Why do our lives turn out the way they do? Is it because of the choices we’ve made, or is something else going on behind the scenes that we don’t quite understand? In “religion-speak” these two alternatives are called the free will of man and the sovereignty of God and strangely enough, both are true.
“In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
God clearly gives us freedom of choice. Because He holds us responsible if we do not trust Christ and submit ourselves to His rightful authority over our lives, we are clearly capable of doing so. Yet today’s verse also teaches us that God has a purpose and that He works all things according to the counsel of His will.
As you study Scripture, you begin to notice that these two seemingly contradictory doctrines coexist because God uses the evil men intend for His good purposes. I Corinthians 2:6-8 tells us,“…we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Through the exercise of their free will the Jewish leaders crucified Christ, yet the crucifixion was God’s plan of salvation.
The Old Testament story of Joseph is another example of God’s sovereignty working alongside man’s free will. Joseph’s brothers acted with evil intent when they sold him into slavery, yet this was the vehicle God used to save Joseph’s family from the impending famine in the region. Joseph recognized this when he told his brothers, “…you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to…save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20) Even as God uses the deeds of evil men to accomplish His purposes, He allows men the privilege of free will. Yet, who is this God who allows us free choice, and how are we to exercise it rightly?
I am fully convinced that God is so much bigger and His plans so much grander than anything our human minds are capable of conceiving, even in our most inspired moments. I Corinthians 2:9-10 tells us, “’Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.’ But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.” His Holy Spirit gives us tiny glimpses of understanding into just how great God is and of a future with Him immersed in His glory, but even so, our comprehension is exceedingly limited.
Nonetheless, there are things about which we do not have to be ignorant. Unlike many generations before us, most of us have, or have access to, in hardcopy or online, at least one Bible. It is so much more precious than anything we own—the undiscovered oil field in our backyard which has the potential to make us billionaires—yet it is probably the rare individual who grasps this.
God has clearly not revealed everything to us. I have no idea how simply the power of His word caused all things to come into existence; I don’t even know everything that exists in the universe, much less how it all works. Yet I have everything that is necessary for me during my relatively short stay in this body to prepare myself for an eternity with Him, because I have access to what He did want me to know. Do I somehow imagine that He will think it okay if I ignore it? Furthermore, why would I want to ignore it? It is my only lifeline to the things that are eternal, to the One who made me, who loved me enough to die for me, and who is ready and able to teach me everything I need to know about life with Him.
Because we don’t use the free will God gave us wisely—because we fail to immerse ourselves in the things God really wants us to know—many of us are stuck in baby-mode. We’re sucking on the pacifiers of being born again, getting baptized, and going to church when we should be progressing way beyond these things. The writer of the book of Hebrews reproves such juvenile behavior:
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits…And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 5:12-6:3,11,12)
Repentance from dead works, faith, baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment are identified as baby food. If these are the elementary principles of Christ, what is the solid food?! The admonition “that each one of you show…diligence to…the end, that you do not become sluggish” gains significance, because at least on my part, I can attest to the fact that I have personally been exceedingly sluggish. I am only barely beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of understanding, that bare glimmer of intelligence as to what more there is besides the baby food I have been feeding on. And the amazing thing is that so many of us in America spiritually resemble the first-grader who told his mom that he didn’t need to go to school anymore because he had learned to read—that we’ve exhausted the depth of God’s revelation and have no more to learn because we understand first grade material!
Ephesians 2:5-7 teaches us, “[God]…made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” In Christ, God has positioned us in the spiritual realm and made us capable of understanding everything He has revealed to us. I Corinthians 2:10b-12,16b tells us, “For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received [in us], not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who isfrom God, [why?] that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God…we have the mind of Christ.” Through the presence of His Holy Spirit in us we can understand the things of God, but we will not understand anything if we don’t open the Book and start.
Free will is an peculiar thing; it can be used wisely, for our own good and the good of others, or it can be used wickedly. And while the sovereignty of God will not be thwarted by man’s foolish or evil decisions, we will miss out on the inestimable blessings of knowing and enjoying Him if we choose wrongly. May we always be wise!
Thank You for who You truly are and that you work all things according to the counsel of Your will. Thank you for free will; give me the wisdom to use it wisely. Help me to recognize and value the treasure—the riches—I have in Christ, and desire to learn all that You have revealed to me in Your Word. Amen.