When you talk about or teach on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, make sure you’re describing these truths the way Scripture does. Loyalty to a system of theology must never involve forcing ideas contrary to the way Scripture speaks.
Our responses to God are always based on His efforts to make himself known and to give us understanding. This comes in a variety of ways and stages –
- God’s appointment, choice, and purpose
- Acts 13:48 – When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” NLT- “all who were chosen for eternal life became believers.”
- Ephesians 1:4-6 – “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”
- II Timothy 1:9-10 – “He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
2. Testimonies of common grace
- “In the past, God let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:16-17). (see – common grace)
3. Conviction of the Spirit
- The Spirit will “convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment” (see: John 16:8). (see – Elentics)
4. Witness of the Church
- When God’s people assemble in His name. “…if the whole church comes together and ….an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (I Corinthians 14:23-25). (see – Encountering God in church).
Why people refuse to believe
- Identification – Jesus said, “You do not believe because you are not my sheep” (John 10:26). Since you stand outside of those who belong to Christ, you do not/cannot believe in Him (Acts 13:48; John 6:44, 63-65; 8:47).
- Condition – “Since they did not consider it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind” (Romans 1:28). Consider those who love darkness (John 3:19-20; Ephesians 4:17-18) and those who are blinded (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
- Response – A choice (John 5:39-40; John 5:42-44; John 7:15-17; Revelation 22:17). “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. . . . 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). “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).
- Judgment – God’s permissive agency hands some people over to their desired deception (Romans 1:18-26a;cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Isaiah 66:3-4 – notice how they “refused” and God ratifies their choice; Psalm 81:11-12). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8); Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34-35).
- Appetite – (John 6:35 cf. John 4:14). This understanding of unbelief deserves more focus than it typically receives. Rarely is unbelief solely or mainly a changing of one’s mind about facts. It is also a turning of the heart away from the Creator and Redeemer.
Intervention, transformation, and relationship – note the order
- “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
- Divine intervention – “I will give, put, remove, give…”
- Life transformation – “Then they will follow.. and be careful to keep…”
- Personal relationship – “They will be my people… I will be their God”
- “I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word (Isaiah 66:2).
- “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (I Peter 5:5).
- “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:25-30).
Two actions of God
It’s sobering to recall that the God who removes stubbornness of heart by gracious intervention also hardens calloused hearts in judgment.
- God hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:13); God says that he will harden the hearts of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:17); the Lord hardened the spirit of Sihon, king of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2:30); the Lord hardened the hearts of the northern kings in Canaan (Joshua 11:20), Isaiah asked why God hardened Israel’s heart (Isaiah 63:17), and the apostle Paul wrote “whom God wills He hardens” (Romans 9:18).
- God’s heart revealed
Our response matters
- Pharaoh hardens his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34-35). God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8). See also: Ps. 81:11-12
- “They have chosen their own ways, and they delight in their abominations; so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring on them what they dread. For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me” (Isaiah 66:3-4).
- “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (II Thessalonians 2:10b-12).
God’s permissive agency hands them over to their desired deception They “refuse,” “do not believe” and delight in wickedness. God ratifies their choice (see also – Romans 1:18-26a).
These are deep and urgent matters. We must be careful not to isolate any of these truths from the others when we talk about and teach on these subjects.
- “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain 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).