Pilgrim’s Keyboard

April 28, 2015

Man’s Responsibility in Light of God’s Sovereignty

Filed under: Providence BC — pilgrimskeyboard @ 12:42 am

The Scriptures are very plain concerning the fact that God is in complete control of all of His creation. The Psalmist proclaims that, “Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and in deep places” (Ps. 135:6).[1] This complete control of all things is an essential characteristic of God’s divine nature,[2] which is described as being the attribute of God’s sovereignty. Without such an attribute, God could not be God, for if anyone or anything would be able to dictate to Him how to run His creation, that source would be God instead. Thus the prophet wrote, “None can stay his hand, or say unto him, what doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35). Pink states: “The sovereignty of God may be defined as the exercise of His supremacy. Being infinitely elevated above the highest creature, He is the Most High, Lord of heaven and earth. Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases. None can thwart Him, none can hinder Him.…Divine Sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things after the counsel of His own will.”[3]

The sovereignty of God, then, must be an absolute attribute in order for God to exist. Because of this providence, He must be able to order, “all issues and events of things, after the counsel of his will, to his own glory.”[4] For Scripture declares, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.…whom he did predestinate….them he also called….them he also justified….them he also glorified,” (Rom. 8:28-30), in that nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39), which includes the responsibility of one’s sins when found in Christ (1 John 1:7-9).

However, in light of this teaching that God is sovereign, there are still those who continue to as with suspicion; how then, can man be held accountable for his actions? If God is sovereign, how can He justly accuse man of doing something wrong? If God is sovereign, is not man, then merely a machine doing the dictates of the operator? If God is sovereign, then is not man justified in accusing God of responsibility for man’s actions? Thus, making his rallying cry towards God; “What have you done?” such as Adam did in the garden when he was called upon by God to give an accounting for himself, “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me,” (Gen. 3:12), as if all of Adam’s problems were God’s fault.

Bruner (one such questioner) states: “The Bible, when taken as a divinely inspired historical record, teaches that we are members of a fallen race. Because of transgressions which were committed thousands of years before we were born and of which we have no recollection, we are born in original sin and total depravity and are consequently the objects of the eternal wrath of God.

“This has always been a stumbling block to faith, but in our day it is more so than ever. The modern democratic mind finds it hard to believe such a thing. It seems to contradict all that we have been taught about the justice, goodness, and love of God. It apparently cancels out all personal responsibility for our sinful and lost condition.

“How can a child be held accountable for a guilt that he was born with? How can he be blamed for giving expression to his sinful nature when that is the only nature he has? And how did he get such a nature? Are not the laws of heredity God’s laws? How can a just and loving Creator inflict such a hopeless handicap upon an infant just because another man sinned? If we are simply the helpless, irresponsible victims of natural heredity or divine imputation, how can we be truly judged or punished? Heaven alone knows how many sincere hearts this problem has tormented and how many it has driven into infidelity!”[5]

The word responsibility dictates accountability for one source toward another. Accountability requires one source to be answerable to another. And to be answerable shows that one source must, in turn, be responsible to the other. What makes man a responsible being? According to Bruner, it is not a sovereign God, but a self-thinking, free moral agent who determined his own destiny outside of God’s knowledge,[6] a thought which, when carried out to its fullest extreme, makes the soul authority in his destiny. This eliminates the need for God and then causes one to arrive at the only other solution for our existence, man has evolved, not created, and thus is not a responsible being. If the theory of evolution is correct, then man is a creature by chance and he is not responsible to anything or anyone other than his own self-imposed laws, for when he dies he will cease to exist. Evolution “proposes that there is no personal, transcendent God; that ultimate reality is to be found in the eternal cosmos itself and that the development of the universe into its present form is contingent solely on the innate properties of its own components.”[7] Evolution’s proponents proclaim it as fact, but it has never been elevated above a theory. Thus, with that in mind, it seems best to reject such ideology when it comes to determining man’s responsibility. However, if man is a created being, as indicated by Scripture (Gen. 1:26), it would seem reasonable to assume that he must be accountable for his actions before his Creator (Rom. 14:12), which is how Simmons defines human responsibility: “By human responsibility we mean man’s accountability to God for all of his actions.”[8] Since God requires man to be accountable for all of his actions, it seems best to examine man’s ability to determine his actions before the fall of Adam, to examine whether or not man has the freedom of choice in his actions after the fall of Adam, and if he has such freedom, can he, then, act contrary to God’s sovereign will because of this freedom of choice.

