Sovereignty and Freedom in an African Bungalow
Hello Church Family,
The small wind-up clock fastened to the edge of an oak-trimmed desk had stickers on one side that read: Mennonite Guest House. The glow-in-the-dark hands on its black face constantly reminded me that it was after midnight and I was in the middle of nowhere. Yet, despite my best efforts to rest up for the next day’s travel plans, I lay awake thinking about all I’d recently experienced.
On this day in Nairobi, Kenya, I had already seen and participated in things that I would likely never forget. I’d held babies whose tiny bodies were ravaged by the HIV virus; I’d slapped ‘high-fives’ with young boys whose eyes were swollen shut because of infection. I’d eaten breakfast next to a twelve-year-old boy with full-blown AIDS. (When our host suggested that we join hands and pray together, while my tablemate coughed and hacked into his hands, I was more than a little uncomfortable, but I grabbed David’s hand and held it tightly as we thanked God for his provisions.)
With these images of intense suffering fresh in my mind, and the thick silence of the African night hounding me, I asked myself the question: How could this be the will of a sovereign God?
I have to admit: I’ve often struggled with the concept of God’s sovereignty, particularly reconciling it with human freedom. But I’ve found great comfort in reading about the theological plight of America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who went from being a staunch rejecter to fierce defender of God’s sovereign will.
According to historian, Kenneth Minkema, “as a boy Edwards rejected the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and God’s eternal decrees,” because they seemed irreconcilable with his current understanding of conversion. Consequently, he wrestled with the text of Scripture; and with a Herculean work ethic (studying sometimes up to thirteen hours a day) he scrutinized the assertions of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (and others), in order to establish for himself a tenable position.
But then, what would Edwards do with this: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
Ultimately, Jonathan Edwards would get to a place where he was utterly convinced that “God was sovereign in his disposal of everything, especially the plan of redemption, God’s greatest work.”
Thus, defending God’s sovereignty was one of Jonathan Edwards’ greatest passions. And even though he is obviously not the first to exhaustively address this issue, in his discourse Freedom of the Will, he redefines the concept of liberty, and consequently debunks the notion that people are not responsible for their own actions.
Edwards says that even though God has decreed whatever shall come to pass, each human being is free in that he or she acts without coercion. So although God has already ordained every direction that I will take, and thus is completely sovereign, I act in a way that is consistent with my nature and free from external constraint or restraint. He argues: “Let the person come by his volition or choice how he will, yet, if he is able, and there is nothing in the way to hinder his pursuing and executing his will, the man is fully and perfectly free.” In unparalleled fashion, Edwards demonstrates in this writing that human freedom and God’s sovereignty can and do co-exist, and that a high view of God’s sovereignty is not incompatible with an acceptance of human moral responsibility.
I appreciate the way Edwards balances the concept of God’s mediate and immediate working. He beautifully explains that God often does things directly and supernaturally, but often providentially employs means, such as people (or even the devil) to accomplish his plan. In the well-known sermon, Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God, he says: “The devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own at what moment God should permit him.” Even the devil is God’s devil, as Martin Luther said, in the sense that he is a created being and completely subject to God’s divine power and sovereignty.
To Edwards, God’s sovereignty was both the reason for comfort and fear; we can take comfort in the fact that we will encounter nothing except that which God has already ordained. God is always with us, and, as his children, we can rest in his fatherly presence. Likewise, we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is working all things for our good and his glory.
Nevertheless, the sovereignty of God is reason for fear for those who reject Christ, because nothing can come to the aid of those against whom God has directed his powerful fury; hence Edwards: “Now God stands ready to pity you; this is the day of mercy; you may cry now with some encouragement of obtaining mercy.”
May God help us to rejoice in his sovereignty the way that Jonathan Edwards did, and to revel in the true freedom we enjoy in Christ: not just the freedom to act without being coerced, but the liberation from the law’s condemnation and from sin’s curse that we enjoy because we have been declared righteous in Christ by faith!
For His Glory,