The following essay is chapter 2 of the book Who's Your Father: Returning to the Love of the Biblical God
by Robert Bernecker
How deeply do men err who conceive of God as subject to our human will or as standing respectfully to wait upon our human pleasure.
–A. W. TOZER, THE PURSUIT OF MAN1
In each of three separate books within the acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia series, C. S. Lewis’ characters make the observation that “Aslan is not a tame lion.”2 Mr. Lewis’s metaphor is quite accurate, of course. Our God is not tame; he does not answer to us (Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 40:13–14), nor is he our servant or our butler. These basic facts appear to be lost in today’s church, where it seems normal for most Christians to casually believe that God indeed does our bidding. Moreover, very few are willing to dispute the common notions that “God is a gentleman” and “God will not interfere with a person’s free will.” While we may stop short of joining those who teach that humans may indeed become gods, we nonetheless embrace doctrines and teachings that strip sovereignty from God and hand it over to humans, thereby coming dangerously close to elevating the created above the Creator. A. W. Pink observed this trend back in 1918 and, perhaps somewhat prophetically, wrote the following:
The trend of modern theology…is ever toward the deification of the creature rather than the glorification of the Creator, and the leaven of present-day Rationalism is rapidly permeating the whole of Christendom.3
In the preceding chapter, the resplendent principle of God’s sovereignty over his entire creation was explored at length. While this tenet is truly magnificent and worthy of nothing less than our awe and worship, the fuller truth of God’s loving sovereignty is deeper still and yet more precious. Indeed, we should rejoice that no matter how well we come to know our Father, because we are finite creatures, there will always remain a deeper and fuller truth about our infinite God for us to endeavor to comprehend and worship. We should therefore set our hearts to understand that our God is not a sovereign God who always fulfills his will for the universe but does so in an inscrutable manner while managing to leave humans alone to “do their own thing.” Rather, our God is a personal God who exercises his sovereignty at the personal level. For example, Proverbs 21:1 teaches us that God works in human hearts to accomplish his divinely perfect purpose. The passage states that the “heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (NASB).
This dramatic statement is not some isolated assertion of a single Bible verse. It is a constant characteristic of a God who “fashions the hearts” of men and women (Psalm 33:15). This same attribute—that God moves, turns, and influences free hearts to accomplish his own purpose—is also seen throughout the entire Bible. In fact, any doctrine teaching God’s unwillingness to interfere with each person’s supposed free will runs head-on into a vast host of scriptural examples and teaching. To illustrate this fact, a partial list of such references is presented here:
This is not a complete list by any means. From Genesis to Revelation, God freely interferes with human will to accomplish his own eternal purpose. Even the great sinful rebellion seen in Revelation 17 is said “to carry out God’s purpose” (v. 17). In regards to the choices and actions of the ten sinful, rebellious kings described in this passage, we are told explicitly that “God put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose” (v. 17), which in this case will be his inevitable conquering of these rebellious kings and people (v. 14).
The collective preponderance of these many Scriptures thoroughly dispels the notion that God is somehow a “gentleman” that is either unable or unwilling to turn the hearts and wills of humans (and thereby their choices) to accomplish his own purpose. In fact, Psalm 33:10 (NASB) teaches us the exact opposite: “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples.” We do not read that the Lord honors the counsel of the nations and carefully respects the plans of the people. Instead, we are told, “The Lord reigns, let the people tremble!” (Psalm 99:1). We should learn from Jeremiah, who declared his awareness of this glorious truth in Jeremiah 10:23: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.”
Contrary to much popular teaching of our day, our Father clearly can and regularly does interfere with human free will. To our great loss, we have drifted far from the historic confession of God’s sovereign involvement in every facet of his creation. In fact, Augustine made no effort to conceal his disdain for any such suggestions that would artificially limit God’s ascendancy, and he wrote bluntly that it was “blasphemous” and “foolish” to assert that God does not change the wills of men whenever and however he chooses.4 We must repent of such foolishness, and we should instead praise our God that he does change our will! Many who profess that “God is a gentleman” have probably never considered the consequences of a world where God, for whatever reason they may assert, did not actually influence, change, and interfere with humanity’s fallen will. How horrible indeed that would be!
