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.

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