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God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility

A. J. Pollock

‘How can you reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility?’ is a question which perplexes and troubles many a young Christian.

Amplified, the question stands much as follows: if God is sovereign in His electing grace, if a man must be born again to see the kingdom of God, and he cannot himself bring about the new birth, if no man can come to the Lord except the Father draw him, as our Lord asserts in John 6:44, how can man be responsible to believe the gospel? It is as good as telling a blind man he is responsible to see, or a deaf man to hear, or a man without legs to walk, or a dead man to live.

The witty reply of C H Spurgeon, that sovereignty and responsibility do not need reconciling because they have never quarrelled, is true; and this indicates a great fact that, little as we may understand it, there is no contradiction in these two great truths. How can there be if both are taught in the Word of God?

That Scripture teaches God’s sovereignty is abundantly proved by the following scriptures:

‘I … will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy’ (Ex. 33:19).

‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4).

‘Elect according to the foreknowledge of God’ (1 Pet. 1:2).

That Scripture teaches man’s responsibility is equally plain, as the following scriptures show:

‘God … now commandeth all men every where to repent’ (Acts 17:30).

‘Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life’ (John 5:40).

‘Every one of us shall give account of himself to God’ (Rom. 14:12).

To our minds and with our limited knowledge, the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are like two parallel lines — extend them as you may they are no nearer to each other, and never can be.

But God knows what we do not. He must know how the two doctrines can be explained in their relation to each other. Some day we may know more than we do now, but revelation is complete as far as this life is concerned. We cannot get beyond the Bible. To speculate is unholy and dangerous work.

Perhaps it may help the young Christian if the writer narrates how he came to a conclusion in the matter, bringing with it rest of mind. His mind was naturally inclined to scepticism. God has great patience with us, and he can look back with gratitude to the tenderness and goodness of His dealings.

The question came to his mind again and again. There seemed no solution — no answer — no explanation. He plied older men with questions and never got any satisfaction. At length he was brought to this point: God in His Word affirms His sovereignty; He likewise affirms man’s responsibility. The only right thing then to do is to believe both without question. God is sovereign — man is responsible.

He did so, and his mind was like a ship, which had been tossed about by the waves, gliding into the smooth waters of the harbour. Rest of mind was his portion. Conflict and questionings were over.

But you may ask, ‘When preaching the gospel do you not press man’s responsibility with a reservation in your mind, knowing that God is sovereign?’ The answer is, ‘Certainly not.’ Man is responsible, responsible without any reservation, responsible without question. God can have no reservation in His mind, for reservation is deceit and dissimulation. We, therefore, should have none in our minds.

If man were not responsible God could not hold him accountable for his actions, which He certainly does. God has given to man a God-consciousness and a conscience which rebukes him when he sins. Man knows that sin is sinful. Hence God’s call for repentance to every man.

As to sovereignty, God always uses it on the side of blessing. There is no room for the awful doctrine that God elects people to be damned.

The reader may ask, ‘But what about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Was that not sovereignty exerted in the sense of bringing evil upon a man?’ The answer is that Pharaoh was already resisting God, already acting with cruel brutality to the people of God, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was governmental, and merited, and not at all an arbitrary exercise of sovereignty. Moreover, we find Pharaoh hardening his heart again and again. What fault can be found with God doing to him what he deliberately did for himself? We repeat it was government rather than sovereignty.

Romans 9:22–23 brings out the distinction clearly: ‘What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory’.

Notice, the vessels of wrath fit themselves to destruction — God is not responsible for man’s sin, but holds man responsible for it. He endures with much longsuffering, so that when His wrath falls it may be deserved to the full and righteously meted out. For instance, He endured the Amorites for four hundred years, till the cup of their iniquity was full.

But when it comes to vessels of mercy it attributes sovereignty to God — ‘which he had afore prepared unto glory’. How carefully chosen are the words of Scripture! How the hallmark of inspiration is seen in every part of it!

As to sovereignty, the universe is stamped with it indelibly. Who chose to create the world? God! Who ordained the orbits of the planets? God! Who ordered the sequence of the seasons? God! Who ordained that I should be a man? God!

We may ask ten thousand such questions and get only one reply: God! And if we ask, ‘Why did God do so-and-so?’, we can only reply because He choose to in His sovereign wisdom. We may well exclaim with the Apostle Paul when he had stated the grand truth of God’s sovereignty, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ (Rom. 11:33). So, we firmly, and without reservation, believe both truths, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

In many ways sovereignty and responsibility are linked together. For instance, God has ordained that men shall live by assimilating food. That is His sovereignty. We are responsible to maintain our lives by eating the necessary meals each day. That is our responsibility. Sovereignty and responsibility here combine to an end.

In the spiritual realm God is sovereign. He elects the believer to eternal blessing, He predestinates him to spiritual blessings in Christ; that is sovereignty. Man is divinely called to repent and trust Christ if he is to be saved. Man is responsible.

One thing is certain: God knows the relation between His sovereignty and our responsibility and He has revealed all that is necessary for us to know. We may rest content there. Sovereignty is His matter; responsibility is ours.

A J Pollock[1]


[1] From Edification (1927) vol. 1 p. 65.