A Biblical Look at Volition

Volition is something we possess, which enables us to act. That is, we have a will, and we exercise our will. Throughout this article I will use the terms volition and will interchangeably. Chafer states, “Will is that faculty in a rational, conscious being by which he has power to choose a course of action and continue in it.”[1] The will can be moved by reason (correct or faulty), affections, circumstances, or the coercion of others. Though there are various influences on the will, Christians are at their best when the will is governed by divine viewpoint. In this way, God’s truth takes priority over desires, which can vacillate between right and wrong.

Biblically, there are three categories of volition in existence: 1) God’s volition (Isa 46:8-11; cf. Gen 1:1-31), 2) angelic volition (Psa 103:20), and 3) human volition (Gen 1:26-28). God’s volition is sovereign, eternal, and absolute. God’s will is mentioned several times in the Old Testament by the use of the Hebrew word אָבָה abah (Deut 10:10; 23:5; 2 Ch 21:7), which means “to will, [or] be willing.”[2] In other passages, the Hebrew word רָצוֹן ratson is used (Psa 40:8; 143:10), which refers to “what pleases the Lord.”[3] Some passages in the New Testament specifically mention God’s will, where the Greek term θέλημα thelema is employed (i.e., Rom 12:2; Eph 6:5-6, Col 4:12; 1 Th 4:3; 5:16-18; Heb 10:36; 1 Pet 2:15; 4:19). God’s will in each of these New Testament passages refers to “what one wishes to happen.”[4] This speaks of what God desires from people. Other passages use the Greek word βούλομαι boulomai (Matt 11:27; Jam 1:18; 2 Pet 3:9), which denotes a “desire to have or experience something, with implication of planning accordingly.”[5] The latter term sometimes refers to what God brings to pass, such as when James writes, “In the exercise of His will [βούλομαι boulomai] He brought us forth by the word of truth” (Jam 1:18a). But sometimes it refers to what God wants, but makes contingent upon a human response of faith, such as when Peter writes that the Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing [βούλομαι boulomai] for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Context always determines the meaning of a word.

The Bible also reveals that “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). However, they are possible only to the degree that they operate in concert with His other divine attributes, as God cannot cease to be God, or be holy, just, gracious, or loving. His will is governed by His nature, for He cannot act contrary to His other attributes, nor can He will anything contrary to His promises. Because God has integrity, He “cannot lie” (Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18), as He is bound to keep His Word. Those who live by faith know this about God, and it greatly encourages them.

But there are other wills at work in God’s universe. By means of His sovereignty, God created intelligent and moral beings—angels and people—with the ability to obey or resist His directive will. It must always be remembered that God is no bully and He never forces us to act one way or another. However, He is also not to be defeated, and if some choose to act contrary to His sovereign will, then He may restrain them from acting (Gen 11:8-9; 20:6; 31:7). Theologically, God’s will can be classified as His 1) sovereign will, 2) directive will, 3) permissive will, 4) overruling will, and 5) providential will. I addressed these in another article on Knowing and Doing the Will of God.

Angelic and Human Wills

God created angels with finite features similar to Himself. God exists, thinks, feels, and acts, and He created angels with similar personal features. Ryrie states, “Commonly, the essential facets of personality are considered to involve intelligence, emotions, and will. Angels then qualify as personalities because they have these aspects of intelligence, emotions, and will. This is true of both the good and evil angels.”[6] As volitional beings, God created all angels with the ability to obey or disobey Him. Though God created all angels as holy, there was a time—millennia ago—when there was an angelic revolt in heaven in which an angel named Lucifer—of the class of cherubim—said, five times, “I will” (Isa 14:12-14), and what he willed was open revolt against the Lord of the universe. Lucifer was partially successful, as he convinced a third of the angels to exercise their volition against God, which caused a bifurcation in the angelic realm (Matt 25:41; Rev 12:7).[7] The other two thirds of the angels, being wise in their estimation of what was happening, exercised their volition to stay with God, and these continue as holy angels to do His will (Matt 16:27; 26:53; 1 Tim 5:21; Heb 1:14).