We sing songs such as the popular “Our God Reigns” with great enthusiasm and joy, and then we turn right around and teach that God does not in fact reign over the wills of humans, perhaps even in the very same church service. Do we believe he reigns or do we not? Do we even realize how perilous it is to impudently suggest that our God’s reign is somehow only partial? I suspect that for most of us this insolence is born of nothing more than having never actually reasoned the matter through completely. For example, we do not seem to have any difficulty accepting and rejoicing in the fact that God placed Esther as the queen of Persia “for such a time as this” in order to accomplish his purpose of saving the Jewish people (Esther 4:14), but we stumble when we fail to consider how this might actually have happened. Assuming it was not all just an auspicious accident by which the Israelites in exile were delivered from the total extermination threatened by the evil man Haman (Esther 3:8–9), did not God have to interfere with and influence the so-called free will of King Ahasuerus by causing him to find Esther pleasing (2:17) and then further causing the king to choose Esther to be the replacement for the previous queen Vashti?
For that matter, was even the banishment of Vashti just an unlikely but fortuitous accident that fell into God’s lap and created a vacancy into which he could insert Esther? Are we to seriously believe God simply seized upon an opportune stroke of good luck when a drunken Ahasuerus just happened to call for Queen Vashti to put her on display (1:11), Vashti just happened to refuse because she was offended in her own pride (1:12), the king’s counselors just happened to advise the king to banish her (1:19), and these same advisors later came up with an idea out of their own sinful hearts for the king to replace Vashti—a plan that would just happen to work out to a “gentleman” God’s advantage? Such an assertion quite obviously strains credibility, and, worse yet, it also creates severely misplaced boundaries upon God’s trustworthiness, omniscience, and faithfulness—boundaries that should not exist at all.
Is it not more likely by several orders of magnitude that this is a powerful example of how God exercises his sovereignty over human free will in order to accomplish his own purpose and that it also clearly demonstrates his willingness to do so? We should rejoice in the fact that God, human free will notwithstanding, invariably works out his “plans formed long ago with perfect faithfulness” (Isaiah 25:1 NASB).
There are many such examples of this same principle in Scripture, and one worthy of close examination is the account of Rehoboam’s choice found in 2 Chronicles 10 and 1 Kings 12. In this vivid narrative, it is quite clear that Rehoboam certainly did have a choice. Following the death of King Solomon, the people of Israel had come to his son Rehoboam and offered to serve him faithfully if he would only reduce the heavy load that his father had placed upon them. Rehoboam gave this choice much deliberation. He asked the old men for advice regarding the choice before him, he asked the young men for advice about the choice, and he asked the people for three days in which to consider his choice. In the end, he decided to choose the way of the young men’s advice, and he refused to lighten the burden on the people. The results were disastrous for Rehoboam. His subjects revolted, his kingdom was split into two separate kingdoms, and he lost ten of twelve tribes.
As tragic as Rehoboam’s choice may have been, the story did not begin with the people approaching Rehoboam regarding the heavy load that Solomon had placed upon them. Instead, it had its beginning back in 1 Kings 11:26–43. We see there that Solomon’s construction foreman, Jeroboam, is given the ten northern tribes in advance and by the Lord through the words of the prophet Ahijah. This occurred while Solomon was still alive and still firmly king of all twelve tribes. We are told the Lord’s reason and purpose in verses 31 to 33; it was because of Israel’s idolatry and wickedness that the Lord was going to “tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon” (as usual, human responsibility is not absent). In other words, long before Rehoboam ever had the opportunity to make his “free” choice between the counsel of the old men and that of the young men, God had already declared to Jeroboam in no uncertain terms that God’s purpose would be fulfilled and thereby the kingdom would be split.
