Resolving the Tension Between Free Will and Divine Sovereignty

“Autonomy is the illegitimate, illicit reach of creatures made in submission to a sovereign God.” ~ R. C. Sproul

The subject of God’s sovereignty and human freedom is difficult to discuss, because there is mystery surrounding the topic, and there is raw emotion that flashes as opposing arguments are set forth. Some of the negative emotion is rooted in a desire to protect God from being viewed as unloving, and unmerciful. Therefore, the sovereignty of God is restricted. Individuals are made solely responsible for their ultimate state of existence. Some of the emotion can be traced to the anger of losing one’s freedom. Individuals do not want to feel like they are a puppet on a string. Therefore, the will of an individual is said to triumph over the will of God.

 Nevertheless, the Christian must enter into the dialogue, because the Scriptures teach that God is sovereign in the universe of His creation. “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all. 12 Both riches and honour come of thee, and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all” (1 Chron. 29:11-12). The Bible also teaches every person is a responsible creature, and shall be held accountable. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).

While the sovereignty of God, and the free will of man sounds like a contradiction, and from a human point of view it is, from a divine perspective it is not. One day God will make this matter clear to all. This is the promise of Jesus who said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

The concept of God’s sovereignty must not only be discussed, but declared time and again in the Church, because the tendency of human nature is to denigrate the sovereignty of God, and exalt self. This truth is reflected in the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903).

Out of the night that covers me, 
  Black as the Pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be   
  For my unconquerable soul.   

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
  I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
  My head is bloody, but unbowed.   

Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
  Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years   
  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   

It matters not how strait the gate, 
  How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate:
  I am the captain of my soul.

If individuals are the masters of their fate, and the captain of their souls, then God is not sovereign. Conversely, if God is sovereign, and has determined the beginning and the end of all things, than individuals are not the ultimate masters of their fate, nor the captain of their souls. The Bible declares that, even “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21;1). There is a divine limitation to what any individual can do, including a king, who has the power and wealth of an empire at his disposal.

Attention should be turned to Genesis 50:15-20.

“And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. 16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, 17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. 18 And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants. 19 And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? 20 But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

The background for this moment involved one of the most despicable and cold-blooded acts of betrayal in the history of any family, for the brothers of Joseph had sold him into slavery out of petty jealous. As the youngest son of Jacob at that time, Joseph was favored by his father. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours” (Gen. 37:3).

Joseph made the relationship with his brothers worse, by telling them about a dream he had whereby they bowed down to him in honor. “And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: 7 For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. 8 And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words” (Gen. 37:7-8).

While it was wrong for Jacob to show favoritism to Joseph, while it was not helpful for Joseph to reveal dreams to his brothers, the situation spiraled out of control when they plotted to kill him. “And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Gen. 37:19-20).

In the providence of God, when Reuben heard of the plot against the 17-year-old Joseph, he suggested an alternative plan, saying, “Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit, that is in the wilderness” (Gen. 37:22). It was the plan of Reuben to rescue Joseph and return him to their father. So, Joseph was stripped of his distinguishing garments and cast into the pit, without food or water. If a wild animal did not come and kill him, if the scorching heat of the dessert did not suffocate him, starvation and lack of water would cause his death. Dark were the thoughts of the brothers of Joseph. Dastardly were their deeds. Ruthless and calculating were their actions.

Having cast Joseph into the pit, the brothers sat down to eat a fellowship meal. The cries of Joseph from the pit pleading with them for mercy could be heard, but to no avail. Such is the hardness of the human heart. It is in bondage to sin and death.

As the brothers were eating their food, a traveling caravan of Midianite merchants passed, and the plans for Joseph changed again. He was lifted out of the pit, and sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver, a trivial amount of money at the time. Since Joseph was deemed as worthless, the price was of no importance.

With the sell of Joseph into slavery, the brothers devised with their wicked imaginations a narrative to tell their father. Taking the garment, the brothers had stripped from Joseph, and dipping it in blood, Jacob was informed that an evil beast had devoured his favored son. Joseph had been torn limb from limb. Only the body carcass was left.

