Thursday, June 23, 2005

Sovereignty and Responsibility

One of the most frequent objections to the doctrine of unconditional election is that it violates human freedom. Without checking whether our ideas about the nature of human freedom have biblical support, we reason that God cannot possibly be in control of who comes to faith because then humans wouldn’t be free in the way we understand freedom. Instead of superimposing our ideas of freedom onto the pages of Scripture, we should be willing to conform our understanding of human freedom to the teaching of God’s word.

The first Christians didn’t have such an adverse reaction because they were steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures throughout which the Lord is portrayed as the Ruler over all creation, including the wills of men. So many disputes about the doctrine of election are limited to the New Testament, neglecting the vast storehouse of Old Testament literature that should serve as the background for our understanding of God’s redemptive work in Christ. The following are just a few Old Testament texts showing that even human decisions are not independent of the Lord’s sovereign control.

When discussing the issue of the relationship between the divine and human wills, it's necessary to first acknowledge that there is more than one definition that can be attached to the word "freedom." Too frequently when believers debate this issue, they toss that word around as though both parties mean the same thing by it when in actuality, that may not be the case. When Arminians speak of the will being free, they usually mean that the motions of the will are undetermined. Some have referred to this as libertarian freedom, meaning that the will is equally able to move in any of a number of directions. From a Reformed or Calvinistic perspective, freedom of the will refers to the ability to choose what I desire without being coerced or made to choose contrary to my wishes. The Calvinist affirms that the will is free in that we act in accordance with our own motives, desires, etc. while simultaneously affirming that God is sovereign even over the actions of people. Calvinists take this view of freedom because we believe that it best accounts for numerous biblical accounts of human actions and decisions that are ultimately ascribed to God's purpose or will.

Take Eli's rebellious sons, for example. According to 1 Samuel 2:25, they did not heed their father's rebuke "for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death." Note that the author says that they acted as they did (or did not act as they should have) because of what God willed. Did they act freely? Yes, in that they acted in accordance with their nature and desires. Nevertheless, their acting as they did fulfilled God's purpose. By the way, we see here the coexistence of human responsibility and divine responsibility. The sons were judged for their rebellion even though the text says that their disobedience was ultimately due to what God had purposed.

The account of Joseph and his brothers provides yet another biblical affirmation of divine sovereignty over human choices and actions coexisting with human responsibility. While acknowledging the evil intentions of his brothers (i.e., their moral responsibility) Joseph also acknowledges God's sovereign purpose for their actions: "And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here but God..." (Gen. 45:7-8). "And as for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it (i.e., your action) for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gen. 50:20). Take note of what Joseph does not say. He does not say "You meant evil...but God used it...." This is how the verse is often rendered when people refer to it but it is not true to the text. Joseph used the same verb ("meant," "purposed," or "intended") with reference to Joseph's brothers and to God. God intended their actions in order to accomplish his good will.

These are just two of the numerous biblical texts that show God holding someone morally responsible for acts that he had ordained that they would perform. Another instance is David's census which, according to 2 Sam. 24:1, was incited by the Lord. Related to this whole discussion is the fact that another biblical text, 1 Chronicles 21:1, claims that it was Satan who incited David to so act. Which is true? Both are. One simply has to distinguish between ultimate or primary causes and proximate or secondary causes. If we are to avoid contradiction between biblical texts, we have to conclude that the Lord used the agency of Satan in order to accomplish his will with respect to David and Israel. Note too that David is judged for the very action that the text says the Lord incited him to perform. Again we see the simultaneity of divine sovereignty over human actions and human responsibility for those actions. This is completely in keeping with Calvinistic theology but I fail to see how the Arminian conception of freedom can account for it.

The above treatment of secondary causes is also relevant to your questions about whether Greg as a Calvinist feels the responsibility to evangelize, takes apologetics seriously, calls people to make commitments of faith in Christ, and calls people to live their lives as if their choices have real consequences. None of these things are inconsistent with the realization that while God does decree whatsoever is to come to pass, he also determines the means by which those things will be accomplished. He chose in eternity past those whom he would save and calls them through the gospel. This conviction is what motivated the Apostle Paul in his evangelistic ministry: "Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Tim. 2:10). This is why Jesus said so assuredly "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37). This is also why Jesus, on the heels of affirming his sovereign prerogative to reveal the Father to whomever he chooses in Matthew 11:27 offers the well known invitation of v. 28: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

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