Mankind both possesses and exercises his ability to determine his actions as long as he is not limited by circumstances beyond his control. One may wish to pilot an airplane from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, but without the proper training, he will not be able to exercise that ability. Or, one may be confined to a wheelchair because of some crippling disease. He may desire to walk across the room, but due to his circumstances, he is unable to exercise that action. However, if he so desires, he is still able to go from one side to the other even though limited to the boundaries imposed by his disability. This too, is the case with man concerning his ability to determine his actions. Adam, the first man, was created good (Gen. 1:31) with the ability to make decisions (Gen. 2:16-20), of which his most famous is found in Genesis 3:6, “[Eve] gave also unto her husband [Adam] with her; and he did eat,” thus bringing forth sin and death upon Adam and his human progeny,[9] “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). When Adam made his decision, he did so within the boundaries on his freedom of choice. These boundaries of Adam’s freedom of choice, according to Matthew henry, were not hindered, “He [Adam] had no corrupt nature with him to betray him; but had a freedom of will, not enslaved, and was in his full strength, not weakened or impaired.”[10] Therefore, Adam, before the fall, had the right within his circumstances (God’s garden) to fully exercise his “freedom of choice” without hindrance from God. Once Adam exercised that right, he became completely responsible for his actions giving an accounting of them to God.

Even though Adam had no boundaries preventing him from exercising his freedom of choice, this is not true concerning his offspring. For God told Adam that the day in which he would eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die (Gen. 2:17). Since we know God does not lie (Titus 1:20, something must have happened to Adam on that day. Of course, that something is that he died spiritually, passing on this penalty to his progeny. “When God was pronouncing this sentence (Gen. 3:17-18), Adam doubles understood, that God had respect to his posterity, as well as himself.”[11] “What then, are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jew and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is not that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:9-11). What happened when Adam fell? It is not that God took away his own or his offspring’s freedom of choice, for Adam proved his ability to act on his own volition when he decided to hide from God (Gen. 3:10), it is that his circumstances had changed and he was now obligated to work within the boundaries of his fallen nature.[12] “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: For they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). These boundaries of Adam and his offspring, which once was called “good” by God, now are corrupt, his nature which once was alive unto God is now dead and separated from him, and Adam’s desire to commune and walk with God, his creator, cleaves to another, Eve, his created companion in disobedience.

The story of the rich young ruler from Mark 10:17-27 who had a discourse with Jesus about inheriting eternal life went away grieved for he had great possessions, is another good illustration of someone having a freedom of choice in his actions. The young man weighed his options within his mind and decided that the price that Jesus had demanded was too much and consequently said no, I will not pay that price, with his actions. However, the context of the story says he went away grieved. This indicates that even though he had the freedom to choose what his action would be, this was done only out of his own capabilities. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).

Wycliffe Commentary states: “Jesus looked intently and searchingly at him….No doubt he recognized the sincerity of the man’s search for something to meet his spiritual need….Then He went to the heart of the man’s problem, his devotion to his wealth rather than to God. Therein lay the one thing he lacked. In order to follow Jesus, he must remove the obstacle, his love of money.”[13]

Herein lies the problem, “he must remove the obstacle, his love of money.” The rich young ruler did what he could with the capacity of his nature. Paul declares that, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). There is no doubt that this young man was a moral up-standing person within the community, (“Master, all these things have I observed from my youth”), someone who had great character and stature, ‘Justitia civilis,’ ‘things external.’”[14] However, despite all of his great and marvelous traits, he could not get past the workings of his heart, which according to Jeremiah, the prophet, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). Jesus did not interfere with this young ruler’s right to exercise his freedom of choice in his decision. Instead, He allowed the young ruler to make his decision in his natural state without any interference at all. Consequently, the rich young ruler could only follow the path that his nature (Eph. 2:3) dictated as he exercised his right to freedom of choice. Paul says, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Rom. 7:18).

Pink writes: “But does not Scripture say, ‘Whosoever will may come?’ It does, but does this signify that everybody has the will to come? What of those who won’t come? ‘Whosoever will may come’ no more implies that fallen man has the power (in himself) to come, that ‘Stretch forth thine hand’ implied that the man with the withered arm had ability (in himself) to comply. In and of himself the natural man has power to reject Christ, but in and of himself he has not the power to receive Christ. And why? Because he has a mind that is ‘enmity against’ Him (Rom. 8:7); because he has a heart that hates Him (John 15:18). Man chooses that which is according to his nature, and therefore before he will ever choose or prefer that which is Divine and spiritual a new nature must be imparted to him; in other words, he must be born again….The sinner’s will is biased toward evil, and therefore is free in one direction only, namely, in the direction of evil. The sinner’s will is enslaved because it is in bondage to and is the servant of a depraved heart.

