There is one God in the universe, and we refer to Him as a supreme-being. When we refer to people we call them human-beings. God is a volitional being. That is to say that God has a will. He has a divine faculty by which He makes decisions, by which He executes His choices. We as His creatures are also volitional beings; we are also given the faculty of choosing, which we call human will.
Free will, in simplest terms, is the ability or the power to choose what you want. Your choices are in no sense caused or constrained, either by your nature, your experience, your history, your own desires, any outside force or divine restraints. That is what we refer to as free will of making choices and decisions.
Scripture designates God to be sovereign. It is a designation of the person who reigns – the single ruler, the monolithic power, the unilateral authority. God of the Bible is the absolute ruler of this world and the entire universe. God is the one who decrees all things, who purposes all things, and who accomplishes all things that He decrees and purposes. God rules, and He does what He will, no one can thwart His purpose, no one can stop His hand. He orchestrates all of human history and everything in it.
One of the prominent French atheist philosophers of the 20th century, by the name of Jean-Paul Sartre, reasoned that if man has free will, if man is truly free, God cannot exist. Man’s will is said to be free if he has the power of ultimate self-determination (able to determine its own choices). And conversely, if God exists man cannot be free. Then he says, we know for sure man is free, because we can make choices freely, so there is no God. Sartre argues that this freedom means ‘autonomy’ – freedom from external control or influence; self-governing; self-ruling.
Human pride despises the truth that God is absolutely sovereign. Many people wrestle with this idea of ‘Sovereignty of God and Freewill of Man’ and try to give all kinds of explanations, but it is a question of comprehension. There is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and Man’s will, and according to the scripture, there is no mystery at all.
Human autonomy and God’s sovereignty are mutually exclusive
Nowhere does the Bible ever teach that human beings have been given autonomy by God. Human autonomy and God’s sovereignty are two conflicting things and they cannot co-exist in the same universe. If free will means autonomy, then God cannot be sovereign. If man is completely free to do as he pleases, there can be no sovereign God. And if God is fully sovereign to do as he pleases, no creature can be autonomous. In the same way, there cannot co-exist in the same universe, immovable objects and irresistible force. Why not? If an irresistible force meets an immovable object and the object moves what does it tell about the object? It’s not immovable! If an irresistible force meets an immovable object and the object doesn’t move what does it tell about the force? It’s not irresistible! So, in the same universe, you can’t have a sovereign God and an autonomous creature.
Human will is limited and bounded
In Gen 2:16-17, The Lord God commanded the man, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them two things: First, He gave them the freedom to make choices. But that freedom is not unlimited. It was limited. God said to them there are constraints to your freedom, there are restrictions to your freedom. Second, He gave them the moral power to be godly, to be righteous, to choose God’s rules. In the end, Adam and Eve chose the wrong thing, but they did it freely. God’s sovereignty didn’t prevent Adam from doing what he wanted to do.
After the fall, human will has become further constrained. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards, echoing what Augustine taught, said, in the fall man has lost moral ability to be righteous. The Bible says the fallen man is in bondage to sin. The problem is not that the sinner has lost the faculty of choice in his fall, but that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart is altogether evil now (Gen 6:5). They still make choices, and they still have free will. But that will now be inclined towards evil and hostile to God; it never obeys God’s law because it simply cannot (Romans 8:7). There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God (Rom. 10-17).
God has absolute power over human will
There are choices of God and there are choices of man. God works through the choices of human beings without destroying their choices. God does not rob the freedom of humans. They do exactly what they want to do. E.g. The story of Joseph – one of the cold blooded acts of treachery and betrayal in the Old Testament. But God exercises His sovereignty through their free decisions. Human freedom never places a limit on God. He has absolute power over all human choices. He has the ultimate power to allow or disallow human choices.
God ordains what we will choose to do, so he causes our choices. We are not free to choose the contrary of what he chooses for us to do. Man’s freedom operates inside the parameters of God’s sovereignty. God has the wisdom and the power to work through our desires to bring about His plans even if and when our desires are altogether evil. He doesn’t cause evil, He doesn’t do evil. Evil does not change God’s plan. Evil does not deter God. Evil does not cause God to have to alter His purpose. God is purposefully taking all contingencies, all actions, all events and working them together to a predetermined end.
Freewill only belongs to God
God’s sovereignty is not limited by human freedom. Man is not given a freedom that exceeds God’s freedom. God in His sovereignty has the capacity to work through the sinful decisions and wicked choices of His creatures to bring about His sovereign will which is altogether righteous. We see this unfolding in the New Testament. The cross was not an accident. The cross was the most wicked evil ever committed by human beings. Caiaphas meant it for evil, Pilate meant it for evil, the Pharisees meant it for evil. But over and above the human wicked intentions, God was at work to bring about good. Before there was any human sin to die for, God planned that his Son be slain for sinners. From eternity God’s plan was that the glory of God’s grace would reach its high point in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
God is sovereign over the human will. Fallen man does not have free will. There is only one free will and that belongs to God. Man does not have the power of ultimate self-determination. Only God has free will in the sense of ultimate self-determination. We must remember who is sovereign and who isn’t. And I’m delighted to live in the freedom under the sovereignty of God rather than living under the bondage of my free will.
Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. John MacArthur (various teaching)
Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will
Dr. D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility