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How do we put God's sovereignty and man’s responsibility together?

by André Schwartz last modified Aug 01, 2014 11:00 AM
A seemingly contradictory doctrine (Part 3) – let’s go BBB

It is clear from Scripture that God is the supreme Ruler over the universe He created. He did not only create it in time, but He decreed what would happen to it over time. His plan affects every detail of this creation. This plan is eternal and there never was another plan. Thus, terms like purpose, foreknowledge, predestination, and election are all logically related and they are equally timeless.

God is all-knowing (omniscient) and therefore has knowledge of all things actual and possible. His eternal plan is therefore not based upon blind choice but God has wisely chosen a plan in which all details will work together to bring about the greatest good (the glorification of God). Furthermore, since God is the absolute of truth, justice, goodness, and love, His plan is a reflection of His own being and nature.

God does not only know that His is the best possible plan, He also has the power and authority to bring it about (omnipotence). Does He bring about everything that is possible? No! Does He even bring about everything that we ask? No! Although God is omnipotent, He is, above all, sovereign and will only bring about what He decreed. One thing we can be sure of, is that when God promises to do something there is no question that it will be done. This is why every Biblical prophecy will be perfectly fulfilled.

Nevertheless, God carries out his all-inclusive plan by a variety of means. God may directly intervene or He may achieve His purpose by an indirect agency (e.g. the laws of nature). He may even fulfil His plan by taking His hands off in a given situation (the phrase “God gave them up” appears three times in Rom 1:24‑28). But God is in control regardless of what means He chooses to use.

The Bible makes it clear that God’s work in predestination and election is loving (Eph 1:4-5; 1 John 4:7), wise (Rom 11:33; 16:27), and just (Gen 18:25; Rom 3:4-6).

“The Lord is righteous in all his ways, gracious in all His works.” (Ps 145:17).

We cannot explain why God has seen fit to incorporate human freedom and responsibility into His all-inclusive plan. Even though the Lord is in sovereign control of every detail in His creation, He never forces any man to do anything against his will. The mere fact that He judges sin means that He is not responsible for the commission of the sins He judges. When a person sins it is because he has freely chosen to do so. The problem is that man is not free from the control of his own nature. A better way to express this may be to say: man is at liberty to do what he desires, BUT he is not able to choose good – he is by nature sinful and therefore does not desire good. He is at liberty (free) to choose, but only able to choose evil … unless saved by grace!

An analogy may help: a fish is at liberty (free) to swim in the water (it can go wherever it wants in the water), but it is not able to “swim” on land – by nature it’s only able to choose the water to swim in.

In biblical terms this whole mystery can be summed up by saying that God is both King and Judge. As King, He orders and controls all things, human action among them, in accordance with his own eternal purpose. And as Judge, He holds each man responsible for the choices he makes and the courses of action he pursues.

A mystery that ties in with all this is: God’s plan is not always the same as His desires. Although His plan controls what men will be, the product often is not what He desires. For instance, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4; see also 2 Pet 3:9). Yet He has not elected all men: “… the elect obtained it, and the rest were blinded.” Rom 11:7).

Thus, God’s plan and desires are two different aspects of His will. He has revealed His desire (what men ought to do), but His plan for what specific men will do has for the most part been hidden. This is almost a mystery within a mystery, because there is no way we can conceive of how these two aspects of God’s will relate together in His mind.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut 29:29)

It may be fitting to close this short series with a quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF Chapter 5), which sums it all succinctly up:

I. God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

II. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

III. God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.

I urge you to also read the rest of Chapter 5 of the WCF (only 3 more paragraphs). Remember to go BBB in all things!