By Shane Kastler
God's sovereignty versus man's free will (so called) has been a debate raging for eons. And most of this debate has centered on Adam's post-fall condition. Which is to say that most of the debate has to do with how far-reaching the sin curse really was and is. Was Adam “totally depraved” whereas every aspect of his nature was affected by the curse, including his will which was consequently enslaved to sin? Or was Adam only partially marred by the curse whereby his will remained “free” though other aspects of his makeup were affected. Of course, historically speaking, there have even been those of the Pelagian camp who would say the fall of man did next to nothing. Man is free to do as he pleases. Such an overtly unbiblical view scarcely deserves the time for refutation; and Augustine handled most of the arguments centuries ago anyway. The scope of this article will be much different.
I will not be primarily arguing about what Adam's condition was post-fall. I will be arguing what Adam's condition was “pre-fall.” And I will be arguing that the common notion that Adam had free will before the fall is erroneous. Even before sin entered the world and even before Adam was ensnared and enslaved by it; he did not have what could be described as free will. I have several reasons why I believe this is so. And several arguments I will have to refute in the process. Here we go.
Some say that Adam had freewill because he was made in the image of God. But I find no scriptural warrant to belief it. It is not stated nor even implied in a single verse of the Bible. The argument typically put forth is that since God commanded Adam to obey in certain way, then Adam must have had the ability to do so. He must have had the “will” to do so if he chose to. But this argument is built on totally fallacious grounds. The truth is that God frequently commands his creation to do things that they do not have the ability to do. When Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the grave, after he had been dead for four days, it might have been thought sheer lunacy. Who commands the dead and they obey him? The same one who commands the wind and the waves and they obey him. Jesus commands the impossible, then empowers the object of the command in order to bring glory to his name. And this is not simply an isolated case with the occasional first century miracle. Your very salvation (if you are saved) involved you being commanded to do something you cannot do. Then God doing it for you. The giving you a gift for having it done. Repent and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ! Is a summons that goes forth with no hope of being heeded apart from God's grace. The Bible speaks of saving, believing faith as a “gift from God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:9) And even the repentance (or turning away from a life of sin) is described as something God “grants” to the impenitent that he chooses to grant it to.
So what does being created in the image of God mean? It's hotly debated. Some say it means we are rational creatures with the ability to reason in ways the rest of creation cannot. This rational faculty is in the image of God. Others say that since God is “spirit” we are created in his image because we have an immaterial, “spiritual” aspect to our being. Others simply say that being created in the image of God means we are his likeness or his representatives on the earth. To man he has given dominion over the creation. We are functioning in a God-like manner as rulers over our own castles, if you will. As I said before this issue is debated from all theologically perspectives. Adam's post-fall condition is also hotly debated. Was he partially marred by sin? Is he totally depraved because of sin? Or is he effectively unscathed by sin? The Biblical answer is found in the doctrine of total depravity. But what about before the curse? What was his condition before sin entered the world (and death through sin)?
The number one reason I would give for why Adam still did not have “free will” prior to the fall is that even in a sinless condition he was still a creation of God and thus under the limitations of the Creator-Creation distinction. Was God orchestrating events in the garden or was Adam or was Eve or was the Serpent? Clearly Adam, Eve, and the Serpent were up to something. They were not idle and they were not excused for their disobedient actions. But what was God doing? Was he caught off guard by the events around the tree? Was he watching with bated breath waiting to see what man would do? Was he whimpering like a wounded puppy at the thought that his creation would betray him and that Satan had outsmarted him? If you answer yes to any of these questions you should promptly repent of your blasphemy and prayerfully re-think your view of God's sovereignty.
Some people are shockingly aghast when you suggest (as I am doing) that God ordained sin in the Garden of Eden. Even more amazingly they act as if this would be the only time he ever did ordain sin. The mantra goes: “God is good and hates sin and is grieved by sin and would never want sin in any way because it breaks his heart and thwarts his wonderful plan for your life, etc. etc. etc.” And there is some truth in those statements but not full truth. God frequently ordained sin in the Bible. What about the cross? That most glorious and magnificent of events. That solemn and dark day when the Son was brutally executed as a criminal of the state; at the instigation of arrogant, jealous Jewish rulers. Was Jesus death a sin? Can you think of a greater sin than killing an innocent man? How about killing a PERFECTLY innocent man? How about killing a Divine-man? Not only was it sin, no greater sin can be conceived. And the Bible lays the blame at those who killed him. Peter thunders at Pentecost: “You had him put to death with the hands of godless men. (Acts 2:23) He rebukes the Jews for using the Romans (godless men) to kill the very Son of God. Yet in the very same verse Peter says all of these things happened “in accordance with the pre-ordained plan of God.” In other words, God ordained the sin of the death of His son to pay for the sins of His people. God ordained sin to save your eternal soul, if you are a believer. Be awestruck at the thought. Shudder and weep for the grace that was shown toward you. But don't dare try to water this devastating truth down by lessening God's sovereignty or elevating man's will.
