Through the letter to the Romans – Part 15. God’s Sovereignty and free will; and love

Pitting God’s sovereignty against human free will has been the subject of discussion by theologians for centuries. Some focus so much on defending God’s sovereignty that free will appears to go by the wayside. And it is understandable that this would be deemed an acceptable strategy, seeing as the concept of “free will” is implied rather than explicitly discussed in the Bible whereas God’s sovereignty is explicitly stated. But this approach eventually subjugates the question to one of two positions regarding how humanity is saved: Are we saved only by Grace, in fact elected to be saved by God before we were ever born? Or are we saved by choosing to Believe?

If the second, then how is God absolutely sovereign? And where do you stow all the verses in the Bible that refer to believers as elect? And then, if that salvation was conditional on a human choice, cannot a human choice undo it? So, we run into the eternal security doctrine and all its verses. Yet if the first is true, how is that fair to all those not-elected? How do we settle this dilemma?

One way to defuse the argument, whenever the term “elected” or “election” comes up, is to ask: Elected for what? We touched last time on the “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated” verse. There, Paul makes it clear that God elected Jacob instead of Esau before either had done good or bad. That’s true. But, elected for what? It doesn’t say God elected Jacob to be saved and Esau to be condemned. Paul is talking about the inheritance of the Promise, about whom God chose to carry forward into the future the Promise of the Messiah. That was not a guarantee of salvation for Isaac.

Just because the bloodline of the Messiah is running through a person, does not make that person right with God. We know there were kings of Judah that outright rejected God’s plan for their lives. Still, they are in the genealogy of Jesus.

The other way is to think it through:

In a blog I wrote a while back, I pointed out that in Physics there are foundational principles (like the law of conservation of energy). Foundational principles will never fail you because the discipline is anchored by them. They don’t need to be proven. They have been proven so many times, that all Physicists know they are unassailable. Therefore, they can be used to derive other principles or answer other questions.

It is the same with the Word of God. There are several unassailable principles in it that we can use to answer questions, even if at first blush we don’t know the detailed way to find the answer. I am going to borrow freely from that blog to set up this discussion.

On the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

A foundational principle of the Word is: God cannot be unjust.

In Genesis 18, when God and two angels appear to Abraham with the news of Sarah’s pregnancy and the news that Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed, Abraham famously haggles with God. In that passage, Abraham says:

Genesis 18: 25 Far be it from thee to do so, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that the righteous should be as the wicked—far be it from thee! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?

In the book of Job we get the same kind of argument from the young man Elihu:

Job 34:10 Therefore hearken unto me, ye men of understanding: Far be wickedness from God, and wrong from the Almighty!

The logic of his argument is this:

Job 34:12 Yea, surely, God acteth not wickedly, and the Almighty perverteth not judgment. Who hath entrusted to him the earth? and who hath disposed the whole world? If he only thought of himself, [and] gathered unto him his spirit and his breath, all flesh would expire together, and man would return to the dust.

In other words, how could God possibly act unjustly, didn’t He invent Justice in the first place? If he wanted to cheat man, why does He go to all the trouble of keeping all creation alive?

And Paul applies this in Romans 3,

Romans 3:5-6 But if our unrighteousness commend God’s righteousness, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who inflicts wrath? I speak according to man. Far be the thought: since how shall God judge the world?

The principle is clear, God cannot be unjust. The very concept is a self-contradiction because Justice was invented by God.

The next foundational principle that is relevant here is this: God is Love.

We can quote the letters of John. We can quote the Old Testament prophets that time and again rebuke Israel’s unfaithfulness using the language of a bride being unfaithful to her husband. But the gospels and Pauls’ exposition of their meaning hold together only because of the undeniable truth that God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son…

Why is this principle relevant here? Because it is impossible to receive and reciprocate love without free will. If humanity is the object of God’s love, if that is the very reason why we were created in the first place, then it follows that we must be capable of entering into a love relationship with God. But you and I know that a robot telling me “I love you” is not going to warm my heart.

If my free will is an illusion, the mechanical result of an ultra-sophisticated program in that chemical computer we call the brain, that can’t help think of itself in any other terms, then love is itself an illusion resulting from that program. It has no deeper meaning than 1’s and 0’s. If you could create a human being and program it to say, “I love you”, would you? How many of us call our own voicemail and say, “I love you”? Doesn’t the very thought pang the heart?

Therefore, because God is Love, and created us to Love us and for us to love Him, humanity must have free will.


(Now, I am aware that some people have argued that an Almighty Sovereign God could certainly make a being that can love while having no free will. Because nothing is impossible with God. To which my answer would be, does that mean that an Almighty Sovereign God could make True and False be the same?

