Sovereignty of God vs Free Will of Man


The best place to start here is with definitions.

SOVEREIGN – Possessing supreme dominion and power above all. God’s absolute right to do all things according to His own good pleasure.

FREE WILL – Having both the ability and the will to make a choice free of external control or determination. Specifically in this context, the question is “does man have BOTH the ability and will to freely choose salvation from God?”

QUESTIONS – On a scale of 1 to 10, how much sovereignty does God have? If God is fully sovereign and ordains everything, can man truly have a free will? If God is not fully sovereign, can He truly know future things or make promises that cannot be broken? Respectfully, I’m not interested in the 1,001 opinions that are out there – I’m specifically concerned about what the Bible teaches on the subject.

To that end, this document lists verses that both implicitly and explicitly teach of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will on the question of salvation. It also lists a few verses that seem to negate God’s sovereignty and negate man’s free will. The verses are not exhaustive, but demonstrate Biblical thinking and consistency on these issues. If we bother to separate the explicit and implicit verses on this subject, we’ll see a very consistent Biblical pattern emerge.


God’s Sovereignty

Verses that imply God is sovereign

Gen 18:14
Ex 4:11
Eccl 7:13-14
Jer 32:27
Lam 3:37-38
Amos 3:6
Rom 9:19

Verses that explicitly state God is sovereign

Ex 4:11
Deut 32:39
2 Chr 20:6
Ps 103:19
Ps 115:3
Ps 135:6
Isa 45:5-7
Isa 46:10
Dan 4:35
Luke 1:37
Acts 4:27-28
Acts 17:26
Rev 17:17

Verses that imply God is not sovereign

Gen 6:6
Ex 32:14
1 Sam 15:11
2 Sam 24:16
Jonah 3:10

Verses that explicitly state God is not sovereign

(No verses!)

Free Will

Verses that imply Man has free will

Deut 30:19
Josh 24:15
John 3:16
John 5:40
Acts 2:21
Acts 3:19
Acts 16:31
Rev 22:17

Verses that explicitly state Man has free will

(No verses!)

Verses that imply Man does not have free will

Ex 10:1-2
Ex 12:36
Ex 14:17
Deut 2:30
Deut 29:4
Josh 24:19
2 Chr 25:20
Ps 105:25
Isa 44:28
Isa 63:17

Verses that explicitly state Man does not have free will

Prov 21:1
Isa 6:10
Eze 36:26-27
Mark 4:11-12
John 6:44
John 6:65
John 8:43
John 10:26
John 12:39-40
Rom 6:17
Rom 8:7-8
Rom 9:18
Rom 11:8
Rev 17:17

Here are the verses listed in the above table.

Verses that imply God is Sovereign

Gen 18:14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

Ex 4:11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?

Eccl 7:13-14 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

Jer 32:27 “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?

Lam 3:37-38 Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?

Amos 3:6 Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?

Rom 9:19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?”

Verses that explicitly state God is Sovereign

Exod 4:11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?

Deut 32:39 See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

2 Chr 20:6 and said, “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand You.

Ps 103:19 The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His kingdom rules over all.

Ps 115:3 Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases.

Ps 135:6 Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.

Isa 45:5-7 I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides Me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.

Isa 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose,’

Dan 4:35 All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?”

Luke 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.

Acts 4:27-28 For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place.

Acts 17:26 And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place

Rev 17:17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.

Verses that imply God is not Sovereign

Gen 6:6 And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart.

Exod 32:14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on His people.

1 Sam 15:11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not performed My commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.

2 Sam 24:16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

Jonah 3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, and He did not do it.

Verses that explicitly state God is not Sovereign

(no verses found)

Verses that imply Man has Free Will

Deut 30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.

Josh 24:15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 5:40 Yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

Acts 2:21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.

Acts 16:31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Rev 22:17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

Verses that explicitly state Man has Free Will

(no verses found – except maybe Gen 2:16, but that was before the fall.)

Verses that imply Man does not have Free Will

Exod 10:1-2 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them,and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.”

Exod 12:36 And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

Exod 14:17 And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.

Deut 2:30 But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that He might give him into your hand, as He is this day.

Deut 29:4 But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.

