Monday, April 28, 2014

Resolving the Tension between our Freewill and God’s Sovereign Determinations

Here’s the conflict – although the Bible doesn’t mention the word “freewill,” it teaches as if this concept is beyond any dispute. So much of the Bible is about our responsibility to pray, obey, worship, and to study Scripture and the consequences we incur when we fail to fulfill these responsibilities.

However, there are many equally compelling verses that indicate that, through God’s unchanging plan, sovereignty, and oversight over His creation, He exercises even greater control over human events. He brings nations to the exact place He wants them to be to accomplish His purposes. He sets their national boundaries and times of flourishing. Here are just a few verses that we tend to overlook:

  • “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.” (Acts 17:26)

  • The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes. (Prov. 21:1)

  • Lord, You will establish peace for us, for You have also done all our works in us. (Isaiah 26:12)

  • John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27)

  • A man’s steps are of the Lord (Prov. 20:24); The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD. (Psalm 37:23)

  • For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:10)
These verses don’t mean that God causes everything – He certainly isn’t the Author of sin – but it does mean that He ordains everything (Eph. 1:11), either by causing, guiding or allowing things to happen.

Here is one example of how we struggle to combine these concepts of our freewill responsibilities and God’s unchanging plan and providence over our lives.

  • If God has really prepared for me the good works I am to do and has promised to direct my steps, I shouldn’t have to look around for a job. Instead, He will provide it. Nor would I even have to pray about this since He has even determined beforehand how my life will play out! (Psalm 139) 
Although we know that this reasoning is faulty - and that we must assume responsibility for our lives and our sins - it is hard to find fault with simply trusting God, if God is truly in control of our lives. But there is really a very “easy” resolution to the conflict between our responsibility (human freewill) and God’s all-embracing, providential and immutable plans. Accept them both! If we trust God, we will do as He says!

This is the Doctrine of Compatibility. It affirms that our freewill responsibilities are somehow compatible with God’s control of His creation. This is one of the truths about our infinite God – like the Trinity – that we finite beings cannot fully rationally understand. However, we believe in these truths because they are so deeply reflected in Scripture.

In fact, we already do believe in Compatibility! We believe that Scripture is fully the product of God – fully God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet we also acknowledge that, to some extent, it is also the word of man.

Paul claimed that his teachings were actually the Word of God:

  • And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.(1 Thess. 2:13) 
Nevertheless, Paul’s writings reflect his own humanity, style, focus, experiences, emotions, and choices in many ways. He wrote about friends, enemies, and gave personal greetings. He chose to include certain personal references as freely as I choose to order a slice with pepperoni instead of mushrooms. (I cannot doubt my free choice without also doubting everything I think and understand. Such skepticism undermines all thought.)

However, I suspect that Paul, as he taught and wrote, always prayed that God would guide his choices, thereby acknowledging that he freely made choices as God directed him – Compatibility!

You will probably respond, “That just doesn’t make any sense. These two concepts cannot be compatible.” However, Scripture consistently regards human responsibility as compatible with God’s providential control. Paul put these two concepts together this way:

  • Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12-13)

While we have the responsibility to work out our salvation, this is because our Lord is at work within us to give us the right desires and thoughts, to convict us of sin and to illuminate Scripture. Therefore, even if we have labored mightily to understand His Word, He gets all the credit: 

  • But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
Paul even credited God with his hard labors and everything good that he had accomplished. Paul believed in Compatibility! After “many days” at sea on route to Rome in the midst of a great storm, the sailors lost hope of survival. Paul informed them of the revelation he had received from his God: “There will be no loss of life among you, only the ship” (Acts. 27:22).

Coming from God, this prophecy was written in stone, but:

  • Paul [subsequently] said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these [sailors] men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 27:31)
This revelation seems to conflict with Paul’s first revelation that absolutely no life would be lost, period! However, God’s providential outcome and Word are somehow compatible with intermediate human choices to accomplish this outcome. Rather than cancelling out our will, our thinking, or our actions, our God is somehow able to work through these human means to accomplish His infallible purposes, as He had done through the writing of Scripture.

Admittedly, we cannot get our minds around Compatibility, but we mustn’t reject it for this reason. To reject it is to reject our very faith.

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