It might be my limited imagination that prevents me from being able to conceive the former, but I know the latter is impossible, in our Universe. Because the principle of non-contradiction, that “A” and “not A” cannot be both true at the same time, is central to our ability to reason in this Universe. By, in our Universe, I mean: in the everyday, practical use that we human beings make of this Universe for our lives. Yes, I am aware that there are certain mathematical paradoxes involving infinite sets where neither “A” nor “not A” can be proven to be right; but those do not affect our everyday lives nor the ethical decisions we make in it.

In the same way, I could grant that a being that can love, while having no free will, may be theoretically possible… but not in our Universe! Ask any human being if they think a confession of love that is forced or coerced is truly love. And before you say, ‘what do human beings know anyway?’, ask yourself, who was the Word of God written for? Wasn’t it for human beings in this Universe?

Finally, we know from the Bible that even though God is Almighty and Sovereign, He certainly limits Himself from self-contradiction. Hebrews 6:18 tells us it is impossible for God to lie.)


So, what about Pharaoh? 

Every time this question is asked people eventually go to

Romans 9:14-18 What shall we say then? [Is there] unrighteousness with God? Far be the thought. For he says to Moses, I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy, and I will feel compassion for whom I will feel compassion.  So then [it is] not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shews mercy.

Painting by Tissot Moses speaks to Pharaoh
Painting by Tissot: Moses speaks to Pharaoh

     For the scripture says to Pharaoh, For this very thing I have raised thee up from amongst [men], that I might thus shew in thee my power, and so that my name should be declared in all the earth. So then, to whom he will he shews mercy, and whom he will he hardens.

And then the argument proceeds to defend God’s sovereignty. But, as Søren Kierkegaard used to say, God doesn’t need any apologists.

The whole argument becomes moot if we realize we always assume only one meaning to this phrase: “For this very thing I have raised thee up from amongst [men], that I might thus shew in thee my power.” We assume it means that God explicitly raised that man to King of Egypt so that He could destroy him and his gods, to display his power by demonstrating He is greater than all gods to the whole Earth. But is that what it means? It doesn’t sound like a God who is Love.

It doesn’t sound like the God who, in the New Testament, was willing to let His own Son die to save sinners just like Pharaoh.

What if God raised this man to King to change his life, and with him the whole trajectory of the history of Egypt? Yes, he grew up worshiping false gods. And by the time he was of age to be King so much time had passed since the time of Joseph that anyone that could remember those days, or the records from those days, was dead. (it was 4 centuries.) But he did not grow up devoid of ethical knowledge.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, existed in papyrus form at the beginning of the New Kingdom, this is before the time of Moses. In it, the soul of the dead recites his defense before the gods, arguing for acquittal and entry into a blessed after-life. It is a declaration that includes:

I have not orphaned the orphan of his goods;

I have not done the abomination of the gods;

I have not slighted a servant to his master;

I have not caused affliction; I have not caused hunger; I have not caused grief; I have not killed;

I have not harmed the offering-cattle; I have not caused pain for anyone;

Again, as Paul and Barnabas told the people of Lystra: God has not left himself without a witness. This man who grew up to become Pharaoh knew that there was right and wrong and yet, somehow, he found a way to justify the oppression of the Israelites and the killing of their babies. He was, like many of us today, living a moral contradiction.

Then Moses shows up and tells him of YHWH who wants his people to go out into the wilderness to worship Him. Pharaoh’s initial reaction is understandable, why should he believe? But then he does something he knows is wrong. He makes the labor of the slaves impossible, withholding their straw. Then Moses returns. And we know that God has told Moses he will render Pharaoh’s heart obdurate. But He doesn’t say when. (We have to be careful differentiating between what God knows will happen and what God causes to happen.)

So, Moses proves his God is real by supernatural signs. Yes, the sorcerers’ sticks also become snakes, but Aaron’s staff eats them up. Pharaoh, we are told, hardens his own heart then. Moses comes back and warns him that his God will turn the Nile into blood (threatening the survival of the whole kingdom and at the same time striking a direct blow at the central Osiris myth that uses the Nile river as the stage for the fight between good and evil and the reality of the after-life.) This time, the sorcerers’ magic is even more useless. They cannot turn the blood back into water; all they can do is turn water into more blood. (With friends like that who needs enemies?) But again, Pharaoh hardens his own heart.

