God’s sovereignty; human responsibility

Recently after a sermon on 2 Timothy, we received the follow comment on the topic of election. My answer follows.

Question: You said that God calls all people everywhere to repent and follow him. But we are also taught that only the elect are able to turn back to God. So how, then, are the non-elect culpable for their actions when they are given no opportunity to turn back?

I think this question hides a common assumption, which is that God’s complete sovereignty cannot coexist with real human responsibility. However the Bible refuses to agree with that assumption.

For example, in Job 1, in response to Satan’s wicked request, we see God permit Satan (v. 12) to afflict Job with various sufferings, including two raiding parties made up of Sabeans (1:15) and Chaldeans (1:17). Clearly these humans were morally culpable for their destructive and murderous attacks, even though Satan incited them.

Furthermore, in Job 2:3, God takes responsibility for the overall situation:

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” [Emphasis mine]

God says Satan incited him, but that he, God, ruined Job. Furthermore, God then permits Satan to afflict Job with painful sores all over his body. Both Job and his wife recognize that God is control of the situation. In Job 2:9, his wife blames God, telling Job to curse God and die. Then verse 10 says, “But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Job sees clearly that his recent misfortunes come from God just as much as the earlier blessings he experienced. And the Bible says there was nothing sinful or wrong in what Job said.

So the book of Job gives one clear example that the Bible teaches that God’s sovereignty can co-exist alongside the real moral responsibility not only of humans (the Chaldeans and Sabeans), but also of Satan.

In Genesis 50:20, Joseph also makes the same point about the wickedness of his brothers in selling him into slavery, which eventually led him to his role as Pharaoh’s deputy: “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 was in control of the event, but Joseph’s brothers were still culpable their actions.

However, the best example of this is seen in the crucifixion. In Acts 2:23, Peter preaches, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”. God planned the death of Jesus for our forgiveness, and yet he holds fully responsible those who carried it out.

Now, the Bible does not spell out in complete philosophical detail how divine sovereignty and human responsibility fit together. But I think I have demonstrated that it clearly teaches that both are true.

Coming back to 2 Timothy, I think we can see that it clearly teaches that God is sovereign in election (choosing to save some). Take 2 Timothy 2:8-10:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. [Emphasis mine]

Paul knows that God has got people out there who are elect (i.e. people whom he has chosen to save), although they have not yet responded. This encourages him to keep preaching, even when it means opposition and suffering. Why? It’s because God’s word is not chained or “bound” (v. 9), Paul knows his preaching will not be a waste of time. So instead of predestination promoting fatalism and discouraging evangelism, it is an incentive to these things.

Paul also teaches God’s sovereignty over our responses in 2 Timothy 2:25-26, where he says that the Lord’s servant (that is, those like Timothy) must gently instruct those who oppose him,

correcting his opponents with gentleness. [For] God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. [Emphasis mine]

Paul clearly holds the false teachers who were troubling the church where Timothy preached responsible for their conduct. However, he knows that they will only repent if God grants them that gift.

Of course, we do not know who the elect are. That’s God’s business, not ours. So God commands us to preach the gospel to everyone to offer them a chance to turn back. In fact, we imitate Jesus, who holds out the offer of salvation to all people, without discrimination. For example, see Matthew 11:27-28:

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.

So Jesus asserts that coming to know God depends on the Son’s choice to reveal him (v. 27), yet he immediately invites all to come to him (v. 28).

Jesus believes that real human responsibility co-exists alongside God’s electing sovereignty. In that case, we should too!

3 thoughts on “God’s sovereignty; human responsibility

  1. Sandy

    thanks for showing scripturally how this tension is held.

    I think part of the problem is that we think we are innocent until we make a decision to “choose God” or not.  And the thought of God “choosing” some for salvation must mean he has “chosen” the rest to receive punishment.

    Perhaps you could expand your article to address this?

  2. Hi Hamish, thanks for commenting.

    You are quite right to challenge those who claim we are innocent before we choose or reject God. God will not condemn us for failing to do the impossible. Rather he will condemn us for our sins freely committed. So in the case of the person who has never heard the gospel of Jesus, such a person will not be condemned for failing to believe in Jesus, but for being greedy or hateful or disobeying his parents and for ignoring what he knows of God from creation.

    Hamish, I think you may be raising the question of whether the Bible teaches single or double-predestination.

    Personally, I think the distinction may be somewhat semantic, in that for God to pass over some, when choosing others does not seem much different from saying that God chose some as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” for the good purpose of displaying the “riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”. (See Romans 9:20-23)

    On the other hand, there does seem to be a certain cautiousness in spelling out the precise nature of how God’s sovereignty is expressed in election for those who end up under his judgment.

    So in the passage just cited, Paul uses a “what if” argument to make his point, to indicate that he is able to imagine a reason for such a difficult teaching, and I presume his imagination is sanctified at this point.

    And yet, perhaps we ought to reflect that “what if” caution when we speak of the topic.

    But my big point was to challenge the assumption that God’s complete sovereignty cannot co-exist with real human responsibility.

  3. Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for the post.

    Q) You wrote,

    ‘Now, the Bible does not spell out in complete philosophical detail how divine sovereignty and human responsibility fit together. But I think I have demonstrated that it clearly teaches that both are true.’

    Now, there will be other things in the Bible that may not make total sense to us on the surface. And, I am quite content to say that we won’t understand everything comprehensively in this world.

    However, how do we distinguish a strongly conterintuitive things(contradictions) or a complete non sense from a genuine one? Is it just an appeal to the Scripture at the end? Wouldn’t that be too permissive?

Comments are closed.