Man’s Responsibility and God’s Sovereignty: Striking a (Correct) Balance

Balance and Mystery

There is much talk in today’s Church about being balanced. While this is a healthy idea, there are many ways to understand balance. Do we mean balance in terms of giving room to both sides of Biblical teachings, or are we recommending some idea of doctrinal agnosticism?

It’s nearly impossible to get into any kind of meaningful conversation about doctrine today without hearing something like, “People have been arguing about these things for centuries. Who are we to think we’ve figured it out.”. Is God mysterious?

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…” -Deuteronomy 29:29

While appealing to mystery is necessary when we talk about God and His ways (The secret things belong to God.), we have to be careful not to pull the mystery card prematurely. We have to look at all that the Bible tells us about a topic, so we’re sure we understand what’s being said (The things that are reveled belong to us). Then, where the Bible stops, we stop and worship the God who is beyond our comprehension.

Human Responsibility and God’s Sovereignty – the Seeming Paradox

The issue at hand is the idea that while God is sovereign, meaning that he orchestrates all events in time for His purposes, man is also held accountable for what he does or doesn’t do. This should strike us as paradoxical.

If God is making everything happen, how are we still doing anything? Or conversely, if our choices are real, and subject to God’s judgement, how can God be orchestrating those choices and events? The Bible seems to simply present both of these ideas, says they’re true, but doesn’t tell us how exactly they work together. So we’re left with an appeal to the mysterious power of God.

Human Responsibility and God’s Sovereignty in Salvation – The Misunderstanding

This correct doctrinal paradox of responsibility and sovereignty seems to have flowed over into categories today, that it was never intended for. And it appears, for the sake of political correctness, mystery is being appealed to in areas that the Bible is not mysterious.

Today’s ‘autonomous free will’ oriented Church has taken historic orthodox language and misused it to help it’s own faulty theology. A misrepresentation of the conversation is the result.

Today we find preachers teaching that since the Bible teaches that we have to come to Christ to be saved, this means that man has a free will, but the Bible also teaches that God is in control… and this is mysterious. They’ll produce verses that indicate a universal gospel call, commanding all men to come, using them as proof texts to demonstrate free will.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” -Matthew 11:28

“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve…” -Joshua 24:15

“…And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” -Revelation 22:17

So, there is undoubtedly a free offer to all men to come to Christ. And they go on to demonstrate that God is also in control of these things:

“…having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” -Ephesians 1:11

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” -Romans 8:29

Some will rest here, simply saying “Man has free will, and God is sovereign… we just have to deal with it.”(which is admirable, especially when we consider the more common alternative).

Usually at this point the ‘free will’ preacher will redefine predestination and election, and teach that God simply foreknew who would believe, and elected them based on their choice. Sadly, they don’t realize that they’ve actually left their original argument at this point, they’ve rejected mystery, removed God’s choice and set up man’s choice as the sole deciding factor. No more paradox… just an unbiblical doctrine of foreknown decisional salvation.

Human Responsibility and God’s Sovereignty in Salvation – All the Biblical Data

We’ve already established the parts that modern free will Christianity has right:

1. Christ has made a free offer to all men to be saved, and man must come to be saved.

2. God is in control (to varying degrees, depending on tradition), and he is working all things to the council of his will.

But we can’t simply rest here and attribute to point 1 the idea that man is free to choose, until we’ve weighed all the data. Is man free to accept or reject this offer? Jesus says no.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” -John 6:44

“…no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” -Matthew 11:27

Paul supports this idea of man’s inability to obey God and come to Christ:

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” -Romans 8:7-8

“…no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” -1 Corinthians 12:3

The Bible’s ACTUAL teaching is that yes, a free offer is made, but no one CAN come unless they’re first chosen, enabled, drawn, and enlightened to truth of the gospel. An inward change, by God, is necessary. And until that change occurs man is unable to come.

Is man responsible for the choice he makes concerning Jesus? Yes.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” -John 3:18

Is man able to actually choose Christ, apart from the electing, regenerating grace of God? No.

“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” -John 6:65

“…but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” -John 10:26


We need to clarify terms that seem to have been cross. Human responsibility to believe (clearly taught in scripture) is not the same as human ABILITY to believe (strictly taught negatively in scripture). So as far as free will… we have none. We make choices, but our will is bound to our sinful nature.

The question of how God and man work together in salvation is not a paradox. ALL of salvation is God’s doing, as man is incapable of contributing. Every part of our responsibility being fulfilled is a gift from God to His people. Man and God DO NOT work together in salvation. Man is a passive recipient of God’s free gift, then man exercises the faith he’s been gifted.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” -Ephesians 2:8-9

The paradoxical discussion of mans’ responsibility and God’s sovereignty was never about free will in salvation. It’s about how we can keep from being puppets, when God is the orchestrator of everything. How are we accountable, when God makes everything happen? When we correctly understand the argument we ask the obvious (Biblical) question:

“You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” -Romans 9:19

The question is profound… but the answer is heavy and glorious, and should press the unbiblical concept of free will in salvation out of us, as we’re humbled like the creatures we are.

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” -Romans 9:20-21

Here, my friends, is where we rest. In God’s right to do what He wants with what’s His. Mysterious as it all may be.