By sovereignty, I mean God’s supremacy in power and purpose over all his creation. We can produce various well-known passages that attest to the fact (Psalm 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10-11; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11). The bare assertion of God’s sovereignty doesn’t evoke many complaints among a lot of professing Christians. However, when we begin to press implications of it, people start moaning. When we bring human responsibility alongside it, there is generally weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The “problem” of reconciling God’s sovereignty with human responsibility is not a new one. The oldest book in the Bible is the book of Job and it wrestles with these questions throughout. Every preacher, theologian, professor, and pew-sitter has wrestled with this question. History has produced a lot of words on the subject. We tend to think the question ought to be settled by now or else it cannot be this side of eternity. I don’t think it really is the problem it’s made out to be. I’m not being flippant, so let me explain.
It is not a problem
Let’s get the problem before us. Since God is sovereign and works all things according to his own will, then he has willed all things concerning me. He has willed my birth, death, and all the happy or unhappy business in between. How then can I be responsible and accountable to him? Since God has sovereignly chosen from before the foundation of the world all those who will be saved (Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12; Romans 8:28-30; 9:11-16; Acts 13:48), how can he hold accountable those who are lost? And why should we then preach the Gospel to every creature? There are other questions along this line, but the problem is thus far sufficiently represented.
This problem though is not a problem theologically or exegetically. By theology, I mean the summarizing and systematizing of the Bible’s teaching on a given subject. We do this when we speak of the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of regeneration, etc. We can summarize and systematize the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty. Doing so produces no internal inconsistencies within the category. The Bible teaches in whole that God is absolutely sovereign, does as he wills, cannot be thwarted, and is under no obligations to his creation. We can also summarize and systematize the Bible’s teaching on the responsibility and accountability of man toward God. The Bible teaches in whole that man is responsible to acknowledge God as God, worship God as God, and to obey God as God. The Bible also teaches in whole that man is accountable to God for his failure, neglect, or refusal to acknowledge, worship, and obey God. This summary of Bible teaching produces no internal inconsistencies in the category. This is why I say there is no problem with God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility theologically.
There is also no problem exegetically. By exegesis, I mean the proper interpretation of a passage of Scripture according to context, grammar, setting, etc. Any individual passage we properly interpret will teach God is sovereign. Likewise, any individual passage we properly interpret will teach man is responsible and accountable to God. There is no passage properly interpreted that says God is not sovereign or man is not responsible. We cannot find any two passages that contradict each other on this subject when they are properly interpreted. This is why I say there is no exegetical problem.
It is a problem
If it is not a problem in the Bible, then why all the fuss and bother? I grant there is a lot of fuss and bother. There are a couple of ways the problem is a problem. It is a problem philosophically. When we think on the two teachings and try to bring them together in our minds, we have a problem. Every Christian wrestles with this problem at some point if they think about it at all. However, if anyone comes to an existential crisis over it, I assure you, it’s all in your head.
I realize that could be a fantastically rude thing to say to somebody in anguish over this problem, so let me illustrate my point to show you it isn’t really a problem. All Americans know April 15th is “Tax Day.” This is the deadline for filing state and federal income taxes. I assume my readers are law-abiding citizens who filed their taxes by the deadline. Bear with me a little in my folly here, but what is involved in filing taxes? You know the routine. You have to scrounge around under the floor mats of the car, between the cushions on the couch, and behind the desk to find all your receipts. You have to access your records. You have to assemble them in some order, fill in the forms, and file them electronically or by mail. You may also hire someone to do the last part, but you still have to do the first part.
So, why did you do it? Some will say, “It’s the law. I have to do it.” Yes, yes, but why did you yourself do all the work that is involved in filing taxes? Why didn’t you just leave off all that work and worry because if God willed for your taxes to be done they would be done and you wouldn’t have to worry about it or do anything? Is there anyone who struggled with their taxes and came to a crisis because you wanted to do your taxes but weren’t sure if God willed for your taxes to be done and you didn’t want to violate his will?
You probably dislike doing taxes and may have grumbled in many ways, but you didn’t have a problem doing your taxes because of the sovereignty of God. This is why I say the problem of sovereignty and responsibility is all in your head and isn’t a real problem. Does anyone wake up the morning and remain motionless in bed because if God willed for you to go to work, that will happen whether you did anything to that end or not? No, you don’t do that and I don’t do that. Neither one of us then has a real problem with sovereignty and responsibility.
