The Sovereignty of God
Fundamental and necessary to Calvin's system of theology is his concept of the sovereignty of God. While all Christians would recognize that God is sovereign, or the supreme authority in all and over all, it is a separate issue to conclude that God has necessarily chosen to make man's choices. Surely God has the power to make all choices for man, but He also has the power to allow man a sphere of sovereignty, or free will to choose within God's plan. The topic of this Bible study is to determine the extent of God's exercised sovereignty and ultimately answer the question as to if we have free will or if we are predestined creatures of fate.
The complexities of this question can quickly overwhelm even the most seasoned Bible student and leave one entangled in never ending circles of logic. Therefore, it is essential that we first clearly choose our goal for this study.
Since the Bible is always consistent with itself, if we find one passage that necessarily and absolutely shows man's free will, then we will have completely proven the free will of man and disproved predestination. However, if we can find one passage that shows the opposite, then the contrary will be true. To safeguard from taking a single passage out of context, we should try to find additional passages to provide confidence in our conclusion. Moreover, to be honest and fair-minded, we should also examine a few of the more prevalent objections based on other passages. Our goal will, therefore, be to find a few passages that either show man's free will or God's predestination of man's fate. We will also examine a few objections to our conclusions.
What is "Predestination" and "Free Will" ?
We have talked about "sovereignty", "predestination", and "free will", but what is meant by these words? Well, "sovereignty" in general refers to the ability and right of any person or body to govern and sustain itself. We usually use the term to refer to a king's or nation's authority and capacity to rule. Similarly, the Bible speaks of God's sovereignty:
"He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen." I Timothy 6:15-16 New American Standard Version
God is certainly sovereign over all mankind, since He is man's creator and without equal, among angels or men (Isaiah 40:13-14; 45:9-12). In fact, man is unable to resist God's will (Isaiah 43:13). There is no question that God is sovereign, since it is unequivocally stated in Scripture. But, establishing God's sovereignty does not establish how God exercises that power and rule. The extent of God's exercised sovereignty is the cornerstone upon which all of Calvinism stands or falls.
"Predestination" is used in the context of this study to convey the idea that God, by His sovereignty, made all choices for all creatures for all time. Consequently, He has determined man's temptations, decisions, and consequences before man ever had a chance.
One alternative to the idea of predestination is the idea that God has given man the ability to make choices, or to freely exercise his individual will - "free will". The concept of free will is not one in which man overpowered God and exercises his own will outside God's sovereignty, but it is based on the premise that God has given man a sphere of influence and determination within and as part of God's grand scheme. This implies that God has enabled man to make choices within that divinely ordained sphere. We learn in Scripture that God holds man responsible for his choices. Man's choices are freely made, but they are not free from consequence.
No scripture in the Bible directly states whether God predestined each man individually or if each man chooses his own fate. Consequently, we will have to research and analyze passages that provide evidence upon which one may make fair and necessary inferences. One Bible theme that provides just such a source of study are the unfulfilled decrees of God.
Part of Calvin's understanding about God's sovereignty was that He controls all things and that His decrees can not be changed. Certainly, God's decrees cannot be changed, unless He makes them conditional. However, there could be no "conditions" in Calvin's system, where God has predetermined all events because the word "conditional" implies multiple possible outcomes, which necessitates choice and free will.
With this in mind, please consider the following Old Testament account, which occurred during King David's escape from King Saul:
"Then David said, "O LORD God of Israel, Your servant has certainly heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as Your servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant."
"And the LORD said, "He will come down."
"Then David said, "Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul?"
"And the LORD said, "They will deliver you."
"So David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah and went wherever they could go. Then it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah; so he halted the expedition." I Samuel 23:10-13
In this passage, God made two clear decrees concerning the future: 1) Saul would come down to the city of Keilah, and 2) the men of the town would turn David over to Saul. However, after learning this, David quickly left Keilah. Saul did not come to Keilah, and the men never turned David over to Saul.
Now if predestination be true, how could God have told David something that was not true? One would only be able to conclude that either God lied or He did not have the power to bring about His own decrees. Of course, neither of these conclusions are acceptable. They assault the very character and definition of God. The only rational alternative explanation is that the decree was conditional upon the current course of events, including David's choice. Evidently, God gave power to David to change his own fate. Any other conclusion would be blasphemy.
Examples of Man Choosing
The above account is is not the only example of men choosing and changing their fate. Please consider the following additional examples of man choosing his own fate, sometimes contrary to God's clear judgments.
