God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, two fundamental realities in Creation
God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are two fundamental realities in the whole Creation. But many people feel that they exclude each other, at least from a rational point of view.
What about the spiritual point of view: what content does the Bible give to these two concepts and how can a Christian welcome and live them without pain?
– What is sovereignty?
– Is human action free or determined?
– A possible conciliation
– Calvinism or Arminianism?
1. The sovereignty of God
An unusual term
When referring to the Catholic and Protestant catechisms, we are surprised. Neither one nor the other has a heading for this word. This is understandable if we note that neither the word “sovereign” nor the term “Almighty” are very common in the Bible. What we find instead, in the OT, is “the Lord of hosts” or “the Lord of the universe” , and in the NT, “the Lord of heaven and earth ” (Matthew 11.25). The Protestant (Reformed) catechism devotes an entire chapter to “predestination”, which is a practical consequence of the sovereignty of God.
No biblical definition but a notion put into action
As with many other notions, biblical texts give no definition, but show this sovereignty in action; these texts abound both in the OT in the NT. Just a few examples:
Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all (1 Chronicles 29:11)
The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. (Psalm 135.6)
I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. (Isaiah 46.10)
For in him[Jesus] all things were created [by God]: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. Colossians 1.16-17.
What meant “sovereignty of God”?
– God is free: nobody and nothing have authority or power over him. God has authority and power over everything.
– He is all-powerful: nothing and nobody has any consistency, existence beside him, nothing can act outside of him or effectively oppose him.
– He is omniscient: he knows everything and thoroughly even before Creation, he is present everywhere at once.
– God exists before everything: everything that is has its origin, its purpose, its right to exist in him.
– God is at the end of everything: all things exist in relation to him, to celebrate his glory.
– He is true love: God is a God of relationships who enters into an alliance with his creatures. He is absolutely reliable, without change in his unconditional love without reservation.
– It is really holy, absolutely pure and just, having nothing to do with and inaccessible to evil.
– He is eternal, without beginning or end, outside of space and time, he never changes.
– He is the Life that does not exist and cannot exist outside of him.
An incomparable personality, the creator of life
All these associated qualities do not describe an abstract, static, lifeless notion, but an incomparable personality, eminently alive, active, creating life, which promotes and supports the existence of an infinite multiplicity and diversity of inanimate objects and living beings. Philosophers ask why there is something rather than nothing, and they do not find any answer. The Bible shows that things are this way, because God exists, because he is life. It is “in him we live and move and have our being” or “in him we live, we can move and we exist” (Acts 17.28).
God exercises this sovereignty it in all fields and especially in:
– the creation and the continued existence of all that is.
– the history of humanity: on the individual scale and on the scale of peoples: he is the master of the events in my life, he creates leaders, leads their career, replaces them.
– the redemption: it was he who took the initiative for it before Creation, he has designed the plan, he implemented it in every detail and led it to its complete success, despite and even thanks to the obstacles opposed by the devil and men. He enables man to voluntarily receive redemption and to progress in service and sanctification. He thus constitutes for himself a people with whom he lives and who glorifies him.
A basic doctrine for faith
This doctrine is of fundamental importance for our life of faith.
– Sovereignty of God founds and deepens our respect for God whom it puts on his throne. It keeps us thoughtful about the infinite superiority of God, the many facets of his holiness and the privilege of knowing, despite of this, that he is very close to us, to the point of wanting to be our Father.
– This doctrine is the foundation of our spiritual life. It flourishes in worship, which is placing God at the center of control of our lives, above all that we respect. Not man can design the worship worthy of God; only God can reveal it to us and drive us to it through his Spirit.
– It shows the absurdity, the outrageous and offensive nature of any religion conceived by man and of salvation by works. What can a little sinner bring and emphasize against the infinite majesty of the Holy Creator concerned to bless his creature?
– It puts man and God, each on his proper place. We are small fallen creatures because of our independence madness. God is so extraordinarily high and different from anything he made and loves.
