God’s Sovereignty

Fred Luter, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has stated the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and the free will of mankind is threatening to divide the denomination. [1]  Why cannot Christianity resolve an issue that dates back to at least the 16th century when Calvin and Arminius debated this issue?

The Bible is our ultimate authority on our beliefs.  Part of the reason for disagreements in matters of our beliefs is because we pick out certain passages to emphasize and ignore whatever disagrees with our theological bent.

So what does the Bible say about God’s sovereignty and the free will of humans?  There is no question the Bible teaches we have free will.  Erasmus states that there are over 600 verses in the Bible where God requires something of us.  If we have no free will, if God controls everything that occurs on this earth, why does he give us these requirements? [2]

There is also no question the Bible teaches God is sovereign and that he controls events on this earth (e.g. Genesis 45:4-8, I Samuel 2:6-7, Job 42:10, Lamentations 3:37, Matthew 6:25-34, Romans 9:17-21, Romans 12:3-8, Philippians 4:19).

The one fact in this debate that no one seems to acknowledge is the Bible teaches both God’s sovereignty and our free will.  If both are true, then we must reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs.  Is it really that difficult to do?

Look at our everyday lives.  Parents do not control every event in their children’s lives but if they are good parents, they exert control over their children.  Managers do not control all of what their subordinates do but if they are good managers they do have control of the organization.  Parents and managers do not need to control every aspect of their children’s or subordinates’ lives to accomplish their goals.  Neither does God.

Being all-powerful means God can still accomplish his purposes even if we act in a contrary manner. [3]  We humans are so limited we think God must control all of our actions in order to guarantee a particular outcome.  But God is bigger than our idea of him. I like William James’ analogy when he compares God and us humans with an expert and a novice chess player.  The moves of the novice chess player will be unpredictable to the expert chess player but because of his/her superior knowledge of the game, the expert chess player will win every time. [4]  In the same way, God has a superior knowledge of us and our tendencies which enables him to give us free will and still accomplish his ends.

If God had to deny us free will to accomplish his purposes, he would not be all-powerful.  It would mean he needs to stack the deck in his favor to win.  Is this God we read about in the Bible?


[1]   Bill Sherman, “Baptists cope with differing theological approaches”, Tulsa World, May 4, 2013, A13.

[2]   Ernst F. Winter, ed., Discourse on Free Will (New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, Inc., 1961), p. 59.

[3]   Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 2000), pp. 68-69.

[4]   William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism”, The Will to Believe (New York:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), p. 181.

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