In the previous segment we dealt with Paul’s oft-quoted statement that for him “to live is Christ.” It is important that we now deal with the rest of the sentence – “and to die is gain.” Paul is caught in a dilemma: on the one hand should he die it will mean more of Christ but should he live it will mean fruitful labor. So dying would be better in terms of personal benefit (more of Christ) but living would serve the interests of others (fruitful labor.) Paul asks himself, “Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!” (Phil 1:22.) What strikes me is the implication that the living or dying decision is somehow left up to him. Other translations understand the Greek verb in the sense of “prefer” but even then the choice would be his.
One clear teaching in scripture is that God is the one in control. History unfolds along a path determined by God. Nothing takes him by surprise. It follows that man is not the one to decide such things such as the date of his own demise. So why does Paul wonder about which option to choose? Good question, but far better brains than mine have been trying to answer it from the beginning of recorded history. If the sovereignty of God was the only thing taught in scripture about the control of life’s events, then the answer would be easy. But the bible also teaches that man has a free will, and that means he can freely do what he wants to do. The best known verse in the bible is John 3:16, which closes saying, “Whoever believes in him shall not perish.” Eternal life is available to the one who believes, that is, chooses to accept. But then, does that not leave God out of the decision? What if that person wasn’t chosen? Or, back to the original question: If Paul could choose the time of his death that would make God unnecessary at that point. I warned you, no one, as far I know, has satisfactorily answered the sovereignty/free-will question.
The root of the problem is that when we think or talk about something that involves both God and man we are bringing together two somewhat disparate realms. God exists outside of his own creation but we are limited to our created order. That God is able to communicate with us doesn’t mean that we are able to fully understand the “world” from which he speaks. A somewhat helpful example would be that a father can explain to his son the rules of baseball, but the son isn’t therefore equipped to make top-level decisions in his father’s professional world. They are what we might call two different “spheres.” God can tell us that we have been chosen and we can understand; but that doesn’t mean that his sovereignty has to be something we can explain in terms of our logical system. It’s a clash of spheres. In fact, I’m not sure I’d like to have a god limited to my ability to fully understand.
So God is sovereign and we, his creatures, are free to make decisions. But what if we decide something that is contrary to his will? J. I. Packer, the famous theologian, calls that an antinomy – two statements equally true but beyond the power of human logic to explain. I can live with that!