Note: For the purpose of answering this particular question, I have treated the term “free will” to simply mean the individual choices that we make as human beings, which I believe is to what the question is referring. Some will note that this term could have other implications and usages.
And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?
God is sovereign. He does what He wants, when He wants, and how He wants, and no one has the right to question Him or challenge His authority. He is in absolute control of every second of every minute of every day. Yet people make choices. They have the option of choosing option A or option B, choosing between right and wrong, taking the left or taking the right. It can seem difficult to understand how these two things can even co-exist, much less work together. How can God be in control of everything, yet people make their own decisions in life? God’s word provides us the answer in many examples.
One of which I feel is the best and clearest example, can be found in the Old Testament account of the life of Joseph. Here we have a wonderful picture of God’s sovereignty playing out, even in the midst of the sinful choices of man, starting with the shameful decision of Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. In the ensuing story, time after time we see the choices of men, in what seem to be unconnected and random acts, leading Joseph step by step to exactly where God wanted him to be. Many things transpire due to the sinful acts of others that move him from point to point. This eventually places him in a powerful postition in the land of Egypt during a time of great famine, in which he is able to provide food for his family, including the very brothers that sold him away. In the following two statements that Joseph makes to his brothers at the conclusion of this providential event, we see a wonderful explanation of how God’s sovereignty works with man’s seemingly unconnected choices.
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.
But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.
It is important to note, that while Joseph clearly has forgiveness for his brothers, he distinctly tells them “ye thought evil against me”. We must keep in mind the fact that just because God allows, or “suffers” sin to be committed by the choices of man, and brings good out of it, does not mean that God caused the sin. As the bible states in Deuteronomy 32:4, God is without iniquity. He is not the author of sin. God does not cause sin, even though He may in fact use it to bring about good. Even though God may override sin in such a manner, whoever commits the sin is still guilty and has no excuse before God for his actions. Notice what Peter says to the crowd on the day of Pentecost.
Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.
Even though it was Jesus’ purpose to die (Matthew 20:28), and God’s will for Him to do so (Luke 22:42), Peter still puts the guilt of the act where it belongs. He said “ye have taken and by wicked hands”. The fact that this wicked act worked in harmony with God’s righteous plan did not excuse them from their sin. They are no less guilty. I like the way Matthew Henry put it:
Neither God’s designing it from eternity, nor his bringing good out of it to eternity, would in the least excuse their sin; for it was their voluntary act and deed, from a principle morally evil, and therefore “they were wicked hands with which you have crucified and slain him.’’
In regards to the sovereignty of God and the choices of man, we must realize that God is not in heaven wringing His hands and pacing the golden streets in frustration because one of us lowly mortals has made a decision in our lives that throws a monkey wrench into His plans. As our introductory verse from Daniel 4:35 stated, God does whatever God wants to do, and nothing will get in His way. We cannot thwart God’s plan, but rather, as the saying goes, “if you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans!