God's will and our free will

I. Why do we pray?

Before we ask how to seek for God's will, we should ask what God's will is. If God will is absolute, then why do we bother to pray? The following message posted in the newsgroup alt.religion.christian reflects the view of God's absolute will.

"Most professing Christians believe that God is sovereign. but how sovereign? when it comes to prayer the Christian seems to be more sovereign than Him. "Claim it and you have it" is the common expression we hear during prayer meetings. I heard a preacher said that we can change the mind of God when we pray. I think God's sovereignty is absolute and no matter how we pray or what we pray, sincere or not, He is not affected at all. as Steve Green says in his song, it's God and God's alone. This always stops us from being boastful about "good" things happening in our life AND keeps us humble and trustful in "rough" situations."

--Joey Santos,Punlaan Christian Movement

Several Christians regard prayer as a spiritual exercise. The effect of prayer is our interior renewal rather than changes in external circumstance.

II. Predestination vs. Free will

The debate between God's absolute plan (predestination) and human's free will has been dragged for thousands years. Originally the argument was concerned with whether God granted salvation to certain people and excluded certain others. Now the topic is extended to whether EVERYTHING is pre-determined by God.

  • St. Augustine vs. Pelagius

    According to St. Augustine, humans are born with the original sin, and therefore we are unable to exercise the power of free will to do good. Although faith seems to be an act of free will, actually it is a gift of God. On the contrary, Pelagius denied the sinful nature of humans. Later Charles Finnely claimed that it is possible for humans to reach the standard of God on our own will.

    This is the oldest surviving portrait of Augustine, from the Lateran in Rome in the sixth century. The frame is added by me, not from the original.

  • Luther vs. Erasmus

    Erasmus contended that salvation is a cooperative enterprise of God and man, even though man's share in it is so small. Martin Luther, on the other hand , was opposed to the notion that "good works," which were emphasized by the Catholic church, can make a good man. In contrast, salvation is totally a grace of God in which man can do nothing.

    A Treaty of God Works, Martin Luther (1520).

  • Calvin vs. Bolsec & Arminian

    Calvin asserted that since the fall of Adam and Eve, every aspect of humans are corrupted, including our reason and will. In the same vein of Augustine and Luther, Calvin stated that humans are not capable of knowing and choosing God. Instead, the sovereign God has His absolute plan of salvation. Bolsec, Calvin's opponent, viewed the relationship between God and man as an interactive and mutual covenant. Calvin's doctrine is named as classical predestination while Bolsec's view is entitled covenantal school. Later Calvin's ideas was summarized as "Five Points," in reply to the challenges of Arminians.

    By carefully examining two sides of views, Holtrop (1993) asserted that Calvinist classical predestination implies Aristotelian view of remote and proximate causality--as well as a sharp line between eternity and history. While this classical views begin with a picture of God as immutable, the covenantal alternative sees Him as more personal in the way he interacts with people in history, Philip said it is less Greek and more Biblical.

  • Recent development

    For several hundred years, predestination has been the majority while free will remained the minority. In this century, more and more theologians suggested another theory of God's will: God is no longer to be understood as an immutable monarch controlling human history and individual lives, but rather is to be seen as a self-limiting, loving, and suffering father who allows himself to be affected by his creatures (e.g. Hans. Kung, T. Chardin, John Cobb, David Griffin, Clark Pinnock).

    The dilemma about predestination and free will is no longer just a religious question. Scientists also involve into the debate of determinism. For example, Quantum mechanics implies that the reality is composed of many possibilities, but Einstein didn't like quantum mechanics because he said "God doesn't play a dice with the universe."

III. Applications

  • No single best

    God did not program us in everything and prepare us just one best thing. In this sense, there is no single best school, best career or best mate. There are always pros and cons in every choice. Perhaps the issue is not which is the right university prepared by God, but what is the right attitude towards study. By the same token, the question is not who is the right person to marry, but what is the right attitude towards love and marriage.

  • Yet there is a boundary

    The above notion does not imply that we can do anything as we like. There is still a boundary. We know that it is definitely not the will of God for us to steal or to murder. Before we inquire whether something is God's will, use our head!

  • Act as an grown-up

    The emphasis of the preparation of God may reinforce our laziness and cowardice. During the reign of Nazi in World war II, several German pastors such as Paul Tillich and D. Bonhoeffer were disappointed at the silent gesture of Germany churches. Bonhoeffer said "the world has come of age" (grown-up) and it was humans' responsibility to fight against the ungodly regime. He participated in an underground movement against Hitler, and at last was arrested and executed. God's will is actualized through humans!

    The following story printed in Reader's Digest is a good illustration: Once a flood occurred in Peter's home town. A driver drove by and offered Peter a ride to get to a safe place. Peter refused and said, "I am waiting for God's rescue." Later the water level went up and thus Peter stayed in the balcony. A boat went by and people in the boat asked Peter to leave with them. Peter gave them the same answer. When the house was almost totally submerged into the water, Peter climbed up to the roof. A helicopter came and attempted to take Peter away, but Peter still wanted to wait for God's plan. At last Peter was killed. In Heaven Peter questioned God, "I have faith in you. Why didn't you save me?" God said, "I have sent one car, one boat, and one helicopter to help you!"


Baillie, J., McNeill, & Van Dusen, H. P. (Eds.) (1969). Luther and Erasmus: Free will and salvation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Holtrop, P. C. (1993). The Bolsec controversy on predestination, from 1551 to 1555: the statements of Jerome Bolsec, and the responses of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and other Reformed theologians. Lewiston, NY : E. Mellen.

Recommended further reading

Bonhoeffer, D. (1967). Letters and papers from prison. New York: Macmillan.