[ 5 minutes to read ]. . . At least to the brain anyway. [B]y 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).