Is God in Control or Is There Free Will?

According to orthodox Christian doctrine, God is omniscient and omnipotent in equal portions. God’s omniscience is not just limited to knowing all of the past, present, and future events but much broader in definition in that he encompasses knowledge of all things. There is no knowledge that exists apart from God. This means that God not only contains all knowledge but that God is all knowledge, he is logic, he is reason, and without God nothing is knowable. God’s omnipotence defines his immutable power not only in might but also in authority. God is all-powerful in his ability to retain control of all occurrences both in sovereignty as well as judiciously. Through both omniscience and omnipotence, God’s judgment is perfectly moral, perfectly astute, and perfectly deliberate in its intention and purpose. In perfect omniscience and omnipotence, God commands a providential role over his creation that allows for the freedom of human choice as well as the predestined fruition of his plan. “Providence is God’s gracious outworking of his purpose in Christ which issues in his dealings with humankind”.[1] The theological discussion of God’s providence has two common points of view, the predetermination of Calvinism and the free will of Arminianism. If God has predetermined the events of the world as well as their outcome then free will must be an illusion with no reality. However, if humans do have a free will choice to determine their outcome then to what extent can God have providential control? This article will present a view of God’s providence that embraces the predetermination of Calvinism while incorporating the free will interpretation of Arminianism. Evidence will be provided through biblical and theological reasoning of how God allows for free will agents to decide upon their destiny within the confines of his providence. The conclusion will defend that God is completely omniscient and omnipotent in exercising his providential control over created humans with free will choices.

The Providence of God

Providence, in its simplest definition, can be defined as foresight. It is specifically designated as the ability of God to see the events of the future before they occur while retaining control of those events and the outcome. According to Sproul, “the word providence literally means ‘to see beforehand’. The providence of God refers to His seeing something beforehand with respect to time”.[2] Providence is not merely knowing what is going to happen in the future but rather bringing future events toward a predetermined cause or purpose for the protective care of God’s creation, namely humans. “Providence, then, is the preservation, superintendence, and teleological direction of all things by God. It is the divine governance whereby all possible events are woven into a coherent pattern and all possible developments are shaped to accomplish the divinely instituted goal”.[3]

Providence is no more self-evident than in the understanding of the universe itself. As the master creator, God has built a universe with constants required to sustain life yet within impossibly dangerous conditions. The universe operates on these constants known as axioms (i.e. gravity, energy, logic, mathematics, etc.) that operate precisely in God’s providence over nature so that human life can exist. As Bromiley puts it, “What we do know is that the world is teleologically directed to serve the outworking of God’s relationship with humanity”.[4] In other words, in direct opposition to naturalism, Christianity claims that the universe is conditioned by God to sustain human life and not that human life exists only because of the conditions within the universe. Bromiley further states, “much more is included in the providence of God than the superintendence of the natural order and provision for the material preservation of people. God is Lord of history as well as of nature. He directs the movements of the nations”.[5] Through his providence, God controls all things not only in nature but also in human history in order to cultivate his relationship with humans while orchestrating his ultimate plan of redemption through Christ.

The Free Will of Human Choice

That humans are different from all other creatures is evident in several ways. Most apparently is the idea of morality. “The created image of God carries with it awesome responsibility and glory. It includes the ability to make meaningful moral choices”.[6] As a result of free will, humans are judgmental in regards to human acts intentionally committed that are deemed moral and immoral yet they do not extend that same judgment to the rest of the universe. Describing this phenomenon during a debate involving morality, between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, Lennox stated, “If a rock falls off a mountain onto your head and kills you it makes no sense calling the rock evil it just exists”.[7] However, humans do not just exist. Humans operate out of intention and are held accountable for those intentional acts committed. While there are circumstances that determine a person’s intention (such as self defense) the person is nevertheless held accountable and must prove their intention to be innocent. The free will of a person to decide to commit an act, whether moral or immoral, holds that person directly responsible for their behavior. Humans hold each other accountable for our intentional behavior because we believe that there exists justice in our universe and we seek to defend it. God has established a universe in which humans have a free will to exercise good or evil and will rightly be held responsible for their actions.

Intention and accountability are the key points to understanding that humans operate within free will choices. It would be unjust for God to hold humans accountable for acts that were beyond their cognition. The generation of Israelites who fled Egypt were banned from entering the Promised Land because of their intentional disbelief, yet God states, “And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it” (Deuteronomy 1:39, ESV). The young ones were not held accountable because they were not cognitive of rebellion, they did not have the “knowledge of good or evil”. The capability to make a free will determination brings with it the ability to do evil and by that intention humans are held accountable and judged. It is not God’s providence that causes the evil to occur but rather that his providence allows for evil to occur within his sovereignty. As Craig contemplates, “Suppose, for example, that in every world where God created free creatures those creatures would freely choose to do evil. In such a case, it is the creatures themselves who bring about the evil, and God can do nothing to prevent their doing so unless He removes their free will. Thus it is possible that every world God could create containing free creatures would be a world with sin and evil”.[8]

The Sovereignty of God

In order to understand the free will of man within the providence of God, there needs to be a clearer understanding of God’s sovereignty. God is sovereign, meaning he is in absolute power and contains the absolute control of all within his creation. God is responsible for everything that occurs within his dominion, as he is the originator of all things. While God possesses this control he nonetheless delegates moral responsibility to humans and holds them accountable for their moral decisions. This freedom was exercised by the Israelites and understood as Wilson states, “Throughout God’s sovereign interaction with all aspects of life, the Jews retain individual freedom in action and choice”.[9] This free will of “action and choice” meant that within God’s sovereign control there was the ability for humans to perform evil acts.

In the allowance for evil to exist many have wrongly thought that it is God who causes evil. Often Isaiah is quoted to promote this theory, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7, KJV). In declaring God’s sovereignty over all of the universe and its happenings, the Prophet Isaiah explicitly states that it is the God of Israel alone who is the one true God and who is directly responsible, through his divine providence, for everything in both natural and human history. As Arnold states, “Isaiah’s view of God’s sovereignty dramatically shaped his ministry. He knew God controlled the nations, and therefore he prophesied boldly that God would deal with those nations (chapters 13–23). God had a right to rule his creation and he did. Isaiah 40–66 especially develops the idea that God has proven his sovereignty, first through sending his people into exile and then by delivering them from it”.[10] Though man is capable of making his own free will decisions and is equally responsible for the repercussions of those decisions (i.e. evil), it is God who orchestrates all happenings toward his purpose. Oswalt explains:

What Isaiah asserts is that God, as creator, is ultimately responsible for everything in nature, from light to dark, and for everything in history, from good fortune to misfortune. No other beings or forces are responsible for anything. … The point is that everything which exists, whether positive or negative from our perspective, does so because of the creative will of God. The alternative to this view is that things happen in the world of nature or history that have their origin in some being or force other than God, things that he is powerless to prevent. … Thus if we read “I … create evil” (KJV), we conclude that God causes people to make morally evil decisions. That this is not the correct translation of ‘ra’ in this circumstance is shown by the opposite term used, which is ‘_alôm’, “health, well-being, peace, good relations, good fortune.” The opposite of these would be those connotations that we most commonly ascribe to “bad.”[11]

This exact depiction of free will exercised under God’s sovereignty and within his providence is played out in the earliest account of sin in the Bible. It is the man and woman who choose to disobey the command of God to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1-7). When confronted for their disobedience, the man and woman are questioned as to their free will choice and similarly held responsible for their actions under God’s sovereignty (8-13). The outcome of their rebellion is both dealt with and prepared for in advance through God’s providence as is revealed through the Christological prophecy (14-19). Providence is then not just the ability to see and orchestrate the outcome of future events but also to see within the heart and mind of man to know the decisions that will be made. As Sproul claims, “Jesus, in His divine nature, had the ability to see in a penetrating way behind the masks people wore, into the hiding places where they were most vulnerable. That is part of the concept of divine providence. It means that God knows everything about us”.[12] In determining the outcome of human free will, Calvinism contends that while man is capable of making his own decisions it is God in his providence that knows what those decisions will be and has already predetermined the outcome of both natural and human history based on his sovereignty. Sproul further explains:

Even though we believe in a sovereign God who governs all things and ordains whatsoever comes to pass, His sovereign, providential government is not exercised in such a way as to destroy what we call human freedom or human volition. Rather, human choices and human actions are a part of the overall providential scheme of things, and God brings His will to pass by means of the free decisions of moral agents. The fact that our free decisions fit into this overarching plan in no way lessens the reality of that freedom.[13]


God’s control over human free will is not in the forcing of willpower as much as it is in the allowance of limited human determination. As Geisler states, “God’s providence covers even the free actions of His creatures. This includes good acts (which He prompts), and it includes evil acts (which He permits but does not produce). God also restrains and controls evil acts, overruling them for our good. Nothing is beyond God’s cognizance and ultimate control”.[14] It is therefore the providence of God in which he controls the array of decisions a human is capable of choosing from or exercising their free will over. By limiting the options in which a choice can be made both allows for the predetermined control required by God’s providence as well as the free will ability of a human to choose. For example, humans have the free will choice to deny or affirm that God exists but they do not have the choice to be God themselves. While a person may choose to live life as if they are in control of their destiny and deny that they are mortal, the fact remains that they are not immortal and will one day die. This exact scenario is depicted in the Genesis account of the fall, where man is given the free will capacity to choose from the tree of knowledge. Upon exercising the choice to rebel and do as God forbid, part of the punishment was to limit mans free will options. God did this in banishing man from the garden and prohibiting him from certain options “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22, ESV). God has provided a realm of options for our free will to exercise and immortality is not one of them. God therefore allows human free will to exist within the control of his sovereignty and assures through his providence that his will comes to fruition “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

[1] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 965.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Does God Control Everything?: 14 (Crucial Questions Series) (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012), Kindle Locations 121-122.

[3] G. W. Bromiley, “Providence,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 1020.

[4] Ibid, 1021.

[5] Ibid, 1021.

[6] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library; Logos Library System (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996).

[7] Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. Dawkins vs. Lennox on Morality. (YouTube, 2011).

[8] William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers (Good News Publishers, 2003), Kindle Locations 1236-1239.

[9] Ken Wilson, “Providence,” ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[10] Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament: a Christian Survey, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 356.

[11] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 204–205.

[12] Sproul, Kindle Locations 141-143.

[13] Sproul, Kindle Locations 503-507.

[14] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 574.

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