Friday, November 6, 2009

God's Sovereignty and Human Freedom

What does it mean to talk about God's sovereignty? How does human choice fit into the picture? Christians have debated this issue for centuries and will undoubtedly continue until the Second Coming. The reason why we disagree on this subject is because the Bible seems ambiguous, and it's a lot easier to take apart somebody else's worldview than to formulate a biblically and logically consistent one of our own. So accept this as it's offered: a point in the journey of a finite mind to make some sense of the profound mysteries of God. As always, I welcome your honest thoughts.

God is sovereign, but his sovereignty in this world is not the same as it will be on the New Earth, where God will work in and through every person for his perfect glory. As long as evil exists, God's highest will is thwarted. (But as I will discuss later, even now he has defeated evil on the cross, and he has the power to overcome it.) The kingdom of God is in our midst (Luke 17:21), but it has not yet been established like it will be when Jesus comes in glory with his angels (Matthew 16:27).

In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus tells us to pray: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." That means that God's will should direct and motivate all our prayers, but it also implies that his will doesn't necessarily happen by default. And that would make sense, because he has given us prayer as a means of laying hold of his will. Why else would we pray? To change God's mind? Personally, I trust his judgment more than my own. But I'm still told to pray fervently, because changing the status quo is not necessarily changing God's mind. Jesus was always fighting against the status quo during the three years of his ministry.

Although God's overall purposes for his creation will stand, we can't look at every past event and unequivocally say that God willed it. For example, does he will that millions starve to death or die of AIDS in Africa or that children be brutally raped and murdered? To me, it seems blasphemous to suggest it, especially since we know that Jesus "went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38). As ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), let's make sure we don't unwittingly defame him.

I thought that my views about this would be controversial in our modern religious climate, where a lot of people believe that God controls everything and therefore every atrocity is ultimately his will. But it turns out I actually have a Calvinist in my corner: John MacArthur. In his sermon, The Plan of Prayer, he says:
Now this may sound heretical but in this context, people, [tragedy] is not God’s will. That is the kind of stuff that Jesus came into the world to stop. Because "God is not willing that any should perish." And believe me--there are people perishing all over the place. God will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and not all men do. God’s will is done in heaven, but it isn’t always done on earth.
Certainly God can work in those atrocities for good, and he will bring suffering into the lives of his people so he can perform spiritual surgery. I can testify to that. But there's much evil in the world that serves no good purpose at all. It is not according to God's will. It simply happens because of human will to do evil. (Note that I did not say "free" will. Our will is not free until God frees it.)

And that human will is pivotal in this discussion. God, in his sovereignty, made creatures that actually have the power to rebel against him. When I work on my novel, the characters do and say exactly what I want them to. Some novelists say that their characters almost come alive and shape the book. That takes more creativity than I have. But it's still nothing compared to God's creative genius. These four children that Rick and I have brought into the world actually have wills of their own. Although I don't often appreciate that as much as maybe I should, right now as I'm sitting at my desk writing (and they're in school), I consider it the greatest miracle of creation.

Do I believe that human choice is absolute? No. We are all born in bondage to sin (Romans 7:14), but we are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13). "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17) By his grace, God enables us to receive him, but he respects even the most wretched, rebellious will in order to nurture it the point where it's fully surrendered to him. That's why Jesus stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20), instead of just kicking it down. He wants to meet us where we are and enable us to surrender, and the more we do so, the more we experience his sovereign grace in our lives, in the sense that everything we do and say is by his power. But he has also called us to perfect freedom, so even though he wants us to let him be everything in our lives, he doesn't force his way in.

I've seen in my own life how much God respects my will. He will spend years trying to get me to surrender in a particular area, using experiences, other people, Bible teachings, directs insights--and by the time I do, I submit willingly. Why doesn't he save himself the trouble and just overpower my will? Because I am called to freedom. Christ wants to be "all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11), but he wants friends, not slaves (John 15:15). The crowning glory of his creation is creatures who will someday reach the pinnacle of perfect freedom and complete surrender to his will. Only God can make such a thing possible, but it's not easy even for him, because he has chosen not to pull all the strings. So not everyone will share in that glory.