Image of GodAs humans, volition is a feature of our humanity, given to us by God who made us in His image (imago Dei). The image of God consists of mental, moral, and volitional capabilities that were originally given to Adam and Eve to enable them to walk in relationship with their Creator and to function as His theocratic administrators within the world He designed (Gen 1:27-28; 9:6). God imputed to Adam and Eve a vocabulary bank that enabled them to understand Him, each other, and the world around them. Erickson states, “The image refers to the elements in the human makeup that enable the fulfillment of human destiny. The image involves the powers of personality that make humans, like God, beings capable of interacting with other persons, of thinking and reflecting, and of willing freely.”[8] The image of God is what sets us apart from the rest of creation and makes us special. God gave us our wills and directs us to obey. Prior to their fall, Adam and Eve were completely free to know and walk with God. However, at a point in time, Satan tempted and persuaded Adam and Eve to disobey God, and this brought sin and death into the creation (Gen 3:1-8; Rom 5:12; 8:20-22), with the result that every person is born with a sinful nature and proclivity to sin (Jer 17:9; Matt 7:11; Rom 7:18-21; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 2:1-3).

Whatever the actions of intelligent and willful creatures, God’s sovereignty is never threatened, nor His eternal plans for angels and humans ever in jeopardy of failure. Though God permits angels and people to exercise their will contrary to His directive will, He also restrains them when needed. What is implied from the biblical record is that since the time of the angelic revolt, the wills of angels and demons are fixed, bent on obeying or disobeying the Lord, and this into the eternal state. There is no record of salvation for fallen angels, nor of the possibility of holy angels engaging in a new revolt. All is fixed in the angelic realm. Such a static state shall eventually be the experience of all people when God creates the new heavens and earth. Until then, people are either positive or negative to God. Also, God is by no means neutral or silent, but seeks to influence us to act as He desires, and He stands as Judge over us, to bless us when we obey and to discipline when we don’t.

The Human Mind and Will

The human will is the command center of our soul that directs our life. God intends the mind and will to work together, like a hand in a glove. The human will operates optimally when governed by a mind saturated with divine viewpoint. Of course, having divine wisdom is no guarantee we’ll live by it, for “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (Jam 4:17; cf. Jam 1:22). However, because we are fallen (Gen 6:5; 8:21; Jer 17:9; Rom 7:21), and live in a world currently governed by Satan (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 John 5:19), there are sinful influences on our will that seek to enslave and control us; forces such as Satan (1 Pet 5:8), demons (Eph 6:12), sinful desires (Eph 2:3), other people (1 Cor 15:33), and a satanic world-system (1 John 2:15-16).

And we face constant temptations. However, temptation is not sin, but the enticement or pressure to act contrary to God’s will (Jam 1:14-15). Volition brings forth sin when we say “yes” to temptation. Volition also brings forth righteousness when we say “yes” to God by learning and living His Word (Rom 6:11-14). Volition tends the gate of our soul, determining what enters, its level of activity once inside, and the duration of its stay. For the most part, we determine what we let into our stream of consciousness. Sometimes—without our being fully aware—we accept antithetical beliefs, which result in cognitive dissonance and fragmentation. The rational mind will recognize incompatible thoughts and seek correction by means of purging aberrant thoughts that cause trouble. Of course, this assumes a standard by which to evaluate our thoughts and values. For the Christian, the Bible is God’s special revelation to us to help us understand truths and realities we could not obtain by any other means. For those who lack spiritual objectivity by means rational biblical thought, their volition is controlled by faulty human viewpoint, other people, vacillating emotions, or circumstances. These are useful idiots, both to Satan and human leaders who operate in his world-system.

In the dispensation of the Church age, unbelievers are constantly under the convicting ministry of God the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), Who seeks to convince them of one all important truth, that Jesus is the only Savior (John 3:18; Acts 4:12). Those with positive volition will accept Christ as Savior, and this as a revelation from God the Father (Matt 16:15-17; Luke 24:44-45; Acts 16:14).

Four Categories of Positive and Negative Volition

In Scripture, there are four categories of positive and negative volition. First, there are some who are positive to God and His gospel and advance to spiritual maturity by learning and living Scripture and staying the course until the end of their life (i.e., David & Paul – 1 Ki 15:5; 2 Tim 4:7-8). These are not sinless believers; but rather, those who handle their sin in a biblical manner (1 John 1:9). Second, there are some who are positive to God and His gospel, but then turn negative to God’s Word, preferring to follow Satan’s world-system (1 Ki 11:1-10; 1 Tim 1:19-20; 6:10). These believers will fail to have a positive influence on others because of external pressure from a satanic hostile environment (John 12:42-43; 19:38). Third, there are some who are negative to God and His gospel, but are favorable to the Bible as a moral system by which they seek to live their lives (i.e., following the Ten Commandments; Luke 18:18-27). These also engage in performing good deeds such as feeding the hungry, helping widows and orphans, and housing the homeless. However, such acts are performed as a means of trying to earn salvation, or to receive praise from others (Matt 6:1-2), both of which originate from sinful pride. Fourth, there are some who are negative to God and His gospel and who vigorously pursue Satan’s world-system and are hostile toward believers who are advancing toward spiritual maturity (John 8:47; Acts 7:51-58; 1 John 4:6). These suppress God’s truth (Rom 1:18). Of those who are negative to God, three times it is written that He “gave them over” to “the lusts of their hearts” (Rom 1:24), and “to degrading passions” (Rom 1:26), and “to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Once God permits a person to operate by his sinful passions, he is given a measure of freedom to live as he wants, but not without consequence.

Humble believers with positive volition operate in submission to God. Scripture tells us to “Submit to God” (Jam 4:7), and “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1). Submission means a will surrendered to the will of another. Being in submission to God is a sign of positive volition that we’ve prioritized our relationship with Him above all else, and that we trust Him to guide and provide in all things. Like a good friend, He is naturally in our thoughts, and we live every day conscious of Him, being sensitive to what may offend, and making every effort to please Him through a life of faith. When we yield to God, His Word opens up to us, as Jesus said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17; cf. Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14; 1 John 5:20).

BibleGod has blessed us with His written revelation, which informs us about matters we could never know, except that He has spoken, and it has been recorded in Scripture. Furthermore, as Christians, we have the Holy Spirit Who illumines us to know God’s Word and empowers us to live righteously. Chafer states, “Man’s highest end is realized when he conforms to God’s will. Even Christ came not to do His own will, but only the will of the Father. There is nothing higher for man than to find and do the will of God. Heaven always has a specific purpose for the bringing of each person into the world, and that purpose comprehends every moment of life.”[9]

Negative volition is an aspect of the Christian doctrine of total depravity. Depravity is a divine estimation of what God sees in us, not what we see in ourselves or in others. Chafer states, “Theologians employ the phrase total depravity, which does not mean that there is nothing good in any unregenerate person as seen by himself or by other people; it means that there is nothing in fallen man which God can find pleasure in or accept.”[10] Sin permeates all aspects of our being: mind, will, and desires. We are tainted throughout. Not only does sin darken the intellect, but it motivates our volition to hide from God and to expel Him from our lives.

When one turns away from God, sin will naturally gain more and more territory, much like the darkness that grows ever darker after the sun has set. A key characteristic of negative volition is to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). The one who pursues this course tends to go in one of two directions. The first denies God’s existence, as he repeatedly tells himself, “There is no God” (Psa 10:4). This is the fool. And he is a fool by choice, never by chance. The fool is not necessarily one who lacks reason, but who reasons wrongly, operating from faulty presuppositions. And the second person with negative volition pursues religion, as he “makes a god and worships it” (Isa 44:15). For the latter, this is a god of his own imagination. He has willfully “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). And, in place of God’s wisdom, he operates by a worldly wisdom that is not “from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (Jam 3:15).

