God's sovereignty, as I am convinced the Bible teaches it,
means that God has fore-ordained everything that happens. Before creation,
planned and decided ("ordained") the entire course of human history down
to the smallest details. All circumstances in time are therefore the
outworking of God's plan which He decreed in eternity.
In light of this, a common objection is "If God has already decided
what will happen, then why should I do anything? We don't control
history anyway. Therefore, we can just sit back and do nothing."
The objector is saying that the logical outcome of belief in the absolute
sovereignty of God is what we will call
"indifferent fatalism"--the view that we should do nothing since God
How are we to answer the objection of the indifferent fatalist?
Why doesn't belief in God's absolute sovereignty lead to indifferent
fatalism? And if God is absolutely sovereign, how can our choices have
real meaning? These are very good questions that a proper understanding
of God's sovereignty will answer.
First we need to understand the difference between fatalism and
what is called compatibilism. Compatibilism is the view that God is
absolutely sovereign (as explained above) and yet our choices have real
meaning and we are responsible for them. It
is what I believe the Bible teaches, and is often called "Calvinism."
Fatalism, on the other hand, teaches that no matter what you choose or
do, things will turn out the same. For example, if it is determined that
Bill will get an "F" on his test tomorrow, then no mater how hard he
studies or how well he knows the material, he will fail. His choices do
not really affect what will happen.
Compatibilism, in contrast to fatalism, says that our choices really
do affect the future, and that if different choices had been made, the
future would have been different. On this view, if Bill doesn't study,
he will fail. But if he does study
hard, then his studying will be the means that brings about a good
grade. In regards to God's sovereignty, this means that God does not
just ordain the ends (for example, a good grade for Bill) and then say
"this will happen no matter what." No, God also
ordains the means to His planned end (for example, God ordains that
Bill will study as the means to the good grade that He decreed). Our
decisions are each links in the chain of means ordained by God to bring
about His planned ends. If different decisions had been made, the
consequences would have been different. But God works to ensure that the
means He has ordained will most certainly occur so that none of His
purposes can fail. This makes human decisions truly significant and
It should now be more clear why the absolute sovereignty of God does not
amount to fatalistic indifference. In short, Bill should study because
that is the means that God uses to bring about his good grades. If
Bill does get good grades, then his studying was
just as predestined by God's plan as were the good grades. All good choices
makes are ultimately caused by God; all evil choices are willingly permitted
by God as a part of His plan. Furthermore, God brings about His decrees
in a way that preserves our responsibility and does not violate our will
(this will be explained more later).
The second reason to reject fatalistic indifference is that it is
self-contradictory. The person who is fatalistically indifferent would
be saying "Because God decides everything that will happen, I will stop
making choices." But the choice to stop
making choices is itself a choice!
God made us in a way that we are decision-making beings. We will
always make one choice or another in any given situation--we cannot help
but to make choices when confronted with alternatives (we have no choice
in the matter!). For example, when
confronted with the option to eat either a piece of pie or a piece of cake,
it is impossible for me to not make some sort of choice. I will either
have the pie, the cake, or neither. If I refuse to make a choice, I am
still making a choice--the choice not
to eat. Indifferent fatalism is false because it is impossible--it
self-destructs in a self-contradiction. Impossibilities are entirely
unapplicable, for trying to apply fatalistic indifference is to deny
it. For this reason it cannot be the logical
application of belief in God's absolute sovereignty.
Clearly, God's sovereignty does not remove the need for and reality
of our choices. But what if a person "modifies" their position of
fatalistic indifference and tries to use God's sovereignty as an excuse
to remain in sin?
One could take God's sovereignty and (mis)apply it this way. That
would be sin. But
just because a teaching can be misapplied does not make it false. Shall
we also conclude that the truths of eternal security and justification by
faith alone are false because some people try to use them as an
excuse for sin? (See Romans 6:1-2 for how Paul would respond to such a
misapplication of these truths.) A
person could decide to not seek God or not obey Him because "everything
is up to Him anyway." But does that make indifference and passivity the
logical outcome of believing in God's sovereignty? Couldn't belief in
God's sovereignty be taken just as easily in the other direction and be
properly applied to encourage zealous obedience instead of
Since we must make a choice either to live righteously or live
on what basis can one say that God's sovereignty leads logically to a
choice of human laziness/sinfulness instead of a choice for human
godliness? Paul says something applicable here: "And why not say (as
we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), `Let us do
evil that good may come'? Their condemnation is just" (Romans 3:8).
Instead of saying "God is sovereign, therefore I will not bother to
seek Him and do righteousness" one could with equal logical consistency say
"God is sovereign, therefore I will zealously obey Him at all times because
I know He will most certainly bless my obedience with great fruit.
And I know that He will
victoriously uphold me with His strength and perseverance since He is not
only in control but also a holy, merciful God who loves righteousness."
One path or the other will be chosen. We cannot not choose.
But how are choices made? Answering this question will take us to
the real issue at stake. As humans, we make choices according to our
greatest desire of the moment--we choose what we think is the best option
at the time. This means that our choices reveal our character, since it
is our character which produces our
desires and therefore determines what we will consider the best option. A
good character will generally desire good things, and a bad character
will desire bad things.
What we choose therefore reveals the condition of our heart.
