What does the Bible teach about God’s sovereignty (predestination) and human freewill?

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What does the Bible teach about God’s sovereignty (predestination) and human freewill? Can you shed any light on the TULIP theory?


The Bible teaches both the sovereignty of God and the freewill of persons, even if harmonizing the two is beyond our grasp.

Sovereignty is God’s unlimited authority and power over His creation. As supreme ruler of the universe, God controls all its entities and events, even the Devil and his angels (1 Chron. 29:11, 12; Ps. 135:6; Dan. 4:34, 35; Rom. 11:33-36; Rev. 19:6).

God’s sovereign control does not require that He predetermine every entity and event. Nor do the Bible’s wonderful predestination texts (Rom. 8:28, 29; Eph. 1:3-6, 11) insist that God has pre-decreed all things that come to pass.

Freewill is the limited authority and power of people to choose their personal path in life. God intends that our dominion over the created order be freely exercised in cooperation with other humans and in submission to His revealed will (Gen. 1:28; 2:16, 17; Ex. 32:26; Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21; John 6:67; Rev. 22:17).

Human freewill is restricted by the complex factors of heredity, environment, and previous choices so that we are never fully free, as God is, to do what we want or ought. Still, our moral responsibility is genuine, not a facade.

The myriad of daily happenings in the universe and in human lives may be attributable to both human choice and divine providence. Man has freedom to plan, choose, and act; but ultimately, God’s sovereign will is done!

The fifteenth century Protestant theologian John Calvin stressed the divine side of this mysterious equation. The acrostic TULIP was later applied to his teachings:

T – Total depravity: All men fell in Adam, leaving them dead in sins and incapable of responding positively to God.

U – Unconditional election: From eternity past, God chose certain men to be saved by His grace, without regard to any merit foreseen in them.

L – Limited atonement: God sent His Son to make full and effective payment only for the sins of the elect, those He had predestined for salvation.

I – Irresistible grace: Those God elected to salvation and for whom Christ died He effectively calls by regeneration from spiritual death, thus rendering them capable of expressing saving faith.

P – Perseverance of saints: Those God elected in Christ, called in regeneration, and justified by faith He continually quickens so they will never fall from His grace but only enter eternal glory.

This emphasis on God’s sovereignty, predestination, and election of some to salvation (thus, others are predestined to damnation) is commonly called Calvinism. It is heard most often in churches of the Reformed persuasion, along with some Presbyterian and Baptist groups. Calvinists do not deny that man has a modicum of free will; they see it as some of the means by which God carries out His eternal decrees.

Those of us who resist one or more of the TULIP points above do not deny the control of God over human history. But we believe that, in matters of trusting Jesus and persevering in faith, God enables the free will of man and yields to it.

Like other disputes, several Bible texts may be listed in support of either side of this classic discussion. Each position champions truths that should help to shape and inform the other. As one wise man remarked when asked how he would resolve the debate between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, “I never try to reconcile friends.”

— Elder Calvin Burrell

Calvin Burrell
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Calvin Burrell is former editor of the Bible Advocate and former director of G. C. Missions. He retired in 2015 and lives with his wife, Barb, in Stayton, OR. They attend church in Marion, OR.