Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sovereignty vs. Freedom―Part I

The question of how to reconcile the total sovereignty of God and man’s freedom has been one of the most intractable theological problems that Christian theologians have had to deal with. The scriptures teach that God is totally sovereign over his creation, meaning that he has complete control, authority, and governance over the whole of creation. Nothing happens “by chance” that he is not aware of and cannot control. If that was not the case, we would have no guarantee that a stray comet would not hit the earth by chance, and wipe out all life on earth, before God knew anything about or be able to stop it. He is either fully sovereign, 100% sovereign, or else not sovereign at all. To be aware of every rogue comet in the universe, he must be aware of every rogue molecule as well, otherwise there is no guarantee that a rogue molecule will not snowball into a rogue comet. His sovereignty and control over his creation must be absolute. There are many scriptures that point to the total sovereignty of God. Here are some references:

Job 42:

2 I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.

Psalms 115:

3 But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.

Psalms 135:

6 Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.

Proverbs 16:

9 A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.

Isaiah 14:

24 The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand:
• • •
27 For the Lord of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?

Isaiah 46:

9 Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,
10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:

Daniel 4:

35 And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?

Acts 15:

18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.

This, however, would appear at first sight to come into conflict with the concept of human freedom. How can God be totally sovereign, and in total control of the universe; and man at the same time be totally free to do that he wants? What if the two “wills” conflict with each other? What if man wants to, or decides to do something that would lead to something that is ultimately inimical to God’s purpose or will? Either man is not free, or God is not totally sovereign. How do we reconcile the two? How can man be totally free, and God be totally sovereign at the same time? There are many lectures, sermons, and articles on the Internet in which various theologians, notably Reformed and Evangelical theologians, have wrestled with this issue, but without much success. I have chosen the above sermon by John MacArthur to comment on partly because he gets to the point better than most of the others do; and partly because a written transcript of it was available on their website, which saved me the trouble of having to transcribe any of it from the video myself.

The answer to that question is actually a lot simpler than they think. The answer is that while man is free to do what he wants (and be accountable for it), his freedom is limited by three factors: (1) by his knowledge, (2) by his power, and (3) by his presence, or sphere of influence. Whereas God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent; man is not. Man is extremely limited (compared to God) in all of those areas of influence. To draw an analogy, I have a friend who has a large aquarium in his house, full of exotic and colorful tropical fishes. He provides them with everything they need to live happily and comfortably in that environment. The fishes in his aquarium are totally “free” to do whatever they want. But how much “freedom” do they really have compared to the fishes in the ocean? There is no comparison. The fishes in his aquarium don’t even know that there is an ocean out there where they could be a lot freer and happier. And my friend has full control over his aquarium. He can do what he wants with them. If one of the fishes turned nasty started beating up the other fishes, he can do something about it. It is not a perfect analogy for human freedom vs. God’s sovereignty, but it serves to illustrate a point.

While man is free to do as he wills, he is not free to determine what the ultimate outcome of his actions will be. That is in the hands of God. I have the freedom to go downtown and mug an old lady if I wanted to. I could even imagine and predict what the immediate outcome of that might be. But I have no control over what the ultimate and overall outcome of it might be. I can’t do anything that might inadvertently frustrate God’s plan and outcome in the long run. There is no action I can take that is not already known to God in advance, and that he cannot therefore plan for so that my actions will not frustrate his ultimate plans, whatever they may be. One of the most important elements of God’s omniscience is his perfect foreknowledge of the future. He knows the end from the beginning, and therefore he can plan and make contingency arrangements so that my actions, freely taken by me as far as I am concerned, do not frustrate his ultimate plan. That is how man can be perfectly free (within the sphere of influence that God has placed him), without at the same time encroaching on God’s total sovereignty. And God has appointed a day judgement and restitution in which everything will then be restored to the way it should be as though nothing had happened to frustrate it. In the Book of Mormon the word “resurrection” is made synonymous with “restoration”. It is a time when everything will be “restored” to the way it should be according to the will of God, so that nothing untowards will have happened in the meantime by the free actions of man that would frustrate God’s plan. Only man will have been fully accountable for his actions, and will receive a just reward for them, either good or bad. And God will be perfectly sovereign overall. John MacArthur has expressed the theological dilemma in these words:

