God's Sovereignty vs Man Will

Man's will vs God's Will

Foreknowledge, Predestination and other theological curveballs

Today students of all ages are confronted with cleverly devised stories, the same kind of stories that the Bible warned against, contrasting them to the truth.

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power
and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty,
II Peter 1:16.

When these atheists come with their patented queries intended to send Bible believing people into a theological tailspin, such as “how can a sovereign God allow man to have free will” or the ever popular, “If God is omnipotent, can he make a weight that is so heavy even He cannot lift it”  and other questions, do not despair. Not only are there very good answers for all of these curveball questions, a person might be tempted to ask these self-assured atheists why they are so interested in God, e.g. does God exist? Why He doesn’t exist, etc. As far as I can tell, all of these dogmatic atheists are way too interested in a Being that they claim to be certain is nonexistent.  

If God is almighty, how can men have free will?

Atheists are fond of wading into some very deep philosophical and theological waters. Many of them are ill-equipped for an intelligent discussion in either discipline. This truth is demonstrated in the life and publications of the guru of scientific atheism Dr. Richard Dawkins.  

Richard Dawkins is a prolific writer and the self-appointed nemesis of creationists the world over.  Some of his writings include The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, The Greatest Show on Earth as well as his numerous articles and interviews promoting his godless, humanistic and naturalistic agenda. All are intended to promote atheism and Darwinian evolution. In order to assess the accuracy of the arguments used by Dr. Dawkins, I take my lead from Professor Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Plantinga evaluates Dawkin’s grandiose opinion of himself noting that Dawkin’s is even a poorer theologian than he is a philosopher. In his review of the Dawkin’s best-seller, The God Delusion, we can see that Dr. Dawkins is not quite the philosopher he thinks himself to be.

Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he's a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying. I shall put irritation aside, however and do my best to take Dawkins' main argument seriously (Plantinga 2007).

One subject the atheists like to pitch at unsuspecting Bible believers is the sovereignty of God versus the free will of man. In the minds of atheists, these two concepts are mutually exclusive and cannot co-exist together in the same universe.

It is important for those who have placed their faith in the Creator and Savior to understand that spiritual warfare is real. There exists true evil in this present world.  Because God is almighty, He tells us plainly that He is the Creator of all things; both good and evil are part of His plan.

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things, Is. 45:7.

The LORD works out everything for his own ends— even the wicked for a day of disaster, Pro.16:4.

Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future, Ec. 7:13-14.

Like all dualities, good and evil, pleasure and pain, light and darkness, there is a purpose for everything in God’s creation. King Solomon said, “There is a time and purpose for everything under heaven,” Ec. 3:1.

When teaching about the mystery of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, I always explain that man’s free will is predicated on God’s sovereignty. This means that man’s free will is limited to, and subordinate to, God’s will. Without waxing too theological, God’s will is divided into two basic categories.

  1. God’s perfect will, e.g. God wants everyone to come to the place of faith in His Son, II Peter 3:9. This concept is seen in God’s commandment to love Him and others. In loving God by responding to the gospel, we become empowered through the Holy Spirit to love one another, Mark 12:33. Therefore, God’s perfect will is that we love Him and love others. His permissive will allows us to fall short, especially when we stop operating by grace through faith, Col. 2:6.
  2. God’s permissive will, e.g. What God allows in a fallen world, even though it is not the best it could be, not His perfect will. He calls all to repentance, “Come unto Me,” Matt. 11:28, foreknowing who will come and who will not. Many are called (God’s grace extends to all), but few are chosen (foreknown by God as His elect), Matt. 22:14.

Whenever I want to understand how these two things work out in reality, I look at the example of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet of the Lord. When the Lord told him what to do, e.g. go to Israel’s bitter enemies the Ninevites, and tell them to repent so they could avoid God’s judgment and receive His grace, Jonah exercised his free will and took off in the opposite direction. If you look at a map, you will see that Jonah sailed to Tarshish, which is exactly 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Bottom line, where did Jonah end up? Right where God wanted him to be! What did Jonah end up doing? Exactly what he was called and ordained to do. He preached a message of mercy and grace to the Ninevites. That is what happens when our free will bumps up against God’s sovereign will. Our arms are too short to box with God. We cannot even lay a glove on Him.

When atheists attack the Word of God, they do so at their own peril. God does not require a defense from His adopted children. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good and His grace and mercy extends to “whosoever will may come.”

Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls, Matt. 11:28-29.

Even the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, extends this invitation as part of the final words communicated to the world facing God’s righteous judgment.

“I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires let him take the water of life freely, Rev. 22:16-17.

Just because we cannot clearly explain to the unregenerate mind (those who have not yet come to the place of faith in the Messiah), how God’s sovereignty, His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, can be understood within the concept of man’s free will, that does not mean that these two concepts are irreconcilable.

Atheists cannot understand the things of God, until they honestly seek Him.

There is nothing in the Bible that is not true. The ultimate truth is the Creator, Messiah Jesus, and that is why He referred to Himself as “The” Truth, John 14:6, 1:17.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” John 14:6.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, John 1:17

Those who have rejected God, and the living Word of God the Messiah, are at a complete disadvantage concerning matters of biblical faith. The Bible clearly teaches that those who have not yet entered into the New Covenant, Jer. 31:31-37, cannot understand the things of God.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ, I Cor. 2:13-16.

Jesus Christ is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, manifested in the flesh. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Is. 9:6. He alone is the source of God’s righteousness on behalf of those who trust in Him.  He is the only One who can do for us that which we could never have done for ourselves. He accomplished our redemption, He kept all of God’s requirements according to the Law of Moses, and then He fulfilled the requirements of the Torah by becoming our Passover, I Cor. 5:7.

He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed, He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken, Is. 53:3-8

Bible believers do not need to have all the answers, and some people will never listen to reason anyway.  Those who reject the truth of God’s Word, whether they are committed atheists, those who have rejected the truth and embraced cult teaching, or those who hold to major doctrinal error where the salvation of the Lord is concerned, are unregenerate men and women. In their natural state, atheists cannot even understand their own need for the Savior. They are so full of themselves, prideful and leaning to their own carnal understanding, that they are blind to God’s truth. More often than not, they see themselves as good people, not in need of God’s forgiveness. People must first become honest with themselves before they can receive God’s light. They need to admit that they are walking in darkness, that they do not have all the answers. This mindset of humility is foundationally important, because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble, James 4:6.

That does not mean it is impossible for cult members, or people like Richard Dawkins to come to salvation. It only indicates that it is extremely difficult to get through all that false teaching and adamant human pride. Most atheists are regurgitating old arguments from the playbook of secular humanism and Darwinian Evolution. Like people who simply listen to the sound bites of mainstream media and regurgitate them when discussing political matters, most people have been brainwashed by the world, the flesh and the Devil to believe lies with regard to the Bible, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Gospel.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.

The first chapter of Romans explains that men and women, left to their own understanding, will reject the knowledge of God. If they continue, they will go farther and farther away from God’s truth and deeper into darkness.  Eventually they end up exalting the creation, rather than acknowledging and worshipping the Creator, and sometimes they go beyond the point of no return and become reprobate, Rom. 1:18-32.

There is a reason that secular science will give honor to the female deity of Darwinian Evolution, Mother Nature, while doing everything in their power to avoid any reference to the one true and living God. I suggest that all people of faith study this subject so they will better understand the mind of the unregenerate, natural man. This is the same mindset of unbelief that the Apostle Paul said “cannot understand the things of God, because they are foolishness to him.”

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength, I Cor. 1:18-25.

If people refuse to believe what they see, e.g. if there is a creation, there must be a Creator, Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 1:20, then a basic precept of logic is being violated. This is called the Law of Cause and Effect or the Law of Causality, and it has definite implications for philosophy, theology, and science (Bergman & Collins 2004).  If we leave basic common sense out, we are left with some serious gaps in our understanding that cannot be easily filled. If the universe began with a cosmic explosion/expansion called the Big Bang, who created the matter that exists in the universe we observe today?  We should not violate the laws of physics in an attempt to explain the cosmos in entirely naturalistic and materialistic terms.

The only logical explanation, other than the matter created itself, or it always existed, is that “In the beginning, God created….” Gen. 1:1.  God, who is outside of our reality, is the uncreated Creator of all. He exists independent of His creation, and He is not subject to the laws He created to maintain the cosmos. These laws become important when we study the anthropic principle, e.g. the concept that the universe in general and our solar system in particular, are fine-tuned to support life, with strong and weak fundamental nuclear forces at work affecting virtually everything in the cosmos (Gonzalez & Richards 2004).

Does God predestine people to hell?

This is where the curveball of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will has serious implications for people of faith. Any error in our understanding will lead to confusion.  The source of this confusion for some, concerns the foreknowledge of God, e.g. the concept that God knows the end from the beginning, and therefore, knows who will come, and who will not come, into the Kingdom. This is often confused with predestination, e.g. the concept that God predestines people to salvation. Because some theologians define predestination as God pre-selecting people for salvation, this particular definition can become difficult to comprehend, and can have some serious implications with regard to our theology.

One of the reasons that defining predestination as God preselecting people to salvation becomes troublesome to many, is that defining predestination in this way opens the door to double predestination, e.g. that God has predestined some to salvation and others to damnation. There is a section in the book of Romans that speaks directly about this subject. Paul uses God’s promise to Jacob that the elder, his twin brother Esau, would serve the younger, contrary to the established rights of inheritance in the culture of the patriarchs, as evidence of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of men, Rom. 9:10-13. God’s foreknowledge is understood as election from His perspective. In this same passage, God uses the example of the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph during the Exodus, as one who was chosen, elected, according to God’s foreknowledge  as a vessel of wrath, Rom. 9:16-18. Paul uses him as an example concerning God’s sovereignty in matters of softening and hardening of people’s hearts. What we sometimes loose sight of is the fact that God gave Pharaoh many opportunities to repent. It was only after Pharaoh had hardened his heart six times do we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Ex. 4:21, 9:12.

These are very weighty theological concepts, but I firmly believe that God offers salvation to anyone who will respond to His grace in the matter of the Gospel. He knows who will come, and who will not. In the definition of predestination that uses the basic meaning of the word, e.g. that some are predetermined to reach a certain destination, in this case salvation, salvation becomes a cooperative act in concert with God’s foreknowledge.  God knows who will respond to His grace and who will not. Men and women are chosen (elect) according to God’s foreknowledge, I Peter 1:1-3. The understanding between foreknowledge and predestination is like God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. It can be very difficult to understand with our finite minds, but nevertheless both concepts are true. Both concepts can be reconciled with a proper understanding guided by our Teacher, the Holy Spirit, John 14:26.

  • Foreknowledge is the English translation of the Greek word “prognosis” which means “forethought.” “Prognosis’ is from the Greek word “proginosko” meaning, “to know beforehand”. The prefix “pro” means “fore’, i.e. in front of, prior…to”. The Greek word “gnosis” means “knowing (the act), i.e. (by impl.) knowledge.
  • Elect is the English translation of the Greek word “eklektos” meaning “select.” Eklektos is also translated chosen in some scriptures. The Greek word “eklegomai,” from which “eklektos” derives means “to select” and is also translated chosen in some passages.
  • Predestinate is an English translation of the Greek word “proorizo,” meaning to limit in advance i.e. (fig.) “predetermine.” “Proorizo” derives from “pro” and “horizo.” “Horizo” means “to mark out or bound (‘horizon’), e.g. (fig) to appoint, decree, specify.” Other English translations of the Greek word “horizo” are: declared, determine, limit, ordained, and determinate. These definitions are taken from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.

In his introduction to his second epistle, the Apostle Peter gives us insight into this difficult subject.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance, I Peter 1:1-2.

This scripture informs us that God selected, or chose persons, according to knowledge that He possessed in times past. To understand this topic, it is important to notice that foreknowledge precedes election. Another significant point in the above definition of foreknowledge is that foreknowledge means, simply and plainly, to know something prior to some future event. The event in the above-referenced Scripture being God’s choosing persons, “unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” What God knows is merely passive, while that which God determines is active volition. Also, electing or choosing is an act of the will. Ultimately, God is always in control of all things. He is the King of the universe, the sovereign Lord of all. I see the operation of God’s grace, His unmerited favor, resulting in the gift of faith He gives to His children. This is a demonstration that His salvation is, and always will be, completely and totally of the Lord, Eph. 2:8-9.

