Predestination-Freewill Dyspepsia (P2)
Every Bible-believing Christian believes God is sovereign, that He is existentially autonomous and omni-everything. The question in dispute is how He expresses that sovereignty, specifically regarding individual salvation.
Sovereignty: Meticulous or Selective?
Hardline predestinarians say God is meticulous in the expression of His sovereignty, that He micromanages everything hyperassertively, either in the moment or by preprogrammed design. They point to passages like Ecclesiastes 3:14 or Matthew 10:29,30, which say even a single bird cannot die without God's direct say-so, and that He is managing every strand of hair on your scalp. They also point to passages about the unstoppability of God's purposes, like Psalm 33:11, Isaiah 46:10, Ephesians 1:11, and Hebrews 6:17. This meticulous sovereignty, they say, can only mean God also proactively handpicks who will be saved to eternal life and who will be reprobated to the lake of fire.
Freewillers, Molinists, and other Christian thinkers say God is restrained and selective in the expression of His sovereignty, though explanations differ on how and when. They point to passages in which God refused to intervene and control outcomes, and instead, allowed human behaviors to play out organically. For example, in Luke 19:41,42, they point to a devastated Jesus weeping over Jerusalem's impenitence, who then makes this heartbreaking statement: ...If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace... (v42 NIV). He also said (13:34), ...how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Many Bible students say this moment and these words do not show a Micromanager, but an intensely relational Lord who selectively expresses His sovereignty to make room for human choices, even if those choices grieve Him to painful tears.
And the Answer Is?
As predestinarians emphasize, there is no escaping scriptures that seem to present God as a meticulous sovereign. There is also no escaping scriptures that seem to say God's purposes are unstoppable (because of that allegedly meticulous sovereignty). However, I see theological and logical weak points and inconclusives in this construct.
Before we even get to the Scriptures, notice the weak point in the logic of the meticulous sovereignty opinion. The very verses used to justify meticulous sovereignty can equally be used to justify selective sovereignty. God does not let a sparrow die without His permission? God feeds the birds? God sends rain and sunshine? The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord? All these examples, and others, could be the selected aspects of reality God has chosen to micromanage. In other words, just because He is micromanaging 1, 3, and 5 does not automatically mean He is micromanaging 2, 4, and 6. It is a presumptuous leap to assume God micromanages individual salvation (and everything else) simply because He micromanages select aspects of the universe or certain moments on earth. Once again, just because He is micromanaging 1, 3, and 5 does not automatically mean He is micromanaging 2, 4, and 6. That is a sneaky assumption. A presumptuous leap.
Scriptures, A Restrained & Selective Expression of Sovereignty
Pay sharp attention to the verses that describe God "holding back" or "restraining Himself" or "withdrawing" or using other language of restraint and selective action.
Isaiah 42:14 (ESV, underline mine): For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant. Psalm 78:65 (ESV, underline mine): Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine. The context is God's non-intervention or "sleeping" in verses 56-64. Hosea 5:15 (NASB): I will go away and return to My place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face... God "going away" indefinitely. 2Chronicles 32:31 (NKJV, underline mine): ...God withdrew from him, in order to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart. Would a meticulously micromanaging Sovereign need to pull back to know experientially what was in Hezekiah's heart? Genesis 22:12 (ESV, underline mine): ...now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. Would a meticulously micromanaging Sovereign need to test Abraham to know experientially that he feared God?
When David was hiding in Keilah, God gave him lifesaving intel about the immediate future. Notice, however, God did not tell David what to do. He did not force an outcome sovereignly. He did not intervene and micromanage the moment. He restrained Himself and let David decide what to do (which was pretty common sense if he wanted to survive). In 1Samuel 23:10-13 (paraphrased), David asked, "Will Saul come to Keilah to search for me?" God said, "He will." David then asked, "Will the people of Keilah hand me and my men over to Saul?" God said, "They will." So David and men left Keilah. See how God dialogued with David and gave him intel to survive, but did not assert His sovereignty by forcing an outcome.
In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for not repenting when He visited them. But then He made a startling and mind-bending statement. He said (paraphrased), "If Tyre and Sidon had experienced the miracles you did, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes, and if Sodom had experienced the miracles you did, it would have remained to this day." Really? Then why didn't God do those miracles for them? Why didn't He follow through on that foreknowledge and send miracle-working preachers to Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom? He restrained His sovereign ability. Why?
