Actually, this isn’t a valid question but it is the query that most people come to based upon their own flawed human reasoning as if we had to choose between the two. But it is not that we can go to the Bible and simply pick which truths we like best – God’s sovereignty or man’s free agency. Both truths are taught in the Scriptures and therefore must be proclaimed.
1. God’s Absolute Sovereignty: If anyone has a genuinely free will, it is the Lord God. His freedom is seen in two important realities: a. He is not bound by any external constraints whatsoever. He is especially free of any wickedness since He Himself is infinitely holy (Psalm 5:4-5). The natural man does not share this important attribute of God, for he is defined as a slave of sin (John 8:34) and is therefore unholy. b. Only God can actually do all that He determines to do according to His own will. This is because He is the only One who has the power to accomplish His own good pleasure by His unbounded omnipotence: Isaiah 46:8-10: 8 “Remember this, and be assured; Recall it to mind, you transgressors. 9 “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; Men may boast of their intent to accomplish their own will, but they have not the power to accomplish all their own wicked pleasure.
2. Man’s Free Agency: The imperative of worship did not end with the fall of Adam in Genesis 3. Though Adam and his progeny became the bondslaves of sin, this did not nullify mankind’s culpability before Almighty God. Men will be held to account for their own lives, their own decisions and their own actions. Men therefore cannot refute this culpability before God because of His absolute sovereignty: Isaiah 45:9: 9 “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’?” God is absolutely sovereign, but within the scope of that sovereignty, men are called to answer before almighty God for their own sinful actions in this life. In other words, men cannot blame God for their own deeds of wickedness (James 1:13-15).
Where this discussion becomes most dangerous for believers is when we try to pick and choose which truth we like best, while minimizing, or even nullifying, the other in the process. An interpretive choice such as this is not the work of the Spirit; nor is it the result of responsible interpretation/application. Instead, it is the result of flawed human reasoning. Some will conclude that man’s free agency is the sine qua non of all truth and hence go off the deep end of error. This particular slant often produces a form of Gospel preaching which seeks to transform the lost by human means and messages, rather than trusting in the power and sufficiency of the Holy Spirit and plain Gospel preaching. This is the legacy of C.G. Finney and it must be avoided. Others will so emphasize God’s sovereignty, at the expense of man’s responsibility, that some end up producing their own set of errors in the process – even committing the error of minimizing, or even denying, the characteristics of God’s love and compassion for the lost. Both extremes produce a corruption of genuine evangelism and therefore they both must be avoided.
But I find it interesting that, in the providence of God, these two truths are brought together in a wonderful way in Romans chapter 9. We most often think of Romans 9 in terms of its great discourse on God’s sovereignty – and it is true, Romans 9 is that. But it is also a great chapter that teaches us about man’s free agency and the believer’s need to be zealous in his Gospel plea. Yes, it is actually true that Romans 9 = an exhortation which calls us to greater urgency in our Gospel proclamation. You see, before Paul ever said “it does not depend upon him who wills or him who runs, but upon God who has mercy;” and before he ever said “who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” – before all of this, Paul gave us an expression of his great passion concerning the lost:
Romans 9:1-3: 1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh…
Question: When was the last time that you wished that you yourself could be cursed and sacrificed for the sake of the lost? For myself, it is a convicting question. It reminds me that I have a great need to grow in my own love, compassion and grief (yes unceasing grief) for the lost. It is this compassionate yearning for lost souls that is the work of the Holy Spirit rather than false human reason. I find it fascinating that the Lord established both truths in this one chapter of Romans – the truth regarding man’s culpability (along with the believer’s need to seek the lost with zeal and compassion), and God’s absolute sovereignty in everything. We could never say that this was a coincidence.
Be assured of this – the Lord gives us what we need – we need both truths, not simply one or the other.