A number of weeks ago, during the “Power and the Powers” lecture, I was involved in a rather heated discussion on the concept of the sovereignty of God. Many things were discussed but the two main points that kept recurring were the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Due to time restraints, the discussion ended more promptly than I would have wished, however, the reason why the conversation went on as long as it did is that the classmate with whom I was “discussing” was unable to hold these truths in dialectical tension. Therefore, within this essay, I will seek do exactly this. The reader must be warned, however, that this is no easy task and therefore, like all the great truths of Scripture, the reader is asked to understand this truth as an unfathomable mystery.
1. The Sovereignty of God
When discussing the sovereignty of God the Shorter Catechism says:
“The decrees of God are His eternal plan based on the purpose of His will, by which, for His own glory, He has foreordained everything that happens.”
Immediately, the reader may be baulking at this whole idea and be filled with a plethora of tragic circumstances and situations, real or imagined, in which he/she is categorically unable to see the hand of God. This innate response in many places a wedge between the goodness of God and the providential sovereignty of God, a wedge that is neither helpful nor biblical. No! If God is sovereign but not good then He is all-powerful but not merciful but if He is good but not sovereign then He is power-less but merciful. The reader must never be forced into accepting either one of these positions and therefore must hold these truths in tension.
God is both good and sovereign so His relationship to good and evil must be one that is “asymmetrical.” Doctrinally this is known as compatibilism and in its most rudimentary terms means that God is the author of all that is good and, for our good and His glory, permits all that is evil. This does not mean that God does not hate evil, and that the Church, individually and corporately, must not work against all forms of evil but it does mean that we worship a God who is all-powerful, mericful and can use evil for redemptive ends even if He is not the author of that evil. In short, this is the God of the Bible.
Scripture clearly teaches that God is in control of creation (Joshua 10:13), Satan (Job 1:9-12), demons (Matthew 8:28-32), salvation (Ephesians 1:4), empires (Daniel 2:29-45), healing (2 Kings 5:14), sickness (John 9:3), life and death (2 Kings 20:1-6). This gives us confidence because the believer can rest assured that nothing can happen that has not first passed through the counsel of a loving God. “Oh!” say my detractors, “if God exercises such control over all things then you must relegate man to an agent that is acted upon and so cannot be held responsible for either good or evil.” While this abominable doctrine may be held by hyper-Calvinists I would be keen to distance myself from it and show that it must be wedded in paradoxical union to the doctrine of the responsibility of man if it is to be truly biblical.
2. The Responsibility of Man
Before I begin to look at this, I must state categorically that even though I believe and teach human responsibility, I do not believe or teach that man has free will. A W Pink puts it aptly when he says:
“Concerning the nature and the power of fallen man’s will, the greatest confusion prevails today and the most erroneous views are held, even by many of God’s children. The popular idea now prevailing, and which is taught from the great majority of pulpits, is that man has free will.”
Man is bound by the flesh, the world and the devil and may exercise some freedom of will within the midst of his servitude but cannot ever be seen as free. The believer, however, is bound to Christ and so is free in Him but still subject to His example, led by His spirit and ultimately can only act within the parameters of His will. Nonetheless, this does not mean that man is not responsible.
This can clearly be seen throughout scripture. There is Pharaoh whose heart was “hardened” sometimes by God and sometimes by himself, given over to judgment because of the part which he played. Then there is David who is tested by Satan, under the permission of God, because of his sin, being inflicted with judgment of the severest nature. Not to mention the man who played the chief role in betraying Jesus. A man, who helped Christ fulfil his mission (Luke 9:21-22), was filled with demonic power, given ‘permission’ by Jesus (John 13:27) but was still held responsible (Mark 14:21). My point is that if there was ever a person who might be able to feign responsibility it would have been this one and therefore we can only be left with one conclusion: That is that man will be held responsible in this life and in the life to come.
Now again this must be balanced with the concept of corporate responsibility, the fall and the role of suffering in the life of the believer but nonetheless it is a fundamental truth that must be constantly reiterated. Without this truth, man is depreciated to nothing more than a pawn within a cosmic game of chess.
While there is no doubt that this topic has been inadequately dealt with, it is my hope that an understanding of the sovereignty of God will invoke an iron-like confidence in the believer, while the doctrine of human responsibility might endear a grace-based humility and passion for holiness. For me personally it has invoked awe and wonder and has brought about a desire for a life-long understanding of these truths and their practical application for my life and for the purpose of mission. Something that I will reflect on for the rest of my earthly life.
Carson D A, 2006, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil Second Edition: IVP, Ebbw Vale
Kelly D & Rollinson P, 1986, The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg
Pink A W, 1961, The Sovereignty of God: Banner of Truth Trust, Guildford
 Kelly & Rollinson, 1986, p.6 (Q7)
“God stands behind good and evil in somewhat different ways; that is, he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. To put it bluntly, God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yet evil is not morally chargeable to him: it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and only derivatively to secondary agents.” Carson, 2006, p.189
 Pink, 1961, p.92
 Compare Exodus 7:13 & 8:15
 Compare 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1
 For more information on the role of suffering in the life of the believer please study the life of Job, Jesus and the Apostles.