Dear Pastor Lawyer,
Lately, as I read my Bible, I keep coming to passages that seem to teach that God causes things to happen to people. I thought men had free will. How can God control all that happens if men have free will? Thanks,
This is a good question. It’s also a question that Christians and philosophers have been trying to deal with for as long as men have been able to think. If God is God, how can anything happen outside of his control? The answer is usually given in one of two ways. Either man is sovereign over his own affairs and is thus free from the control of God, or God is in control and men are mere puppets in his hand. Each of these answers is extreme to some degree, but they are both answers to what seems to be an either/or question.
Without going into too much detail, let me get one thing out before discussing the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in choices that we make. That is, men do not have free wills. Our hearts controls our wills. The Bible says that what we say and do is an expression of what is in our heart. It reveals who we are, what our natures are. The will is only the “arm of God” which shows us what we are by nature. What this means is that when we make a decision, it is not our wills that tell us what to do, but our hearts. Our will follows after our heart.
Having said this, let me also quickly add that what we want to do is what we do. And because we do what we want to do, we are held accountable and responsible before God for those decisions. The Bible is clear that the judgment we face when we meet God will be based on what we choose to do, because that is what we have done, and thus what we are responsible for.
The Bible also teaches that the things that happen do so because God wills them to be so. This is true even of things that are sinful. For example, Joseph told his brothers, after they sold him into slavery, that while they had meant it for evil, God meant it for good. It is clear that the brothers were held responsible for their sin, but also that God had caused the event to happen in order that what he had told Abraham several generations earlier would be fulfilled. Another example where this is clear is in the events surrounding Jesus’ death. The Old Testament says he would be opposed by the kings and leaders. King Herod and the other leaders of Israel killed him, and the Apostles say that God caused it all to happen for the salvation of his people (cf. Psalm 2:2; Acts 4:26-28). One more example should suffice: in Exodus, Moses was sent by God to ask Pharaoh to let his people go. Before going, God told Moses that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that when Pharaoh finally did let the people go, it would be clear that it was a miracle of God. Then, when Moses went before Pharaoh, the text says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It also says in various other places that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The point is that both are happening at the same time. In all of these examples and many others, God is sovereignly causing events to happen to bring himself glory, and men are responsibly choosing to do the things they do.
So, to answer your question, Roger, the answer is: We do not have free wills. Our wills are in bondage to our hearts. We make decisions based on what is in our hearts. Within the arena of what our hearts will allow us to choose, we do choose freely. And God is sovereignly in charge of all that happens. He causes everything to happen and we choose to do what we will do on the earth. It is not an either/or question. Seen Biblically, it is a both/and question. Men choose with full responsibility, and God causes absolutely. I hope that helps,