– It inspires a voluntary and trusting submission to the loving God, humility before his majesty, security under this Almighty who is faithful to his commitments, praise to the Father in whom everything we imagine is still infinitely exceeded by the actual reality.
– It is the total guarantee for our future with God: what he has planned and promised, he has all power to fulfill and nothing can stop him.
2. Is action free or determined?
In the reflections above often reappeared the word “all” or other terms that exclude any restriction or limitation about God.
The lot is cast into the folds of the priest’s clothing, but every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16.33).
This means that even the so-called fate, destiny, chance are only chimeras without consistency before God. Besides, we often invoke these great imposing impersonal or even frightening contraptions only to avoid talking about God. They too therefore cannot limit the sovereign action of God.
Freewill vs sovereignty of God?
And what about the man who claims his freedom of choice, his free will, “his ability to choose without other cause than his will itself in things where there is no reason to lean to one side rather than to the other “(definition of the dictionary for “free will”).
If God is sovereign, if it is he who makes all decisions, so that “not a single sparrow will fall to the ground apart of the will of our Heavenly Father” (Matthew 10:29), what space will remain for any human freedom? Is this not an illusion, and is man not only a puppet manipulated by infinitely stronger than him ?
Is God sovereign even to grant or deny salvation to man? Or does his omnipotence stop on the threshold of this area of human life?
Romans 9.18 declares that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden”.
Exodus 9.12 indicates that God hardened Pharaoh, so that he did not obey him. But this happened only after the first five wounds for which it is each time specified that it was Pharaoh who voluntarily persisted stubbornly against God.
Let us define three key concepts:
Human behavior cannot be without reason, because nothing happens without cause. So every human act is caused by a factor external to man and this ultimate cause is God.
“The free choice consists to do what we desire, but it is God who gives the desire” (Jonathan Edwards). This reminds of Philippians 2:13: “It is God himself who works in you both to will and to act according to His plan of love.” Man would therefore have no choice.
 We do not always do what we want and we do not always want what we do (Romans 7.15-16). In this case the cause is not God but sin. In fact it consists to push the problem one step further: does sin limit God? Surely not, since he defeated it at the Cross.
 God can predetermine human actions in accordance with the free will rather than in contradiction with it. Man can choose or want the same thing God wants.
My behavior has no cause, there is nothing that drives me to such an act rather than to another, to act this way rather than another. Everything is arbitrary and unpredictable.
 Usually man thinks before acting and then puts the fruit of his reflection to execution: so there is often an identifiable cause.
 This would make man an unpredictable, irresponsible, immature, unbearable being.
 It is even depriving God of his role as Creator who made everything and everyone for a purpose and supports them, leads them by his word towards the achieving of this goal.
The acts of a person are caused by himself and not by others, otherwise the person would not be responsible. In “responsible” there is “to respond”, to answer for one’s actions and that implies free choice. If it is God who determines all, he is also responsible for the origin of sin, for Satan’s existence. But God does not act against himself.
 The man is deprived of his original liberty he sold to Satan. He is a slave to sin, therefore not free to respond to the Gospel, unless God acts in him by the Holy Spirit to make him able to respond positively. His natural tendency is to reject God and the Gospel.
 The Bible teaches God’s sovereignty, but it also gives orders. No one has ever had a deeper understanding of God’s sovereignty than Jesus. But his whole ministry consists in calling people to believe in him and to enter the kingdom of God. The Bible is full of calls to personal choice, to believe in what God says or does:
“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you (that is solemn): I have set before you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Therefore choose life, that you may live…” Deuteronomy 30:19)
“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and yours!” Acts 16:31.
One must therefore be able to choose for God despite the sin that drives to the opposite.
b) Limitations to the sovereignty of God?
Several times it appeared in the lines above that the sovereignty of God encounters freedom, i.e. man’s responsibility. Indeed on the rational point of view there is a certain incompatibility. If God’s sovereignty is complete, the freedom of man is zero. Conversely, any amount of human freedom correspondingly reduces the sovereignty of God. However, apart from these two values there are other realities that seem to restrict the sovereignty of God.
