God’s in control, we’re responsible — how does that work?

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.

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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.

Wow!

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5 comments

  1. Dunno, it seems to me though that since God made us perfect, when we act perfectly it is down to His having made us, we are simply living up to what He made us then, when we act imperfectly that is down to the corruption we invited through original sin and every sin after it which was entirely our own doing.

  2. One of the greatest and most essential attributes of God is His sovereignty; God rules over all things and controls all things. God also uses providence to accomplish His will in the world. God directs and uses events to accomplish His own Will which meant: “the providence of God.” Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” All things are controlled by God to work together to fulfill His eternal purpose for His Will. God constantly intervenes in our lives through His Providence. This also include the election of salvation. In my position, God will not hold me responsible to understand the mysteries of election, predestination, and the divine sovereignty. The best and safest way to deal with these is to look to God in deepest respect say, “0 Lord, You know all.”

    Proverbs 16:9 We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.
    Proverbs 20:24 A man’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand his own way?

    Proverbs 21:1 The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.

    Jeremiah 10:23 I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.

    Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent. J.I. Packer

    1. Thanks, jimfromohio. I’ve been thinking a lot about the warning you sound about ‘the best and safest way to deal with’ the biblical tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility being ‘to look to God in deepest respect’ and ‘say, “O Lord, You know all.”‘

      You’re right. There really is a profound mystery here. And no good student of Calvin (let alone of the Scriptures) would want to rush into the kind of speculation that claims way too much insight.

      But, as Barth says in the introduction to his treatment of God’s attributes in Church Dogmatics II/1, despite the depth of this mystery and the very real limitations of our capacity ‘we cannot spare ourselves the trouble of formulation’. This is particularly true because God has made himself known in Jesus. I think it’s justified to expect that if we look to the one in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’ (Col 2.9), in whom also the mystery of God’s will for history is unveiled (Eph 1.9-10), we might be able to say something — however awe-struck, provisional and subject to revision — about how the different dimensions of this mystery hang together.

  3. We’re all called to be students of the Word, Amen? That said, the juxtaposition of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is an irresolvable tension that I don’t believe we’re capable of fully comprehending. This topic is closely associated with God’s eternality. As believers, we have eternal life to look forward to, but we don’t have personal knowledge of eternal past to dwell on. Paul asks the question in Romans 9:19 (a loose expansion) “If God is absolutely sovereign and in charge of my salvation, why am I still held responsible for rejecting Him?” Obviously, God’s knowledge is inexhaustible, and He knows what we can and cannot comprehend; thus; the response to Paul’s question is telling: Romans 9:20-21 (again, another loose expansion) “Who are you, o man, to answer back to God? Since when does the ash tray have the right to complain to the maker, “Why didn’t you make me a beautiful vase instead?”” In essence, Paul’s 9:19 question doesn’t get clearly answered, and I believe it’s because God knows our limitations and that it’s beyond us. I’m not saying don’t exercise due diligence on the topic, only that we will never fully resolve how both of these things (God’s sovereignty / man’s responsibility) co-exist.

    1. Thanks Tony. I’m sure you’re on to something. Paul does arrive at those conclusions, acknowledging his limitations and praising the sovereign and faithful God whose ways are far above our ways. But it is worth remembering that he arrives there at the end of an apparently agonising process of probing and reflecting on the plan of God. I’m keen not to short-circuit things sooner than the biblical authors do.

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