Sovereignty and Freedom
Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
Lecture: Sovereignty and Freedom
This is the 10th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. Confusing Theological Terms
When we think about God, we ask what God is like. The other big question is concerned with how close God control things. This is a foundational question with all kinds of implications. This comes out especially with the idea of suffering. We first need to understand that many theological terms are emotionally packed coming with hidden meanings and affirmations that we don’t even recognize. Often, it is assumed that we understand what the term means and in addition within evangelical circles even the terms have different meanings. We do have normal meanings that cause us trouble because we come with what we consider key terms and no one understands them.
Let’s look at freedom; what does it mean that I have free choice? The evangelical default says that I have a choice between two things, this or that, to do this or not to do this. I have options and I can choose, based on my own decision, my own free will, my own desires, this or that, this or not that. This is the evangelical default, but interestingly some evangelicals, particularly the Armenians would say that we have free choice, we can decide this or that whereas Calvinists would say no, freedom means that I can do what I want to but I always do the same thing. So are we free when our choices are according to our desires? Everybody agrees on this. Freedom means that somebody isn’t forcing you to do something. But do we also have the power of contrary choice? The ability to say either yes or no; on the Armenian side they will say, ‘of course we do.’ Not in every case of course, I can’t choose to score a basketball in the hoop as such. So I have actual choice in some areas and it is my choice. I determine this or that and it is assumed on the Armenian side that freedom means this. For some will ask we are not free because God has already determined what we will do. We are free; we do what we want but our desires determine the outcome and so we actually don’t have the possibility of saying no because our desires will always say yes. So the term ‘freedom’ comes loaded with the idea of contrary choice built into it. So, ironically many Calvinists say, ‘no, humans are not free.’ And everybody just laughs at them.
Another big term is ‘sovereignty’. Everyone agrees that God is not accountable to anybody. His plans and purposes cannot be overcome and so God does what he wants. The dictionary meaning of sovereign has to do with not be accountable to others. For example Canada and the USA are both sovereign nations in that we are no longer accountable to England. Everybody agrees that God doesn’t have to give justification to anybody. When he decides to act, nobody can stop that. But another questions arises, is everything that happens in this world according to God’s will? Is it what God wants? So is everything in the world fundamentally what God wants? The Calvinists say yes because God is sovereign. By that they mean that everything that happens is according to the decretive will of God. Armenians disagree and say no; things happen against the will of God. Look! God commands not to murder but people murder others, which is against the will of God. God wants everyone to be saved but everybody is not saved. Calvinists say that, yes, God wants everybody to be saved in some sense but the decretive or hidden will of God; everything that happens is according to his decretive will and nothing happens that is outside the will of God. All people are under the sovereign God, a common Calvinistic phrase.
So we have the term sovereign and in a sense we all believe in the sovereignty of God. But we may not believe in the Calvinistic definition of sovereignty. And the same goes for freedom of the individual; everybody believes in this freedom of the individual. Both these terms when mentioned by themselves come loaded with assumed ideas and a lot of the debate is simply over the meanings of those terms which we need to justify biblically.
So where does the Bible teach the sovereignty of God? There are a lot of places that mention that God is sovereign, for example Psalm 115:3, ‘our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.’ God does whatever pleases him. We also have Psalm 33:10 showing the Lord and his will with the plans of the nations. He frustrates the plans of the nations; he goes against the plans of the people. A point of debate here, are the plans of the nations of the world according to the plans of God or does he frustrate them and stop them when they get to a certain place? This is a point of difference between evangelicals where some say that the plans of the nations are according to the plans of God while others say that God restrains their evil which they have chosen to do.
We are thinking in terms of definitions here. Look at Ephesians 1:3 ‘praise be to our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.’ He plainly says that he chose us in him and this was before creation, he chose us in him and that we would have every spiritual blessing. We were predestined in him as his children. Everybody agrees that all people are apart from God that he chose some for salvation before the foundation of the world and that God chose to give every spiritual blessing to those in Christ. The point of discussion is how you get to be in Christ. This is the debate within the idea of election. So what does election mean? Before creation, God chose to give every spiritual blessing to us in Christ. From the Calvinists side, it is God who said you are going to be in Christ. From the Armenian side, God knows who will receive his gift; those of Christ’s people. Both agree that those who are in Christ will get every spiritual blessing. They disagree on how you get to be in Christ. Do Armenians believe in election? The answer is yes, absolutely. Do Calvinists believe in election? Yes, but they define election differently. What we must not do is say that the Armenians don’t believe in election and vice versa for believing in freedom. We would end a lot of hostility within the evangelical camp if we just realize that there are different definitions of terms and then talk about those terms.
So key terms: freedom, sovereign, and election and there are more. In freedom, we act according to his desires is a contrary choice and then sovereignty where God does what he wants and nobody can stop him and he gives no account to anybody. Is everything that happens in this world, fundamentally what he wants? Election: before creation God chose to give every spiritual blessing to those who are in Christ. How do you get to be in Christ? It is God’s choice or our choice to receive his free gift? So these key terms have different meanings to different people.