What exactly do we mean when we say “God is in control” or “Jesus is on the throne?” Through the ages man has sought to understand the balance between free will and divine providence. Is man truly free to choose the direction of his life or does God control the actions of each individual? If God is completely sovereign, did He then create sin? If we find ourselves in painful or uncomfortable circumstances does this always indicate that God is chastising us? These are but a few of the questions that we will contemplate in this study.
Sovereignty and Providence Defined
The word “sovereignty” (from the Hebrew מלכות1 denoting royal power or dominion2) is used to describe God only once in the NASB (Psalm 103:19), yet the concept of God’s dominion over all creation is implicit throughout the canon3.
The term sovereignty conveys “the supreme authority of God”4 while providence flows naturally from it as the out-working of God’s plan for all creation. The universal providence of God is the basic assumption of all Scripture, and from a theological perspective the term denotes prearrangement more than mere foresight or foreknowledge. By and large providence can be divided into two broad categories. General providence includes the government of the entire universe. Special providence, on the other hand, “refers to God’s particular care over the life and activity of the believer.”5 It is the latter aspect that we will focus on for scope of this study.
Mankind’s attempt to interpret the practical consequences of special providence has given birth to a wide range of theories which have found expression in systematic and dogmatic theological treatises. On one end of the theological spectrum we find deism which teaches that after God created the world, he basically divorced himself from it and left man alone in the universe. 6 At the opposite pole we find determinism, the belief that each man’s actions and eternal destiny is arbitrarily controlled and predestined by God.7
Divine Providence in the Life of Abraham
The preeminent act of providence relating to Abraham can be found in the Abrahamic covenant, recorded in Gen 12:3. In an act of grace, God entered into a unilateral covenant to take Abraham to a new land, make him into a great nation, bless him, and bless all of the families of the earth through him. There was no stipulation or requirement of performance on the part of Abraham and there was nothing special about Abraham except that God graciously selected him for this unique relationship.
God also promised to be a shield to Abraham (Ge 15:1) and although he enjoyed this favored and protected status with God, Abraham occasionally had a tendency to doubt God and to fear for his life during his sojourns. In chapters 12 and 20 we find occasions of lying and manipulative behavior by Abraham in situations in which he feared that he would be killed on account of Sarah’s surpassing beauty. In each instance, rather than trusting God for deliverance, Abraham asked Sarah to say that she was his sister, rather than his wife, in order that he might live or even profit by this deceit (Ge 12:13, 20:2).
In the first situation, God intervened by striking Pharaoh and his house with plagues (Ge 12:17). Although Scripture does not indicate exactly how Pharaoh came by the knowledge that Sarah was in fact Abraham’s wife and that the plagues occurred on her account, he nevertheless released her and evidently even allowed Abraham to keep the numerous gifts that were originally bestowed upon him as something like a dowry (Ge 12:16, 12:20).
In the second instance, after being informed that Sarah was Abraham’s sister rather than his wife, Abimelech, king of Gerar took Sarah as his betrothed. This time there is no ambiguity about how the defrauded king obtained his intelligence. God came to Abimelech in a dream and pronounced judgment on him for the deed that he was about to commit. Interestingly, when Abimelech appeals to God’s justice on account of his innocent intentions, God explains “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6).
Once again God intervenes by saving Abraham from himself and Abraham is greatly enriched, it would seem, as an indirect result of his sin. The purpose for God’s intervention in both of these stories is clear. By allowing Sarah to become the wife of another man, Abraham endangered the fulfillment of the covenant. Had the covenant been bilateral, God may very well have allowed Sarah to become the wife of one of these kings and Abraham would have faded into historical irrelevance. However, the covenant was unilateral which necessitated divine intervention.
Divine Providence in the Life of Joseph
While Joseph was the second youngest son of Jacob, he was in fact the first son born to his most loved wife, Rachel. Jacob loved Joseph more than his other son’s and his favoritism was quite evident to the brothers. Joseph also was the recipient of prophetic dreams that indicated that his entire family would bow down in submission to him. Genesis 37:2 also records that Joseph brought a bad report about his brothers to his father. There is no indication that the report was false and since Jacob later sent Joseph to Shechem to check up on his brothers and the flock, it can be assumed that Joseph considered Jacob’s reports to be generally reliable (Ge 37:13 ff.).
These combined factors resulted in intense jealousy in the older brothers which ultimately drove them to conspire a murderous plot against Joseph. His life was spared by the intervention of his eldest brother, Reuben, who intended to secretly rescue him from the malevolent plan of his brothers. Reuben, however, arrives too late and Joseph is sold into slavery by the other siblings whereupon he consequently finds himself a vassal in Egypt in the house of Potiphar (Gen. 37:1-36).
God blessed Joseph while he was serving Potiphar and he became very successful. This fact combined with his comely looks attracted the romantic attention of Potiphar’s wife who attempted to seduce him. Being ultimately unable to persuade him, the wayward wife contrived a fabrication, claiming that Joseph had in fact attempted to seduce her. Potiphar believed his wife and threw Joseph into prison (Gen. 39:6-23).
