A teenage girl once shared her thoughts with me on God’s sovereignty. To paraphrase her argument, “What’s the point of serving God? He already knows whether I’m going to end up in heaven or hell. Since he planned everything out, my actions and choices don’t really matter.” It’s hard to argue with a person who thinks that way, but I did my best at the time.
Mystery in the Bible
There is mystery in the Bible and the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom is one of those mysteries. (Note: human freedom is difficult to define and it is the subject of endless philosophical debate so some prefer to use the phrase “human responsibility” instead of “human freedom.”)
It would seem that if God is sovereign, that is, if he is ruling and having his way in the world, then our choices and actions don’t ultimately matter. And that would mean the teenage girl was right. But if humans are responsible agents, that is, if our actions make a real difference in the world and we are accountable for those actions, then God is not actually ruling, we are.
As you can see, it’s easy to swing from one extreme to the other: fatalism (God is in total control and we are essentially puppets) or atheism (we are in total control because there is no God).
Joseph Sold into Slavery
The Bible, however, teaches both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Consider Joseph who not only accused his brothers of selling him as a slave, but also acknowledged that God sent him ahead of them. When his brothers met him in Egypt, Joseph confronted them with these words, “You sold me here” (Gen. 45:5, ESV). The brothers were responsible for their actions and therefore guilty.
But he then added, “for God sent me before you” (v. 5). God was sovereign or in control of the situation–even a situation as evil as a group of guys selling one of their brothers into slavery. Joseph saw both realities–his brothers did something evil to him and God used what they did to send Joseph to another country where he eventually became a great ruler.
Later on Joseph combined both truths once again, “You intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). The brothers had a purpose in mind and God had a purpose in mind and God’s purpose prevailed.
Likewise, when preaching to the crowd in Jerusalem, Peter affirmed both God’s sovereignty and human guilt. Peter preached, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It was God’s plan for Jesus to die and Peter had heard Jesus predict his own death just a few days earlier.
But after acknowledging God’s plan, Peter added, “This Jesus . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Can you see Peter pointing his finger at the crowd when he spoke those words? The people who rejected and crucified Jesus were guilty for what they had done. “You crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Making Sense of God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
While Joseph and Peter accepted both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, neither of them explained how both work together at the same time. Many biblical debates occur when we seek to explain something that the Bible never explains. We want an explanation because we’re uncomfortable with mystery. If we don’t get an explanation we come up with our own, but our explanations tend to be too simplistic or too complex. Either we reach for one truth and ignore the other as the teenager girl did who gravitated too strongly towards God’s sovereignty or we come up with an incomprehensible theory that can’t be proven as educated adults do.
But since these two strands of truth are interwoven without explanation throughout the Bible, all we really need to do is hold on to both pieces of thread: God is sovereign and we are responsible.