The eighteenth century French libertarian and libertine, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, wrote, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”. This perfectly describes the persistent dilemma for godless men, although not in the sense intended by Rousseau. What Rousseau did not see is that man is born fettered in sin and can be freed only by Him “who bled for Adam’s helpless race”.
In seeking to be free of God, man has lost what freedom he thought he had, becoming now being the plaything of chance, or the object of soulless determinism. Of course, in truth he is neither, his view of the world is a complete myth. He is born free only to sin. With no sovereign God, with no sovereign plan, there can be no certain salvation and no freedom of any kind for men at all! Only a sovereign God, One who can ensure all that He wills and all that He promises will surely come to pass, only the God of the Bible, can make it possible for us to exercise our wills in a way that has meaning, can enable us freely to love and serve Him. He has determined that this should be so; nothing is left to ‘chance’. Without the sovereign God of Scripture, heaven would forever remain empty.
When thinking of God, we are faced with choosing one of two possibilities. First, either God is fully conscious of all things and sovereign, and nothing exists or happens of itself; or second, God Himself is dependent upon other things around Him that exist or take place apart from Him and totally unpredictably. He then needs to wait and see what will occur, or wait upon what man will decide before taking action. This second option is not the God of Scripture. All this has very serious implications for the reliability of Scripture. Should we choose the second option, because God Himself can never be quite sure how things will turn out, His Word can hardly be relied upon with respect to events now or in the future. This has particular relevance for the certainty of our salvation and the ultimate triumph of our Saviour. If we take the first option, then we must conclude that, being made in the image of God, when our minds are enlightened by God’s self-revelation, the nature of our knowledge will be a finite replica of God’s own knowledge and so we can know with a certainty that escapes the godless. We can express the same idea by saying that what is in the consciousness of God replicates itself in our finite consciousness within the limited parameters of our finitude and that which He has willed to reveal to us. If we are to know anything for sure, we need the Bible.
It is the way, according to God’s will and purpose, that which is in His heart to tell us is made clear to us. Without God’s Word, we can be sure of nothing.
At first glance, what we have been saying appears to be leading us towards the same dilemma as that faced by human philosophy, of swinging between a completely deterministic universe and a completely contingent one. We appear at first, on the one hand, to face God’s complete control over all things in a way that removes any meaning from the free actions and thoughts of men; yet on the other, to face unpredictable, contingent human actions, which God may foresee but can do nothing to prevent. Were these assertions truly the teaching of the Bible, there is little doubt but that we are no better off than were we to adopt some human philosophical system in the place of Scripture, but this is not what the Bible says at all.
It is true that there are those who describe the sovereignty of God in such terms so that it is effectively reduced to little more than a form of fatalism. It is not surprising to find a practical antinomianism among these people. They cannot help being sinners and they continually bewail their sinful lot before God, whilst at the same time they use the cover of a fallen nature as an excuse for all kinds of unloving and ungodly behaviour. Andrew Fuller, friend of the missionary pioneer William Carey, faced such a distressing situation in his first pastorate at Soham, near Cambridge. A member of his Church repeatedly excused his drunkenness by protesting he had a sinful nature and so could not help himself. The teaching of Scripture is that He who demands, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” has also made provision that even now we may “be holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Peter 1:15-16). If we are unable to take full responsibility for our own sin, then we must put the blame at God’s door for making us sinners in the first place! Perish the thought! Gospel preaching is far more than calling in the ‘dead elect’. This is hardly a biblical expression. All sinners are under the same condemnation until snatched as brands from the burning, hopelessly lost and facing the judgement of God. “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” (Ephesians 2:3) The offer of salvation to all men lost in sin is a perfectly genuine one.
On the other side, there are those who, thinking to spare God the blame for all the evils in the world, have put Him at the mercy of events it is said He cannot control. They have made Him a dependent God, helpless before the ‘sovereign will’ of man. This is clearly in conflict with all that the Bible teaches about God. If by ‘freewill’ we mean thoughts and deeds that are beyond the sovereign plan of God, then we have already gone beyond Scripture. There can be nothing floating about somewhere in time and space all on its own. Whilst such sentiments may be well intentioned, they are unnecessary and unbiblical, and implicitly amount to a denial that “all things were made by him”. Against this view, the Scriptures teach, “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand” (Proverbs 19:2 1).
It is only by the will of God that the will of man stands, so that it makes no sense to set the one against the other. Even as the mind of man is a finite mirror image of the mind of God, the same is true of the will. There are, however, some essential differences. First, the will of man does not operate outside the will of God, indeed the freedom that it does have is possible only because of the will of God. Second, since the fall, the will of man has a perverted bias because of sin. To be in full accord with the teaching of Scripture, and at the same time to avoid the dilemma within human philosophy, we must maintain that all things are determined by the counsel and will of God. At the same time, we must insist strongly upon the meaningful and free actions and thoughts of men as being made possible only because God is sovereign. Only a personal and truly sovereign God can rescue us from the impersonal determinism of fate and the uncertainty and meaninglessness of pure chance that dominates modern godless thinking by creating us free agents, the guarantee of that freedom being His own sovereignty. There can be no meaningful human freedom outside the sovereign will of God; elsewhere we remain imprisoned. Anything originating on its own outside God’s purposes can have no possible meaning, no possible freedom.
