God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will

Someone recently asked about the difficult subject of God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will, two ideas hard to reconcile.  How can God know what a person is going to do and yet the person retains free will?  Doesn’t God’s revelation of a person’s future choice lock them into a predetermined outcome?

This is a complex subject which challenges us to understand and apply a divine trait to real world situations.  First, God’s nature and capacity extend far beyond what He has revealed to us.  However, our view of God, though partial, is sufficient to inform and motivate us in serving Him on earth:  “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Dt 29:29).  Moses’ observation is applicable today.  We have the full picture of God’s redemptive purposes, His divinity as modeled by His Son and information pertaining to our eternal destiny.  Indeed, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Pet 1:3-4).  But God has left “secret things” unrevealed.

Secondly, we are dealing with God’s eternal and omniscient qualities as they interface with His creation – the realm of time, space and matter.  Not only does God have a complex understanding of astrophysics; subatomic particles; the interactions of ocean, land and atmosphere to maintain a habitable earthly biosphere; the impact of environmental, nutritional and pathogenic effects on the human body; etc., He also is intimately acquainted with the human mind – its corruption, intention, ambition, etc.

Ø“Give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You, only You, know the hearts of all the sons of men)” – 1 Kgs 8:39.

Ø“Know the God of your father, and serve Him with a loyal heart and with a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts” 1 Chr 28:9.

Ø“I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind.  Even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” – Jer 17: 10 (cf. also Heb 4:12; 1 Cor 4:5).

There is nothing either of the generic makeup of mankind’s mental realm or of the specific motivations and choices of each individual that is beyond God’s awareness.  “Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25).  This divine capacity alone is impossible for we humans to fathom. 

Not only does God know the thoughts and intentions of all men, He has openly declared them in previous times through prophets (He still retains this capacity, but He doesn’t give new revelation today which foretells what specific individuals will do).  This is where the topic gets even more complicated.  We must remember in working through this thorny question that God dwells outside of time.  That is, time is a feature of this created world, and it causes our existence to elapse in a linear, moment-by-moment procession.  The past is inaccessible, unalterable; we live in a fleeting present; and the future hasn’t occurred yet but will eventually come unless preempted by God Himself.  In relation to the future, all humans can do is make educated guesses as to what we think might happen or what people might do or even how elections might turn out.  But where we are sorely limited in our view of the future, God’s perfect knowledge of all His creation provides Him with crystal clarity on how all things will transpire.

So, does God’s foreknowledge neutralize man’s free will?  This is not how Scripture presents reality, for man is still urged to avoid or choose differently concerning things foretold.               

Abraham.  Even though God chose Abraham as the father of the nation (Israel) through whom redemption (in Christ) would come, and He knew Abraham would obey His directives in faith, yet the Hebrew writer says, “And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15). 

Cyrus.  Isaiah tells of a future ruler who has not yet been born (Cyrus), who will lead an empire that has not yet arisen (Persia), that will perform a specific service for God (cf. Is 45:1-13).  Both preceding kingdoms, Assyria and Babylon, destroyed the cohesion of their conquered peoples via dispersion, but God indicates that Cyrus would employ a different political tactic – repatriation.  While Cyrus will operate from his own motives and objectives, God foretells exactly what he will do as he fulfills prophecy concerning Israel’s return after 70 years in captivity. 

Judas.  Though many other examples could be cited, Judas particularly troubles some.  After Judas has left the Passover to make final arrangements for betrayal, Jesus prays, “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name.  Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost, except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn 17:12).  Though the betrayal of Judas had been prophesied  (Zech 11:12-13; Mt 27:9-10), Jesus attempted to deter him from following through with it (cf. Mt 17:22; 20:18; 26:24-25; Lk 22:48).  Judas retained free will, but God knew how he would use it.  Unheeded warnings testify not of a lack of choice but the stubbornness of a sinful heart.

If foreknowledge preempts free will, why does God warn the wicked to change course?  God had foretold Pharaoh’s obstinacy (Ex 3:19), yet numerous appeals are made for him to change his mind.  Jesus’ rejection by the Jews had been abundantly prophesied, yet Jesus spends three years providing evidence for them to believe in Him.  This not only seems pointless but disingenuous.  Why try to persuade people to change if their behavior has been fixed by divine foreknowledge? 

Calvinism has built a false doctrinal framework on the notion that God’s sovereignty negates human free will.  Yet Scripture tells us that we have choices to make every day:  “For I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’” (Is 46:10); “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life …” (Dt 30:19).  Whether we understand it or not, both sides of the equation are true.  God knows what we will choose.