- King Hezekiah (II Kings 20:1, 5-6)
- The Lord told Hezekiah, King of Judah, that he was to prepare himself
because he was about to die. However, after Hezekiah prayed to the Lord
for mercy, an additional 15 years was granted to him. Did God lie, or
did He mercifully listen to Hezekiah's penitent prayer and change His
fate? Either God is not perfect or all things are not predestined and
- Jonah and the Ninevites (Jonah 3:4-10)
- Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh and warned them that God had
judged them and would destroy them and their city. This fate was decreed
without exception. However, the people repented hoping that God might
change His determined course. God did change His course of action and
spared the city. Therefore, if all things are predestined, was God lying
when He spoke concerning their destruction, or did He respond to their
penitence and change His mind concerning their destruction? How could
He have "repented" or "turned", if His course was
chosen and settled before time began?
- Joshua (Joshua 24:14-15)
- In this case, after reviewing the Israelites' history and their present
situation, Joshua directly implores the people to choose to serve God.
Was this inspired prophet and leader of the Israelites mocking their
inability to choose, or was He encouraging them to make the right choice?
- The People of Jerusalem (Luke 13:34) - In this example, Jesus mourned over the people of Jerusalem not choosing to come to Him. He speaks of how often He "would" have accepted them if they would just repent, and He also states that the reason He did not was because they "would not" come to Him. It was not that they could not, but they would not. Both in our language and the original Greek, this word (thelo) implies purpose, determination, and will, and it is the same word used earlier in the verse to describes Christ's will that they be saved. This verse seems to clearly indicate that these men had the ability to choose to come to Christ, but they willed not to come. Where is the untruth? In the Bible or in the doctrine of predestination?
Objections: The Example of Pharoah
No examination of a question would be fair without analyzing the objections to a conclusion. So, let us consider a representative question concerning the ancient Egyptian king, Pharoah. We will cover more objections in later articles.
This question is often asked because the Bible clearly speaks of God influencing Pharoah's heart, and it may first appear that God even controlled his heart.
"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh will not heed you, so that I may lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments." Exodus 7:3-4
It seems from this verse that God influenced Pharoah in that He "hardened" Pharoah's heart, making him unresponsive to the signs of God's power. However, there is a difference between God hardening Pharoah's heart and predestining, or forcing Pharoah's will. So, before we jump to a premature conclusion, let us examine the context of this passage.
When did Pharoah's heart become hardened? Chapters 1-14 of Exodus detail the captivity and release of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Eventually, the king, Pharoah, reluctantly released the Israelites after suffering 10 terrible plagues from God, each more severe than the previous one. At the end of each plague, Pharoah would ask the Lord to relent, and verses, similar to the following, would detail what would happen next:
"And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, 'I have sinned this time. The LORD is righteous, and my people and I are wicked. Entreat the LORD, that there may be no more mighty thundering and hail, for it is enough. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.'
"So Moses said to him, 'As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, that you may know that the earth is the LORD's. But as for you and your servants, I know that you will not yet fear the LORD God.'
"So Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh and spread out his hands to the LORD; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain was not poured on the earth.
"And when Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet more; and he hardened his heart, he and his servants. So the heart of Pharaoh was hard; neither would he let the children of Israel go, as the LORD had spoken by Moses. " Exodus 9:27-35
Not only do we see that Pharoah's heart was hardened by the relief from the plagues, but we also see that it was Pharoah who actually hardened his heart. Since Pharoah was a proud, stubborn, and arrogant man, any signs that were shown to Pharoah by God only served to harden his impenitent heart. In this way both God and Pharoah contributed to hardening Pharoah's heart. Ultimately, it was Pharoah who actually hardened his own heart by refusing to repent and obey God. God only forced him to choose.
Just as Pharoah's heart was hardened by God's miraculous signs, the gospel and God's truth also harden peoples hearts who refuse to accept it - even today. Please kind reader, consider these passages and weigh them carefully in your mind. If you were previously convinced that Calvinism is true, then probably you have many questions and other passages you wish to consider. These passages and many more points may better fall into our further studies regarding the other tenets of Calvinism. This is to be expected since Calvinism is such a highly connected and logical set of beliefs.
Would you then continue to study with us as we begin looking at the various beliefs that arise from the implications of predestination and the absolute exercise of the sovereignty of God? If not, please consider these questions carefully and please do not dismiss them hastily without considering the logical implications of these verses. Please do not resume your life by ignoring or not answering the questions raised in this article, or else your heart may be similarly hardened by these truths.
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