When God’s Word is dethroned from the mind of the believer, other forces will dominate for the worse. God’s desire for the Christian is to develop his/her character so that righteousness, goodness, grace, and love flow easily and with continuity of expression. If the character is good then the behavior will be good, for it follows that a person with an honest character will easily and consistently behave in an honest manner, and a person with a loving character will easily and consistently behave in a loving manner. But good character does not automatically occur in the life of the Christian, nor does it happen overnight; rather, it matures over a lifetime as we make many good choices to walk in step with God and let His good Word transform us from the inside out. But we should be aware that it is possible to abuse our liberty and make bad choices with the result that we weaken the will and forfeit our freedoms (the alcoholic or drug addict knows this to be true). Not only that, but bad choices and abuses of freedom bring harm to others within our periphery; for this reason, Scripture states, “You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).

Unbelievers who love their moral depravity will naturally stand against those who are children of God and who love righteousness. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). And the beloved apostle John wrote, “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Those who set their wills against God will not listen to God’s message; however, they will listen to false teachers. And concerning those false teachers, the apostle John states, “They are from the world; therefore, they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5). That is, there are those who operate from presuppositions and values that are cosmocentric, which exclude or pervert serious consideration and discussion about God, refusing to give Him any say over their lives.

Every person confronted with Jesus is either positive or negative to Him. Those who are positive accept Him, and those who are negative reject Him. The human heart is corrupt, and naturally defaults to a negative setting. Though we are not neutral and try to persuade people to believe the gospel (John 3:16; 20:31; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor 15:3-4; Eph 2:8-9), each person must choose to accept or reject the offer. Those who believe in Jesus will spend forever in heaven (John 10:28; 14:1-4). And believers who pursue righteousness will be rewarded in eternity (1 Cor 3:10-15). Those who reject Jesus as Savior are free to do so (John 3:18). But actions have consequences, and they will forever be separated from God in the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:11-15). Such a future is avoidable for the one who turns to Christ as Savior and believes in Him (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 16:31).

The person who operates by negative volition, whether consciously or unconsciously, aligns himself with Satan and his forces. Negative volition leads to idolatry, and idolatry leads to immorality (Rom 1:18-32), both individually and nationally. The worship of idols is the worship of demons (Lev 17:7; Deut 32:17; 1 Cor 10:19-21). Demons generally led the pagan nations into idolatry, which God’s people were not to practice (Deut 18:9-14). However, when God’s people mingled with them, they learned their idolatrous practices (1 Ki 11:1-8), and even created their own idols (1 Ki 12:26-33), which eventuated in human sacrifice (2 Ki 17:7-23; Psa 106:35-38; cf. 2 Ki 16:1-4; 21:1-9; Jer 32:30-35; Ezek 16:20-21; 20:31; 23:37).

The Battles We Face

As Christians, we should realize our primary battle is spiritual and not physical (Eph 6:12). Our responsibility is to keep ourselves unstained by the world (2 Cor 6:14-18; Jam 1:27), to pray for our enemies (Matt 5:44), and witness for Christ that others might believe the gospel and be saved (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor 15:3-4; Eph 2:8-9). The Bible is our sword by which we destroy spiritual and intellectual strongholds, within ourselves and others (2 Cor 10:3-5). The Christian is to get along with others, showing tolerance (Rom 12:17-18), except when it comes to something that harms our walk with God, and then we must stand firm (Rom 13:13-14; 1 John 2:15-17). At times God will give us the ear of a human ruler (Dan 3:16-18; Acts 4:19-20; 5:28-29; 26:1-29), and we must take that opportunity to speak God’s truth and pray He moves the heart of the hearer. As national citizens we should vote for leaders that promote laws consistent with God’s values (i.e., freedom, law and order, life in the womb, etc.). Just laws will align with regenerate and humble hearts. And we should always pray for our leaders (1 Tim 2:1-2), strive to be upstanding citizens (Rom 13:1-7; Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13-14), help the needy in our communities (Acts 20:35; 1 Thess. 5:14), and above all, share the gospel and preach God’s Word (John 3:16; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 4:1-2).

