How to Believe In God's Sovereignty Without being a Fatalist
Dr. Stephen E. Jones
There is a long-standing debate between those who believe in man's free will and those who say that God's sovereignty disposes of man's free will. The “free will” side rightly emphasizes man's responsibility and accountability before God, yet often they tend to reduce God to the role of bystander or observer who is “ready to help” but in the end is really powerless against the real power—man.
On the other hand, the “sovereignty” side rightly emphasizes God's sovereignty and power over His creation, yet often they tend to use this to justify their sin by casting all responsibility upon God for their actions. Another way this can affect people is to paralyze them into doing nothing on the grounds that “God is doing it all.”
Each side of the debate emphasizes different parts of Scripture, and each side has its truth. The problem is that many have too much truth on one side or the other of the issue, which makes their view unbalanced. The solution is to believe both that God is sovereign and that man has been given authority in the earth. These are not mutually exclusive ideas. To be “sovereign” does NOT mean that God is inherently all-powerful, but for some reason is not allowed to use that power in the earth without man's “free-will” consent. On the other hand, man's authority is NOT the same as “free will,” although many have confused the two and have tried to prove “free will” by pointing to Scriptures that establish man's authority. Only sovereignty has free will. Authority is limited.
It is my hope and purpose to bring people to a closer balance in understanding how God's sovereignty and man's authority operate at the same time. This, in turn, could help resolve some of the long-standing doctrinal disputes between the two sides, as well as help people get a clearer perspective of God's ability to accomplish His purposes for the earth—and for each person as an individual.
Scriptures Supporting Each Side
We do not propose to write an exhaustive study listing all of the verses that affirm God's sovereignty or man's authority to make choices. We intend only to give some examples that are commonly quoted. Those who affirm God's sovereignty point to passages such as Isaiah 45:5-7 (NASB),
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God; I will gird you, though you have not known Me; 6 That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, 7 The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity [Heb. ra, “bad, evil”]; I am the Lord who does all these.
Here we read that God creates evil, such as when God brings judgment upon a nation or a city for its sin. God takes full credit for it. Amos 3:6, says further,
6 If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people tremble? If a calamity [Heb. ra, “bad, evil”] occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?
On the other hand, those who believe that man has a free will point to the many passages which tell men to choose good over evil. For example, God said to Israel in Exodus 19:5,
5 Now, then, IF you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine.
The very fact that God gives commands is only relevant if man has a will and the ability to choose. Furthermore, the fact that God judges sin shows that whether or not man's will is free, God holds men accountable for their wrong choices (sin). Romans 2:5, 6 says,
5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will render to every man according to his deeds.
God tells men to choose (Deut. 30:19; Isaiah 56:4), and He holds them accountable for their choices, judging them according to their deeds (Rev. 20:12, 13). If God were so sovereign that He gives NO man a choice to follow good or evil, then how is it that He can yet judge men for their deeds? Would not this be unjust?
And so the debate rages back and forth, with each side using Scripture to prove his point. So which side is right? Which side is wrong? It is my contention that not many on either side really have a grasp of the mind of God in this. Any time one side argues with a portion of Scripture while not really answering the opposing Scriptures, it shows that the view is incomplete. In my view, both sides are partially correct and partially wrong.
It is my hope that this book will help to clarify the issues and bring the reader to a better knowledge of the mind of God. I hope to establish the sovereignty of God as well as the will and authority of man. I do not believe that God's sovereignty and man's authority are mutually exclusive ideas.
Man Has a Will
Man does have a will, regardless of how “free” it is. By this will he exercises authority. In Genesis 1:27, 28 we read about God's creation of man:
27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. 28 And God blessed them; and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
I call this the Dominion Mandate. To subdue or rule requires the ability not only to think but also to exercise the will. This is the first command, the first requirement that God makes of man. From this simple beginning comes all the commandments that require man's obedience through his will. So we read in 1 Cor. 7:37,
37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well.
This, and many other such passages, show us clearly that man has a will and is challenged to exercise it according to his level of authority. His authority is limited, of course, because man is not sovereign. Only God is sovereign. But the sovereign God has given man authority, which is a lesser form of sovereignty. Man's authority is subordinate to God's sovereignty, for we read in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God.” Sovereignty is self-derived; authority derives its power from a higher source that has authorized its existence. Ultimately, all authority is derived from God and His Dominion Mandate.
The real question, however, is this: How free is man's will?
How Free is Man's Will?
This is a separate issue. For example, suppose we were to hold a knife at someone's throat and give him the choice of converting to Christianity or being executed. One might say that the man had a free choice of converting or dying. Others might dispute his freedom of choice. There are laws that protect men from such coercion, releasing them from any obligations they might make under such threat of death or torture.
To use a biblical answer, look at the story of Israel in the wilderness under Moses. God told Israel to go into Canaan and drive out the Canaanites, but they refused (by their own wills). We read of the ten spies' report in Numbers 13:31,
31 But the men who had gone up with them said, We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.
The sovereign God of Israel told them to enter the Promised Land, but man's rebellious will used its authority by refusing to be obedient. This would certainly seem to indicate that the people had “free will” in spite of any threatened consequences for disobedience that Moses might have expressed.
And so God judged them by making them remain in the wilderness for a total of forty years, instead of entering the land after just a year and a half. But at the end of forty years, as Israel was preparing to enter Canaan, Moses made an astounding statement in a speech to Israel that is recorded in Deut. 29:2-4,
2 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; 3 the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. 4 Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.
It is self-evident that the people did not have eyes to see or ears to hear. Why? Moses gives credit to the Lord for not giving them eyes to see or ears to hear. In other words, God had done something to prevent the will of the people from choosing what was right. So the fact that those men had wills did not mean that their wills were totally free to choose. Is this why the people were unable to enter Canaan 38 years earlier? Is this why the ten spies gave the evil report—even though they all thought that they were choosing to rebel by the power of their own “free will”?
There is no question that without God's direct intervention in human affairs, man cannot know Him. Such wisdom only comes from God (James 1:5). Men can read the Bible and even memorize it, but he cannot really understand the mind of God without some direct action of the Holy Spirit to enlighten him. The Holy Spirit is the only divine Agent to bring men into “all truth” (John 16:13). In fact, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to bring men to repentance. John 16:7, 8 says,
7 But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper [paraclete, “Advocate”] shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment.
This is confirmed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 2:4,
4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
This shows that God's sovereign will is higher than man's authoritative will. It shows that God can overrule man's will whenever He so chooses. In fact, when the Israelites believed the evil report of the ten spies and refused to go into the Promised Land, it created a situation where God clearly manifested His sovereignty. Recall that God threatened to dispose of those people and just use Moses' family to accomplish His will. Moses then interceded for Israel, saying in Numbers 14:15, 16,
15 Now if Thou dost slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Thy fame will say, 16 Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.
The issue was the sovereignty of God. In view of man's will—that is, Israel's choice to remain in the wilderness—was God UNABLE to bring them into the Promised Land? Everyone knows that God had the power to force them to do His bidding, but the issue was whether or not He could do so in a practical sense.
Was God really so limited by the will of man that His sovereignty was reduced in practice by man's authority? No, God's sovereignty is never reduced or hampered. In fact, God raises up His own opposition in order to postpone the fulfillment of His will to the proper time. It was in God's plan that Israel enter the Promised Land after spending 40 years in the wilderness—and that is why it happened that way.
Getting back to the discussion between God and Moses in Numbers 14, Moses brought up the point that the nations would say that God was “unable” to fulfill His purpose if He could not bring Israel into the Promised Land. God's forceful and overwhelming response to Moses is found in verse 20, 21,
20 So the Lord said, I have pardoned them according to your word, 21 but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.
In other words, not only would God fill Israel with His glory, but He vowed to fill the entire earth with His glory. God is not only capable of bringing the tiny nation of Israel into the Promised Land, but was also perfectly capable of filling the whole world with His glory! The true Promised Land, we know, is not to enter into some piece of real estate, but to enter into His glory. The glorified body is the real Promised Land. It is that which was lost in Adam, and it is being restored in Christ. Israel was the pattern nation, but the plan was to include the whole world in this glory.
