Years ago, I sat with a friend discussing theological issues and he said, “I just don’t get how God can be in charge of everything and us be anything more than robots…” My friend is not alone in his questioning. In fact, his sentiment is not only the most common question for most new followers of Christ but a question that has been asked and debated for centuries. How can we accept both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility?
The Bible repeatedly declares that God is sovereign, meaning that along with being eternal, unchangeable, and perfect, He’s all-powerful, providentially governing both His creatures and His creation. Psalms 115:3 sums up the teachings of Scripture on this subject, “Our God is in the heavens and He does all that He pleases.” (Job 42:2, Isaiah 46:9-10, Proverbs 19:21, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:11-12)
A sovereign God is the only way that God can actually be God. If God were ever unaware of an outcome or surprised by the choice of humanity, than He would no longer be all-knowing, leaving Him limited, and therefore not sovereign. Even when men’s souls reject this truth, and men’s minds can’t understand this truth, all admit that a God with limits is a God they cannot respect or revere.
In 1750 Jonathan Edwards wrote,
“We are dependent not only on his (God’s) wisdom to contrive a way to accomplish it (obedience), and on his power to bring it to pass, but we are dependent on his mere will and pleasure in the affair. We depend on the sovereign will of God for every thing belonging to it, from the foundation to the top-stone. It was of the sovereign pleasure of God, that he contrived a way to save any of mankind, and gave us Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, to be our Redeemer. Why did he look on us, and send us a Savior, and not the fallen angels? It was from the sovereign pleasure of God. It was of his sovereign pleasure what means to appoint. His giving us the Bible, and the ordinances of religion, is of his sovereign grace. His giving those means to us rather than to others, his giving the awakening influences of his Spirit, and his bestowing saving grace, are all of his sovereign pleasure. When he says, ‘Let there be light in the soul of such an one,’ it is a word of infinite power and sovereign grace.”
If God Knows All Why Are We Responsible?
From the beginning, Satan has attempted to deceive mankind into believing two lies. The first is that God is not sovereign. The second is that man can be like God. In the garden, the serpent whispered to Eve, “You certainly will not die” (Genesis 3:4) meaning, God is wrong, thereby not sovereign. The devil then whispered, “If you eat, you’ll be like Him” meaning, you can be God. Ever since this first deception, man’s evil heart has rebelled against God’s sovereignty, because man desires to be like God, to understand God, for God to fit within his human parameters.
Since the completion of the New Testament, Satan has attempted to use the Scriptures themselves to refute God’s sovereignty. Certainly, in your own study (or in group discussion) you’ve asked, “If God is sovereign, than why must I accept and obey Christ?” or, “If God is sovereign then why am I told to believe for eternal life?” (John 3:16). This question has caused centuries of debate along with numerous movements which have sprung up to either defend sovereign or impugn it, but the goal of a biblical student is to simply use the Word of God and trust the Word of God.
As we’ve seen, the Bible clearly teaches the sovereignty of God. Yet, it also speaks much of man’s responsibility, the most famous verse being John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whosoever BELIEVES shall not perish but inherit eternal life.” (Genesis 4:6-7, Proverbs 28:13, Luke 10:30-37, 1 Corinthians 13:11, Galatians 6:8, 2 Thessalonians 3:11-18, James 4:17, Revelation 22:12) Therefore, while the Bible teaches God’s sovereignty, it ALSO teaches man’s responsibility.
Remarkably, there are many beautiful Scriptures, which combine BOTH the sovereignty of God’s plan and man’s responsibility together! Note below, that Peter explains God’s plan while declaring man’s evil. James then follows by stating EVERY gift flows from heaven while commanding men PUT ASIDE all wickedness.
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death… – Acts 2:22-23 (NASB)
“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures… But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls… – James 1:17-21 (NASB)
Thus, in Scripture we have two truths that run simultaneously – The first is that God is sovereign and nothing escapes His plan. The second is that man is born with a level of choice and will be held responsible for his actions. Theologians call this is a “holy tension” and it’s a tension that the Bible (God) chooses not to resolve. In fact, every major doctrine in Scripture which pertains to God and man contains a similar tension – Salvation is by the grace of an electing God (Ephesians 2:8) AND by the faith of a responsive person (John 3:16). Sanctification is by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20) AND by the humble man offering His body a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2).
Charles Ryrie of Dallas Theological Seminary writes:
“Ultimately God is in control of all things, though He may choose to let certain events happen according to natural laws which He has ordained… Man was created with genuine freedom, but the exercise of that freedom in rebellion against God introduced sin into the human race. Though God was the Designer of the plan, He was in no way involved in the commission of evil either on the part of Satan originally or of Adam subsequently. Even though God hates sin, for reasons not revealed to us, sin is present by His permission. Sin must be within God’s eternal plan (or God would not be sovereign) in some way in which He is not the author of it (or God could not be holy). Sovereignty/freedom forms an antimony (a contradiction between two apparently equally valid principles) Antimonies in the Bible, however, consist only of apparent contradiction, not ultimate ones. One can accept the truths of antimony and live with them, accepting by faith what cannot be reconciled; or one can try to harmonize the apparent contradictions in an antimony which inevitably leads to overemphasizing one truth to the neglect or even denial of the other.”
If God Knows All Why Should We Pray?
As we’ve discovered, sovereignty means that even when the story seems to be about us, it’s not about us at all! On our greatest day, the day of salvation, when heaven collides with our heart – we are chosen and loved by God – But we are still no better and no more valuable than billions of others whom God has chosen to redeem. The reality of sovereignty humbles us while expanding and exalting the much larger storyline of God while also encouraging us, knowing that a God mighty to save can’t be overthrown.
Sadly, some versions of Christianity subvert this message and make religion all about the individual, focusing counterfeit and topically placating sermons around psychology, identity, production, and human values, but people under this version of professing “Christianity” never come to true peace, because true peace only comes from faith in an almighty, all knowing, and trustworthy God.
Sovereignty brings GREATEST peace to a faithful follower of Christ. It means that God chose him before time, has empowered him unto good works, and will protect him unto eternal joy. So, why then do we pray?
When Jesus was teaching the disciples to pray He said:
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)
Notice that the first half of Christ’s prayer is all about submission to the sovereign will of God the Father. And subsequently the remainder of the prayer for physical, relational, and spiritual protection surrounding this primary goal. Paul taught the same thing in Philippians 4 stating, “Be anxious for nothing but… by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” but before that he had first commanded the Philippians to, “Rejoice! For the Lord is near…” (Philippians 4:5-6)
Thus in the doctrine of prayer we again see the beautifully holy tension of sovereignty and responsibility. God is sovereign, therefore we are to humble ourselves before His throne, trusting His ways, and submitting our will to His will. But, also we are told to declare what we need, for this is the means He’s given for us to relate with Him and to grow in devotion.
On this truth, J.I. Packer famously wrote, “The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgement of helpless dependence…what we do every time we pray is to confess our own impotence and God’s sovereignty.”