Here we see the paradox clearly; God uses human free will to accomplish his predetermined sovereign purpose. Rehoboam’s choice was a real choice with real consequences—the Scripture is clear about that. He was presented with the wisdom of the old men (good advice) and the wisdom of the young men (bad advice), and he chose the latter to his own detriment. At the same time, Scripture is equally clear that he was destined to choose the latter, for God had already declared years before what Rehoboam’s choice would be! The Puritans had a saying: “What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always freely choose in time.” As this saying would suggest, Rehoboam was free to choose either direction, but his destiny (decreed by God) was the latter choice, and there was no possibility that he would choose the former and thereby prove God wrong. It was not going to happen! He freely made the choice he was destined to make and thereby accomplished that which God himself was actually doing.
The pivotal question in the matter is whether God actually exerted his sovereignty over Rehoboam’s free will or merely knew in advance which choice Rehoboam would make. Was the promise of the northern kingdom to Jeroboam simply God’s opportunistic use of his eternal knowledge regarding Rehoboam’s eventual decision? To accept the premise that it was mere foreknowledge rips sovereignty out of the hand of God and places it instead in the hands of men. At worst, this is heresy, and it is unscriptural at best. For example, God shared the future in Ezekiel 39, and then in verse 8 declared that “it is coming” and that “it will be brought about!” In Isaiah 25:1, we are told that God works with perfect faithfulness “plans formed long ago.”
God did not look into the future, foresee Rehoboam’s foolish choice, and then tell Jeroboam that Rehoboam would lose ten of twelve tribes of his kingdom because of this bad choice; rather, God spoke that he would tear the kingdom away from Solomon and Rehoboam and give it to Jeroboam instead! Not surprisingly, this is exactly what God made happen. The word tear is an action verb; thetearing of the kingdom from Rehoboam was an action of our eternal, unchanging God, not a result of an autonomous human choice. We can know, therefore, that God brought it about; it was not just happenstance. If God was involved in the split—and the Bible says that he was—then he had a single perfect plan for the split. If God had to change his plan to accommodate Rehoboam’s choice, then the original plan was not perfect, and if God’s plan is not perfect, then God is not God at all. If, on the other hand, the plan was perfect, then it was set in place long before the world began by our eternal God who stands outside of time. Therefore, Rehoboam could only have freely chosen one of the two choices. Indeed, just like us, he freely chose what God had destined.
Should there remain any doubt about Rehoboam’s choice being inevitably what God had destined, then 1 Kings 12:15 (and 2 Chronicles 10:15 as well) dispels any such doubt. This Scripture plainly states, “The king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word.” This could not be clearer. This was not mere foreknowledge; rather, we are told directly that God brought about the outcome and that he did this so that his word would be fulfilled—as it always is and always will be! This inescapable conclusion is reinforced further by the prophet Shemaiah in 2 Chronicles 11:4, where Shemaiah gave the direct command of the Lord to Rehoboam to cease from his plans to fight against Jeroboam. God himself took direct credit for the series of events, stating that the split of the kingdom, which may have appeared on the surface to be a result of Rehoboam’s poor choice, was actually his own sovereign work. He declared, “This is my doing” (NIV), “This thing is from me” (ESV), or “This thing is done of me” (KJV). Manifestly, there remains no room to doubt that God fulfilled his eternal, sovereign purpose, and he imposed his purpose on human free will in the process of so doing.
In his well-known 1754 treatise The Freedom of the Will, Jonathon Edwards famously and masterfully pointed out that humans are indeed free to choose what seems best to them.5 But Edwards noted that Scripture is also clear that God can and does influence and determine what seems best to humans. As such, God influences human choices. A perfect example of this is found in 2 Samuel 17. Here, Absalom is given both what most would call “good” advice (it would have been better for him) and “bad” advice. He had a choice, and Absalom chose the “bad” advice of Hushai instead of the “good” advice of Ahithophel. Why would he do this? Was it just his bad luck or his bad judgment? Actually, it was neither. We are given the real reason in verse 14: “For the Lord had ordained to thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel, in order that the Lord might bring calamity on Absalom” (NASB). The Lord had willed (ordained) that Absalom would perish, and he influenced Absalom’s free will by making the good counsel seem bad and the bad counsel seem good to Absalom, in order that Absalom would freely choose what the Lord had destined—thereby fulfilling God’s divine purpose! We can praise our Father because he still works this way today and because his purposes are always fulfilled.