In this country, most of us don't question the importance of freedom, hence the song that goes, "I'm glad to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I'm thankful for the men who died and gave that right to me." Something in us recognizes that freedom is worth dying for. Since we are created in the image of God, is it such a stretch to say that he values freedom just as highly and that he's willing to make great sacrifices for it? If God had been content with puppets, evil would never had entered the world, and he would not have had to send his Son to die on the cross.

But having said all that, I also believe that God in his sovereignty can override a person's will. For example, when I pray for God to protect my children, I trust him to be a shield about them to protect them from evil people as well. God's hands are not tied because he respects the evil person's choice. In John 7:30, the authorities tried to seize Jesus but they couldn't because "his hour had not yet come." Nobody had the power to harm Jesus apart from the will of the Father.

Also, prayer for somebody else can be so powerful that it may bring a person to the point where he or she is unlikely to resist God's grace. Times of great revival were usually precipitated by fervent prayer. Prayer will light a spark of life and stir up a hunger where there was none, but it doesn't overpower someone's will. It is perhaps the most profound way in which we can be fellow workers with God, because we tap into the power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Through the cross, God's sovereignty in this world is equal to his sovereignty on the New Earth. Jesus fully disarmed all the spiritual forces of evil (Colossians 2:15), and "by his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). This is an objective, historical and spiritual reality. Through Christ, we have complete victory (1 Cor. 15:57) and access to the throne of grace, where we find mercy and grace in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Why is this world such a mess if evil was defeated on the cross? Because it is through faith we lay hold of this victory. "This is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." (1 John 5:4) Faith is as powerful as Christ's victory on the cross, because it is his victory.

Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (KJV) The word "substance" is key here, because the Greek word hypostasis means "reality, essence, substantial nature, assurance." So faith is far more than positive thinking--it is the reality or essence of the victory of Christ on the cross. In other words, it is the thing itself. I explain this further in The Substance of Things Hoped For.

This is very important to understand, because it shows why faith is so important. It is the means by which we receive the free gift, or as Charles Spurgeon said, "Faith is the hand that grasps." So faith, then, is our measure of an objective reality: Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. In other words, if we want to lay hold of God's will, we have to look to the cross.

How do we get faith? Three ways: By hearing the word of God, by surrender to God, and by abiding in Christ like a branch on a vine. Romans 10:7 says: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God." In order to have faith, we have to hear the gospel message. That is the seed of faith. Of course there's no way to believe if we've never heard the word of life. But even if we have been born again by the Spirit, we have to keep hearing the word in order to grow in our faith.

Surrender means that we yield our will, and that goes back to what I said about Jesus not kicking down the door. He has called us to freedom, right? So he will only fill us with his Spirit if we surrender to him. But you might have noticed that complete surrender is not that easy because it involves admitting defeat, and we would rather stake our little flag of self-sufficiency in the ground and die. And we actually do have to admit defeat. We have to realize that we're spiritually bankrupt, needy, weak--without God we're unable to do anything about the evil in our own hearts, let alone the evil in the world.

So what do we do if we intellectually recognize the need to surrender, but we can't do it? We take a step back and ask God to give us the desire to surrender. Let's say you don't buy a thing I've said, but if it's true, you would like it to be real in your life. Then you can take a step back even further and ask God to work in your mind, to bring intellectual faith. Maybe you hate religion altogether, but you're not completely settled in your atheism or agnosticism. You're not sure if it's Jesus you hate, or just the behavior of some of his so-called followers. Then tell God that. Wherever the barrier, he will meet us there. In the end, all the sons and daughters who are brought to glory will only be there by the power of God, and the smaller and more helpless we are in our own minds, the greater he is in our lives, because we will have exorcised the greatest enemy of all: Self.

The third way to have faith is to abide in Christ. That is, we have to spend time with him, and allow him to work through us like sap flows through a vine to the branches. John 15:7 goes so far as to say, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." But there's a catch here--if we abide in Christ we won't want a larger home or a more prestigious job. God will change our hearts so that we want his will. So we come full circle back to the Lord's Prayer: If we abide in Christ, we will have the power to lay hold of God's will, to make this world more like heaven. We will have the victory that overcomes the world: faith. (1 John 5:4)

So a person who lives by faith in Christ will surrender more and more fully to God's perfect sovereignty, while growing in freedom. The two are far from mutually exclusive; they are inexorably linked.


