A wooden cross in an open landscape

God’s Sovereignty vs The Christian Gospel

Posted by

There is comfort in knowing the past could not have unfolded in any other way. If you are plagued by guilt over something you have done, you can rest assured that you could not have acted differently. Regret stems from a belief in free will, but such a belief reflects a misunderstanding concerning the nature of God and His absolute sovereignty over all events.

Christians will find what I’m saying hard to accept, of course, other than perhaps those Christians who might try (and, I would argue, fail) to understand God’s absolute sovereignty as compatible with human free will. The arguments of Molinists, open theists, compatibilists, and some Calvinists, all attempt to defend such a position. By all means, examine their arguments and test your conscience against them, for it is noble to seek out Truth until one is convinced one has found it.

Accepting God’s absolute sovereignty isn’t easy for the individual who has read the Bible. Speaking personally, there is a conflict I experience due to feeling a great attraction to the teachings of Jesus, yet also knowing that because we don’t have free will, many central Christian doctrines don’t make sense. This tension, this conflict, is the troubling aspect of understanding God’s absolute sovereignty. It is terrifying to call into question Christian doctrine due to the sheer power of the words of Jesus, who described Himself as “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), not to mention the fearful prospect of God’s supposed wrath against unbelievers (see this article for the relevant scriptures).

There is a conflict. It’s unavoidable. Some days I feel more drawn to faith in Jesus and other days I feel more convinced that Christianity doesn’t make sense. On the one hand, I know that we do not have free will, but on the other hand, I find I cannot abandon the Christian Scriptures. To emphasise God’s sovereignty is comforting in one way, but troubling in another way, and to emphasise the Christian gospel is comforting in one way, but troubling in another way. This is the persistent dilemma I face.

Having felt this tension for quite a few years, I am starting to believe it cannot be resolved. There is no longer much point in arguing about it. The arguments on both sides of the debate are clear to me, and I have explored and discussed them to the point of exhaustion.

I continue to pray about the predicament, however, begging God for mercy in relation to it. I know for certain that God is all-powerful and has the ability to inflict terrible suffering on us all, if He wills to do so. I have prayed hard and repeatedly for God to ground me in the Truth, whatever it is, and to enlighten me if there’s something I’m misunderstanding. But the tension persists.

The only way in which I have been able to find some solace in relation to this predicament is by considering how irrational it would be for God to punish human beings for things they have done, when God has been entirely in control of everything they have ever done, which I am convinced is the Truth. And yet, this perspective calls into question the Gospel, and we are back to the same predicament all over again.

I think that the impossibility of resolving this dilemma is perhaps a key reason why Christianity has had such an enduring impact on humankind over the last two thousand years. There is a kind of power in the uncertainty — while theological problems persist, we will always feel we must grapple with them, and if they cannot be resolved, then they will continue to be discussed, because the desire to find peace of mind and security is something human beings always seem to feel.

The fundamentalist Christian might see the predicament as very black and white — you’re either with Jesus or you’re against him. The more liberal Christian may emphasise God’s love over God’s desire to punish, and therefore feel drawn towards Universalism — the idea that all human beings will eventually be ‘saved’.

To be clear, the debate in question is not between divine sovereignty and human free will — I have satisfactorily resolved that one. The debate is between God’s absolute sovereignty and the truth of the Christian gospel, which is a much harder problem to resolve.

I always find it disconcerting when a person comes down hard on one side of this debate at the expense of the other, because there is clearly a logic behind both viewpoints. To ‘pick a side’ in the debate is to cause conflict — those theologians who define themselves in relation to one or the other viewpoint are necessarily denying some aspect of Truth, and this must be a struggle that weighs heavily on their conscience.

Personally, I don’t wish to be one of those people who comes down on one side of the debate at the expense of the other. To do so would be an act of hostility towards some of my fellow human beings, and for the time being at least, I choose the grace of ambivalence over the egotism of tribalism.

How about you?