Evil, the most shocking scandal of Creation
The surprise is that the Bible does not explain the relation between evil and God’s sovereignty. It says God does no evil nor approves it (Habakkuk 1:13; James 1.13). While tolerating it for the time being, God limits it (Job 1.12-2.7), but he judges it either immediately (Herod in Acts 12.19-23) or at the end of history (Revelation 20.11-15).
His omnipotence, his wisdom is such that he can even use evil for the good of his children (Joseph in Genesis 50.20) or to help carrying out his plan (Romans 8.28-29).
Therefore evil can act only temporarily and to a limited extent; it has no future other than a radical and comprehensive judgment. It is therefore not a truly effective restriction on the sovereignty of God.
If the human career on earth is already supremely determined since the past eternity, what can be changed in it by the work of an evangelist, why should we evangelize? This could lead to bitterness or to passivity and irresponsibility. But our reflection above has already shown us that, in fact, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not mutually exclusive.
One can for example make the following observation. In the same short sequence of Matthew 11.25-30 Jesus affirms the absolute sovereignty of God, but he also calls sinners to come to Him to be saved.
Paul paints a striking picture of the sovereignty of God in Ephesians 1, but he considers as absolutely certain that a person will experience a diametrically opposite fate, according to the life choices he made. “If we endure, …if we … disown him “(2 Timothy 2.11-13). For Paul both logically irreconcilable things are equally possible.
Prayer, a behavior closely related to evangelism and to the idea of changing situations
John affirms with absolute certainty that a well-designed prayer is a prayer according to the will of God and leads to changes. Paul in Romans 8.31-32 even based on the sovereignty of God to make the same assertion.
Approximately 30 years ago Christians have launched a 10-year prayer action to bring down Russian communism. 8 years later it collapsed. In his prayer for his Jewish brothers in Romans 9.1-5, Paul does not at all think everything is irrevocably fixed for the fate of the Jews. He precisely argues from the absolute sovereignty of God to ask confidently a turnaround for the Jews.
3. A possible conciliation
An insurmountable contradiction or a compatibility?
On the one hand, from the logical, rational point of view, we are dealing with an insurmountable contradiction: if God is sovereign, there can be no freedom, no human responsibility and vice versa. On the other hand biblical revelation quietly considers both as compatible and even indispensable to each other in a Christian life lived in the conviction of the divine inspiration of the Bible and in obedient trust to God.
A mark of divine inspiration?
Is this not a mark of divine inspiration of the Bible? It is beyond human logic and makes a factor of peace, insurance and spiritual growth of what others see as an unbearable tension.
So many religions and even some Christian currents consider unthinkable to present as coming from God something that would be inconsistent with the logic of human reason. And this amounts to asserting that the mind of God cannot exceed the level of human thinking, that God is at the very most a very intelligent man.
Reconciling two opposing realities?
So how could we reconcile these two opposing realities? We cannot hide that we are here facing a major mystery of Creation. Let us suggest some clarification.
A possible conciliation in experience
As already suggested, what in the Bible can strike a logical mind, however, can very well be lived out in practice, if it is in trust and dependence on God. The conciliation is achieved in practical experience.
The “yes” of man to God is a gift from God
Statements like Philippians 2:13 suggest that even the “yes” of man to God is still a sovereign gift of God. Some insist on this fact to point out that to accept the salvation could be seen by man as a merit, since it depends on him. But man cannot claim any merit. Receiving with confidence the free salvation of God can only be done in an attitude of humility and gratitude, without any idea of merit. So this has nothing to do with an effort made with the hope of salvation.
God’s love for his children
More important is another aspect already touched. We saw that one facet of God’s sovereignty is his true love for his children. He never wants for me anything than good things and what he asks from me he also sifted through his wisdom and love.
Trust and obedience
The best response I can give to what he says or asks from me will therefore be trust and obedience that put my will in harmony with his own, that reconcile both in prayer. Thus my freedom will never oppose the sovereignty of God, but I will freely choose to live according to his will. If I let the Son of God free me from my unfounded fears, from illegitimate bonds, from my attention to myself, I will be truly liberated and the two wills will work in the same line.
4. What is faith?
A faith centered on me?
Is it mainly the way of getting what I want, of restoring my life to make out of it something that is worth being lived? Then faith is centered on the gifts received from God, not on him, but also to a large extent on myself.
Or a faith centered on God?
But I can also consider that only my Creator loves and respects his creature enough to lead it to a relationship that balances what seemed irreconcilable. He alone is able, as Creator, to guide me so that a “yes” from me is actually both mine and his.
The decision for salvation then works much like the inspiration of the Bible, whose text is both what God says and what man is writing under the guidance of God. I am totally dependent on my Creator, rejoicing in his sovereignty, but also clear from what hinders Christian life from discovering true freedom: John 8.31-32.
This freedom will grow, as voluntary submission will be extended to new areas of life. This will shed new light on Philippians 2:13. In this case faith is centered on God the giver, who knows better than I what I really need and who will not let me miss it.
5. Two Christian doctrines: Calvinism and Arminianism
We still have to stop at what the Christian Church has made with this doctrine during its history. It gave birth to two widely opposing currents, depending on whether we emphasize freedom of man or God’s sovereignty.
a) The current that emphasizes the sovereignty of God: Calvinism
Ancient representative: Augustine of Hippo, North African bishop, 354-430, main church father.
Adam originally had the ability to sin or not to sin. His disobedience caused him to lose the grace and thus the ability not to sin. Only the grace of God can redirect him to the good. God now chooses among the lost humans people called to salvation. In them grace awakens the need and desire for salvation, it gives them the capacity to decide to repent and to change direction, it gives the gift of justification, the ability to acquire merit and to persevere. What saves it is the only faith that works by love.
Thereafter the Church will set aside the doctrine of election, but will retain that of grace as a supernatural gift that acquires merit.
It’s Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian monk, who will take again the question of justification as the work of Christ, which produces faith by the Holy Spirit.
In the 16th century John Calvin (1509-1564) teaches biblical faith in Basel, Strasbourg and Geneva, based first on Luther’s ideas. He will develop a very radical view of God’s sovereignty.
With the fall man lost his free will (Luther’s servile will), he became a slave to sin. This made him unable by himself to repent and to believe in saying “yes” to God.
“Man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. “(1 Corinthians 2:14).
He needs that the Holy Spirit gives him to say “yes” and regenerates him, and this “yes” will be as well his as the Holy Spirit’s.
God exercises his sovereignty in all things: he predetermines / predestines everything. Something happens because God has decreed it and carried his decree out. What he did not foresee in his plan, what he has not decreed, has no chance to happen. There is no chance, otherwise God would not be fully sovereign. He would face a reality on which he would not have a hold and with which he must compose, which further limits his sovereignty. He is also sovereign for our salvation, which is the product of an election decree taken before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1.4).
Sooner or later all the elect will be saved. When they hear the gospel, they welcome it and become saved (Romans 8:30): “All those who were ordained to eternal life believed. “(Acts 13.48) /
Only God can determine us (not we) to say “yes” to him and he does it not from outside of man, but from within, by the Holy Spirit.
Why does God choose one and not the other? There is no direct answer, except that it is not by taking personalities into consideration, by favoritism. It is an act of grace, which has its cause in God and not in man.
Doctrinal orientation of the Reformed Church and the Anglican Church
This doctrinal orientation is also found today in the Reformed Church and the Anglican Church. An evangelical Christian also follows it to a large extent, but not until its extreme conclusion, as it appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.
“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and some angels are predestined to life and others are pre-ordained to eternal death. “(Art. 3)
Let us return to the five points that could limit the sovereignty of God:
We have seen that evangelism is necessary. So the sorting takes place between those who say “yes” to God because the Holy Spirit has prepared and pushed them for it, and those who say him “no”, because they are left to themselves and centered on themselves.
