Free Will, Accountability, and God’s Sovereignty

I have a confession to make. I do not like being called a “Calvinist.”

True, theologically speaking, Calvin and I are very much in line. That said, the terms “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” are not titles or descriptions I prefer. I prefer to say that I am in the Reformed tradition. Calvin is not even close to being the biggest theological influence in my life. That would have to go to Jonathan Edwards and to some other Puritans and post-Reformation fathers. The cold fact is that these guys (who so many like to label “Calvinists”) did not quote, refer, or reference him much. On that point, Edwards, didn’t like being called a “Calvinist” either.

But some things in life you can’t get away from. Recently I was asked about how, being a Calvinist, I understand free will. Can people really make free choices if you believe God is sovereign?

What follows is my answer. I posted this over a year ago as a 5 part series. I think it makes better sense to have it all in one place, so forgive the length.


One day late in the summer of 1945, Fred Canfil, a US Marshall, visited a reform school in Missouri. On the principal’s desk was a wooden sign, the kind of sign you would expect a person’s name to be on, but this sign said: “The buck stops here.” Fred asked the principal where he got it and if he could get one for a friend of his: Harry S. Truman. October 2, 1945 it was mailed to the president, and it remained famously on his desk during his administration. That sign summed up Truman’s thought about the presidency. “The President,” Truman said, “whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”

That’s an odd phrase, “the buck stops here,” isn’t it? Have you ever wondered how that came about? I mean how did the word “buck,” ever become a synonym for “decision?” Let me give you the 30 second history of how that happened.

The “buck stops here” was derived from another common expression, “pass the buck.” “Pass the buck” was a slang expression used in poker games referring to who was in charge of dealing the cards. In order to keep track of who was dealing, a pointer or marker was kept on the table. Often times, especially on the frontier, it was a knife with a buckhorn handle. If the buck—the handle of the knife—was indicating it was your turn to deal and you did not want to, you could “pass the buck” to the next player.

Who is dealing? Who is in charge? Who is responsible? Who is making the decisions? Where does the buck stop? These are important questions. They are questions that we need answered if we are going to be living and working with people. We need to know where we fit in the chain of command…and we need to know who is at the top.

While none of us can always be the person with whom the buck stops, we here in America and especially in New England, pride ourselves in the fact that at least we are in charge of ourselves. We make our own decisions. We make our own choices. We are, in that sense, the person with whom the buck stops. We have free will. For good or bad, for better or for worse we are free to make our own choices. Scripture it would seem, backs this up this belief. Take for instance Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV) where Joshua says,

Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

This passage and dozens of others like it seem to confirm that we have been given by God the freedom to make our own choices—that the buck stops with us.

On the other hand, if you are a student of the Bible, it will not be long before you start coming across passages that talk about God being sovereign—that He is in control of everything that happens and every decision that is made; that in fact the buck stops with God. Have you noticed that? Take for example Proverbs 21:1 (NLT): The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases. And Proverbs 16:33 (NIV): The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. Our hearts, meaning our desires and our wills, are directed by God. Even the decisions that we make by flipping a coin are decisions from the Lord.

So which is it? Do we have free will or is God sovereign? Where does the buck stop?

The Bible does not seem to think these two things—God’s sovereignty and our free will—are mutually exclusive. Genesis 50:15-21 (NIV), is a key passage that illustrates this. Let me set it up by giving a quick summary of the story of Joseph.

Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob and the first son to Jacob by his wife Rachel. Jacob loved his wife Rachel more than his other wife Leah (who had already given him 10 sons), so Joseph instantly became the favorite. Joseph’s half-brothers were not the nicest people in the world.

Simeon and Levi destroyed an entire city in retaliation for their sister Dena being raped by a man from that city. The stress from fleeing after their attack caused Rachel to go into labor and she died from complications giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. That caused a whole lot of resentment and tension between Jacob (and Joseph) and Leah and her sons. This was further exacerbated when we find out that Rueben was sleeping with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah who was for all intents and purposes Joseph’s mother after Rachel died.

In Genesis 37:2 we find Joseph’s first recorded act, Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

Do you think that report might have had something to do with Rueben sleeping with his stepmother? And what does Jacob do? He honors Joseph by giving him that “coat of many colors” and making him the family heir over his 10 other older brothers! The brothers were so angry at this favoritism that they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Then, being the favorite son, Joseph tells his brothers about dreams that God has given him in which he is elevated as master over them. He does this twice. And his brothers hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

The next time Joseph goes to check on his brothers, he is away from the protection of his father; they took their opportunity and stripped, beat, threw him into a pit and sold him as a slave.