“In what does the sinner’s freedom consist?….The sinner is ‘free’ in the sense of being unforced from without. God never forces the sinner to sin. But the sinner is not free to do either good or evil because an evil heart is ever inkling him toward sin….Let all Divine restraint be removed and every man is capable of becoming, would become, a Cain, a Pharaoh, a Judas. How then is the sinner to move heavenward? By an act of his own will? Not so. A power outside of himself must grasp hold of him and lift him every inch of the way. The sinner is free, but free in one direction only – free to fall, free to sin. As the Word expresses it: ‘For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness’ (Romans 6:20. The sinner is free to do as he pleases, always as he pleases (except as he is restrained by God), but his pleasure is to sin.”[15]

There is nothing here that shows the rich young ruler was hindered in his decision not to follow Christ, for the Scriptures are very plain in teaching that whosoever will may come to Him. Jesus said in Mark 8:34, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” As has been shown, this is the course that the rich young ruler decided he could not take, a choice that he made because of the freedom he had in dictating his actions, a freedom that was not interfered with or hindered by God, a freedom of choice in his actions that the young man exercised willingly, knowing that he was responsible for exercising his freedom of choice, for “he went away sorrowful” (Matt. 19:22). To close this section, it seems correct to say that man, after the fall, does not have the ability to determine his actions, but this ability is limited only as far as his circumstances (fallen nature) will allow him to go. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled” (Col. 1:21).

Daniel Webster was once asked, “What was the most serious thought that had ever entered his great mind?” and he replied, ‘My personal accountability to God.”[16] His reply did not refer to what a sovereign God required him to do. His reply did not state that he could not be held responsible for his freedom of choice. No instead, his reply was that his freedom of choice in his actions was so serious that he would have to give an account before God. The seriousness of this thought is what every individual should have in his or her mind. Human responsibility entails accountability and accountability entails freedom to do what one chooses in order to be accountable. It has been shown that this freedom of choice was originally a part of man and that Adam exercised it freely before his fall. Since the fall, even though Adam and his offspring have been limited by the boundaries of their sinful nature as to what their freedom of choice can allow, it has been shown that they still have freedom of choice in their actions. Since man is limited by his freedom of choice, being subject to his nature, which is at enmity with God (Rom. 8:5-8) and cannot please God, how is it, then, that God can hold man responsible for his actions?

This question of human responsibility before a sovereign God is that Pink calls a “Gordian knot of theology….a [difficult] relationship to define….a [difficult] meeting point to determine.”[17] The reason for this is that it is difficult to reconcile how a God who is sovereign in all of His ways (Dan. 4:35) and in every aspect of individual lives (Acts 17:26) can hold man responsible for his actions (Rom. 14:12). [However, in light of Romans 9:10-24, “….But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have made me like this? Does not the potter have power over the clay….” {NKJ}, who are we to argue against the “Gordian knot” tied by God?][18]

Hick writes: “Whether or not we speak of God being ultimately responsible for the existence of evil depends upon our definition of responsibility. For there are both differences and similarities between the sense in which men are responsible and any sense in which God could be said to be responsible. Human responsibility occurs within the context of an existing society of moral beings. But God is Himself the source of moral law and the Creator of all beings other than Himself. In His original decision to create He was accordingly not responsible under any moral law or to any existing person. Nevertheless, there is a technical sense of ‘responsible’ that can be applied to God as well as to man….His decision to create the existing universe was the primary and necessary precondition for the occurrence of evil, all other conditions being contingent upon this, and He took His decision in awareness of all that would flow from it.

“However, even this ultimate omni-responsibility of the Creator does not take away each human individual’s accountability for his own deliberate actions. Our moral liability is not diminished by the fact that we have been created by a higher Being who bears the final responsibility for His creatures’ existence, with all that this contingently encompasses. The divine and human responsibilities operate upon different levels and are not mutually incompatible. Man is responsible for his life within the creaturely world, whilst God is ultimately responsible for the existence of the creaturely world and for the fact that man lives responsibly within it.”[19]

Man cries out, it is not my fault that I have been born with a nature that is at enmity with God and because of this fleshly nature I must yield to its boundaries in my freedom choice decisions. This exclamation tries to instill upon God the blame for man’s sin, but God does not make man sin, instead man sins because that is what he desires to do. “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin (John 8:34). “What would the reader say to a man who robbed him and who later argued in defense, ‘I cannot help being a thief, that is my nature’? Surely the reply would be, then, the penitentiary is the proper place for that man.”[20] With this thought in mind, is it not Scriptural to say to the man exclaiming that he is not responsible for his actions that he should be prepared to give an accounting of his decisions? The answer would be emphatic, “yes!” Man acts according to his nature. He purposely decides the actions he wants to take.