I have opened comments for this post, but if you do wish to comment, please do so in a kind and respectful way. I am planning to post on this blog once a week from now on, every Thursday afternoon. You can subscribe if you’d like to receive email notifications for new posts. Thank you for reading!

12 comments

  1. Hi Steven! Thanks for continuing to share your spiritual journey and difficulty related to God’s sovereignty and the Bible. You are a very good writer, and I enjoy reading your posts. I noticed that you did not release one of the comments I made on your recent post about your father. I hope that you did not feel that my question was rude. Your post was very well-written and deeply moving. However, it did seem to contradict your position on God’s sovereignty. I still have the same question for you: If God controls all of our actions, then why is your father morally accountable for saying awful things about your mother? Wouldn’t it be God who is responsible? Why credit your father with wrongdoing at all? Again, I’m not trying to be rude or difficult, I’m just trying to see how that post aligns with your view of God’s sovereignty. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Rebekah,

      Thank you for your question. I assure you that in the past, and again today, I have thought through the question you ask, and I understand the answer to the question to my satisfaction. I’ll give you a brief explanation of how I see things, and if you want further elaboration I recommend reading God’s Grand Game.

      I describe reality as God’s grand game because I believe God is unfolding a plan for the entirety of creation by His sovereign will. In the ‘human dimension’ we sometimes have the illusion of free will, but this is just what I call a ‘mode of mind’ under God’s control.

      The primary cause of every human action is God. So I don’t hold my father morally accountable for anything. I believe that everything he has ever done has been by God’s will. God still gives me certain modes of mind when I might feel certain thoughts and feelings related to my father, but these are just part of the game of life and are controlled by God.

      In the human dimension, the ‘play’ is unfolding, and we often feel we are free. So we have our relationships with all their difficulties and conflicts. But in the dimension of ultimate reality, we are merely puppets of God’s sovereign will.

      It’s very liberating for me to be able to hold no hard feelings against my father, and while I may participate in the ‘play’ at times, I certainly believe my father has never done anything freely, and I genuinely have no hard feelings towards him. It is understanding God’s absolute sovereignty that has allowed me to feel liberated and to forgive my father in this way.

      I’m sorry I didn’t approve your previous comment, I’ve had some bad experiences with commenters and therefore I can sometimes be quite strict in relation to what I approve and what I don’t.

      Love and blessings to you Rebekah, and sorry for any hard feelings.

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Steven! Thanks for your explanation. I understand your perspective now. There were never any hard feelings from my side, I was only concerned about the possibility that I had offended you. Thanks for your kind response. Love and blessings to you too!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Ahh, thank you Rebekah for your graciousness. Glad there are no hard feelings. Apologies, once again for not approving your comment, I can be quite overprotective and get easily upset. God only knows why. Have a wonderful day 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been tracking your blog posts for a while and wanted to add a couple of thoughts. One, I appreciate your willingness to test your faith. The way you seek the truth from God is encouraging to my own faith in God. Secondly, I empathize with your tension. If there is something I have learned from my few years of being a Christian, it is that following Christ means living in a world of tensions. In the end, as you mentioned, the power of Christianity comes from the uncertainty that arises from our inability to generate solutions that resolve our tensions. Because this is true, I run to Jesus again and again knowing that answers will never satisfy me in a way Jesus can.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hello friend,

      Thank you for your comment and for taking an interest in my blog posts, it’s much appreciated!

      I think I understand where you’re coming from, and it makes perfect sense.

      I wish you well, and hope you’ll stick around and comment in the future 🙂

      God bless you!

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good morning, I just finished reading your book, God’s Grand Game. It was a very good read. It is clear that you are convinced that god’s sovereignty and free will are incompatible. I question, however, your definition of Omni presence as it pertains to god’s being. God’s being is essentially spirit. God’s spirit can be everywhere yet be separate from the physical world. For the entire physical world to be a part of god’s being, there is a lot of inconsistency within the person of God.

    please see my post, https://eternityinview.com/2020/05/29/omnipresence-and-free-will/

    I enjoy reading your writing. You give me a lot to think about. I hope that God will clear up some of the confusion that you wrestle with.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Tim,

      It blesses me so much that you took the time to read my book and enjoyed it. Thank you so much!

