Most Christians do not have a problem in acknowledging God’s sovereign control over every aspect of the physical creation. Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father, and He know the numbers of atoms that make up the planet Jupiter. We will consequently spend our time here considering the two areas that give us the most problems on this topic. Does God control the free actions of human beings, and does God control sinful actions? The biblical answer to both questions is yes.
First, God controls free actions, which is what makes them free.”‘But Micaiah said, “If you ever return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me.’ And he said, ‘Take heed, all you people!’ Now a certain man drew a bow at random, and struck the king of Israel between the joints of his armor. So he said to the driver of his chariot, ‘Turn around and take me out of the battle, for I am wounded’ (1 Kings 22:28,34). In this situation, God had said that something would occur. He then used the random act of an unknown archer to accomplish His purpose for Ahab. There is no indication in the text anywhere that would lead us to think that God “overrode” the actions of that archer in such a way as to make him wonder why he couldn’t remember that particular five minutes in the battle.
“Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). Until the time comes which God has established, every man is immortal. As far as God’s determination is concerned, we cannot lengthen and we cannot shorten our lives. Humanly speaking, can we? Of course. We can smoke lots of unfiltered Camels. We can bungee-jump with frayed cords. But whatever we do will not alter God’s decree—whatever we do will already have been His instrument for accomplishing His decree. We have the same teaching in Ps. 139:16 in different words. Before we existed, our biography was written.
“The preparations of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD” (Prov. 16:1). What is more indicative of a man’s freedom than that which he wills to speak? When you ask me a question, I answer you the way I wish. Is God somewhere else? No. Now the reason we have a problem with God’s control of free actions is that we do not want to say that men are nothing more than puppets. But the assumption of “puppetry” is a false inference. When one creature acts on another creature, his use of freedom displaces the freedom of the one he is acting on. When Hamlet kills Claudius, the freedom of Hamlet removes the freedom of Claudius. But when Shakespeare acts on Hamlet, this does not remove Hamlet’s freedom, it rather creates it. In other words, the actions of Shakespeare on the characters does not have the same effect that the actions of one character have on another character. In the same way, the relation of God’s will to my actions is not a relation that is bound by the rules of the universe because it is the relationship of the Creator of that universe with a creature within it. I cannot displace someone else’s choices, and leave him in full possession of those choices at the same time. To try to explain it would be to try to explain a contradiction. But the error that is made when this is assumed to be true of God’s relationship with us is the error of making God tiny, as though He were simply the biggest subset within the universe. But He is not.
There is another stumbling block — which is God’s control of sinful actions. Our God, a most holy God, controls wicked and sinful deeds without being or becoming wicked or sinful Himself. Those who think this is a problem maintain that this position makes God sinful, or somehow the author of sin. First, the teaching of Scripture:
“But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20; see also Is. 45:7 and Amos 3:6).
“Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times’” (Mark 14:30).
“And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22).
“For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done (Acts 4:27-28).
“Yeah, but . . .” We must always remember that the objections which crowd into our minds at this point are not textual objections—they are philosophical. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do not think or say in your hearts that the Lord God in any way controls the behavior of the wicked, for I, the Lord your God, am a holy God’” (Hez. 8:2).
We must learn what real, creaturely freedom means. In Matthew 12:33-37, Jesus teaches two fundamental truths about choices. The first is that choices are determined by nature. This is why horses never eat bacon. The second is that this principle is fully consistent with exhaustive responsibility for what we say and do. The will is that which reaches into our hearts and brings out the strongest desire we have, in order to act upon it.
Given our creaturely freedom, we are free in Baskins & Robbins to choose whatever flavor we desire. There is no coercion. How this freedom is reconciled with the exhaustive sovereignty of God is a question we cannot answer. The Bible simply tells us that we are free in this sense, and that God controls every detail of history. Man as a creature has creaturely freedom, but the Scriptures never show us how to “do the math” on this. We cannot explain it, anymore than we can explain how God created ex nihilo, or how the Logos of God became a true man without ceasing to be fully divine. If we knew how to explain such things, we would be a whole lot smarter than we are.
But moral freedom is another thing altogether. Consider the teaching of Romans 6:6-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. In this case, there is nothing to explain. What freedom? The Bible teaches that we are slaves to sin, and the most marked feature of slavery is that it takes away freedom. What this amounts to is the fact that man as sinner is not free at all. The place where we most want “free will” is the one place where it is excluded in Scripture. Where Scripture has spoken, we must bow down. And if our hidden idol, tucked away in some alcove of the heart, forbids it, then we must topple that idol.