God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will

The will of God is an oft-discussed topic in many of the circles I’m in, and you can probably relate. What is the will of God? Does God’s will always happen? What about free will—does God’s sovereignty override our decisions?

What excellent questions.

I’m pretty certain no single writing can exhaustively cover such an expansive, nuanced, and usually paradoxical topic, and I suppose writing an exhaustive piece is not something I’m setting out to do today. Surely you can appreciate that there is much, much nuance in unpacking a theological topic as rich, deep, and complicated as God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, and that there is room for you to think one way and me to think another and yet stand arm in arm as brothers. Theologians and Christian thinkers have debated this over thousands of years—and should the Lord tarry, we may be debating this for a thousand years more. But I did want to look into a few general conversation topics that arise when the will of God is discussed. Perhaps a good place to begin is to define the will of God.

What is God’s Will?

The will of God includes everything that God desires to happen in Heaven and on earth. The Bible describes God’s will as “good, pleasing, and perfect” (Romans 12:2), so we can conclude that God desires to do good things, that His plans are winsome, and that His will is not tainted by flaws, moral ambiguity, or malice.

That God’s will is always ultimately good doesn’t mean that some ‘bad’ things aren’t part of it. As an example, the Scriptures teach us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Romans 5:3-4), meaning that God can employ suffering as a means to bring about a greater good: Christlikeness. After all, even Jesus “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). In a lighthearted modern example, a toddler cannot possibly fathom how eating broccoli could be classified as “good,” but all responsible adults know that it is.

However, there is a difference between God ordaining certain character development and, say, God ordaining a school shooting. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone consider a school shooting “good, pleasing, and perfect.” In His sovereignty, God takes what the enemy intends for evil and turns it around for good instead (Genesis 50:20) and of course He makes “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28)—but how do we understand catastrophic events, tragedies, and demonic assaults?

God’s “Will of Decree” versus His “Will of Command”

(I’m indebted to John Piper here for so cleverly expounding on this subject in his sermon “What is the Will of God and How Do We Know It?” published on August 22, 2004.)

God’s Will of Decree

The Scriptures seem to speak of two different meanings for the will of God. The first is what we’ll call God’s will of decree or His sovereign will. The idea here is that if God wants something to happen, He will divinely make it happen and nothing can stop it. For example, it was God’s will that Jesus die, as Jesus prayed, “Not My will, but Yours be done” in Matthew 26:39 (not to mention the almost countless prophecies this fulfilled in the Old Testament)—and so God meticulously orchestrated the events of history in such a way that this happened just so. No amount of Satan’s attempts would disrupt this sovereign decree: Jesus was ordained to die on the cross.

God has decreed that Christ will return a second time, and that is going to happen no matter what. Consider too the prophet Jonah: God commanded Him to preach in Nineveh, and no amount of Jonah’s running, hiding, or pouting prevented God from divinely making him go to Nineveh—even if He had to use a supernatural—and highly unorthodox—method of forcing Jonah to go.

I want to point out that it happened more than once in the Scriptures that God’s sovereign will included the sins of man. As eyebrow-raising as this might be, let’s look at Acts 4:27-28 for some evidence: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed. They did what Your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, and the Jewish religious leaders all sinned in order to bring about what God had divinely willed. There’s also that infamous Exodus narrative where God hardened the pharaoh’s heart. In fact, a whopping nine times the hardness of the pharaoh’s heart was ascribed to God (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12, 10:1,20,27, 11:10, 14:4,8)—whereas another nine times, the pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. Romans 9:17-18 says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display My power in you and that My Name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” Wow!

“He does according to His will among the host of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Daniel 4:35). And surely, “I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9-10). His sovereign will cannot be broken, but always comes to pass.