The extent of human freedom is finite and determined by the man’s nature. The will of God is infinite, but is equally determined by all attributes of His nature. God, being good, cannot create that which is evil; fallen man, being sinful, cannot please God, “...they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). Sinful man is naturally inclined neither to choose God nor to want to live for Him. Faith in Christ on the part of a lost sinner presumes a work of God’s Spirit having already begun in the heart drawing him to Christ. Whilst it is true that “no man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44), equally we read, “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). The one truth does not contradict but enables the other.
Those who press God’s sovereignty or man’s freedom beyond the bounds of Scripture do not have different but identical misconceptions about both of these doctrines. This is because they all believe that one cannot exist where the other is present. They feel that where God is sovereign, man can have no say, or where man is free God’s will does not prevail. The problem is that both these extremes tend to think of God’s sovereignty in quasi-fatalistic terms and the operations of the human will as unbridled contingency. Thinking in this way means that where God is sovereign man cannot act freely out of his own will and where man makes a free choice of will God’s sovereignty is implicitly denied. Certainly, if set out in this way they cannot co-exist but this is not what is taught in Scripture. Men do not naturally exercise faith in Christ, not because they are not free agents, but because they are sinners and not inclined to do so.
Men exercise their wills freely and take responsibility for their thoughts and actions, despite the fact that they cannot do so beyond the boundaries of their own fallen and finite personalities. Limitations are no denial of responsibility and free agency. God’s sovereignty guarantees the free agency of the human psyche. God has decreed it shall be so. Were God not comprehensively sovereign man could have no freedom of any kind, but would be reduced to being a limp puppet on a string. Such freedom as man enjoys is God’s gift and part of being made in the image of God. Indeed, only in this way can man be saved from the deterministic tyranny of the humanist world always swinging between a cold calculated logic and the chaotic irrationality of a universe ruled by chance occurrences. That men choose to abuse this freedom cannot be blamed on God. If men sin, it is because they want to, and so they are held responsible for their sin. No one ever sinned who did not want to, so if we claim our freedom let us not try to place the blame for sin elsewhere. To blame what we do on anyone or anything other than ourselves is to deny our freedom and to return to the humanist world of determinism. It is ultimately to blame God, saying to our Maker, “Why hast thou made me thus?” (Romans 9:20) If the actions of men are always shot-through with sin, then it can only be because they are sinners. When they freely think and act, they do so in accordance with a fatal flaw in their nature, there because of the fall, there because of a deliberate sin, something that can now only be changed by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Equally, we must also say that no one ever came to Christ who at some point did not become willing.
It is important that we perceive the sovereignty of God and the free agency of man not as ruling each other out, but as the latter being possible only because of the former. This affects the way we understand the unfolding of God’s purposes in human history, including the inspiration of the Bible. Unless we see the human will as operating freely within the compass of God’s sovereign will, when considering verbal inspiration we shall be left with the unsatisfactory alternatives of a theory of mechanical dictation in which man is a passive instrument, or of a thoroughly human Bible.
We must remember, God does not reveal to us all He has in mind and we ought not to expect Him to do so. God gives to us all that we need to know whilst withholding many things. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Only in God is comprehensive knowledge possible. Such an aspiration on the part of man is ungodly and impossible. By His self-revelation, He entrusts man with a systematic knowledge of Himself and the universe He has made, that is, to the extent that He wills us to know it. Whilst such a systematic knowledge is a replica of God’s own knowledge, it is not comprehensive, nor will it ever be. Against this, unbelievers assume that what is knowable to God is knowable to them. We do not have the complete picture so that from time to time we shall meet apparent contradictions. As there can be no internal contradictions within God’s being God, so there can be no external contradictions with respect to His actions. All things being subject to Him, there can be no real contradictions only apparent ones.
If there is no answer in Scripture, we do not need to know it! The Bible gives us all that God wants us to know; it does not reveal all that is to be known.
If God’s eternal plan is immutable, why then should we pray, still less say that prayer changes things? It is true that the events and occurrences on earth cannot be regarded as being something new in and of themselves. This would be to attribute to ‘history’ the ability to produce something out of nothing. This would be to deny what the Bible teaches about creation and the idea of God controlling world events in His providence. Such occurrences, were they possible, being unrelated to God’s eternal purpose could consequently have no meaning. God sanctifies and ordains the means to His end as well as the end itself and prayer must be seen in this light — a means to God’s ends in which we are privileged to have real participation, and involving our wills and our genuine desires. We do not deny the unchangeable purpose of God by insisting that prayer changes things, nor do we deny the free agency of men by insisting that God’s will is unchangeable. This does not deprive us of the privilege of prayer and persuasion with God. Any contradiction can only be an apparent one, often because we are not in possession of all the facts. We cannot judge the works of God using our own incomplete knowledge and limited understanding of the situation. God must be God for prayer to be answered. Again, God’s sovereign will enables prayer rather than contradicts it. God cannot answer prayer if it is always possible for His will to be countermanded. We do not establish the free agency of man by denying the sovereignty of God, but we do thereby deprive all such actions of any real meaning and make it impossible to be certain that God is ever able to answer our prayers!