In Egypt where he was taken, he worked as a slave, was accused of rape, and thrown in prison. But When Pharaoh had a pair of disturbing dreams that none of his people could interpret, his cup-bearer remembered that he had a dream that Joseph interpreted correctly for him. So Joseph is brought from prison to see if he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He does, and ends up being put in charge of Egypt to help avert a great famine that was coming in 7 years’ time, by storing up grain in the 7 years leading up to the famine.

His brothers end up needing to come to Egypt in the midst of the famine to buy food; and find that Joseph, the brother they so badly mistreated was the man they needed to depend on for food. But instead of punishing them, he invites them to come and live in Egypt with him so they will survive the famine. So Joseph’s dreams come true, and he is reunited with his father and his family.

Then Joseph’s father died. And his brothers began to worry that Joseph’s forgiveness might have just been a show to please his father. At this point we come to our text:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

I want to take notice of three things in this passage:

First, Joseph’s brothers believe that they were responsible for their decision to sell Joseph. They did it of their own free will.

Second, they feel guilty for what they did. They knew that they deserved to be punished for their actions. They knew that God knew what they had done and that he had the right to hold them to account.

Third, Joseph says that while their choices were malicious, God used them to be the means to bring him to Egypt so that he could save many lives, including theirs.

What I want to try and do in this post is show that it is important that all three of these points—that we have free will, that God holds us responsible for our decisions, and that God is sovereign—are undeniably biblical, and why they are each necessary to be true.

First, the Bible teaches that people have free will. What does that mean? It means we are free to choose what we want. We may have a hard time choosing what we want, we may wish at times we had different choices to choose from, but in the end we get to choose what we want or desire the most.

From the very beginning, God has communicated to us in such a way as He expects that we can make our own choices. When He spoke to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 (NIV), “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die,” God presented Adam with a choice. God was not going to intervene or stop his choice, he was free to make it and it would be his. The buck stops with Adam’s choice.

This freedom to make our own decisions is part of what it is to be made the image of God. As God is free to make His own decisions, we are free to make ours.

Another example of Scripture’s assumption that we have free will is Genesis 4:6-7 (NIV). Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” God’s words don’t really make any sense unless Cain is free to make his own choice—to do what is right, or to not do what is right. The buck stops with Cain. Whether he choose to sin or not, the way God saw it, the buck stopped with him.

Scripture abounds with texts that have the presumption that we have free will:

Proverbs 3:31 (NIV) Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways.

Proverbs 8:10 (NIV) Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold.

Proverbs 12:26 (NIV) The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.

In each of those passages assume that people are free to make their own choices. You cannot read the Bible and make sense of any of it without coming to the conclusion that we are free to make our own choices—that in some sense, the buck stops with us.

The second truth that Scripture makes abundantly clear is that God holds us responsible for our choices. If our choices were really not our own to make, if we are not able to make our own choices, God could not justly hold us to account for them. We may be influenced by other people in our choices, but our choices are still our own, and therefore we are held responsible for them. Look at how God judges Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Both Adam and Eve make the argument that they should not be held responsible for eating from the Tree of Good and Evil because their choices were heavily influenced by the serpent. But God still holds them responsible for their choices. Adam could not pass the buck to Eve, and Eve could not pass the buck to the Serpent.

Not only does outside influence not relieve us of responsibility for our choices, but inside influence does not excuse us either. Our free will, as I have said—and as I think it is commonly understood—is directed by our desires. It is, to use scriptural language, directed by our hearts. We never come face to face with choices from a standpoint of indifference. We are always biased one way or another. Our desires, our likes and dislikes, our desire to increase our happiness and minimize our pain, incline us one way or another. And as a direct result of Adam and Eve’s choice, the desires of our heart are bent towards sin. It is not that we are not able to understand God, His commands, His holiness, that we have a desire to sin, it is that we have no desire to obey. The “original” in the doctrine of “original sin” means that we are born fundamentally sinful. Sin is not something that is learned or added or picked up in life, it is original to us; it is part of the fallen human condition.

It is not hard to convince people that we don’t love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. What people don’t want to hear is that God holds each of us responsible for all—each and every one—of those failings even though our fallen nature drives us to desire those choices.

The fact of the matter is since we have sinned against God to whom we have infinite obligations, the guilt we incur comes with an infinite punishment. Now, while it may be hard to understand infinite, the idea that guilt increases as our obligations to love, honor and obey a person increases is just common sense.

