Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Welcome to a subject that has intrigued and confused many. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are equally revealed truths, but they are not truths that are completely accessible to finite minds.

As you to contemplate these great truths here, I pray it will result in worship of the One who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty!

May it also encourage us to practice the wisdom of this counsel:

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). 

We must walk with awe and humility lest we cross a line that brings God to ask, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3). 

Seasoned reflection

Many excellent teachers have offered seasoned reflection on this theme. One of my favorites, D. A. Carson, recommended that in Scripture, “the sovereignty-responsibility tension is not a problem to be solved; rather it is a framework to be explored” (D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical perspectives in tension).

Scripture speaks:

  • God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). 
  • “The Lord has made the heavens his throne; from there he rules over everything” (Psalm 103:19). 
  • “I am the Lord” he declared, “and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all those things” (Isaiah 45:6-7). 
  • “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in the earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psalm 135:6 w/Revelation 4:10).

A Divine Puppeteer?

These Scriptures have caused some to ask, “If God controls everything that happens — is He not some kind of cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings when he wants us to dance?”

This is simply not the way the Bible describes God. When exploring this subject, remember that although the sovereignty of God is unlimited, it only operates consistently with God’s character (Titus 1:2).

Scripture does not present God as a judge who arbitrarily picks some for heaven and some for hell. Nor does Scripture present God as one who deals with people without consideration of their responses to Him (Consider: James 2:5; I Corinthians 1:27ff; I Peter 5:5-6).

God holds all people accountable for their deeds (Romans 2:4-9; Revelation 20:15-20). Scripture consistently appeals to humans in a way that recognizes their authentic moral responsibility for the choices they make (Joshua 24:15; I Kings 18:21; Romans 1:21-28; John 11:26; Acts 7:51; 17:30).

As with God’s sovereignty, human responsibility is pervasively inclusive. “I say to you,” Jesus declared, “that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).

An antinomy?

Another favorite, J. I. Packer, suggested that divine sovereignty and human responsibility is best explained as an antinomy — i. e. “an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths.” 

In viewing the truths about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as an antinomy, Packer reminded readers that an antinomy “is not a figure of speech, but an observed relation between two statements of fact. It is not deliberately manufactured; it is forced upon us by the facts themselves. It is unavoidable, and it is insoluble. We do not invent it, and we cannot explain it.  Nor is there any way to get rid of it, save by falsifying the very facts that led us to it” (J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p. 18). 

God’s sovereign election and the moral responsibility of human beings works are not at cross purposes. Consider this great summary:  

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably, ordained whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (The Westminster Confession of Faith).

Reconciled friends

Upon being asked how he reconciled divine sovereignty and human responsibility,  Charles H. Spurgeon simply replied, “I do not try to reconcile friends.”  

God’s elect:

The Bible repeatedly mentions God’s elect or chosen ones: (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:6-8a; I Thessalonians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13). The Bible speaks directly about:

    • The fact of election: (Matthew 11:27; 22:14; Luke. 18:7; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12).
    • The time of election: (Ephesians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13; II Timothy 1:9, before the foundation of the world). 
    • The record of election: (Revelation 13:8)
    • The basis for election: (Ephesians 1:4-11) the kind intention of God’s will (Romans 9:11); God’s grace (Romans 11:5; Eph. 1:7,12); God’s good pleasure (Ephesians 1:9) purpose (Ephesians 1:11); the determined counsel of God (Acts 2:23) and divine foreknowledge (I Peter 1:2).

The character of God.

God will never do anything contrary His character. This is where a lot of thinking on the subject of God’s sovereignty drifts from what the Bible teaches. Before teaching on this great subject, reflect deeply on these Scriptures revealing God’s character: Exodus 33:19; 34:5-7; Deuteronomy 32:3-4; John 3:16-17; Romans 2:11; II Thessalonians 1:6; I Timothy 2:3-4; James 1:13,17; I John 1:5; 4:8,16.

There is a necessary link between God’s character and his treatment of His creation. God’s anger, for example, is his right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. Atonement through Christ was the only way God could forgive sinners without acting against His own justice. God is both just and forgiving in character. 

