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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Dilemma of Sovereignty

We discuss it here and there. We disagree here and there. Sometimes a lot. Scripture is abundantly clear that God is Sovereign in a way that demands a capital "S", in a way that exceeds any form of human sovereignty. "Whatever the LORD pleases, He does," the psalmist says (Psa 135:6; Psa 115:3). Isaiah quotes God as saying, "My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure" (Isa 46:10). Nebuchadnezzar said of God, "He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, 'What have You done?'" (Dan 4:35) "Job said, "I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2). Paul called Him, "He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Tim 6:15). Solomon said, "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (Prov 16:9) Over and over the Bible repeats this claim of the Absolute Sovereignty of God.

Over against that concept we are faced with a dilemma that Paul recognizes. "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?'" (Rom 9:19). Over against Absolute Sovereignty we have the free will of Man. We are told to choose, to obey, to avoid, to do, to work. We are held accountable for our failures and rewarded for succeeding. Clearly human beings have some faculty that both allows us to choose and holds us culpable for our choices. If God's Sovereignty was the type that simply controlled everything, human free will would be a myth, an illusion, a farce. "Choose this day Whom you will serve ... and, oh, by the way, you cannot and what you do choose is chosen for you." That doesn't work.

This is the dilemma of Sovereignty. Is God Sovereign or is He not? Either answer we give will produce a large dilemma in the reliability of the Word of God and what we know about Him. If we choose one over the other, whichever way we choose, we're in trouble.

Here's what we do know. We know that God is Sovereign (I gave several references for that) and we know that humans have the ability and responsibility to make choices. We know, for instance, that Christ told His disciples at the Last Supper, "The Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" This claim holds Sovereignty in one hand and culpability in the other. Peter claimed that Jesus was "delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" and was "crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:23) Both a "definite plan and foreknowledge of God" and the culpability of "lawless men". The Bible has no problem holding the two apparently opposed concepts in either hand and consciously affirming them both.

The problem, I believe, is the ever-present problem of the infinite versus the finite. Anyone that tells you "I understand God" is lying because the finite (humans) can never fully grasp the infinite (God). If God ever becomes non-mysterious He is no longer God. We often don't like that, I guess, but I'm quite sure the reason is our arrogance rather than our grasp of reality. There are some things about God that He explains to our satisfaction and there are some things He does not -- cannot. That is, we lack the capacity to understand. There are things that the Bible refers to as "the secret things" that belong to the Lord (Deut 29:29). We are responsible for the revealed, not the secret.

So what will you do with this dilemma? Some have opted to go one way or the other. Some lean on the Sovereignty side and do nothing. "God will do what God will do. I won't worry about it." They don't pray much. They don't work much. They don't seek much. Far more jump to the other side -- Free Will! They discount God's Sovereignty in favor of a limited sovereignty that depends on Human Free Will, discarding the clear message of Scripture that God is Absolutely Sovereign and embracing the implicit but not explicit concept of Human Free Will. It is extremely common to hear Christians say something like, "God wants to do things, but Human Free Will prevents Him." In the former, humans are no longer humans, but automatons held captive by a cruel God who forces everyone to act the way they do and then charges them with Cosmic Treason for doing so. In the latter, God is subservient to His Creation, trying desperately to work out things and pleading with people to do the right thing so He can. In neither case is God God.

It is indeed a mental dilemma. Is God Sovereign? We must answer a resounding "Yes! Absolutely!" Is Man culpable, responsible, able to choose? Again, we cannot avoid the affirmative. So what are we to do? We must embrace them both. We must agree that God will do what He will and He commands us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17). We must affirm that God chooses whom He will save (Eph 1:4; 1 Thess 1:4; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 2:9) and requires us to choose Him (Josh 24:15; Acts 2:38; Acts 17:30; 1 John 3:23). We must do what we are clearly commanded to do and trust in God's Sovereignty, in His intent (e.g., Gen 50:20), in His character. We must bring our requests to Him with the confidence that it matters, all the while knowing that He will do what is right. Understand fully? No, that's not one of the commands. That's not available as an option. Joni Eareckson Tada said, "Sometimes God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves." That's the God we must trust and obey.

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