God’s willingness and ability to sovereignly control what course of action humans perceive to be the best choice is also clearly exemplified in Genesis 34 and 35. In these chapters, when Jacob’s sons slaughtered all the men of Shechem and plundered the city in retaliation for Shechem’s defilement of their sister Dinah, Jacob accurately feared that he did not have the numbers or strength to defend his family should the other Canaanites and Perizzites seek revenge for this slaughter (34:30). Left to their own free will, there is little doubt that the remaining Canaanites and the Perizzites would have indeed pursued and killed Jacob and his family in revenge for the massacre at Shechem. However, we know that God’s eternal purpose for Jacob was to bless him and make a mighty nation of him and his family, and God had previously promised to be with Jacob until God’s purpose was fully accomplished (Genesis 28:13–15). It is therefore no surprise that God conspicuously interfered with the free will of the Canaanites and the Perizzites. According to Genesis 35:5, the people from the Canaanite cities freely chose not to pursue Jacob and his family as they fled to Bethel because God had sent a great terror into their wills. In other words, the people were caused to be unreasonably afraid to pursue Jacob when in actuality they possessed the superior strength to crush him. This divine interference with human free will allowed Jacob and his family to safely travel out of the area as God had instructed, and God’s purpose was again accomplished.
It would be a great mistake to attempt to explain away these many accounts of God’s interference with human free will and human desire as isolated incidents that are somehow not characteristic of God’s dealing with the human race. We know that our God does not change, and we have no biblical suggestion that God will take on a role of less sovereignty in later ages than that which he clearly exhibited in earlier ages. It is tremendously more likely that we just do not notice God’s hand most of the time, supposing him to be absent when he is not. For example, in Exodus 34:23–24, God told his people that all males, without exception, were to travel to the tabernacle three times a year to offer sacrifices, a command that was looking forward to the time when they possessed the Promised Land (also Deuteronomy 16:16). However, this command raised an obvious question—what would keep their enemies from attacking and plundering their families, their land, and their belongings while they were on these triannual pilgrimages? God’s promise in this regard was unambiguous. He promised that no enemy would even desire to attack or plunder while the Israelites were away.
God’s fulfillment of this promise would necessarily encompass countless nearby enemies who no doubt would quickly learn of these very predictable absences, if for no other reason than regularly observing a mass exodus of Israelites to the location of the tabernacle. Nevertheless, only as a result of divine interference with human will, it would never even enter into these enemies’ minds to take advantage of these absences by attacking and plundering while all of the men of the entire nation were away from their lands offering sacrifices at the tabernacle. This divine interference with human free will is no isolated assertion of Scripture; we read in Proverbs 16:7 that God would indeed make the enemies of those who serve him to be at peace with them. Moreover, although the Bible does not state it directly, it seems nearly certain that these enemies would never realize that their desires, choices, and actions were being influenced by a sovereign God. It would therefore be reasonable for us to believe that our God always remains sovereign over all, and more often than not humans do not even realize that God’s will is sovereignly influencing their own.
When the will of men conflicts with the purpose of the Lord, Scripture teaches us plainly that it is God’s will that prevails. God does not respectfully acquiesce to the imagined sovereignty of man’s free will, as some might suppose would be appropriate for a “gentleman” God. At the city that would come to be called Babel (Genesis 11), humans had decided of their own free will to create a name for themselves, and apparently a religion abhorrent to the Lord as well, by building a tower with which they supposed they might connect to the heavens. The desire of their human free will was readily apparent, but God’s purpose was obviously quite different. As we all know, rather than respecting human free will, God confused their language in order to thwart and change their chosen course of action. It is noteworthy that God could have easily just spoken his command and instantly transported the tower builders to as many other places as he saw fit (à la Philip or Enoch), or he could have merely commanded the earth to open up and swallow them (à la Dathan and Korah in Numbers 16). Instead, God acted in a manner that resulted in the humans separating and going in different directions of their own free will. God made them freely decide to scatter—so off they went! According to Acts 17:26, we can know that they did not just wander off haphazardly (although it probably seemed that way to them); rather, they each went to the exact place that God had ordained by his sovereignty. It is quite likely that they did not realize at all that the change in their desires and free will was in fact the handiwork of the Lord; they merely chose what seemed best to them at the time, exactly as Edwards postulated. God interfered with and changed their free will, but, as is always the case, he did so using his own sovereignly chosen method.
