God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility

Here is a perennial puzzle to poor people in the pew: how can God be completely sovereign, and yet man be responsibile for his actions? To put the question yet more sharply, how is it that God can ordain whatsoever comes to pass, and yet not be the author (as in “blameable”) of evil? As Rabbi Kushner put it in his famous book, Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?, if God is completely sovereign, then He must not be completely good, since He allows evil to exist. If God is completely good, then God must not be completely sovereign, or else evil would not exist. Kushner takes the position that God is not completely sovereign.

But is this a helpful position with regard to the question? Is the question correct? I believe that the question stems from our finite perspective, and therefore is an incorrect question to posit of God. Just because evil exists doesn’t mean that God is ignoring evil, or just “letting it slide.” In fact, as the Bible tells us, God has dealt decisively with evil at the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

The better question is this: why does God allow evil to exist? The answer is that God works to overcome evil, and thereby bring greater glory to Himself. There are many aspects of God’s character that we would not know if evil did not exist. For instance, God’s mercy and grace would be hidden if we were not sinners. God’s justice would be almost meaningless if there was not evil on which to exercise His justice. However, this brings up the next logical question: if God allows evil to exist in order to show us some of His character, then isn’t that just a case of God using the ends to justify the means? Isn’t God then simply using evil (the means) to bring glory to Himself (the end)? Isn’t that bad? The fact is that this is precisely what Scripture says regarding Pharaoh in Romans 9:17 “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.'” The reason that God can do this is that He controls every aspect of evil. When we try to do this, there are always unintended consequences. Also, when we use the end to justify the means, we are not usually passing judgment on the means. When God “uses” the ends to justify the means, then actually, God is thereby judging the evil at the same time as accomplishing His ends (which involves the ultimate destruction of evil anyway).

When it comes to human responsibility, Romans 9 again helps us: “19 You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

Since we are dealing with a very mysterious matter, we do well to heed Paul’s warning, which is in effect, “Shut up!” We in our finite state are not able to judge God, either by ability or by right.

But that is not all that we could say. I appreciate John Frame’s analogy of Shakespeare and a character in one of his plays (this comes from his book The Doctrine of God). On the level of the play, the characters are free to choose among various options that are in accord with their character (an extremely vital caveat, btw). On the level of the author, the characters are not free, but do as Shakespeare chooses. We are dealing with two different levels. This also helps to explain why, when we make a choice, we don’t (usually) feel coerced by some outside fate.

That brings us to one vital point in all of this: we are free to do whatever it is in our nature to do. That is the biblical definition of freedom of choice. In our sinful nature, therefore, we are not free to choose to please God. Romans 1-3 makes that crystal clear: sinners cannot please God. Sinners therefore cannot make a choice for God unless God changes their nature first. This is called regeneration. What makes this difficult for Arminians to swallow is that regeneration can be completely invisible. However, Jesus tells us in John 3 that we are given birth by the Holy Spirit; we do not give birth to ourselves. Some people use this terminology of being born again as if they were responsible for their own birth. Are babies responsible for being born? No, God alone gets all the glory for salvation, just as it is the mother’s womb and the powerful muscles of the uterus that give birth to the baby.

Now, we cannot deal with all the question that might arise from this discussion. I will only briefly mention and answer a couple. If God is responsible for man’s salvation, then why does Scripture say things like, “Whosoever wills may come?” and simply “come.” The Gospel is almost always phrased in Scripture according to the level of the play, to go back to Frame’s analogy. It is not usually phrased in terms of the level of Shakespeare (God’s level). But just because one layer is prominent in passages addressed to sinners does not mean that the other layer does not exist. It does exist. That much is quite clear from Scripture’s pages. “Whosoever wills may come” is not talking about the ability of the person to come. We must let Scripture interpret Scripture and say that if they come, it is because God has quickened their hearts, has regenerated them.