Freedom and human responsibility:
The Reformed catechism clearly calls for the conversion seen as the “reorientation of our lives, our words, our thoughts and our actions,” “the renewing of your mind.” But it involves freedom of choice as obvious.
This is largely the same problem as for the two previous points. It finds its reason for being and its confidence in a promise like: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him”. (1 John 5.14-15)
There remains the major problem to which the Bible does not give a direct answer.
How could God allow the entry of evil, of sin into His creation?
b) The opposite doctrine: Arminianism
Ancient representative: Pelagius (350-420), against whom Augustine fought. Man has free will, he is able by himself to do good and to keep the commandments of God; grace is a simple help from God.
Arminius (1560-1609) a Dutch theologian who criticized the doctrine of predestination, but was himself accused of being a new Pelagius. Arminians or Remonstrants are his followers.
Election conditioned by man
We are slaves to sin and God knows from eternity what will happen, i.e. who will be saved and who will be lost. He knows this in advance (prescience), but he has not ordered it (predestination). God gives a universal grace whereby he restores man’s free will, his absolute freedom to choose his eternal destiny. It is man who chooses to cooperate with the grace or to resist it: God does not influence this choice. The election is conditional, based on a decision not of God but of man, who freely takes a stand towards the offer of salvation.
Universal will of salvation highlighted
Arminius highlights the texts with God’s universal will of salvation. “God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2.3-4). In his opinion many texts that Calvinists read in an individual point of view relate actually to whole peoples; he speaks of collective election. Thus in Romans 9.10-14: Jacob and Esau are 2 peoples; in Exodus Pharaoh stands for the whole Egypt.
Differences of emphasis between the two doctrines
Arminianism: We cannot affirm the responsibility of man while denying his free will.
Calvinism: If God is content to restore free will without intervening in man’s decision, man will slip on his natural slope of indifference or hostility against God and he will remain lost. Confirming the free will of man is to limit the sovereignty of God that brings salvation from A to Z.
A: We cannot pray for someone’s salvation, it would act against his freedom.
C: In a sovereign way God can have decided to act in response to a prayer by changing man’s situation. Thus prayer obtains a change of situation under the sovereignty of God and not by violating or restricting it.
The Catholic Catechism takes a stand very close to Arminianism: “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But for its realization he also uses the help of creatures. This is not a sign of weakness (a limitation), but of greatness and goodness of the Almighty God. For God not only gives to his creatures the grace of existing, but also the dignity of acting themselves, being causes and principles for each other and thus cooperating in the fulfillment of his purpose” (§ 306).
The impression is obvious that we are here dealing with a too complex theme for us to find an entirely satisfactory explanation.
It is the feeling of Antoine Nouis.
“To say a final word on predestination (or the sovereignty of God) is a challenge, because it would make us get involved in God’s counsel [participate on an equal footing with God’s eternal decisions].
We are nevertheless called to put our intelligence in the service of our faith “(p. 337).
Being intelligent here is to be careful. The Scripture affirms as emphatically the sovereignty of God as the need for a voluntary change of man’s stand.
The crucifixion is as well the irresistible crowning achievement of God’s sovereign plan as the ultimate abjection freely organized by responsible sinners (Matthew 26.24).
The stand of Christians is truly that of sons and daughters of God freed by our Father. Therefore they are willing to serve him in gratitude and love. This is the point 4 of part 3.
If we consider things from an earthly perspective, we especially see the call to man to make the choice of Life. The heavenly viewpoint highlights the absolute sovereignty of God. This is an effect of his sovereignty to know how two logically incompatible values can harmoniously compete.
This made someone say that both are the two sides of the same coin. Spurgeon said that while on earth they coexist as parallels that never meet, in heaven they interweave majestically.
After all such a dual doctrine takes on a different look. It depends on whether one understands it only in a theoretical and outside perspective or whether one lives it in a personal strong relationship with God. In the latter case it does no longer shock or block, but it becomes a liberating blessing.
“Friendship, secrecy, privacy of the Lord are with them that fear him /The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them“(Psalm 25:14).