God’s Will of Command

The second meaning the Scriptures seem to use regarding God’s will is His “will of command” or His moral will. There are numerous times God lists commands within His will, but we have the ability to disobey. Take a look at what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Notice that according to Paul, God’s will is for believers to abstain from sexual immorality—but does that carry the same sovereign “it-will-absolutely-happen” tone as God’s will of decree? No, it doesn’t, because there are believers who still succumb to sexual immorality. Therefore, this is a part of God’s will that we can cause to not come to pass by our disobedience.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 reveals more of God’s will: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Does every Christian give thanks in every circumstance? Alas, no. So this doesn’t reflect God’s sovereign will, but rather His will of command, for we can break this command.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Look carefully at the words of Jesus; He explains that not everyone carries out the will of the Father. This must mean that in certain circumstances, the will of God doesn’t always happen, because people have the ability to violate His commands.

Piper offers in his sermon, “If you were badly abused as a child, and someone asks you, ‘Do you think that was the will of God?’ you now have a way to make some biblical sense out of this, and give an answer that doesn’t contradict the Bible. You may say, ‘No, it was not God’s will; because He commands that humans not be abusive, but love each other. The abuse broke His commandment and therefore moved His heart with anger and grief.”

Does God’s Will Always Happen?

After my previous point which differentiates between God’s will of decree (His sovereign will) and His will of command (His moral will), we can conclude that no, God’s will doesn’t always happen. There are ways we can violate God’s commands and sin against the ways of the Kingdom and so prevent certain aspects of the will of God from flourishing the way He intended—or even prevent God’s will from happening altogether.

2 Peter 3:9 expresses, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Did you catch it? It’s not the Lord’s will that any person perish apart from Him. And yet, we know that, sadly, many do not receive the Lord’s mercy and so perish—causing His will to not pass.

Far be it from me that the will of the Father would not come to pass on my account! May I be so in tune with the Spirit that I am fervently living in such a way so as to honestly pray, “Your will be done on the earth the way Your will is perfectly done is Heaven.”

Does God Actually Regret Some of His Choices?

There are two passages that present God as regretting something He had done, and at least 15 places in the Bible that present God as regretting, or might regret, something He would do in the future. Genesis 6:6 says that God “regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart,” and the passage then launches into the Noah narrative. The English word of Genesis 6:6 that we translate “regretted” or “repented” or “was sorry that” comes from the root Hebrew word נָחַם (nacham), which literally means to sigh, to breathe strongly, to be sorry, to pity, to console, to rue, or to avenge—but in this context, yes, it makes sense to go with the idea that God felt remorse or regret. In 1 Samuel 15:11, God says, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not performed My commandments,” and the word regret is again the root Hebrew word nacham.

Does this mean that God doesn’t have foreknowledge of events, so that He actually looks back and wishes He had done things differently? Does God simply react to life’s events and humans’ choices in real time? I emphatically propose that this isn’t the case. Not only does this contradict the Word of God (see Isaiah 46:10, 1 John 3:20, and Psalm 139:4 for starters), it is an assault on the omniscience of almighty God and His ability to strategically plan and perfectly execute. It is profoundly wrong and dishonoring to God. God knows the future like He knows all things.

So how then do we understand these passages and others that present God as regretting? Theologian John Piper explains it this way: “For God to say, ‘I feel sorrow that I made Saul king’ is not the same thing as saying, ‘I would not make him king if I had to do it over.’ Oh, yes, He would. God is able to feel sorrow for an act in view of foreknown evil—foreknown pain and sorrow and misery—and yet go ahead and do it for wise reasons. And so, later when He looks back on the act, He can feel that very sorrow for the act that He knew was leading to the sad conditions, like Saul’s disobedience” (Why Does God Regret and Repent in the Bible?, an article by John Piper).

Perhaps one way to understand such complicated verses is akin to a parent saying to his child, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” right before the child receives discipline. Yes, it is necessary for the parent to discipline an unruly child, but in a nuanced sense, it breaks the parent’s heart to do so.

If God Has Sovereign Will, Why Should I Pray?