Yet another illustration of how the Lord fulfills his purpose through human free choices and interferes with the human free will is found in 2 Chronicles 25. The king of Judah, Amaziah, received bad counsel (v. 17) and chose wrongly to pick a fight with Joash, the king of Israel. Joash attempted to talk Amaziah out of such a fight, but we are told very clearly in verse 20 that “Amaziah would not listen, for it was from God, that he might deliver them into the hand of Joash.” Not surprisingly, that is exactly what God did. His purposes are always fulfilled. It is fascinating to ponder what would be written if the current events of our modern world were being recorded from a divinely inspired perspective such as this viewpoint in 2 Chronicles. Would not we fully expect to find that the same sorts of phrases such as “for it was from God” or “for the Lord fulfilled his purpose” would be used to describe our own lives and times? If not, are we foolish enough to believe that God has relinquished a degree of sovereignty that he routinely exercised in ancient times?
Most Christians today are confident when they are engaged in the act of prayer that God can answer that prayer. However, do they realize that such an answer often involves God interfering with human free will? In Genesis 24, for example, we see God answering prayer and doing so by imposing his will on human free will. Abraham, not wanting his son Isaac to take a Canaanite wife, had sent his servant back to Abraham’s original homeland in order to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Abraham had asserted in faith that the Lord would send an angel before his servant and make the servant’s efforts to secure a wife successful (v. 7). We should realize that an angel making these efforts successful would certainly involve God imposing his sovereign will on a number of human free wills. When the servant arrived in Mesopotamia at the city of Nahor, he prayed that the Lord would send the Lord’s chosen wife for Isaac to the well to meet him and that the chosen wife would speak specific words in response to the servant’s particular request for a drink of water (vv. 12–14, 42–44). He had hardly finished praying when Rebekah approached the well, ostensibly of her own free will (vv. 15–16, 45). When Abraham’s servant asked her for a drink, she responded exactly as the servant had requested in his prayer by giving him a drink and offering to water his camels (vv. 18–20, 46). We see these choices and actions of her human will were quite obviously steered by the Lord.
Rebekah was a very attractive virgin who was also from Abraham’s clan, quite the remarkable find if one were relying on a mere convergence of human free wills to produce such a result (v. 16). Moreover, in verses 50–51, Laban (Rebekah’s brother) and Bethuel (Rebekah’s father) recognized the Lord’s purpose in the events of the day, and they properly acquiesced and offered Rebekah as Isaac’s wife—this of their own free wills. In so doing, the actions of their wills were yet a further answer to the original prayer of Abraham, as well as his servant’s prayer, and ultimately they were a fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose. Christians who study this remarkable account today can choose to believe that our God was incredibly fortunate, that the people’s choices, the circumstances, and the events in this narrative just worked out opportunistically with astounding accuracy and perfect timing, all because of the serendipitous decisions and attitudes of the many various free wills involved. Or, they can believe that our almighty God sovereignly influenced Rebekah’s free will, as well as the other human wills involved, in order to accomplish his eternal purpose. It should be indisputably clear which of these two Gods is the real God of the Bible. The concept that should correctly emerge as we study this matter is that humans certainly make meaningful choices, and these choices have very real results and lasting consequences; nevertheless, God remains sovereign over all of these choices, the results and consequences of which all work together to accomplish his grand, eternal purpose.
