God’s Sovereignty and Human Will

Last week, we got at the idea of Christian liberty. Today, we are going to consider the liberty of the human will, or so-called free will. God’s sovereignty and providence as He works all things together in order to establish His own throne within His creation through Israel are the key focus in 1 and 2 Samuel. Yet, Saul willfully chooses to live in rebellion against God, and David willfully chooses to bear fruit that is consistent with repentance. It sure seems to us that people have the perfect ability to desire and freely act on those desires. If it is possible, how can God be sovereign and we act freely?

1 Samuel 27:1-12

Then David said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines. Saul then will despair of searching for me anymore in all the territory of Israel, and I will escape from his hand.”

So David arose and crossed over, he and the six hundred men who were with him, to Achish the son of Maoch, king of Gath. And David lived with Achish at Gath, he and his men, each with his household, even David with his two wives, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the Carmelitess, Nabal’s widow. Now it was told Saul that David had fled to Gath, so he no longer searched for him.

Then David said to Achish, “If now I have found favor in your sight, let them give me a place in one of the cities in the country, that I may live there; for why should your servant live in the royal city with you?”

So Achish gave him Ziklag that day; therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day. The number of days that David lived in the country of the Philistines was a year and four months. Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites and the Girzites and the Amalekites; for they were the inhabitants of the land from ancient times, as you come to Shur even as far as the land of Egypt. David attacked the land and did not leave a man or a woman alive, and he took away the sheep, the cattle, the donkeys, the camels, and the clothing. Then he returned and came to Achish. Now Achish said, “Where have you made a raid today?” And David said, “Against the Negev of Judah and against the Negev of the Jerahmeelites and against the Negev of the Kenites.”

David did not leave a man or a woman alive to bring to Gath, saying, “Otherwise they will tell about us, saying, ‘So has David done and so has been his practice all the time he has lived in the country of the Philistines.’”

So Achish believed David, saying, “He has surely made himself odious among his people Israel; therefore he will become my servant forever.”


This passage of Scripture can be summed up by its key points:

  • David believes Saul will one day succeed in killing him if he stays in Israel.
  • David seeks refuge with Achish, the Philistine king who perceived David as a mad man before (Cf. 1 Samuel 21:14-15).
    1. In the current passage, we see that David did not act like a madman before in order to escape Achish; He really was acting like a madman in order to deny his place as Israel’s king.
  • Achish provides refuge for David.
  • David systematically destroys Canaanite camps and loots them without Achish’s knowledge.
  • Achish believes David will be his servant forever, even though David is secretly destroying Achish’s neighbors and kinsmen.

David’s will or God’s?

In the narrative up to this point, God has proved Himself. He has proved that He can be trusted with the security of His people according to His purpose. If it is God’s purpose to make David king and reveal His just wrath against Saul, nothing can stop that. Yet, David fears for his life and determines to seek refuge with the Philistines, God’s enemy through the 1 Samuel narrative. We cannot claim that David’s flight is sinful, though we could debate about David’s decision to slaughter entire camps and villages of Canaanite people. I don’t think Scripture ever classifies it a sin to try to be wise and also trust in God’s providence. God’s providence is no excuse to throw caution to the wind and live foolishly. I don’t know of anyone who believes in God’s sovereignty who will actually claim people have no responsibility to live wisely and deal honorably with other people. If God is sovereign, how are we still responsible? If God works all things together according to the counsel of His own will like we have discovered through 1 Samuel, how is it we have any will at all?

I want to do a little experiment. I want you to try to float in the air with no help from any flying machine or cable. Just believe you can. I am going to predict that the gravitational force produced by the density, rotation, and speed of the revolution of the earth restrict you from lifting out of your seat. This illustration falls short in several ways, but it suffices to show us that we are not absolutely free. There is a law in place that keeps us grounded and able to do only those things that we refer to as natural. In a similar way, we are bound by our natural wills. Our wills are free insomuch as we are able to try to follow through on the things we desire to do. We are not free insomuch as we are not able to will anything outside of our nature. That is what we mean when we claim people do not have libertarian free will. We will only ever choose those things we want. There is something like a law of nature present—the bondage of the will. God is the creator and sustainer of our wills; He created them with certain boundaries according to His own design. Let’s consider the human will and its limitations together.

1) God is sovereign, and we are responsible. David reasons and is given credit for his own actions. He is a responsible agent. We are responsible for all of our actions because we willfully choose to do the things we do and treat people the way we do. That means we are actually guilty when we sin against God and against other people. Even though God does hand us over to sin, He does not force us to sin. We choose according to our nature, according to our own desires—which are not God’s. Our wills are bound by our depraved nature. God is sovereign, and we are responsible (Cf. Romans 3:9-20).

2) The wills of the regenerate and unregenerate persons are bound under the same kind of depraved nature. The difference between the regenerate and unregenerate person is the regenerate person asks for God’s will to be done, but the unregenerate person is self-willed. God has guarded David from always doing what he desired to do because David is His elect king (Cf. 25:34). Saul is allowed to be self-willed because he is not being saved. I want to parse this out a little for the purpose of clarity:

…the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed (2 Peter 2:9-12).

In the First Century AD, Peter will claim that the self-willed person is a person trapped by his or her own instinct, destined for destruction. Only God knows how to rescue His people from temptation. It is God who keeps the self-willed person under punishment for the day of judgment. We have seen this truth at play in the lives of David and Saul through 1 Samuel. At the most basic level, that’s what sin is and the very thing that condemns us—we seek our own wills rather than God’s (Cf. Romans 1:24). This is such an important piece of the puzzle, that God instructs that pastors be men who are not self-willed:

For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:7-9).

A godly pastor is under compulsion to do things according to God’s will, not his own or that of other people. He is self-controlled such that He operates according to the instruction God has given and not the instruction of the people he is to be shepherding—so he might do the body good by exhorting in sound doctrine and refuting those who contradict what God has revealed, His will. We need pastors who are slaves to God’s word rather than their own desires or the preferences of others. To operate otherwise disqualifies a man from pastoring God’s church. Too many pastors out there are self-willed and interested in self-gain, coddling people rather than seeing them mature in Christ. Too many congregations out there want to place unbiblical expectations on their pastors, forcing them to dishonor God in their ministries because they fear the wrathful hand of unbiblical church democracy. God has shared His will. We seek for His will to be done, not our own. It is a shame that many people are so devoted to the idea of libertarian free will. They will fight and fight to defend their freedom of choice and their self-willed religion. According to Scripture, that’s wicked. It’s nothing more than works-based righteousness, which is no righteousness at all. We desire that God captivate us and bind us up in His will. We pray for God to keep us from sin and sanctify us. We pray for the kind of freedom from our wills only God can affect.

3) God’s purposes are accomplished through human will. In the Law, God instructed the people of Israel to utterly destroy the Canaanites living in the promised land (Cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18). He did this because those nations were reprobate and their sin had grown to its fullness, and it was time for God’s just wrath to be poured out against the nations (Cf. Genesis 15:16). Up to the time of David, God kept Canaanites in the land (Cf. Joshua 23:13). Now, here David is plundering from the heathen nations and utterly destroying them because he needs supplies. Whether David is aware of it or not, God’s instruction is being fulfilled. David means what he does for his own purposes. God means what David is doing for His own purposes (Cf. Genesis 50:20). 

Is it possible to be outside the will of God? No. Every mistake, misstep, victory, and success is divinely bound to accomplish God’s purposes. God’s will is always done. Remember, He is the one who created and sustains our wills. We desire to honor Him with our lives, ministries, jobs, relationships, and everything else. Pray with me:

Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:9-13).

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