The question, though, is HOW God could make such a vow, if His sovereignty could be so limited by man's authority? Or, to put it more bluntly, how could God vow to fill all men with His glory in view of the fact that only a few people actually choose to follow Jesus Christ? Do not the choices of men determine their eternal fate? Can men not reject Christ? Are such people not lost forever by their own choosing? How can every knee bow and every tongue swear allegiance to Christ, as we read in Isaiah 45:23 and Phil. 2:10, 11? How can Jesus Christ draw all men to Himself by His death, as He says in John 12:32? Does this not elevate God's sovereign will over man's authority to choose?
The quick answer is that man's authority ends where God's sovereignty begins. Man has the authority to reject God for a time, but ultimately, God's sovereign will is going to be fulfilled. Man can reject God and receive judgment, but God's judgment itself will correct his fleshly disposition so that he genuinely submits to Jesus Christ.
We have shown this in other writings, summarized best in the short booklet, If God Could Save Everyone—Would He? There we show that man has authority over his own “land” that God has given him as his inheritance; but God yet retains sovereignty over him by right of creation. The authority that God has given man is limited. Man does not have the ability to sell himself to the devil (or to the flesh) for ever. He can do so only within the parameters of time. The biblical laws on which this truth is based are discussed in the booklet mentioned above.
The Pattern of Joseph
Look also at the case of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph's brothers maliciously sold him as a slave, and he was taken to Egypt. One might argue that Judah—by his own free will—came up with the idea of selling Joseph. The rest of the brothers then exercised their free will by agreeing to this plan. The only one who had no free will in this was Joseph himself.
In Egypt, Joseph was soon falsely accused by his master and thrown into prison by his master, Potiphar, who did this by his own free will. Finally, however, he interpreted Pharaoh's dreams and was elevated to the highest position in the land under Pharaoh. Eventually, he was reunited with his family and invited them to live in the best part of Egypt. Seventeen years later their father died, and Joseph's brothers became afraid that Joseph would now take vengeance upon them for mistreating him according to their own free will. Genesis 49:19-21 gives his response:
19 But Joseph said to them, Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? 20 And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. 21 So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones. So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Joseph recognized that events had occurred on two levels—by man's authority and by God's sovereignty. The brothers acted according to their will, thinking it was their own idea to sell Joseph as a slave in Egypt. Joseph certainly recognized the will of his brothers on that lower level, and saw that God had worked in their hearts, judging them and correcting them until they repented of their deed. Yet the brothers were responsible only as far as they had authority.
Joseph also clearly showed that God was ultimately responsible for it. That is, God had exercised His sovereign will to influence Joseph's brothers to sell him to slave traders. No one is responsible beyond his level of authority or sovereignty. If God was ultimately responsible for the actions of Joseph's brothers, then this proves that God has not relinquished any of His sovereignty.
Man will be held accountable for his level of authority; but God also holds Himself accountable for His level of sovereignty. And this is why God's judgments upon mankind are not infinite in duration, but are aeonian, or “age-abiding,” as Young's Literal Translation reads. Rotherham's The Emphasized Bible uses the term “age-during” to translate aeonian. This word means “pertaining to an eon, that is, an age.” For a full study of this, see my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law.
The story of Joseph is a good illustration of how God's sovereignty does not contradict man's authority. Both concepts are true. But we must know the difference between sovereignty and authority, and how authority is limited in its power, for therein lies the key to understanding the real issue.
How Free is Satan's Will?
Some object to this on the grounds that God only does good things, and the devil does all the evil things, but the issue is not that simple. It is more accurate to say that the evil that God does is always for a good purpose (ultimately), while the devil does nothing for the good of man. What the devil does may seem “good” in man's eyes for a time. For example, a man may make a pact with the devil for riches and fame in this life time, in exchange for his soul's ultimate welfare. But the temporary “good” for a few years is not in any man's ultimate best interest.
By contrast, God may bring His children through many hardships and heart aches in order to humble them and to teach them the art of forgiveness. The children of God often feel abused because of this and struggle with this for years, not knowing that being an overcomer requires the opportunity to overcome. Most come to believe that the devil is doing these bad things to them, and they spend a great deal of time “fighting the devil.” A few—like Joseph—come to understand that it is really God who is behind their troubles, and that He works all things out for their good (Rom. 8:28).