An example is the crucifixion of Christ. I Acts 4:27-28, the Apostles declared that God’s purpose determined what was to be done to Christ by Herod, Pontus Pilate, the gentiles, and the people of Israel. Then, in Acts 5:30, while addressing the chief priest and elders of Israel, the Apostles declare that these leaders were the ones who hung Christ on a tree and murdered Him, which can be gleaned quickly from reading the Gospel accounts, that their desire was to put Him to death. No one forced these religious and political leaders to make the decision to crucify Jesus. These men based their decisions on their hearts’ desire and then simply followed that desire to fruition. Nowhere in these Scriptures were these men denied their freedom of choice. God did not force them to crucify His Son. He simply allowed it to happen to fulfill His eternal purpose and plan (Acts 2:22-23). The same thought is true about the rich young ruler; all he did was follow the desire of his heart. Jesus did not force him to choose his riches over following Christ; He simply allowed it to happen. Therefore, how is it that man then complains about his responsibility before a sovereign God? God is not forbidding man from making his free choice decisions; on the contrary, God is allowing man the freedom to choose whatsoever he wills. Being responsible for one’s actions before a sovereign God is not unfair, for God is the Creator of the creature and does with His own as He pleases. “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why has thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonor?” (Rom. 9:19-21).

Carroll writes: “God made the world. He made it and all things therein. It is his workmanship. He made men, all men. Not only is the judgment based first upon the fact of God’s creative act, but also upon the fact of his providence. His providence controls the world now and has always controlled it; and not merely by a general providence, but by a personal, moral government he rules over the world. That moral reign of God extends throughout all ages and to all men. Not only this, but it is by his decree that our times are allotted to us and the boundaries of our habitation. And not only this, but in everything it is his decree that men should seek him, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he be not far from every one of us. In his omnipresence he is accessible to all men. Now, this creative act of God, this general providence of God, and his special providence, and the special revelation of God, when followed by the special revelation of God, constitute the broad foundation upon which judgment rests….You will see at once that unless the mind takes hold of the fact that God has made the world and God governs the world by his providence, and God rules the world by his moral law, and God holds men responsible to that moral law, we cannot have an idea of the judgment.[21]

In conclusion, nowhere is there a denial that man must have free will. ”Humans would not be genuinely human without free will.”[22] Man must be able to decide for himself as to his fleshly matters, emotional matters, and Godly matters. Does man take care of himself, his family, and his needs? Does man take care of his well-being, his character, and his insight? Does man take care of his need to obey and serve God? The answer for all of these questions is, “Yes!” For making decisions is the most natural thing for mankind to do. This freedom of choice in making decisions for one’s own actions has been demonstrated here that man was able to do so freely before the fall and freely after the fall. Man’s freedom of choice to determine his actions has never changed, only the boundaries of the circumstances in which he has been made to abide, which changed through the action of man, not God. This human action, man will be responsible for and give an accounting to a sovereign God.

End Notes:

1. All Scripture reference is the KJV unless otherwise noted.
2. Claude D. [C.D.] Cole, Definition of Doctrine, vol. 1 (Lexington, KY: Bryan Station Baptist Church, nd), 37.
3. Arthur W. [A. W.] Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 32.
4. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 119.
5. William T. Bruner, Children of the Devil: A Fresh Investigation of the Fall of Man and Original Sin (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1966), xv.
6. Bruner, 26-30.
7. Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 38.
8. Thomas P. [T. P] Simmons, A Systematic Study of Bible Doctrine (Daytona Beach, FL: Associated Publisher, 1969), 174.
9. C. D. Cole, Definition of Doctrines, vol. 2, 10-11.
10.Matthew Henry, Commentary of the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Old Tappan, NJ: nd), 24.
11.Clyde A. Holbrook, ed., Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 252.
12.John L. [J. L.] Dagg, Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1892), 148-50.
13.Charles F. Pfeiffer, and Everett F. Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1975), 1010.
14.James P. [J. P.] Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Greenwood, SC: The Attic Press, nd), 245.
15.A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Pensacola, FL: Mt. Zion Publications, 92-3, 98-9.
16.Milburn Cockrell, “Human Responsibility,” The Berea Baptist Banner (Mantachie, MS: The Berea Baptist Church, 15 March 1986), 8.
17.A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, 105-6.
18.Added: April 27, 2015 – bea.
19.John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (London, Britain: McMillian and Company Limited, 1966), 326-7.
20.A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God, 113.
21.B.H. Carroll, Baptists and their doctrines (New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1913), 147, 149.
22.Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 448.

Bruce Allen

Berea Baptist Church | Mantachie, Mississippi, U.S.A.
The Berea Baptist Banner
Volume XXII, Number VII – Whole Number 280
July 5, 2002

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