Let’s briefly explore prayer as it relates to God’s will. A popular idea is that God’s will always happens, and therefore whatever is happening around us—earthquakes, divorces, job loss—must somehow all be in God’s will. However, this is not always true. Please reference my above points for an understanding that God’s will doesn’t always happen because in a very real sense, we humans have the ability to disobey His commands for our lives. Sin ushers in things like adultery, school shootings, sexual assault, murder, and thievery—which obviously are not “good, pleasing, and perfect” things as the will of God is (Romans 12:2).

This is part of the reason why prayer is so important.

We Are Commanded to Pray.

Again and again, believers are explicitly commanded to pray (Matthew 5:44, Matthew 6:6, Mark 13:33, Luke 6:28, Luke 18:1, Romans 12:12, Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:2, 1 Timothy 2:1, 1 Timothy 2:8, James 5:13, James 5:16, 1 Peter 4:7, and others). And I would be remiss in discussing prayer and God’s will by not mentioning 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18: “Pray without ceasing… for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Constant prayer by believers is in fact God’s will!

Our Prayers Can Release God’s Will Into Action

When asked how to pray effectively, Jesus famously made a point of including that we ought to pray for God’s will to be released; He taught, “This, then, is how you should pray… Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). Why in the world should we pray for God’s will to be done—unless there is a supernatural link between our praying God’s will, and God’s will happening?

Certainly, there must be elements of God’s will that are not contingent on our prayers or anything else, but in a concrete way, there are other elements of His will that actually require our prayers as a vehicle of sorts. Jesus says if only we ask, we will receive (Matthew 7:7), and that God is very willing to answer our prayers, as opposed to a corrupt judge denying a widow justice (Luke 18:1-8)—which also means that if we do not ask, we won’t receive. James 4:2 categorically states this: “You do not have, because you do not ask.”  Remember, some parts of God’s will don’t automatically happen; our prayers release His will into action.

Ezekiel 22:30-31 reveals a fascinating look at how the will of God works: “I (God) looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. So I will pour out My wrath on them and consume them with My fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.” God was waiting for an intercessor through which He would enact mercy and revival, but because there wasn’t one, well… you can see what happened. Look at how powerful our prayers can be in releasing God’s goodness! Do you suppose God is still looking for intercessors in every nation, which will prompt Him to pour out mercy on us?

Now, permit me a question about a well-known narrative. In Acts 12, we find that King Herod arrested and killed James. It’s a one-verse story with a bleak ending. Then Herod arrested Peter and planned to have him executed as well—but his story ended miraculously differently. “Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church” (Acts 12:5)—and what happened? God sent an angel to release Peter from the jailhouse and led him to safety. Here’s my question: would James’s outcome have been different if the church offered constant prayer on his behalf, the way they did for Peter? Could it be that prayer made the difference between these two men’s lives? The Scriptures don’t explicitly state this, and to be fair, this is only a question I have. But no one could deny that the “constant prayer offered to God for [Peter] by the church” played a critical role in Peter’s angelic deliverance.

Our Prayers Are Factored Into God’s Will

Perhaps it makes you uncomfortable to read that “our prayers release His will into action.” While I do believe that’s true, I also believe there is a cosmic sense in which God has already factored our prayers into His plan.

Ezekiel 36:36-37 records, “Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it. Thus says the Lord GOD: This also I will let the house of Israel ask Me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock.”

In this passage, when the Lord says that He will “let” the house of Israel ask Him to increase their people, arguably He doesn’t mean that He will “give permission.” In this context, it’s better to understand this as a statement of intention. The idea is that God’s will is to restore the house of Israel, so He ordained for His people to pray as such.

This really speaks to the importance of letting the Holy Spirit lead your prayer time. When He suddenly brings to your mind an issue or a person that wasn’t even on your radar, He may very well be prompting you to pray, as He intends to use your prayers as the means by which He will release His blessing, His intentions, His will over that issue or person.

Does God’s Will Override Free Will?

