Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
The many learned attempts which have been made to reconcile divine sovereignty with human responsibility have done little more than shift the emphasis, relieving some of its difficulties only at the expense of increasing other difficulties. It seems best to regard divine sovereignty and human responsibility as parallel truths which will never meet in man's finite mind here below. It Is not the object of this paper to attempt a reconciliation, but rather to consider the matter in Its practical bearing on our service for God.
Has our effectiveness suffered because unbalanced J-A emphasis on God's sovereignty has led to neglect of the parallel truth of human responsibility ?
It is very comforting to rest in the purpose of God " who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will " (Eph. 1. 11) but have we been guilty of taking refuge in this truth to excuse lack of zeal and enterprise on our part ? Certainly " unless the Lord build the house they labour in vain that build it " but such a statement was never intended to discourage building I Yet we have heard Zechariah's words " Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord " used by some who frow¬ned on eagerness and initiative. This kind of reasoning can be indulged in with a deceptive appearance of superior spirituality.
Probably no one ever had a greater grasp of God's sovereign purpose than Paul, but the effect on his spirit was not only to bow his heart in worship and prayer but to yield himself to God as an instrument for the outworking of that purpose (Rom. 11. 33-36). After touching on this tremendous theme, he brings in its practical effect with "wherefore" (cp. Eph. 1. 11 with 1. 15, and 3. 11 with 3.13) ; the deeper his appreciation of God's eternal purpose the greater was his thrill in being an instrument in God's hand. No one was more conscious of human responsibility— if we select a few proofs of this we ask the reader to remem¬ber that it is only a selection for the sake of clarity—his letters are full of evidence. Listen to his own summing up of his responsibility in the gospel " For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of : for necessity is laid upon me ; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel"! (1 Cor. 9. 16). He took full account of the electing grace of God, but even when actually informed by the Lord that He had much people in the city of Corinth (Acts 18. 10) Paul did not say "In that case the Lord will find His own," but he continued there for eighteen months to find them for Christ.
(a) False teachers. When error threatened to undo the work of God in the churches of Galatia, the apostle did not philosophically reflect that, in any case, the inroads of error must be expected —he plunged in an impassioned defence of the truth of the gospel. He felt dismayed and marvelled that they were so soon removed from Him that called them into the grace of Christ (Gal. 1. 6). He was afraid lest he had bestowed labour upon them in vain and so he besought them earnestly (4. 11, 12). His fear for them made him anxious to be present with them, but that being impossible he penned this tremendous protest and minced no words in his denunciation of the false teachers and their errors.
(b) Assembly unity. In the case of Philippi it was not a matter of false doctrine but of a threat to the' unity of the assembly. Although there were many features of this splendid community which could have encouraged Paul to hope that all would turn out well, he took no risk. Although confident that God would complete the good work He had begun (ch. 1. 6), he did not presume upon this but affectionately makes plea after plea for unity (see 1.27 ; 2. 2, 14 ; 3. 15 ; 4. 2). The situation in his estima¬tion called for prompt and thorough action and so he proposed to send Timothy as soon as possible to help them. Bat he will not wait until a favourable opportunity arises for this; he sends Epaphroditus back, although this splendid man has not completely recovered from his serious illness. Certainly he takes what precautions he can in the interests of this man's health but he deems it necessary to take some risk (ch. 2. 25).
We see then how Paul reacted to the activities of false teachers and to a threat to the unity of an assembly. Is the same sense of urgency evident today, or is it not too often the case that we allow false teachers to be active all around us without making any real effort to counteract their pernicious influence? Are we not sometimes guilty of shrugging our shoulders and contenting ourselves with the reflection that it is a sign of the times? When the unity of an assembly is threatened, do we act earnestly in the early stages or wait complacently until the situation gets out of control.
