God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility

Conversion of the apostle Paul by Rubens cir. 1601-02

Conversion of the apostle Paul by Rubens cir. 1601-02

 

Ephesians 1: 3-6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: 4 According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: 5 Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved (KJV).

This verse begins one long sweeping statement and goes without a major stop from the beginning of verse three to the end of verse fourteen. Paul touches on all the great biblical themes in that complex sentence—sanctification, adoption, redemption, and glorification—and they all rest on one foundational doctrine, the doctrine of election also known as predestination. The highest spiritual blessings stand on Ephesians 1:4 where the text says that God has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world. It also says that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love. God didn’t look down the corridor of time to see who would choose Him before He decided or even acted in some random way to select us. Rather, by His sovereign will He chose who would be in the Body of Christ. The construction of the Greek verb for “chose” indicates God chose us for Himself. That means God acted totally independent of any outside influence. He made His choice totally apart from human will and purely on the basis of His sovereignty.
The term predestination, which follows those words, simply means to determine ones destiny beforehand. The Bible never says how God does the choosing. This is exclusively God’s territory. It never gives us His methodologies. This term has produced much division in the Church of Jesus Christ since He departed back to Heaven. Mostly though this heated up with the reformers in the sixteenth century.  Many theologians and Bible teachers have engaged in intensive debate over this term and entire denominations have been split as well as formed around it. We will provide a comprehensive explanation so that we can understand what the Bible teaches on this subject and also what some denominations teach that is actually outside the biblical text. Most discussions of this topic produce too little light and too much heat. It is taught in seminaries as a part of Soteriology, (the doctrine of salvation), within systematic theology.

Four very important truths must be first advanced:

  1. God is entirely sovereign over His creation, is in complete control of it, and He can do whatever He likes (II Kings 19:15; Job 26:13; 38:4; Psalm 103:19; Proverbs 3:19; Isaiah 42:5; 44:6; 45:12; 66:2; Jonah 1:9; Revelation 1:8; 3:14; 4:11).
  2. Man, living in time and space is incapable of realizing a full understanding of God and all His ways (Job 38 & 39 etc.).
  3. Because He lives outside of time and space He can look down the long corridors of time and see all events and decisions simultaneously. He knows what will be decided in the human heart and what will happen in the future before it happens (Isaiah 44:7-8; 45:21; Psalm 139; Genesis 3:15;)
  4. Prior to salvation all humans deserve to enter Hell. Without God we cannot change and save ourselves. NOWHERE IN THE BIBLE DOES IT SAY THAT GOD HAS SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN SOME TO ETERNAL DAMNATION.

Jeremiah 13: 23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil (KJV)?

Romans 3: 10-12 according as it hath been written — `There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who is understanding, there is none who is seeking after God. All did go out of the way, together they became unprofitable, there is none doing good, there is not even one (KJV).

Jesus said to His disciples, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). And in the same Gospel, John wrote, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). And Paul said, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (II Thessalonians 2:13).

Those statements defining God’s sovereign choice of believers are not in the Bible to cause controversy, as if God’s election means sinners don’t make decisions. Election does not exclude human responsibility or the necessity of each person to respond to the gospel by faith. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Even though a simple reading of this verse appears to mean that God has chosen people to salvation before the world was formed, other verses indicate that mankind has to choose God in order to be saved (John 3:15; Acts 16:31 etc.). The dichotomy grows wider with predestination seemingly tightening to mean that God has chosen some people but not all to salvation (Romans 9:18; John 10: 25-29). On the other hand some verses indicate that God wants all people to be saved (John 12:32; 2 Corinthians 5: 14 etc.).

You must understand that your faith and salvation rest entirely on God’s election

(Acts 13:48). And yet the day you came to Jesus Christ, you did so because of an internal desire—you did nothing against your will. But even that desire is God-given—He supplies the necessary faith so we can believe (Ephesians 2:8). If your salvation depends on you, then praise to God is ridiculous. But, in truth, your praise to God is completely appropriate, because in forming the Body before the world began, He chose you by His sovereign decree apart from any of your works. The doctrine of election demonstrates God being God, exercising divine prerogatives. For that we must praise Him.

Some are shocked to find that God seemingly didn’t choose everyone to salvation. Jesus said, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). God the Father chose certain individuals to form a Body as a gift to Jesus Christ. Every believer is part of that love gift to Christ—a gift of the Father’s love to His Son.

To those who say that is unjust, Paul answers: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “ ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:14-15).

So why does God still find fault in unrepentant sinners when He didn’t choose them? Doesn’t this deny human responsibility? Is it fair for God to still hold them accountable? FAIR? What is fair? Humans all have a different vision of fairness depending on our experience base. God is in control of His creation and as such can make His own rules. God’s choices are always perfect. In our weak human understanding we see a sense of unfairness with God’s choice. But we must remember He know everything all events, past, present and future. His choices are always perfect or else He would not be God. He has not left anybody out. He made perfect choices.

Paul answers all such questions with a rebuke:

Romans 9: 20-21 20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? 21 Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? (KJV)

Certainly HE does!

Some believe that is terribly cold and calculating. But that is only one side of God’s sovereign election. Paul continues in the next chapter by saying:

Romans 10: 9-13 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “WHOEVER calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (NKJV)

These two sides of God’s truth; His sovereignty in choosing us; (Romans 9) and our responsibility to confess and believe (Romans 10) is IMPOSSIBLE for us to reconcile and understand. But Scripture declares both aspects of salvation are true (John 1:12-13). It’s our duty to acknowledge both and accept them by faith.

This seemingly unsolvable difference in two truthful biblical concepts that can’t be reconciled is called an antinomy. It is not a paradox or a contradiction. Those concepts require that one or the other is untrue. This situation is when both are true. Another biblical antinomy is the Trinity. God is one God in three persons. Both of those imply that either one or the other is true, not both. However, both God’s Divine Sovereignty and man’s ability to choose are true. Hence, they provide antimony. The human’s problem is that we are unsettled with antinomies and try to take one side or the other.

Many denominations take the predestination verses in the Bible as fact and while they can’t reconcile predestination with man’s choice they say man has no choice. In taking this position they must invalidate the verses that clearly show that man has choice. Others take the opposite position and say man has all the choice and God does not choose. They then relegate the verses, which clearly state that God has chosen us to obscurity, or restate them to mean something else. When we don’t accept both ideas as fact and choose one or the other we are engaging in heretical acts. Reformed churches historically take the total predestination position and Baptist churches usually, but not always, take the other. The total predestination position is usually called Calvinism after John Calvin the French reformer of the sixteenth century. The entire emphasis on man’s exclusive choice in the matter of salvation is usually called Arminianism after Jacob Arminius a sixteenth century Dutch theologian who advanced this concept. The problem for us is that both concepts are true and we must accept them as such.

Somewhere in the councils of God this makes sense but on this earth it never will and many have tried to no avail unless they take one side or the other. This then results in heretical teaching. The doctor of souls will do all he can to keep heresies out of the church. They are to the Church of Jesus Christ what disease is to a medical doctor that cares for human bodies in time and space. Both legitimate doctors will do all they can to prevent or stop heresies and diseases in their respective bodies. Unfortunately there are more quacks in the spiritual realm than in the physical temporal one. This is because the prize for pure spiritual truth is eternal life. It is the greatest prize on earth to receive. Nothing has greater value. As evidence of this we see many false prophets, corrupt denominations, and seminary teachings. As a result few find eternal salvation and Satan has accomplished one of his goals: the eternal destruction of human souls.

Matthew 7: 13-15 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

The deception leading into heresy by religious authorities is not new. Jesus condemned the religious authorities of His day for leading the Jews away from eternity.

Matthew 23: 13-15 13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. 14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. 15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves (KJV).

What is important for us to do is clearly explain the antimony and continue to witness for Christ. We never know who will accept. We also cannot take the position that God has chosen those who will accept His call and stop telling others. We must always praise the God of the universe for who He is and stay humble for allowing us to believe. FINALLY IT IS IMPORTANT TO REALIZE THAT WE ARE NOT GOD. IT IS NOT UP TO US TO CHOOSE WHOM HE HAS CHOSEN OR ASK WHY. His choices for salvation and ministry are entirely His providence. That is entirely God’s domain and not ours. It is best that believers NOT argue about this and try to enforce their position. This all belongs to God. God is sovereign and man has responsibility to Him. If you keep arguing about this you will just cause divisions in the Body of Christ. This all belongs to our Lord. He is in charge. Keep teaching and witnessing and lastly, Never, never, never, never, give up.

Daniel Woodhead

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