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Gods Sovereignty, Gods Providence, and Mankinds Free Will
This document reflects commonly held beliefs based on scripture which have been endorsed by the church's Commission on Doctrinal Purity and the Executive Presbytery.
What does the Assemblies of God believe concerning the free will of mankind in everyday choices and its relation to Gods sovereignty and providential care? Can we through our choices or prayers alter what God has ordained? If God has a master plan that will be accomplished, is it not futile to think we can change what will happen?
There is some disagreement in the evangelical world concerning the interrelationship of Gods sovereignty, His providence, and mankinds free will. To some theologians, the three seem to be contradictory. But the Assemblies of God, having diligently searched the Scriptures for the best correlation of the three indisputable principles, believes that all three can exist in full theological certitude without doing any injustice to the other two.
The term sovereignty of God is not found in the Bible, yet the truth of Gods sovereignty is evident throughout Scripture. God has absolute authority and power over His creation. God is omnipotent; He can do anything He desires to do. But this indisputable fact has caused considerable theological debate about the relationship of mankind to Gods sovereignty. If God is sovereign and all-powerful, is He responsible for all the evil in the world. Is our eternal destiny determined by Gods sovereignty, making meaningless our assumption that we have some choice in the matters that concern our existence?
Human reasoning and logic would say that if God is truly sovereign over all His creation, the human creatures He created have no opportunity to make individual choices. And if they have a free will that can make personal choices, then God cannot be sovereign, because anything He does not control negates His being sovereign. But Scripture emphasizes both the sovereignty of God and the free will of humankind. So instead of judging by human reason that both facts cannot coexist, we must honor the integrity of Gods Word, accept, and explain to the best of our limited human reasoning how both truths can be valid.
First we recognize the biblical statements of Gods sovereignty. Just to mention a few of many: "I know [Job speaking] that you [God] can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2, NIV). "The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths" (Psalms 135:6, NIV). "He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: What have you done? " (Daniel 4:35, NIV). "Who [God] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Ephesians 1:11, NIV).
Over against these statements of Gods sovereignty, we have the Genesis account of Gods earliest interaction with human beings. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, God did not excuse them by saying it was His fault they had disobeyed. Instead, He laid the full penalty of the sin of disobedience on them, although at the same time He gave them a promise of salvation and escape from the penalty of their disobedience. In addition to this example of humankinds responsibility, we also have a direct statement of Scripture: "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4,20, NKJV). Joshuas challenge to the Israelites is a challenge for today: "But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15, NIV). "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). God does not force individuals to sin. Yet He has ordained a penalty for voluntary sin that must be paid. Every call to repentance in Scripture is an indication that God has given to humankind a free will which can choose right or wrong.
How do we bring together these two seemingly exclusive truths: Gods sovereignty and mankinds free will? In Gods great design for His creation, He desired freely given allegiance rather than robotic response to His will. Voluntary love and obedience are much better than automatic, predetermined responses. God created humankind with the option of loving and obeying Him, even though it meant that some would choose not to give allegiance to His rule. Freely given love is more valued than forced or parroted expressions. Since God has chosen to give humankind a free will, His sovereignty is not destroyed.
A related issue that raises a similar question is the providence of God. By definition, Gods providence is His faithful and loving provision for the needs of all His creation, for His own children as well as for those who reject His offer of salvation. To believers, the promise is given, "My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians. 4:19, NASB). But the Bible also affirms kindness even to those who deny His Lordship: "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). If God is good as His providential care for His creation suggests, one might wonder why people, especially Gods children, suffer and experience serious setbacks.
The same explanation serves to answer this question. Desiring voluntary love and obedience from His creation, God provides a free-will choice for all humans. Sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Man is appointed to die because sin reigns in our fallen physical world. Becoming a Christian does not cancel the physical judgment that rests on all humankind. If it did, everyone would become a Christian just to avoid pain and suffering. But one can choose to acknowledge Gods authority even though pain and suffering are still part of our earthly existence. When we accept Christ our free will chooses allegiance to God, believing that He has ultimately overcome Satan, sin, suffering, and death, and believing that the heavenly reward that awaits us makes all the suffering and pain of this life worthwhile. Mature Christians understand that Gods providential care for His creation is not destroyed just because physical laws of sin and death are still part of our temporary earthly existence.
With this understanding of Gods sovereignty, providence, and humankinds free will, another question is raised. Can we in any sense alter Gods plan or will for our lives through our choices or our prayers? God in His providence always desires what is best for His children, in fact, for all of His creation. But He still recognizes our freedom to make choices, even when they are not in our best interest or in keeping with His desire that all persons would be saved. While our choices may keep us from reaching the high design God has for each of our lives, such willful failure in no way defeats Gods greater design for His kingdom. He will accomplish His larger purposes through other vessels if we choose not to respond to His loving overtures of salvation and righteousness. God is still sovereign, and neither Satan nor human free will can thwart that sovereignty. But God does not use His omnipotent sovereignty to violate the free will He has chosen to give all humankind.
Do our prayers change God's mind or compromise His sovereignty? Certainly not! God's foreknowledge of all that is going to happen assures that, while at the same time it does not negate the free will of humankind.
It may appear to some that God changed His mind when in response to Abraham's request He promised to spare Sodom from judgment if there were sufficient righteous souls left in the city. But God knew all along how many there were, and His original intention was fulfilled. If prayer is made on behalf of a dying cancer victim, and healing comes, has God changed His mind? Again, certainly not. Into His relationship with His children, God has built a number of contingent promises. An example is 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people...will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." God in no way changes His mind nor gives up any of His sovereignty when He answers a prayer like that. And He tells us in His Word to pray for healing (James 5:14,15). His answer, whether yes or no, in no way changes His mind or threatens His sovereignty.
Though the human mind is inadequate to understand or explain the ways or mind of God, we have been given sufficient basis for placing trust in our sovereign, providential, personal, free-will granting Lord. He asks only that we trust Him, living by faith. We can confess with Paul, "We live by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7, NIV). "Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" (Romans 5:1,2, NIV). Therein lies our answer to whatever questions we have concerning God's sovereignty and providence in relation to our free will.
The above statement is based upon our common understanding of scriptural teaching.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise specified.