There is another common misunderstanding: we must not think that when sin entered the world, something occurred which God did not foresee. How could it? We must not think that here was an event He could not possibly have anticipated and after which He was forced to look about for some means of recovering His losses. Nothing could be further from reality. First, this simply does not coincide with the picture of God given in Scripture, whose knowledge extends to every detail as it is, was, or ever will be, but also ever could be. Second, it does not account for the fact that the remedy was prepared before the calamity. The Lord Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and those who believe are chosen “in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). This is the only certainty we can have that we shall of our own volition believe in the Lord Jesus and cast our all upon Him. It is the only certainty we can have that having believed we shall be saved. The certainty of our faith even as the certainty of our hope lies with God.
The question now arises, if God not only saw evil coming, but also included it in His plan, then surely He must be to blame for it? No, not at all. God and God alone is good, so that evil cannot originate with Him. This would introduce a contradiction within the being of God; it would require that God do something of which He is not capable. It would make Him both good and evil at the same time. God being man’s Creator, it is impossible that there could be any evil present at the time of creation. Therefore, sin and death are not normal attributes of this world, but are unnatural and the results of the wilful transgression of man at the instigation of Satan. To assume that the current state of affairs in the world is normal is to deny that man is responsible for bringing this calamity upon himself and instead places the blame squarely with God. This would mean that man’s present moral consciousness is also normal and reliable; it would also preclude the possibility of salvation. We would then need no revelation, no Bible, no Saviour from sin. It is quite impossible that God should even think to do evil let alone originate it. This is not the same as saying that, for reasons He has chosen not to reveal to us, evil is not, despite this, an integral part of His eternal purpose and that it is made to fulfil His ends to the letter.
Whilst we cannot say, that evil necessarily appears so that good may be identified as such, there are things we can learn from the appearance of evil in the world, and perhaps in this we can begin to have some faint understanding as to why evil was permitted by God. We have a practical demonstration before us that however evil may prosper, even the worst evil imaginable cannot prevail. It cannot thwart or overcome God’s purpose, it cannot overcome our conquering Saviour, and it is not greater than His sacrifice for sin. Evil is made to serve God and in conquering it, glory is brought to our Saviour’s Name.
We live in a personal universe in the sense that God is personally involved with all that goes on. He has not given His creation over to impersonal natural laws. God, Paul tells the Athenians, is “…not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God...” (Acts 17:27-29). As we have seen, this is in contrast to heathen, impersonal, godless fatalism. Let us now summarise some of the points we have been considering. First, the free-agency of man is established by the fact that we are finite replicas of God Himself – in Him we have our being, we are His offspring – and therefore will have a will that is a finite version of His will. Second, it is the sovereign will of an omnipotent Father that is the guarantee of our own ability to make free decisions and undertake actions under the constraint only of our nature, be it a fallen one to sin, or regenerate to serve God. It is God’s perfect plan and purpose that frees us from the grip of heathen determinism that rescues us from being thrown hither and thither by fickle fortune. We move by the regenerative work of God’s Spirit from a state of constant rebellion, in which we willingly sin, to one of life in Christ where we begin willingly to serve Him. We then love God because it is our own fervent desire to do so. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Our love to God is a finite copy of that love with which He first loved us; it is free. We love Him simply because we want to love Him.
When speaking of the will of man and human responsibility, its true freedom does not lie in being able to function autonomously outside the sovereign will of God, but in the ability, when regenerate, to act positively in response to the revealed will of God rather than being obliged by an unregenerate and fallen nature continually to sin. The sinner is free only from righteousness, being the servant of sin; the believer is free from the dominion of sin and is a servant of righteousness. Herein lies the freedom of the human will. It is not an ability to make autonomous choices. True freedom exists only for the believer in that he is now freed from sin to serve the living and true God in righteousness. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. …If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed“ (John 8:32, 36). “Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. …For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness” (Romans 6:18, 20).
Our belief in a reliable and authoritative Word is grounded in the belief in a God who is sovereign. Were our God not sovereign, we would be left with an unreliable Bible. Those who suggest we have an imperfect and unreliable Bible are saying that our God is not sovereign; that His purposes can fail and His knowledge is lacking. They suggest that He also does not possess the power to give and preserve for us a reliable Word in a language we can understand, despite being the Creator of every language ever spoken! Indeed, such a God would care little for us since He is quite willing to let us be misled by a book containing errors, large or small, something He could do little to prevent. Our belief in a reliable and authoritative Word is grounded in the belief in a sovereign God.
Scripture is the means to an opening up in human hearts what has eternally existed in the heart of God.
Taken from David’s book THE BIG PICTURE: the authority & integrity of the authentic Word of God.