This was a believable story. Their crime of murder would not be exposed, or so the brothers thought. They were wrong, for in the providence of God, Joseph did not die in slavery, he prospered in a remarkable way.

Taken into Egypt, Joseph was resold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s and captain of the guard (Gen. 37:36). The Lord was with Joseph as he matured as a young man, so that Joseph prospered to the point he was trusted to be the overseer of the Potiphar’s house (Gen. 39:4). The officer of Egypt understood the principle of blessing by association. Potiphar knew that it was because of Joseph, he too prospered (Gen. 39:5).

Then the time came when Potiphar’s wife lusted after the intelligent and handsome young man. When her immoral sexual advances were resisted by Joseph, she lied in rage about what had transpired between them. While Potiphar responded, and put Joseph in prison, it is possible he suspected his wife was lying, for Joseph was not put to death, as the circumstances demanded if the accusation was true (Gen. 39:7-20).

While in prison, the Lord was still with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. Joseph was given a place of responsibility, which allowed him to know all the other prisoners, and be a witness to them. Though falsely imprisoned year after year, Joseph never lost his faith (Gen. 39:21-23).

Because Joseph never departed from the Lord, he was able to help two prisoners who dreamed dreams they could not understand. Joseph could interpret the dreams because it is God who gives understanding to those who seek His face. It is God who reveals what is true and what will come to pass (Gen. 40:5-23).

Because of his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph was eventually freed to interpret the disturbing dreams of the Pharoah (Gen. 41:1-38). In gratitude, the Pharoah “took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; 43 And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:42-43).

Because the Pharoah listened to Joseph, and gave him total control over the vast economy of Egypt, when famine came to Israel, the family of Jacob was able to go to Egypt for grain (Gen. 41:56, 57).

When the Hebrews came into the court of the Pharoah, they were met by Joseph, whom they did not recognize. Joseph knew his brothers, but they did not know him (Gen. 42:8). In the days and months to come, great drama unfolded, leading to the breath-taking moment when the Prime Minister of Egypt revealed himself to his brothers.

With tears in his eyes, and in a loud voice, Joseph said unto his brothers, “I am Joseph; doth my father yet live? And his brethren could not answer him; for they were troubled at his presence. 4 And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. 5 Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 42- 45:3). One life that was preserved was Jacob, his father, whom Joseph desperately wanted to see. And it happened. There was a happy reunion.

The end of the story comes when Jacob dies and the brothers realize, they do not have their father to shield them from a just retribution, if Joseph were so inclined. The brothers of Joseph are now terrified, and wonder what he will do to them. They suddenly recognized that Joseph had every right under the sun to hate them for what they had done to him, and to Jacob. Moreover, Joseph had the ability to destroy them.

The brothers came to believe that Joseph would behave toward them the same way they had treated him. The Bible says, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth” (Prov. 28:1). Joseph is not like his brothers. Any pursuing of his brothers is to do good to them, despite the despicable actions they had taken against him. Such is the nature of grace. It loves, and loves again. There was no rage in the mind of Joseph. There was no jealousy in his heart.

Because his brothers did not know the good and godly man Joseph was, they thought they had to beg him for forgiveness. “So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph, Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father” (Gen. 50:16 – 17, RSV).

When Joseph heard these words, he wept. Joseph wept because the brothers acknowledged their sin. Whether the confession was rooted in a fear of punishment, or in contrition over what they had done, they at least acknowledged their transgressions, and Joseph wept.  Joseph wept because his brothers needed forgiveness. He wept because of his own capacity for compassion. He wept because prophecy was fulfilled as his brothers bowed before him. Oh, God is so good. God had not lied. His word was fulfilled.

This is what happened next.

“And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants” (Gen. 50:18).

The repentance and submission of the brothers before Joseph foreshadowed what the prodigal son did in the New Testament story. There we read that when the son came to himself, he arose from living among the pigs, and came to his father, and said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son (Luke 15:20-21).

The young man was saying, “I am not worthy to be your son. I just want to be in your house. Make me as one of your slaves. It is sufficient, and I will never leave again.”

Is it any wonder the father immediately forgave his wayward son, clothed him in new garments and made preparations for a feast? That which was lost had been found.

