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Last night was unusually active, spiritually speaking. As I was drifting to sleep, God began to talk to me about the difference between His sovereignty and men’s views about fate. One of the first things He brought to mind was Josephus’ description of the three main sects within Judaism in the first century and how they differed in their views regarding “fate.”
When I went to sleep, this continued unabated, and every time I awoke during the night, the revelation continued without interruption. It was still ongoing when I awoke this morning. So obviously, I know that I must share with you what I learned overnight.
Three Views in History
Josephus was the Jewish general who led the revolt against Rome in the late 60’s before his defeat and capture. He then attempted to persuade the Jews to give up their rebellion so as to avoid utter disaster, but his calls went largely unheeded. So Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., and the war ended with the taking of Masada in 73 A.D. Millions of Jews were either killed or sold into slavery, beginning a whole new era in their history.
Josephus lived to write a number of books including an account of the Jewish Revolt itself called Wars of the Jews. Later, he wrote a longer history of Israel and Judah from Adam to his own time called Antiquities of the Jews. In both, he spoke of the three sects that were known as the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Josephus admired the discipline of the Essenes but was himself a practicing Pharisee. Insofar as their differing views of “fate,” he wrote this:
“At this time there were three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essens [or Essenes].
Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power; and that they are liable to fate, but not caused by fate.
But the sect of the Essens affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination.
And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that we ourselves are the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.” [Antiquities, XIII, v, 9]
These three opinions have carried over into the church as well (broadly speaking). The majority, I think, agree with the Pharisees, who believed that God is sovereign but that man also has free will. This is a juggling act that tries to claim a belief in the sovereignty of God while affirming man’s free will.
The Calvinists, led by John Calvin, took the position of the Essenes, affirming the sovereignty of God and rejecting free will altogether.
Calvin’s nemesis, Arminius, took the position of the Sadducees, denying the sovereignty of God and affirming man’s free will.
The Rights and Responsibilities of God and Men
The three Jewish sects are well represented in the church today, for the debate has continued to the present time. Unfortunately, the debate (in my view) lacks revelation, for those who developed these views had a Greek philosophical mindset. Hence, their debate was not so much about the sovereignty of God but about fatalism. They debated the idea of free will when they should have been debating the nature of authority that God gave Adam in Genesis 1:26.
By shifting the debate to fate vs. free will, they missed the revelation of God, by which we may understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s authority.
God’s sovereignty is based upon Genesis 1:1, and it is based upon God’s rights as the Creator. Basic labor laws show that both God and men own their own labor, and with ownership comes responsibility (and liability) for that which they own. God owns all that He created and is therefore ultimately responsible for it. Man takes what God has created and reshapes it to make it more useful, and this gives man authority over his own labor.
In other words, a carpenter owns the furniture that he makes, but God owns the wood that he uses. Hence, God retains sovereignty over that which He created, while man is a steward, having authority over his own labor. Man has no right to shape or form God’s property into something that dishonors Him—such as making an idol.
The law is given mainly to set the standard of righteousness, based on God’s nature. The law then sets boundaries, or what we call “rights.” God has rights, and man has rights, according to the provisions of the law. As stewards, our authority is real and yet it is subordinate to God’s sovereignty. Free will is an illusion, but authority is real, for it is supported by God’s law.
Free will attempts to hold on to the belief that man is a sovereign being, while authority recognizes a higher power and God’s rights as the Creator. Of course, the degree of man’s stewardship varies according to his relationship with God. There are many who violate God’s rights, thinking that they themselves are sovereign beings. It is only as we come to understand our position as God’s stewards that we are able to be obedient and ultimately to conform to His image with the mind of Christ.
In the end, because God is sovereign over His creation, He is responsible to bring us all to the place where we are all in perfect agreement with Him. This is known biblically as the reconciliation of all things. Since the first sin, man has been at enmity with God, but God has taken responsibility upon Himself to reconcile the world, even while it yet fights Him (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19; Romans 5:10). His motive is love, which is the essence of His nature (1 John 4:8).
The entire law of God is built upon the rights of labor and the responsibilities of ownership. The main laws revealing this are found in Exodus 22.
Sovereignty vs. Fatalism
The sovereignty of God is taught everywhere in Scripture. Most Christians understand this in theory but in practice they tend to confuse it with non-biblical fatalism. In fact, that is why the Jewish sects, as well as later Christian schools of thought, wrestled with this issue. Calvin understood the sovereignty of God in Romans 9 but he failed to understand His responsibility for His creation. Neither did he have a good concept of the love of God that is set forth in Romans 5.
For that reason, Arminius found fault with Calvin and with the entire concept of God’s sovereignty. Arminius was actually fighting against Calvin’s fatalist tendencies, because neither man understood the real underlying issue. By teaching free will, Arminius rejected fatalism but did so at the expense of God’s rights as the Creator. Neither understood the purpose of authority or its limited liability.
God’s sovereignty is based upon His love-nature, which takes the responsibility for all of the ills that have befallen man since the first sin. Being responsible, God has not chosen a few for salvation nor has He willfully discarded the vast majority of mankind. Instead, the wisdom of God has devised a plan consistent with His love-nature, by which He can save the whole world and thus fulfill the responsibility of ownership set forth in His law.
The result is that God’s sovereignty is enveloped in love, warmth, and a Father-son relationship. God is not merely attached to us as a man might love a tree or admire a beautiful piece of furniture. We are His offspring (Acts 17:28 KJV). We are His children, begotten by our heavenly Father. Our value is incalculable. All of us.
On the other hand, fatalism portrays God as an uncaring or indifferent tyrant, hardly differing from the deist’s impersonal god of nature or Darwin’s brutal view of the survival of the fittest. Fatalism leaves the poor and downtrodden in a hopeless condition (at least in this life) and the rich and powerful to exploit the poor with impunity.
The majority of fatalists are oppressed and have been convinced to accept their fate as being inevitable and irreversible. Man is seen as a helpless creature in an inescapable cycle of misery. Fatalism is the acceptance of despair, leaving a person only with hope in an afterlife. Such despair prevents people—and entire societies—from improving their condition or advancing technologically. In short, life is a tragedy interrupted on occasion with moments of joy.
The Purpose of Labor
The purpose of labor is not merely to exist but to shape God’s creation into useful and beneficial ways—such as turning wood into furniture. The divine mandate was to “subdue” the earth, not to degrade it or pollute it but to be a co-laborer with God in blessing all families of the earth. The biblical attitude says, “Let’s build something to improve our standard of living and to give us opportunity at the end of the day or week to rest. Labor is good, but hard labor with no rest in sight is a curse for sin (Genesis 3:17-19).
Fatalism is not conducive to fulfilling God’s purpose in the earth. Fatalism accepts the current condition of hard labor—oppression, poverty, sickness, and hand-to-mouth existence—as normal, inevitable, and right. Fatalism brings despair which seeks to escape this world, whether through meditation and endless repetitions of meaningless mantras such as om, or through drugs or even through the Christian idea of escaping tribulation in a Rapture.
It does not occur to fatalists that there might be solutions to the problems in this life-as-usual, for their belief prevents them from imagining such possibilities. So they accept the status quo and discipline themselves to endure life, hoping for a better life (or reincarnation) later. Their hope is built upon accepting what karma has imposed upon them, for if they suffer sufficiently now, they hope to see an improvement of their condition in the next life.
Societies built upon such fatalism could not be expected to produce a high level of technology, nor could such despair produce great music. It was the biblical worldview, once it became known to the Europeans through the use of the printing press and the translations of the Scriptures into the common language, which brought about the great leap in scientific and technological knowledge, along with harmony in classical music.
Modern music grew out of a belief in the logical, orderly, and harmonious universe. Classical music sought to express this and thereby instill such a mindset in Christian society.
Modern scientific inquiry grew out of men’s desire to understand God’s creation, along with the belief in a rational God, as opposed to the whimsical, tyrannical, and often petulant gods of various religions. Science was later secularized and used to subvert God’s purpose and to deny the rights of God, and this naturally resulted in the degradation of man to the level of a beast. No longer did the stars sing together in harmony. Nature was ruled by “tooth and claw.”
Nonetheless, even such perverted, secular science as we know it today owes its existence to those who had a biblical worldview.
Philosophers have attempted to explain man’s ability to make choices in terms of free will. But this is not the proper explanation. We do not deny man’s will or his ability to make choices. We simply say that those choices spring from deeper causes that are largely hidden. We are influenced by all of our past experiences and by our culture. It would be ludicrous to insist that a man living in the Congo a thousand years ago had the free will to accept Christ or not. The choice was never given to him, so he was never given opportunity to exercise the authority to choose Christ.
Herein is where God’s sovereignty becomes important. Whereas man’s authority is limited in many ways, God’s sovereignty is not. Even man’s death is not an impediment to God’s ability to save all mankind. In His wisdom, God decreed an age to come that would begin with the resurrection of all the dead (Revelation 20:12). In that age, the fire of His nature (the “fiery law” of Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV), would judge the earth, causing all who were ignorant of God to “learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:9).
In that age, the sovereignty of God will become clear to all, for a sinner’s resurrection will be like an arrest warrant, calling him to give account of his actions before the Great White Throne. When judged, his freedom is limited, for he will be “sold” to a redeemer who will be his master. That master will be responsible for him even while his slave/servant serves him under Christ. That is the judgment of the law (Exodus 22:3), and that is the nature of the “fiery law.”
Slaves may appear to have “free will,” but in actuality, their freedom of will is limited by a higher power and enforced by the law if necessary. Slaves must put on the mind of their master, and in the case of the age of judgment yet to come, all such slaves must put on the mind of Christ and conform to His image. That age will end with the final Jubilee, where the law demands that all who have lost their inheritance through Adam’s sin will be restored. The accounts will be reconciled, and God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
In this way, God will fulfill His responsibility for that which He created. His sovereignty will be vindicated, not by casting aside most of humanity as if they were fully to blame for their own condition, but by saving all of humanity and restoring them to the place of union with Christ. Man’s authority, which has been misused since the first sin, will also be fulfilled at the same time, for all men will exercise their God-given authority in the manner that is consistent with the nature and purpose of God Himself.