My answer here may upset both Calvinists and Arminians—sorry about that! When previously asked, “Does God ever override man’s free will?” I used to say, “No, never,” and then performed all sorts of theological gymnastics to try to reason away challenging Scriptures. I’m not so sure I can answer the same anymore. The goal for me is not to cram an almighty God into my neat, categorized, labeled box so that it makes sense to my finite mind; the goal for me is to “allow” God to be who He has revealed Himself to be through the Scriptures. There are several paradoxes that I simply must hold in tension. If God is a college professor, then I am a kindergartner, and I must just believe that He is who He says He is even if I can’t make heads or tails out of it. Only when I allow myself to embrace the paradox, then can I sing of it with John Newton, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”


Does God’s will override free will? I suppose at this level of my understanding of Scripture and the nature of God, I will say that sometimes, yes, God does override free will.

Free will is a beautiful gift from God, and I have spent a long time so far elaborating on the power of man’s free will when it comes to God’s will of command (see above). Humans can intentionally and unintentionally sin against God’s will. For example, adultery is not God’s will; He has forbidden it. But yet, adultery happens; it happens because humans disobey God and sin. Our sin creates all sorts of tangles and drama and sorrow, to which we cannot point and say, “Well, all this was God’s will.” No, it was our will.

I would suggest that it is not often that God overrides our free will, but an honest look at the Scriptures would tell us that God sometimes does. I’ve previously explored the Exodus saga concerning the Egyptian pharaoh (see above), but that is a clear example. Growing up, I heard routinely the analogy that the pharaoh’s heart was like clay, so when it was exposed to the “sun,” it hardened instead of melting. But the entirety of the Scriptures seem to instead present that God was divinely orchestrating a cultural phenomenon, the biggest miracle of the Old Testament, so that He would receive glory through the ages (indeed, even into the future as the Book of Revelation reveals we will still be singing that ancient ‘song of Moses’)—and that necessitated that He harden the pharaoh’s heart, so that the pharaoh would operate exactly as God planned.

What about Herod? Pilate? Acts 4:27-28 indicates what the early Church believed about those men: “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 plan had predestined to take place.” Herod and Pilate probably didn’t know they were playing a role that God had predestined them to play, but Scripture teaches us that God indeed predestined it. These men were incapable of behaving outside what God ordained.

What about Judas? Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, as Jesus explicitly said in John 17:12: “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that Name You gave Me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled,” and in John 13:18: “I am not referring to all of you (the 12 disciples); I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares My bread has lifted up his heel against Me.’” Elsewhere the Gospels say this: “For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray Him” (John 6:64), and Acts 1:16 records, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as a guide for those who arrested Jesus.” Judas was predestined by God to betray the Son so that God’s larger plan would be executed exactly so.

I will also present, though, that God’s sovereignty does not undermine human responsibility. Although Judas was doomed for destruction, he himself conceded, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4, emphasis mine).

Now, one might argue, and perhaps convincingly so, that the only instances God overrode man’s free will were the circumstances surrounding Christ’s redemption plan and its major Old Testament foreshadowing (the Exodus). So, does God override free will today? While I suppose I don’t find it likely—and if it happens, it is perhaps rare—I must concede that there is Old and New Testament precedence.


I previously mentioned that this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive piece on the will of God. I also am aware that perhaps you don’t agree with everything I’ve written. At the top I said this, but it’s worth saying again: Surely you can appreciate that there is much, much nuance in unpacking a theological topic as rich, deep, and complicated as God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, and that there is room for you to think one way and me to think another and yet stand arm in arm as brothers. Theologians and Christian thinkers have debated this over thousands of years—and should the Lord tarry, we may be debating this for a thousand years more.

But hopefully this piece has shed a bit of light and some understanding for you. Maybe I’ll write more on the will of God, as there are many components I didn’t touch here.

God’s grace to you. Let there be light, O Jesus. Let there be light.