By Paul Fox
At the outset I would like to state that all the thoughts contained in this paper did not originate with me. I do not apologize for this however. I dare say that every person born, in essence, is a product of things he has read, seen, heard or come across in his daily life. As a result, we are a composite of many different influences, but ultimately they become our own and thusly we are responsible (ourselves) to God for the conclusions we have drawn from those influences. In that regard the thoughts expressed here are mine. With that said let us turn to the subject at hand.One of the most challenging aspects of studying the word of God lies in the apparent contradictions contained therein. Please note the word apparent has been written in italics as I am convinced there are no contradictions in scripture. To accept such a theory would be nothing short of believing in a God who is double and one in whom we could not trust. There are those who use, or rather misuse, these apparent discrepancies to prove that there is no God since a god who was real, certainly would not have this weakness. I will not address this falsehood in this writing, but instead, proceed on the assumption that I am addressing only believers in the true God.
Of all the apparent discrepancies in the Word of God, perhaps the least understood is this matter of the free will of man. If God is sovereign and does as He pleases, how can man have a free will? If man does have a free will, how can God carry out His plans? How can God, through His prophets, predict an event 1000 years in the future if some human decides not to comply? If God wants to save all men, how can He accomplish this if some men will have no part of it? Does God truly govern all things? Do I really have a choice regarding things in my life? These questions are but a sampling of the scores of queries that come as a result of the impending dilemma: FREE WILL VERSUS THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD.
How shall we ever know what God has for us if our minds are constantly bombarded with questions such as these? Therein lies the safety. God wants us to enquire of Him. Our biggest mistake, when we have questions, is to seek the answers from the wrong source. If God is indeed the Author of these apparent discrepancies, then surely it would be logical to ask Him what He had in mind when He told the sages of old to write them down. Therefore we will attempt to find the scriptural answer from scripture itself. Again therein is safety.
One more thought along this line. The book called the Bible is nothing more than any other book with its white pages and black writing unless the Holy Spirit brings life to us by illuminating that writing. When the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and the scripture corroborates that word, no man can gainsay what we have seen- God has spoken. Then, and only then, is it ours. Whether we have heard it from another, listened to a tape, read a book or seen a vision, it is ours.
Let us begin by looking at several examples in the Word where we will find the solution to this dilemma. I would like to state that I DO believe that man has the freedom to make choices and I ALSO believe that God is all powerful and sovereign and does indeed direct the affairs of men. How can I endorse both sides of these contradictory statements? Simply because they are NOT contradictory.
We are all familiar with the story in Acts 23:12 where we read that forty Jews swore by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed the apostle Paul. This was a choice they had made and yet God chose to not allow it to happen. (Acts 23:11) This was an action on the part of God which was contrary to their choice. Forty Jews could not thwart God’s plan nor could forty thousand. In this instance, as in all others, God’s will prevailed. However some years later God allowed Nero to take Paul’s life. It is the infinite wisdom of God which says that man’s choice (Nero’s) perfectly aligned itself with His (God’s) will and therefore He allowed Paul’s death. At this point in Paul’s life, God had fulfilled all that He had planned for the apostle so we read from the pen of Paul himself, “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed: the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.” God will, however, hold those forty Jews just as responsible for their choice (to kill Paul) as He will Nero, who actually was responsible for his death.
Another familiar story is related to us in Gen. 37:19. Joseph’s brothers had decided to kill him, yet God had other plans. We view the story with horror, wondering how brothers can treat their own in this way and yet we read that “–they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen. 50:20) Unwittingly, having acquiesced to God’s will, they sold him into slavery. Here they were guilty outwardly of a lesser crime, and yet in their hearts they were guilty of murder. Surely scripture bears out the old adage “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Stories abound in the Word to point out this principle i.e. man has freedom to choose as he pleases, his determination and purposes are completely under his control. His ACTIONS, however are controlled, ruled and even overruled by God. If God, through His prophets, has predicted something to transpire many years in the future, He would be counted as foolish and untrustworthy if mere man, by making his own choice could change that prediction so as to make it void. Conversely, if God should plan an event and man enters upon the scene and chooses (unknowingly) to make that plan come to fruition, it does not mean that man has influenced history by his choice, but contrariwise, simply that he has chosen in line with God’s will. When we see the difference between man’s choosing and man’s action, it eliminates the problem of “free will versus the sovereignty of God”.
