How Do God’s Sovereignty and Our Free Will Work Together for Salvation?

God’s absolute authority over everything and our freedom to choose—we see evidence of both in Scripture, yet they seem so juxtaposed. So how do these principles work together in our salvation? Spiritual deadness can only be reversed by a sovereign God, which then frees us to exercise our free will and make choices—choices with everlasting significance.
Caroline Madison
How Do God’s Sovereignty and Our Free Will Work Together for Salvation?

God’s absolute authority over everything and our freedom to choose—we see evidence of both in Scripture, yet they seem so juxtaposed. So how do these principles work together in our salvation?

Spiritual deadness can only be reversed by a sovereign God, which then frees us to exercise our free will and make choices—choices with everlasting significance.

Our Condition

Scripture is teeming with examples of God as the inciting force in our lives. We need one desperately, because we are trapped in a state that has completely disabled us.

When God first created man, He established free will. He gave Adam and Eve a beautiful garden, animals to tend, plants to cultivate, and one command.

Violating that command resulted in a spiritual flatline that became the genetic inheritance of all their offspring.

  • Ephesians 2 describes us as spiritually dead.
  • In Romans 6, we are slaves to sin.
  • Romans 8 says that in our natural state, we are “actively hostile” toward God, unable to submit to or please Him (Romans 8:7-8).

When we draw our first breath, we are not spiritually neutral. We are by nature children of wrath and must be born again into the family of God.

We need life, freedom, and new birth, none of which we can accomplish for ourselves.

Sovereignty of God: An Inciting Force

“In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1) 

These familiar words mark not only the beginning of the Bible but also the universe. He is the source of everything good, and our salvation is no exception.

Sovereignty Definition: The Meriam Webster Dictionary defines sovereignty as “supreme power; freedom from external control; controlling influence.”

How is God sovereign?

God is indeed sovereign over all His creation. He knows all, sees all, and is in control of everything. But what does that mean for our salvation?

“And you [He made alive when you] were [spiritually] dead and separated from Him because of your transgressions and sins…” (Ephesians 2:1)

What options does a dead person have? Can they rally their strength, grasp a nearby support, and haul themselves up? Is it even possible for them to accept an offered hand? No. In the absence of some powerful, outside force, death is the end.

Without God’s input, we are completely unaware of what’s going on. Only God’s inciting force can shock our spiritual hearts into a steady cadence, freeing us to choose again.

Christ says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him [giving him the desire to come to Me]” (John 6:44).

We can see then that God must act first. He calls us like he did Lazarus when the man had spent the last four days dead in a tomb: “Lazarus, come out!” And at Christ’s summoning, he stumbled out shrouded in burial cloths.

God’s sovereignty working our salvation means that He chooses.

But then, aren’t we all dead men sealed in tombs waiting for God to call us out? If the only thing standing between us and salvation is God-given life, then what is God waiting for?

“The Lord does not delay [as though He were unable to act] and is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is [extraordinarily] patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

God is patiently waiting—for us. And our choices do matter.

Man’s Responsibility: Free Will in the Bible

Freewill Definition: Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines freewill as a “voluntary choice or decision.”

How much weight do our choices carry where salvation is concerned?

Speaking to Jewish Christians, the writer of Hebrews says: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so * that none * of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12).

The following chapters continue to urge Christians to be careful, stay on track, and not backslide or harden their hearts. Such dire warnings indicate the responsibility that we have as Christians, not to save ourselves, but to respond to God.

How Do We Have Free Will? Examples in the Bible

So many of God’s interactions with us are described in a way that requires our input.

1. God left instructions for Adam and Eve in the very beginning: any tree but this tree, any fruit but this fruit. He didn’t hardwire them with compliance, nor did he chop the tree down. In fact, we might wonder why he planted it there in the first place—unless their response to that instruction was vitally important. (Genesis 2:15-17)

2. God called to so many individuals: prophets, leaders, disciples. He called them by name, multiple times if they were reluctant or asleep, as in the case of Samuel (1 Samuel 3). When Jesus asked the disciples to follow him, they had to leave their boats, exchanging all personal business for His (Matthew 4:18-22). A call requires an answer, whatever that answer might be. And God’s heart broke when His call was not received (Matthew 23:37).

3. God invited many to an earthly feast in a parable depicting the heavenly one. When those invitations were turned down with a slew of limp excuses, he invited everyone else, and they chose to come (Matthew 22:1-14).

Instructions require obedience. A call requires an answer. An invitation to a feast must be accepted or declined.

Our input is of eternal importance to God, which is why he tells us what we must do as believers and why:

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

God calls, we respond. We abide, and God provides the increase. That is the beautiful harmony of God’s sovereignty and man’s freewill.

Caroline Madison is an editor at Salem Web Network with a passion for words and biblical truth.

Photo Credit: GettyImages/oatawa


Originally published April 30, 2019.