God's sovereignthy and man's free will

by Malcolm Ferries

C. J. Ryle was a Bishop of Liverpool around the middle of the nineteenth century. He was a prolific writer and preacher. Amongst his work is a document called: Notes On The Gospel of John. Ryle wrote one section on the first eleven verses of chapter two of this gospel. In it, he wrote this:

"Duties are ours, but events are God's. It is ours to fill the waterpots; it is Christ's to make the water wine."

I came across this cleric for the first time very recently. I heard the above statement quoted, with approval, during a radio sermon by an evangelical preacher. I did a little research on Ryle: he appears to have been a man of deep faith, who studied the word of God with an enquiring mind, rooted in that faith. If we measure that statement against the scriptures, however, it is clear that Ryle did not grasp the completeness of God's sovereignty. In consequence, he limited God's authority, and over-stated that of man.

It is the purpose of this study to clarify the matter. We will examine what God's Word says about His sovereignty, the extent of man's authority and responsibilities, and whether he can be said to exercise will.

It will become clear that the doctrine of free-will, cherished by so many believers, is a fallacy. Far from being a matter of discomfort, however, this realisation will deepen our spiritual understanding.

In consequence we will experience more vividly
"the peace that is superior to every frame of mind",
(Philippians 4:7)

which Paul illuminates for us in his evangel. We will feel better able to "rely on the living God" (I. Timothy 4:7), not worrying about anything (Philippians 4:6), as Paul teaches.

I want to start our examination by quoting some words from A.E. Knoch. He wrote extensively about the sovereignty of God, and about what he called "the Phantom of Free-will". He tested everything he said against the only valid template: the word of God.

In doing so, he frequently used a method of argument which can only be deployed by one who is sure of their ground: he would quote at substantial length from a writer of an opposing standpoint, then go directly to the scriptures by way of refutation.

Knoch begins an article entitled, "The Phantom of Free Will", with these words:
"The distressing effect of the antagonistic doctrines of free-will and fatalism, on the character of God, calls for a readjustment of our thinking, along scriptural lines. The word of God knows nothing of free-will, nor does it recognise fatalism. Some elements of each are present. There are 'Free-will' or voluntary offerings. There is the definite teaching that God is operating all in accord with His purpose. Yet, neither of these denies the other. One is the divine viewpoint; the other the human. It is not only possible for faith to revel in God's sovereignty, while recognizing human freedom, but it is our privilege to understand how this sovereignty can be, and to rest in the knowledge of it.

"The problem is a very practical one. Let us suppose that we have learned that God is carrying out His will, and that nothing man can do is able to defeat Him. The question then arises: what is the use of doing anything? Why pray, when everything has been prearranged? the answer is very simple. God has prepared good works that we should walk in them. It is His will to exercise our hearts, as to His ways, and to engage our affections through the veil of uncertainty and ignorance which lies upon us. He would not have us know the details of His operations, lest we repose on them, instead of throwing ourselves unreservedly on Himself, and confidently confiding in His love.

"Man's limitations and ignorance are the foundations of his philosophy. He judges all else, even God, by the prison in which his faculties confine him. Surface appearances press on his consciousness and keep him from considering the actual, though imperceptible, realities of existence. Many a man has imagined that he is carrying out his own free-will, when he was, in fact, in the toils of another, and was doing the behests of a subtler intellect than his own."

A.E. Knoch shows us, then, that we must study the matter in hand in the light of scripture, and only scripture, to understand them. Ryle was doing his best, but he could only make limited progress because he was committed to giving man a say in God's sovereignty. Man operates at the level of experience, and this fact governs our understanding of God's will unless we bind ourselves to the scriptures. If we do so, we will also grasp Knoch's point that God operates in ways which will sometimes make His will clear to us, but not always.

One further point on the acceptance of scripture which would have aided Ryle: As believers, as members of the body of Christ, we should always accept what the scriptures tell us, in a spirit of faithfulness. We may not always understand how a truth of scripture "works", but this must not stop us from accepting it. The matter of free-will is a case in point. For example, many believers - to say nothing of unbelievers - claim that if we do not possess free-will, then we must all be automatons. As will become apparent in the course of our study, this is not so.

