God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, Part 4

This is part 4 of our quest on God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, which comes from D.A. Carson’s book Praying with Paul. We have questions; the Bible has answers. We expect all of our questions to be answered. The Bible is a puzzle just waiting to be solved. We simply need to figure out all the pieces.

Not quite. We need to remember Deuteronomy 29.29 which says, The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

There is mystery in God’s nature. Pieces of the puzzle we can’t always put together. One action that should we never try to do is to jam the pieces of the puzzle together to make them fit. Have you ever tried to piece together a real puzzle? These aren’t blueberries. Jamming never works.

We need to remember that mystery is not nonsense. God is infinite and we do not and will not understand everything there is to know about him.

What is ‘Freedom’?

Does “freedom” mean that we have the ability “to choose, to believe, to disobey,” and to not believe? Is it having the power to work outside of God’s sovereignty? For if God is sovereign, perhaps it does not matter what we do. All is inevitable. We know the end of the story and it will happen. And if our decisions are not ultimately ours, “how can we be held morally accountable” (135)?

Yet, as Carson points out, many theologians don’t define freedom as having power to act outside of God’s sovereignty. Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the rest conspired to kill Jesus Christ, and that is exactly what they did. Yet Revelation 13 tells us Christ was crucified before the foundations of the world… before Pilate, Herod, and the rest were even born.

What gives? They did what they wanted to do. Many theologians tie “freedom” to “desire, to what human beings voluntarily choose…. Joseph’s brothers did what they wanted to do; Herod and Pilate… did what they wanted to do; the Assyrians did what they wanted to do.” (135). God was working behind the scenes in each of these cases, but that does not erase the responsibility of the participants. They did what they wanted to do.

Standing Behind Good and Evil

Carson gives us two positions to avoid:

  1. Supposing that God does not stand (in any sense) behind evil.
  2. Supposing that God stands behind good and evil in the exact same way.

The former would mean that when evil happens it is outside of God’s control. If he’s not behind the evil, then something else must be. There must be another power that is outside of God’s rule which challenges him. In philosophy this is called “Dualism,” and dualism is wrong. Which side will win? Good…or evil?

Let’s get ready to rumble.

But fortunately that is not the case.

View 2 holds that what God ordains takes place. He ordains good, then good takes place. He ordains evil, then evil takes place. If he doesn’t ordain it, then it doesn’t take place. But what happens if he stands behind both good and evil equally, or symmetrically? Then he is entirely amore. Powerful, but not good.

“The Bible’s witness will not let us accept either of these positions. The Bible insists God is sovereign, so sovereign that nothing that takes place in the universe can escape the outermost boundary of his control; yet the Bible insists God is good, unreservedly good, the very standard of goodness” (136).

We are driven to conclude that God does not stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way. In other words, he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. He stands behind good in such a way that the good can ultimately be credited to him; he stands behind evil in such a way that what is evil is inevitably credited to secondary agents and all their malignant effects. They cannot escape his sway, in exactly the same way that Satan has no power over Job without God’s sanction; yet God remains mysteriously distant from the evil itself (136).

Another Way

God could be sovereign, but nothing more. In control, but a machine.

God could be personal, but nothing more. A kind friend, speaking and responding, but not very “transcendent.”

Rather, he is both transcendent and personal.

God is Transcendent

He exists above/beyond time and space, for he existed before the universe was created.

From his exalted position he sovereignly rules all creation, al nations, and all peoples.

God is Personal

He is a Father. He speaks. He spoke through his Son who came to earth to be with the likes of us. He suffered and was tempted in all points as we are, though without sin, and can sympathize with us (Heb 4.15). If I obey God’s command, I am obeying God, my Father in heaven. By believing in his Son, I too become his son.

Bearings On Prayer?

If God is sovereign, and we are morally responsible for our actions, if God is both transcendent and personal, if all of this involves some degree of mystery, how can we be so sure we’ll understand this correctly? How do we know we won’t fling off to one extreme side thinking it all makes so much sense?

To see how these truths function in our lives, we must read the Scriptures and see how these truths functioned in the lives of the believers there (138).

How Does x Function in Scripture?

1. Election

  • It’s not placed there to stop evangelism.
  • It emphasizes the wonder of grace (Jn 6.68-70; Rom 9).
  • It ensures “spiritual fruitfulness among God’s people” (Jn 15.16; p. 138).
  • It encourages perseverance in evangelism (Acts 18.9-10).

2. Exhortations to Believe and Obey

  • They don’t reduce God to being dependent on our actions.
  • They increase our responsibility (Gal 5.7; Col 1.23).
  • They emphasize the urgency of the steps we must take (2 Cor 13.5; ).
  • They show us what the proper response is to this kind of God (2 Tim 3.1-7; Titus 2.11-13; Heb 2.1-4).

3. The Repeated Truth of God’s Sovereign Providence

It’s never positioned in such a way to produce fatalism (An Eyore sort of “This is jus’ the way it’s goin’ t’be. Can’t do nuthin’ ’bout it.”)

  • It never allows us “to be morally indifferent on the ground that [we] can’t really help it anyway” (139).
  • It gives me reason for believing that everything is in God’s gracious control (Phil 1.6), with all things work out for the good of those who trust in him (Rom 8.28).

4. God’s Sovereignty in Passages of Prayer

  • The passages on prayer are never a disincentive to pray!
  • It forbids the wrong way of praying:
    • “Jesus forbids his followers from babbling like pagans who think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt 6.8; p. 139).
    • Though this verse does not run against persevering in praying (Luke 11, 18).
  • In John 17.1 Jesus prays, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” Throughout John “the hour“ was the appointed time when the Father would glorify the Son (by way of the cross). When the “hour has come,” Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Alright, Dad. Youwill be done. I’m ready for this.” And God’s sovereignty certainly doesn’t breed a silent fatalism, one of sitting and waiting for the guards to bust the doors down and take Jesus away.
    • No, Jesus’ logic runs in this direction” “May Father’s appointed hour for the ‘glorification’ of his Son has arrived; so then, Father, glorify your Son” (139).


Next Time

In my final post I will have a final case study on two characters who prayed at two special times: Daniel’s prayer for God to fulfill his promise in Daniel 9 and Moses who interceded for Israel after they committed idolatry with the golden calf.