Returning to Scripture, in another place we find a Benjamite man and his servant wandering about the countryside looking for donkeys that have supposedly just strayed away on their own (1 Samuel 9:1–27). After many days searching for these lost donkeys, Saul and his servant decide of their own free will, as a last-ditch effort, to seek out the man of God in nearby Zuph and inquire of this man of God (Samuel) as to the whereabouts of their lost donkeys. This might appear to be a normal, unremarkable series of events were it not for the fact that God was sovereignly working to accomplish his purpose. We can know this because in verse 15 we see that God had revealed to Samuel in advance that he was going to send a certain Benjamite man to Samuel, and Samuel was to anoint this man (Saul) as the person selected by God to be the first king of Israel. We are shown unmistakably, therefore, that the donkeys did not just happen to stray away, and Saul did not just wonder around the countryside of his own volition for several days before just happening to come near Zuph and luckily choosing to seek out Samuel.
This series of events was obviously not simply an opportune moment that fell into God’s lap; it was God himself accomplishing his purpose by actively manipulating circumstances and choices—including both the actions of animals and the choices of humans! God told Samuel that it was he who sent Saul to him. The decision to pursue lost donkeys and the idea to visit Samuel did not originate in the mind of Saul or his servant, although it is highly probable that it seemed to Saul as if the idea and the choices were of his own making. Rather, the events and ensuing “free” choices clearly originated from the word of God in the unfolding of his own perfect purpose.
Examples such as these could easily fill an entire book, and it would require far too much space to individually examine all of the Scriptures listed at the beginning of this chapter in which God explicitly interfered with human free will. Despite these space limitations, the fact remains that the Bible palpably establishes that God is both willing and able to interfere regularly with human free will. This interference may be perceived by humans to be either “good” or “bad,” or it may even go completely undetected. Human perception notwithstanding, it is God’s prerogative to govern his own creation exactly as he sees fit (Isaiah 45:10; 10:15; Romans 9:21).
This divine prerogative is nevertheless often denied or ignored in much preaching and teaching of our day. Many profess, for example, that God is obligated to give undeserved mercy to all human beings and that he is never willing for any human to perish in their sin (perhaps by taking a passage such as 2 Peter 3:9 out of context). However, we read in Joshua 11:20 that God sovereignly chose not to show mercy to a large and varied group of undeserving, sinful people (just like us), and he instead set their hearts and their free wills to choose their inevitable death because it was undeniably his sovereign will that they perish:
For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them. (Joshua 11:20 NASB)
If we are willing to set aside the doctrinal prejudices that we carry and honestly seek after a correct understanding of the God of the Bible, we will inevitably discover a God that unhesitatingly exercises his right as the Creator to govern and manage his creation exactly as he sees fit according to his perfect wisdom and plan. God may sovereignly turn human free wills to hate his people (Egyptian hearts in Psalm 105:25), or he may just as easily turn human free wills to look favorably on his people (Egyptian hearts again, in Exodus 3:21 and 11:3). He may harden or blind human hearts (Romans 11:7; Matthew 11:25; Matthew 13:11; Lamentations 3:64–65; 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12), or he may soften hearts and give them understanding (Acts 16:14; Matthew 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 1:23–24, 29–30). He may “make hearts obstinate” to the point of it resulting in their death (Deuteronomy 2:30), or he may give the grace necessary to enable belief in those hearts he has appointed (Acts 13:48). He may wound, or he may heal; he may kill, or he may make alive (Deuteronomy 32:39). He may stir up human will to accomplish his own purposes (Revelation 17:17; Ezra 1:1; Jeremiah 51:11). He may suppress an evil man’s will or hatred for his enemies (Exodus 34:24; Psalm 105:14–15), or he may harden a man’s heart and will against his enemies (Joshua 11:20). He may restrain humanity’s natural will to sin (Genesis 20:6; Joshua 24:9–10), or he may influence human will in such a manner that it will lead to certain death (1 Samuel 2:22–25; Isaiah 37:7). He may well “allure” human hearts in order to turn them to himself (Hosea 2:14), or he may “hedge up” human ways to force them to follow his own purpose (Hosea 2:6). He may give people eyes that will not see and ears that will not hear (Romans 11:7; Isaiah 6:10; Mark 4:10–12; John 12:40; Deuteronomy 29:4), or he may give people eyes that see and ears that hear (Proverbs 20:12; Isaiah 32:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1:4). But, no matter how he works, God’s will and purpose is always accomplished. He is God, and we are not! As for us, “who is there who speaks and it come to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (Lamentations 3:37 NASB). As for God, he does indeed work in us, both to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
