Tackling the Debate Over
Free Will vs. Christ’s Supremacy
16 Questions to Help This Historic Clash
Deepen Your Life in Jesus
Editor’s Note: Have you ever gotten into this debate? For centuries Christians have argued—even fought over—what they believe Scripture teaches about what role, if any, humans play in the fulfillment of God’s eternal purposes in Christ. Do we retain any ability to freely choose and act in the face of the sovereignty of God?
Currently, there are two major camps inside the Church that interpret the other’s answer to this question to be, at best, sub-biblical or even dangerous. They are known as “Arminians” (who believe our will still freely operates under Christ’s reign despite the deadly impact of sin) and “Calvinists” (who believe God’s decrees and designs are irresistibly determinative for the outcome of individuals and nations).
David Bryant, however, believes there are ways to sort out all of this in a manner that can help both camps understand more clearly the core disagreements in order to find some common ground. Furthermore, as he will show you in this blog post, grappling with this age-old debate and determining where you come down on the issues can enrich how you view and value God’s Son in your walk with him.
The 16 questions you are about to explore have never been put together in one place like this before now! They will stir both your mind and your heart—and your love for Jesus!
Prepare Yourself for
the Challenges Ahead!
Internationally acclaimed demographer of the Christian movement, Patrick Johnstone, is also a widely respected prayer and missionary leader throughout the Church. In his massive book Operation World: When We Pray God Works, he reflects on the continuing lordship of Christ as it relates to the desperate physical, political, social, and spiritual conditions found in over two hundred nations analyzed within the book’s 800 pages.
Turning to the Father’s promised dominion to his Son expressed in Psalm 2 (“Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron.”), Johnstone ponders this age-old conundrum: If Jesus is Lord of all and in total control of all, what possible difference could our prayers for the nations make for the outcomes of his reign in any particular nation?
In other words, how does God’s will interface with our will?
Some would argue that “prayer changes things” for Jesus’ kingdom. In other words, our free initiative in prayer can change what happens in our lives and among the nations.
Others would argue this way: “Just as God ordains the ends, so he ordains the means to those ends, with prayers offered in Jesus’ name being chief among those means.” That means if I ever pray, it is because the Holy Spirit stirred me to pray and gave me the prayers that will lead to what God has predetermined.
So, which is it? Or, is it both?
The fact is, your answer impinges directly on how and where you see Christ exercising his lordship today in your daily experience as well as anywhere in the world. More fundamentally, where you come down on this long-standing clash of outlooks directly affects how you define the word “lordship” when applying it to Christ and his role in your life.
But I must warn you that this is just one compelling issue of many that surface whenever Christians study Scripture’s teaching about where human free will fits into the victorious displays of Jesus reign.
This blog post presents, maybe for the first time anywhere in one document, a compilation of the most frequently debated issues regarding key dimensions of God’s sovereignty as manifested in the reign of his Son.
Many entries on the list represent competing perspectives on a specific topic, flowing from various theological streams in the Church over many centuries.
Though strong disagreements exist on each topic, we must not forget that each position claims to be based on biblical teaching that’s focused on Jesus’ glory today. Therefore, we must weigh each conviction with respect for our fellow Christians who love Jesus even though they may not see these issues quite the way we do.
Since most Christians have never explored a list like this before, be prepared at times to be prodded, or provoked, or puzzled—or even temporarily perplexed—by what you read!
But also be prepared to be blessed and inspired as you ponder this fascinating spectrum of perspectives on how extensive Christ’s supremacy is. Prepare to stand in awe of him and love him in new ways.
Here’s Your Assignment
As you read these 16 questions, try to uncover ways each outlook presented seeks to exalt Christ by how it portrays his sovereignty over us and all things—even when, and especially when, the perspectives seem to contradict one another.
Then take what you’ve explored of Christ’s glory through each of these 16 debatable points and turn your conclusions into fuel for worshipping our Redeemer King and delighting in his supremacy in all things. Take a few moments to do so before proceeding to the next question.
Finally, if you have the opportunity to do so, read and discuss some of these issues with a small group of believers. That will prove additionally enlightening, as you overflow with energetic conversations!
First of all:
Where do we get our core impressions
of how Jesus’ reign works?
Could it be that your perspective about the sovereignty of God in Christ has been inadvertently shaped by how we view the way earthly rulers operate? Do we ever think of Christ in terms of how human authorities use superior force to override resistance or wipe out opposition? Or by how many world leaders take charge in monolithic, absolute, even coercive ways, in order to dominate people and events and force the outcomes they intend?
Many Christians see Jesus like that, usually unconsciously. Do you? Could it be time for you to revisit your image of Jesus as Lord in the light of Scripture? That’s where we’re headed.
How do Jesus’ attributes shape and define
the way he reigns?
Which comes first: Who he is or how he reigns?
The whole Church agrees that Jesus our King is both just and justifier, sovereign and servant, great and gracious, regal and respectful, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
Different theological camps, however, see these diverse attributes mixing and matching in different ways as we live under the headship of Jesus.
In Islam, for example, the Koran teaches that Allah’s attributes flow out of his sovereignty— they are defined and shaped by Allah’s absolute and total control of everything. Do you ever regard the reign of Christ in such terms?
Many believers look at it this way: Jesus’ sovereignty flows out of, is tempered by, and is responsive to his eternal, innate attributes (such as love and holiness, righteousness and mercy, steadfastness and servant-heartedness). In other words, they see the exercise of his sovereignty defined and shaped by his attributes, rather than the other way around.
Where do you come out on this discussion? How might this affect your daily walk with Jesus?
Does Jesus exercise his reign like a puppeteer?
Or is he more like a chess master?
Some Christians hold that Jesus carries out his rule more like a puppeteer, pulling the strings for everything that happens and for everyone involved in order to ensure that all things play out according to a predesigned cosmic script. Do you ever regard his reign over us in this fashion?
World champion chess masters are able to see ten moves ahead of the immediate actions of their opponents, which is how they outsmart them and win in the end. Even so, to other believers, King Jesus appears to be more like a master chess player. For them, his supremacy asserts itself most often by how, to accomplish his ultimate purposes, he is able to perfectly anticipate and directly engage (and counter as needed) every actual move and foresee every potential move, or combination of moves, humans might freely choose to make.
How might your viewpoint on this question shape the way you look at Christ when you respond to him as “Lord”?
Does Christ foreknow future developments
in his reign?
Or does he anticipate them
and then respond effectively?
Some say Jesus’ kingship implies he foreknows everything that will happen because he is God and because all human designs, decisions, and actions were predetermined from eternity in the councils of Heaven.
Others conclude, however, that it is more appropriate to say that Jesus, as Lord of the universe, accurately and perfectly anticipates what will happen next, before it happens. Then, he perfectly and effectively responds to events as they unfold, ensuring that the outcome of each act ultimately will fulfill Heaven’s councils.
Practically speaking, how might your view on this debate affect your life before his throne?
Is Jesus’ reign today more proactive
or is it more reactive?
Generally, Christians agree that nothing in this universe happens “by chance,” that is, outside of the complete awareness and full involvement of our King.
Christians recognize Christ is an active sovereign, that there is an orderly, purposeful unfolding of his kingdom ways and his work of redemption, day in and day out.
Where Christians divide on this topic relates to two key questions: To what degree is Christ’s reign over us proactive. That is, does everything start and end in his initiative alone?
On the other hand, to what degree is it reactive? That is, at times may he choose instead to work with our decisions and actions, reacting to the path we have freely chosen and then adjusting his actions so that all things ultimately fit into where he already is headed, what he is doing, and how he gains the greatest glory?
How might your conviction about his approach impact what you expect from him in your daily walk with him?
How does Jesus manifest his supremacy today:
Is it like a car’s cruise control or more like a car’s GPS?
Of these two metaphors, which one best describes how the sovereignty of Christ impacts his people as well as the nations?
Do you interpret his lordship over us to be more like a car’s cruise control that automatically takes over and maintains for the driver the proper speed on a highway?
Or, would you say it is more comparable to how a GPS (Global Positioning System) works—that it helps drivers determine which highways they should take and can recalculate alternative routes when they miss the correct turn in the road?
What difference might the metaphor you choose make for how you grow your life in Christ?
We might define the debate like this:
Is God’s Son in control or is he controlling?
All Christians agree that in the midst of everything, Christ remains in control.
The real debate revolves around this question: Does his being in control mean that at all times, in all places, with all people, Christ actually controls everything going on?
Is there a difference between being “in control” versus always “controlling”? Can you see where the difference lies—because it is huge!
Words matter. Certain “theological camps” teach that Christ’s headship means that at this very moment, he controls the universe, including every activity of every person as well as every movement and endeavor among earth’s peoples—all for the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages.
Other “camps” believe it is more appropriate, and more biblically accurate, to say Christ manages a process throughout human history and among the nations that ultimately ensures that everything works out right for the full accomplishment of God’s ordained purposes.