Because He wanted those cities to repent through the soul-winning mechanism He set up for them. We do not come to God our own terms and demands, we come on His or we do not come at all. To Sodom, the soul-winning mechanism was Lot (2Pet 2:6-8). If Sodom would not respond to Lot, God would not send more firepower. He restrained Himself. To Tyre and Sidon, the soul-winning mechanism was Israel's national obedience to God and His favor on their nation (Deu 4:6, Ps 67, 96:2,3, Isa 43:8-10). If Tyre and Sidon would not respond to Israel's national witness, God would not send more firepower. He restrained Himself. Jesus' shocking statement that God could have, but refused, to send more soul-winning firepower tells us something astonishingly revelatory about God: He expresses His sovereignty selectively, with great wisdom and restraint. He does not always do all that He could--and why?--to make room for human choices. He expects us to choose Him based on the terms and mechanisms He offers, without any need for additional firepower, fireworks, or fantastic deal-sweeteners. (God mentions a similar hypothetical, and divine restraint, to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3:4-6.)
When we combine the scriptures about God's meticulous sovereignty with the scriptures about His selective sovereignty, a harmonious, coherent, light-filled picture emerges: God expresses His sovereignty selectively, with great wisdom and restraint, while choosing certain aspects of reality and moments on earth to express His sovereignty meticulously.
Are God's Purposes Unstoppable?
Hardline predestinarians allege all of God's purposes are unstoppable, because of His comprehensive, micromanaging sovereignty. The strangely obvious mistake in this proposal are the many out-front Bible verses and storylines that show us some of His purposes can be blocked. Some. This has nothing at all to do with God's power, rather, it is because He frames some of His purposes to work within a matrix with human choices. His ideal, His preferred norm, is to work with people and through people, giving them existential and decision-making dignity. That partnership, which often leaves God grieved or even angry, makes those purposes inherently conditional and inherently blockable. Here are the passages.
See, for example, Luke's analysis of God's purpose for the Jewish leaders in Luke 7:30 (NASB, underline mine): But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. Israel's first-century religious leaders blocked God's purpose for themselves. No way to misinterpret such a simple, face-value statement. Stephen made an identical statement, also to Israel's first-century religious leaders, Acts 7:51 (ESV, underline mine): You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.
Old Testament Israel, also, repeatedly blocked God's purposes for them, one of which was spiritual fruit. In Isaiah 5:4, God asks in frustration for that fruit (NASB): What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? By the time of the First Coming, Israel was still fruitless, forcing Jesus to say (Matthew 21:43 ESV), Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. Old Testament Israel repeatedly blocked God's purposes for them, one of which was to produce spiritual fruit. As Matthew 21:43 records, God finally had to pause His dealings with Israel and temporarily shift His search for fruit to the church.
Perhaps the most poignant scripture of all, 2Peter 3:9, makes it simple and obvious that individuals can reject God's saving purpose for them (NASB): ...not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. Young's Literal Translation words the key phrase like this, ...not counselling any to be lost... And yet, as we all know, as Jesus Himself often states, many will defy this divine will and counsel and perish.
Soteriology, the mechanics of salvation, inevitably forces us to deal with high-voltage terms like predestination, freewill, foreknowledge, elect, repentance, believing, and so on. Our understanding of the salvation machinery affects how tactically skilled we are in evangelism, but even more so, how we live the Christian life. Paul said, several times, the mechanics of salvation are the same mechanics of the victorious Christian life. Understanding soteriology, then, is not simply about understanding how salvation happens or evangelistic skill, it sets a template for how God works in our life post-salvation to get us into the overcoming remnant.
The intrinsic flaw in many predestination-freewill conversations is that they focus on the wrong starting point (usually predestination). The salvation sequence does not start with predestination or freewill; these are later events. The sequence begins with with the closely interrelated trio of God's sovereignty, omnitemporality, and foreknowledge. Even more importantly, though, is how these are expressed in God's overall rulership, and individual salvation in particular.
When we combine and harmonize the scriptures about God's meticulous sovereignty with those about His selective sovereignty, a coherent truth emerges: God expresses His sovereignty selectively, with great wisdom and restraint, while choosing certain aspects of reality and moments on earth to express His sovereignty meticulously. Also, Scripture most certainly shows us some of God's purposes can be stopped--the purposes framed within a matrix with human choices, like personal salvation. This has nothing to do with God's sovereignty or ability. Rather, it has everything to do with His preferred norm of working with people's informed consent, conferring on them existential and decision-making dignity.