God’s sovereignty and how it relates to human accountability has perplexed many thinkers. If God is simply on the sidelines helplessly observing the chaos, He’s not worthy of worship. If He is blamable for the moral evil in the world, other complications seem insurmountable. This is where we must turn to Scripture for a better understanding and in it we find two truths repeatedly emphasized.
- An absolute, unconditional, sovereign God who transcends the created order and yet condescends to it as the personal Creator, Judge, and Savior.
- Human responsibility and accountability to God as Creator, Judge, and Savior.
If you refuse to accept these two truths, you will not understand the Bible or make sense of the world. Both truths are repeatedly presented 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. Some mystery remains, yet it remains in the context of a number of sobering points of clarity.
Scriptures: Genesis 45:1-8; 50:19-20; II Samuel 24; Isaiah 10:5-19; John 6:37-40; Acts 4:23-30; 13:38; 18:9-10; Philippians 2:12-13
A helpful statement of truth:
“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.” (Westminster Confession)
Insights from a good teacher: (New Testament scholar, D. A. Carson offers some of the best and most accessible teaching on this theme)
“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)
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.” (emphasis mine)
“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?”
“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)