To ask it another way: Can Christ’s supremacy manifest itself as both forceful and flexible at the same time?
Or one more consideration: Can Jesus be omnipotent but not always omni-controlling?
How might each perspective uniquely shape the way a Jesus follower relates to his reign right now? How might your conclusion shape your responses to him as your Lord on a day-to-day basis?
How much of Jesus’ reign over us is seen?
How much is unseen?
Currently, how visible, tangible, measurable, and quantifiable is Christ’s kingdom work? How much of it remains hidden, quiet, secret, inaccessible, and mysterious, like his parable of leaven working its way through a whole lump of dough?
To put another way: How much of his reign is quantitative in nature? How much is mostly qualitative in nature?
How often does Scripture measure Jesus’ kingdom invasion in quantitative terms—that is, by describing visible, open displays of his dominion in various facets of human activity?
On the other hand, how often does the Bible measure the Kingdom’s advance in qualitative terms—that is, by how he transforms and renews the world by transforming and renewing human hearts and relationships?
Where does the emphasis lie for you as you seek to live your life under his lordship? Is it more about what is visible and quantitative or invisible and qualitative?
How might your conclusions shape how you expect to experience his supremacy in your daily walk with him?
How does God’s Son ensure
the successful outcomes that his reign intends?
In terms of the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes, does the successful outcome of Christ’s reign require one, singular, unified, all-encompassing decree, from which there is no diversion?
Or, does the utterly comprehensive and supremely competent nature of his reign guarantee that eventually the ends and outcomes God has decreed will come to fulfillment?
Sincere Christians have come down on opposite sides of the question. Still, how might either position help to exalt Christ to his people? How might it do so for you?
Should Jesus’ supremacy be viewed
more as static or as dynamic?
Does Scripture characterize Christ’s forcefully advancing kingdom as basically static—that is, everything is predetermined all along the way, like a published novel that has already been written where every detail of every page in the story is already set in place?
Or, does the Bible suggest sometimes his kingship is more dynamic—meaning that God leaves room for variations and surprises along the way as Jesus’ reign interacts with people’s free choices and actions, even while, at the same time, Jesus brings God’s “Master Blueprint” for the ages to its completion?
Sincere, Bible-rooted believers hold differing positions on this heated debate. Still, each group should be able to find reasons to celebrate Jesus’ supremacy in either position. Can you?
As Jesus rules, how much of what happens
does he direct? How much of it does he permit?
Believers everywhere agree that Christ retains overall sovereignty when it comes to God’s goals for creation, history, and all humanity.
However, to what degree, if any, does our King actively direct what happens around us and among us and to us? To what degree and how often, on the other hand, does he simply permit, for the time being, what happens around us and among us and to us?
What difference might the answer you choose make to how you relate to your Savior and what you expect in your life united to him?
Biblically speaking, how does Jesus interact
with human cultures as he presses his saving power among the
There are at least seven ways to answer this question. Whole books have been written on each way. Which option appears to be the most biblical to you?
What do you think? Right now, as King of kings (1) does Jesus stand apart from cultures? (2) Or, does he reject cultures? (3) Or, does he judge cultures? (4) Or, does he invade cultures? (5) Or, does he replace cultures? (6) Or, does he transform cultures? (7) Or, does his reign express some combination of these different possibilities?
How you answer tells you a lot about how you define the supremacy of God’s Son, especially as he rules over your generation, your culture, and your nation.
How is Jesus’ kingdom agenda expressed
How is it expressed toward groups?
Is there any difference?
Let me ask you: How do you think the King responds in general to all human plans and passions, whether by individuals or whole communities? Does he overrule those plans and passions? Or, reverse them? Or, dismantle them? Does he ever salvage them? Or, reshape them? Or, affirm them? Or, incorporate them? Or, is his sovereignty expressed through a combination of such displays of his kingdom?
How do you think he responds on a daily basis to your plans and passions?
Then, let’s ask next: Does Jesus’ reign confront the plans and passions of individuals in different ways from how he confronts those same issues expressed by whole groups—for example, corporations, or world governments, or a certain unreached people group?
The biggest debate on this topic relates most directly to what Christians think Scripture teaches concerning how God sovereignly “elects” in Christ—how he “predestines” in Christ.
So what do you think: As you study the Bible, how much of its teaching on God’s election and predestination in Christ relates to the corporate dimensions of Jesus’ reign over organizations, or nations, or over the Church itself?
On the other hand, how much of his reign relates specifically to his ordained purposes for every single individual—for every person who has ever lived, both those who are already part of God’s chosen people as well as those still on the outside?
