Man’s Responsibility and God’s Sovereignty
Many articles have considered God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in that order — that is, the grace of God in choosing an individual or a group of people for blessing and the responsibility of every person to respond to God’s offer of mercy to the whole world. This article considers the concepts in the opposite order: man’s responsibility towards God and the manner in which God acts in His sovereignty when His mercy is spurned. As we will see, God’s sovereignty in this regard is not arbitrary licence but is consistent with His whole character.
When the Lord Jesus was on earth, He was asked by His disciples why He spoke to the crowds in parables. His answer was: ‘To you is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to them who are without, all things are done in parables, that beholding they may behold and not see, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest it may be, they should be converted and they should be forgiven’ (Mark 4:11–12). In other words, the Lord Jesus expounded His doctrine (v. 2) in parables for a specific purpose: so that one group would understand them while another would not and, as a result, would not be saved.
Was preaching in a manner which some people would not understand consistent with other aspects of the Lord’s ministry, such as His appeal: ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28)? The context of the Lord’s words, particularly as recorded in Matthew, which presents the Lord’s life and ministry from a dispensational perspective, helps provide the answer to this question.
In Matthew 1 to 12, the Lord Jesus is presented to His own (the Jews) as their King. Sadly, they reject Him. While the complete rejection occurred when the Lord was on trial and they said ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him’ and expressly declared that He was not their King (John 19:15), the nation’s wilful repudiation of Him had been manifested already. This occurred in Matthew 12, when they accused the Lord of casting out demons by the power of Satan, which was a most serious slander on the activity of the Holy Spirit. Their attitude towards Him meant that they were without hope — the Lord could no longer show grace to the people who were His own by natural ties, as reflected in His statement that His relations by flesh were no longer His relations (vs. 47–50), and His subsequent departure from ‘the house’ (13:1), the house speaking of Israel.
However, in His grace, the Lord did not finish with man forever notwithstanding the insult He had just received from the lips of the Jews. In fact, their rejection of Him only led Him to begin a new work directed towards mankind as a whole, as represented by the sea (13:1 — see Rev. 17:15 for an explanation of the type), and with the object of blessing a new family consisting of those who would do the will of His Father (Matt. 12:49–50).
The Lord began this new chapter in His service by preaching to the great multitudes which gathered to Him by the sea side (13:1–2). The crowd would have been made up of unbelieving Jews and those who had put their faith in Him, and possibly Gentiles as well. As noted above, the Lord spoke to them in parables, particularly in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:2–9). After the crowds had departed and the Lord was with His own, His disciples asked Him why He had spoken in parables and the reply set out above was given (vs. 10–12).
The Lord’s reply refers to two groups of people: ‘you’ and ‘them’. The first group were those who had trusted in Him. Some were Jews by nature, but they were not viewed by the Lord after the flesh but as part of His new family — again, those who did the will of His Father. Because of their faith, the Lord would make known to them the mystery of the kingdom of God (v. 11), although even this was really a manifestation of His grace because many prophets and righteous men in Old Testament times had desired to hear the things which they were now hearing but had not had that privilege (Matt. 13:17). It could be said that this was the Lord’s sovereign grace in choosing to bless those who had simply done what they were responsible to do in receiving Him.
The second group referred to by the Lord were the Jews as a nation: ‘them that are without’ (Mark 4:11). Although they may have been the Lord’s ‘own’ by virtue of natural relations, as recorded in John 1:11, they were not part of His true family. As a result of their rejection of Him, He pronounced the following judgment: ‘Therefore speak I to them in parables … for this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them’ (Matt. 13:13–15). Accordingly, He was not being capricious, let alone unfair or unjust, in speaking to the crowds in parables. Rather, it was in keeping with a principle which we see throughout the Bible, namely that God’s Spirit will not always strive with man (Gen. 6:3). This principle is entirely righteous. While God is longsuffering and His desire is that none should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9), He must judge men, and this evil world, in righteousness, otherwise He would be unrighteous. If anything, the fact that a holy God who cannot even look upon iniquity (Hab. 1:13) has worked with man to bring him to blessing — and moreover has striven for around 6,000 years with those in whom there is no good thing (Rom. 7:18) and who have done no good (Rom. 3:10–18, 23) — would mean that He is entitled to bring an end to His work of grace towards individuals or groups of people and to judge those who harden their hearts.
In the case of the Jews who were part of the crowd to which the Lord was preaching, they had received additional blessings from God in that they had been chosen by Him to be His treasure, delivered from bondage, protected and blessed over many centuries, spoken to in a special way through the law and, most of all, given the privilege of being the initial beneficiaries of His greatest gift, His Son. It was therefore a very serious matter for them if they did not hearken to the Lord’s words. They had also expressly been warned that if they refused to hear Him He would bring upon them the sentence which He went on to pronounce. As He Himself noted, Isaiah had prophesied that there would come a time when they would hear His words but would not understand them (Matt. 13:14–15; Isa. 6:9–10). In addition, they knew of times when God had demonstrated that He would no longer strive with man, such as the flood (Gen. 6:3), His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12) and His dealings with Israel for their unfaithfulness (e.g. Heb. 3:8–11). Accordingly, they were without excuse, and the Lord Jesus cannot be accused of being unfair when He deliberately began speaking to them in parables. Rather, the Judge of the earth will always do right, even in judgment (Gen. 18:25).
The principle that God will not always strive with man still applies in the day of grace. After the Lord’s return to heaven, Jews who had been presented with the blessings of Christianity were warned that they should not harden their hearts, otherwise God would act towards them in the same way as He had with Israel in the wilderness, when He swore that those who did not have faith in Him would not enter into His rest (Heb. 3:7–4:11). Insofar as the world is concerned, ‘God … now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness’ (Acts 17:30–31 NKJV). Where a person has heard the gospel and been given every opportunity to repent but has deliberately turned their back on God, God is entitled, in His sovereignty, to act as regards that person and their disobedience to His command to repent in a righteous manner. This may include, in certain cases, a hardening of their heart as was the case for Pharaoh.
After the rapture, God will deal with each person who has refused the gospel during this day of grace in a particular way. He will cause them to believe what is false so that He can act righteously and judge them because they chose not to believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:7–12).
In all of these instances, God has not pre-determined any for eternal judgment or prevented them from accepting the Lord Jesus as Saviour. Rather, He is acting in a manner which is righteous and therefore consistent with His character.
In summary, man is responsible to God. In particular, every person is obliged to repent as God commands. Should they fail to do so, they have no excuse if God acts righteously in response to their disobedience. For those of us who are saved, there is so much about God’s character and ways which should call forth our worship. From that moment when we trusted in the Lord Jesus, we have been blessed far more than we deserved. In God’s sovereignty, we enjoy grace upon grace (John 1:16).