Whether from sheer conjecture or oral tradition, Josephus recounts in Book 1 of The Antiquities of the Jews, that the woman actually presented Joseph with the ultimatum that he either comply with her wayward desires and receive “greater advantages”, or else suffer “revenge and hatred from her.”8 Of course, there is no record of this dialogue in Scripture, yet one may logically assume that if the actual conversation did not take place, that Joseph at least had ample opportunity to think through the probable consequences of his continued rejection of her romantic overtures. As the proverb goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (there surely must have been an ancient Hebrew equivalent).
Nevertheless, being a righteous man, Joseph shunned the prospect of fleeting pleasure and temporal gain, and chose to endure imprisonment rather than sin against God by committing adultery. This imprisonment lasted two full years, during which time God continued to bless Joseph. He also orchestrated an opportunity for Joseph to interpret dreams which ultimately led to his being freed from prison and rising to a position of great prominence in Egypt (Ge 40:1-41:57).
Interestingly, both of these narratives follow a cycle of persecution, fabrication of a cover-up plot by the persecutors, and ultimate blessing and prosperity for the persecuted. One can only imagine the thoughts that must have been running through Joseph’s mind during the periods of persecution. At times he must have felt as if the potential of his life was ruined and that his youth was squandered. Although God was with him during his imprisonment, there must have been bleak moments of fear and doubt during the two year duration.
Had it not been for divine providence, Joseph’s story would have been quite tragic. Joseph probably would have died in prison while his brothers and father likely would have succumbed to famine. However, the orchestration and interplay of these events is prodigious. God used the sin of the brothers to lead the entire family to Egypt, while he subsequently used the sin of Potiphar’s wife to bring Joseph to a position of leadership which would ensure their security and allow the group to flourish during their sojourn.
Divine Providence in the Life of Samson
Judges 14 contains a very interesting, if not perplexing, example of the sovereignty and providence of God. In direct violation of Deuteronomy 7:3, Samson asked his father and mother to get a Philistine woman for him as a wife. Although Philistine women would eventually be his undoing, Scripture clearly states that at least this initial desire for a Philistine wife was the Lord’s doing “… for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4).
We must, however balance our interpretation of this event in respect of the additional light shed on this subject in the New Testament9. James wrote, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” (James 1:13) Deductively then, one of two possibilities exist. Either Samson’s desire for a Philistine wife is directly attributable to God and ergo was not in violation of the law, or Samson’s lust originated from within, but was directed by God to this particular target.
Henry says, “It was not a thing of evil in itself for him to marry a Philistine. It was forbidden because of the danger of receiving hurt by idolaters; where there was not only no danger of that kind, but an opportunity hoped for of doing that hurt to them which would be good service to Israel, the law might well be dispense with.”10 This premise, however, seems untenable in that Deuteronomy 7:3 is a crystalline directive, “…you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons.” Moreover, we find no example in the Old Testament where God allows the law to be temporarily dispensed with for some special purpose. Henry seems to be attributing some sort of end-justifies-the-means utilitarian ethic or pragmatism to God which conflicts with what He has revealed to us regarding his character and justice (Dt 32:4, Ps 37:28, Is 30:18, Jn 5:30, et al.). Additionally, if Samson, a leader among the Israelites, were to take a wife outside of his people, others would certainly be encouraged to do so, an act of which God says, “…they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods…” (Dt 7:4).
Conversely, the story related in Judges 14:8-9 in which Samson eats the honey found in the carcass of the lion, may well be a literary foreshadowing of Samson’s inability to control his physical appetites and thus an allusion to his unbridled urge for sex. “The sweet honey foreshadows the charms of Delilah, who uses her psychological hold over Samson to destroy him. Samson can resist and defeat lions, but not honey.”11 The Philistines answered Samson’s riddle with an enigma of their own, “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” The solution to this puzzle must surely be the very feminine wiles that would ultimately result in Samson’s undoing.
If this is indeed the case, then Samson’s desire for exotic women originated purely within his flesh but was divinely directed to a Philistine target, rather than some other ethnic variety, in order that God might remove the Philistine yoke from the neck of His people. In other words, it is conceivable that God neither caused nor prevented Samson from lusting after foreign women, but providentially directed his passion to a Philistine woman rather than one of some other ethnicity in order to further His plan for the deliverance of His people.
Squaring human free will and responsibility with the sovereignty of God has always been a challenge for the finite mind of man. Over the centuries, Jewish thought seems to waver on the issue. A Jewish proverb, popular at least as far back as the 7th century B.C. states, “The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This implies the belief that God punishes children for the sins of their fathers which would mean that the child’s fate was predetermined by God. However, God speaking through both Ezekiel and Jeremiah condemns this line of thinking and declares that each man bears responsibility for his own actions (Jer 31:30, Ezek 18:4). Obviously, free will is a prerequisite for culpability or the imputation of guilt.
The Apocryphal book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus is part of the literature produced during the intertestamental period and reflects popular Jewish thought circa 170-150 B.C. A passage from this book declares, “It was he [God] who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice” (Sirach 15:14-15 NRSV).
