Sovereignty and Free will

I was very disturbed yesterday, very disturbed indeed. I visited a website of a well known ministry, whose teaching has been in circulation in our congregation, only to find that one of the basic foundations for his doctrine is a denial of the total sovereignty of God.

"The widely accepted doctrine that God controls everything is a deception. If Satan can confuse and deceive you on that issue, he’s got you!"

Yikes! This is such a serious error! If God is not sovereign, then he is not God. If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. This is the most ancient of all heresies: Dualism. The belief that God does not have total control, but that Satan or some other power has a competing portion of the total sovereignty of the Universe. This view is the one caricatured by the image of God and the Devil playing chess for the souls of men -- it's only because God is so much smarter that he is going to win.

The root of this problem is also age old. It's the apparent contradiction between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. In human logic it must be one or the other. If God is sovereign then human free will is just an illusion. If men truly have free will, then God is not in total control. The argument gets even more complicated when you throw in the problem of evil. If God is totally sovereign does this mean he is responsible for all the evil in the world? If God is not sovereign over evil does this mean we have a weak or complicit God who is unable to exert his will over Satan?

The argument has been played out down through the centuries of Church history. Between St. Augustine and Pelagius; Calvin and Arminius. It's a sad comment on our ignorance of church history that the same old debate is coming around again -- if we do not learn from our history we are destined to repeat it.

The Bible teaches both God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. If we ignore one or the other we wander into error, and even blatant heresy. If we ignore the free will of man, then the inevitable result is fatalism and passivity. Why evangelise, if the elect will get saved anyway, and the damned never will? Why pray if God is going to do what he has predestined to do whether we pray or not? But even more serious are the errors we fall into if we deny the sovereignty of God: Satan becomes a little-god, and God becomes no god at all. If you worship a God who is not totally sovereign, then you do not worship the Sovereign Lord of the scriptures -- you are an idolater! Sorry to put it in such stark terms, but these things need to be said. Peter puts it in even stronger terms:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves. (2 Peter 2:1)

So how can God be sovereign, and man's responsibility not be diminished? Well it is a mystery. God wouldn't be God if you could totally understand him would he? But there are some analogies in nature. How can an electron be both a wave and a particle? How is it that when you pop a balloon, each molecule of air continues to do its own thing in total ignorance to the state of the balloon, and yet the air always flows out. How can it be that the individual radioactive decay of an atom is one of the securest forms of pure random data in the world, and yet radioactive half-lives can be calculated with accuracy down to fractions of a second? Did you know that your right eye and your left eye see two conflicting two-dimensional views of the universe? Yet we would have no concept of the world's true three-dimensional nature if they saw exactly the same thing.

But ultimately our best recourse is to the scriptures themselves. If you are struggling to understand the true meaning of God's sovereignty, let me prescribe a good dose of Romans chapter 9.

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?' " (Romans 9:18-20)


Joe... said...


Have you received your book yet?

I sent it last friday.


Chris HH said...

Yes Joe. Many thanks! I received it on Saturday. It looks right up my street; I look forward to reading it.

Marcos said...


Thank you for shedding light on this false doctine:Dualism.God is in control-Total control.

Christopher Alton said...

Hi Chris - really inciteful article on this subject.

How often we find extremes! For example, I was brought up in an atmosphere of what I call "Christian Fatalism" which is common where pre-millenialism is the order of teh day, which led to inactivity and certainly no faith. However as you say we do our part and God does his - it is beyond working out.

In this respect, I spotted something new in Ephesians recently (yes, you guessed it during prep for EQUIP) ...

"In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, ..."

- we were pre-destined by God who WORKS OUT EVERYTHING IN CONFORMITY WITH HIS WILL. We don't have to work it out (free-will vs. pre-destination) because that's HIS job not ours!!

You just can't box God in!

Matthew said...

I think that it is difficult to judge the quote without knowing the context of what "commonly held doctrine" the writer is trying to counter. True as the statement stands it raises serious questions, especially if we read "sovereignty" for "control" (so maybe we shouldn't!).
But how well would any of us tackle a position such as Chris A describes (fatalism) without being charged with not believing in the sovereignty of God. I have been listening to Ern Baxter on tape recently. In explaining some truely wonderful and profound insights into the person and the work of the Holy Spirit he felt it necessary to explain his Trinitarian credentials first, as he said it was extremely difficult to explain some of what he wanted to share without opening up onself to the charge of being a tritheist. The issue was his lack of ability as a human in teaching, and our lack of ability as humas listening, to come to an understanding of something that is "other" to us. I think the sovereignty of God sits well in this category along with the mystery of the Trinity!

Matthew said...

Justed spotted the typo in my previous comment, of course I am not implying that anyone of us consists of crushed chickpeas and garlic!

Chris HH said...

The context was not an exposition of free will, if so, as you say, it could be mitigated. The context was the interaction between God and Satan, which is why I considered it to be too serious to pass over.

This guy actually believes that the time it takes our prayers to be answered is governed by Satan! God never changes - so it must be him. When our prayers are answered immediately it is because Satan is having a bad day...

...this is what I consider to be a serious deficiency in an understanding of God's sovereignty.

(If you want I can send you the link.)

PS. Mmmmmmm Humus!

Matthew said...

Chris - with you there then buddy!

The strong man has been bound! I guess there are echoes of Daniel 10:13 here... which reminds me, I don't seem to be able to open your Daniel notes.

Chris HH said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I've fixed them now.

Yes, It's highly ironic that someone should chose a verse from the book of Daniel to try to deny the total sovereignty of God. The whole theme of that book is that God is sovereign over all kingdoms, powers and authorities.

(btw. Anyone reading from Living Rock Church, or from the Hinckley / Broughton area. I'm re-running my Daniel masterclass, on Friday evenings 8pm, 5 sessions, one every other week, starting 7 October. Contact office[at]livingrockchurch[dot]org[dot]uk to book in!)