Second question, “Does all this talk of God’s part in salvation make a person completely passive in salvation?” First of all, we must establish what we mean by “salvation.” It is used in two senses in Scripture. First it means that time-point when we become united to Christ by faith. That is when we are “saved.” But, for instance, “the salvation of your souls” which we still await, points to another definition: the final goal of the resurrection body. Salvation can then mean the entirety of the Christian life, including justification, sanctification, and glorification. In the earlier sense, what happens is that God renews the will, so that the will chooses to have faith in Christ. In the renewing part, man is completely passive, but in the choosing part, man is active (having been made active by God). As Ephesians 2 says, even our faith is a gift of God. What the Reformed want to do so much is to preserve the glory of God alone in salvation. But we are not passive. Rather, we are made active by the Holy Spirit.

According to the second definition of salvation, with regard to sanctification, we are very active, though here also, God empowers. Philippians 2 has the essential balance: “work our your salvation in fear and trembling (we are active here, surely), for it is God who works in you both to will and to do.” If we quote one part of that verse without the other, we have misquoted it. Both halves are essential. God the Holy Spirit works in us in sanctification to be made like Christ. But we are to run the race. We cannot simply lie back, kick up our heels, and do nothing. We are to actively live the Christian life, always in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Let go and let God” is simply antinomianism, and is utter heresy. But so is the opposite “Do it all yourself.” In summary, the beginning of the Christian life (regeneration and justification) is passive. We say that we believe, but even that belief is a gift from God. The continuation of the Christian life is not passive at all, but is rather a God-empowered battle.

Christ Our Ladder

Genesis 28:10-22
It is often in the darkest moment of one’s life that a light from God dawns. It is at that moment of deepest darkest despair that God comes. At the end of your own strength, God shows His strength. It was like that for Christian and Faithful as they languished in Doubting Castle, home of Giant Despair, in the allegory of John Bunyan called Pilgrim’s Progress. By the way, if you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, you should do so at your earliest convenience, since it is a brilliant and powerful allegory of the Christian life. Christian is the name of the main character, and Faithful is the name of his best friend. They are on their way to the Celestial City when they take a detour to avoid the difficult main road. The comfortable road they take leads them straight to the lands of Giant Despair, who finds them and imprisons them in his castle. They are beaten and bruised, and are finally threatened with their lives. As they languish in the castle the night before their execution, they pray to God to deliver them. God answer their prayer by helping Faithful remember that he owns a key called Hope. This key allows them to open all the doors of the castle, letting them escape. This is a bit like what happens to Jacob here at Bethel.

Jacob had fled from his brother, and was alone in the world, having left parents and all his worldly goods behind in order to search for a wife. He may be searching for a wife, but before he finds a wife, God finds him.

The text says that there was a certain place. In the OT, that usually means a holy place. He has to stay somewhere, and so he stays there, not being aware of its significance. He finds a rock for a pillow, and goes to sleep there. The text says that the sun had set. The sun has set on more than just that day. The sun has set on Jacob’s life. He is about to go through one of those dark nights of the soul. The sun will not rise on him until after he has met God again in chapter 32, having wrestled with God. It says there that the sun rose upon him. His whole trip to Laban, in other words, is like the trip of Israel down to Egypt. Jacob’s journey is dark. He can say to Pharaoh at the end of his life that the days of his journeying were dark and few. But he is now entering his Egypt.

However, just as Jacob falls into a deep sleep, he sees a vision. The language used to describe this ladder, or staircase, is what is called paralingual. That is, you are supposed to point with your finger when you say these words, and you are supposed to stare with an open mouth: Look! There is a staircase! Look at how tall it is! And look! There are angels going up and down on it!

Most of us are very familiar with the Jacob’s ladder story. However, what we are not aware of is that God is at the top of the ladder, or staircase, and that God has some very important words to give to Jacob. God reaffirms the promise given to Abraham and Isaac. And perhaps most importantly, God deals with Jacob’s concerns. Now, God does tell Jacob that He is the God of Isaac. That would have been a hint to Jacob that God had taken note of what Jacob had done to his father Isaac. “I am the God of the person you deceived,” God is saying. However, the main point of what God is saying is that He loves Jacob anyway. God knows all of Jacob’s faults, and yet still loves him. God promises to Jacob that He will never leave him nor forsake him. That is exactly what people in the dark night of the soul need to hear.

