God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, Part 3

Here’s Part 3 of our series on God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility taken from D. A. Carson’s Praying with Paul. There are seven passages that support both God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. Last time I covered four passages (Gen 50:19-20; 2 Sam 24; Isa 10.5-19; Jn 6.37-40), and today I’ll cover the last three (Phil 2.12-13; Acts 18.9-10; Acts 4.23.30).

5. Philippians 2.12-13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul isn’t telling his readers that God has pulled his weight, and now they must pull theirs. Nor does he tell them to “Let go and let God,” since it is ultimately all up to him. Paul tells the Philippians to work out their own salvation “precisely because it is God working in them, both at the level of their will and at the level of their actions…. Not only is the truth of our two propositions assumed, but God’s sovereignty, extending so far that it includes our will and our action, functions as an incentive to our own industry in the spiritual arena” (131).

We see that we work as God is working in us, and as God is working in us we will live to be pleasing to him, and we will want to do it.

6. Acts 18.9-10

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”

Here, “God’s elections becomes an incentive to evangelism” (132). Paul’s opponents made it impossible to stay in Thessalonica, Berea, and everywhere else. Paul had it all: beatings, rods, whips, stones, storms, shipwrecks, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, long travels, and constant worry for the churches and the people in them. Paul didn’t need a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, or a man from Macedonia speaking 2 him. He needed Jesus.

It’s encouraging to know that nobody will attack him, but the Lord didn’t stop there. No one will attack Paul to harm him for (or ‘because’) the Lord had “many in this city who are [the Lord’s] people.” Paul has the promise of many conversions, promised under God’s election, and of protection. Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half during his first trip there.

Carson says, “God’s sovereignty in election, far from discouraging evangelism, becomes an incentive to get on with the task. Once again, both of our propositions are assumed to be true” (133).


And finally, the kicker, “the most revealing of the seven” (133).

7. Acts 4.23-30

When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​‘Why did the Gentiles rage, ​​​​​​​and the peoples plot in vain? ​​​​​​​​​​The kings of the earth set themselves, ​​​​​​​and the rulers were gathered together, ​​​​​​​against the Lord and against his Anointed’- ​​​for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue 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.”

After being arrested, Peter and John tells the Christians in Jerusalem about their experience which leads them all to prayer. They confess God’s sovereignty, over the universe and over the nations, even those which rebel against him (Ps 2.2). In that psalm, though “the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One,” the “One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps 2.4).

After having quoted Psalm 2.2 and mentioned the rulers standing against God and his Anointed One, they think of the most shocking instance of this blatant rebellion: the crucifixion. They go on. The blame is “laid at the feet of Herod, Pontius Pilate, and various Gentile and Jewish authorities, and then they add ‘They did what you power and will had decided beforehand should happen’” (Acts 4.28; p. 134).

Carson brings up two alternative thoughts that, if truly believed, would destroy “the fabric of the Christian faith” (134).

  1. The cross was an afterthought in God’s mind. God had Plan A, but once these screwballs messed things up, he had to set Plan B into action. The result was the atonement of Christ on the cross.
  2. If God is so sovereign that the conspirators merely did what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen, then surely they are not guilty?

But Jesus went to the cross to pay the penalty incurred by all sinners. If they are not held guilty for this act, “why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed One to die in their place” (134)?

Finally, Carson concludes by saying, “God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God. At Calvary, all Christians have to concede the truth of these two statements, or they give up their claim to be Christians” (134).


Hopefully you can get a glimpse of what is both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in these seven passages. I would encourage comments or questions dealing with these and other passages.

But our next questions is this, “Does God stand behind good and evil equally? Would that make him amoral? What does this have to do with prayer? What is my incentive?”


So… until next time…


Author: Spencer

I put ice in my cereal. Make yourself at home and feel more than welcome to contact me.

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