(c) Closed doors. The apostle could discern when the Lord had closed a door (" the Spirit suffered them not," Acts 16. 7) but he was far from concluding that difficulties were an indication that the Lord had done so. In fact he saw nothing unusual in an open door being associated with many adversaries. Because he was obliged by the force of circumstances to leave Thessalonica he did not conclude that this was of the Lord. On the contrary the very conditions which necessitated his departure gave rise to acute anxiety as to the spiritual welfare of the converts he had left behind after so short a stay with them (Acts 17). He was concerned lest some should be moved by their afflictions. Had he been so minded he could have reassured himself by many arguments. If they needed my help, the Lord could have kept me amongst them. But there was such a real work of God among them that I need not fear. Look at their work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope. Remember with what assurance the word of God came to them, and how they endured afflictions with the joy of the Holy Spirit. The word of God thundered out from them, and their faith has become a matter of common report. No—he made earnest efforts to get back to them, but he was prevented. Now surely he will conclude that the Lord has closed the door. No—he took into account a vital factor which we often ignore in our calculations with the result that we gel the answer all wrong. That factor was the devil. So lie tried again without success—Satan hindered. This only increased his alarm—he halted at Athens whilst he sent Timothy to Thessalonica to see how they had fared and to establish and comfort them. Timothy was able to come back with a report which was on the whole re¬assuring, but he lost no time too in backing up Timothy's visit with a letter dealing with their needs. Nor did he leave it at that—he continued to pray night and day that he might be allowed to visit them (ch. 3. 10).
(d) Urging others. Here was a man who had every right to arouse others to a sense of urgency in the discharge of their responsibilities. When Timothy was dismayed at the influences at work bent on undermining the foundations at Ephesus, Paul the realist did not seek to soothe Timothy with pleasant platitudes. He frankly recognized the threat and warned his young fellow-worker that such things must be expected. What then ? Bow to the inevitable ? No—" I charge thee before God and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . preach the word ; be instant in season, out of season " (2 Tim. 4. 1,2). Will the time come when they will not endure sound doctrine? Yes. Give up the task then as hopeless ? No—all the more reason to take full advantage of the present opportunity—" Watch thou in all things, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry " (ch. 4. 5). In the same spirit lie urged the Ephesian elders " Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock . . . Watch " (Acts 20. 28-31).
Is it possible that we have been so jealous of the doctrines of grace that we have failed to give proper place to the solemnity of our responsibilities ? The indolent servant in the parable of the pounds (Luke 19) did not share the fate of those who rejected his master. He was spared to enjoy life in the kingdom his master had received, but he was deprived of his pound and received no reward. In fact he was called a wicked servant.
Is it not evident that though we cannot reconcile the operation of divine sovereignty and human responsibility we must hold them both ? It pleases God to work all things after the counsel of His own will -but what if part of that will is that we should be responsible agents for the carrying out of that part of His purpose which relates to our own lives and service ?
When the remnant deserved rebuke for allowing the work of the house of God to cease because of opposition (Ezra 4. 24), the Lord sent two prophets to them (Ezra 4. 24 ; 5. f), because two sides of truth needed to be stressed. Zechariah's message finds great favour amongst us and we are fond of quoting his grand message " Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts." Unless the Spirit of God does a work nothing will be accomplished for God. Arc we therefore to do nothing ? Listen to the other side of God's message through Haggai. " Be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the Lord, and work . . . my spirit remaineth among you : fear ye not "
(ch. 2. 4,5).'
OUR RESPONSE We cannot reconcile the two lines of truth but we must accept them. God will not do for us what we can do for ourselves. Only Christ could summon Lazarus from the grave, but others could roll away the stone and Christ gave instructions " Take ye away the stone." Only Christ could feed the multitude by multiplying the bread, but the dis¬ciples had to fetch the loaves. Of course Christ could have fed the multitude by creating the loaves but our concern is with what He did, and the fact is that Christ said " How many loaves have ye ? go and see."
Each of us has some responsibility and we shall have to give account as to our discharge of that responsibility. There is nothing to glory in—necessity is laid upon us. If we do our duty willingly, there will be a reward for us. If we fail, the fact remains that a work has been committed to us. Let the failure of the wicked servant in the parable be a warning to us. Note however, that his failure stemmed from his very imperfect appreciation of his master's character. He thought him unjust and austere—had he known him better and appreciated his noble and generous qualities, his service would have been a delight.