Let us look at a few scriptures which will further show the divergence of man’s purposes versus his actions. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee, the remainder of wrath shall Thou restrain.” (Ps. 76:10) If man is under restraint he certainly is not free to act as he would choose. “A man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps.” (Prov.16:9) “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing is of the Lord.” (Prov.16:33) “Man’s goings are of the Lord: how can a man understand his own way?” ( Prov. 20:24) Now it is conclusive, is it not, that man indeed does choose and yet his actions are dictated by God? Whether a man can carry out his plans depends whether or not God allows him. If God does not receive glory from man’s choices, He overrules them. On the other hand if those choices play out for good and will bring glory to God, then He permits that choice to come to fruition. This “overruling” by God, however, does not render man guiltless. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, proclaimed that a man is guilty of adultery when he even looks at a woman to lust after her. The guilt is in the purpose of his heart, not in the outward act. He likewise is guilty of an outward act since (if) that act was contrived in the heart. We see this clearly from the fact that, even though the death of Jesus was foreordained of God, the Jews were nonetheless found guilty. (Acts 2:23)
Once we see that God only allows man’s choices to be carried out if they are to His own glory, we are much more cognizant of God’s ultimate plans for man since “—all things work together for good” and “—all things are of God.” How marvellous the thought that no matter how painful or joyous, or tears or laughter, sickness or health, even death or life, everything is the will of God and is always the outworking of God’s love. He is our “father” and as such He designs all things for our good. Oh! what a God we have. Not only is it true that God’s plans are not thwarted by man, but instead God uses the wrong choices made by man to advance His own plans. (Rev. 17:17) (Ex. 10:28) He does not allow the wrath of man to work against Him, but instead causes it to praise Him. “He works all things after the counsel of His will.” (Prov. 19:21-22) (Is. 44:24-28) (Neh. 4:15).
If it is true that some things work out for good, can we not believe that ALL things from the heart of God are designed for good? God is weaving a beautiful tapestry of all our choices and actions yet on this side,” seeing through a glass darkly,” we view a tangled mess of threads and loose ends. When we reach the other side and come into the presence of our God, what a perfect blend of colors, a beautiful pattern, a design made by none other than our Father who loved and cared for us to the extent he was willing to use everything in our lives to “conform us to the image of His Son.” How we should praise Him! We shall praise Him THEN, but should we not praise Him now?
All people who have placed their faith in Him, believe that God, through Christ created everything that exists (Col. 1:15) so shouldn’t He therefore have complete rights over their lives? What a marvellous thought, “Our times are in His hands–we would wish them there” and “God holds the key of all unknown and I am glad. If other hands should hold the key, or if He trusted it to me, I would be sad”. For most believers it is not long into their walk with the Lord before they realize and want Him to control their lives and yet so stubbornly hold on to the false premise that they are a “free moral agent.” This is certainly not a scriptural term as we have seen. Free to choose, but not free to act out those choices. Is it any wonder that to the degree men hold onto this marvellous truth, to that same degree they gravitate into the awareness of the nature of God? God cannot deny Himself – to do so would be to make Him into an unworthy God. He MUST do all He has said He will do. For Him to fall short in any iota would be enough for us to distrust Him. He has promised to ” —- conform us to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29) so He cannot leave that task up to us. Being omnipotent He knows we will be unable to perform that task ourselves therefore He takes it upon Himself to rule and overrule in our affairs. When we make a wrong choice, because He loves us, He does not allow that choice to be carried out unless it is for our ultimate good. Praise be His matchless name!
