How is God’s sovereignty compatible with man’s responsibility in salvation?

Derek Thomas & 2 others
4 Min Read

PARSONS: There are certain things in our theology that we know. We know one truth and we know another truth and we understand that these truths coexist, even though they are somewhat mysterious to us. We don’t fully understand how these two truths work together in each and every way, but recognizing a mysterious aspect does not necessarily mean it is a contradiction. I would simply say we begin there.

The Lord tells us plainly that He is sovereign, and He also tells us that we have responsibility. We have to make sure we are qualifying those things as God qualifies them for us. We have to understand that God is sovereign over all. He orchestrates all things. He foreordains all things that come to pass. Yet He also tells us that He is neither the author nor the approver of sin. God is almighty over all and sovereign over all, yet God doesn’t tempt us.

We have to understand at the outset that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not apparent contradictions. They are not against one another. I wouldn’t even suggest that they are in tension, because God ordains the ends of all things as well as the means of those ends. He ordains prayer. He ordains evangelism. He ordains our works, our deeds, what we do, what we say, what we believe, and the ends of those things. He ordains both. That’s not a contradiction. These things are working together according to God’s perfect plan for His glory and according to His good will.

Some might say, “That sounds simplistic.” Quite frankly, God makes it as simple. It’s not complicated, but for many years I had to work through the idea that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility create an apparent contradiction or antinomy in Scripture. But I don’t believe that’s how God gives it to us. He is sovereign. We are responsible. He is ultimately sovereign over all things. We are penultimately responsible for that which He calls us to be responsible.

THOMAS: Paul says in Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). Clearly, there is something called “divine sovereignty” and there is something called “human free agency.” We’re not robots. We’re not automatons. We are responsible creatures who make moral choices. We don’t have free will in the sense that you can choose all the good that’s out there. We are, by nature, totally depraved, but we do have free agency for which we are morally responsible.

When we talk about God’s sovereignty and human free agency, we’re not talking about apples and apples. The sovereignty of an omnipotent God is different than a free agency choice that a human makes. It’s not bringing together two equal things. However, it has been important to Reformed theology to emphasize free agency and moral responsibility such that we are responsible for sanctification, for growth and advancement in the Christian life, and to accept the free offer of the gospel, but we cannot do so apart from God’s sovereign prevenient grace in us.

PARSONS: In our church, we have folks from all different backgrounds. We have a number of new Christians and a lot of people who are coming into Reformed theology for the first time. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that when men and women, younger and older, come to understand the sovereignty of God, sometimes they fall into a trap.

It happens like this: they understand that God is ultimately the One orchestrating all things. He is permitting, but He is permitting “not by a bare permission” as the Westminster Confession states. God is working in and orchestrating through different causes, but sometimes people develop a bad theology where it’s almost as if they blame God for their own sin. We can fall into that trap, and that is the devil’s trap for us. We can sometimes think that God is responsible for our sin and that He is the One to blame for it.

We must understand very clearly that God does not approve of our sin. Does God sovereignly, in some mysterious way, permit us to sin (though not by a bare permission)? Absolutely. That does not mean He is the author or approver of sin. We cannot blame Him for our sins of omission or commission, what we do or what we fail to do. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s a trap that many people fall into, especially when they’re newer to Reformed theology.

GODFREY: This is a good illustration of a broader issue. I’ve always been struck by the irony that Calvinists have been accused of having a logical, rationally-driven system that we force onto the Bible but that the Bible doesn’t itself teach. I think that accusation is absolutely untrue.

I think that any number of non-Reformed Christian theologies are guilty precisely of taking one theological principle and logically forcing everything else to conform to that one theological principle. For example, if we’re humanly responsible for our salvation, then that must limit God’s sovereignty. That’s only a logical argument; it’s not a biblical argument.

Reformed theology has tried to take all the elements of divine revelation to see how they cohere and form a system, but precisely in a way that lets each element of the system have its own integrity and truth rather than be driven by some kind of logic.

In his opening address, Derek quoted Ephesians 2 to talk about how we’re going to be judged by works as it’s talked about at the end of Psalm 62. We are created by God to do good works, and the good works are evidence that God has sovereignly worked in us. Further, God can use those works as evidence to show that He has worked in us. Those things could be set against each other, and some hyper-Calvinist theologies would set them against each other. Real Calvinism, however, tries to give each element of biblical revelation its proper weight and due.

This is a transcript of Derek Thomas', Burk Parsons', and W. Robert Godfrey's answers given during our If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Escondido 2022 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.