One of the most frequent questions I receive as a pastor is how to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. For those of us who like to keep theology in organized compartments, this issue can be one of great frustration.
King Solomon puts it nicely into perspective:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. -Ecclesiastes 3:11
Everything, in its proper time, is made beautiful. Something isn’t beautiful until it is perceived by God’s watch – not ours. God has placed a limited amount of knowledge concerning eternal things in our hearts. We know we will live forever, but it is hard to grasp. We understand certain things of salvation, but others overwhelm the mind. We study the infinite with finite minds and wonder why we get frustrated.
God has said that there are certain things we won’t understand until we reach glory, but that doesn’t give us a free pass to check out mentally. We need to wrestle with the hard issues and study Scripture.
I believe in God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility because both are biblical.
I may not understand how it all works together, but I trust the one who is able to work it all together. Until he allows my mind to understand such glorious truths, I will study and trust.
While illustrations can’t fully cover a topic (especially a theology topic as complex as soteriology – doctrine of salvation), some can help put things into perspective. A. W. Tozer is one of my favorite authors. In his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, he explains many of the attributes of God. In his chapter on God’s sovereignty, he provides a helpful illustration of an ocean liner and how it pulls these two ideas together.
Read how Tozer addresses God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
Another real problem created by the doctrine of the divine sovereignty has to do with the will of man. If God rules His universe by His sovereign decrees, how is it possible for man to exercise free choice? And if he cannot exercise freedom of choice, how can he be held responsible for his conduct? Is he not a mere puppet whose actions are determined by a behind-the-scenes God who pulls the strings as it pleases Him?
The attempt to answer these questions has divided the Christian church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Most Christians are content to get into one camp or the other and deny either sovereignty to God or free will to man. It appears possible, however, to reconcile these two positions without doing violence to either, although the effort that follows may prove deficient to partisans of one camp or the other.
Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil.
When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign.
A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures, He would be afraid to do so.
Perhaps a homely illustration might help us to understand. An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. Nothing can change it. This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty.
On board the liner are several scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determine for them by decree. They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port.
Both freedom and sovereignty are present here and they do not contradict each other. So it is, I believe, with man’s freedom and the sovereignty of God.
The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history.
God moves undisturbed and unhindered toward the fulfillment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began. We do not know all that is included in those purposes, but enough has been disclosed to furnish us with a broad outline of things to come and to give us good hope and firm assurance of future well-being.
–The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 110-111
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Distinctive Discipleship. He is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. Travis graduated from North Greenville University with a B.A. in Christian Studies and earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with his doctoral focus on family discipleship.