In the Bible, salvation is analogous to circumcision of the heart. In the Older Testament, God instructed the children of Israel (who were already circumcised in the flesh) to circumcise their hearts, Deut. 10:16. Then tells them that He must circumcise their hearts, Deut. 30:6; Jer. 4:4. The salvation of the Lord is indeed a gift of God’s unmerited favor (grace), however, those who enter into the New Covenant must first take God at His Word, and like father Abraham, believe God. Only then is God’s gift of faith counted to us as righteousness, Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Eph. 2:8-9.

Without free will, we would all be mindless robots.

The other side of this coin of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will is this: What atheists claim to be a problem concerning the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, is only a problem for them. If what they are saying is true, that the only way for God to make absolutely certain that everyone will come to the place of salvation is to remove man’s ability to choose, in this case the ability to reject the gospel, this would effectively turn all people into mindless robots. God would simply program everyone to believe, thereby assuring that all people would be saved. That removes our free will, our ability to choose, so my question to the atheists is this, “do you prefer to be a mindless robot, or do you want to be able to make your own decisions.’ ‘Do you prefer a world where you have the ability to choose or one where all the choices are made for you?”  I have never met anyone who wanted to be a mindless robot, so they will always choose to have some free will, and therefore, they are in agreement with the biblical model.  The model of man’s limited free will that is always subordinate to God’s sovereign purposes. 

Because God is the sovereign King of the Universe, His prophets foretold world history as well as details concerning the first and second coming of the Messiah. As we have noted, the prophet Isaiah lived 750 years before the Messiah was born. He foretold specifically that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, Is. 7:14, minister in Galilee, Is. 9:1-3, that He would be God in human form, Is. 9:6, and He would die for the sins of His people Israel (and the world), but Israel’s leadership and the nation on a whole would not believe, Is. 53. Instead the Gentiles would believe, Is. 52:13-15, 11:10, and trust in the Jewish Messiah!

If God is almighty, can He create a weight that is so heavy that even He cannot lift it?

And this brings us back to one of those favorite theological brain twisters that atheists love to use, the ever popular, “If God is almighty, can he make a weight so heavy that He cannot lift it?” Like all foolish questions intended to stump people of faith, there is a very good answer to this question.

But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Therefore you are no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ, Gal. 4:4-7.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, seeing that no human being was righteous, Ps. 14:1-3, Prov. 20:9; Is. 53:6, 64: Rom. 3:23; Gal. 3:22, sent the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away sin, John 1:29, 36. The God of Creation, manifesting Himself in the Messiah, was conceived in the womb of a Jewish virgin two thousand years ago. The living Word of God, the eternal Logos, became God incarnate, who could not lift Himself. Jesus required the aid of His mother and stepfather to hold Him, feed Him, and minister to His needs, prior to physically developing enough to be able to lift Himself up, and move freely without help from anyone else. Indeed, the almighty God created a weight that He Himself could not lift. It was the Holy One of Israel, the Child who was born, the Son who was given, whose names are Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, Is. 9:6.
Bible believers are in a minority. Secular world history is permeated with lies, some more clever and convincing than others, but lies 99% truth and 1% lie is still a lie. While we are encouraged to share our testimony with others, being prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within us, try to remember this verse when you are attempting to defend the faith among the lost, “If they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them,” Isaiah 8:20. Remember we are dealing with lost sheep, rely on the Holy Spirit, and you will maintain a fruitful witness in the midst of a sick and perverse generation.   

Submitted by Pastor Steve Rowitt, Th.M., Ph.D. (c)



Bergman, David L., Collins, Glenn, C. (2004). The Law of Cause and Effect: Dominant Principle of Classical Physics. Around the Sixteenth Century, a scientific revolution began to emerge with explanations of natural phenomena explained by the law of cause and effect. Galileo, 1564-1642, professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, used mathematics to state scientific processes with rigor and relationships that clearly showed cause and effect relationships. Accessed http://www.commonsensescience.org/pdf/articles/law_of_cause_and_effect_FoS_V7N3_(causality).pdf.

Gonzalez, G., Richards, Jay W. (2004). The Privileged Planet: How our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. Regnery Publishing Company. Washington, DC. p. 201.

Plantinga, Alvin (2007). The Dawkin’s confusion: Naturalism 'ad absurdum'. Accessed at http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/marapr/1.21.html.


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