“He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deut. 32:4). “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

A necessary conclusion: 

“It is certainly inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to lay any man under either a physical or moral necessity of committing sin, and then to punish him for doing it.” (John Wesley).  

Humans are responsible

Scripture will not tolerate any view of God’s sovereign control that eliminates human responsibility.

“At no point whatsoever does the remarkable emphasis on the absoluteness of God’s sovereignty mitigate the responsibility of human beings who, like everything else in the universe, fall under God’s sway. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism” (D.A. Carson).

According to Scripture, our decisions constitute real causes that produce real effects — for which we will be held accountable. The wise teacher wrote, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

“God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is minimized or mitigated” (see: Psalms 115:2-3, Psalms 135:6, Ephesians 1:11, Acts 17:26, Matthew 6:26, Exodus 21:13, Ruth 1:13, 20, Proverbs 21:1, 16:9, Jeremiah 10:23, Psalms 105:25, Is 45:6-7, Lamentations 3:37-38). 

“Human beings are morally responsible creatures—they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent” (D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?)

(see: Joshua 24:14-15, Romans 10:9-11, Exodus 19:4-6, Ezekiel 18:30-32).

What about salvation?

No one will stand before God and say, “I wanted to be saved but was unable to because I was not elected to salvation. This way of thinking violates the full truth of Scripture regarding salvation. 

Jesus spoke of both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in relation to salvation (see: John 5:40; 6:44).

“Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this “cannot” and “will not” lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But however we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 95-96).

A disconcerting and terrifying truth

“The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty . . . what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He visits have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 139).

Steve Cornell

8 comments on “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

  1. eliezer40 says:

    I liked reading this. But, God calls us first. We respond to that call. (Romans 8:29-30)

    Jesus does say though, that He will not turn any away who come to Him. But that calling us is an important thing to remember.

    • Yes. If God did not seek us, we would never seek Him. We flee from God by our very nature.

      • Rick says:

        Is it also accurate to say that if God did not ‘change’ (regenerate) us, we would not seek Him?

      • The short answer in my view is yes. But this is where the idea of antinomy becomes most interesting. Again, to handle Scripture accurately, two truths must be honored:

        1. God is unconditionally sovereign
        2. Humans are responsible and accountable

        These two truths are presented repeatedly in Scripture as authentic and compatible. If we teach either one in a way that diminishes the other, we do not faithfully represent Biblical truth. But the mystery behind this compatibility is not fully known. It is simply and clearly taught and we are called to honor what the Bible teaches and to live faithfully within its truth. Of course, this is the old discussion on the order of regeneration and faith. Spurgeon was noted for opposing the idea of regeneration before faith saying, “If I am to preach the faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous things for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved, when he is saved already, being regenerate. Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners. Jesus came into the world to save sinners — sinners as sinners, not as penitent sinners or as awakened sinners, but sinners, sinners of whom I am chief.”

        “Are we to go running up and down the world, proclaiming life to the living, casting bread to those who are fed already, and holding up Christ on the pole of the gospel to those who are already healed? Repentance is preached as a gift from the exalted Savior, but it is never as the cause of preparation for believing in Jesus. These two graces are born together, and live with a common life – beware of making one a foundation for the other” (pp. 4,10 Sword and Trowel, Vol. VI, No. 4, Apr. 1974, The Warrant of Faith).

        Of course, Scripture does indicate a pre-salvation work of the Spirit (Jn. 16:8-11; Gen. 6:3; Acts 7:51; also Jn. 6:44; 12:32).

  2. Rick says:

    I wonder if responsibility and accountability are confined or limited to our nature. As fallen creatures, being dead in trespasses and sins, we are responsible and accountable for the sin we commit. And that in itself is enough for God to be just and righteous in His condemnation of us. But at the same time, we are not responsible and accountable for our salvation. God is the only One who could save fallen man. By nature, fallen man could never save himself. Salvation had to come from outside of himself. Thus the need for election, predestination, regeneration, the gifts of faith and repentance – all originating within God. So man is responsible and accountable for his condemnation, but God is responsible for man’s salvation.

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  5. […] knowingly rebels against their Creator. Without getting into the deeper theological discussion (see: here), it seems appropriate in light of what we know about God to concluded that through Christ’s […]

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