I have also found it often to be a problem of convenience. When men want to rationalize their disobedience, say to the commission to evangelize for example, they attribute their lack of doing it to a great respect for God’s sovereignty and their desire to not go against his will. I call foul. The Bible unambiguously and consistently teaches men are responsible to obey every word of God and will be held accountable for not doing it. This includes the command to preach the Gospel to every creature (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8).
Most Fridays I work from home instead of going into town where my office is. Not last Friday. I was behind on things and needed to get caught up and have access to my printers, so I went to the office. About the middle of the day, I was getting hungry. I went to the store to get some lunch meat and cheese to make a wrap back at the office. When I got back to the office, there was a man I had never seen before raking leaves in front of the building. I greeted him with a smile and went in.
I was putting away my things and preparing to make my lunch. It had only been a couple of minutes since I had come in and I heard a knock on the door. It was the man I had seen earlier. He asked if he could ask me a favor. He went on to explain that he was trying to get a job and he needed to get home so he could go get his ID. He told me how he had been trying to find work and the other man that worked there was the only one that had helped him out. (He was talking about the owner of the building. Apparently, he had paid him something to rake up the leaves around the building.) He told me that he felt like he had already done so much for him, he hated to ask him for anything else. I asked him where he lived and he told me. It was across town. I told him I would give him a ride and asked for just a couple minutes to put my things away and get my coat.
I put my stuff up quickly and rummaged around in my office but I didn’t have any more tracts. I hurriedly pulled one up on the computer and printed it out. I hurriedly texted a couple of brothers to ask them to pray. I grabbed my coat and stuck the tract in my pocket. I went out to the street and we got in my truck. I asked him his name and told him mine. As I pulled away from the curb I knew that we could spend the time in idle chit-chat or I could use the time to witness to him. He had already asked me what kind of work I did there and I had told him. In order to put myself thoroughly in the soup from the outset, I told him, as we were pulling away, that I was also a pastor. I told a little about our church, described where it was by the landmarks he knew, and invited him as best as I knew how so that he would know that he was welcome to visit.
I asked a couple of questions and he told me that he had been in prison for ten years and recently got out. He told me he had four children and twelve grandchildren in another state. He talked about his struggles and how hard it was as he was trying to get his life together. I told him I had seven children and knew that it can be hard to keep above water sometimes. I told him I would be praying for him and that I would tell the church and we would all be praying for him.
He had mentioned God a couple of times and kept talking about trying to get his life together. I told him that I did not believe in accidents. I believed God had brought us together that day. I asked him directly, “How is your relationship to God?” He admitted that it was not very good. He went on to talk about how he was trying and he needed to do better. I told him that no matter who we are, we can never do enough to make ourselves acceptable to God. I couldn’t do it and neither could he. I told him that sometimes people think we need to clean ourselves up in order to pray to God and be forgiven. I told him that one of the amazing things about the Gospel is that we don’t clean ourselves up in order to come to God. We come to him as we are, confessing our sins, repenting, and trusting only in Jesus Christ. I told him God cleans us up by washing us in the blood of Jesus Christ who died that sinners could be forgiven. I explained the Gospel to him as well as I could in a couple of minutes.
I asked him if there was anything specific we could pray for him about. He mentioned work again and that he really needed a job. He asked me to drop him at the corner, so I pulled over. I said if he had just a minute I wanted to pray with him before he got out. He agreed. I took off my hat, bowed my head, and called out to God to have mercy on him, to open his eyes to Jesus Christ and to find forgiveness in him alone. I asked God to manifest himself to him by opening the door for him to get the work he needed.
With tears in my eyes, I invited him to church again and told him I would be happy to see him there. I had never seen him before in my life and may never see him again. God knows. I came back to my office and prayed. I hope the Lord saves him. I hope that my motives were right and I left a blessed memory (Proverbs 10:7) where he will know that he needed help and he met a man on the street named Jeff who helped him and cared about him. I pray he will come to praise and glorify God because of it.
Why tell this story?
I do not tell you this story to make myself look like a hero. I could tell you about many failures. I have not done as much I should in life. A year or so ago I was leaving my office to get to church for the Wednesday service. While walking to my vehicle, I met a man that asked me for help and I told him I was sorry but I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have anything, not even a dime on me. I got into the vehicle and immediately felt a weight of rebuke on me. I pulled out and went down the street to find the man, determined to do what I could for him and to share the Gospel with him. I drove all around two or three blocks and didn’t see him anywhere. I have no idea where he could have gone in such a short time. I drove away knowing I had neglected my responsibility and an opportunity.