The point I am making here, however, is that we must not recast or replace a truth of Scripture: one of the most common motives for doing so is to shore up a gap between our understanding of God's Word, and the Word itself. We must be constantly alert to this danger: if we cannot understand the meaning of a particular Scripture, we should accept it in faith and wait prayerfully upon God, who will reveal as much as He wishes us to know, in accord with HIS will, and HIS purpose.

Now, we can already see that we don't need to do any smart thinking to refute the idea of free-will: we don't have to delve into any esoteric mysteries. To see this, we only need to take a few examples from life in general. We do not choose our parents; the location, date, or time of our birth; or, indeed, whether or not we came into existence at all. We should also observe that, for a believer, the very existence of the Scriptures should constitute evidence of God's absolute sovereignty over His creation.

The Bible tells us, clearly and constantly, implicitly and explicitly, that God has a purpose, and a plan for its achievement. Both are unfolded in His Word. From these facts, it follows that if we attempt to qualify God's sovereignty (and that is what we are doing if we ascribe free-will to man) we are denying his ability to do what He says He will do. In doing so, we credit ourselves with powers which we do not have in reality, and this is unbiblical.

The issue of God's sovereignty was something which God used very powerfully in revealing Himself to me, nineteen years ago. Over the years, at these conferences, I have turned over the possibility of addressing the subject at a meeting, and this year, I have chosen to do so. Of course, I have just uttered a falsehood: the truth is that God has kept the matter on my heart, over all these years. In accordance with His plan and purpose, He has willed that, on this occasion, I am to speak on it.

Prior to my revelation, I had spent a lot of time studying religion. I wasn't a 'religious tourist'; I wasn't 'looking for something', I just had an enquiring mind. As far as the word of God was concerned, one of the major obstacles to belief, for me, was this: the notion of an all-powerful, all-knowing God could not be squared with the doctrine of free-will. The problem only occurred, however, because I was trying to match Christendom's teaching with the Bible. When, for the first time, I encountered believers who based their understanding entirely on the Word of God, and who didn't accept any teaching they heard, or read, unless it passed the test of scripture, the problem dissolved. The facts are these: God is all-powerful; He is all-knowing. It follows that man does not have free-will. The Scriptures do not give us grounds for believing that He has.

Beyond all this, we need to recognise that God's sovereignty is total, if we are to understand His nature and His Word. Christendom does not generally recognise it. In consequence, its witness is distorted. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of those unbelievers who receive this kind of witness cannot accept the fact of God's existence.

The proof that God's sovereignty is total runs right through His Word. The same, therefore, can be said of His will. If we look for a scripture to use as a pivot for this study, we are, to say the least, spoilt for choice. For instance, we could go to the beginning of John's gospel. There, we are told that "all came into being" through God's Word, and that "apart from it, not even one thing came into being which has come into being."

Instead, though, let's go to the body of Scripture which God specifically intends to instruct the believer of today, the Evangel of the apostle Paul. One phrase, of four all-encompassing words, is all we need to get us started: "all is of God". Paul makes this statement once in each of his epistles to the Corinthian ecclesia. Clearly, this phrase can only mean one thing, and admits no qualification.

Earlier, we used practical examples from daily life to refute free will. Let's now do this from Scripture. As we have seen, God's Word is, of itself, proof of divine sovereignty, but it is replete with specific instances. We will go, first, to the very beginning of the Bible, and look at Genesis. Christendom's understanding of the narrative involving Adam, Eve and the serpent claims that man fell, changing the nature of God's plan fundamentally and irrevocably. God did tell Adam and Eve that they were not to eat anything from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As we know, at the behest of the serpent, Eve contravened this prohibition. In due course, Adam did likewise. If we accept Christendom's interpretation of the facts, we should also accept that God failed, at a very early stage, in carrying out His purpose for humanity. Christendom doesn't go as far as this of course. It places the responsibility for man's fall squarely on man himself, removing God from the situation entirely. And yet, as we have seen, God's Word declares, throughout, that He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He cannot fail, He knows the end from the beginning.

This leads me to a text from the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi. In chapter three of this book, at verse six, through Malachi, God says: "I am the Lord, I change not". This quote could be dropped in at any point during our study, and we need to keep it in mind throughout. Here, it is relevant because it refutes a popular analogy.

Analogies are tricky things. They are often best done without and should only be used with care. The analogy I am concerned with here is often applied to the existence of evil, but it is sometimes pressed into service, by believers, to allow room for the notion of free-will. The idea is that God's plan is analogous to a river. It may be long, and it may involve many twists and turns, but a river always reaches the sea eventually. When applied to the purpose of God, the argument claims that God does not include the existence of evil in His plans; the whims and mistaken reasonings of man may also throw up events which God did not, originally, have in mind. Nevertheless, so the argument runs, God takes all these contingencies in His stride, as and when they occur. He will, in spite of everything, eventually achieve his purpose.

This thinking is clearly very person-centred. It credits God with little more foresight than we have ourselves. The position has no biblical foundation. We can particularise the argument to show this: we are asked to accept that God, who created everything from the smallest particle to the largest astronomical entity, was wrong-footed by one conversation in the garden of Eden! He then managed to get His plan back on track, until the next time man acted out of kilter with it and needed reining in again. This position is a case of what we spoke of earlier: the use of unbiblical doctrine because an actual Scripture has not been accepted as a matter of faith.

Throughout history, many cultures have believed in gods who operate through intervention: they involve themselves in the affairs of man as and when they see fit, or are petitioned to do so. The one true God is not like that: the plan is His, and He is working it through according to His purpose. This fact should be a constant blessing to us.

To amplify what we have been discussing, I want to turn to the inspired majesty of David's writing. Now, we must never forget the principle of correct division when we study any portion of scripture. As indicated earlier, we must look to the New Testament to find the specific teaching we need as believers today. In particular, we look to Paul's Evangel. We have also seen, though, that the books of the Old Testament are vital to the narrative of God's purpose, and we should study them. They also testify to God's awesome transcendence.

The psalms are a case in point. I want to quote from Psalm 139. David puts his own enormous significance in perspective with these words:
"For You Yourself achieved the making of my innermost being; You overshadowed me in my mother's belly. I shall acclaim You, for You are fearfully distinguished; marvellous are Your works. You have known my soul very thoroughly; my skeleton was not suppressed from You when I was made in concealment; I was woven together as in the nether parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my embryo, and my days, all of them were written upon Your scroll; the days were formed when there was not one of them."

The consequence of these words is that God is Sovereign over all His creation. This must be the case in the most general sense, and in particular circumstances. If we turn to Paul's Evangel, we will find this fact illustrated in his epistle to the Romans. Paul makes reference, in fairly specific terms, to some unscriptural and degrading behaviour. What he does not do is exempt God from the situation; nor does he limit His sovereignty. The members of this ecclesia would have been given a realisation of God's sovereignty which would have been far too clear to ignore.

In chapter 1 of this epistle, at verse 18, Paul writes:
"For God's indignation is being revealed from heaven on all the irreverence and injustice of men who are retaining the truth in injustice, because that which is known of God is apparent among them, for God manifests it to them. For His invisible attributes are descried from the creation of the world, being apprehended by His achievements, besides His imperceptible power and divinity, for them to be defenceless because, knowing God, not as God do they glorify or thank Him, but vain were they made in their reasonings, and darkened is their unintelligent heart. Alleging themselves to be wise, they are made stupid, and they change the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image of a corruptible human being and flying creatures and quadrapeds and reptiles.
"Wherefore God gives them over, in the lusts of their hearts, to the uncleanness of dishonouring their bodies among themselves, those who alter the truth of God into the lie, and are venerated, and offer divine service to the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed for the eons! Amen!"

I now want to return to the Old Testament, to look at a passage from 1 Samuel. This passage shows God's sovereignty operating on several different levels. It also illustrates one of the points made in the quotation from A.E. Knoch at the outset of this study: God may reveal his will to us, or it may be hidden.