The devil certainly plays a role in this as God's servant. Job shows us that Satan needs God's permission to act. If God chooses to use a devil to scourge his children, we must understand that the devil has no ability to do more than what God allows or mandates. The devil's will is not above God's sovereignty any more than man's will is.
The book of Job shows us that Satan is subject to the sovereignty of God as much as man is. God is pictured as bragging to Satan about Job. Satan counters that Job was a follower of God only because God had been so good to him. You see, it is easy to believe in God (Jesus Christ) when everything is going well. But what about when things go wrong? Satan thought that Job would then curse God. In Job 1:12 we read,
12 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord.
We read then how the Sabeans attacked Job's servants, killing them. The clear implication is that Satan had influenced the will of the Sabeans to do this, because God had allowed it. And, of course, the law principle is that if a person allows or gives permission to another person to do such things, he himself is liable as an accessory to the deed (Ex. 22:5; James 4:17). Hence, the story is written in such a way as to show that God holds himself liable for this supposedly “evil” thing.
The final lesson that Job—and all of us—had to learn was that we ought not to be so full of pride that we think we can tell God how to run the universe. When we blame God for doing (or “allowing”) bad things to happen to us, we show that we do not really have total faith in God's love and justice. Like Job, we normally do not know the extent of this unbelief within our hearts until we are put under stress. It is easy to say, “I believe in a God of love.” It is harder to do so when God removes His hand of protection from us and allows Satan to test that belief.
The book of Job makes it clear that Satan is bound by the word and law of God. If the will of God stands above Satan's will, then we should see biblical evidence that God takes the credit for supposedly “evil” things that happen. We should also see biblical evidence that God will hold Himself responsible for all that He does on His level. As we showed in the books, If God Could Save Everyone—Would He? and Creation's Jubilee, this is precisely the case.
If we continually blame men for all the wickedness in the world, or if we blame the devil, or both, we will never really understand God or His plan. Certainly, all men will be held accountable on their own level, and that is why there is a judgment at the Great White Throne at the end of time. But God also holds Himself accountable on the highest level, and for this reason He has bound Himself by oath to fill the whole earth with His glory (Num. 14:21).
God could have created a world without the possibility of sin, and He did not have to create Satan with the ability to go against His will. But He did. He created His own adversary. But He did not give His adversary power equal to His own. There is no God beside Him (Isaiah 45:5). All other “gods” are subordinate to His sovereignty, including Satan and man himself. A “god” by Hebrew definition is a subjector, that is, one who has authority over another. This is why even the Hebrew judges were called “gods” (Exodus 22:28). It is because they were men who exercised authority over others.
He has bound Himself by oath to rectify all things and fill all things by His Spirit. This does not mean that God is the only responsible party in the world. He is ultimately responsible, but not the only one responsible. He is responsible because He is sovereign and could have prevented anything that He wanted to prevent. But man is also responsible because he has been given some authority. All judgment for sin is based upon the level of authority that each man has been given, as it is written in Luke 12:47, 48,
47 And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.
It is vital that we recognize the link between authority and accountability, which always go in equal measure in the divine court. Only because he has a will can man be judged lawfully in the divine court. But the judgment must be tempered by the fact that God is sovereign and could have prevented him from sinning either by creating man in a perpetually perfect state or by giving him eyes to see and ears to hear.
Man does not possess sovereignty, and therefore, he does not have the authority (i.e., “free will”) to sell himself to the devil perpetually. Man cannot be lost forever, because he did not create himself and therefore does not own himself. God owns him and is therefore ultimately responsible for him. Nonetheless, by man's authority, he can postpone his salvation, missing the first and even the second resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6, 12), as we have explained in other writings.
To postpone one's salvation simply means that he will be judged in the “lake of fire” until he is set free by the creation jubilee at the end of all things. God's law of Jubilee sets limits on man's ability to put himself into debt, or bondage to sin.
God's Will and God's Plan
The New Testament uses two different words that are translated “will.” They are not the same, but because the translators did not understand their difference, they have obscured a vital truth in understanding the relationship between man's will and God's sovereignty.
The will of God is that we do not sin. It is primarily expressed in the law that says, “Thou shalt not. . .” It is God's will that we not steal, commit murder, adultery, etc. The best verse illustrating His WILL is found in Romans 2:17, 18, which says,
17 But if you bear the name Jew, and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, 18 and know His WILL [Greek: thelema, “will”], and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law . . .
We see here that one can know God's will by “being instructed out of the Law.” Those who violate the Law are violating the WILL of God. The Greek word is thelema, and it appears many times in the New Testament.
The second Greek word usually translated “will” is boulema. Paul uses this word in Romans 9, where he discusses the case of Pharaoh and how God told him to “let My people go” and then hardened his heart so that he would NOT let them go. Verse 19 says,
19 You will say to me then, Why does He still find fault? For who resists His WILL [Greek: boulema, “plan, or higher intention”]?
In other words, how can God hold Pharaoh accountable for refusing to allow Israel to leave Egypt, since God took credit for hardening Pharaoh's heart? After all, who can resist God's boulema? Certainly not Pharaoh. Thus, this seems to create a problem of divine justice. In reality, it is only a problem if God does not set Pharaoh free in the end. If God were to hold Pharaoh fully accountable for resisting God, with no end of judgment in sight, then yes, God would have done Pharaoh an injustice. But this is not the case.
When God told Pharaoh through Moses, “Let My people go,” He was defining His will. Pharaoh was able to resist God's will. But when God hardened Pharaoh's heart so that he would NOT let Israel go (for a while), Pharaoh was unable to resist God's PLAN. God's plan called for Pharaoh to resist the will of God until the tenth plague had come upon Egypt's firstborn. God told Moses the plan in Exodus 7:2-5,
2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 When Pharaoh will not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt, and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. 5 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.
Here God lays out the plan before Moses, so that he would know ahead of time what God intended to do. There is no indication by the wording that God merely “knew” ahead of time what Pharaoh would do, and that God was merely taking that into account. The statement, “But I will harden Pharaoh's heart,” leaves no room for leaving God out of the equation. And so, when Moses and Aaron had their little contest with Pharaoh's magicians, Pharaoh hardened his heart, as we read in Exodus 7:13, 14,
13 Yet Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said. 14 Then the Lord said to Moses, Pharaoh's heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.
The phrase, “Pharaoh's heart was hardened” says nothing about the cause or origin of the problem, but we are simply referred back to the Lord's revealed plan by the qualifier, “as the Lord had said.” In other words, we are being told that Pharaoh's heart was hardened because God had hardened it by His own sovereignty. After the plague of frogs had come and gone, we read of Pharaoh's reaction in Exodus 8:15,
15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the Lord had said.
In the next plagues, the wording in the Bible alternates. In the first few plagues it appears that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but once again, we are led to believe that Pharaoh's will was only a reaction to God's work in hardening his heart. This is consiste nt with Proverbs 21:1, which says,
1 The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.
Hence, Pharaoh's heart was in the Lord's hands to do as He wished. Pharaoh did not realize this, of course, because he did not know God. But Pharaoh's knowledge of God had nothing to do with it. In the later plagues it says bluntly that God hardened his heart. After the sixth plague (boils), we read in Exodus 9:12,
12 And the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.
After the seventh plague (hail), Pharaoh tried to repent. Exodus 9:27, 28 says,
27 Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, I have sinned this time; the Lord is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones. 28 Make supplication to the Lord, for there has been enough of God's thunder and hail; and I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.
So Moses prayed for the hail and thunder to cease. When it did, Pharaoh's heart was hardened again. This time the account is most interesting. Exodus 9:34, 35 and 10:1,
34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. 35 And Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not let the sons of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses. 1 Then the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them.
This tells us when the Word states that Pharaoh's heart was hardened, or that Pharaoh hardened his heart, it does not negate the fact that God did it. In fact, God took credit for hardening Pharaoh's heart—and Pharaoh's response was to harden his own heart. Pharaoh did not know what was happening. He thought he was hardening his own heart by the exercise of his own “free will.” But Moses and Aaron knew the plan of God, so they knew who was doing this to Pharaoh behind the scenes. Hence, Pharaoh did it on his own level, but God did it on a higher level. Each is therefore responsible in his own way and on his own level.
In fact, this lays down an important principle of divine judgment. God's purpose for hardening Pharaoh's heart is stated in Exodus 7:5,
5 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.
Does this not foreshadow a greater judgment to come at the Great White Throne? God's purpose of judgment is not to destroy them, but that they might know that He is the true God! Only a remnant will attain to the first resurrection and rule with Christ during the thousand-year Sabbath Day (Rev. 20:4-6). The rest of the believers will receive their reward at the end of the thousand years when they stand before God alongside of the unbelievers (Luke 12:46; John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15). But the rest of creation—the vast majority of mankind—will be judged in order to be corrected and held accountable for their actions in the earth. The purpose of the “lake of fire” is not to torture them, but to bring them under the judgments of the divine law—the “fiery law” of Deut. 33:2.
In such a plan God does not judge mankind beyond his level of accountability. And God also fulfills His own obligation according to His own sovereignty. This was the plan from the beginning, and the final restoration of all things was only postponed by the factor that we call “time.”
So Pharaoh Himself and all the Egyptians that were judged in Moses' day were not judged only that they might be destroyed. They were judged that they would know God. This is the good purpose of God and the key to knowing how God could harden Pharaoh's heart without doing him an injustice. Instead of trying to explain away the clear biblical statements where God takes responsibility for hardening Pharaoh's heart, let us instead agree with God, knowing that it was done for a good purpose.
It is because most people do not know that good purpose that God's actions appear to be evil. This is what causes men to doubt that God would do such a thing. And so the alternate “solution” this dilemma is to reduce God's sovereignty and make it subject to man's authority (will). While this may seem to resolve the problem of God's justice, it does so only at the expense of his sovereignty.
It is, therefore, imperative that we understand the ultimate plan of God to save all mankind, including Pharaoh. Without that understanding, it is nearly impossible to view God as a God of love and justice. In fact, we would be left with the Calvinist position that makes God totally sovereign at the expense of His justice. Calvin taught that God chooses only a tiny remnant to be saved, and the rest He chooses to be tortured forever in a fiery hell. Not many have the stomach to dispense with the basic principle of justice in this way. The simple solution is to see that God's sovereignty mandates that He save all of His creation in order to remain totally just as well as all-powerful.
God's Will Plus Time Equals the Plan
The relationship between God's will and God's plan is this: God's will is always going to be fulfilled—but not until certain things have happened. God's will has to do with the deeds of men in history, that is, historic facts. On the other hand, God's plan factors in TIME. Time is what slows things down. Without time, all historic events would happen at the same moment. God Himself stands above time and views all things as if they occurred at the same time. That is why He speaks of future things in the past tense. However, we ourselves are bound and limited by time and space, and therefore we must cope with the divine plan as well as His will.
The will of God given to Pharaoh was indeed fulfilled as a historic event. Pharaoh did let Israel go. However, God ensured that Pharaoh would not do so until the proper moment in time. So when Pharaoh first decided to let Israel go, God hardened his heart, so that he would NOT let Israel go until later.
When Pharaoh released Israel, he fulfilled God's “will,” but he did so according to the divine “plan” by doing it after the ten plagues had been fulfilled. Likewise, it is God's “will” that all men be saved, as 1 Timothy 2:4 says,
4 who desires [Greek verb: thele, “wills”] all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.
But it is God's “plan” most of them would be saved through divine judgment and correction. Egypt represents the world of unbelievers; Israel represents the believers. It is a parable of history that portrays the mind of God as He brings all of creation into subjection under the feet of Christ (1 Cor. 15:27). Ultimately, every knee will bow to the glory of God, for God has vowed this in Isaiah 45:23-25,
23 I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. 24 They will say of Me, “Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.” Men will come to Him, and all who were angry at Him shall be put to shame. 25 In the Lord will all the offspring of Israel be justified and will glory.
Yes, God has sworn by His own sovereign ability that He will bring all men to the place where they will confess Him to be righteous. Though they were angry at Him for seeming to allow all the evil in the earth, they will come to realize that the divine plan was very good. They will come to see Him as a God of love and wisdom as well as a God of power and justice. All men will bow; every tongue will swear allegiance to Him.
But Hebrews 2:8, says, “But now we do not yet see all things subjected to Him.” That is because the plan calls for most men's hearts to be hardened while He saves His sons. It is only in the end of time that this full plan will come to fruition and all will understand the mind of God.
Can we comprehend such a plan? Even Paul had difficulty understanding it, for he testifies in Romans 11:32-36,
32 For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. 33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
How NOT to be a Fatalist
A fatalist is one who sees God as sovereign without understanding the authority that God gave man. With such an unbalanced view, the fatalist can always blame God for everything and take no responsibility upon himself for his actions. He can always justify any sin that he does by saying, “Well, God is sovereign; therefore, I had no choice but to do it.” Fatalists do not really understand that there is a judgment to come, where every man will be judged according to his works (Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12, 13).
To keep from being a fatalist, one must clearly understand the difference between the will (thelema) and the plan (boulema) of God. This is best illustrated by the real-life example of Pharaoh, who could and did resist the will of God by his authority, but could not resist the sovereign plan of God. Secondly, we have the example of Israel being held accountable for refusing to enter the Promised Land, even though God had withheld from them a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear (Deut. 29:4). In that case, the judgment was limited to 40 years—the extent of their authority.
Seeing this distinction will keep us in balance, so that we do not justify sin and claim that it was God's “will.” Sin is NEVER God's will (thelema), even though it is ALWAYS part of the plan (boulema).
Though we should strive to understand the overall plan of God and recognize His sovereignty, we must also recognize the limitations of our authority. In a practical sense we cannot live our lives according to the plan of God. That is God's level, not ours. Our daily lives should consist in striving to know and do the will of God. That means being obedient to the divine law, both the principles that were written to others in the Bible as well as that which God tells us to do today.
If we live lawlessly and refuse to be held accountable for our own actions, we merely prove to all that we are not part of God's “barley” remnant. If we refuse to be obedient and submit to the divine will, we prove that we will not receive immortality in the first resurrection, but must await a later resurrection.
It really comes down to the old adage of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Is a man lawless because God blinded his eyes? Or did God blind his eyes because he was lawless? Men may debate the issue, but in the end, it does not matter. If your eyes are blinded, and if you refuse to submit to Christ and His law, then it is self-evident that you are not one of the remnant that will inherit the first resurrection.
Is this the reward that you desire? Then so be it. Be it far from me to try to change your heart. I am not the Holy Spirit and cannot do His job. But if it is in your heart to be an overcomer of the remnant company, the barley company, then He will put it in your heart to be obedient. The tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:20).
Thus, in a practical sense, your actions are a manifestation of your heart. If God has given you eyes to see and ears to hear, then it will be evident in your actions, because “hearing” and “obedience” come from the same Hebrew word, shema. If God has truly given you ears to hear, then it will be reflected in your obedience to His voice. If God has called you to be an overcomer, then act like one. An overcomer is NOT one who merely professes to be one, but a person whose actions reflect his words (James 2:18).
Fatalism is an unbalanced view of God's sovereignty. The main symptom of fatalism is using God's sovereignty as an excuse for sin or for doing nothing at all. Don't make excuses for bad behavior. Blaming God's sovereign will for your sins will not reduce your liability at the great white throne. God has already taken responsibility on His level by ensuring the salvation of all men at the final Jubilee. If you are content to receive your gift of immortality at the end of time, then it is apparent to all that He has not called you to be an overcomer that will inherit life at the first resurrection.
But if God has enlightened the eyes of your understanding and made you His obedient servant, you are proven to be on the path of the overcomer. I encourage you to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
Recognize God's sovereignty, but live as if you have total free will. Recognize that your authority is limited, and that you can do little to change your heart, but pray that God will lead you into whatever circumstances are necessary to show you truth, to overthrow every idol in your heart, and to teach you the art of obedience. Then be vigilant to respond to all that the Lord brings your way. This is the path of life.