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Free Will and God's Will

A topic that is related to our discussion of Christian liberty is the more general idea of the freedom of man’s will with respect to God’s will. Though I’m unlikely to satisfy anyone with proper depth or rigor on this subject in a reflection, I thought it might be helpful at least to raise the idea for discussion. To help narrow the scope, I only have in mind how this question relates to those whose hearts have been enlivened and minds enlightened by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Once we have put off the old man and put on the new man, what is the relationship between our will, which has been freed from the dominion of Satan, and God’s will?

To start, Scripture is clear that our will is not unhitched from God’s will. We are not free to be or to do anything regardless of causes or constraints. We are bounded by God’s sovereign rule over all, which is made evident in Exodus as God demonstrates his sovereignty over Egypt’s gods and Egypt’s king.

But within the bounds of God’s sovereignty, is there a tug of war between the will of our sovereign God and the exercise of our freedom? In one sense, the answer is yes, as Paul argues in Romans 7, and it is evident in our own lives as we daily sin in thought, word, and deed. Because we live in the already/not yet, we have not yet been purified of all remaining sinfulness. This is why, even though they have been justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, Paul must still tell the Galatians not to gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).

In another sense, though, it is a pernicious lie to say that there is a tug of war between the will of our sovereign God and the exercise of our freedom.[1] The truth of Scripture is that true flourishing as a human is not doing as you please but living out God’s sovereign design for his creation. This is reinforced by two points. First, God’s sovereign design for his creation is good. More than that, it is the best path possible because God himself is good. Because he is good and he is God, his design for his creation can never be inferior to the fancies of man’s imagination. If that were the case, he would cease to be God.

Second, and related, living out God’s sovereign design is good for us as his creation. In a carefully defined way, we can say that we can live our best life now by living out God’s sovereign design for us. To be sure, our best life now can and will include tribulation (cf. Mark 10:38; John 16:33), but insofar as we live out God’s plan for our lives (summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Proverbs, etc.), we are living our best life now because God, as our creator, knows best how we, created in his image, ought to live to truly flourish.

Hence, the psalmist summarizes these two points poetically: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts; their heart is unfeeling like fat, but I delight in your law” (Psalm 119:68-70 ESV).

Since true flourishing as a human is living out God’s sovereign design for us, true freedom is the ability to act consistently with God’s sovereign design. That is to say, any idea of human freedom that pits it against the will and sovereignty of God is ultimately a form of slavery and not a form of freedom. But what’s worse, that “freedom” is servitude to something or someone that is not good and does not have your best interests in mind.

So, then, to go on thinking that the exercise of our freedom is a constant tug of war with the will of our sovereign God is quite hurtful in the end. That, in my humble opinion, is why it is a pernicious lie to say that there is a tug of war between the sovereignty of God and the exercise of our freedom.

My encouragement to you, then, is this: when you are tempted to think that walking the narrow way of the Christian life is a drag and a burden, remember that God is good and does good, which means that his plan for your life is good and will do you real and lasting—even eternal—good. Then, exercise your freedom in Christ to truly flourish as an image bearer of God.

[1] The following argument draws from Geoffrey M Ziegler, Free to Be Sons of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2018).

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