Monday, March 28, 2005

Divine Sovereignty and the Necessity of Means

I believe that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass. Why do I believe this? Because from Genesis to Revelation it is the consistent teaching of God’s Word. Small things are ordained by the Lord (“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD”—Prov. 16:33). Big things are ordained by the Lord (“He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away”—Job 12:23). Good things are ordained by the Lord (“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above”—Jas. 1:17). And evil things are ordained by the Lord (“Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?”—Amos 3:6). God is free (“Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases”—Ps. 115:3); therefore he ordains whatsoever comes to pass ([God] works all things according to the counsel of his will—Eph. 1:11).

This raises innumerable philosophical objections from many quarters. Many evangelicals believe from Scripture—and nature—that we are responsible agents with free wills. The teaching above—that God ordains whatsoever shall come to pass—is deemed to be incompatible with human responsibility. Therefore these evangelicals believe that the “absolute sovereignty” passages must be understood in a different way.

Now is not the place to respond to that objection in any depth, but suffice it to say that these evangelicals have brought to the Bible an unbiblical presupposition regarding the nature of free human agents (namely, that final self-determination is required). I challenge those who believe that absolute divine sovereignty and genuine human accountability are in contradiction to each other to read Acts 4:27-28 and to reconcile it with the idea that divine ordination and human accountability are at odds with one another.

One of the most common objections to this line of reasoning is that it seems to eliminate the necessity of human action. Hence the questions come: If God is sovereign, why pray? If God is sovereign, why witness? If God’s election is irrevocable, why not become a fatalist?

But these questions misunderstand the crucial role that means play in the biblical worldview of God’s sovereignty.

Let me give an example. My wife, daughter, and I drove back to my hometown for the Easter weekend. Since I believe God ordained all things, I believe God ordained this. But suppose that last Thursday I had reasoned as follows: If God is going to ordain that I drive home for Easter, that means I will be home whether or not I do anything about it. Therefore, I am not going to drive home.

The reasoning may sound logical on a human level, but it runs contrary to biblical logic. God not only ordains ends, he also ordains means. He not only ordains that we be home for Easter, but he also ordains how we go home.

Some may think this is a clever answer that solves the problem philosophically/logically but not biblically. But consider an amazing passage: Acts 27:13-32, which recounts Paul being on a ship at sea during a storm. I will let Tom Schreiner—NT professor at Southern Seminary—explain:

The storm struck with such fury that all aboard despaired of living (Acts 27:13-19). Paul, however, received a word from the Lord that every single person on the ship would be saved, i.e., every single person’s life would be preserved (27:20-26). The word that all aboard the ship would live was a divine promise, pledging safety for all. Some of us might be inclined to relax and “take it easy” after receiving such a promise. Paul, on the other hand, did not think that such a promise ruled out the need for admonitions and warnings. This is clear as we read on in the narrative. The sailors feigned that they were merely lowering anchors, when actually they intended to lower the lifeboat and escape the ship (Acts 27:29-32). Paul responded by warning the centurion that if the sailors left the ship the lives of those on board would not be preserved. Why would Paul even bother to admonish the centurion about the scheme of the sailors? After all, he already had received a promise from an angel that everyone on the boat would escape with their lives. Paul did not reason the way many of us do today, “God has promised that the lives of all will be saved, therefore, any warning is superfluous.” No, the urgent warning was the very means by which the promise was secured. The promise did not come to pass apart from the warning but through it. This same approach should be applied to the promises and threats in the scriptures regarding our salvation. It is by means of taking the warnings seriously that the promise of our salvation is secured. (Thomas R. Schreiner, Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal, my emphasis in bold.)

Some of us emphasize divine sovereignty and promise in such a way that human action and means become unnecessary and inconsequential. And others emphasize human accountability and autonomy in such a way that divine sovereignty and promise become muted.

Don Carson (How Long O Lord?, p. 201) explains that in order to be biblical, we must hold to both of the following theses, which are presupposed throughout Scripture:

  1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.

  1. Human beings are morally responsible creatures—they significantly choose, rebel, obey, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.

Paul and the other biblical authors saw no inherent tension—much less contradiction—between a divine promise and the necessity of warning and the use of means. And neither should we.

(For those wanting to go deeper on this, I’d recommend (1) Still Sovereign, ed. Schreiner and Ware; (2) Why I Am Not an Arminian, by Peterson and Williams ; (3) Potter’s Freedom, by White. On the issues of how to reconcile divine sovereignty and human freedom, the definitive work is Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards. Few will take the time and energy to read this difficult book, but an excellent start would be to read Sam Storms’ excellent chapter in A God-Entranced Vision of All Things (scroll down to page 28). Even more accessible is Matt Perman’s summary of Edwards, entitled The Consistency of Divine Sovereignty and Human Accountability. [There is also a briefer version.])

(The article quoted above by Schreiner has now been expanded into a book—co-authored with A. B. Caneday—entitled The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance. I highly recommend it.)