Now, we need to ask this all-important question: what is the significance of this staircase? In the context of Genesis, we can see that the staircase is related closely, but in an opposite way, to the Tower of Babel. The builders of that tower wanted to make a tower that would stretch all the way to heaven. But, as we know from the Psalms, unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it. The builders could never reach heaven with their own efforts. Instead, God has to build a way down to humanity. The only way to heaven is through the grace of God, building this ladder. Salvation is by grace alone. We cannot build a single step of that staircase. God must build it all.

Though the Tower of Babel enables us to understand what this staircase would have meant to Jacob, still we do not understand the full significance of the staircase until we get to the New Testament. In the first chapter of John, as you may recall, Philip finds Nathanael and tells him that he has found the Messiah, the anointed one of Israel. Nathanael is a bit skeptical, since Nazareth is not exactly a hotbed of all things religious. His words are: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” When Nathanael meets Jesus, and Jesus impresses Nathanael with His omniscience, Nathanael believes that Jesus is the chosen one of Israel. But then Jesus says something very interesting. He says that Nathanael will see greater things than these: in fact, Nathanael will see heaven opened up, and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. What Jesus s saying is that He Himself is the staircase that Jacob saw in his dream. The only way to heaven is to get there on the staircase, which is a person, not a thing. Jesus, you see, is the only person who could bridge the gigantic gap between God and man. That gap has only been widened by the fact of our sin. The chasm is impossible for us to breach. The only person who can bridge the gap is Jesus Christ, true God and true man in one person, the Ladder of Salvation. He came down to earth and was incarnated by the virgin Mary, and was made man. But He was true God from true God.

What should our reaction be to this knowledge? Well, it should be the same reaction that Jacob gave to his vision: worship. Jacob set up the stone that had been under his head. He set it up as a kind of altar. Before, you see, he had not been aware that the Lord was in the place at all. But now he is aware, and so he says that the place is the house of God. “House of God” in Hebrew is “Bethel.” The “Beth” part means “house,” and “El” is short for “Elohim,” probably the main word for God in the OT.

So our proper response to seeing Jesus is to worship. Do we long to worship? How many of us look forward to Sunday, when we can go to God’s house to worship? Or do we see worship as a bother, or as an inconvenience? The proper response to seeing Jesus in our lives is to worship Him with gladness, and come before His presence with singing.

Jesus has given us many reasons to worship Him. Not least of those reasons is that He has sent His angels to us in order to accomplish His will to protect us. That can be a great comfort to us when we are in that dark night of the soul. God loves us enough to make His angels ministers to us so that we will know that God cares for us. God could take care of us quite well even without the angels. However, God has let us know that there is even extra protection for His children in the form of angels. God sends them because there is now a ladder come in the flesh, Jesus Christ.

Now Jacob makes here a bargain with God. It is not a sign of faith. Jacob puts conditions on his obedience, which is something we should never do. However, God is gracious even to Jacob’s “bargain,” and honors it. Now, it is only fair to point out that not all scholars think that Jacob is actually making a deal here. Some of them think that Jacob is saying, “Since I know that the Lord will be with me, therefore the Lord will be my God. That is a possibility. However, we should beware of making deals with God. Sometimes we will say things like, “If God will only get me out of this am that I’m in, then I will serve Him truly. What the Lord has a habit of doing with bargains like that is keeping them, and then showing us that we do not keep our end.

The last application I will mention is that of tithing. Jacob says here that he will give a full tenth to the Lord. Now, tithing is often taught in the church the wrong way. As one writer puts it, Christians often give a tenth to make sure that they are not giving too much, and pastors often teach people to give a tenth in order to make sure that they are giving enough! Both attitudes toward tithing are wrong. Pastors should not teach tithing a tenth just to make sure that everyone is giving enough. The way pastors should teach tithing is to help people to be good stewards of that which God has given them. And people should not be grudging those tithes that they give, because the Lord loves the cheerful giver. We should remember that the next time we tithe.

So, Jacob has now met God in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the True Ladder of souls. Have you met him? Have you gone up the ladder to meet with God? Do you know how much God cares for you? God sends His angels to minister to you. God sent His Son to save you. This is the great grace of the living God. Let us praise Him and be thankful, and worship God with joyful hearts.