It must be affirmed that a Sovereign God always gets what he wants. But many seem to miss the distinction inherent in such a question. Although expressions of intent and desire are often expressed in declarative statements, they should not be interpreted as producing the same outcome.
If God says he intends to do something, then expect that it will occur. It may not happen as expected, nor even when we anticipate it to come true, but there should be no doubt that it must happen.
However, the exact same statement can alternatively be a declaration of desire, for which God is not bound to cause to occur. You might wonder, then why would he even state something for which the outcome may be allowed to be different than “what he wants”? There is much that could be said in that regard, but suffice it to say that God likes to reveal his thoughts, heart, and recommendations without always forcing robotic adherence.
What may seem like a simple linguistic difference can have such an enormous impact on developed theologies, that we would do well to momentarily humble our preconceived notions of interpretation and take note of something that many appear to miss.
Declarative statements in Scripture that reveal the heart of God in human affairs must be assessed according to whether they speak of divine intent or holy desire in order to form reliable expectations and beliefs.
To this distinction, the problem is with the underlying assumption in the opening question. For example, when Scripture states: “God wants all men to be saved”, the assumption is that such a revelation is a statement about what God wants to achieve rather than a statement about what God wants to offer. At first glance it might be correct to view it as a statement of intent, but that would require denial of significant portions of Scripture that clearly reveal that some within that “all men” group must join Satan in the Lake of Fire. Otherwise we are left with the belief that God wanted all to be saved, but alas he can’t do what he wants, and so this statement would reveal that God lies. As a result, it is more consistent with the fullness of God’s word to take such a declaration as an expression of desire, for which men have some degree of freedom to impact the outcome.
Another point that might shed some helpful light is that there is a difference between prophetic fulfillment and individual involvement. So when children began praising Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, our Lord quoted the prophecy that “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (Mt 21:15-16). But nothing in this suggests that those particular kids were the ones to fulfill that passage; only that at some point kids would praise as ordained by God. Although we know that multiple kids were involved, nothing in the passage indicates that 100% participated. Of the say 100 kids present, perhaps 50 expressed their free will to honor Jesus, while the others may well have felt the inclination, but chose to hold their tongue, like many of the Pharisees who were also in that crowd. In this way God remains Sovereign, his word is fulfilled, and the individuals retain free will. And that is the pattern we often see in the actual fulfillment of Scripture; the occurrence is ordained, but the individual identity of participants can often be adjusted by personal choice.
Regarding end-time rebellion, Jesus stated: “these things must happen, but woe to him through whom it happens”. Notice that things must happen because God’s word always comes true, but that specifically the ones through whom it occurs is not dictated as automatic. This statement by our Lord makes it very clear that the “must” is attached to the occurrence and fulfillment and not automatically to identifying a specific individual (although it is true that sometimes the individual is identified as well).
It is unthinkable that God would offer water to the thirsty, only to yank it away at the last moment, but that is what some seem to believe. Jesus told John, as recorded in Revelation, that God gave a wicked prophetess “time to repent, but she was unwilling”. Again, consider that it was God’s will to extend repentance and that the reason for not receiving forgiveness was entirely her own. It appears that God’s will is to offer himself, but not to force submission–His Sovereignty appears capable of intersecting with free will.
As it says in Proverbs: “The Lord works out everything for his own ends–even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Pro 16:4). The Sovereign God has a purpose for everything, and individual free will has been designed by him to operate within that overall purpose. No man comes to him initiated of their own choice, but once called, each person has the freedom to respond.
Perhaps one of the most revealing statements on the intersection of Sovereignty and free will is found in Lu 7:30. “But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John”. God had a purpose of goodness and righteousness, a role of likely spiritual leadership or New Covenant faith that he allowed to be refused by most within that group. By further definition, Jesus makes it clear that they remain “children of the devil” and are condemned to Hell (which by the way, means that their choice impacted their eternal destiny). God is not less Sovereign or somehow defeated because of the Pharisees, but somehow in his great plan, he expresses a desire for good while allowing the freedom to reject him.
From the Mt of Olives, Jesus lamented the heart of God by crying out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to wrap my arms around you…but you were unwilling.” God shows us his desire through his Son and reminds us all that individual choice will be allowed to resist.
From the beginning, God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose between two trees. Consistently thereafter, He reveals the same point: “This day I call heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…for the Lord is your life”. In short, God endowed mankind with the freedom to respond in matters that effect life itself (defined here as “the Lord”).
Luther did not understand or accept this. His view was that “free will is just a fiction; it does not even exist”. Luther’s resistance to the idea of personal works impacting salvation is very understandable, given the abuses common in his day, but that does not justify denial of what Scripture reveals.
Calvin taught that free will is of such insignificance that it should not even be discussed. His followers picked up this caution and formed an entire theological system of denial of human choice related to salvation, complete with burnings and beheadings for any Christians who believed otherwise.
And so we are left Today in much of Protestant Christianity with a fearful zeal to uphold the Sovereignty of God against any suggestion of individual choice as if it might undermine the purpose and greatness of God. The Protestant movement served to bring many believers back to reliance upon the Word of God rather than a man-altered system of religion, but it has done so at the cost of often rejecting the human responsibility inherent in God’s sovereign design.
If the word of God is to be our sola Scriptura, then perhaps we ought to reconsider the source of our doctrinal beliefs and bring them into line with what the Bible actually teaches.
God is and always will be Sovereign!
Within that Sovereignty, he has designed individual choice to express itself within divinely established boundaries as a response (not an initiator) to his grace.
God will not force your faith; The choice to respond is yours.
What do you declare, and how does that fit within the full word of God?