Since the 16th Century and the radical changes that took place during the Reformation, the church has debated the apparent conflict between the perfect, sovereign will of God and the free will and responsibility of man. The argument continues unabated today. There seems to be no easy solution to the apparent conflict, although there have been several attempts through the centuries.
I agree with Charles Spurgeon that there is no conflict within the doctrine of God. The Bible speaks truth, and where there is apparent conflict, the problem is with us, not with the word of God.
One of my favorite explanations of the apparent conflict is the analogy of parallel lines used by Spurgeon.
These two truths (God’s predestination and man’s responsibility), I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring. [i]
With that being said, I would like to offer my own solution to the apparent conflict. I will attempt to develop the idea through Scripture, but in a nutshell, the answer is this:
God accomplishes His sovereign will and eternal purpose through the free will decisions of man. [ii]
We will begin at the beginning by returning once again to the Garden of Eden and the first man, Adam.
Several questions come to mind when I think of Adam.
How old was Adam when he was created?
Was he conscious of age or of having learned anything?
What language did he speak, and where or from whom did he learn it?
How long was his hair or the color of his eyes?
Where did he sleep at night, and did he salt his food before eating?
Of course, we will never know the answers to such questions this side of the grave, and in reality, since the Bible does not give the answers, we might immediately discount the questions. However, such questions are an issue when it comes to the matter of will.
The point is that Adam had no say so in any of these things. One moment he was not, and the next moment he was. No gradual building up to existence. He took his first breath, and immediately there he was in the middle of Paradise, although he did not realize it was Paradise, because he had never known anything else. Eden was just a place to be.
There was no reaching an “age of accountability.” One moment he was perfect. When confronted for the very first time with the temptation to sin, he yielded, and was forever condemned apart from grace.
Did God ask Adam if he wanted a helpmeet? The Bible indicates that the idea for the woman was God’s, not Adam’s. Adam went to sleep, and woke up the following morning lying next to a perfect woman. (How many guys can say that! Of course, it only lasted less than two chapters!)
The point is that God did not ask Adam or Eve about anything related to their existence. He (God) formed a plan within the context of eternity, and humans were the means by which He would fulfill that plan. Genesis says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). He “took” the man and “put” him. There doesn’t seem to be much room for personal will in that statement. The reason is that all of the events of the creation and the Garden were according to God’s plan and God’s will, not Adam’s.
Some might argue, “Well, Adam’s rebellion against God means that he did not fulfill the plan of God.”
In that, I would beg to differ.
The plan of redemption originated in the mind of the Trinity in eternity before the creation, before there was ever a man or sin or a need for redemption. But the plan of redemption would have been moot or an empty and useless process unless and until there was sin and death and a need for salvation.
Adam made a willful decision to rebel against the commandment of God. That decision brought sin and death and condemnation into the world. For man to survive and to regain an intimate relationship with the Creator would require a plan of rescue and redemption – a plan God had already established before Creation.
One might react, “Well, all that proves is the foresight of God. He was wise enough to create a contingency plan for just such an eventuality as Adam’s rebellion.”
In other words, our thoughts are that God created the plan of redemption just in case man were to rebel. There are at least two questions of doctrine we must address here. The first deals with the omniscience of God, and the second with chronology.
We must ask the question that was asked of Richard Nixon concerning Watergate: What did he know and when did he know it? The answers to those questions led to the downfall of a President of the United States. However, in the case of Almighty God, the answers prove His sovereignty over all things in heaven and earth.
Unless one believes in the theology of open theism, the omniscience of God means that He knows all things and that He has always known all things. That is why He can declare the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and current events from the distant past (Isaiah 45:21)? This is how God knows every word that I will ever say before it ever reaches my tongue and has written the events of my life in a book before I was ever formed in the womb (Psalm 139:4, 16).
God did not create Adam and place him in the Garden of Eden in the presence of the serpent without knowing in advance the outcome of the temptation. Not only did God know it, but it was all a part of His eternal purpose, or it never would have taken place.’’ That point may be hard to comprehend, but it is not a new thought.
If you ask why God ordained the fall of man and the sinful state into which he would go, the answer is that God ordained sin so that we would know Him in the fullness of His revelation of Himself. If God had not ordained sin, we would know Him only as the Creator; because God has ordained sin we can know Him as the Redeemer. Our knowledge of God is much more complete because of sin. [iii]
A straightforward reading of Genesis apart from the context of all other Scripture could lead to the conclusion that man’s sin brought about the need for and the application of the plan of redemption, when, in fact, just the reverse is true. The plan of redemption set the stage for the creation, fall, and ultimate redemption of man.
There is a critical point of chronology here.
The plan of redemption came first. God determined in eternity past that God the Son would come to earth to die for the sins of man before there was an earth or man or sin. The works of redemption were finished “from the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:3-6; 1 Peter 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 1:9; Hebrews 4:3)
Through the process of redemption – justification, sanctification, glorification – God’s ultimate goal is to create sons – to take that which was totally corrupt and transform it into that which is perfectly holy – to transform fallen man into the image of the Son “to uphold and display the glory of his name.” [iv] (See Romans 8:28-30; Isaiah 48:9-11; Ephesians 1:4-6).
Therefore, while Adam’s exercise of free will may have violated the commandment of God, it did not violate the will of God. God is eternal and infinite. Man is created and finite and, while he may disobey the commandments of God, he does not have the capacity to violate the will of God or to thwart the purposes of God.
God accomplished His sovereign will and eternal purpose through the free will decision of Adam. At the same time, Adam personally bore the responsibility and its accompanying judgment for disobedience to the direct command of God.
There is more – so much more.
[i] Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility,” Aug. 1, 1858, New Park Street Pulpit Volume 4. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/sovereign-grace-and-mans-responsibility#flipbook/
[ii] I am a bit old-fashioned and, in the eyes of modern culture, probably sexist, but when I refer to the world of human beings in general, including both men and women, I use the word “man.” I pray you will not be to terribly offended. If you are, let me know. I will make it a matter of prayer.
[iii] Kistler, Don. “Redemption Planned,” an online article first published in Tabletalk Magazine, Feb. 1, 2004. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/redemption-planned/
[iv] John Piper. “Biblical Texts to Show God’s Zeal for His Own Glory,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/biblical-texts-to-show-gods-zeal-for-his-own-glory
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