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Proverbs 16:9

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”

For centuries, theologians have debated what it means for men and women to be made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). No universally accepted definition has yet been provided, but there is widespread agreement regarding at least some of what makes up the divine image. One aspect is that human beings have minds and wills. Like God, we have intentions, we make plans, and we choose certain courses of action. Moreover, all of us feel at least somewhat in control of what we do every day. No matter how we may try to deny it, we all rightly sense that we are responsible for our choices (Rom. 1:18–2:29).

Of course, Scripture teaches us never to let this reality fool us into believing that we have the final say in what we accomplish. There is one will that always supersedes our wills, namely, the divine will. God, “who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), has the final say because He establishes our steps, as we read in today’s passage.

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry notes that every human is both “a reasonable creature, that has the faculty for contriving for himself” and “a depending creature, that is subject to the direction and dominion of his Maker.” We must maintain that human beings have freedom to make their own decisions, while at the same time their choices are under the sovereign determination of the Lord. This demands what is called a compatibilistic view of human freedom. That is to say, human freedom means that we always do what we want to do in any given situation. Granted, many situations seem to present us with no good options. Nevertheless, once we find ourselves in such a situation, we invariably choose the option that seems best to us. All things being equal, we do not normally want somebody to cut into us, but if the choice is between cutting into us to remove an inflamed appendix or dying of appendicitis, our choice of surgery indicates that we want to live more than we want to die. We freely choose surgery because at the moment it is what we most want to do.

In God’s sovereignty, our choices are sometimes made according to the results He has ordained, and we accomplish what we have intended. Other times, our ordained choices do not match the results He has ordained, and our plans are thwarted. But in both cases, God’s purpose never fails. Our steps are established according to what He has designed (Prov. 16:9), for He has the final say in His creation.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Human freedom and divine sovereignty exist in a complex, mysterious relationship. Though God ordains all of our choices—even choices that end up being thwarted because they do not match the results that He has ordained—we can never blame Him for our sin. Neither can we escape responsibility for our actions. We have misunderstood Scripture if we think our choices are the final determiner of the course of our lives, but we have also misunderstood it if we deny human freedom.

For Further Study
  • Exodus 4:21
  • Proverbs 16:1
  • Acts 16:6–10
  • Romans 15:30–33

Envying Evil Men

Granting Us Peace

Keep Reading Doctrine for All of Life

From the May 2015 Issue
May 2015 Issue