Chapter 8 of this book begins the narrative of Israel's being brought under the rule of a king. The elders of Israel petitioned Samuel for this to happen. In words inspired by God, Samuel's response, at verse 11, was this: "
These will be the customary rights of the king who shall reign over you: he shall take your sons for himself and he will make them serve with his chariots and with his horsemen; and they will run before his chariot.
"Some he will appoint for himself as chiefs of thousands and chiefs of fifties; others will plough his ploughland, reap his harvest, make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariotry.
"He shall take your daughters for perfumers, for cooks and for bakers. He shall take your fields, your vineyards, your olive groves, the best ones, and he will give them to his courtiers. He shall take the tenth of your seeds and your vineyards, and he will give it to his court officials and to his courtiers.
"He shall take your menservants, your maidservants and your choice young men, the best ones, and your donkeys, and he will use them for his work.
"He shall take the tenth of your flock; and you shall become slaves for him.
"You will cry out on that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves; yet Yahweh shall not answer you on that day."

At a superficial level, there may appear to be grounds for asserting a free-will argument here. In fact, however, this is not even a straw-clutching exercise. We are told that the elders of Israel gathered together and went to Samuel. At the superficial level, the elders were proactive. At verse 18, Samuel refers to: "your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves." But what have we seen already in this study, Paul has told us that "all is of God". In Malachi, we learned that God does not change his mind. The point is that the elders of Israel were only proactive at the level of experience. As far as they perceived the situation, their actions and decisions were their own.

The truth, though, is that they were playing a vital part in unfolding God's purpose. They were doing God's will, down to the last detail of His plan.

Let's now turn to the matter of prayer. As Knoch stated in the passage I quoted from his article, the question we have to address is this: "Why pray, when everything has been prearranged?" It is a question asked by unbelievers, and indeed by those believers who argue that man does have free will.

First of all, let's accept the salient fact that, yes, everything has been prearranged by God. Let's also keep in mind, again, those statements from Paul and Malachi. If "all is of God", that must include our prayers; if God does not change His mind, then it follows that He does not make decisions based upon the impact of our prayers.

As to the specific question: "Why should we pray?", the answer could hardly be simpler: God tells us to do it. He inspired Paul to give us that instruction. At the beginning of chapter 2 of 1 Timothy, he says this:
"I am entreating, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, pleadings, thanksgivings be made for all mankind, for kings and all those being in a superior station, that we may be leading a mild and quiet life in all devoutness and gravity, for this is ideal and welcome in the sight of our Saviour, God, who wills that all mankind be saved and come into a realisation of the truth."

So Paul makes it clear that we should not just pray for things we want, whether we think we need them, or would just like to have them. We should engage in prayer because it pleases God that we do so; it means that we are in intimate spiritual communication with Him. It follows that prayer deepens our faith. Along with our studies of the Scriptures, it edifies us to live the "mild and quiet life" which Paul instructs us to lead.

Christendom's understanding of prayer is a worldly one. It claims that we should pray that certain situations will happen. This understanding necessarily involves a subjective dimension: we are telling God what we think is wrong with the world, and what He ought to do about it. One terrible upshot of this worldly approach is that it leads to something equally fleshly.

Those whose prayers are not 'answered' in the way envisaged are deemed not to have prayed correctly; or with sufficient intensity; or, worst of all, they are seen as lacking faith.

To illustrate all this on a practical level, I shall give a trivial example, followed by a much more serious one.

I am a keen sports follower, but I don't generally feel moved to devote any of my prayer time to it. Some people do feel so inclined, particularly when they support one of the teams or individuals involved. Now, though sport is a trivial and fleshly thing, it does serve to demonstrate the practical inadequacy of the argument for influencing God through prayer.

A few random questions will suffice: It is reasonable to suppose that God does not feel any bias towards, say, a particular football team, so on what basis is it logical to ask Him to produce a particular result from a given fixture? Could God be influenced by the supporters who pray with greater intensity, or at greater length, or perhaps with more ingenuity or eloquence? I am not being flippant in asking such questions: the argument is susceptible to these objections. The fundamental point, though, is that this argument goes against what the Bible tells us about prayer, and about the sovereignty of God.