God ordains sin all the time. He ordained Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery because he had a greater good planned to save many lives. He ordained for Daniel to be wronged and thrown into a lion's den so he could miraculously protect him and glorify His name. He hardened Pharaoh's heart so that he might show his power in him. God ordains sin all the time because according to the Bible God ordains everything and he does it all the time. Ephesians 1:11 says, “He ordains all things after the counsel of His will.” The fatal flaw in the anti-sovereignty argument is levied in this verse. It says he ordains ALL THINGS. Not just good things. Not just neutral things. Not just bad things. It doesn't even say “some” bad things. He ordains EVERYTHING. And how does he ordain it? After the counsel of his will. He doesn't ask you. He doesn't ask me. The only counsel he utilizes (according to the verse) is his own. He calls the shots and you and I act in accordance with his ordination.
This reality really chaffs most people who erroneously boast of their free will; but true free will can belong to no being except for God. Some would say a distinction must be made between free will and free agency, which states man is only free to act in accordance with his nature. In other words, an enslaved sinner can pick which ever sin he wants to indulge in but his freedom ends there. He does not have the freedom to grant himself a new heart and be saved. But even the concept of free agency must be limited and prefaced with the overarching reality of God's sovereignty that waves like an infinite canopy over all things, all acts, all decisions, both big and small. Yes, you are free to choose the pepperoni or the sausage pizza. You are free to do this as a free agent; but even the pick of something so insignificant was ordained by God. Even as a free agent you cannot escape his overarching sovereignty. Nor should you want to.
Adam's will was not free prior to the fall. Yes he was in a condition of innocence. Yes, sin had not entered the world as of yet. But already we see the Creator-Creation distinction at play and God controlled and Adam acted. Limits were placed on Adam regarding what he could eat and where he could go. Freedom was not the carte blanche condition of his domain. Submission to God was. But then he sinned and the relationship changed. How can this be explained? Ephesians 1 does an admirable job in it's inspired verbiage: “He ordains all things after the counsel of his will.” The all things includes the fall of Adam which led to the Death of Christ which led to the glory of God. An eternal golden thread links these and all other things together. A thread that has it's origin in the deep counsel of the Almighty. Adam did not have free will AFTER the FALL because he didn't even have free will BEFORE the fall. God is the only being rightly described as having true free will. Before the fall, Adam was not yet cursed but he was a creature. His image-bearing status did not ascend to the position of God in terms of knowledge, holiness, ability, or will. Adam was not yet spiritually dead, but he was a creature and as such did not have free will. So Adam sinned according to God's sovereign plan.
At this point you might be prone to pause and say “Wait a minute!” If Adam's sin was God's plan, then why is Adam punished for it? Isn't it irrational to punish someone for something that you yourself ordained that they do? If a man were doing that to another man it might be irrational. But God does things his way and his way is higher than our way (Isa. 55) You might counter once again and say: “Why does God find fault then? After all, who resists His will?” If this is your argument you have almost word-for-word quoted Paul's argument from Romans 9. And at this point, in hushed and humble silence you should read what God's word says and submit to it as your Divine answer to this massive theological enigma. The answer Paul gives is not pure mystery; it is revelation that is devastating to the theology of many a Christian. Yet Paul’s answer is the very Word of God. If you seek to know how God can hold Adam accountable when God himself ordained the sin then buckle up and read Paul's words slowly......and be crushed into the dust of amazement. Here's the answer: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” (Romans 9:20-21)
Paul goes to the same place I am addressing in this article: Creation. The Potter (God) has the right over the clay (all creation) to form it and make it however He wills to. That means that the Potter (God) has the right to ordain sin in the clay (Adam) for his greater purpose. And this He in fact did.
God's sovereignty and ordination over sin in no way lessens man's responsibility and accountability for his actions. How can this be you ask? Because the Bible declares it so. Man is both totally depraved and without excuse for his sin, a topic I addressed in another article.
At the end of the day, God's sovereignty trumps everything. His sovereignty is not at odds with man's responsibility. These are not too equal truths that share a common force. They are not side by side; for God and his sovereignty reigns over man and his responsibility. He ordains all things. End of story. Here we find a mountain to gaze from; and here we find a rock to stand on. Here we rest in his all powerful control. Here we shudder and fall on our face. Here we cover our mouth and remain silent as Job did; Here we shout for joy and praise the Sovereign One. Here we look at the garden of Eden and see God still in control. Just as he was in the infinite reaches before and after the garden. He reigns. He always reigns. He always will reign.......And let every thing that has breath praise the Lord because of it.