“The system of truth revealed in the Scriptures is not simply one straight line, but two; and no man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. For instance, I read in one book of the Bible, ‘The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’ Yet I am taught, in another part of the same inspired Word, that ‘it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.’ I see, in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, THAT MAN ACTS AS HE PLEASES, AND THAT GOD HAS LEFT HIS ACTIONS, IN A GREAT MEASURE, TO HIS OWN FREE WILL. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act that there was no control of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to atheism; and if, on the other hand, I should declare that GOD SO OVERRULES ALL THINGS THAT MAN IS NOT FREE ENOUGH TO BE RESPONSIBLE, I should be driven at once into antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be INCONSISTENT AND CONTRADICTORY to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is foreordained, THAT IS TRUE; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, THAT IS TRUE; AND IT IS ONLY MY FOLLY THAT LEADS ME TO IMAGINE THAT THESE TWO TRUTHS CAN EVER CONTRADICT EACH OTHER. I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THEY CAN EVER BE WELDED INTO ONE UPON ANY EARTHLY ANVIL, but they certainly shall be one in eternity” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Defense of Calvinism,” in “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented” by David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004, page 184).
In Spurgeon’s thought, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two lines that only converge in the mind of God. However, today, I’d like to focus on these two theological concepts and prove that both can converge.
Before I get started, though, I’d like to applaud Spurgeon on his comments regarding both emphases of Scripture. Like Spurgeon, I too, believe that both are emphasized in Scripture. And, like Spurgeon, I also believe that both are consistent and are NOT contradictory. If the two concepts are contradictory, then the Bible as a whole comes into question. However, a proper hermeneutical rule I keep in mind is that Scripture can never contradict itself; in other words, every verse supports every other verse. So, if there is a seemingly contradictory appearance of two concepts, we have to find what is needed to reconcile them.
Those who say that divine sovereignty and human responsibility cannot reconcile are those who view human responsibility as “sovereignty of man.” They say, then, that how can God be in control of all things and yet, man has power over his actions? I have an answer: God, in His sovereignty, gave man free will, power and responsibility over his actions. Arminians answer this question by affirming their tenet of “libertarian free will” in their theology. What libertarian free will shows us is that God gives man choices—within boundaries. Therefore, man will always have a LIMITED number of CHOICES over what he can and cannot do. This way, man gets to choose—and God limits His choice, thereby retaining control over all of life’s events.
If God has ABSOLUTE control of all things and events, then, of course, man has no choice whatsoever—EXCEPT God caused it! But what about if God doesn’t have ABSOLUTE sovereignty over all of life? What about if God has GENERAL sovereignty?
What is “general sovereignty?” Brothers David and Randall Basinger define it in this matter:
“These Christians [those who deny specific sovereignty] believe that human freedom does place limitations on God’s control over earthly affairs. These individuals agree with the theological determinist that IF human actions are determined by God, then God can maintain total control over all events in the world. They believe, though, that our free choices are not determined. In other words, they hold to a self-deterministic (or libertarian) understanding of human freedom. Thus they maintain that to the degree to which God gives us freedom he does not control earthly affairs. In a world like ours, they argue, God has the ability to accomplish general goals. But he cannot assure that all SPECIFIC events will be in keeping with his will” (David and Randall Basinger, “Predestination and Free Will: Four Views on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986, page 13.)
There are two views of sovereignty: one, ABSOLUTE; the other, GENERAL. If there is a such thing as human responsibility, then power must come along with that responsibility. I’ll set up a syllogism:
I. With power comes responsibility.
II. Human responsibility exists.
III. Therefore, if responsibility exists, and power comes along with it, then humans have been given freedom (human power) over their decisions.
Now the next question becomes, what to make of this human power and human responsibility? Does human freedom and responsibility fit under ABSOLUTE sovereignty or GENERAL sovereignty? To see if this works, let’s examine both separately.
Absolute sovereignty says that God is the CAUSE of every event and action. God determines EVERY SPECIFIC ACTION of EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL! Calvinists are more likely to endorse absolute sovereignty; they believe that in order for God’s purposes to be achieved, He must dictate EVERY SINGLE ACTION. However, if absolute sovereignty is true, how do we account for the power and responsibility that man has? Surely, if man is a creation of God (which he is), then human power (and subsequent responsibility) must fit under the umbrella of God’s sovereignty (for nothing lies outside of the sovereignty of God). Yet and still, most Calvinists cry out that God’s Sovereignty and man’s power (and responsibility) are two concepts that we can’t reconcile. As I said earlier, how logical is this?
So then, how does human power and human responsibility fit under the umbrella of the Sovereignty of God? Proponents of Absolute Sovereignty say that God OVERRIDES human will in order to achieve His purposes. As a result, then, EVERY ACTION that man makes, every choice he selects, is done because of God. According to such a view, God would then become responsible for the Fall, sin, and evil. Funny, but doesn’t James 1 CONTRADICT this statement?
Proponents of General Sovereignty say that God works WITH the human will to achieve His purposes for all of creation. Sometime ago, I discussed Romans 8:28 in some detail. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things WORK TOGETHER for the good of them that love God…” It doesn’t say that “all things are good,” but rather that “all things WORK TOGETHER” for good. God’s purposes are not thwarted. In General Sovereignty, although God maintains control over all things, man is given the power of choice and the responsibility over his choices. This comes to light especially with the problem of evil. The problem of evil is one of the strongest “trump cards” in favor of Arminianism. According to general sovereignty, man is given power of choice, which explains why man is allowed to sin—but man is also given responsibility for choosing that which is opposed to God’s standard. However, no matter the amount of evil in the world, “All things work together for the good of them that love God” (Rom. 8:28); this means, therefore, that no matter how intense the evil, history will culminate as God intended it to—in heavenly bliss for those who love Him, in eternal damnation for those who choose to “go their own way.” And yes, God’s glory is maintained—His goodness towards those who love Him, His justice and wrath towards those who don’t.
In absolute sovereignty, there is no room for human decision as choice. Human decision is reduced to an “effect” of God’s causation instead of becoming the cause of a contingent event. If one wants to give the power of choice its proper place, then he or she must consider general sovereignty as the key to reconciling divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
According to the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, these two concepts are not reconcilable to us, but they are to God. I would like to say, however, that these two concepts do converge: God, in His sovereignty, gave man the power (and responsibility) of choice. By so doing, the Lord LIMITED HIMSELF in regards to the affairs of earth (since in Genesis 1:26-28 man is given “dominion” over the earth). As God’s children, we know the importance of the great power and responsibility God has given to man; therefore, we constantly pray the words, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, HCSB).