“When you believe in the divine sovereignty of God, as Scripture lays it out, you face the problem of how does human will fit into that? If God has ordained everything, if God has prewritten history, if God is in charge of everything, if God purposes and fulfills His purposes, then just exactly how do we fit in? How does human will fit in? Or, in fact, does God divine decree eliminate human will? If God has planned it all, purposed it all, defined it all, predetermined it all, predestined it all, then does human will play any part? And what about human responsibility?”

Except that that is an incorrect way of expressing it. That is the Reformed/Calvinistic way of expressing it, which is all wrong. Calvinism’s answer to that problem is to deny human freewill altogether, and opt for complete predestination and predetermination of everything, which is entirely unbiblical and false. God has not “prewritten” history, nor “predetermined” or “predestined” it. Man is perfectly free to act according to his will within the limitations outlined above. But God being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, determines what the outcome will be without infringing on man’s freewill.

God sees all of future history like a movie; and he has determined how the movie will ultimately end. But that does not mean that he has predetermined and predestined exactly how every act and every scene in that movie will be played out. Man by his own freewill makes the contribution to it that his circumstance make it possible for him to do. His actions are not predestined or predetermined. Just because God is able to see it like a movie, it does not mean that man has no control over his own actions. What is does mean is that God is in overall control, and determines what the outcome will be. Knowing the end from the beginning, he is able to put in motion a chain of events so that man’s free actions will not frustrate God’s ultimate purpose and plan. That ultimate goal will receive its final consummation when the final “restitution of all things” will have taken place.

For the remainder of this post I am going to quote selectively from John MacArthur’s sermon, and point out the theological as well as scriptural errors he has made. In his sermon he quotes a number of passages from the Bible, and draws inferences from them. His first quote is from the tenth chapter of Isaiah, and how God uses the aggressive nature of the Assyrians to punish Israel for their sins. The first obvious mistake he has made is that he has seriously misunderstood chapter 10 of Isaiah. The Assyrians never conquered Jerusalem. They conquered the northern kingdom of Samaria, and a few Jewish cities as well in the south; but they were never able to conquer Jerusalem (Zion). In fact, the “woe” that God pronounces on Assyria is precisely because of their arrogance and pride in wanting to destroy Jerusalem as well, which God is not going to allow. Here are the verses that he has missed:

Isaiah 10:

24 Therefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, O my people that dwellest in Zion [Jerusalem], be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod, and shall lift up his staff against thee, after the manner of Egypt.
25 For yet a very little while, and the indignation shall cease, and mine anger in their destruction.
26 And the Lord of hosts shall stir up a scourge for him according to the slaughter of Midian at the rock of Oreb: and as his rod was upon the sea, so shall he lift it up after the manner of Egypt.
27 And it shall come to pass in that day, that his burden shall be taken away from off thy shoulder, and his yoke from off thy neck, and the yoke shall be destroyed because of the anointing.

That is what actually happened. The Assyrian armies came and encircled the city of Jerusalem, insulted the Jews who stood on the walls of the city, wrote a letter to king Hezekiah, insulted the Jews and blasphemed against Jehovah, and threatened the Jews with all manner of retribution. Then Hezekiah went and prayed to the Lord in the temple the following prayer:

2 Kings 19:

14 And Hezekiah received the letter of the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up into the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord.
15 And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said, O Lord God of Israel, which dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth.
16 Lord, bow down thine ear, and hear: open, Lord, thine eyes, and see: and hear the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent him to reproach the living God.
17 Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have destroyed the nations and their lands,
18 And have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them.
19 Now therefore, O Lord our God, I beseech thee, save thou us out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord God, even thou only.

That prayer was answered by the Lord through Isaiah in these words:

2 Kings 19:

20 Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, That which thou hast prayed to me against Sennacherib king of Assyria I have heard.
21 This is the word that the Lord hath spoken concerning him; The virgin the daughter of Zion hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn; the daughter of Jerusalem hath shaken her head at thee.
22 Whom hast thou reproached and blasphemed? and against whom hast thou exalted thy voice, and lifted up thine eyes on high? even against the Holy One of Israel.
23 By thy messengers thou hast reproached the Lord, and hast said, With the multitude of my chariots I am come up to the height of the mountains, to the sides of Lebanon, and will cut down the tall cedar trees thereof, and the choice fir trees thereof: and I will enter into the lodgings of his borders, and into the forest of his Carmel.
24 I have digged and drunk strange waters, and with the sole of my feet have I dried up all the rivers of besieged places.
25 Hast thou not heard long ago how I have done it, and of ancient times that I have formed it? now have I brought it to pass, that thou shouldest be to lay waste fenced cities into ruinous heaps.
26 Therefore their inhabitants were of small power, they were dismayed and confounded; they were as the grass of the field, and as the green herb, as the grass on the housetops, and as corn blasted before it be grown up.
27 But I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me.
28 Because thy rage against me and thy tumult is come up into mine ears, therefore I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest.
29 And this shall be a sign unto thee, Ye shall eat this year such things as grow of themselves, and in the second year that which springeth of the same; and in the third year sow ye, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat the fruits thereof.
30 And the remnant that is escaped of the house of Judah shall yet again take root downward, and bear fruit upward.
31 For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and they that escape out of mount Zion: the zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this.
32 Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shield, nor cast a bank against it.
33 By the way that he came, by the same shall he return, and shall not come into this city, saith the Lord.
34 For I will defend this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake.
35 And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.
36 So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.
37 And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.

See also Isaiah chapter 37. So John MacArthur demonstrates a very shallow understanding of Isaiah, as well as of Jewish history. But returning now to the main subject of reconciling God’s sovereignty with man’s freedom, the conclusions that he draws from the Assyrian invasion of Jerusalem are equally erroneous. After embarking on a lengthy and convoluted narrative, he comes to the following conclusion:

“On the one hand, Assyria is an instrument under the divine sovereign decree and power of God, doing what God has ordained it to do. On the other hand, fully culpable, fully guilty and to be judged for the very acts that they did.

“Now if you’re looking in there for an explanation for how that goes together? There isn’t one. It just does...it just does. Scripture doesn’t say anymore. There are no qualifiers, caveats, explanations.”

I am afraid he is wrong about that. There is an explanation. It is the one I gave at the the beginning of this post. I explained at the beginning of this post how man can be fully accountable and free in his actions, without impinging on God’s sovereignty; and how God can be fully sovereign, while man retaining his full freedom of action as well as his accountability. That is because they operate at different levels of power and influence. Assyria does freely whatever he wants and chooses to do as he wills it. The fact that God knows in advance what Assyria intends to do and will do, and has other aims to achieve by it that Assyria itself knows nothing about; and that God makes use of Assyria’s aggressive intentions to accomplish what God wants to be achieved by it, rather than what Assyria thinks he is achieving by it, does not mean that Assyria’s actions were not freely made, or that Assyria was “predestined” to do what they did. There is no contradiction between the two. Both Assyria’s freewill and God’s sovereignty can exist side by side, because they operate at different levels of power and influence. God can be fully sovereign, while man retaining his full freedom and accountability at the same time. Man operates at the “aquarium” level, so to speak, while God operates at the “ocean” level (which engulfs the aquarium). Assyria can operate with complete freedom and autonomy (and accountability) within the limited sphere in which God has placed it; while God is totally sovereign and in control of everything at the same time. That is how man can retain his freedom, and God his sovereignty at the same time. I will end this post here, and continue a discussion of the remainder of his sermon in a subsequent post.

Revised January 30, 2018.

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