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CHAPTER 3 - An Attempt to Analyze the Issue

[Do these things "contradict" or "complement"?]

The following statements summarize the theoretically possible claims regarding the issue of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility:

Who is/is not sovereign?

Is man responsible for his actions?

  • God is sovereign.
  • God is not sovereign.
  • Man is sovereign (a denial of God's sovereignty).
  • Man is not sovereign.
  • Man is responsible for his actions.
  • Man is not responsible for his actions.

Of these choices, the Bible claims the following :

The Bible mentions these concepts side by side. They are considered to be fully compatible with each other. God is sovereign; man is responsible for his actions (and not sovereign). Yet, man has an inherent (sinful) tendency to distort them, and to turn them into conflicting statements. Note the following change from the concept of "responsible" to the concept of "free" (free from being "controlled" and all the implications thereof).

Now these two concepts form a genuine conflict. And ultimately one or the other must be denied. And so we end up with the following two choices (depending on which principle is denied):

In the "extreme," the first view becomes "determinism" or "fatalism" and the second becomes "indeterminism" or "random chance." In the one case, man is considered not responsible for his actions, because his actions are being "helplessly" controlled by a "higher force." In the other, man can do as he pleases - he is in control, not some "higher power." (Alternately, this view can consider nothing to be in control. In either case, man is not held responsible by some "higher power.")

Having accepted this distortion, an individual's view may be placed anywhere in this "spectrum," from one extreme to the other, but he will still view these concepts as being conflicting statements that need "reconciled." If fully consistent, he will take the position that "you can't have both." If not, he may try to have "a little bit of each," with God and man each having "limited sovereignty" - technically, a contradiction in terms!

In total contrast to this man-made "philosophical quagmire," the Bible defines the issues accurately - not turning them into conflicting concepts - and places them together the way they actually are. These concepts are "friends," not "enemies." They are "parallel concepts" (going side-by-side), rather than "intersecting concepts" (crashing against each other). [Note: This idea of "complementary truths" could be illustrated by railroad tracks. They always "go together," but we must always keep them parallel to each other, rather than trying to get them to meet at one point (that is, to intersect). Another way to look at them is like "boundaries" which keep us out of error, and in the "straight and narrow way" of truth.]

There are numerous illustrations throughout the Bible in which these concepts are placed together, with reference to the same event. One example of this occurs when Moses confronts Pharaoh, to let the Israelites leave Egypt. Several times the account says that Pharaoh hardened his heart. Yet it also says (several times) that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Two of the verses which illustrate this are as follows:

But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. // Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 8:32 and Exodus 11:10; both of these concepts are mentioned several times, in reference to Pharaoh.)

The prophet Habakkuk was confronted with the question of how it was possible for a holy, righteous God to punish a wicked nation (Israel) by using a nation that was even more wicked (Babylon). The book of Habakkuk gives God's response. It also shows the contrast between human responsibility and God's sovereignty. First, God says that he is going to raise up the wicked nation that would destroy Israel.

I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own. (Habakkuk 1:6)

Later (in his answer to Habakkuk's question), he talks about the evil nation's responsibility for its actions, and the judgment it would experience, because of its wrong motives and sinful actions. In the pronouncement of judgment, God makes reference to the king of that nation:

See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright. (Habakkuk 2:4a)

Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you. For you have shed man's blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them. // You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life. // You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the LORD'S right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory. (Habakkuk 2:8,10,16)

A wonderful contrast occurs in the midst of all this judgment, this death and destruction. Words of hope are given to those who trust God. They, too, would be rewarded; but it would be a reward of life. (Much of the New Testament is involved in developing the full significance of this statement.)

...but the righteous will live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4b)

Human responsibility plays a part in both cases. Each will be rewarded according to what he has done. Ultimately, all glory, honor and reverence will be given to God, to whom it belongs.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. // But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:14,20)

Perhaps one of the most amazing passages, which shows sovereignty and responsibility together, occurs in the book of Acts. The believers are praying for strength and boldness, as persecution is beginning to increase. As they pray they make mention of what was perhaps the greatest act of evil ever to occur. And as they do so, they not only consider it to be the act of evil men, but they also acknowledge the place of God's sovereign power and will in it!

When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, "Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: 'Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.' For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:24-30)

Perhaps I could summarize the whole issue is this manner: These two concepts (sovereignty / responsibility) belong to two different spheres of reality. To try to put them "together" within one reality sphere (and thus to turn them into conflicting concepts) is a denial of the Creator/creature distinction. We cannot equate man-to-man relationships (or man's relationship to anything within the sphere of creation) with God-to-man relationships. This is a denial of God, as he has revealed himself in the Bible.

We must accept both in the manner that the Bible presents them - neither opposing nor conflicting. They are "friends," not "enemies."

We must respond to what the Bible says. And our response will "earn" us whatever part we will play in the ultimate manifestation of God's power and glory - whether we will be objects of his wrath or objects of his mercy. We can respond by accepting it, and thus being objects of his mercy, or we can reject it. From the standpoint of sovereignty, we will act in accordance with our nature, whether the old (fallen) nature, or the new nature (available through Christ). But from the standpoint of human responsibility - and that is what concerns us - we will choose, and will be held responsible for our own choices.

There is one last thing to mention. Man normally tends to take issues like this (any topic, for that matter), turn the complementary concepts into conflicting opposites, and then accept one or the other (not both). Yet even if he did supposedly accept both, this does not mean that he has accepted the view of the Bible. Mere intellectual or philosophical acceptance will not do. A person cannot truly accept the viewpoint of the Bible unless he submits to it. This is man's proper response to God's Word.

Dennis Hinks © 1993, 2004
Scripture quoted from ... ESV (Exodus 8:32; 11:10); NIV (Habakkuk 1:6; 2:4, 8, 10, 14, 16, 20); NRS (Acts 4:24-30). Detailed copyright information can be found on the title page.

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