sovereignty down beneath the revelation of God’s Word, and to lift man’s freedom up to a height far above the teaching of Scripture. But why is this conclusion even made?

I believe it is motivated either by a dissatisfaction from not knowing how God predetermines the free actions of men because He didn’t reveal it, or by a desire to enlarge and protect the freedom and rights of man over and against the freedom and rights of God.

Because there are no biblical reasons to reject the ability of God to predetermine the free actions of men, and because Scripture specifically teaches God’s exhaustive predetermination and man’s moral responsibility, ulterior motives must be assumed. And while these motives are likely subconscious for most, they are sub-biblical, nonetheless. And they are also most likely the heart of the issue when faithful Christians reject the Bible’s teaching on the glory of God in salvation.

God’s Right to Veil His Glory

I think the antidote to the problem is humility. Just as it is God’s freedom and right to predetermine all things in redemptive history to His own glory, it is also His freedom and right to veil His glory by not revealing all things to man. God chose not to reveal how He makes His predetermination compatible with our freedom of will and moral responsibility, presumably for His own glory and our good.

Nonetheless, they are taught side by side in Scripture, and therefore, we must believe that they go hand in hand, as friends do.

And finally, it is our responsibility, according to our freedom, to humble ourselves before the Living and Almighty God, to believe His truth as He dictates it, and to accept the limits of our knowledge according to what God has and has not revealed to us. This is my endeavor, and I pray that God gives grace to all who read this to strive for the same.


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About the author

Zach Smith

is a full-time speech-language pathologist who works primarily with children with autism. He’s married to a beautiful woman and is a father to boy-girl twins. He enjoys lifting, playing chess, reading, and writing. You can find him online at: Basic Truth – Applying the Word of God to every area of life and culture (wordpress.com).

3 comments

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  • I agree and I think often people will be like oh its not fair for God to let people do all this wrong and not judge them or stop the evil but then once God’s judgement is mentioned it’s too harsh and unfair. I think a lot of people who aren’t christians struggle with the fact that God can know something is going to happen but that doesn’t mean he is making that thing happen.

    • “I think a lot of people who aren’t christians struggle with the fact that God can know something is going to happen but that doesn’t mean he is making that thing happen.” Yes, He isn’t making an evil action happen in the sense that He could, in any way, be responsible for the evil. This is where Christians MUST insist on the category of mystery. God, in His wisdom, has hidden so much from man. We cannot know how God fore-ordains free, evil actions of men because Scripture does not explain how He does that. Scripture simply asserts that He does do that and so we must humbly submit to that fact.

  • A well done article, the topic is a tricky one to touch on for sure.

    My favorite example for explaining the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s will is that God is, literally defined, sovereign. This means He is the king of all with everything under his domain. Man is subject to this kingship and can freely obey or reject their King. However, just because they can freely choose to hate or love the Sovereign does not affect His sovereignty or plans.

rebelling against low expectations

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