      As you’ve read the book, I don’t really feel the need to repeat my arguments in depth here — a lot of thought went into the book and my arguments are probably better expressed there than I could do here.

      I enjoyed reading your omnipresence and free will article, thank you for sharing. But yes, our area of disagreement may well be in our different understanding of the ontology of God, and specifically His omnipresence.

      I agree with your suggestion that God is essentially spirit, but I would argue there aren’t limitations to that spirit, and that it does indeed penetrate the physical, which is just the being of God manifesting in a different kind of expression. I think I give the example in the book of God beating my heart. I believe God’s presence would need to be inside my physical body in order to do that. Also, I am unhappy drawing a distinction between the God and the ‘not God’, as I think this limits God is certain ways that do not accord with my understanding of His sovereignty over all events.

      However, I very much respect your views and your passion for Christianity. Hope to chat more some time.

      God bless you!

      Best wishes,

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Steven! I love reading your posts!! Your thoughts make my brain hurt but in a good way. I love being challenged to explain why I believe the things I believe and try to back it with verses from the Bible. Thank you for your excellent thought-provoking posts! I did find one verse that I found interesting and it’s this one: “For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will.” (2 Corinthians‬ ‭8:3‬ ‭NLT‬‬) I could maybe argue that as you say, God is sovereign and God’s word is deliberate. So seeing this verse in the New Testament (and comparing with different versions) – it seems like this shows that people can make a decision of their own free will. Might be a bit of a simplistic argument…. and yet, there it is! I like to think of God as a perfect parent or a shepherd. Obviously God is the one in control, he takes care of his babies/children or sheep but he doesn’t control every move they make, the mistakes, the bad things they put in their mouths, when they fall into a hole and twist their ankles… etc. He might say, hey watch out for that puddle, but if the child or sheep goes into the puddle, he just picks them back up, cleans them up and hopes that they learned their lesson. Does this make sense?

    So rather than a puppet-master who holds all the strings, God knows we’re going to fall into the puddle (of our own stupid free will), but hopes that when we do, we will call to him for help. Some will always decide to do things on their own. They will never accept that the shepherd exists, but then they miss out on a lot of love and maybe the occasional treats. Same like when you’re training a puppy. You’re the master and you have to teach the dog how to walk with a collar and a leash on, but most of the time, you allow the puppy some room to explore on his own and even let him off-leash to run around, even if there’s a chance he might run away or get sprayed by a skunk… Ok definitely going off on a tangent now so I’ll wrap it up, haha – sorry about that!!

    I want to thank you again for using your talent and sharing with your readers! I think I would be interested in reading your book! Is it available for purchase online?

    All the best xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hiya Steph,

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting.

      I understand that when first encountered, the description of God as a puppet master can be hard for Christians to relate to, so I respect your reluctance to embrace the idea. However, all of the issues you’ve mentioned in your comment are very much at the heart of God’s Grand Game, and I hope you do get an opportunity to read the book and let me know what you think.

      You can see all my books on the books page, which has links to pages where all the various retailers are listed, if you’re interested.

      God bless you and thanks again!

      Steven xx

      P.S. So sorry if my post gave you a headache, I take responsibility for that and it’s not my intention! I don’t enjoy reading philosophy when it’s obscure and hard to understand, so I try to make an effort to explain everything clearly and simply. The thing is, some of the people who read the blog have been reading my posts for years, while others are new to it. So my posts have to appreciate both audiences, which is tricky! Anyway, thanks again Steph! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for replying and no need to apologize, my dear! It was a compliment for you; that you caused me to reflect! Your posts are always written in a clear way and even though I’m a new subscriber to your blog, I find myself looking forward to reading your next entry 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s