Josh 24:19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. (Note – this is 5 verses after “Choose this day whom you will serve…”)

2 Chr 25:20 But Amaziah would not listen, for it was of God, in order that He might give them into the hand of their enemies, because they had sought the gods of Edom.

Ps 105:25 He turned their hearts to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants.

Isa 44:28 Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd, and he shall fulfill all My purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”

Isa 63:17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.


Verses that explicitly state Man does not have Free Will

Prov 21:1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He will.

Isa 6:10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (Note – this is the 3rd most frequently quoted passage in the NT)

Ezek 36:26-27 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.

Mark 4:11-12 And He said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:65 And He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

John 8:43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.

John 10:26 But you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.

John 12:39-40 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”

Rom 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,

Rom 8:7-8 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Rom 9:18 So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.

Rom 11:8 As it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”

Rev 17:17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.


On the question of God’s Sovereignty vs Man’s Free Will, I think it’s critical to differentiate between verses that imply something and verses that explicitly teach something. I think it’s beneficial to break down our research into 8 distinct categories to see what the Bible teaches us on the issue as a whole:

A. Verses that imply God is sovereign
B. Verses that explicitly teach God is sovereign
C. Verses that imply God is NOT sovereign
D. Verses that explicitly teach God is NOT sovereign
E. Verses that imply Man has free will
F. Verses that explicitly teach Man has free will
G. Verses that imply Man has NO free will
H. Verses that explicitly teach Man has NO free will

If we grant full weight to the verses that imply a conclusion and assume them to be of equal standing as the verses that explicitly teach a conclusion, we’ll run into contradictions and illogical paradoxes. Instead, we need our thoughts to be first shaped by explicit verses, and then use the implicit verses to flesh out “the rest of the story”.

Here’s why the distinction between explicit and implicit verses is so critical:

– There are a few verses (only a few) that say that God ‘repents’, ‘is sorry’, ‘changes His mind’, etc, and therefore imply that God is not sovereign (Gen 6:6;  Exod 32:14;  1 Sam 15:11;  2 Sam 24:16;  Jonah 3:10). These are the verses that fall into Category C. Christians (except people like Gregory Boyd) reject these verses as instructive on the nature and character of God for two reasons: 1. There are no verses that explicitly teach God is not sovereign (Category D), 2. Because if God is not fully sovereign, then He can’t know the future, and can’t make promises (because He can’t control the future). In short, He is a small God, no bigger than the gods of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Babylonians, etc.

– There are a number of verses (quite a lot) that explicitly teach, in no uncertain terms, that God is sovereign and that there is no one or no thing that is superior or even comparable. Category B, if you will. (this is only a short list:  Exod 4:11;  Deut 32:39;  2 Chr 20:6;  Ps 103:19;  Ps 115:3;  Ps 135:6;  Isa 45:5-7;  Isa 46:10;  Dan 4:35;  Luke 1:37;  Acts 4:27-28;  Acts 17:26;  Rev 17:17). With these verses in hand, the faithful Bible interpreter must therefore conclude that the few previous verses that imply God is not sovereign must give way to the plentiful verses that explicitly teach that God is sovereign and is therefore in complete control of the universe He created. Usually, we write off the former verses as ‘anthropomorphic’ and move on. If the former verses were explicit in teaching that God is not sovereign, then we’d have a real pickle on our hands. Thankfully, they only imply.

– There are a number of verses that say Man needs to choose God, and therefore many of us conclude that man is freely capable of doing so. It is my position that all of these verses in the Bible, without exception, only imply that man is free to choose, and do not explicitly teach, in no uncertain terms, that man is freely able to choose God. Every verse I can find corroborates that premise. If this is a deliberate recurring theme of the Biblical authors, then it begs the question: does man truly have free will to choose or reject God of his own volition?

– Lastly, there are a number of verses that explicitly teach, in no uncertain terms, that man, left to his own devices is incapable of choosing God or doing anything that pleases God, and furthermore, any time he does something that pleases God, it is God working in him to do those things (this is a short list:  Prov 21:1;  Isa 6:10;  Ezek 36:26-27;  Mark 4:11-12;  John 6:44;  John 6:65;  John 8:43;  John 10:26;  John 12:39-40;  Rom 6:17;  Rom 8:7-8;  Rom 9:18;  Rom 11:8;  Rev 17:17).

