Is God's Sovereignty Compatible With Free Will?
For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Conversations about predestination usually don’t get far before the topic of free will comes up. After all, if God determines who is saved and who isn’t, doesn’t this violate our free will? If God has already decided whether we’re saved, do our choices matter?
In answering this question, the first thing we must affirm is that the Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign (= has supreme power and authority) over all things and that we are responsible for our choices. Neither overrides the other; both are equally true. God’s sovereignty doesn't make humans into robots, nor do our choices overcome God's decisions.
While we can never fully understand how sovereignty and responsibility interact with one another, the Bible provides us with some relevant insights about how predestination is compatible with free will.
Defining “free will”
In any theological discussion, we first need to define our terms. What kind of freedom are we talking about here? If by “free will” we mean that people have the ability to make choices based on what they want, then Scripture teaches that we have free will. The Bible is clear that we are free to choose what we want, and that those choices have real consequences.
But the Bible also teaches that what we “want” is to live in rebellion to God. We are enslaved to sin and held captive by Satan to do his will (Rom. 6:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:26). Proverbs 4:23 and Jeremiah 17:9 collectively teach that a person’s “heart” is the control center of their being, and that this control center is deceitful and desperately sick. Similarly, Jesus taught that all sinful actions are the result of what is in a person’s heart (Mark 7:21-22). So while we are free to choose what we want, unless our “wants” change, no human being will ever choose God. Stated differently, we are not born into this world as innocent or even indifferent to God. Paul says in Romans 8:7 that the sinful person apart from Christ is “hostile to God” and “cannot” submit to his law.
Many people take free will to mean that we are autonomous creatures. In this sense, “free will” means that while we may be influenced by outside forces, at the end of the day we are not controlled by those forces, but are independent of them. So when it comes to salvation, God draws you to Heaven, Satan draws you to Hell, but ultimately you make the call.
But this understanding of free will assumes something that Scripture rejects: that there is some kind of neutral zone in our hearts that hasn’t been affected by sin. Ultimately this question of free will is really a question of the extent to which the fall in Genesis 3 affected mankind, and the Bible declares that it affected us to our very core. Our fundamental problem as fallen humans then isn’t just that we sin, but that we have evil hearts that don’t want God.
New heart, new desires
Understanding our helpless state helps us appreciate our rescue. Not only does God’s salvation free us from the enormous debt we owe for our sins, it rescues us from our heart’s inability to love God. That’s exactly what Ezekiel looked forward to when he prophesied about the New Covenant that would come through Jesus, describing it in terms of a heart transplant:
“And I will give you a new heart, and new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
We always choose what we most desire. By nature, we all desire sin. But when we have received grace, we desire God. This means that when God saves us, he’s not forcing us to choose him. We make a willing choice because God gives us new desires. The desire for God is a gift from God. So rather than being incompatible with predestination, our willful choices are one of God’s primary means of bringing us to faith in Christ.