Is God sovereignly in control? Does man have free will? Does God choose people for salvation? Do people choose God? This is the age old tension of theology, Calvinism versus Arminianism.
In his book on the life of Joseph, Detours: The Unpredictable Path to Your Destiny, pastor and author Dr. Tony Evans uses football to explain how both sovereignty and free will can be true and work together.
Since God is sovereign, nothing happens outside of His rule. But within His rule He has created freedom. Freedom means you get to choose. There is no freedom without choice. You are free to say “yes” or to say “no.” You are free to go or you are free to stay. God created freedom. But how can a sovereign God control everything while simultaneously creating freedom? Let me try to explain it through an illustration of football.
In football, there are sidelines and goal lines, which serve as sovereign boundaries. These do not move. You can’t negotiate them. You can’t make them wider or narrower. These are fixed standards with which the game of football is played. If you step over a sideline, you are out of bounds. Period. Because that is a boundary.
But within those boundaries teams are free to run their own plays. They can call a good play or a bad play. They can gain yardage or they can lose ground. They are free to play within the boundaries established by the game.
God is sovereign in the boundaries He has set for us. But He allows freedom within those boundaries that give us the choice to do good or to do bad. To be right or to be wrong. To intend evil or to intend well. While freedom doesn’t cause evil, it does allow for it. Yet He limits how free He lets us go within His providential connection of all things. Providence is God either causing or allowing things to happen for His purposes. That is not to say He endorses evil or sin, but rather He redeems it. He redeems the bad intention of someone who may have hurt you on purpose by intervening in you to twist that thing to work for your good. His merciful hand will use what was meant for harm—for good. He will even use evil to accomplish His purpose, as we have seen with Joseph. (In the book, he was referring to Genesis 50:20).
For a simple-minded person like myself, Tony’s illustration makes a lot of sense. It might not answer every question in the sovereignty—free will debate, but it helps.