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 the truth. Yet the mystery behind this compatibility is not fully known. It is simply and clearly taught and we are called to honor the truth and to live faithfully by it.
Scriptures to learn from: Genesis 45:1-8; 50:19-20; II Samuel 24; Isaiah 10:5-19; John 6:37-40; Philippians 2:12-13; Acts 4:23-30; 13:38; 18:9-10.
Great teaching on this theme
D. A. Carson
“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.”
“The Bible insists that God is sovereign, so sovereign that nothing that takes place in the universe can escape the outermost boundary of his control; yet the Bible insists God is good, unreservedly good, the very standard of goodness. We are driven to conclude that God does not stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way. In other words, he stands behind good in such a way that the good can ultimately be credited to him; he stands behind evil in such a way that what is evil is inevitably credited to secondary agents and all their malignant effects.”
Examples from the Bible
In the crucifixion of Jesus, “Herod and Pontius Pilate and the rest conspired together; they did what they wanted to do, even though they did what God’s power and will had determined beforehand should be done. That is why many theologians have refused to tie ‘freedom’ to absolute power to act contrary to God’s will. They tie it, rather, to desire, to what human beings voluntarily choose.”
“Joseph’s brothers did what they wanted to do; Herod and Pilate and the rulers of the Jews did what they wanted to do; the Assyrians did what they wanted to do. In each case, God’s sovereignty was operating behind the scenes: the human participants, to use the language of the early Christians, ‘did what God’s power and will had decided before hand should happen.’ But that did not excuse them. They did what they wanted to do.”
“Taking this a step further, suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? All of scripture cries against the suggestion.”
“Then should we conclude, with some modern theologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s ‘power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed one to die in their place?”
“Many Christians today think that if human beings are to be thought of as morally responsible creatures, they must be free to choose, to believe, to disobey, and so forth. But what does ‘freedom’ mean? Sometimes without thinking about it, we assume that such freedom must entail the power to work outside God’s sovereignty. Freedom, we think, involves absolute power to be contrary, that is, the power to break any constraint, so that there is no necessity in the choice we make. If we are constrained to choose a certain option, if what we decide is in fact utterly inevitable, then how could it be ours? And if not truly ours, how can we be held morally accountable?”
“God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God.” (D.A. Carson “A Call to Spiritual Reformation” p.156)