John Piper offers a thoughtful response to this question. The edited transcript follows:
A friend thinks allowing men free will, and yet still achieving his purposes, shows a greater view of God’s sovereignty. What are your thoughts on this?
Let me define the term first, and then I’ll respond. I’m going to assume that by “free will” he means something really controversial, not something obvious. What I’m going to assume the term means is “real, ultimate self-determination,” because that’s the only kind of free will that is controversial.
I think most lay people, when they talk about free will, just mean, “I really choose,” and of course you do. So fine, you have free will. We all do. But those who are theologically thinking and writing about this, what they mean is that I, John Piper, am able, ultimately and decisively, to determine my own will, and God cannot and does not when I chose that he won’t. So I have that kind of autonomy in the universe.
I don’t think that exists anywhere. There’s not one verse in the Bible that says we have such a thing. And the people start grasping for verses: “Whosoever will, let him come!” Well of course whosoever will let him come! But why does one will and not another? That’s the question.
So, is God more glorious to somehow ordain that human beings have autonomy (self-determination, ultimately), so that he cannot, once he has made that decree, guide what they do without intruding upon their moral capacities and turning them into robots?
They say that God doing that and still pulling off his ultimate purposes is more glorious. And I would say that they’ve just created a universe in their head that doesn’t exist, and they’re pronouncing on it.
I don’t create universes that don’t exist. I don’t find it helpful to imagine a universe that doesn’t exist and then say that it’s a more glorious one than this one, because I’m given a universe. And then I’m given the Creator’s interpretation of the universe, right here in the Bible. And this book says that universe doesn’t exist. You could speculate about it all you want, but it doesn’t.
Now I’m going to go further than that and say that a universe in which God gives all people that kind of autonomy and self-determination, that universe isn’t superior, because God would have made it if it were superior.
If you say, “You’re going in a circle here, aren’t you?”—saying it doesn’t exist and therefore I don’t believe it, and then saying that if it were better it would exist—I say “No, because I’m just basing my understanding of this universe on this book.” This book says we don’t have that kind of autonomy.
Romans 9:16-17: “It is not of man who wills or runs, but of God who has mercy.” Our willing and our running are not decisive. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Verse after verse in the Bible teaches that my willing—which is real, responsible, accountable—is not decisively and ultimately my own creation. It is God’s decisive governing.
My willing is real. My willing is responsible. And this is what’s glorious, if you ask me what’s the most glorious universe: the most glorious universe is the universe in which we really will things, and we are really responsible for what we will, and we will be held accountable for the choices we make. And God is still absolutely sovereign over those willings.
That’s the great paradox. That’s the great mystery and the great glory. Not the universe that somebody creates out of their own heads where everybody is endowed with the autonomy that only God has.
By John Piper. © Desiring God.