This is the first turning point. Pharaoh had a choice at that point. He could have looked at the Nile and reasoned about the devastation of Egypt without their source of life. He could have accepted that there was another God besides those in his pantheon. He knew about other gods, of the other nations. So that wasn’t a stretch. But he was here faced with a God that would and could destroy his kingdom in direct retaliation to his mistreatment of the Israelites… He could have bowed down. He could have put his kingdom before his own pride and hatred (or fear) of the Israelites. But he didn’t.

What if he had? What if he had bowed down and said, I give up? Then indeed God would have shown in him his power, and by his surrender declared the name of YHWH in all the earth.

We know that’s the way it was with a couple other pagan kings. Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God with 7 years of madness and he awoke praising God. Cyrus the Persian ended up doing the work of God according to the prophecies of Isaiah (written down before he was born) and he reacted by ordering that the temple of Jerusalem be rebuilt. Pharaoh could have been counted among them.

But Pharaoh hardened his heart. The frogs come and Pharaoh again hardens his own heart. The gnats come, the sorcerers recognize the work of a true deity and yet he hardens his heart again. The flies come and he hardens his own heart again. It is not until after the boils that God hardens his heart. But at the same time, He tells him so:

“And for this very cause have I raised thee up, to shew thee my power; and that my name may be declared in all the earth. Dost thou still exalt thyself against my people, that thou wilt not let them go?”

Anyone that reads this whole narrative has to accept Pharaoh was given more than enough chances to repent. His free will was unimpaired so that he could see the bitter fruit of his own choices. And then when the plagues were about to become irreversibly deadly, God hardens his heart so that he feels the utter helplessness to which he has condemned his own people. Yet he warns him and his servants so they could have been saved from the hail. And then after all that preventable devastation, God let’s go of his heart again.

This is the second and final turning point. After all this suffering, Pharaoh could still have surrendered. But after the hail is stopped by Moses, Pharaoh hardened again his own heart.

Painting by James Tissot, The signs on the door

He gives Pharaoh one final chance: As if God is telling him, “Open your eyes and choose to save your people.” He refuses, and the locust wipe out all the fields of food.

It is after this point that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart for the remainder of the conflict.

What if he had surrendered? But he chose not to, and he reaped the consequences. His legacy was the destruction of his kingdom. That’s how he ended up glorifying God’s Name. It didn’t have to be that way.

Is it unfair that God hardened his heart from there to the end? Why? There has to be a point of no return. All of us have one coming. It is called the day of our death. We can choose salvation down to the very last minute (e.g. the thief on the cross) but once we cross that doorway into the other side, there is no more chance. That is what Justice and Love have agreed upon.

If we don’t like it. Well… that’s too bad. God invented Justice, Love, and Life.

We could argue that the true unfairness is that God gave Pharaoh so many chances to repent. Certainly David (and Job) had a problem with how God does not bring judgment on the wicked immediately. But the answer to David and Job (and, praise God, us) is MERCY. So then, to whom he will he shews mercy, and whom he will he hardens.

In my own ways I have been as guilty as Pharaoh… so was David… yet we found Mercy upon repentance.

That story of Pharaoh, those passages in Romans, are not an argument about God being sovereign, so He can do whatever He wants (which is true, by the way). They are an argument that God’s Love and Mercy are way beyond our human comprehension.

Romans 9:19-23 Thou wilt say to me then, Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose? Aye, but thou, O man, who art *thou* that answerest again to God? Shall the thing formed say to him that has formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?  Or has not the potter authority over the clay, out of the same lump to make one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour?

And if God, minded to shew his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering vessels of wrath fitted for destruction; and that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he had before prepared for glory, us, whom he has also called, not only from amongst [the] Jews, but also from amongst [the] nations?

The argument that God’s infinite power obviates free will is not only simplistic, it misses the entire purpose of God. Those who use it are telling God, “my logic trumps yours.” But Paul says that’s like a lump of clay objecting to the potter’s plans. God chose to make out of that same clay – the DNA of Adam – a humanity that has free will. A humanity whose individual people can choose whether to be vessels of honor or vessels of dishonor.

It’s our choice. And if God decides to be patient with me while I am making choices of dishonor, while I am destroying my life and that of those I love… if He holds back while I am piling wrath on myself towards destruction because He wants to give me the chance to repent, who has the right to object?

Job and the Psalmist (and some of the prophets, like Jonah) certainly thought they had a right to object, and they did. And God has answered them already. But I don’t have a right to object. I can try and blame Him for the circumstances of my life that I want to claim led me to act this way. But I know better. I know that it is that patience and kindness of God that leads to repentance. It is that patience that gives me, the prodigal son, the chance to come to my senses, to repent and run back home so that I who was a vessel of wrath can become a vessel of mercy, prepared for glory, declaring for all to know, the riches of his glory.

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