If you went up to your boss and punched him in the nose, you would be in trouble for sure. But if you punched a police officer in the nose, you would be in more trouble. And if you punched the President of the United States in the nose, you would probably not see the light of day again without seeing bars in front of it! But we’ve all gone and punched God in the nose! And not just once but over and over! As P.T. Forsythe says, we are not “stray sheep or wandering prodigals even, but rebels taken with weapons in our hands.” It’s bad enough to sin against the President of the United States of America but, as the author of Hebrews says, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” There is no such thing to God as an over looked sin. Nothing you have done will escape God’s righteous judgment.

God sees us as being creatures who possess free will, and that free will is so central to who we are and how we were created, that He sees our choices as our own regardless of any outside or inside influences on our choices. God’s own righteousness necessitates that He punish all evil. We cannot pass the buck; it stops with us.

Now, to be perfectly honest, most Christians do not have a problem with the fact that we have free will and that God holds us responsible for our choices. They are widely affirmed throughout the Church. The real rub comes with this third truth, that God is sovereign.

288 times God says of Himself or is addressed as Sovereign Lord in the Bible. What does that mean, that God is sovereign? It means that God has the right, the authority, and the power to do whatever He wants in and with His creation. Psalms 115:3 says (NASEC) Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. The NLT translates it he does as he wishes. Let’s take a look at a few passages of Scripture that unpack what it means that God is in the heavens and He does as He pleases.

Let’s start by looking at Isaiah 40:12-14 (NIV)

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?

God has the right to rule and act as He wishes because He created everything. And as vast and mysterious as the universe is, it is not complicated to Him. He can cup the oceans in His hand, the mountains are like dust to Him. No one taught Him how to create. No one taught Him how to rule. All of the universe is His, and therefore He has the sovereign right to do with it what He pleases.

Isaiah 40:22-26 (NIV)

He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

When Isaiah says that He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, he means that God’s throne is of a higher authority than anyone else’s. By His authority, human rulers come and go. All He has to do to remove a ruler is to blow on them. His authority is so vast that even the stars submit to Him. The human eye can see about 3000 stars. With the technology we have, we know that the Milky Way Galaxy contains about 400 billion stars; and that we are one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies. But to God all that space is something He spreads out like a canopy, He knows each any every star by name, and not one of them has ever gone missing. God can do as He wishes because He possesses the highest authority.

Isaiah 43:10-13 (NIV)

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God. Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”

God declares that there is no power that can overrule His actions. God is not one of many gods in some pantheon or heavenly court. He does not have to ask permission or get a majority vote of the heavenly assembly. He is alone in His authority and power. Therefore salvation is only found in Him. Judgment is only found in Him. No one can deliver out of His hand, when He acts none has the power or authority to challenge or reverse it.

God the right to do whatever He pleases because He is its sole Creator. He has the authority to do whatever He pleases because His authority is higher than every other authority or power in the universe. He has the power to do whatever He pleases because there is no power that can undo what He has done.

God’s sovereignty extends over every aspect of His creation, and that unapologetically includes our decisions. This is what Joseph declared to his brothers in our passage this morning. Joseph’s brothers made their decision to sell him as a slave. But all that was orchestrated by God to bring Joseph to Egypt to that God could bless the world through Joseph; proving His love, faithfulness, and sovereignty to His people and to the world.

The story of Joseph reveals God’s sovereign power was behind everything at the end of the story. In Isaiah 45:1-7, God shows His sovereign power is behind everything before it happens.

This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

In this passage, God demonstrates His sovereignty by declaring the future. Cyrus was the King of Persia who brought His judgment on the empire of Babylon and sent His people back to Israel from exile to rebuild His Temple. He is speaking about events that will not take place for more than 175 years! The exile was still over a century away! How many decisions and events did God need to know about, and know for certain, in order to announce with confidence the name, station and decrees of a man who would not even be born for another century and a half?

When God’s sovereignty is revealed in such stark clarity—that even our choices are under His sovereignty, our first reaction is to cry out against it. Isaiah 45:9-13 (NLTse) God continues saying,

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’ How terrible it would be if a newborn baby said to its father, ‘Why was I born?’ or if it said to its mother, ‘Why did you make me this way?'” This is what the LORD says–the Holy One of Israel and your Creator: “Do you question what I do for my children? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands? I am the one who made the earth and created people to live on it. With my hands I stretched out the heavens. All the stars are at my command. I will raise up Cyrus to fulfill my righteous purpose, and I will guide his actions. He will restore my city and free my captive people–without seeking a reward! I, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!”

If God decides to use Joseph’s brothers’ malice and greed to sell Joseph into slavery, we have no right to object. If God decides that the most effective way to build and mold the humility, wisdom, and dependence on Him that Joseph needed to be the right person at the right time to save the known world from famine, was to make him a slave, have him accused of rape, and spend years in prison, we have no right to object. If God decides to free His people from exile by using a pagan king from a foreign nation and not one of His own people, we have no right to object. It is with Him that the buck stops, and God never passes the buck to anyone else.

