How do you deal with the issue of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man? Of course we know that this issue has been one of struggle and controversy among Christians for centuries. The issue can seem quite mysterious. Scripture does not always let us know how the sovereign hand of God and the choices of humanity work. But some places in Scripture do a lovely job of pulling back the veil and letting us see.
Consider the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. In chapter 37, we learn that Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated that his father preferred him to them. They hated that Joseph had given a bad report of their activity to their father. They hated that Joseph told them of dreams in which he was in a place of honor and authority over them. And so the brothers determined to do something about it.
You remember the story, don’t you? Joseph’s brothers first decided to kill him. Then they changed their minds and determined to sell him to slave-traders. And just like that, Joseph was on his way to Egypt.
Now, whose choice was it to send Joseph to Egypt? We all would say that Joseph’s brothers chose to send him to Egypt. They, by their free will, did exactly what their hearts longed to do. They certainly sinned against God and committed what, in later Scripture, would be ruled a capital offense.
But look at the words of Joseph to his brothers when they were reunited.
Genesis 45:4-8 – 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Three times in that paragraph, Joseph says to his brothers that God sent him to Egypt. Three times, Joseph made it absolutely clear that his presence in Egypt was a sovereign work of the Almighty. Three times is significant.
So, who sent Joseph to Egypt? Whose choice was ultimate? According to Joseph, God’s choice, God’s hand, God’s sovereignty was ultimate. But, in chapter 37, it was clear that the brothers were choosing based on their personal desires, acting according to their understanding of their own freedom. In 42:21-22, the brothers admit that they saw Joseph’s distress and made a choice to sell him anyway. They knew they were guilty. They made no indication of being forced to act under compulsion against what they would have wanted.
So, we see two things. We see that the brothers acted exactly as they desired. They felt free. They did exactly what they naturally would have wanted to do. And yet, according to a greater understanding, according to God’s word, they acted under the direct hand of God to do what God sovereignly determined to do.
When we discuss God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, do not let yourself be confused. One of the big objections to the doctrine is that, if God is sovereign over our affairs, he must be forcing people away from himself by his sovereign decree. The objection is that God must be reaching into the hearts of basically good or even neutral people and driving them toward the devil. But such is not the case. The word of God is clear that men do, in almost all cases, exactly what they want to do. And the God who made us all is still over it all, sovereign, in control.
In truth, the biblical picture of God changing our will to match his will is not often exposed to us. The place it happens most clearly is when people who are naturally evil are drawn to the Lord for salvation. There we see the mighty and sovereign hand of God working to bring into sinful people new life and new desires that would not be theirs naturally.
So, in a super-simple summary, we can say that the sovereignty of God is fully compatible with the freedom of mankind in almost all circumstances. Joseph’s brothers did exactly what they freely wanted to do. They were fully to blame for their sin. And yet the sovereign, almighty, omniscient working of God brought about that Joseph would be in Egypt saving lives and preserving the promise of God. The same sort of thing can be said for hundreds of other events in the Bible where God was sovereign even as evil men made evil choices.
What about our salvation? God does not have to interfere with a human being’s freedom for any person to reject him. That is the natural disposition of the human heart. But for any human being to be saved, the Lord God must bring a dead heart to life (Eph. 2:1-4), God must forcefully and powerfully draw us to himself (John 6:44, 65), God must give us new birth so that we can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It is in turning us from evil to himself that God must take an action to interpose his sovereignty over our hearts to change our course. In that change, we will make an honest choice. That choice, however, is preceded by a sovereign move of God that we cannot detect on our own to move us to desire what we would not naturally desire, as no human being, on our own seeks God (Rom 3:10-12). Thus, the salvation of any person is all of grace, a gift given by God.
Is man free? Of course man is free. But man is not more free than God. Is God sovereign? He has to be. Otherwise, if the universe is spinning on its own without the control of the Lord, there is no guarantee of the promises of God. If the universe is more free than God, then God is not God.
We are not often privileged to see behind the veil and understand when something is being done by the sovereignty of God in comparison to the full freedom of mankind. But we know that God is God and we are not. We know that God works in all things. We know that God moves people where he wants them even as they act according to their own deepest desires. And we know from his word that, for a sinfully dead heart to desire him, that heart must be supernaturally changed by God.
Who put Joseph in Egypt? Joseph’s brothers acted according to their freedom. God moved and sovereignly put Joseph where he wanted him. Let us understand that God is God, working in ways we cannot see, but always working in perfect righteousness.