As Christians, we are called to let our light shine in this world. Paul informs us we “were formerly darkness, but now [we] are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light” (Eph 5:8). This is a daily choice we make. And Paul tells us, “The fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:9-10). This is part of our calling, and it starts by learning God’s Word and then living His will. But know this: When we live and speak God’s Word, not everyone will want to hear it, and even though we may not agree with their choice, it should be respected (Matt 10:14; Acts 13:50-51). We should never try to force the gospel or biblical teaching on anyone, but be willing to share as opportunity presents itself.

At times this sharing will bring peace, and other times cause disruption and may even offend. In this interaction, the growing Christian must be careful not to fall into the exclusion trap, in which the worldly-minded person (whether saved or lost) controls the content of every conversation, demanding the Christian only talk about worldly issues, as Scripture threatens his pagan presuppositions. Having the biblical worldview, the Christian should insert himself into daily conversations with others, and in so doing, be a light in a dark place. He should always be respectful, conversational, and never have a fist-in-your-face attitude, as arrogance never helps advance biblical truth (2 Tim 2:24-26). The worldly-minded person may not want to hear what the Christian has to say, but he should never be under the false impression that he has the right to quiet the Christian and thereby exclude him from the conversation.

Christ-on-the-crossLastly, as we grow spiritually and walk with God, learning and living His Word (2 Tim 2:15; 3:16-17), we stand in opposition to Satan’s world-system and sow the seeds of spiritual insurrection in the lives of those who live and walk in his kingdom of darkness. We disrupt Satan’s kingdom when we share the gospel, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). When anyone places their faith in Christ, trusting solely in Him as Savior, they are forgiven all their sins (Eph 1:7), gifted with eternal life (John 3:16; 10:28), and given the gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17; cf., Rom 4:1-5; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). And they are liberated from Satan’s enslaving power, as God rescues them from the “domain of darkness” and transfers them into “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13). The gospel is the only way a person can be delivered from spiritual slavery; “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Once saved, we seek to influence the thoughts and lives of other Christians through fellowship (Heb 10:23-25), prayer (Jam 5:16), edification (Eph 4:29), encouragement (1 Thess 5:11), love (1 Thess 4:9; cf. Eph 4:14-15), words of grace (Col 4:6), and consistent biblical teaching (2 Tim 4:1-2). As Christians, we are responsible for output, not outcomes. We control the biblical content of our thoughts, words, and actions, but the response of those who hear and see is between them and the Lord.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 309.

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 788.

[3] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1282.

[4] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 447.

[5] Ibid., 182.

[6] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 143.

[7] After his fall, Lucifer became known as Satan (Matt 4:10), the evil one (1 John 5:19), the tempter (1 Th 3:5), the devil (Matt 4:1), the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10), the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2), the serpent (Rev 12:9), and the great red dragon (Rev 12:3).

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 470–471.

[9] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 309.

[10] Ibid., 118–119.

The Sovereignty and Providence of God

As humans, we instinctively develop a mental model of the world that helps us make sense of how and why it operates the way it does (socially, culturally, politically, economically, etc.). This starts in the earliest years of childhood and, for most people, continues well into adulthood. As we grow, we’re confronted with new and complex experiences that challenge us to modify our mental framework to accommodate life’s many nuances. This constant adaptation is necessary in order to adjust and move forward. Though there is much in our understanding that needs to be developed, we also need certain unchanging absolutes to provide an anchor; otherwise, we’re constantly adrift in a sea of opinion. God and His Word provide those unchanging absolutes. Furthermore, as we study God’s Word and live by faith, we develop godly character, live productive lives, and develop a personal sense of destiny derived from our relationship with the One who has called us into Christian service. For the Christian, there is no greater honor, no higher calling, no greater purpose one can attain, than that lived by God’s children who walk daily with their Father, the King. Being part of His royal family instills in us a noble mind which demands we live by the biblical virtues expected of those who are brothers and sisters to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Much of this starts when we understand that our God is the sovereign Ruler of His universe, and that we are blessed to know and walk with Him, trusting the affairs of this life are under His control. In this article, I’ll focus specifically on what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty and how He governs providentially. My hope is that this knowledge will provide mental stability in a world that can, at times, seem chaotic.