God is sovereign. He is The
Sovereign. He created the universe by Himself, for Himself, and governs it for His own glory. His authority and power are absolute. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His permission, and even the very hairs of your head are numbered. Nothing happens without His permission and nothing happens that does not end up serving His purposes. Our God is in the heavens; and He does whatever He pleases. The Bible is very clear—the buck stops with Him.

What I have done is to show that the Bible teaches three things:

  1. We have free will: the freedom to choose to do whatever we want.
  2. God holds us responsible for our choices.
  3. God is sovereign.

Scripture makes it clear why each of these statements are true. The fact is we need all three of these things to be true. They are like three legs of a stool. Take any one away and life doesn’t make sense.

If we deny free will, then there is no basis to hold anyone to account for what they have done or for what they have neglected. Without the ability and right to make our own choices we are no better than robots, no better than puppets. We might as well be battery operated dolls that God has spread out on the earth to play with for His amusement. Such a thought runs against reason, experience, and Scripture. The world does not make sense without the presupposition that we have free will.

If God does not hold us responsible for our decisions, then there is no ultimate source of justice to which we can look to—no point of arguing right and wrong. If we are not held responsible for our decisions why should we care about obeying the law? Why should be bother to care for anyone other than ourselves?

Common sense tells us differently. We believe that people should be held accountable for their decisions. That’s why we have police. That’s why we have courts. And Scripture affirms this is true in a more ultimate sense, that God holds us responsible for all our decisions as well. Unless people are held responsible for their decisions, the world ceases to make sense.

If God is not sovereign, then we have no reason to trust His promises to save and rescue and redeem us or anyone else. All those promises, such as Hebrews 13:5 (NIV) “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,” John 10:28 (NIV) “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand,” and Romans 10:13 (NIV) “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” are reduced from promises to merely intentions. It means He can’t know the future with certainty. It means we can’t be sure of Romans 8:28 (NASEC) “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

If God is not absolutely sovereign, we can’t trust Him absolutely.

All three—free will, human responsibility, and God’s sovereignty—are essential to a biblically centered Christian world view.

What I have not done, and have no intention of doing is explaining how these three truths work together all the time. That is a mystery that I do not claim to understand, and I submit, is a mystery that God has chosen not to reveal to us, nor will He this side of heaven. But just because we don’t have all the answers, it does not follow that there are no answers.

We shouldn’t be afraid to trust in the sovereignty of God because we do not fully understand it and how it fits with free will and human responsibility. God declares in Isaiah 55:8-9,

“My thoughts are completely different from yours,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

Most people do not know how their car works. We know there is an engine, but how many of us can take it apart and put it together again? I am in that group of people that has absolutely no idea how to do that. I know where the oil goes. I know where the windshield washer fluid goes. That’s about it. The rest of the engine is beyond me. I know that I need to change the oil, fill the gas tank, and replace the brakes and tires every once in a while. That’s all I know.

Yet, despite this obvious lack of understanding of the mechanics of my automobile, I am fully licensed to drive it and use it effectively every day. The truth is I do not need to fully understand everything about how the engine works in order to drive. I know someone understands it. I know it makes sense to my mechanic. But just because I don’t have the same knowledge of my car that my mechanic does, it doesn’t make my car engine any less logical or understandable.

The same is true about God’s sovereignty, free will and human responsibility. We don’t have all the answers we would like about how sovereignty harmonizes with our free will. But that does not mean that they aren’t in harmony with each other.

What I have been learning is that I need to be willing to trust God when He offers no clear explanation to my questions. He has made it very clear that we have been made in such a way that we are free to make our own choices, that He will hold us responsible for our choices, and that He is sovereign even over our choices. He does not see these as incompatible. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12-13 (NIV), continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (that’s freewill), for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (God is sovereign). It is not either or, it is both and.


  1. This was really well said. That can be a hard concept for people to understand. We’re very linear thinkers, so wrapping one’s brain around the idea of freewill and God’s sovereignty both being true at the same time can give people trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely done Dan. I especially like you owning up to the fact that you don’t really understand it. Glad to see it’s not just me. Sadly, so many think they have it nailed down, and are not hesitant about telling the rest how we are screwing it all up and are probably heretics.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yessir, and an understanding that no matter how it turns out to all work, that it won’t affect how I reach out to people in the least. The Holy Spirit does His job and I do mine. Simple eh?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yup. All we are responsible for is loving people and being a winsome witness. I have enough trouble changing my wife’s mind, what makes me think I can have much effect changing anyone else’s! =)


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