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The relationship between God's actions and man's actions is spoken of throughout Scripture. God is sovereign over all; man is responsible for his actions. Men have turned these two concepts into incompatible, conflicting statements, but the Bible strongly opposes such a position. According to the Bible, both are equally true.
Moreover, the Bible considers both statements to be fully compatible with each other. Rather than saying that man is responsible for his actions "in spite of" God being sovereign (which is the way people have a tendency to view it - if they acknowledge it at all), the Bible would say that it is "because of" God's sovereignty. The sovereign God created man in such a manner that man is responsible for his actions. (God is capable of doing this!) And since God is totally sovereign, nothing (not even the Devil) can interfere, so as to remove responsibility from man.
God's sovereignty does not turn man into a robot. Man is not like a machine. Man makes choices. There are, of course, influential factors that pattern his choices. (And the Bible acknowledges this.) But those choices are not ones brought about by coercion. If God were a man (or some other created being that existed on the same "reality level" as man), such an accusation could be legitimately raised. But God is not a man.
God's sovereignty and man's responsibility are two separate (though related) issues, each having reference to its own level of reality (uncreated vs. created). They are not in conflict (as though they both pertained to the same level of reality). These two concepts are "friends," though man makes them out to be "enemies."
Remember that the Bible states that man's perception of reality has been corrupted by sin. Man is now an enemy of God, and (in keeping with his nature) wants to re-interpret all of reality. (Doing so comes "naturally"!) As previously stated, man now even denies the most basic concept of reality: the distinction and differences between the Creator and created things. He has elevated man and lowered God, until they both exist (in his thinking) on the same level of reality. Only a "change in thinking" (an aspect of repentance) can begin to change this.
The book of Romans, which so strongly emphasizes both of these concepts, also illustrates the conflict between the thinking of the man whose mind has not been "renewed" and the man who has submitted to the word of God. And it comes as no surprise that this conflict occurs at every point of the discussion.
Take, for instance, the fact that man's sin shows (by contrast) the greatness and purity of God's righteousness. Depraved man would argue that his sin is accomplishing good... and that he should, therefore, not be condemned by God. In reply, Paul shows that such an argument ("a human argument") is a denial of everything that he has already shown to be true (in previous verses), concerning the righteousness of God's judgment. (In fact, it is a denial of God himself.) He then reaffirms that man is responsible for his own actions.
But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.)
Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world?
Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" Why not say--as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say--"Let us do evil that good may result"?
Their condemnation is deserved. (Romans 3:5-8)
Another example of man's corrupted thinking is seen immediately after Paul demonstrates that God's grace (undeserved kindness) "increases" so as to be greater than whatever sin man might commit. And as before, man tries to justify his sin (instead of repenting from it). And in this case, Paul argues that God's grace is life-changing. The recipient of God's grace has been changed (by God) into a "new person."
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Such a person is still responsible for his actions. If God's grace has truly had an effect on the individual, he will live differently.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4)
The chapters that follow this passage examine the issue of "inconsistent living" as a disciple of Christ. They explore the conflict between the "new life" and the old habit-patterns (which were developed and so firmly "established" within the individual prior to his conversion). They also describe the ultimate and complete victory over those old habit-patterns.
Chapters 9 through 11 examine the issue of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility in perhaps greater detail than anywhere else in the Bible. And once again, Paul has to deal with "human arguments."
After proving that it was God's sovereign choice in choosing Jacob over Esau, Paul has to immediately respond to the false argument that God's act of choosing is an act of injustice! Yet God has a right to have mercy on those whom he wishes. As God said to Moses,
"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." (Romans 9:15b, quoting Exodus 33:19)
It seems that man is very eager to forget the differences between God and man. If God were on the same level as men, there might be a justification for such an accusation. But he is not on the same level. Just as bad, the very question (or accusation) implies a denial of man's hopeless condition. It's not as though God was taking a "good" person and forcing him to perish; rather, God is taking a hopelessly lost person and mercifully saving him from what he deserves (and would otherwise obtain). God does not have to do this. And if he chooses to not do so, as was in the case of Esau, he has done nothing wrong.
It was previously shown that when man chooses to suppress truth and to live in rebellion to God, God "gives them over" to their sinful cravings. (Romans 1:24, 26, 28) From the standpoint of God's sovereignty, man wants his sin, so God lets him have it ... and more of it. (This is an aspect of the judgment against sin.) From the standpoint of man's responsibility, sin is enslaving. The more a person chooses to practice sin, the more he becomes incapable of not doing so. It becomes a habit, a way of life. (Interestingly, for the person who has new life in Christ, it could be said that righteousness is "enslaving"! The more he practices righteous living, the more it will become his way of life, and the less he will be willing to live in his former way of life! See Romans 6.)
Another way of saying that God "gives man over" to the sins he so eagerly wants to practice would be to say that God "hardens" him. And sinful man, not wanting to be held responsible for his own choices, chooses once again to accuse God of injustice. He tries to use "sovereignty" as a justification for his sin. He refuses to listen to what God says, and responds, "I can't help it, because God is making me do it."
Well then, you might say, "Why does God blame people for not listening? Haven't they simply done what he made them do?" (Romans 9:19)
The only legitimate response is repentance. But in his stubborn rebellion, man chooses rather to talk back to God, just as he would to another man. He willingly "forgets" that he is the creature and that God is the Creator. He suppresses the fact that, from the "sovereignty" perspective, God has a right to do as he wants.
No, don't say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to criticize God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who made it, "Why have you made me like this?" When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn't he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? (Romans 9:20-21)
If man wants to view things from the creature's viewpoint, he should focus not on God's sovereignty (in the sense of using it as an occasion to accuse God), but on his patience (and mercy)!
[God is] very patient with those who are the objects of his judgment. (Romans 9:22b)
The primary emphasis of the context (in which this passage exists) deals with God's sovereign plan to display his power and glory (which he as a right to do). It deals with God's eternal purposes, rather than man's responsibility. And it shows (from the sovereignty perspective) the place of man in this "great display." (From the perspective of man's responsibility, our choices determine how we fit into all this!)
God has every right to exercise his judgment and his power, but he also has the right to be very patient with those who are the objects of his judgment and are fit only for destruction. He also has the right to pour out the riches of his glory upon those he prepared to be the objects of his mercyŚ even upon us, whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. (Romans 9:22-24)
The rest of the chapter, and the two that follow, focus on the relationship of Jews and Gentiles to this great plan. A study of those chapters (9 through 11) might prove helpful in better understanding the relationship between sovereignty and responsibility.
How should we respond to all this? In sin and rebellion (and thus to place ourselves within the category of those "prepared for destruction")? Or in repentance, obedience and praise to God (and thus placing ourselves within the category of those called "objects of his mercy")? It is fitting that we end this section as Paul does:
Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has first given to him, and it will be repaid to him again?" For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Dennis Hinks © 1993, 2004
Scripture quoted from ... NIV (Romans 3:5-8; 6:1-4; 2 Corinthians 5:17); NLT (Romans 9:19-24); WEB (Romans 9:15b; 11:33-36).
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