Sovereignty of God     The Bible teaches God is sovereign over His creation. He made it and He’s managing it; even though it’s not operating according to His original design. Obviously, God permits sin; and here one must distinguish between His directive-will, permissive-will, and overruling-will.[1] Though God grants His creatures a modicum of freedom to resist His will, it should always be kept in mind that the sinfulness of fallen angels or people never threatens His sovereignty. Furthermore, God is never surprised, baffled, or frustrated by sin. According to God’s directive-will, He calls and empowers His people to live holy lives, separate from sin. In this way we are to partner with Him and help promote His solutions to this fallen world. Concerning God’s sovereignty, Louis Berkhof writes, “He is clothed with absolute authority over the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. He upholds all things with His almighty power, and determines the ends which they are destined to serve. He rules as King in the most absolute sense of the word, and all things are dependent on Him and subservient to Him.”[2]

Though God is sovereign, He does not rule arbitrarily, but in accordance with His other attributes such as righteousness, holiness, love, mercy, and grace. As believers, we are encouraged that God is in sovereign control, for even though we experience sin, chaos, and evil (sometimes our own), we know He is directing history toward the return of Christ and His millennial kingdom, which is followed by the glorious eternal state.

The Bible reveals “The LORD is King forever and ever” (Psa 10:16a). The “LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psa 103:19), and He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11b). God is supreme over all His creation, for “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psa 135:6), and “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?’” (Dan 4:35). But God is no tyrant, rather, He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7a). He is also holy and righteous, and “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exo 34:7b).[3] For “those who turn aside to their crooked ways, the LORD will lead them away with the doers of iniquity” (Psa 125:5).

God is under no external restraint whatsoever. He is the Supreme Dispenser of all events. All forms of existence are within the scope of His dominion. And yet this is not to be viewed in any such way as to abridge the reality of the moral freedom of God’s responsible creatures or to make men anything else than the arbiters of their own eternal destinies. God has seen fit to create beings with the power of choice between good and evil. He rules over them in justice and wisdom and grace.[4]

From Genesis to Revelation, God governs the lives of people and nations. Human rulers exist because of His plan, for “It is He who changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding” (Dan 2:21). And people live and die as God decides, for “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6; cf. Acts 17:28). God has power over wealth and poverty, for “The LORD makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts” (1 Sam 2:7). And He controls when and where people live in history, for “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). In addition to this, Scripture reveals God controls nature (Jon 1:4; Mark 4:39-41), plagues (Ex 11:1; Rev 16:10-11), famines (Gen 41:25-32), the roll of dice (Pro 16:33), blessing and adversity (Job 2:10; Isa 45:7), suffering (Job 1:1-21), divine calling (Jer 1:4-5; Gal 1:15) and the development of Christian character (Rom 5:2-5; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Jam 1:2-4).

Lastly, God allows fallen angels and humans to produce sin and evil, but they never act beyond or against His sovereign will (Job 1:1-21; Psa 105:12-15; 1 Ki 22:19-23; 2 Cor 12:7-10). God gives freedom to his creatures, both angelic and human, and this to varying degrees. We are free to act, but only within the spheres of opportunity He creates and controls. For example, when Jesus was on trial, Pilate told Him, “I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You” (John 19:10). But Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Pilate had opportunity and authority to crucify Jesus, but only because heaven granted it to him. Ultimately, Pilate’s actions served the Father’s greater purpose of bringing His Son to the cross.