The Bible, then, shows quite unmistakably that God is not a gentleman waiting on humans to will and to do the correct things, or combination of things, so that God’s will can come to pass; rather, he is actively involved in steering the universe (including both sparrows and human hearts) in the direction he alone sees fit. Elihu (the fourth and final counselor of Job—the only one that was not rebuked by the Lord for speaking incorrectly) correctly asserted in Job 33:12 that “God is greater than man.” He also pointed out that God often acts to influence human will, but often this action is not noticed by humans (v. 29, v. 14, vv. 15–20). The mechanism of God’s influence is quite obviously beyond both our understanding and our revelation (Deuteronomy 29:29; Ecclesiastes 8:17; Romans 11:33–34; Isaiah 55:8–9), and it is just as obviously infinitely varied as appropriate for any given situation. While God may certainly take men and women by a “hook in the nose” (Isaiah 37:29), it seems likely that his influence more often goes initially unnoticed by humans—just as when God used Cyrus as his own instrument though Cyrus did not even know God (Isaiah 44:28; 45:5, 1–4, 13). God’s reasons for using Cyrus in this manner are provided to us in this passage, and as we should expect, God was using Cyrus for his own glory (45:6), to accomplish his own righteous purpose (44:28; 45:13; see NLT), and to eventually reveal himself to Cyrus (45:3).
Moreover, our Father’s total dominion over all of his creation runs deeper than just his transcendent influence upon our free wills. God forms the spirit within each of us before we are even born (Zechariah 12:1), and he does so with perfect foreknowledge. It is God “who fashions the hearts” of the inhabitants of the earth, and he “understands all their works,” according to Psalm 33:15 (NASB). If “hearts” as used in this verse means the center of human desire and decision making, then it is God who fashions those hearts, good or bad, and only he who understands the particulars (what, when, how, and why) that will inevitably flow from his workmanship in that heart (Ephesians 2:10). If those works were not in accordance with his purpose, then he could have and would have fashioned the heart differently to begin with. God asserts that it is he himself who “puts wisdom in man’s inner being” and “gives understanding to the mind” (Job 38:36), and it is this very inner being and understanding that drives human choices.
If we consider ourselves wise enough to understand perceptively, believe correctly, or choose judiciously, we would do well to remember that this very understanding and faith is a gift from God himself (Proverbs 2:6), and we have nothing at all that we did not receive from his hand, be it tangible or intangible (1 Corinthians 4:7). Further, we cannot choose to receive anything that we are not given from God as a result of his will (John 3:27), and it is God alone who gives us a heart to understand or eyes to see (Deuteronomy 29:4). God is the source of our decision-making capabilities; it is he who “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning” (Daniel 2:21 NIV; Proverbs 2:6). In short, there is no such thing as the so-called self-made man. All that we are, perceive, and believe must be correctly attributed to our sovereign Father.
If we were to be given a choice, it should be readily apparent that a truly sovereign God is far preferable to a “gentleman God” who rarely, if ever, interferes with the free wills and affairs of humans, even though we may fallaciously claim that such a God is also sovereign. Of course, we do not get to choose the truth about God; he is exactly who he is, and our misconceptions do not change him in any way, no matter how fervently we may declare them or how often we may repeat them. We must learn and accept the true God of the Bible if we desire a God who we can staunchly know to be our Rock, as David knew him to be (Psalm 18:2; 144:1–3). The alternative is a manmade, ineffective God who is surprised by and subservient to human choices, a God whom we portray as busily attempting to make as much good as possible out of all the unanticipated evil that is being done on the earth. R. K. Wright said, “Constructing a correct theology, a correct theoria, a correct ‘beholding’ of God, is the prerequisite for the body of Christ to worship God adequately. Otherwise, the wordGod tends to be the name of an idol we have made and does not refer to the Yahweh of the Bible.”6 When we come to understand the unlimited, boundless supremacy of the God of the Bible, however, our walk with him is transformed; the Bible comes alive, difficult doctrines fall easily into place, and our faith and confidence in our loving Father are lifted to astounding new levels.
