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Theology in Romans - Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility Print E-mail
Theology in Romans

I.  Introduction:

 The question that often comes up when discussing Godís sovereignty, particularly Godís sovereignty over salvation, is: what about manís free will?  Some conclude that belief in unconditional election makes men mere robots.  Yet, as we saw this morning in Romans 9:30-10:21 (and throughout the book of Romans and rest of the NT), man must repent and believe in order to be saved.  Man is commanded and responsible to believe.  Some then, beginning with the Bibleís teaching on manís responsibility, conclude that unconditional election could not be taught in the Bible.  Yet others, myself included in this group, believe these two ideas are not exclusive of one another.  God is completely sovereign over salvation in that He elects who will be saved based on His will and His purposes.  At the same time, man is responsible to repent and believe in Christ.  This view is often called compatibilism. 1  Of course, other approaches to the tension between Godís sovereignty and manís responsibility have been offered, but I believe the approach of compatabilism is the most faithful to all that the Bible has to say on this issue.  In order to flesh this out a bit, I want to first look at Godís sovereignty and manís responsibility from a biblical theology approach and then look at some passages that teach both, which is a more systematic approach.

II.  Biblical Theology

 A.  Godís Sovereignty: From beginning to end, the Bible teaches the sovereignty of God.  He is sovereign over creation as the Creator and Sustainer.  He is sovereign over time and space.  As we have argued over the past couple of weeks, He is sovereign over salvation being sovereign over His own mercy as a potter is sovereign over clay.  He is sovereign over His church, His people.  And He is sovereign over history, when Christ will return and gather His Bride to Himself.  In short, the whole story of the Bible teaches us that God is sovereign over all things, which of course brings up the question: If God is sovereign over all things, then in what sense are humans free and responsible for their actions?

 B.  Human freedom/responsibility: Following the timeline of the Bible itself, we see that human freedom is not static.  These changes are seen in four distinct periods of redemptive history. 2  Letís consider these individually:
  1.  Before the Fall: Adam and Eve had both freedom of choice (they could chose what they wanted) and true freedom (freedom in their relationship to God and other  men). They were not enslaved to sin because the Fall had not yet happened.  They had both freedom of choice and freedom of desire.  In this freedom, they chose to sin, which radically impacted both their freedom and the freedom of all mankind (save One).
  2.  After the Fall: How did the Fall impact manís freedom?  After the Fall, man still retained the freedom of choice.  Man can still choose what man wants/desires to choose.  In this sense man is still free.  Yet, due to the Fall and the sinful nature that we receive from Adam (as we saw in Romans 5:12-21), man no longer has true freedom or freedom of desire.  Unfortunately, in our fallen state we only desire sin.  Yes we still freely choose, but we freely choose to sin.  Even our righteous deeds are tainted with sin (Isaiah 64:6).  We need our desires to change.  We need a new heart.  Otherwise, we will freely choose to sin and rebel until the Lord justly sends us to Hell.
  3.  In Christ: The glorious good news is that we can have a new heart because of the work of Christ at the cross.  When the Spirit opens our eyes to see the glory of Christ  and gives us a new heart, then our desires are changed.  We still have freedom of choice, only now, we can/will freely choose to obey through the power of the Spirit.  Of course, we still battle with sin and fight against our evil desires, but we are nonetheless free from the tyranny of sin (as we saw in Romans 6-7).  We have true freedom but it remains limited by our struggle with sin.
  4.  In Glory: Yet, there is promised a day for us when our true freedom will be perfected.  We will only desire to honor and glorify Christ.  Our desire for sin will be eradicated.  Indeed, what a glorious day that will be!!

 Thus, the Bible teaches us that man is free to choose what he wants (freedom of choice), but unfortunately apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, we will only desire and therefore only choose to rebel.  We are still responsible and accountable for such choices.  Our only hope is a Savior who can truly set us free from our slavery to sin.  And this is what Christ has done.  Listen to John 8:34-36.  We are free indeed through Christ and only through Christ.

III.  Systematic Theology:

 So man is free to choose and accountable for His choices while God is sovereign over all.  Not only are these truths taught in general throughout the Bible, but there are also several places where these two truths are taught in the same passage.  Letís consider a few of these.

 A. Genesis 50:19-20 Josephís brother meant evil against Joseph when they sold him into slavery.  They are responsible for their actions.  They freely chose to do what they wanted with Joseph.  Yet, God was still sovereign over their actions.  He had a plan to keep many alive through Joseph and He did just that.  God is sovereign and man is responsible in this text.  I should note that some object to this approach because such a stress on Godís sovereignty means that He is culpable of sin.  Yet, the text is very clear that God does not sin.  Even in this situation, Josephís brothers are responsible for their sin.  Thus, God is sovereign over, without being guilty of, sinful actions.

 B. Leviticus 20:7-8 The responsibility of man is clear in this text.  Israel is told to be holy and keep the statutes of the Lord.  They are responsible to do that.  At the same time, the Lord tells them: I am the Lord who sanctifies you.  So which one is it?  Are they responsible to be holy or is God sovereign over their sanctification?  The answer that the text gives is simply both.  Both are true and both are to be believed.  We cannot exclude or minimize either without doing damage to the text.  They are responsible to be holy and God is sovereign over their sanctification.

 C.  Acts 2:23 Peter is describing the crucifixion of Christ.  He states clearly that Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.  Thus, it was Godís plan that Christ be crucified for our sins.  Likewise, it is also true that men were responsible for the death of Christ.  Peter states: you crucified and killed (Christ) by the hands of lawless men.  It was Godís plan for Christ to die for sinners, but that does not mean that those who carried out His crucifixion are free from guilt.  No, they did what they wanted to do and they will be held responsible for those actions (along these same lines see Acts 4:27-28).

 D.  Romans 9-10 As we have argued over the past couple of weeks, God is completely sovereign over manís salvation (Romans 9) and man is responsible to believe and preach the gospel (Romans 10).  Paul does not exclude either in this letter and neither should we.

 E.  Philippians 2:12-13 Verse 12 contains a clear command: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.  Brothers and sisters we are responsible to obey this very command.  But we must remember that we do this under the sovereignty of God: for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  Are we to work out our salvation or is God going to work it out?  Again, the text answers that both are true: we are responsible and God is sovereign.

IV.  Conclusion:

 Of course, there is mystery in all of this.  How exactly does all of this work out?  Where does Godís sovereignty end and manís responsibility begin?  The Bible does not answer these questions.  Rather, it simply teaches that both are true and we do well to let that stand.  We need not pit them against each other.  We need not emphasize one at the expense of the other.  No, we let the text stand.  We believe and teach them both.  May we indeed do this faithfully.  Amen.

1 In my opinion, the best explanation/defense of compatabilism is found in the chapter ĎThe Mystery of Providenceí in D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), p. 199-228.
2 The following argument is a summary of the arguments made in Robert A. Peterson, Election and Free Will (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2007), p. 126-33.
3 Ibid., p. 126-27. 

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 November 2010 )

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