God’s Providential Control

God’s providence refers to His continual care over the creation He brought into existence. God continues to create and control circumstances in order to direct history according to His predetermined plan, all for His glory and the benefit of His people. People live in the flow of history, and are moved by the circumstances God controls. J. I. Packer offers this understanding of God’s providence:

Providence is normally defined in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill (Psa 145:9 cf. Mt 5:45–48), he upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psa 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Gen 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Eph 1:9–12). This view of God’s relation to the world must be distinguished from: (a) pantheism, which absorbs the world into God; (b) deism, which cuts it off from him; (c) dualism, which divides control of it between God and another power; (d)indeterminism, which holds that it is under no control at all; (e) determinism, which posits a control of a kind that destroys man’s moral responsibility; (f) the doctrine of chance, which denies the controlling power to be rational; and (g) the doctrine of fate, which denies it to be benevolent.[5]

God is holy and He never creates evil, however, He can and does control those who do. Satan, and those who follow him (both fallen angels and people), are ultimately under God’s sovereign control, and even their evil plans and actions are used for His good purposes. For example, Joseph was mistreated by his brothers and sold into slavery and taken to Egypt where he suffered greatly. Yet, later in his life, Joseph interpreted their behavior from the divine perspective, telling his brothers, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). And Joseph repeated himself a second time, saying, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:7-8a). And later, he told them a third time, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20). It was God’s providence that drove Saul to chase after his father’s donkeys, and then be led to the prophet Samuel and anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 9-10). It was God’s providence that directed Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, so the baby Jesus would be born at the appointed time and place (Mic 5:2; Luke 2:4-6; Gal 4:4). Later, Joseph and Mary were compelled to go to Egypt, in order to preserve the baby Savior (Matt 2:13-15). It was God’s providence that forced Aquila and Priscilla out of Rome by the emperor Claudius’ decree, only to meet the apostle Paul in Corinth and join him in Christian ministry (Acts 18:1-3; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19). It was God’s providence that put the Lord Jesus on the cross to be crucified by the hands of godless men. Peter, charging Israelites in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’s death, said, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). And after being persecuted by the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter and John, along with others, said to God, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). In these verses we see people behaving sinfully, whether Joseph’s brothers, or human rulers who abuse their power; yet God used their sinful choices to bring about a greater good. Because God is righteous, all His actions are just. Because He is loving and good, He directs all things for the benefit of His people. The wicked are also under God’s sovereign control, and He uses them for His own ends (Pro 16:4). Evil has entered God’s universe, but it never threatens His holy purposes.

In summary, Scripture reveals God’s sovereignty and how He governs His universe, creating and controlling circumstances, and directing the lives of His people, allowing them to partner with Him to accomplish His good in the world. By learning about God’s sovereignty and studying His past providential acts, believers can create a rational filter through which circumstances can be interpreted and classified within a mental framework. The growing believer takes great delight in knowing God is good, loving, wise, and in control of His creation and is directing all things according to His sovereign plan. Those who are positive to God and operate from the divine perspective know that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] God’s directive-will refers to His actively directing us to do what He expects. For the Christian, God’s directive-will is found in Scripture. His permissive-will refers to what He permits us to do, either for or against His directive-will. All sin falls under this category, for He permits us to resist His directive-will in some instances. This is also true for fallen angels who are granted a measure of freedom to sin. God’s overruling-will refers to those occasions when He hinders us from sinning, or from sinning further, because His greater purposes take priority. The fall of Adam and Eve provide a good example of these categories, for God directed them not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-19), permitted them to disobey (Gen 3:1-7), and then drove them from the Garden of Eden, overruling their ability to go back in and eat from the tree of life (Gen 3:22-24).

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 76.

[3] The judgment that God brings upon “the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” refers to those generations who follow in the path of their parents, who hate God and continue the pattern of sin handed down to them.

[4] E. McChesney, “Sovereignty of God,” ed. Merrill F. Unger and R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[5] J. I. Packer, “Providence” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 979-80.