Does God Control Human Decisions and Actions?
I tipped my hand yesterday. I’d like to be able to build a firewall between God and the choices that people make. Why?
- It is a compelling answer to the problem of evil. It makes sense of the fact that God is good and powerful, and bad stuff still happens.
- It preserves human freedom, which is implicit in Scripture. People are not puppets. They make choices and decisions that are meaningful.
- It saves us from having to explain how God “caused” bad – even evil – things to happen.
There’s a lot to like about the view that God permits us to make free choices that are, at some level, out of his control.
But earlier this year I was overwhelmed as I read John Frame’s The Doctrine of God. Blame him! What really struck me was what he describes as the “sheer quantity and variety” of Scriptures that teach that God controls all things – even what appear to be free human actions. Frame says that it’s “quite impossible to escape the cumulative force of all of them…One may deftly avoid a few rocks, but one cannot escape them all.” I tend to agree.
What’s more, these verses don’t really seem to violate human freedom either. Somehow they seem to imply that humans make meaningful choices, and at the same time that God controls all things. This is called an antinomy – a seeming contradiction between two things that both appear to be true.
I have a few thoughts on this that I’ll share next week. I’ll try not to explain things that I have no business explaining, and I promise I’ll try not to offer simple answers to questions that are way out of my league.
But for now I’ll simply list some of the Scriptures that overwhelmed me as I read Frame’s book.
God’s Control Over Human History
- God has determined the histories of nations – when and where they shall live (Acts 17:26)
- God is king over all nations, not just Israel (Psalm 45:6-12; Psalm 47:1-9; Psalm 95:3)
- Kings do whatever God wants them to (Proverbs 21:1; Romans 9:17; Exodus 9:16; Exodus 14:4)
- God governs the events of human history for his purposes (Psalm 33:10-11)
- Nations do God’s bidding (Isaiah 10:5-12; Isaiah 14:24-27; Isaiah 37:26)
- God does as he pleases with the peoples of the earth (Daniel 4:24-35)
- God determined beforehand how he used a historical figure (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1-13), even though that figure undoubtedly exercised his own volition in accomplishing God’s purposes (Ezra 1:1)
- “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” (Romans 11:36)
God’s Control Over Individual Human Lives
- God brings about the free decisions of certain people such as Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28) and those involved with the betrayal and death of Jesus (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23-24; Acts 3:18; Acts 4:27-28; Acts 13:27)
- God controls the course of individual human lives (Jeremiah 1:5; Ephesians 1:4)
- The individual events of our lives are subject to God’s will (James 4:13-16)
- God directs the hearts of all people (Psalm 33:15)
- God not only forms the purposes of our hearts, he determines the steps we will take to carry out these purposes (Proverbs 16:9; Proverbs 16:1; Proverbs 19:21)
- God changes the attitudes and actions of individuals (Judges 7:22; Daniel 1:9; Ezra 6:22)
- God brought the events of Jesus life to pass so that they fulfilled prophecy. People acted of their own free will and did not know they were fulfilling prophecy (Matthew 21:1-5; Matthew 26:55-56; Luke 22:22; Acts 13:27-29)
God’s Control Over Even Sinful Actions
- The betrayal of Joseph by his brothers (Genesis 45:5-8)
- The hatred of the Israelites by the Egyptians (Psalm 105:25)
- The refusal of Pharaoh to release Israel (Exodus 3:19; Exodus 4:21)
- The refusal of Sihon to let Israel pass through his land on the way to Canaan (Deuteronomy 2:30)
- The evil spirit God sent on Saul (1 Samuel 16:14) and false prophets (1 Kings 22:20-23)
- The hardening of the people of Israel (Isaiah 6:9-10; Isaiah 63:17; Romans 9-11)
- The betrayal and murder of Jesus (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:28; Acts 13:27; Luke 22:22)
The LORD works out everything to its proper end—
even the wicked for a day of disaster.
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. (Ephesians 1:11)
At every turn, the Biblical writers see God’s hand in everything that takes place. God is in control of everything – our lives, our desires, our actions – even the sinful ones. He is able to control things so that they accomplish his purposes. At the same time, humans make meaningful choices and are in no way puppets – as contradictory as this appears to us.
On Monday I’ll try to draw some tentative conclusions.