I tell this to encourage and I want us to encourage one another. I was overwhelmed by the encounter I had that Friday. I have had others that didn’t go that well. I couldn’t seem to think of good things to say or couldn’t get the conversation to go right. Honestly, every one of us knows enough to have the conversation I had. I had not prepared beforehand. In fact, I had been distracted with my mind overwhelmed all week long. I know it wasn’t the greatest evangelism encounter in the last 100 years, but I believe the Spirit helped me in one of the most powerful ways I’ve experienced in a long time. I don’t know all God’s purposes in it, though I know they will be accomplished.
A few lessons learned along the way
Let me try to encourage by sharing some things I see in this encounter and others that will help us in our personal evangelism. These are just some practical things I’ve learned. My goal is to help someone get started. I am thinking mostly about cold-contact evangelism on the street where the encounter may be a one-time event.
• We have to be willing to do it. We have to be willing to talk to people and especially the kind of people society teaches us to avoid. The example I have given is where someone came up to me to ask for help. I have found that people who really do have a need are much more open to talk to. People that come up to us may only be looking for a handout or may even be trying to swindle us with a fake story, but it is an opportunity handed to us to witness the Gospel to them.
• It takes humility to connect with people. If we think of ourselves as better than them on some level, we will be condescending and they will know it. We have to be sincere in what we are doing.
• We must be willing to listen to what they are saying, empathize with them, and respond to what they are saying. In other words, we need to have an actual conversation as far as we can and not give them a door-to-door salesman’s pitch. This goes along with the previous point and we must be concerned about the people we talk to. Evangelism is not a quota to meet.
• We can have a hard time turning conversations sometimes. We initiate contact and quickly get sidetracked and struggle to bring the conversation to the Gospel. One way to help this is to step right in it early on. Tell them your first name, and that you are a Christian, and invite them to church. Give them a tract or card. This way you have at least put the conversation on a certain track quickly and also committed yourself to it.
• We can sometimes get an opening to talk further by telling them we’re going to pray for them and then asking them if there is some specific need we can pray for them about. Again, we must be sincere and not trying to use a gimmick. We should be prepared to pray for them if we can right there. It’s a way of disarming a person and sometimes it opens the flood gates.
• If we have listened, there have probably been a few cues we can use to bring the conversation to the Gospel. I noticed how the man I met kept talking about trying to get his life together and I used that to talk about how we cannot get ourselves together before God. It led easily to the Gospel and our need for repentance.
• As a general rule it’s probably not a good idea to give money to people on the street. If someone tells me they need gas, food, or something like that, I usually offer to go get it for them. Few take me up on that offer. Some have. There is no playbook for how things are going to go. We should at least try to get something of the Gospel to people in every encounter.
Our job is to sow the seed and trust God for the results. Some people will refuse to talk or take anything from you. Some may want to argue with you. Some may be indifferent. Some may seem interested and give you openings to talk further. Remember we have successfully evangelized when we have made the Gospel clear to another person. We should always be inviting them to church. We also have to be willing to follow up. We have to be willing to receive them when they show up at church. We certainly must pray for them that God will work effectually in them.
The rest of the story
So what happened to the man I talked to that day? He came to our service the Sunday after I had met him. I was encouraged by that. I had a fairly long conversation with him after service that was mostly disappointing. He told me a lot of things about himself and his life. I don’t know if they were true or not. He may have been partially honest with me, completely honest, or lying about everything. I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since.
We also have to realize we are going to have disappointments. Sometime we may invest in a person over a long time only to have them fall away. It can be painful. I pray for him. I am concerned about him. I have no idea what will happen with him. I am thankful that I at least had the opportunity to give him the Gospel and I pray God will use it to his salvation even if I never see him again.
Families have days where nothing seems to go right. We are getting ready to go somewhere and problems pop up at every turn. One kid is sick, another is tired, and maybe others have chosen this extremely inconvenient time to embody contrariness. We’ve barely begun and Mom has already had just about enough and is twitching and ticking like an animal shelter mutt with one eye.
We arrive at our destination looking like unmade beds and realize one kid’s hair didn’t get fixed, one has on two left shoes of different colors, and another is sporting a mucus mustache. It always somehow works out that at just such a time as this, that family shows up. You know the one with several children impeccably dressed as if heading to a photo shoot, who march in appropriate birth order at precisely one arm’s length, and always use appropriate manners and etiquette for whatever social situation they are in. They all smile with glistening teeth as though they have time to visit the dentist regularly. They never raise their voices above a polite conversational tone and you can only imagine they have mastered the control of their children by telepathy. That family.
They drill by us in West Point cadet fashion and each click of their perfectly polished patent leather shoes sounds out the cadence of our failures and varying emotions to our ears.
Whoa! Hold on to that last one—jealousy. Why can’t our kids be more like their kids?
Sometimes families see that family that seems to have it all together and either give up, because we will never be like that, or else they want to become that family or die trying. It can be discouraging and hopeless. If we’re not careful here, we can set up an idol we are bowing down to and serving. If there is a positive blessing that can come from the downfall of some well-known family ministries in recent years, I hope it is that we will stop idolizing “perfect” families. It is wise to learn from others, but let us learn with discernment and never try to impersonate others through blind copying. We really shouldn’t want to be like that family.
All Photoshoped and Airbrushed
The picture you have in your mind of that perfect family is not true to reality. It’s all Photoshoped and airbrushed. You’ve mentally composed an image that’s always in just the right light. You are seeing them at their absolute best and comparing your family at its absolute worst. There are two obvious problems with this. First, it is not a fair comparison. Second, it is not a comparison that should be made in the first place. A perfect family is not the standard of measure and measuring ourselves against others is not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12). You should realize that you can’t possibly be like that because that family isn’t actually like that either. Families are a group of sinners varying in age, size, and gender, but all sinners all the same. There is no such thing as a “perfect” family.
All that Glitters is Not Gold
You should also realize that while you’re looking at that family’s best, you’re not seeing their worst. You don’t know what their weaknesses are. They seem to do well in some areas, but no individual or family does well in all areas all the time. You don’t see where they are failing. Beside this, there are some families who major on the public appearance. Their kids know where to stand, where to sit, and when to be quiet. Usually those kids are not being taught far more important things. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a family that is doing well in some areas and a family that is putting up a front and a public fiction.
Bridge Out Ahead!
You’ve probably heard the joke about the two men standing by the road holding signs. One sign read, “The end is near!” The other sign read, “Turn around before it’s too late!” A car passes by them and then they hear screeching tires and a splash. Another car passes while the driver shouts angrily at the men. The car goes out of sight and they hear more tire screeching and more splashing. A third car approaches and slows by the men so the driver can read the signs. The driver then stomps on the gas, flinging rocks at them and then they hear the same screeching and splash. The first man looks at the second man and says, “Maybe we should hold up a sign that says, ‘Bridge out ahead!'”
That joke works and illustrates two points germane to our topic—misperception and obscured vision. The passersby misinterpreted what they saw, thinking it was a couple of religious nuts trying to evangelize them. They also suffered from limited vision because at that point the drivers could not see around the bend that the bridge was out. Likewise, we need to realize that the picture we have of that perfect family is a snapshot capturing one moment in time. We have misperception problems because even in that one moment of time we are not seeing the whole picture. We are not perceiving their flaws. Our vision is also obscured because we are looking at one moment in time and we are not seeing the end result of that family. We are not seeing how they turned out. This problem of limited vision is one reason why Solomon teaches us not to be too hasty in declaring one way better than another because we cannot see the end (Ecclesiastes 3:22; 6:11-12; 8:7).
Don’t be Quick to Garnish Whited Tombs
Hopefully I have relieved some burdens by this point, but I hope to give further encouragement. I mentioned previously that we can learn from others and we can and should. However, we need to take heed from whom and what we are learning. In this case, we don’t want to be like Rehoboam who rejected the counsel of his elders and betters and chose the counsel of his peers (2 Chronicles 10:6-8). The counsel of the gray-headed who have already done well at raising children to adulthood is far weightier than the example of the grand marshal and his parade of peacocks, no matter how well the peacocks can keep time with their steps.
If we are majoring on matters of public appearance, we probably have some pride issues we need to deal with. Jesus reserved his harshest rebukes for those who majored on outward appearances (Matthew 23:5-12, 23-33). One sure-fire way to raise up a Pharisee is to follow the program of the Pharisees. We don’t want to be or produce Pharisees. We need a sense of priority in what things are more important than others (Luke 10:38-42) that we not be giving undue attention to appearances. We should not be content to clean up our children like the outside of cups and platters. We should pray diligently for their salvation. We should always be quick to pray for and encourage other families. Let’s stop comparing ourselves and being quick to criticize and condemn others. Let’s be quick to put on humility. Parenting is hard and we need immeasurable grace to do it anywhere near well.