• Greg

God's Plans And The Free Will Of Man

Those who believe the Bible teaches that people have free will, and that the future free will choices of people are not predetermined or exhaustively foreknown (even taking prophecy into consideration), do not deny that there are instances where God interferes with the free will of man. In his book “Does God Know the Future?”, Michael Saia acknowledges as much and shares biblical principles that apply to these instances. Saia says the following:


“One of the biggest problems people have with God’s causing events to happen is when God’s plans interfere with the free will of man. Some people acknowledge only two categories here, either God never interferes with man’s free will (absolute freedom), or God makes man do everything he does (absolute predestination). But are these two extremes the only possibilities? Is it not possible that God follows a general rule of allowing man freedom and yet sets aside that freedom when he deems it necessary and loving to do so? This is the very picture which seems to be portrayed in biblical history. God accomplishes his desires through people, and although the general rule is that God allows them to freely choose to work with him, God sometimes fulfills his purposes by overriding their free will. But if God can set aside man’s free will, how can he be just at the same time? Under what special circumstances would God take such drastic action? If a man is forced by God to do or not do something, how will God judge the act? What about the person’s salvation? Is it affected by God’s suspension of the person’s free will? Do good people have to be concerned that God may sometimes remove their freedom to accomplish his purposes? Fortunately, the Bible gives us enough examples of God’s governmental interference with man’s will to allow us to discover some general principles which apply to such situations. The major examples include:


1) Balaam’s blessing of Israel when he tried to curse (Numbers 22-24).


2) The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4-14).


3) The placement of fear on the hearts of the Canaanites so they would be destroyed (Deuteronomy 2:25; 11:25).


4) The stirring of Cyrus’ heart to release the Israelites from captivity and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (II Chronicles 36:22; Ezra 1:1).


5) The turning of Nebuchadnezzar’s mind to that of an animal (Daniel 4).


It is important to distinguish between very strong influence which could be resisted and actual coercion of the will. For example Jonah was swallowed by a fish and Saul was blinded and fell to the ground, but these influences could have been resisted. This is evidenced by Jonah’s prayer of repentance and Saul’s statement to Agrippa that he was not “disobedient to the heavenly vision.” These were strong influences, to be sure, but they were not cases of a loss of free will. What principles can we glean from these examples to uphold the justice of God in his setting aside of someone’s free will? Let’s take a look at five general conditions and then see how those conditions apply to two specific instances—the cursing of Balaam and the altering of Nebuchadnezzar’s mind.


1) The person was always wicked. We never read that God overrode the free will of a righteous person. The Bible only records instances where a wicked person was forced by God to do something other than what he wished. Righteous people will do what God desires when requested, so there is no need for God to coerce the will of a righteous person. Balaam was attempting to curse Israel when God caused him to bless instead. Nebuchadnezzar was an idol worshipper and the captor of the Israelites in Babylon.


2) The suspension of will was temporary. There are no examples of a person whose will was removed for his entire life. Though God “put a word in Balaam’s mouth” so he “had to bless” Israel and “God turned the curse into a blessing,” Balaam then proceeded on his own volition to tempt the Israelites to disobey God. Nebuchadnezzar was altered by God to become like an animal for a time, but God eventually restored his mind to its original state. In the case of Pharaoh, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but only after Pharaoh hardened his own heart. The references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart reveal an interesting phenomenon—the hardening was not consistent. That is, God did not harden his heart and then it was hardened continually thereafter. Rather, the instances of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart alternate with Pharaoh’s hardening his own heart, and not in any consistent manner. Thus, it appears as if God only interfered with Pharaoh’s free will when it seemed Pharaoh’s choices might abort the plan of God to free the Israelites from Egypt.


3) The salvation of the person was not affected by God’s temporary overriding of the person’s free choices. Being forced to bless instead of cursing, being forced to free the Israelites from Egypt, becoming afraid of the Israelites, allowing the Israelites to go free from Persia, and becoming an animal temporarily—none of these was directly related to the salvation of the affected individual. In no instance was a wicked person forced to love God. In every case the person’s relationship to God was determined by choices other than those made while under God’s control.


4) The event always related to the salvation of the entire world. That is, God only interfered with someone’s free will when the welfare of the entire human race was at stake. This was always related to the preservation of the nation of Israel so God could fulfill his promise of sending the Messiah to the world. Balaam’s blessing instead of cursing was to preserve the nation. Nebuchadnezzar’s becoming an animal was related to Israel’s preservation and eventual release from captivity.


5) The consequences of the action were suspended. That is, if God made a person do something good, the person was not rewarded for it. If God produced detriment in a person’s life, the situation was subsequently rectified by God. Balaam was not blessed because God made him bless the children of Israel. He was killed with the sword because he was involved in the occult and he tempted Israel to sin. Nebuchadnezzar lost all of his glory and his officials left him, but God restored all Nebuchadnezzar lost and in addition taught him a valuable lesson—God can humble anyone.


So, we have seen God can justly set aside someone’s free will if these conditions are met:


1) The person is not a righteous person.


2) The person’s will is only suspended temporarily.


3) The person’s salvation is not affected by the temporary loss of will.


4) The event has implications for all mankind.


5) The consequences for that particular action are suspended.


Given these five conditions, we can understand how God could accomplish his purposes and fulfill every prophecy, yet without doing injustice to man’s free will. We should remember, too, that these instances were rare exceptions in God’s dealings with men. God’s general rule in his government of free-will agents is to allow them their freedom, even though the consequences may be quite dire at times.”


Saia, Michael Does God Know the Future? Pg. 139-142