As the father forgave his son, so Joseph forgave his brothers, and restored to them the blessings of his own riches.

Joseph gathered his brothers around him, and said unto them, “Fear not. Though you thought evil against me; God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them” (Gen. 50:19-21).

The brothers had nothing to fear from Joseph, though they had much to learn from him about the sovereignty of God, and their own willful actions.

What the brothers could learn from Joseph is that God is sovereign over every facet of His creation, and over every event in a person’s life. Joseph had had many years to think about this matter during his many years in slavery, in prison, and in his sudden exaltation to a position of power and prominence. God had a reason for everything to happen. Indeed, God ordained all things that came to pass.

Chapter 3 of the Baptist Confession of 1689 asserts, “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass.” The Psalmist said, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases” (Psalms 115:3).

Joseph came to understand this truth, and it comforted him. The sovereignty of God drove out any lingering seed of bitterness Joseph may have been tempted to harbor. It gave him peace of mind, confidence in the present, and hope for the future. Joseph understood that God does all things well. He works all things after the purpose of His own will, and for the good of those who love Him.

Even in the evil that was done to Joseph, God was sovereign. Joseph understood that his brothers could not have hurt him unless God so decreed it.

Certainly, the brothers engaged in many evil acts. They hated Joseph without a case. They plotted to murder him. They threw him into a pit, and ignored his tears and cries. They sold him into slavery. The brothers watched, as the caravan Joseph was compelled to join travelled on. They concocted a story that brought needless pain and sorrow to their father. They protected each other from being held accountable. In all of this diabolical activity, the sovereignty of God was involved.

God could have arrested the madness of the men, but he decreed all of the events to take place to achieve His own goal of raising Joseph up to save many lives in the distant future.

In the midst of pain and suffering, humans turn their eyes to heaven, and ask why? God does not always immediately answer, but the heart can believe the Lord does have His own purpose for all that is said and done. In due time, God may even reveal His reason, but not always, so the true believer can say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him” (Job 13:15).

Joseph believed in a God, who worked all things together for those who love Him. Joseph loved God, knowing that God first loved him. Joseph believed the Lord God of the Universe would work out all things according to His own purpose. God has the sovereign power even to work the treachery of the brothers of Joseph to fulfill His purpose.

There are some who hear the story of Joseph and his brothers, and move to vindicate the brothers who were simply doing the will of God. Such is the perversion of the fallen heart of man, it begins to mock the sovereignty of God. Instead of saying, “The Devil made me do it?”, they say, “The sovereign God made me do it!” So, how can God find fault with what the evil people commit when they are part of His decretive will?

This line of reasoning is not new. When Adam was confronted with his act of disobedience, Adam argued that it was God who had given him the women who caused him to do wrong. In the mind of fallen Adam, God was ultimately responsible for evil in the universe, and in the world.

Had the brothers of Joseph been more alert, and more articulate, they might have told him they were simply doing God’s will when they sold him into slavery.

Joseph, of course would challenge that and say, as he did, “What you did to me was wrong! It was evil!” Moreover, the brothers knew they had done evil to Joseph (50:15, 17, 20).

It is only the exceeding sinfulness of fallen man that calls good evil, or evil good. This is only done in order to justify behavior that is morally reprehensible. Moreover, the evil that individuals do is deliberate. “You meant it,” said Joseph to his brothers. Sin is a deliberate act of the will, and is rooted in two principles: the will to power, and the pleasure it brings.

Eve meant to eat of the forbidden fruit. She meant to offer it to Adam.

Adam meant to eat the forbidden fruit offered to him. He was not deceived. He wanted to do wrong.

Jacob meant to deceive his blind and dying father, Isaac, in order to receiving his important blessing.

Every inordinate lustful act a person commits is a willful act. It is done in order to enjoy the pleasure of the moment.

Every angry explosion is a willful act. A person means to say what is on their mind, no matter how vicious or hurtful it may be to self or others.

The brothers of Joseph meant to hurt him. They meant to kill him, and then they meant to enslave him.

Nevertheless, what the brothers designed to do out of the wicked imaginations of their hearts, God meant for good. God’s intent in what came to pass was altogether righteous. Therein is the chasm between what evil intends to do, and what God intends will happen.

In a profound and mysterious way, God has in His capacity the ability to work through the sinful behavior of individuals, to achieve a righteous end that glorifies Him.

The greatest illustration of this truth is the cross. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter stands to affirm that what happened to Jesus was rooted in the “determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” Nevertheless, the crucifixion was done by “wicked hands” (Acts 2:23). Those to whom Peter preached were justly accused of having wicked hands, because they killed Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22).

Calvary was not an accident. Calvary was not the jealous passions of men suddenly reaching a breaking point so that they snapped emotionally, and did not comprehend what they were doing in a moment of violence. Calvary was decreed before the foundations of the earth. The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 1 Peter 1:19-20). Yet, Calvary was brought to pass by the most evil men who have ever walked the earth. Jesus died by wicked human hands.

The cross was not an accident. John makes that perfectly clear. Jesus knew Calvary was not an accident. It was the will of the Father. The prophet Isaiah said that it pleased the Father to crush Him. “He hath put Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10).

On the opposite side of that truth, is the fact that the Cross was perpetrated by men who crucified Jesus with wicked hands. The scribes and Pharisees meant it for evil.  Caiaphas meant to destroy Jesus. Pilate meant to kill Jesus. But over and above the human passions and decisions that emanated from the evil inclinations, imaginations, and impulses of fallen humans was the sovereign will of Almighty God. He would bring out good. So, the Church calls that day, Good Friday. It was good that Jesus died so that you and I might live.

What God caused to come to pass, despite the most evil act in the history of the world, was good. Jesus died for His people (Matt. 1:21). He saw the travail of His soul and was satisfied (Isaiah 53:11).

Returning to Genesis 50, notice the words of the text in verse 20, as Joseph speaks to his brothers saying. “You thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.”

Those words, “God meant it for good” express a purpose. The purpose of God is stated.”

“God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

All of the pain and suffering Joseph was compelled to endure had the divine purpose of saving the lives of many people, not just for time, but for all eternity, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is embedded in the narrative. Joseph is a type of Christ, who endured unjust pain and suffering, in order that He might bring many sons into glory (Heb. 2:10).

After Joseph declared unto his brethren the purpose of God, he went on to say, “I will nourish [provide for] you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them” (Gen. 50:21).

Again, that is exactly what Jesus does to every soul He forgives and saves. The Lord Jesus comforts His people, and speaks kindly to them, and they will dwell in His house forevermore.

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city, where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that silver lined.

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely
I’m not discouraged I’m heaven bound
I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city
I want a mansion, a harp and a crown

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold.

~Jimmie Davis

When considering the story of Joseph and his brothers, attention is drawn to the importance of the details in the narrative. Each detail formed a chain link to the next, that culminated in the brothers of Joseph bowing before him on that divinely ordained day. In retracing the events, the pivotal moment might very well be the day Joseph was born to an elderly father, who began to shower him with favoritism, manifested in the coat of many colors, which produced jealousy in his brothers, which led to hatred when young Joseph shared his dreams, which led to a raging desire to kill him, which led to his enslavement, at an amazingly opportune time, and on to his being sold into slavery, when Potiphar was conveniently looking for a slave, which led to prison, due to a false accusation by an unscrupulous woman, which led to his encounter with just the right prisoners, which led to his unique ability to interpret Pharoah’s dream in the royal court, which led to the day of recognition of his brothers, and then to reconciliation, restitution, and a renewed relationship with his family, that lasted to the end of Joseph’s life. Was all of these events taking place by blind chance, or guided by some cosmic fate? No! It was God who was there all the time.

Have you ever considered all of the events in your own life that led to your salvation, beginning with the day of your birth? Have you ever retraced the circumstances that brought you to the gospel? Have you ever wondered why you have been chosen by God to be an heir of salvation?

Have you ever considered how God was there for you all the time? He was there on the day of your birth. He was there in the family of His choice for you. He was there as you grew to maturity. He was there in your rebellious years. He was there when you were openly hostile to the gospel, and actively sought to harm anyone who dared to tell you about the need to repent, and be saved. He was there through all the years of searching for peace in the world, while allowing unholy passions to express themselves in the darkness of the night. He was there when you came under the sound of the gospel, and the Spirit said, “Live!” and you were born from above. You did not stumble across the gospel. The Lord was there all the time to guide you to the very place where you believed, because you had been born of God (1 John 5:1).

In light of all that God has done, and continues to do in the life of every individual, it is heartbreaking to find a Christian questioning the sovereignty of God, while trying to exalt human freedom. Though it is troubling, an inquiry into God’s sovereignty, and human responsibility, does arise, and must be addressed.

The temptation arises, when discussing the topic, to over emphasize one position against the other, leaving many confused and frustrated. Someone who believes in the sovereignty of God might emphasize that facet of God’s essence, to the point of fatalism, whereby a person has no choice in what they say or do. Likewise, someone who believes in the freedom of the will might exalt the will of man to the point that even God Himself cannot violate it. This was the stated position of the renowned evangelist, Billy Graham. Mr. Graham told countless millions of people that God never interferes with their will.

“You have a will of your own when He made you. He made you in His image. You can reject Him. You can go to your grave rejecting Jesus Christ and there is nothing God can do about it. He will do everything in His power to warn you. He will do everything in His power to bring incidents across your path to stop you, but He won’t trespass on your will. That is something you have to decide” (“The Hands of Jesus”, Billy Graham Classics, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1977).

Mr. Graham was not alone in his thinking that God is limited in saving a soul. Millions of people exalt the will of man to the point they would affirm, “God can do nothing about” the decisions that are made by an individual.

Traditionally the argument is simplistically stated, that if God is sovereign, individuals cannot really be free, and if individuals are free, God cannot be sovereign.

One illustration that has been used to avoid any in-depth discussion of this topic is to declare that God’s sovereignty, and human freedom, are like parallel railroad tracks that meet in eternity. While that logic might initially sound profound, and relegate the conversation to an unsolvable mystery, the statement is really nonsensible because, if any set of parallel lines meet in Chicago, or California, or Kansas City, let alone in eternity, they are not really parallel. Real parallel lines never meet, anywhere. That is what makes them parallel lines.

Another illustration trying to explain the relationship between human freedom and the sovereignty of God, is to imagine a bucket being let down into a well in order to draw water. The two ropes attached to the bucket unite in a pully in the depth of the well, as water fills the bucket. That is where the connection and the unity take place, out of sight, in a darkness beyond the scope of human vision, and understanding. 

While pastors, professors, and theologians struggle to explain the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility, what can be affirmed, is that there is no contradiction involved, there is no real mystery.

There is God, who is a Being, and there are humans, made in His image, who are beings. When each is spoken about, God is called the Supreme Being, and individuals are called Human Beings. The main issue is to understand which one is Supreme.

If the point is conceded that God is Supreme, then any concern and controversy ends, and the next point can be made. God, the Supreme Being is a volitional Being. God has a will. In His divine essence, God has the capacity to make decisions, and to enforce them, for He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.

Humans are also volitional creatures. But, humans are not omnipotent, omniscient, nor can they be omnipresent in the universe.

While the Creator has endowed His creation with the faculty of choosing, that faculty called the will, is never fully independent of the Supreme Being, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28).

Individuals do have the ability to make choices. That is what is actually being discussed when there is talk about freedom. Does a person have freedom to choose one thing over another? The biblical answer is a qualified, “Yes.”

The qualification is needed, because, there are boundaries placed on the will of man. Balaam discovered this when he tried to curse the nation of Israel. Instead of cursing the people of God, as he intended to do, Balaam blessed them. His story is told in Numbers 22 – 24.

Saul of Tarsus discovered the will of man has boundaries. While “yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. 3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:1-5). Saul set out to destroy the Christian faith. He intended to arrest men and women of The Way, and bring them in chains to Jerusalem to stand trial in an ecclesiastical court.

God had other plans for Saul of Tarsus, and it did not include arresting the disciples of Jesus.  Saul was destined by God for better things for he was a chosen vessel to God, to proclaim His name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15).

In like manner, all humans, though made in the image of God are not designed to be Supreme Beings, with power to usurp the will of God. Humans are subject to the Sovereign in all things.

Tragically, this simple truth of human limitations, and limitations on what the will can and cannot do, has been obscured by the erroneous teaching of fallen philosophers, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz (July 1, 1646 – Nov. 14, 1716). Liebniz is regarded as the founder of a school of philosophy known as Personalism, which exalts “the centrality of the person as the ultimate explanatory, epistemological, ontological, and axiological principle of all reality” (“Personalism”, Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The philosophy of Personalism trys to answer the question, “What makes human beings unique?” “What is it that defines a person as a human being?” What defines humans as a person rather than a thing?”

The answer that came to Liebniz and others is that human beings have the ability to act with intentionality. The mind of a person can conceive of a purpose it wants to accomplish. Choices and decisions can be made for the intended purpose of bringing that idea to pass. Napoleon Hill created a summary sentence for this philosophy in the 20th century saying: “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve” (Think and Grow Rich, pub. 1937). The lesson is learned. Central to our being human, is the ability to make choices.

More recent advocates of the philosophy of Personalism would be the atheists, Jean-Paul Sarte (June 21, 1905 – April 15, 1980), and Martin Heidegger (Sept. 28, 1889 – May 26, 1976). It was Sarte who came to the conclusion that human volition, human freedom, is the strongest argument there is against the existence of God.

Sarte came to this conclusion by postulating that if man is truly free, God cannot exist. Conversely, if God exists, man cannot be free. Sarte argued that individuals know for sure they are free, they are moral creatures, and they are volitional creatures. Therefore, God cannot be real. God cannot exist. Sarte reached this conclusion by defining the word freedom.

In defining freedom, Sarte meant autonomy. Unless freedom is exalted to the position of autonomy, freedom is only a mirage.

So, what is autonomy?

According to Merriam-Webster, autonomy is the quality or state of being self-governing. Autonomy is self-directing freedom and especially moral independence. According to Sarte, autonomy is self-law (Gk. auto, self; nomas, law), or self-rule.

The conclusion, for Sarte, with his philosophy of Personalism, is that in order for a person to be truly free, there must be autonomy, meaning we must have the ability to rule ourselves. 

However, there is this problem. If I am autonomous, if I am self-ruled, then there is no-one outside myself to whom I am accountable. There is no place for a sovereign, omnipotent deity who reigns over my heart, or the world. There is no God. I am my own god.

If human autonomy is something that is real, and not just a presuppositional idea, postulated for the purpose of debate, then there is a mystery, there is an insolvable conflict between a sovereign, omnipotent God, and human autonomy.

However, because human autonomy is not real, because human autonomy is only a speculative belief, however much it is sincerely embraced, there is no insolvable conflict. The solution is surprisingly simple. The creation is subject to the sovereign God, who alone is supreme. The creature bows before God and says, “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:47).

The universe cannot have a sovereign God, and an autonomous creature.

Only if human freedom rises to the level of autonomy is there a problem between the sovereignty of God, and the will of man.

If there is any measure of humility in the creature called man, then there is no problem because it can be conceded that God’s will shall be done in heaven, as it is on earth. What is prayed for will come to pass. God will, and does, work all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11).

“Adam, do not eat of the forbidden fruit for the day you do eat of it, you will die.” Adam ate the forbidden fruit and he died. By his act of disobedience Adam plunged all of his posterity to live under the law of sin and death.

“Jonah, go and preach to the Ninevites.” And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).

“Zacchaeus, make hast, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.” Zacchaeus made haste. He came down. He received Jesus with great joy (Luke 19:5,6).

“Men of Israel, you sons of Jacob, you will one day bow before your brother Joseph.”  “And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants” (Gen. 50:18).

Nowhere in the Bible is it taught that human beings have been given autonomy. Nor will God surrender any portion of His sovereignty, for then He would be less than God, and that is impossible. “For I am the LORD, I change not!” (Malachi 3:6).

Hear now the conclusion of the matter. “Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalms 100:3).

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