If We Have Free Will, How Can God Be Sovereign?

A man who comes from a theological tradition that emphasizes “free will” has zeroed in on understanding the sovereignty of God—something new for him.

He says, “Sovereignty sure makes passages like Ephesians 1 easier to understand. But now I’m not sure how to respond when things go different than I expect, or someone does me wrong, or something seemingly bad happens. My first instinct is to react with anger or disappointment. But if God is sovereign, should I? Does He know about everything in advance? Don’t some things happen by mere chance? Or is everything decreed or approved by God?”

You can understand the confusion! Here’s what I wrote back to him:

Reformed theology appears to be tricky, until accepted.

Even then, our natural desire that things be "either/or" makes it difficult for some of us to grasp these two seemingly paradoxical ideas: God is sovereign, and humans have free will.

"Seemingly" because at first, these two ideas seem to violate the law of non-contradiction (something cannot both "be" and "not be" at the same time and in the same relationship).

Interestingly, however, God lays down these two principles side-by-side in Scripture without much explanation – and certainly no apology! So we either believe God doesn't know what he's doing, accept it as an unresolvable mystery, or we dig a little deeper.

Let's dig a little deeper. I say "a little" deeper because this is a high level overview that only begins to scratch the surface. Thousands of books have been written about this over many centuries by the likes of Calvin and CS Lewis. I have no illusion that now, suddenly, I, Pat Morley am going to unlock the mysteries of God and settle a theological debate which had for centuries remained unresolved!


First, what is sovereignty? When Ephesians 1:11 says that God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, what does that mean? It means that God is sovereignly orchestrating all human events by either causing or allowing them to happen. Sometimes he causes. Sometimes he allows.

But as you point out from Romans 8:28, his "bent" is to work all things for the good of those who love him – even disasters or death. In many ways, it's a matter of having an eternal rather than a temporal perspective. The long view.

But this doesn't mean that we should "stuff" our feelings and emotions. Sad it is still sad, and bad is still bad. But instead of despair, we can turn to God if we genuinely believe that He is both good and great.


So what about free will? We each have a choice in every matter. And we are personally responsible for the choices we make. So we could also say God is sovereign, and man is responsible. Again, an antinomy.

Frankly, I don't think free will is all it's cracked up to be. Every Christian knows that without the Holy Spirit our free will lacks the power to consistently make the right choices.

For example, Jesus said no one comes to Him unless the Father who sent Him draws them (John 6:44). And after salvation, we know that even when we want to do right, evil is right there with us – even though we delight in doing right! (Romans 7:21-23).


In logic, the tendency to force things to be "either" one thing "or" the other is called the "either/or fallacy." In most cases there is a tertium quid – a third option.

So is there a third option that reconciles sovereignty and free will? There is an insight into this in Romans 8:20 which says, "For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."

We could paraphrase it like this: Futility is the chief tool by which God sovereignly draws us to Himself of our own free will.

In other words, God "causes" or "allows" us to become so miserable that we turn to him of our own free will!

God is sovereignly orchestrating all human events – even the seemingly random circumstances of our lives – to bring us into right relationship with Him and right relationship with each other. With God, it's all about the relationships.

No doubt I've raised a lot of new questions, but I do hope I've answered the questions you asked!