As with the question of God’s sovereignty, explicit verses against man’s free will cannot be brushed aside. Whatever our conclusion on the issue, these explicit verses must be prioritized over implicit verses in order for us to have a Biblical understanding of the topic at hand. To this end, the chart I gave out helps show the consistency of Biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty vs man’s free will.

I think the best way to harmonize these verses is to conclude that God saves whomsoever He wills regardless of their action/choice (Rom 9:11, 18), and He “borns them again” [sic] before they can have the sense to believe in Christ. This is, in a nutshell, Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’s question about how a man can be born again. This idea is also taught by Moses (Deut 30:6), Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:26-27, Jeremiah 32:39 and more. This is why Jesus said “What!? You’re a teacher of the Jews yet you don’t understand how the Holy Spirit works?” We would do well to take note.

To make matters worse, this idea of God’s sovereignty in DELIBERATELY limiting/rejecting man’s choice is shown not only in Pharaoh, but in many other places as well:  Deut 2:30,  Deut 29:4,  Josh 11:19,  Isa 6:9-10 (the 3rd most frequently quoted passage in the NT!),  Isa 29:9-10,  Isa 63:17,  Isa 29,  Rom 11:7-10,  2 Cor 3:15,  2 Thess 2:10-12 (and there are plenty more). If we cling to the idea of man’s free will, we’re stuck in a pickle trying to explain why God continually deliberately hardens, blinds and deafens people (and their children/grandchildren!  Isa 6:10). If we try to explain it by saying that they did it first so He’s giving them more of what they asked for (which is what I used to say), then we’re stuck explaining how He could then say that He wills that no human should perish. Interpreted as such, this one verse stating that God wills that no one should perish stands in stark opposition to the myriad of verses that say and demonstrate otherwise. (Clearly, it needs to be re-interpreted and understood in a way that is consistent with the rest of the Bible.) And what do we do about the children and grandchildren of those who have been deafened/blinded/hardened to God’s Word? Is 6 says that Isaiah’s message was to last till the Redeemer comes and stands alone. Best case scenario, that’s 750 years (or longer, if you take v 13 to be a future event). But either way you slice it, that’s an awful lot of hard hearts – hearts unable to “see/hear/believe God’s Word lest they repent and I should heal them”. Hearts that, in the final analysis, really don’t have much of a choice.

On the flip-side, if we simplified the question into two lists (one about God’s sovereignty vs one about man’s free will), we’ll look at verses that talk about God ‘repenting’, ‘being sorry’, ‘changing His mind’ and conclude that these verses teach us about the nature and character of God. We then become candidates for believing grave errors and heresies, much like Gregory Boyd, who teaches “Open Theism” – that God does not know all things of the future and that the future is subject to change w/o God’s knowledge. This is patently ludicrous on the face of it, even without looking at the verses that explicitly negate this nonsense: how can God make promises based on His immutable character if He can’t control the future? How can He claim that events are predestined if the future is subject to change beyond His control? (Imagine if God promised a plague in 3 days, but Pharaoh repented on the 2nd day. What then? Or imagine if a free-will Pilate had chosen to place his faith in the Truth of Christ, repented and snuck Jesus out of the praetorium so He wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews to be crucified? Would Jesus then have to wait 7 years and then try again to be crucified? And if we say “if Judas/Pilate/Annas didn’t do it, someone else would have”, then we’re only playing a mental shell game and dodging the real question of God’s sovereignty.) The problems with Open Theism are myriad, and I’m saddened that so many people willingly follow the likes of Gregory Boyd. Thankfully, people of his ilk are not as popular as they were 10 years ago.

So.. back to the question at hand: if we can find verses that, like the verses on God’s sovereignty, explicitly teach, in no uncertain terms that man has free will on the question of salvation, I’m very interested. But so far, I can’t find them. Until then, I’m convinced that, like Martin Luther taught, man’s “free will” is in bondage: until the Holy Spirit rips us from death and plunges us into life, we remain slaves to our lusts, inescapably bound to sin (Rom 8:1-9;  Heb 2:14-16).

But our pride convinces us we truly have free will.