The Battle of Free-Will vs. God’s Sovereignty – History & Theology, Part 76

We will now, after quite a while, return to the writings of John Owen. By now we can see that one issue of the Gospel as preached in the days of the Reformation and those that followed after them for at least two centuries also focused on the application of the Gospel and did not leave it in the hands of sinners to apply it to themselves. Each Person of the Trinity was displayed in the Gospel and in saving sinners. Many of the more theologically minded Arminians and most Reformed people would laugh at anyone who said that s/he could stop God from doing what He wanted to do. But that is exactly what people are implying when they say that God’s grace cannot save a sinner unless the sinner makes a choice. They would laugh at the sinner who would say that on judgment day he would do something to apply salvation to himself, yet that is what they insist on when they say that man has free-will and by that free-will he decides to be saved or not. The issue constantly goes back to the character of God and His sovereignty over man versus the power and ability of man.

Does God reign in the world or does He not? Does God reign over each and every sinner or does He not? Is God sovereign over every molecule or not? Has God decreed from all eternity what should come to pass or is He something like an interested but somewhat involved bystander? What is at the heart of the free-will teaching? It is that there is this little part of man that is not under the sovereign rule of God. It is that man determines what he wants to happen and brings it to pass either by his own power or with God’s help. The sinner is saying and the Arminian theologian is using the Bible (logically derived from their position) to support the contention that man’s will has power apart from God and God is not sovereign over that part of man. Hear John Owen on this subject:

I come now to treat of that betwixt which and the Pelagian idol there is bellum aspondon, implacable hatred, absolutely destructive to the one side,–to wit, the providence of God. For this, in that notion Christianity hath hitherto embraced it, and that, in such a sense as the Arminians maintain it, can no more consist together than fire and water, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, and he that shall go to enjoin them ploughs with an ox and an ass; they must be tied together with the same ligament…wherewith the tyrant tied dead bodies to living men. This strange advancement of the clay against the potter, and not by the way of repining, and to say, “Why hast thou made me thus?” but by the way of emulation, “I will not be so, I will advance myself to the sky, to the sides of thy throne,” was heretofore unknown to the more refined Paganism.

Now, that their proud, God-opposing errors may the better appear, according to my former method, I will plainly show what the Scripture teacheth us concerning the providence, with what is agreeable and right to Christian reason, not what is dictated by tumultuating affections. Providence is a word which, in its proper significations, may seem to comprehend all the actions of God that outwardly are of him, that have any respect unto his creatures, all his works that are not ad intra, essentially belonging unto the Deity. Now, because God “worketh all things according to his decree, or the counsel of his will,” (Eph 1:11), for whatsoever he doth now it pleased him from the beginning. Ps cxv; seeing , also, that known unto God are all his works from eternity; therefore, three things concerning his providence are considerable:–1. His decree or purpose, whereby he hath disposed all things in order, and appointed them for certain ends, which he hath fore-ordained. 2. His prescience, whereby he certainly foreknoweth all things that shall come to pass. 3. His temporal operation, or working in time, –“My Father worketh hitherto,” John v. 17,–whereby he actually executeth all his good pleasure.

What Owen is showing, as stated in the heading for this chapter, is that “the providence of God in governing the world diversely” is “thrust from this pre-eminence by the Arminian idol of free-will.” As in the first Owen quote from above, there is war between man’s free-will (as necessitated by Arminian teaching) and the providence of God. We must begin with God and determine the power of the will after we see the truth of what Scripture teaches about God. We must not begin with the freedom of the will and then determine what crumbs of power we will leave for God. Does God work all things “according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11) or is each person free to act according to his own will as he pleases? Is God the God that Scripture sets out who “is in the heavens” and “does whatever He pleases” (Psa 115:3) or does man do as he pleases? What does Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man on earth in his time have to say about this: “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ (Daniel 4:35).

Owen is surely correct in this that the real battle is between the free-will of man and the sovereignty of God. There can be no such thing as free-will in the Arminian sense if Ephesians 1:11, Psalm 115:3, Daniel 4:35 and many other verses are true. The issue must be looked at in terms of who God is first, not man. Humanity either searches Scripture to find out the true character of God and then who man really is or humanity desires certain things within the darkness of its fallen nature and tries to make God into its own image. As no human being is free to choose to be free from being under the dominion of God or the devil, so no human being can possibly make a choice in absolute freedom. Every choice a human being makes is either for God or against Him. Everything a human being does is out of love for God or at enmity with Him. Everything the human being does is an expression of the human attempt to be free from God or the human submitting to God and asking for grace to be full of Him. Every choice the human being makes is according to the chief love of his or her life. It is not until the will is freed by God from the dominion of the evil one is the soul free to love God from the love of God that is put in the soul by God. Free-will in the Arminian sense is not conducive to true humility and the working of God in the soul, but will always resist the work of God since it always looks to its own illusionary freedom of which there is none.

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