Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Does the Bible Teach Both?
- Bruce Ware The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- 2009 17 Apr
God is the sovereign ruler over the universe and all human affairs, and human beings are responsible before God for the moral choices and actions they make. Yes, the Bible teaches both and both are true.
What does the Bible teach about God's sovereign rulership? Consider Daniel 4:35 where we are instructed that God "does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘what have You done?'" Three observations are needed. 1) God's rulership is the exercise of "His will." That is, he decides in advance what he wants to happen so that "His will" precedes and directs all that occurs. 2) His will is exercised universally—over those in heaven and all the inhabitants of earth. There simply is no place where his will does not pertain or is not exercised. And 3) no creature of God can thwart the fulfillment of God's will or charge God with wrongdoing. In short, God's rulership by his will is absolute, universal, and effectual. Consider further the kinds of reality over which God reigns. The Bible contains a number of "spectrum texts" which display God's ultimate control of both good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. In Isaiah 45:6b-7, God announces "I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these" (cf., Exod 4:11; Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6-7; Eccles 7:13-14; and Lam 3:37-38). And, while we gladly affirm that God is good (only!) and that God neither approves evil in itself, nor does any evil reside in him (Ps 5:4), yet we must affirm with the large and sweeping testimony of Scripture that he reigns over all of life, both its good and evil, and that in all that occurs "the counsel of his will" (Eph 1:11) is fulfilled.
What does Scripture teach about human moral responsibility? From page 1 of the Bible, we are put on notice that God holds us accountable for the moral choices and actions we make. The law of God, whether the simple law not to eat of one tree in the garden (Gen 2:16-17), or the Law given on Sinai (Exod 20), or the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2) - each establishes for its time the moral framework within which our lives are lived. God will "render to each person according to his deeds" (Rom 2:6), and this judgment will be based on whether we "persevere in doing good" (Rom 2:7) or whether we "do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness" (Rom 2:8). There simply is no denying the fact that God considers his human creation as responsible for the choices and actions they make, and the final judgment day will bear testimony to how we have chosen to live our lives.
So, God is the sovereign ruler over all, and human beings are responsible before him, but just how can both be true? We simply cannot understand fully how both are true together, but that they must work together is demanded by Scripture's clear teaching. Consider one illustration from Scripture where both are seen, namely, a lesson from Joseph's story (Gen 37-45). Joseph's brothers were deeply jealous of him and grew to despise him. When the opportunity presented itself, they sold him into Egypt (37:25-36) where Joseph was misunderstood and mistreated. Despite this, God's hand was on Joseph and he was elevated to second in command in Egypt (Gen 41). During a famine, his brothers traveled to Egypt to purchase grain, and there Joseph made himself known to his brothers. What Joseph tells them is as incredible as it is instructive: "Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God" (Gen 45:8). Wait! we might protest. Surely they did send Joseph to Egypt! And so they did, and so Joseph previously acknowledges (45:4). But, to get at the full reason that they were sent to Egypt requires looking not just to the brothers but also, more importantly, to God! So it is clear: both God and the brothers are responsible for sending Joseph to Egypt. Both God's sovereign rulership and the brother's moral actions are active. As Joseph puts it later, "you [brothers] meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Gen 50:20). The brothers acted for evil, and God acted in the same events for good. Not every question is here answered, but we see that we must affirm both the sovereign rulership of God and the genuineness of our moral responsibility. Both are joined together in Scripture, and what Scripture has joined together, let no man separate.
Dr. Bruce Ware, Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a highly esteemed theologian and author in the evangelical world. Dr. Ware has written numerous journal articles, book chapters, and book reviews and, along with Thomas Schreiner, has co-edited The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will and Still Sovereign. Ware is the author of God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism; God's Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance; and his just released Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God (Crossway: April 2009). Dr. Ware and his wife Jodi have two grown daughters and one grandchild.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally written for the Holman Apologetics Study Bible. Published here with permission. Original publication date: April 17, 2009.]