Daniel Gracely said...

Hi Annette,

While cruising the internet tonight I came across some of your comments on Am akin to you anti-Calvinist sentiment. I have written a book, a free online read, at which might serve as a helpful resource for you.

BTW, I appreciate your point that God's will does not happen by default, as the Lord's Prayer plainly tells us. Also, I'm impressed with your courage in entering the fray at Keep up the good work!

On another note, I can appreciate your effort in trying to write a novel, as I'm attempting to do the same. It's quite a task. Good luck with that!



Anette Acker said...

Thanks, Dan! I appreciate it. I look forward to taking a look at your book.

I wouldn't exactly say that I'm anti-Calvinist, because I love Piper's writing (and hopefully I'm not TOO brave on :). I like his focus on living entirely by faith in God's grace.

But I do have a problem with the restrictive language of TULIP, as well as the notion that everything happens in this fallen world exactly the way God wants it to. Interestingly, not even John MacArthur believes that.

Good luck with your novel!

Daniel Gracely said...

Hi Annette,

Since you mentioned John Piper, you may wish to check out my Supplement (the tab after Chapter 21), a refutation of John Piper’s article, “Are There Two Wills of God.” If you have time, chapter 2 (very short) and chapter 4 (relatively short) will help you understand the Supplement's arguments more easily.

BTW, if I may ask, are you writing your novel for the Christian or secular market? (granted, as a Christian). I’m attempting the latter, but wondering how difficult it will be to find a publisher. Any insights will be appreciated. I've tried the standard approach before with another book, i.e., going through the Writer's Market, trying to write the perfect query letter, looking up agents according to my book's subject category, etc.



Anette Acker said...


I read through a number of chapters in your book and really enjoyed it. What you say makes sense of some of my recent interactions with Calvinists for whom the rules of logic and plain meaning of language didn't seem to apply. It was very frustrating, and I quickly "agreed to disagree." It was interesting hearing it from a former Calvinist like yourself.

As for Piper, I do have a lot of respect for his teaching, but he confuses me. Future Grace is one of the best books of its kind that I have ever read, but it actually left me wondering if he was really a Calvinist. Here is a book that is thoroughly biblical, nuanced, and internally consistent, EXCEPT for the chapter on "the golden chain," which appears to be grafted on to placate Calvinists. (I did subsequently confirm that he is thoroughly Calvinist, even going so far as to say that he believes in "double predestination"--that some are predestined for Hell.)

Throughout the book, he tells us to "yield" to God's grace and not "nullify" grace by self-sufficiency. Who is he talking to? The elect? But for them grace is "irresistible," so how can they nullify it? The non-elect? But they are "totally depraved" and CANNOT accept God's grace. So who's Piper's target audience? His teaching in the book simply doesn't fit into the restrictive language of TULIP.

I read Piper's "The Two Wills of God" and found it unpersuasive. As you said, why does God even need "two wills" if he controls everything in the first place? If it depends only on his unbridled discretion, what possible reason could God have for not saving everyone?

I enjoy Piper's writing because, according to his website, his motto is "preach exegetically, explaining and applying what is in the text. If it sounds Arminian, let it sound Arminian." Most of the time, I agree with everything he says because he doesn't get into the theoretical questions of God's sovereignty and how exactly he saves us, the issues that divide Calvinists and Arminians.

But TULIP still bothers me because I've seen it confuse Calvinists on Desiring God to the point where it's a stumbling block. I've also talked to atheists who have rejected Christianity because of the Calvinistic interpretation of God's sovereignty.

So that's why I diplomatically (I hope) challenge TULIP on Desiring God. If it's adversely affecting eternal souls, it should be challenged. In one sense I do believe that it's adding something to the Bible because Calvinist apologists (like James White) seem to treat TULIP as the Constitution and individual Bible verses as statutes that must comply. And they will MAKE them comply. Why not just let God's word speak for itself?

Anyway, I'll step off my soapbox now (sorry).

As for your question about book publishing, I am currently aiming for the Christian market, but I am not published yet. My husband Rick is multi-published in the Christian market (CBA), and he would be happy to answer any questions you might have. His email address is

I don't know how hard it is to break into the secular market, but it might not be a bad idea for you because the CBA is very female dominated, which means that male authors have to be able to target female readers (not always easy). Rick writes legal/international thrillers, something that doesn't naturally appeal to sweet, middle-aged, traditional Christian women--THE predominant target audience. This is frustrating to a lot of male authors in the CBA.

What kind of novel are you working on?

Daniel Gracely said...

Hi Annette,

I’m glad if my book (on Calvinism) was of some use to you even though you already understand the situation. In fact, your rhetorical criticism of Piper is perfectly on target, and I don’t think I’ve seen it expressed more clearly and succinctly than in your paragraph. Kudos for this, and also for your courage in confronting error on

As for James White, I understand your exasperation. Again, you are exactly on target about how he makes a verse (or particular passage) of private interpretation and then conforms all others to it. In my most recent edition of my book, I added sections on James White and his treatment of “to foreknow.” (I like Thomas Edgar’s article on “to foreknow,” best out there.) I also discuss the Greek word dunamai (usually translated as “can”), and how R.C. Sproul understands “can” in John 6:44 according to formal, not INformal English, with erroneous result. Contrary to Sproul, I believe that the word “can” in the N.T. is shown to sometimes mean “to will” or “may,” depending on the context. I attempt to prove this by showing that to translate Gr. dunamai as “to be able to” (i.e., “can”) makes no sense in certain passages, such as in John 5:19, when Jesus says that the Son CAN (Gr. dunamai) do nothing except that which his Father shows him. For in fact Jesus later rhetorically asks Peter if He could not call 12 legions of angels for rescue, a contingent history which obviously was not something the Father intended the Son to do. Thus Gr. dunamai must mean “wills to” in John 5:19. (I explain dunamai further in my book and in my letter to Ravi Zacharias, the latter found at the bottom tab on my site.) Therefore Gr. dunamai acts like “can” in INformal, not formal, English. This has implications early in John 6 regarding the recently fed crowd who would COME to the Son, to make him King, contrasted with the COMING of man to God in John 6:44.

Along these lines, I have found that one cannot always rely on the standard lexicons. Why? Because they are sometimes Calvinistically biased. The fact is, lexical assumptions drives exegesis, interpretation, and lectionaries. Because many Christian theologians have leaned in the direction of Calvinism to one degree or another, many commentaries and lectionaries reflect Calvinist assumptions/ conclusions. Yet all theologians make lexical assumptions, Calvinist or not, and so the issue becomes whether a theologian is walking in the Spirit. My own view is that our assumptions are in fact our conclusions.

Incidentally, I have found that one vital question underlies the kind of apologetics a Christian will pursue--namely, What does it mean to be a person? In fact, this is the same rhetorical question you are driving at in your criticism of Piper, i.e., if a man’s content is not really his own, where is the man? And so, properly speaking, while God upholds the FORM of all things, including of man and of his power to create idea and choice, God never supplies the CONTENT of man. For if God supplied the CONTENT, then a person would not be a person. I personally believe that any creature (man, animal, angel, insect) brings the CONTENT of his or her own ideas and choices into being apart from prior cause. (In fact, even to recognize an idea AS AN IDEA is itself a choice.) Thus we have a proper separation between creature and Creator (and also between creature and non-creature), and, in the case of humans and angels, proper separation between the personhood of the Creator God and the personhood of men and angels.

Daniel Gracely said...

(part 2 of 2)
But as for novel writing, thank you for suggesting that I email your husband. I will do that, and certainly ask his advice. I wonder if he has considered writing for the secular market (since the CBA seems somewhat ill-fitting to him). Does he despair (maybe too strong a word), thinking he would have to compromise his writing to get published in the secular market? I grant this is a real problem for some Christian authors (myself included).

