It’s one of the enduringly difficult nuts to crack. How we affirm both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. How do we give God all the glory for whatever good gets done and none of the blame for our moral clangers? The way it works doesn’t feel that obvious. There’s a real tension here. Some might say a paradox.
What’s worse is that where we see difficulty, God is unblushing. Time and again in Scripture his sovereignty and our responsibility are maintained side by side.
Take Matt 11.25-30 for example… Jesus begins by highlighting God’s sovereignty. Behind the mixed reaction he’s received — which has reached something of a high point in the narratives of doubt, confusion and outright rejection that make up Matt 11 — stands the sovereign judgement of God (vv. 25-26). But none of this erases our very real human responsibility. In fact, in the next breath Jesus issues his invitation: ‘Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (v. 28).
What’s really fascinating is that it’s the ‘christological wedge’ that v. 27 drives between the two halves of this snippet that allows the sovereignty of God and our responsibility to fit together. The sovereignty of God is almost ‘cracked open’ by the unique identity Jesus claims for himself:
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
I suspect that this is a pretty broad hint that we need to develop a fully christological — and ultimately a Trinitarian — doctrine of created freedom — ‘dependent independence’ as T. F. Torrance calls it. This won’t necessarily resolve (or dissolve) the tension. But it might help us get a little more comfortable about how the Bible emphasises both God’s sovereign control and our genuine responsibility.
Colin Gunton has a characteristically brilliant word on this (The Triune Creator, p 86):
Determinism is […] best avoided not by reading time back into God but by focusing on the action of the Spirit who is the giver of freedom and the one who enables the created order to be itself: to become what it was created to be. And in that regard, a note of eschatology cannot be far behind. To speak of the work of the Spirit in relation to creation is to speak of the created order eschatologically: that is to say, to direct our thoughts to the end. And the point of this is that we cannot understand the beginning without some orientation to the end. Already on the seventh day of the Genesis account an eschatological dimension may be present, especially in the light of the fact that that day comes in later tradition to be treated as a type of the coming Kingdom of God. Creation in the beginning cannot finally be understood without its directedness to an end, because it has to be understood as God’s project, a project in which he freely and graciously involves us, his personal creation.