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God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Points to Consider Regarding the Sovereignty of God vs. Human Free Will

  • The Bible presents both as realities in tension with each other
  • God is the great initiator who draws people to himself
  • Salvation is by grace received by faith in Christ
  • Faith is not a work or meritorious act
  • God holds humans responsible for their decisions and actions

John C. LennoxWhat does the Bible say about God’s sovereignty, human free will, theological determinism, predestination, freedom, and responsibility?

The following is an excerpt from Determined to Believe?: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith and Human Responsibility (Zondervan, 2018) by John C. Lennox (@ProfJohnLennox).

By John C. Lennox

There would be little discussion, let alone controversy, among Christians about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, if both of these concepts were not to be found in the Bible. Indeed, it sounds rather foolish putting it this way, for these are not peripheral issues in a grander story. In a real sense they are the story, for the biblical narrative is the story of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Take first God’s sovereignty over history. Daniel the prophet, among many other biblical writers, addresses this topic. The opening statement in his book is: In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand… (Daniel 1:1–2 NIV).

Again, in that same book, one of the major lessons taught by God to the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar was a judgment on him because of his pride: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes (Daniel 4:25 NIV).

Through Daniel, God thus predicted seven years of discipline on Nebuchadnezzar.

More broadly, the Bible shows God’s sovereign control of history in the major phenomenon of fulfilled prophecy—from the detailed predictions concerning the family lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the famous prophecies of Isaiah and Micah concerning the birth of Messiah, to the detailed prophecies in Daniel about the Hellenistic period. In the New Testament, there are predictions made by Jesus regarding his death, resurrection, and ascension, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the Jewish nation, and many prophecies about Christ’s return. Unique in all of literature, Scripture is full of prediction and fulfillment, a fact that must be factored in to any attempt to understand the nature of God’s relationship to history and humanity.

We must put alongside this the complicating fact that the individuals who are the subject of these biblical predictions are not treated as puppets being manipulated by a master puppeteer. God holds them responsible for their behavior.

Then we have instances in Scripture where God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are brought directly together. In his speech at Pentecost Peter says of Jesus: This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross (Acts 2:23 NIV). The crucifixion was therefore foreknown by God and occurred according to his set purpose; and yet the men who put him to death were wicked and therefore morally responsible.

Again, Jesus encourages people to come to him: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35). He laments those who refuse to come: You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (John 5:39–40 NIV). On the other hand he says: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:44 NIV). Thus we can see that two things hold:

  1. God takes the initiative.
  2. People are responsible to come to Jesus and capable of doing it or refusing to do so.

Or again, when Paul addressed the Athenian philosophers he said that God had determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. He then remarked that this had been done in order that they should seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:26–27). God has clearly determined certain limits, but that does not relieve men and women of the responsibility of seeking, feeling after, and finding him.

There is enough already in these texts to make us realise that these are very deep issues, and that we must not only approach them with humility but with a sense that, however profound our understanding may be, it will reach its limits and we shall be left with elements of mystery. As we noted earlier, no one has any real idea what human thought is, not to mention how it can trigger human action, so we are not likely to comprehend God’s interaction with his creation any better. The best we can do is to try to understand what God has revealed about these things—what he wants us to know.

But even if we cannot fully understand, those of us convinced of the full authority and inspiration of Scripture must surely be prepared to believe what Scripture says. An analogy from science can help here. The universe that scientists study was not created by scientists but by God—so scientists study a given. They have to submit their theories to the universe, and not the other way round. Indeed, science was held up for centuries because certain influential thinkers like Aristotle made up their minds what the universe ought to be like and so tried to impose their structures on the universe. Similarly with Scripture. It is God-breathed. It is a given and we should submit our theories and systems to it and not it to our systems. We believe what Scripture says, we try to understand what it says, but we remain humble enough to realize that it is Scripture that is authoritative and inspired and not our interpretations of it.

That is especially so when we perceive a tension—as between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Failure to reconcile everything in our minds is not a reason to give up believing one side or the other, nor is it a reason for emphasizing one side to such a degree that the other side ceases to exist in a meaningful way.

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The above article is excerpted from Determined to Believe?: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith and Human Responsibility (Zondervan, 2018). Copyright © 2017 by John C. Lennox. Used by permission of Zondervan. Pages 92-95. All rights reserved.

Determined to Believe? is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: John C. Lennox (PhD, DPhil, DSc) is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He is author of Determined to Believe? and God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? on the interface between science, philosophy, and theology. He lectures extensively in North America and in Eastern and Western Europe on mathematics, the philosophy of science, and the intellectual defense of Christianity, and he has publicly debated New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. John is married to Sally; they have three grown children and four grandchildren and live near Oxford.

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