BTW, thanks for asking—my novel is about three brothers (at odds) who grew up on a farm, all of whom attend college, and how the youngest is persuaded into the worst kind of environmental extremism by an idealistic professor. In fact, the professor believes that previous cultures existed on earth as sophisticated as our own. But these came to their senses and so deconstructed their society in EVERY detail—brick by brick, book by book, technological ‘advance’ by technological ‘advance,’ etc. Hence, the evidence for them is NO evidence. This (the professor believes) echoes the truth in our own best theories about reality, expressed best by Stephen Gould’s evolutionary theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” in which the best evidence is NO evidence. Remnants of previous cultures nevertheless exist, e.g., in mythologies such as Adam and Eve, persons who in their perfect state ate what naturally grew, who themselves manufactured nothing (including clothes), and so were at peace with the environment for not having imposed anything of themselves over it. Stewardship over (evolutionary) creation is therefore sin. Creation AS IS, is God. The vision is therefore clear for today’s society: humans must deconstruct everything to achieve zero imposition on the environment. In this way humans recover their divinity. In fact, only then do humans truly become human.

I suppose my novel’s emphasis on irrationalism and doublethink stems from my study of Calvinism. But in fact my novel focuses much more on the interplay of characters than on any theoretical worldviews. Too much philosophy bores the reader. But the worldviews do help explain motive, so a little bit of this is included. Well, enough here.

How far along are you in your own novel, and can you explain it in more detail, and what a “spiritual thriller” is? Is it like that famous one by Frank Peretti? And are you aiming your novel for that staple of middle-aged female readership in the CBA of which you seem (with my sympathy) a little suspect? If so, I’ll recommend it to my wife! (She goes through a lot of those books.) But in her defense I should admit that readers can only read what is published. And then, too, publishing IS a business, isn’t it?



Daniel Gracely said...


I'm so sorry I've been spelling your name wrong. My wife Alison has had people do the same thing with her name, only with an extra "l" instead of "n." Again, my apologies.


Anette Acker said...

Thank you, Dan! I'm not familiar with much of the Greek, but I agree with you that the important thing is for a theologian to walk in the Spirit.

Your novel sounds very interesting. I think you are right to focus on the interpersonal relationships, with the philosophy woven in to help the reader understand the characters and the plot better.

Mine is about a boy who can see the supernatural realm (I have finished the first draft). It is somewhat like This Present Darkness, but maybe more character-driven. I try to portray spiritual warfare and other invisible realities in a more concrete, visual way. I'm not directly targeting the middle-aged Christian woman, but hoping to include that demographic in my target audience. I wouldn't say I'm "suspect" of them--my point was just that they are often a hard sell for male authors.

For now, Rick is focusing on the CBA. He has a book under contract with a publisher. But we're making sure that there's plenty of interpersonal relations, romance, etc., and that he limits the scenes onboard a ship with characters looking for a Nazi submarine using an ROV. Although women have definitely liked his books too, Amish fiction and prairie romances are the bread and butter of the CBA.

Daniel Gracely said...

Hi Anette,

Just wanted to wish you well on your novel. It must be a relief of sorts to be through the first draft. My wife finished reading a novel this year that attempted (from the author's perspective) to make the invisible more concrete--she said the novel was very creepy. Well, arguably I guess the reader turning the page is what it's about.

Interesting, your comment about the prarie and amish. It explains why I see these titles around in Acme, Walmart.

Again, good luck with the novel.


Anette Acker said...

Thank you, Dan! I wish you well on your novel, too.

BTW, Piper's post from yesterday ("How Clear Differences Unite Humanity") might answer my question about him. He is saying by implication that he is "biblically oriented" and not "systems oriented."

And I personally love much Reformed writing (Andrew Murray is one of my favorite author), I just have a huge problem with TULIP as a system. As we've discussed, it gives rise to so many logical inconsistencies and untruths about God. And I don't particularly like John Calvin, either. He was at best controlling, which one would expect from his theology.

To me, John Calvin and George Whitefield mix like oil and water, but wouldn't it be just like God to bring someone like Whitefield out of Calvin's legacy?