Is God Sovereign or Does Man Have Free Will?

Post Author: Bill Pratt  

Some Christians believe that God’s sovereignty over events on earth means that he ignores or overrides the free will of human beings. Other Christians believe that God only makes decisions after seeing what human beings will decide, and thus he is not really sovereign over everything. Under this second view, events on earth seem to split into things God controls and things humans control.

Both of these views, however, are wrong. The biblical view is that God is both sovereign over everything, and human beings have free will. We see this illustrated in Genesis 25. In verse 23, God tells Rebekah that Esau’s descendants (the nation of Edom) will be weaker than Jacob’s descendants (the nation of Israel), indicating His sovereignty over human history.

But in verse 34 we see that it is Esau who despised his birthright. The biblical author is indicating that Esau is not some impotent pawn being pushed around a chessboard by God, but an active participant in giving up his birthright. These two verses illustrate that God is sovereign and that Esau is free to reject his birthright. Both are true.

6 thoughts on “Is God Sovereign or Does Man Have Free Will?”

  1. The answer lies in the rest of the Book of Exodus. Nine times the
    hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is ascribed to God (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,
    20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). Another nine times the hardening of Pharaoh’s
    heart is blamed on Pharaoh himself (7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7,
    34-35). In addition, Pharaoh alone hardens his heart during the first
    five plagues, and it is not until the sixth plague that God confirms
    Pharaoh’s choice to be stubborn.

    The Bible, therefore, teaches that Pharaoh is responsible for
    hardening his own heart and that God is only confirming what Pharaoh
    wants to do. It is not the case that God is forcing Pharaoh to be
    stubborn when Pharaoh really wants to be agreeable and compliant with Moses’s demands. There is no evidence for this in the text.

  2. I think the language of the Bible is responsible for the difference in understanding here. Harden, to me, means to make harder. This, combined with God’s stated intended result of this action, (so that he won’t let the Jews go) seems to clearly indicate that the Pharaoh would otherwise let the people go here. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that this passage indicates God’s decision to harden his heart is overriding whatever decision the Pharaoh might have made without that intervention. I don’t see how that can be anything but a direct violation of the Pharaoh’s free will. Certianly there are other parts where the Pharaoh was not inclined to let them go, but that’s not got anything to do with this example as far as I’m aware.

    I hope my explanation shows what my understanding is, so that you can explain where it is that my understanding of what is said differs from yours. Right now, I simply don’t conceptually understand your interpretation of the text here. It seems illogical to me.

  3. Sean,
    You and I already went round and round on this on another comment thread. I don’t really have any more to add to that thread. From my perspective, the Bible clearly teaches both that God is in control and that man is free and responsible for his actions.

    There is no contradiction unless you force the definition of free will to be “man’s ability to make decisions in a universe free of a sovereign God.” But in that case, you’re just solving the problem by definition, not by demonstration that there is a true contradiction.

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