In spite of the polemics issued by Ezekiel and Jeremiah roughly 600 years prior, the concept of children bearing punishment for the sins of their parents was persistent at the time of Christ. Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus simply replied, “It was neither that this man sinned nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed.”
While it is clear that his blindness was not the result of any action on his, or for that matter his parent’s part, it is equally clear that God sovereignly caused him to be blind in order that Jesus might have the opportunity to heal him and thereby bring glory to God.
Finally, if man were not free to choose, the exhortation to “choose life and live” in Deuteronomy 32:19 would be illogical pointless.
Does God Cause Sin?
These examples raise some very interesting questions relative to God’s interaction with mankind. Is it conceivable that God would cause man to sin in order to accomplish his purposes on earth? Is God actually the author of sin?
Through the centuries these questions have been debated by systematic and biblical theologians alike, but never more hotly than during the Reformation. John Calvin taught that “from eternity past God has determined the events of history” and based his doctrine of supralapsarianism (predestination coupled with reprobation) upon this belief.12
Conversely, once a strict Calvinist, Jacobus Arminius objected to Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and reprobation and through his Remonstrance sought to modify Calvinism “so that God might not be considered the author of sin, nor man an automaton in the hands of God.”13
As demonstrated above, God has made man a free moral agent and imbued him with free will in order that he might love God and serve Him of his own volition. This is evident in the fact that God forbade Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, yet Adam chose to disobey. There is no hint of any evidence in Scripture that God predestined Adam to sin against Him, moreover, it would be illogical to suggest so.
The Bible is replete with assertions that God is just, and a just God certainly would not forbid an action, subsequently cause the man to commit the forbidden action, and then hold him morally culpable for his failure. Unlike the pagan gods who are presented as whimsical entities which have little concern for morality, YHWH is holy and unchanging (Lev 11:45, Mal 3:6). Likewise, it is not defensible to postulate that God tempts man with sin when Scripture is abundantly clear about the matter: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).
On the other hand, as discussed above, the Bible is filled with countless examples of God inserting Himself into the events of human history so that He might orchestrate the fulfillment of His purposes.
In the final analysis, the tension between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man cannot be adequately resolved. When theologians have attempted to do so they have ventured into dangerous territory. Those holding an extreme view of free will have continued down the slippery slope to open theism (the heretical belief that God’s foreknowledge is imperfect and He is essentially watching history unfold as human beings exercise their free will), while those holding an extreme view of sovereignty have slipped to the extreme of theological determinism (the belief that all events are directly caused by God). As biblical theologians we must reject the former because it denies the foreknowledge and omniscience of God as well as the latter because it places the responsibility for evil on God’s shoulders, summarily removes any hint of personal moral culpability, and attacks God’s character as being unjust.
A mediating position which rests in the tension seems to be more tenable. God does not cause sin, yet man’s sin will not thwart the outworking of human history as it has been divinely ordained. There are certain major events which are central to God’s purposes and plan which He has foreordained (e.g., the fulfillment of covenants, promises, and biblical prophecy) and although man is a free moral agent, he is not free to make decisions that have the capacity to interfere with the ultimate outworking or timing of those major events. As Hill and Walton rightly point out, “The Old Testament leaves us with hope. God is not done. Everything is under His sovereign control. Our faith is an Old Testament faith that God will keep His promises no matter how bleak the circumstances may look.” 14
From an existential perspective, God’s plans for us as individuals are generally seen much more clearly in hind-sight. Joseph retrospectively interpreted divine providence in the events of his life by assuring his brothers that while they meant evil against him, God meant it for good: to fulfill his purpose of preserving the lives of Jacobs progeny (Ge 50:20). Like Abraham and Samson, we may from time-to-time find ourselves in uncomfortable predicaments that are the consequences of our own actions, or like Joseph we may come upon times of suffering at the hands of wicked men, but ultimately we can take peace and comfort from the fact that “…God 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).
- The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament, pg. 461
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, pg. 574
- The NIV translates אֲדֹנָי יֱהוִה as “O Sovereign LORD” (as in Gen. 15:8 and elsewhere) yet it seems more accurately rendered “Lord GOD” as in the NASB and most other English language translations.
- Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, pg. 807
- Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, pg. 692
- The Moody Handbook of Theology, pg. 186
- The Moody Handbook of Theology, pg. 490
- The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition, pg. 56
- Grasping God’s Word – Second Edition, pg. 338
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 2, pg. 163
- Giving the Sense, pg. 72
- The Moody Handbook of Theology, pg. 481
- The Moody Handbook of Theology, pgs. 489-490
- A Survey of the Old Testament, pg. 570
Duvall, J. Scott and Hays, J. Daniel. Grasping God’s Word – Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, 2005.
Enns, Paul P. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989.
Green, Jay P. The Interlinear Hebrew-Greek-English Bible. London: The Trinitarian Bible Society, 2000.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.
Hill, Andrew E. & Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, 2000.
Howard, David M. & Grisanti, Michael A. Giving the Sense. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003.
Tenney, Merrill C. Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.
Whiston, William. The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.
Unless indicated otherwise, all Scriptural quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible.