The Sovereignty of God and human free will

Jonah is the ultimate book about the Sovereignty of God and His interaction with free creatures. 

I am floored when I read that God hurled the wind (1:4), or caused the storm to not let the sailors row back to shore (1:13-14), or that God caused inanimate objects like lots (or dice) to fall on Jonah (1:7), or for a great fish to swallow Jonah while he was running from the LORD (1:17).

It is unbelievable the fish obeyed (1:17 & 2:10).

It is even more unbelievable that wicked people like Ninevites would respond in belief and repentance to simple preaching such as, “Destruction will come on you in 40 days” (3:5).  And it is intriguing that God responded to their repentance by relenting (3:10).

What does this all mean in relation to God’s sovereignty and our free will? Do we have free will? Does God change His mind?

First, let us look at what we learn about God in this story:

Yahweh, the LORD, is the Creator of all things, He is the source of life and all that exists:

  • Yahweh is Creator of all things and persons (Jonah 1:9; 4:10).
  • He creates the storm (1:4), the fish (1:17), the plant (4:6), the worm (4:7), the scorching east wind (4:8).
  • He is Creator of Jonah and the inhabitants of Nineveh (4:9-11).
  • The LORD is creator of the animals in Nineveh (4:11).

The LORD is Sustainer, Sovereign over all, and Savior:

  • Hurling the storm, appointing the fish, plant, worm, wind = sovereignty.
  • He is the only one who can save the sailors (1:6, 14) = Yahweh is Savior
  • He is the only one who can save Jonah (2:2, 6, 9, 10) = Yahweh is Savior
  • In fact He is sovereign to save Jonah, even when Jonah doesn’t want to be saved (1:16-17) = Yahweh is Sovereign over salvation
  • He is the only one who can save Nineveh (3:9; 4:11) = Yahweh alone Saves
  • The sailors’ gods (1:5) and idols cannot save (2:8), and they have no power over the sea.
  • Only in the LORD God of the Hebrews is salvation (2:9).
  • The LORD can take Jonah’s life (4:3) = He is Sovereign over human life
  • The sailors come to learn by experience that they are entirely dependent on the LORD for their existence and sustenance or continuing existence (1:10, 12, 14; 2:6-7).
  • Jonah comes to learn that by fleeing from God he will face death, unless he repents and does what the LORD has called him to do (1:12; 2:4, 9).

Humans are called to observe the LORD’s Sovereignty and respond in obedience and worship:

  • The verb “to go down” means to disobey God (1:2, 3, 5; 2:6) and be out of His will, with all the emotional distance and depression experienced in disobedience (1:5 – “down” in the ship and “laid down” sleeping implies he was hiding from God and depressed, which resulted in slumber).
  • The verb translated “to rise up” or “arise” (1:2, 3, 6; 3:2, 3, 6) or “lift up” means to obey God (1:12, 15) and be pointed toward life.

The LORD God is a God of Mercy and Grace:

  • All of life is dependent on God’s General Grace given to all.  His mercy sustains the good and evil in this world to give all an opportunity to repent (see chapter 4, especially v. 11).
  • Mercy sustained the life of disobedient Jonah (chapters 1-3).
  • Mercy sustained the sailors so they would repent (1:16).
  • Mercy sustained the Ninevites to hear the preaching so they might repent (3:9).
  • God can do anything He wants to with creation (4:10-11) – but He deals with creation with mercy to preserve humanity for the offer repentance.

So what do we learn about God?

He is Creator, the Source of creation, and He is completely Sovereign, with the right and authority to do anything He wants to do, consistent with His character, within the realm of creation.


So do we have any real freedom?

In Jonah 3:1-4, Yahweh calls Jonah to preach.  He preaches total destruction of Nineveh for their evil, but gives them a 40 day grace period according to the word of the LORD.  And the Ninevites, from the greatest to the least of them, including the king and the animals participate in a fast, humbling themselves by wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes as they respond in belief and repentance.  The king, in making a proclamation of repentance to all of Nineveh, was calling not just for a flippant observance of a ritual of repentance, but for a total transformation of living, a reformation of laws and practices and a renouncing of evil and wickedness of the people so that perhaps God would change His mind and not bring total destruction.

And God relented of the evil He was going to bring on the Ninevites (3:10).

What does it mean, “God relented”? To relent in Hebrew is nehem, which means “to show compassion” or “to change one’s mind.”  In other words God showed compassion to the Ninevites and did not destroy them.  He relented from sending calamity.

What does this say about the nature of God?

In 1 Samuel 15:21 it says, “…the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind [nehem], for He is not a man, that He should change His mind [nehem].”  But in 1 Samuel 15, in v. 11 and v. 35 it says, “I am grieved [nehem] that I have made Saul King.”  An explanation of what is going on in 1 Samuel 15 will help us to understand Jonah, and help us to understand God’s interaction with human free agents.  In short,

“God does not capriciously change His intentions or ways of acting.  It is the change in Saul’s behavior that leads to this expression of regret [nehem].” (Mike Buttersowrth, in The New International Disctionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis: Vol. 3, edited by Willem VanGemeren, p.82).

Let me translate: the LORD’s “changing” is not a change of the character of God, as if He made a mistake and needs to correct His mistake.  Rather, as humans respond to God, so also God responds righteously to humans in His just character implying there is a genuine interaction.  And sometimes God brings about certain circumstances prompt a certain response in humans.  And when they respond appropriately, God responds in compassion and lessens His punishment.

But the real question is: If God is Sovereign and All-Knowing, then why would He “change His mind” about anything? Especially if, as hyper-Calvinists would say, God predetermines all things from the smallest to the greatest details? Is there any true freedom in such a situation?

This is a really hard question to answer because there are a many Scriptures that are like puzzle pieces we need to put together to come up with a comprehensive theological explanation.  And there is no theologian in the history of humanity who has put these puzzle pieces together in such a way that satisfies everyone.

So what are those puzzle pieces?

  1. God knows the future before anything actually happens (Psalm 139).
  2. God is All-powerful, creator of everything, Sovereign over creation, and able to do anything that He wants in the realm of the created order (Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, Jonah, Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20, and Revelation 20-22).
  3. God foreknows who will be spiritually saved and He even predestines the process through Jesus (Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:3-14).
  4. And, according to passages like Jonah 3:5-10 and James 5:13-20, the Sovereign God of the universe interacts genuinely with human free agents.

These are the four puzzle pieces about God’s Sovereignty and our free will; how these puzzle pieces fit together is the mystery of God.  The above may not have totally clarified things for you, but the good news is we don’t need to know how, exactly, this all works in order to trust God, interact with Him, and know that we are infinitely and abundantly loved by our God and saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


What makes a healthy church?

If you were to read any number of books on what makes a healthy church, you would see there are essentially 5-10 character qualities growing and thriving churches emphasize as a part of their mission, vision, values, and strategy.  Things like:

  • Worship – that is biblical, united, and passionate in corporate celebration.
  • True spirituality – that goes beyond worship on Sundays to bring about a worshipful lifestyle, dependent on the Holy Spirit moment-by-moment.
  • Leadership development – that guides individuals and the church at large to follow the Scriptures and which empowers people to lead and work within their gifting and passion.
  • Effective organizational structures – that increase good communication and cooperation between various ministries in the church to further the goal of making disciples who make disciples.
  • Loving relationships – that are authentic and community oriented while being welcoming to new comers and outsiders.
  • Gift-oriented ministry – making sure everyone knows their spiritual gifts, talents, abilities, and personality make-up so that congregants are utilizing their spiritual gifts to their full potential for the benefit of building up the body of Christ.
  • Holistic small groups – ones that are focused on learning to apply the Word of God in a small group community, which involves everyone being a minister to one another and everyone being a missionary together with one another.
  • Disciple making – a disciple making church is an evangelistic church, which takes converts they have been working on and makes them into disciples.

This last one is what I want to focus on for the remainder of this blog.


Because recently our church selected 30 leaders to take the Natural Church Development survey to determine: (1) if we are a healthy, growing church; (2) where we are strong; and (3) where we can improve to become even healthier and continue to grow spiritually and numerically.

The results were what we are a loving church, we have effective structures, people are working within their gifting, and our Home Communities feel like loving, caring groups.  But we struggle in worship and evangelism.  One of the reasons we hired Pastor Daniel was to help us in the area of worship, and he is doing a great job.  And I am seeking to improve my communication skills to make the word more practical and inspiring.

But what about evangelism? Why is it we are struggling to be an evangelistic church? What can we do to become more evangelistic? What is evangelism? Whose job is it to evangelize? The preacher? Or you?

I think one of the reasons Christians struggle to evangelize is because it is scary. Our hearts start to beat when we have the opportunity to share the gospel.  This happens, usually, because we have had bad experiences evangelizing, feeling like it was more of a confrontation than sharing God’s love.  Perhaps we think evangelism is supposed to be cold calls, or street evangelism, or door-to-door proselytizing.

But what really is evangelism? And how do you do it?

Evangelism is sharing the story of God from the perspective of the Bible and giving the person an opportunity to respond to the sharing of the gospel (gospel = good news = evangelism). If you read the book of Acts you will see multiple ways in which Christians shared the good news of Jesus Christ as they evangelized.  Acts 7 and 17 are two very different examples:

  • Acts 7 is an example of evangelism to people who know a lot about the Bible and need you to give them an overview of the Bible and show how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy (crucified and raised) and their only hope of eternal salvation.
  • Acts 17 is an example of evangelism to people who don’t know anything about the Bible.  This is more of an apologetic discussion in which you need to know their perspective and how to bridge what they know to some aspect of the gospel so that their interest is piqued.

If you want to learn how to evangelize, read and study Acts 7 comparing this to Acts 17 to learn how to evangelize.  (Also, I will be teaching a School of Theology class on evangelism starting January 11th, at 9:00am, room 129).

Why should you learn to do this? Why not just depend on the preacher?

You should learn to evangelize because this is the calling of every Christian. Notice in the following verses that Jesus calls His disciples to make disciples who make disciples.  How can they make disciples if they do not first evangelize? If Jesus meant, “Go disciple those who have already accepted Christ…” then the message of Christ crucified, Christ raised would have ended with the immediate followers of Jesus.  But Jesus didn’t say, “Make disciples of those who already believe.”  He said…

Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Why not just depend on the preacher? I kinda already explained this above, but take a look at Peter’s words below:

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

The preaching of the gospel was never meant to be a one-trick-pony-show. Evangelism and the making of disciples was never meant to be the job of only the preacher / priest / minister / pastor.

Bad gospel DNA neuters the voice of you, the church, by saying it is the role of the preacher (or evangelism pastor) to evangelize, and it is the role of everyone else to come and watch him evangelize. But good gospel DNA challenges everyone to be “a royal priesthood” – AKA, The Priesthood of the Believer.  Satan doesn’t want me to tell you this.  Satan doesn’t want you to read this and internalize this.  Satan wants to distract you from this message because he wants to ensure he will have a following.  Satan doesn’t want Jesus to be worshipped out of spite.

But the good news (gospel = evangelism) is, Jesus defeated Satan by the cross and resurrection, therefore Satan has no power over you whatsoever!!!

May we rise above the distraction of Satan and fulfill our calling, finding our purpose, and enjoying each other and the LORD in the process. God made you for a purpose.  And He made you with a unique gifting, skill set, and abilities to be able to evangelize in your unique way.  And when you find what that is, you will feel the pleasure of living for the purpose of the LORD:

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” – Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire