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Clifford McLain's avatar
November 1, 1987

The Sovereignty of God and the Free Will of Man


That God is sovereign is a fact beyond dispute, for the scriptures declare it in hundreds of ways. Likewise, the free moral agency of man is also declared beyond question. Consequently, the differences of Calvinism and Arminianism are varied, and both have plenty of scripture to support their views. Hence, to avoid the problem many hold that these two positions are but two lines of teaching in scripture that run side by side but never meet. Many settle the matter by Abraham’s statement: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25){C}

When all the scriptures are consulted, both pro and con, the weight of evidence seems overwhelming: GOD IS SOVEREIGN. To this most students of scripture can concur, except the statement of “absolute and unconditional predestination with predetermined preterition of the reprobate.” “Preterition” in theology is “the passing over of the non-elect.”

Whenever and wherever we have a world in which there are free moral agents, we have a world of contingency, a world in which the word “if” has been introduced. Consequently, God Himself says, “If you receive My Son,” then certain things will be yours, “even to them who believe on His name.” In other words, contingent actions foreknown do not always take place. EXAMPLES:

(1.) David asked the Lord whether Saul would come down to Keilah, and the answer was, “He will come down.” David consequently inquired whether the men of Keilah would deliver him up to Saul. Again the Lord answered,”They will deliver thee up.” As a result of God’s foreknowledge, David withdrew; neither did Saul come down; nor did the men of Keilah deliver him up. (I Samuel 23:10-13).

(2.) Jonah preached to Nineveh: “Yet forty days and Nineveh be overthrown.” But Nineveh repented and was not overthrown in forty days.

We would be wise therefore to let the word “foreknowledge” mean just what it says and no more: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God” (I Peter 1:2). Likewise, “…whom He did foreknow also He did foreordain (predestinate, i.e., predetermine),” (Romans 8:29). On the other hand, if we read “Whom He did foreordain, He also did predestinate,” it ceases to have any meaning.

Perhaps a simple illustration, adapted from Mr. C. H. Welch, may help us in appreciating the relation of God’s foreknowledge with the purpose of election:

* One of the world’s master chess players (the type that can take on several opponents at once and beat them all), if he stood for a moment and glanced at the chessboard of two very average players, could say, “In two moves you will be checkmated!” His foreknowledge, however, would in no wise compel these chess players to make any particular move.

As you can see, God, like the master chess player knows every move and the possibilities. He understands the environment, the temperament, the time, the place, the circumstance, etc. All things are naked and open in His eyes. In other words, God can infallibly know what a free agent will choose to do without in any way influencing the act.

Lastly, those who are chosen (elected) before the overthrow of the world (Gr. cosmos) may truly rejoice in factual worship because the Divine foreknowledge of God elected us in love according to our reception of His Son, even though we are utterly unworthy. Hence, the Mystery is an election from within the election (I Timothy 1:15).

C. E. McLain 1987.

You may want to listen to an audio lesson from Pastor McLain on this subject matter.