How Do You Resolve the Tension Between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility?

Greg responds to the question: To what extent are we responsible for our own salvation? 


Read more posts

There's always a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and this is something that people understandably struggle with. Let me offer some thoughts that might help you. I can think of three different categories.

One is the issue of salvation, for example. People ask, “What is the role of divine sovereignty in salvation, and what is the role of human responsibility in salvation?” The answer to this particular aspect of the question is going to depend on other theological commitments. Let me give you mine. I believe in sovereign grace. That is, I believe that man is so completely fallen that in their fallen state, they do not pursue God on their own. They follow their own natures. They're following their human responsibility, or their human will, they rebel against God and are held culpable – responsible – for that.

How does anyone get out of that situation? God has to work. Pretty much everybody agrees that God has to work. My conviction is that God completes the job. Those people whom He rescues, He rescues all the way, and those whom He doesn't rescue, He leaves in their rebellion and in their responsibility. 

Are we then responsible for our salvation? Only in a modest sense. God is primarily, ultimately, responsible for our salvation but works in us in such a way that we put our confidence in Him, we put our faith in Him, and that's an act that we are responsible for. But it's one that we do because of His prior work in our lives. I think God woos us so effectively that we choose Him in a way that we couldn't do otherwise because of God's powerful work. It’s controversial, I understand, but let me lay that out. That's how I would answer the question, at least with regard to salvation.

How do you reconcile human responsibility and divine sovereignty? There's another aspect of it, and that is in our day-to-day lives as Christians. What I say is that we don't have to worry about God's sovereign will and sovereign plan because it's His business, and it's His job to complete it. We just have to look at the things that are our responsibility to do, and the Scripture tells us what that is – how we are supposed to live, comport ourselves, work in ministry, relationships, and things like that. 

I like to put it this way: It is %100 God and %100 man. What I mean by that is that God is 100% responsible for His side of the equation, and we are %100 responsible for our side of the equation. We don't have to worry about God's side of the equation. He is going to do His job, and He is going to fulfill %100 of His sovereign purposes, whatever they are. Largely, they’re none of our business, so trying to peek behind the curtain of a Sovereign is a waste of time.

I think we should be spending our time thinking about what our job is. What is our responsibility? As I approach the task of ministry, evangelism, or anything like that, here's what I think of: I think it's my task, but it's God's problem. That is, I have a responsibility to accomplish the task in a certain way, and it's God's responsibility to work it out the way He wants to according to His sovereign plan. Those are two ways of looking at the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Here's the last way, and I think this is the most difficult. How is it that God's large-scale sovereign purposes are accomplished in a world in which people are making individually free choices? How does God work out His plan? How is His providence accomplished in light of all these acts of human freedom that humans are individually responsible for? 

I'll tell you the answer to that question: I don't know. I don't think anybody does. I'm not saying there haven’t been some creative and thoughtful propositions put forward, and they may have some merit, but I think ultimately, this is not something we're going to be able to iron out. It is beyond us, and I think sometimes we just have to “punt to mystery.” Lots of things seem mysterious that we probably can do a little bit more work on, but I don't have any trouble saying, “God is so much bigger than I am. I just can't figure all of these things out and put it all in order.”

This is one of the great imponderables of Christianity; how God in His sovereign way is able to accomplish all of His divine purposes, which He does in the midst of all the fallenness of humanity, and all of their foibles, and all of their bad decisions. 

I know in all the vicissitudes of life that I live, anything that looks like I am being abused by circumstance or other people, there is not a single thing that comes into my life that hasn't first passed through the hand of God. He has given permission for this to happen for His purposes. How can I say that? “For we know that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” God has promised to use all of this stuff for our good to make us like Jesus. That’s our confident promise.

video |
Greg Koukl