God’s Sovereignty And Human Responsibility.
Ephesians 1: 1 – 23.
Although the Scriptural conundrum between God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s moral responsibility is one of the polarising doctrinal issues among believers, both are truths mentioned throughout the Bible, with neither stance mitigating the other (c.f., Eph 1:4-5). When his brothers feared for their lives after Jacob’s death, they immediately begged Joseph’s forgiveness for selling him as a slave into Egypt. Joseph did not mince his words, as he reconciled their earlier evil plan with God’s intention of providing for his family decades later (Gen 50:15- 21). Both postures were within Yahweh’s economy: Joseph’s brothers were responsible for their jealous and retributive decision while God worked with the adverse circumstances. In a different scenario, God spoke to the Assyrians through the Prophet Isaiah on His designs to use them to judge the godless nations in the Near East. However, their arrogant and conceited reply to Yahweh vis-à-vis their overpowering military prowess over the nation-states brought on their heads God’s impending judgment on them after He had used them to subjugate the disobedient realms (Isaiah 10). The Assyrians were responsible for their cruelties over the conquered territories and their haughtiness in thinking that they had achieved their successes all by themselves, earned them God’s wrath. Both aspects are realities. How does God handle this contradiction of using something that is evil for good, and somehow not having His hands soiled for it?
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul’s own experiences during his evangelistic trips contained examples of his own decisions and God’s authority working together. Paul captured the essence of this theological tension in “work out your salvation … for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). God is working at the level of our will and behaviour for us to obey Him with the freedom of choice incontrovertibly ours. As individualists, we would rather have preferred one moderating the other, but that is not what Scripture addresses. On numerous occasions in his missionary journeys, Paul faced opposition from the Jews and Gentiles or beaten by them, he was chased out of town or ended up in jail, ship-wrecked or facing various dangers, but never lacking the assurances from God that despite being discouraged and traumatised, “He had many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Paul planned to visit Corinth, but God’s reason was due to His election in the conversion of many in the city who eventually formed the Corinthian church Paul planted. In the midst of persecution, Paul and the other disciples were doing the will of God. The ultimate example, of course, was God’s sacrifice at Golgotha, where despite the conspiracy of the High Priest Herod with Pontius Pilate, Jesus chose to go willingly to the cross for our redemption (John 10:17-18; c.f., Psalm 2).
How does the sovereignty of God affect our prayers? If He had predestined every outcome in life, are our expectations for change rational! I shall not venture into the philosophical and theological issues of predestination and free will, but to draw our attention to Paul’s handling of the problem in his Ephesian Letter. He began by referring to God’s sovereignty (Eph 1:4-7, 11-12) and ended with I “do not cease giving thanks for you while making mention of you in my prayers” (Eph 1:16). He accepted God’s all-encompassing sovereignty, yet he was purposefully praying for the believers unceasingly. Prayer was an essential spiritual discipline to the Apostle, and he exemplified its practice throughout his epistles. And the Bible instructs us to pray despite the mystery of prayer (1 Chron 5:20; 2 Chron 7:14-15; Ps 6:9; Ps 34:15; Eph 6:18-19; Phil 4:6-7).
There are apparent tensions balancing God’s sovereign will and human responsibility. Nevertheless, our freedom to speak and behave does not limit God’s purpose as He accomplishes His will, for “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28). Neither does our willful personal expressions force God to change His mind. Job was adamant that he had done no wrong to deserve any punishment from the Almighty. However, God had to remind him that he was not privy to the circumstances that led to his tragic travails, and therefore he was not entitled to any explanations. God’s sovereign decisions and eternal plans will remain shrouded in mystery, and by and large, incomprehensible to our human rationale. But the fact that He is a God who relishes personal relationships is indicative of His willingness to be bound within space-time even though He is above time’s boundaries in His relationship with mortals. We are in the midst of mysteries in considering a God who is timelessness Himself and yet due to the constraints of relating to man, He limits Himself when He foreordains, He relents, He responds, and even changes His mind.