This is an area of long-running historical debate in the Church—possibly the most intense.
So, where does Scripture come out on these two possibilities from your study of it? How might your conclusion shape what you watch for as you look for displays of Christ’s dominion all around you?
What does it mean to claim that
Jesus has all power in heaven and earth?
All Christians agree our Messiah is “all powerful”. We also agree this means, at the very least, he is the source of all divine power in the universe, whenever and however he chooses to exercise it.
Where the debate inside the Church lies is this: Does being all-powerful also mean he is constantly exercising all his power, in all places, with all people, and at every moment?
Or, are there times when his reign could seem more passive—when he appears to stand back and release those who reject his presence, his purposes, and his promises to move toward the tragic outcome of their own decisions?
What difference might your answer make for how you respond to how you seek him for victory in your life for him?
If Jesus is Lord right now why does evil persist?
To what extent is he challenging evil in the world today?
In other words, how much evil in the world is ordained by the ruling Son, if any? How much evil simply is permitted for a brief season, with a good reason?
How much is evil being contained by our Victor? How much is he actively opposing evil right now? In what ways does Scripture portray Jesus aggressively warring right now against every form of evil that would destroy his creation and oppose his kingdom purposes?
How much evil and suffering in the world currently is due to collateral damage resulting from a cosmic battle confronting a cosmic Predator, with whom our King is engaged in ongoing mortal combat (mortal for Satan that is!)?
What difference might your answer make on how bold and courageous you will be as you follow him wherever he takes you?
The ultimate question:
Which outlook on Jesus’ reign today
brings him the greatest glory?
Some Christians believe Christ is most fully exalted by his ability to enforce his will, uncontested—to impose his ways upon the course of everything and every life.
Other Christians believe his majesty is more wonderfully manifested by how he effectively redeems people rather than dominates them—by how he wholly reclaims, restores, renews, and redeploys saved sinners to give themselves freely to serve his kingdom agenda.
How might your perspective on this issue change the way you respond to our King in worship and then in obedience?
In Christ’s Kingdom What IS the Relationship
Between God’s Sovereignty
and Human Freedom?
Congratulations! You have just pressed through a series of 16 challenging, fascinating, thought-provoking questions about the supremacy of God’s Son—questions many Christians have never dared to ask.
The main challenge comes down to this: Does Jesus’ reign allow for a measure of human initiative, while at the same time restricting the scope and the extent of that freedom? If so and to what degree?
In other words: In this age, does God, in any sense, place parameters on his Son’s rule, permitting human freedom to express itself up to a point?
To sum up: All Christians agree it is clear in Scripture that God has predestined whatever is necessary to preserve and fulfill the Father’s desired outcomes for the kingdom of his dear Son.
But within that truth of predestination, many Christians believe there remains room for humankind to experience some measure of genuine freedom as God’s plan unfolds in this present age moving toward its victorious climax—that freedom and sovereignty can work in tandem wherever Jesus rules.
One camp believes that Christ’s kingdom can mightily advance by his use of persuasion in his interaction, either with individuals or with nations—that there is a level of collaboration between the Sovereign and his subjects in culminating his kingdom work.
What do you say?
As is obvious by now, your answers impinge directly on how you view and value the reign of Jesus at the Father’s right hand. Your answers, whatever they are, to these 16 questions above can only serve to deepen your walk with Jesus each day.
Let’s end with three more questions worth reflection in the coming days:
1. Despite a diversity of outlooks, at what points in debating the issues explored above might Christians be able to find common ground in our understanding of what Christ’s supremacy involves today?
2. How might any responses to particular issues highlighted above help a believer become more passionate for Jesus? How might any of the positions one takes, even if contradictory to that of other Christians, cause any believer to more fully see, savor, and serve Christ?
3. Finally, even when we don’t agree at every point, are we willing to show respect for each other’s approaches and conclusions about the sovereignty of God in Christ?
Can we really do otherwise—especially when we fellowship with Christians of every persuasion who long, as we do, for more of Christ and his reign over us? We certainly can all agree with Colossians 1:18:
In everything Jesus must have the supremacy!
About the Author
Over the past 40 years, David Bryant has been defined by many as a “messenger of hope” and a “Christ proclaimer” to the Church throughout the world. Formerly a minister-at-large with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, president of Concerts of Prayer International (COPI), and chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee, David now provides leadership to ChristNow.com and to Proclaim Hope!, whose mission is to foster and serve Christ-awakening movements. Order his widely read books at DavidBryantBooks.com.