Hard Questions: God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

How can God be completely Sovereign over human events (a predetermined plan, exercising control over people and situations) and yet humans be considered free and responsible moral agents? Are we but pawns in God’s Cosmic Game? On the other hand, might there exist contingencies outside of God’s control—namely, our “free will,” which can trump his sovereignty?

Who of us has not been confused by the arguments and apparent inconsistencies raised by representatives of one side or the other?  Some (Open Theists) try to find a middle ground by saying that God knows some future events and will bring them to pass according to his predestined will, but other events he leaves up to the individuals to whom he has given the ability to choose.

When we examine the Bible, however, we never find an attempt to arrive at a solution that pits human freedom against divine sovereignty or creates a hybrid of the two (as in Islam). Rather, we see that the Scripture treats the issue as mystery raither than a dilemma; holding both elements as true at the same time. Thus God’s sovereignty does not destroy our freedom, but mysteriously works together with it and through it to accomplish his just and righteous purposes in this world.

1 Kings 12 is a very strategic chapter about the division of Solomon’s kingdom due to the unwise actions of his son Rehoboam. The people came to Rehoboam and asked that he lighten to load of taxation and forced labor that Solomon had demanded to run his kingdom. If he agreed to this, they said they would serve him as their king. Thus, as a free moral agent (and not a pawn), Rehoboam sought counsel from two groups of advisors (old and young) and decided to go with the harsher response to the people suggested by the young guys.

Look at verse 14, 15: …he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I wil add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” So the king (Rehoboam) did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which he spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.

The Scripture writer states that even though Rehoboam was a free moral agent and made an unforced decision that proceeded from his own character, the Lord had already sovereignly planned to divide the kingdom by giving the 10 Northern tribes to a usurper named Jeroboam. This is just one example of how Scripture deals with God’s sovereignty and human responsibility without making them crash into each other and produce confusion. I do not understand how that happens but that is how it is presented.

Another example is found in the New Testament. During the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-23), Jesus said “But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!”

Once again, there is a clear reference to the pre-determined plan of God to send Jesus to the Cross in order to accomplish our salvation, but there is also a clear warning of judgment upon the man who will betray Jesus. There is no indication that Judas was a pawn in a game that God was playing. There is no warrant for having Judas respond, as he does in the 1970 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, “I’ve been used…You knew it all the time…God…I’ll never know why you used me for your crime.” No, there is nothing in the Scripture that would warrant this perspective or indicate that Judas was anything but a free moral agent held responsible for his own choices. And yet what he did, God used to accomplish his plan of salvation for the world. Again, I do not understand it but that is how it is presented.

Thus, we must hold both of these concepts (God’s sovereignty and human freedom) together without trying to figure out the middle ground between them. It is like the Olympic gymnast on the parallel bars. Once in a while, the gymnast will work on one bar and then he will work on the other, but most of the routine will be worked using both bars at the same time – because there is nothing in the middle. So remember this visual;  hold fast to the bar of God’s sovereignty and just as tightly to the bar of human responsibility at the same time because there is nothing in the middle.

J.I. Packer, in a classic that should be in your library, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, uses the word antinomy to describe a helpful way of thinking about this apparent discrepancy. He defines antinomy as “an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths….which exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable….each rest(ing) on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other.”

Let us, therefore, give up our either/or efforts to reconcile these biblical realities into a rational system in order to escape the tension of holding them together. Let us live our lives freely, responsibly, and humbly before a Sovereign God of mercy and grace, recognizing that He “moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works his sov’reign will. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.  Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for his grace. Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” (William Cowper, 1773)