The Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility

God is in full control of every event in his created world, including the thoughts and sinful actions of men (Pro 21:1, Act 4:27-28, Rev 17:17). This is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and it forms the basis of faith in the Gospel:

Because God sovereignly orders all things, He is able to keep all His promises. Because God is a God of truth, He is faithful to keep all His promises. [Deu 7:8-10; Jos 21:44-45; 23:14; 2Sa 23:3-5; Psa 89:24-37; 132:11; Isa 45:23; 46:9-11; 54:9-10; Jer 33:20-21,25-26; Act 13:32-33; Rom 15:8-9; 2Co 1:19-20; 1Th 5:24; Tit 1:1-3; Heb 6:13-20; 2Pe 3:9-13]

The Christian Confession of Faith, II.C.3

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is indispensable to the Gospel, because it assures the believer that God has the power to infallibly keep all of his promises. This is the true source of comfort and security for a believer, because it assures him that his final salvation is not dependent on his own varying decisions and imperfect obedience to the Law of God, but on God’s perfect ability to keep every single one of his promises (Jos 21:45, Jer 33:20, Eph 1:11).

It is worth noting here that the responsibility of Man is not destroyed by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. So far from being destroyed by the sovereignty of God, the responsibility of Man is actually based on the sovereignty of God! This is explicitly taught by the Christian Confession of Faith:

Yet all men are responsible to obey the commands of God, because God, as the sovereign King of creation, has the right to command obedience from His creatures, regardless of their ability to obey. [Deu 10:16; Mat 12:13; Mat 28:18; Joh 11:43; Act 17:30-31; Rom 2:12-16; 2Th 1:8] .

Christian Confession of Faith, III.B.4

The Scriptures teach that God is not only in full and absolute control of the universe, but that he is also infinitely holy, infinitely righteous, and infinitely good. Therefore God is himself the standard of right and wrong, and whatever he commands his creatures to do, they are morally obligated to obey. This is how God could command the Israelites to slaughter the Philistines (men, women, and children), without a violation of the 6 th Commandment (Exo 20:13, Deu 7:2, 1Sa 15:13). And since the sovereignty of God is the true basis for the responsibility of Man, anything that magnifies the sovereignty of God actually magnifies the responsibility of Man.

Nevertheless, Arminians like John Wesley teach that man can only be morally responsible if God is not absolutely sovereign:

If you ask, “Why then are not all men saved?” the whole law and the testimony answer, First, Not because of any decree of God; … He willeth that all men should be saved. And they Secondly, declare what is the cause why all men are not saved, namely, that they will not be saved: … And therefore are they without excuse; because God would save them, but they will not be saved.

Works of John Wesley, vol. 7, p. 381, Sermon 128 Free Grace, 1740

Men are as free in believing or not believing as if he [God] did not know it at all. Indeed, if man were not free, he could not be held accountable .…

Works of John Wesley, vol. 6, p. 227, Sermon 58 On Predestination

Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore, (with reverence [sic] be it spoken,) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing.

Works of John Wesley, vol. 6, p. 318, Sermon 67 On Divine Providence

I say again, I defy any man on earth to show, how, on this scheme, God can “judge the world in righteousness.”

Works of John Wesley, vol. 10, p. 374, The Consequence Proved

Wesley believed that a doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty over the world would make it morally impossible for God to judge the world. For Wesley, this argument proceeded naturally from his belief that the foundation of the Gospel was human responsibility, and anything that supplanted that foundation (such as the sovereignty of God), would tend to detract from human responsibility, and consequently God’s justice and judgment of the world.

The only possible way God’s sovereignty would make it impossible for him to judge the world is if God somehow had a higher moral order imposed upon him. But the only way that could be possible is if a being higher than God had imposed such a moral order upon him; and then God would be unfit to be God, and unfit for worship. Indeed, the true object of worship ought to be that supposed higher being!

An argument similar to Wesley’s was raised against the Apostle Paul. Notice how he refutes it:

Rom 3: (5) But if our unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God, what shall we say? [Is] God unrighteous who lays on wrath? I speak according to man. (6) Let it not be! Otherwise, how will God judge the world? (7) For if in my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, whyam I yet judged as a sinner? (8) And not (as we are wrongly accused, and as some report us to say), Let us do bad things so that good things may come, [the] judgment of whom is just.

Paul was accused of destroying human responsibility, because he preached salvation by grace apart from works. Ironically that accusation, like the one raised by Wesley, was cloaked in a seeming concern that exalting the sovereignty of God too much would undermine the responsibility of Man. I have already shown that the foundation of the Gospel is divine sovereignty, not human responsibility. Here, the Apostle shows us that not only is the sovereignty of God vital to the Gospel, but it is also vital to the responsibility of Man, and consequently, God’s ability to judge the world. Paul says that those who accused him of undermining Man’s responsibility were justly condemned (v 8), because they were preaching a “God” who is unrighteous (v. 5), and therefore could not judge the world (v. 6). Contrary to Wesley’s claim that God could not judge the world if he were sovereign over it, it is actually the truth that God cannot judge the world unless he is sovereign over it!

Notice how the objection that was raised against Paul cannot be raised against Wesley. No-one could ever accuse Wesley of over-emphasizing the glory of God, or undermining the responsibility of man. He was too busy exalting the responsibility of man over the glory of God, contrary to the example of the Apostle!

Rom 3: (31) Then do we make law of no effect through faith? Let it not be! But we establish the law (emph. mine – CA).

A belief in unconditional predestination doesn’t encourage lawlessness, it makes obedience to the law possible! A belief in unconditional predestination allows a saint to seek to please God out of gratitude for what he has already done in the person of Jesus Christ, and confidence that God himself will complete the work, all based on the certainty of eternal election. Just as it gives us assurance that our efforts in evangelism will be successful (no matter what the outward appearance), so it provides for us a basis for true repentance, obedience, and good works.

The old Arminian motto that “responsibility implies ability” simply isn’t logical. The dry bones of Ezekiel 38 had no ability to obey the command “Dry bones, live!”, yet they had a responsibility to obey. Lazarus had no ability to obey the command “Lazarus, come forth!”, yet he had a responsibility to obey. Their responsibility to obey did not come from their ability to obey (for they had none). Rather it came from the authority of the One giving the command. God has every right to command us to do that which pleases him, even if we have no power to do so. Therefore, when he commands us to believe the Gospel, we have a responsibility to do so. But this by no means implies the ability to obey that command. Notice that both of the above examples included commands that the subjects (Lazarus and the Dry Bones) obviously couldn’t obey. It was simply beyond their ability; yet they both had a responsibility to obey. So it is with the natural man.

A “Gospel” which depends on a God who is not sovereign is uncertain, doubtful, and prone to failure; and the “Gospel” that Wesley proclaimed depended on a “God” who was not sovereign. Indeed, his “Gospel” depended on making Man sovereign over God, forcing God to wait patiently on the decree of Almighty Man to let God save him. Wesley’s “Gospel” was thus as uncertain, doubtful, and as prone to failure as the whims and decisions of Man.

See Also:

The Law

II. Theology Proper – The Doctrine of God

III. Anthropology – The Doctrine of Man