The more serious example I mentioned concerns a matter of personal testimony. My father passed away nearly two years ago, from liver cancer.

Clearly, a bereavement of this kind is one of the most emotional and traumatic events one faces in life. In fact though, I found the period around my father's passing a time of enormous blessing for me. Believing friends, relatives and acquaintances prayed constantly for our family. There were times when I was vividly aware of this in a way I had not previously experienced.

Now none of this made God even think about changing His mind: He foreordained how things would turn out, to the last second and the smallest detail. However, God taught me so much through this situation, both in times of prayer, and through conversations other believers had with me.

There is one other argument for free-will which it is relevant to look at. It asserts that we each have a kind of circle of influence around us. The argument claims that God is, indeed, Sovereign over His creation. It then negates itself by stating that each of us has a domain, or circle, of personal events and responsibilities, over which we do exercise free-will. This "circle" comprises our own thoughts, words and actions. Some supporters of this argument assert that the general direction and momentum of events are determined by God alone, but this claim only makes the argument more difficult to maintain.

Self-evidently, no-one can argue that any of us are entirely independent beings: whether we like it or not, what we do, or don't do, at any given time, necessarily affects other people and events. The crucial problem, though, is that this is yet another argument which limits God's infinite faculties, as any doctrine of free-will must: it credits us with responsibilities and capacities which God's Word tells us we do not have.

Indeed, if we work through the practical effects of the logic of free-will, it places God's creation and purpose in peril. Christendom does not accept this, but it must be true: if man is allowed any capacity for his own will; any ultimate responsibility for his actions; any input into God's plan and purpose, then we must accept two things: God cannot be certain of accomplishing His purpose; and His Word is, therefore, untrue.

This is an appropriate point at which to discuss Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus Christ. This event was, clearly, instrumental in bringing Christ to crucifixion. In many ways, this betrayal can be seen as an atrocity. Beyond this, though, Christendom characterises the act as a fundamental demonstration that man has free-will.

The argument runs that Judas had a choice to make. He chose to aid those who would apprehend Christ and have Him killed. But we should adhere to Scripture. We should view this event as a momentous demonstration that God is our absolute Sovereign, and that all is foreordained by Him. This follows from everything we have seen so far in this study, but there is specific evidence from the Scriptures about this event in particular.

Christendom's theology asks us to accept that Judas had a choice, in spite of the following facts: David foretold his betrayal in a number of his psalms; Luke, a meticulous and precise man, says this at the beginning of chapter twenty-two of his gospel:
"Now near drew the festival of unleavened bread, termed the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they may be assassinating Him, for they feared the people. Yet Satan entered into Judas, called Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve."

So, how clear do we need Scripture to be? Judas did not DECIDE, of his own volition, to betray the Son of God: Satan entered into him. The Scriptures tell us that the Adversary can only act as he is permitted to do by God. Indeed, that is the Adversary's function. Judas did believe that he was making his own decision. He understood the matter at the level of experience. We know better, because God's Word gives us the whole truth. Judas did not obstruct God; he was a chosen agent for God's purpose. Christ knew this; He knew that the scriptures must be fulfilled. At verse 64 of chapter 6 of John's gospel we find these words:
"For Jesus had perceived from the beginning who those are who are not believing, and who it is that gives Him up."

So Jesus knew of His impending betrayal, but did nothing to avoid or obstruct it. There was no other way. All is of God.

Taking account of what we have seen so far, let's have a look at what it all means, for believers, as we live the life which God has given us.

When we are discussing the meaning of biblical terms like "Grace", and "love", with unbelievers, it is sometimes suggested that we have a licence to do as we like. The thinking is that if we are sure of God's love, and salvation through Christ, what's to stop us? When it comes to the matter of God's sovereignty, a believer who cannot disown the doctrine of free-will may argue in the same way: if everything is already planned by God, then we can all do as we wish. We can indulge in reprehensible, unbiblical behaviour, safe in the knowledge that we have no choice about it; the responsibility can be left with God.

