The issue of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility seems to be one of the most difficult biblical truths that are hard to grasp. It is like a puzzle that cannot be resolved. It may be hard for us since we are of finite minds. But for God, and in His revealed Word, we see its compatibility. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility do not contradict each other. God’s sovereignty does not abolish human responsibility and human responsibility does not negate God’s sovereignty.
In pondering (and yes, wrestling!) about this issue, none can help us to understand (though not fully for we never could!) and humbly accept its reality but the Scriptures, and the Internal Testimony of the Spirit. Tons of books1 have been written on this issue but the way to rest our case is by looking at how these two truths sit comfortably with each other in the pages of the Scriptures.
God is sovereign even in the evil actions of man without excusing man and without putting the blame on God. So we can say that (hear me out) “God is the author of evil.” He ordained evil to take place for unless He does so, it won’t occur. He is not the author of evil in the sense that He is not the doer/actor of evil. We’ll expound on this next time. These truths are not incompatible.2 In the following verses, we’ll see the juxtaposition (place side by side) of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. This is biblical compatibilism.
This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
The killing of Jesus by sinners is ordained by God. The crucifixion of Jesus is the evil of all evils but it is ordained by the Good and Holy God. God’s ordination of sin for good is juxtaposed with the committal of sin and the punishment of sinners.
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’— 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
They did what God ordained to happen. This is not an incidental decision (damage control) but decided beforehand. It was all orchestrated by God. The kings of the earth “set” themselves, and “gathered” together. But what they did is according to God’s “predestination”.
But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.
God in His faithfulness and power fulfilled what He had already inspired the prophets to speak of. And how was it fulfilled? Again, it was fulfilled by their “denial” of the Holy One (v.14), and “killing” of the Author of life (v.15).
For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!”
The ordination of Jesus’ death and Judas’ betrayal. Notice that even Jesus’ life on earth has been “determined” including Judas’ betrayal. Shall we say that God is to be condemned in His sovereign determination of what took place in the life of His Son? God forbid! The very next words say, “woe” not to God but to that man that betrayed Jesus. It proves God’s incomprehensible mind.
And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
God sent Joseph but his brothers committed the crime. It did not happen by chance. God is holy and not the author of sin but He is sovereign that He can use sin for good purposes. We commit sin for sinful intentions, but God does not.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
God is able to overrule men’s wickedness. God has the power to sovereignly use evil to accomplish His good pleasure. God uses evil for His good intention.
The Assyrian nation was sent to discipline Israel but Assyria is responsible for their sins (Isaiah 7:18, 8:7, 9:11). Assyrian’s authority is from God (5, 6, 12) – God permits/ordains sinful acts to accomplish His plans but the doers are guilty. The Assyrians did it out of their wicked hearts and arrogance (7-11). Because of this, they will be punished for what they did (12-15; James 4:6).
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We see here Jesus’ declaration that no one can know the Son unless the Son sovereignly chooses those whom He wants to know Him. This is consistent with the entire Scriptures for no one desires to know God since they hate Him (Romans 3:10ff, 8:7). But after Jesus uttered these words, He invites them to come. Only God knows who will come, yet Jesus invites men to come to Him. Jesus is sovereign in revealing God to whom He wills, and men are responsible to come to Him.
There are lots of passages that undeniably teach these two important truths, but the passages cited above are sufficient for us to embrace these truths. There is no need to deny one truth in order to affirm the other. We must believe them as they are clearly taught us that we may submit to Him who is far above all of us and Whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
To God be the glory!
1 For the top ten books, see Tim Challies’ The Top 10 Books on Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will
2Guillaume Bignon (2018) in “Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil”, deals with the arguments (denial of choice, denial of free will, affirmation of coercion, affirmation of manipulation, affirmation of mental illness, etc.) that suggest God’s absolute sovereignty or determinism is incompatible with man’s moral responsibility. He writes, “…the Bible does not thereby deny the philosophical reality of morally responsible, human free choices, but it does put it under the providential grace of God. Calvinists offer both of these features with their compatibilist view of free will, and hence can rest confident that their view sits well (or minimally aims to sit well) with both strands of biblical teaching.” [Biblical Interlude, Kindle loc. 1418]
3 thoughts on “Sovereignty and Responsibility”
You are on a roll with good articles
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To God be the glory. Preparing for my Talk on Compatibilism.
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Wow good topic to teach others
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