Therefore, if we use God's sovereignty as an excuse for sin, it
reveals the wickedness in our heart. If we correctly apply this
doctrine, however, and see the freedom it gives us to diligently obey, it
reveals the goodness that God is working in our hearts. If we try and
use God's sovereignty as an excuse for sin, we need to go to Him and
repent instead of concluding that God is not really sovereign after
God's sovereignty is actually a very freeing doctrine for us. It frees
us to obey with joyful trust, security, and peace. As a believer, we
should think like this: "Since God is sovereign, no obedience can harm my
relationship with God and
therefore no obedience, no matter how "foolish" it looks to the world and
no matter the consequences, can ultimately harm me." Isn't that how Paul
used the doctrine in Romans 8:28-36 ? He said "all things work together
for good to those who love God" in verse 28
and then proceeded to explain the security this gives us through zealous,
risk-taking obedience because "nothing shall separate us from the love
Look at the way Paul applies the sovereignty of God
to our obedeience in Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with
fear and trembling;
for it is God at work in you, both to will and to work for His good
pleasure." According to Paul, the foundation of our obedience is the
fact that God is ultimately the one who puts in us the willing and
working of obedience. Paul did not say "God puts the willing and working
in you, therefore stay in bed." On the contrary, he saw the sovereignty
of God as deep, encouraging reason for risk-taking obedience!
Having understood how we make choices, we are now in a position to
understand how God can control all things, and yet bring about His plan
in a way that preserves human accountability and freedom. Proverbs 16:9
says "The mind of the man plans his
way, but the Lord directs his steps." This verse seems to affirm human
freedom and God's absolute control over our freedom--in the same breath.
How can this be consistent?
As we saw earlier, we always choose according to our greatest
desire--we always choose the option that we most prefer. This makes
every choice determined (it is determined that I will choose the option
that I find most preferable), yet
free (since we are not being forced to choose, but are choosing what we
want to). Furthermore, the act of choosing is always accompanied,
subconsciously or consciously, with the process of thinking through the
situation and the desires we have in order to realize which option we
want the most. Once we realize which option we most prefer, we will
then always decide upon that option. For example, when given the option of
chocolate or white
cake, I cannot and do not spontaneously determine that I will desire
the white cake. Rather, I
thoughtfully recognize that my greatest desire is for the white
cake. Our choices are free and truly our
choices because we think through the situation for ourselves and come to the
conclusion about which choice is best through our own thought processes.
Thus, "the mind of the man plans his way."
God, however, can still be ultimately in control and thus "direct
our steps" by regulating our situations and thus the information that we
base our choice upon. Since we will always choose the option that our
mind finds most preferable in light of
the situation, God can simply make the circumstances such that the
option we find most preferable (and thus the option we will choose) is
the choice that He ordained for us to make. Our choice is free and truly
ours since it is a result of our own
reasoning and thought processes ("the mind of the man plans His way"),
but God still controlled it because He ordered and directed the
information our thought processes were based on to ensure that the choice
we make is what He had willed ("the Lord directs His
If someone we are talking to ever tries to use God's absolute
sovereignty as an excuse not to seek God or obey Him, the solution is not
to tell them that "God really is not absolutely sovereign--you have a
free-will to choose against God's eternal
purposes." Sinners, the Bible says, by nature flee from God and seek any
excuse to justify their flight. An attempt to use God's sovereignty as
an excuse to continue in sin reveals the persons's sinfulness and need
for God's grace. God's sovereignty is not the cause of
indifference--sin is the cause. We should not lay blame where it does
So what we must do is not appeal to "free-will" in an attempt to
convince the person that they must obey, but point out their sin to them and
go to our knees and pray
"God, I know you control all things. Therefore I pray that you would
change my friend's heart and cause him to
seek you. Please give him an irresistable desire for you." God is
answer to an unbeliever's flight from God, not free will. Appealing to
their "free will" cannot help since their "free will" is unable to submit
to God apart from His sovereign grace (Romans 8:7; John 6:44, 65). The
sovereignty of God is not their problem, it is their only hope.
In conclusion, I had an experience last summer which perhaps sheds
some light on this issue. I was on top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. The
clouds above were black and threatening, but I wasn't very aware of the
danger. I was enjoying the view from the top of the mountain in a wide
open area far from any shelter. All of a sudden my hair stood up on end.
It signaled to me that lightning was going to strike close to me, and
soon. I had no control over whether I would be hit or not, and I knew it.
I also knew that there was no place to seek cover from the lightning.
Yet I did not just stand there and say "I am not in control of the
situation, so come what may and let it hit me or not--I don't care."
No--I was scared and ran for cover, even though I knew I couldn't make
it. Knowing I was helpless was the reason I sought refuge.
It is a similar case with God's sovereignty. We are not in
control--God is. But knowing this can perhaps be the means God uses to
stir an idle saint to action. God's sovereignty, however, is slightly
different from my lightning experience. If God
starts us on the run for refuge in His mercy and goodness, it is not a
futile hope. He will bring us safely to Himself.
1. See Lowell Kleiman and Stephen Lewis, Philosophy: An Introduction
Through Literature, (Paragon House: New York, 1992), p 554.
2. If we are obedient Christians, we can always be fully satisfied in the
hope that God's providence gives us--even when we experience difficult
trials on this earth. The greatest inward desire of a Christian is that
they delight in and be satisfied in
God's glory and enjoy exalting Him to the highest possible extent. God's
greatest desire, on the other hand, is also that He be exalted to the
highest possible extent. And He is most glorified when His people are
most satisfied in Him.
Since God is sovereign--as well as infinitely passionate for His own
glory--He will not let His passion to be glorified fail. In fact, He
works all things together for His greatest glory which is our greatest
good. And that means that an obedient Christian's passion to
one day enjoy God's glory to the fullest possible extent cannot be
3. What aboout when you choose, for example, to study for a test when you
really want to go to a movie that night? In that case, you desired the
long-run benefits of the good grade that studying will bring more than the
short term enjoyment a good movie
will bring. So when you choose to study you are still choosing what you
most prefer, all things considered.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.