Not so of course. For one thing, if our revelation is genuine, we simply should not be inclined to this fleshly outlook.

But, in any case, the Scriptures are clear on this. Look at the beginning of chapter 6 of Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul is teaching on the magnitude of Grace. He says this:
"What, then, shall we declare? That we may be persisting in sin, that grace should be increasing? May it not be coming to that! We, who die to sin, how shall we still be living in it? Or are you ignorant that whoever are baptized into Christ Jesus, are baptized into His death? We, then, were entombed together with Him through baptism into death, that, even as Christ was roused from among the dead through the glory of the father, thus we also should be walking in newness of life."

So God's Word is clear that whilst His sovereignty is absolute, we always carry with us the obligation to seek His will. There is, however, blessing and security in this understanding. Some weeks ago, I was discussing the subject of this study with an assiduous student of God's Word who has been a believer for nearly sixty years. He mentioned the saying: "God makes a back for the burden". I considered this phrase in terms of Scripture.

Of course, the strongest back which God ever created was that of His Son, Who took upon Himself the greatest burden ever borne, the sin of man. As for us, though, with our worldly cares and responsibilities, God's Word offers us a comfort which we will never appreciate if we believe our own capacities and self-centred wisdom are sufficient. Paul makes this point in his first letter to the Corinthians. At verse thirteen of chapter ten he writes:
"No trial has taken you except what is human. Now, faithful is God, Who will not be leaving you to be tried above what you are able, but, together with the trial, will be making the sequel also, to enable you to undergo it."

And Paul offers us some testimony of his own experiences on this point. We know that, as he carried out the momentous work assigned to him by God, he led an arduous existence. In the third chapter of his second letter to Timothy, Paul is talking about the persecutions he has endured. He warns Timothy, and thereby us, of the persecutions which believers will continue to face.

We don't need to look far, today, to find evidence of what those warnings foretold: we live at a time when members of the caring professions can face disciplinary action for even mentioning prayer, or the Bible, in their jobs. However, again, Paul gives us comfort, as well as warning. He teaches us that God will not push us beyond the capacities He has given us. At verse 10 of chapter 3 of this letter Paul writes:
"Now you fully follow me in my teaching, motive, purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings, such as occurred to me in Antioch, in Iconium, in Lystra: persecutions such as I undergo, and out of them all the Lord rescues me. And all who are wanting to live devoutly in Christ Jesus shall be persecuted."

Paul teaches us that we can "rely on the living God", as he has done. His burdens were enormous, but they were of God. Paul did not just hope that God would bring him through them, he relied on Him, faithfully, to do so. He tells us that: "All who are wanting to live devoutly" will face persecutions, but we have divinely-inspired assurance that God will rescue us from them.

As we conclude this study, let's turn to the book of Ephesians. This epistle contains the heart of Paul's evangel. We find here Scripture which unites every aspect of God's sovereignty, and clarifies its significance for the believer. At verse 3 of the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blesses us with every spiritual blessing, among the celestials, in Christ, according as He chooses us in Him before the disruption of the world, we to be holy and flawless in His sight, in love designating us beforehand for the place of a son for Him through Christ Jesus. in accord with the delight of His will, for the laud of the glory of His grace, which graces us in the beloved: in Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, the forgiveness of offences in accord with the riches of His grace, which He lavishes on us; in all wisdom and prudence making known to us the secret of His will (in accord with His delight, which He purposed in Him), to have an administration of the complement of the eras, to head up all in the Christ ( both that in the heavens and that on the earth) in Him in Whom our lot was cast also, being designated beforehand, according to the purpose of the One who is operating all in the counsel of His will, that we should be for the laud of His glory, who are pre-expectant in the Christ."

As believers, we should feel constantly blessed that God's sovereignty is total. We must continually seek to understand God's will, and to act in accord with it. We should thank Him, though, for the peace that comes from knowing that our frail abilities are nothing more than the tools of His will.

God has a plan for us.

He will achieve His purpose.

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