As a final, clinching example of God’s repudiation of human free will and his disinclination to conduct himself as a “gentleman” according to our human terms, consider the example of King Saul that is recounted in 1 Samuel 19:18–24. Here we find King Saul traveling to Naioth in order to search out and kill David. Saul’s free will was quite clear—he had chosen to kill David. However, God’s will was equally clear—he had chosen David to be the next king. Not surprisingly, it was God’s free will and not man’s free will that prevailed. Apparently, God chose not to heed the theologians who would enthrone humanity by insisting that God must show the greatest respect for human free will and that he therefore must not interfere with Saul’s choices, will, or selected course of action. Rather, in dramatic fashion, God proceeded to interfere in a manner that showed precious little respect for Saul’s free will. Instead of capturing and killing David, Saul found himself “prophesying” (probably an intense worship) all the way to Naioth, and he then found himself stripping off his robes and worshipping on the floor all day and all night. It is not difficult to perceive that this was not at all what King Saul’s free will had intended. God was hardly a “gentleman” with Saul. Instead, God’s sovereignty was on brilliant display for all to see.
It is also interesting to wonder if this might have been a foreshadowing of the New Testament Saul, another Saul for whose free will God showed a notable lack of respect. This Saul was also on a journey to kill God’s chosen, but he instead ended up blind and believing in God’s Son, quite contrary to the initial desires of his own free will (Acts 9 and 22). Furthermore, God not only sovereignly changed Saul’s will, he also sovereignly changed his name! God had a purpose for Paul, a purpose that was not going to be derailed or deterred by Saul’s free will, and we are even today profoundly blessed by Paul’s ministry and writings to the Gentiles. Paul himself stated that he had been set apart by God from birth and called according to God’s grace (Galatians 1:15). In Ephesians 3:7–13, Paul added that his call and ministry to the Gentiles were by the “effectual working of God’s power” (v. 7 KJV). This was clearly not according to Paul’s will, but rather was “according to the eternal purpose” that God “carried out” (v. 11 NASB). Praise, glory, and honor belong to our nongentleman God! Our God works his effectual, mighty power within us to accomplish his eternal purpose.
If we reject this great truth, perhaps it might still be desirable to believe that a “gentleman” God, while unwilling to interfere with human free will or choices, nonetheless loves us and is working as best as he can for our good within these constraints; this is likely better than no God at all. However, this errant belief falls well short of realizing the magnitude, scope, and benefits of our Father’s great love for us. Because we know that he is our sovereign, interfering Father and not a polite, uninvolved gentleman, we can be supremely confident in his great love for us. This wondrous love will unfailingly be demonstrated by his zealous determination and unlimited ability to fulfill his purpose for our lives, and this great realization cannot fail to give us immense comfort and unshakeable confidence.
We are taught the true basis for such confidence in Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” If we actually believe that God will not interfere freely and decisively with human free will, then it is irrational to claim that we need not fear what humans may do to us when we in fact have every reason in the world to fear what they may do. On the other hand, when we know with certainty that our Father is sovereign over the wills of humanity and effectually works to accomplish his purpose for his own glory and for our good, then, and only then, can we truly say with Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). We no longer have reason to fear the wills of men or women, and we know that our Father’s purpose will be accomplished in and through those wills, be they evil or righteous. This is our real and lasting confidence!
Chapter 2: The Illusion of a Gentleman God
1. A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of Man (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1950), p. 40.
2. C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia, vols. 2, 5, 7 (New York: HarperTrophy, 2002) 2:200; 5:174; 7:19, 25, 36, 90.
3. A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, (Watchmaker Publishing, 2011), p. 5.
4. Augustine, The Enchiridion, trans. J. B. Shaw (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002) ch. 98, p. 112.
5. Jonathon Edwards, The Freedom of the Will (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), pp. 1–15.
6. R. K. McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 130.