God’s sovereign election and human responsibility

“The Lord has made the heavens his throne; from there he rules over everything” (Psalm 103:19)

Scripture teaches that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

“I am the LORD, 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).

This is a subject that has both intrigued and confused those who know what the Bible teaches about it.

A framework:

It is very important to address the subject in the way that the Bible does and to avoid forcing it to conform to theological traditions. 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).

An antinomy:

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

“It 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). 

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.”  

The truth about God’s sovereignty and human accountability is both sobering and encouraging. 

Beyond my own comments, I’ve included several helpful quotes related to God’s sovereign election and the moral responsibility of human beings.

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).

God’s elect:

The Bible repeatedly refers to God’s elect or chosen ones: Israel (Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8a); individuals for salvation (I Thess. 1:4; II Thess. 2:13). The Bible speaks directly about:

    1. The fact of election: (Mt. 11:27; 22:14; Lk. 18:7; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12).
    2. The time of election: (Eph. 1:4; II Thess. 2:13; II Tim. 1:9) Before the foundation of the world.
    3. The record of election: (Rev. 13:8)
    4. The basis for election: (Eph. 1:4-11) the kind intention of God’s will (Rom. 9:11), God’s grace (Rom. 11:5; Eph. 1:7,12), good pleasure (Eph. 1:9), purpose (Eph. 1:11), determinate counsel (Acts 2:23) and Foreknowledge (I Pet. 1:2).

Election: conditioned on the character of God.

God will never do anything contrary His character. Invest some time in these Scriptures reflecting on God’s character: Ex. 33:19; 34:5-7; Deut. 32:3-4; Jn. 3:16-17; Rom. 2:11; II Thess. 1:6; I Tim. 2:3-4; Ja. 1:13,17; I Jn. 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 also the only way God could forgive sinners without acting against his own justice. God is both just and forgiving in character. This is where a lot of thinking on the subject of God’s sovereignty drifts from what the Bible teaches.

“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).

“Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in the earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6 w/Rev. 4:10). One might ask, “If God controls everything that happens — is he not a cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings when he wants us to dance?” The answer is that this is simply not the way the Bible describes God. The sovereignty of God is unlimited, but it operates consistently with God’s character (Titus 1:2).

It would not be right then to view 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: (Ja. 2:5; I Cor. 1:27ff; I Pet. 5:5-6).

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

“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).

Humans are responsible

Scripture will not tolerate any view of God’s sovereign control that diminishes 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).

Like God’s sovereignty, human responsibility is startlingly 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).

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?

We will never be able to stand before God and say we wanted to be saved but were unable to do so because we were not elected to salvation.

Jesus spoke of both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in relation to salvation (see: Jn. 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).

We will never be able to stand before God and say we wanted to be saved but were unable to do so because we were not elected to salvation.

“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

This entry was posted in Doctrine of election, Predestination, Salvation, Sovereignty. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to God’s sovereign election and human responsibility

  1. Aaron Sullivan says:

    I like to think of God in my finite mind as the “straight line”. According to physics a straight line does not exist in our universe. We can say “what is the shortest distance between two points?” and we know the answer but can not draw it. We do our best to “Walk the line” as John Cash would say, but can’t seem to stay in step. Then we raise our hands to the sky and say it is impossible. So in turn God sends His Son and proves us wrong.

  2. Anonymous says:

    the auctioneer calls for a bid to purchase the blind and wounded slave for sale on the auction block. The slave is led off the block by the noose around his neck because he has been bought for a price. The auctioneer hands the tether to the new owner who demonstrates the purchase by revealing the nail holes in his hands and feet as well as the wound in his side. “For we are not our own we have been bought with a price”. Though the slave owner is subsequently very good to His slave at no time was there opportunity in the purchase for the slave to exercise human responsibility.

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