A Sovereign and Personal God

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

If you have been a believer for at least a few years, at some point along the way you have likely entered into a conversation (er, debate) over the seeming contradiction between God's sovereignty and human responsibility. I've had countless interactions of this nature over the past 10 years of my life. Typically the end result is that the well-meaning Christian, attempting to defend God, actually presents a caricature of God. (I'm not just pointing fingers here; I've been there and done that myself.) Some Christians attempt to defend God's sovereign authority by undermining Bible passages which emphasize human responsibility and choice. Other Christians attempt to defend God's sinless nature by undermining Bible passages which emphasize God's sovereignty over all things.

There is a third group of Christians: those who attempt to balance these two Scriptural truths. While I applaud this effort, it seems to me that there is both a right way and a wrong way to harmonize God's sovereignty and human responsibility.

The wrong way is to postulate that God is somewhat sovereign and that humans are somewhat responsible (50-50). Or to postulate that God is mostly sovereign and that humans are a little bit responsible (80-20); or vice-versa. Here's the problem: can you imagine if we reasoned the same way about other seemingly contradictory truths in Scripture? It is heresy to argue that Jesus is 50% God and 50% man. It is wrong to argue that the Bible is 80% the Word of God and 20% the product of man. To "resolve" the tension of God's sovereignty and human responsibility in this way is actually to deny both truths.

Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. The Bible is 100% the Word of God and 100% penned by man. Similarly, an investigation of the whole of Scripture must lead us to believe that God is 100% sovereign over all things, and that humans are 100% responsible for the choices they make. I cannot explain the divine-human confluence in the nature of Christ or the nature of Scripture. Nor can I explain the divine-human confluence in human activity. We must accept by faith that there are certain truths that cannot be fathomed by merely human minds: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God" (Deut. 29:29a). I cannot promise you that even in heaven we will have the ability to fully comprehend these mysteries. However, we are accountable for the truths contained in Scripture: "but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29b).

D.A. Carson has written the best Scriptural summary of this topic that I am aware of in his book A Call to Spiritual Reformation. In chapter 9 of this book, titled "A Sovereign and Personal God," Carson explores numerous Bible passages which present both divine sovereignty and human responsibility side-by-side. Carson's summary of these passages and his concluding thoughts are worth the price of the book. Here is a sample of Carson's introduction:

(1) God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility. (2) Human beings are responsible creatures - that is, they choose, they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; but human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God's sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent. My argument is that both propositions are taught and exemplified in the Bible. Part of our problem is believing that both are true. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism. (p. 148)

After surveying Genesis 50:19-20; 2 Samuel 24; Isaiah 10:5-19; John 6:37-40; Philippians 2:12-13; Acts 18:9-10; and Acts 4:23-30. Carson concludes:

Our two propositions concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility are directly tied to the nature of God. If God were sovereign and nothing more, we might all become Christian fatalists, but it would be hard to carve out a place for human interaction with Deity, a place for human responsibility. If God were personal and more - talking with us, responding to us, asking and answering questions - it would be easy to understand how human beings are responsible to him, but it would be harder to grasp just how this sort of God could be transcendent, sovereign, omnipotent. The wonderful truth is that God is both transcendent and personal. He is transcendent: he exists above or beyond time and space, since he existed before the universe was created. From this exalted and scarcely imaginable reach he sovereignly rules over the works of his hands. Yet he is personal: he presents himself to us not as raw power or irresistible force, but as Father, as Lord. When he speaks and issues a command, if I obey I am obeying him; if I disobey, I am disobeying him. All of my most meaningful relationships with God are bound up with the fact that God has disclosed himself to be a person. (p. 159)

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen." (Romans 11:33, 36)


Michael Gormley November 3, 2010 at 6:16 AM  

God alone initiates salvation. He always turns toward man first and seeks him, as when God walked in the Garden (Genesis 3:8). Man does not seek God or turn to him without God first calling man to Himself (John. 6:37, 44; 1 John. 4:10,19).

Second, God’s initiative does not exclude man’s free response, but demands it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Catechism], nos. 154, 155, 2002; Phil. 2:12, 13). In other words, God wills that man be free to choose His grace or reject it.

Third, salvation is extended to each and every human person, not limited to just some, and one can fall away from grace (Hebrews 2:1-4; 6:4; 2 Peter 1:10; 3:9; 1 John 5:16, 17).

Furthermore, it is imperative that once one is touched by grace, he perseveres in charity lest he forfeit the free gift of salvation (Lumen Gentium [LG], no. 14). Within the confines of these principles, Catholics have sought to understand the mystery of predestination.

Though opinions and formulations have varied among Catholic theologians, with these principles left intact, there is room for legitimate speculation.

The only proper framework to understand predestination must be rooted in the notion of a communion of persons in love. Why? The nature of God as Trinity is this very kind of communion and God created man to share in that “blessed life” (cf. Catechism, no. 1).

This communion of love demands freedom of will. For love is not something thrust upon a person, but offered as a gift. This communion of love in the Trinity is also the basis for evangelization in the Church (cf. Catechism, no. 850).

As this is the very essence of the relationship between God and man, everything in one way or another must refer back to it and be measured by it. As this was God’s purpose in creating man, it is also intimately tied to our redemption and our ultimate destiny. God is love (1 John 4:8).

Salvation is the gift of God alone: Grace

Mike Moses November 3, 2010 at 3:44 PM  

Michael, thanks for your feedback. I am not a part of the Roman Catholic church, and would hold some significant disagreements with many teachings of the RCC (including predestination, the means of grace/justification, and perseverance/eternal security). To focus the discussion, I will limit myself to just a few questions pertinent to the topic.

Would I be correct in understanding that you are advocating for the "50-50" position described in the article?

Have you had an opportunity to read the entire chapter by Carson? How would you understand & explain the passages Carson examines: Genesis 50:19-20; 2 Samuel 24; Isaiah 10:5-19; John 6:37-40; Philippians 2:12-13; Acts 18:9-10; and Acts 4:23-30?

"Communion of love demands freedom of will. For love is not something thrust upon a person, but offered as a gift." Is this always true? What about a mother's love toward her helpless baby? What about the love of God toward spiritually dead and unresponsive sinners (Eph. 2:1-5)?

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