One last thought. If the aforementioned is not true then we must accept the fact that if man wills, God cannot withstand him, but if God wills, He is helpless since man has chosen otherwise. A few more passages will show conclusively that this is NOT so. I will not comment on these passages but leave the reader to prayerfully study them and ask God to show the full and true meaning.
Rom. 9: 19-24
In conclusion I leave you with this thought. Man THINKS he has control over his daily life, but only in the next age when he will look back, will he understand he was COMPLETELY under the control of God.
PRAYING IN THE WILL OF GOD
The subject previously written about naturally brings with it some additional questions. If God has complete control of all of man’s actions then what is the purpose in approaching Him to request a change? Conversely, if God’s mind can be changed, are we not then, once again in control?
Prayer has often been a subject of much debate primarily for one or the other of these two reasons. It is clear from scripture, God would have us to pray and He further states that if we pray and ask of God it will be given him. (Mt. 7:7-11) And yet, it seems, so often when we do ask of Him, we do not receive. Is God not truthful? Can we not trust Him? Can we not take Him at His word? All of these questions can and must be answered in the affirmative. That being the case, wherein lies the problem? God being the true and faithful one, and we being so untrue and unfaithful, it must be that the problem is with us and not with God. When we ask amiss (Jas. 4:3) we do not receive, so the answer becomes clear – we must be asking amiss if we do not receive as we ask. Conversely we shall receive if we ask aright. It remains then to determine what constitutes proper prayer i.e. asking rightly or wrongly. Evidently praying amiss means we are not praying according to God’s will. Conversely again, praying rightly means we are praying according to God’s will. As has been seen in the previous paper, God has a purpose, a plan for all of creation, but especially his creature-man. What God is wanting is for us to enter into His mind, His thinking, His will. When we pray, and fall in line with what God had planned for us concerning that thing, then God simply carries out His purpose as he had already determined and the thing is done. Then when we present another scenario, such as when we pray and the thing is not in line with His purposes, it naturally follows, He cannot answer that request because to do so would mean He must change His plans.
How thankful we should be, knowing God is of such a nature, that even our prayers are answered according to our wishes or not, because He has our best interest at heart. Would we really want everything we ask for, if we knew in the long run it would not be for our ultimate good? I think not. But we cannot see the future and so we plod along asking for things which we do not know are best for us. Contrariwise, God does know the future and has everything perfectly worked out for our ultimate good. What a God we have! Praise be His matchless name!
In Matt. 7:9-11 Jesus tells us that even a human father would not give his son a stone if he asked for bread or if he asked for a fish he would not give him a serpent. This statement, I believe, is not telling us that God will indeed give his son bread or fish, but rather it is telling us He will give us what is right for us, even when we think bread or fish is the proper thing to ask for. We usually feel if we are not asking for anything “bad” or we are not asking selfishly, then we definitely should receive as we asked. God on the other hand knows full well whether that “good” thing is in actuality, ultimately good for us.
When all is said and done, we must realize that God is MUCH wiser than we are, and being a loving Father, He will ALWAYS do right by us, even though we do not see it at the time. I am persuaded, however, that when we get into His presence, we will look on His perfect countenance and thank Him for those many times He refused to let us have our way in our requests. We will likewise find it a thrilling adventure to have known those times (albeit they were few) when He indeed did answer according to our will because we will recall we were praying according to His will. Even though we know it only rarely in this life, I am convinced we will, when we meet Him, revel in the fact that He was able to get His will through us. My motivation then in this life is to desire to pray in His will so He will be happy with me even as I with Him.
Paul and Harriet Fox of Indiana have been our friends and brethren in Christ for nearly 20 years. We have always valued their fellowship in the things of the Spirit of the Lord. Paul has just written two brief essays which have been most refreshing and illuminating to us, and we asked his permission to share them more widely. Here they are, under one heading.