Wednesday, June 8

Human Responsibility

In a post last week I looked at some of what scripture has to say about God's sovereignty, making a list of some of the things that are said to be caused by or predestined or purposed by God. The summary statement of God's sovereignty from scripture that I like to use most is the one from Ephesians 1 where it tells us that God is bringing all things to pass according to his plan. I take this to mean that everything that happens comes about because God has planned for it to happen, and because he's worked in whatever way he needs to ensure that this planned event comes about exactly according to his plan. Furthermore, I believe this to be the clear testimony of the whole of scripture on this matter, as evidenced by the list taken from scripture in that post.

At the same time that scripture tells us that God has a plan for history that includes everything, and that nothing ever varies from that plan, it also tells us that human beings are always responsible for what they choose to do. We make real choices for which we are rightly held accountable before God. I'll admit that it's not easy to reconcile the two of these things in our minds. There is a tension, and working out exactly how these two things fit together may be beyond the capability of my mind (or yours), and it may involve seeing things from a vantage point that I don't have.

It's because we know from scripture--and our experience confirms it, too--that we make real choices with real consequences, and that we are rightly held responsible for those choices, that some have real difficulty with the idea that God is micromanaging the universe by working in absolutely everything to bring about the counsel of his will. The assumption is made (and it is an assumption) that in order for us to be held responsible for our choices, those choices cannot be predestined or purposed by God, or in any way caused by him.

The problem with this assumption is that for those who hold to the ultimate authority of scripture, the assumption can be proven false by finding even one place in scripture where a human action is said to be purposed, predestined, or caused by God, and the person doing that action is held responsible for it. There are several places where the text does exactly that. I've examined one of those places (Isaiah 10) here.

Of course, the most well-known example is the the crucifixion of Christ. In Acts 4 we are told that in the events that led to Christ's death, certain people did whatever God's "plan had predestined to take place," and yet everywhere in Acts those same people are held accountable for their choices and actions. From the account of Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2):
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know - this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

....Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins...."

There are more statements about the responsibility of those who carried out God's plans in the crucifixion in Acts 3:15, 4:10, 5:30 and 10:39.

Arguing that these are special cases (Not that I think they are!) doesn't help, because all it takes is one "special case" to disprove the assumption that in order for us to be held responsible for our choices, those choices cannot be predestined or purposed or caused by God. If the people in these "special cases" can be held accountable for their actions, then the whole argument against rightful human responsibility in a universe in which all events are planned and worked by God goes out the window. Since God is just and would never hold someone responsible for an act in which they were not justly culpable, these specific cases prove that human responsiblity can rightly coexist with God working to bring about an event according to his predetermined plan. If God even once rightly holds someone responsible for their choices and actions when they are acting as the predetermined means to carry out a predetermined event in God's predetermined plan, then he can rightly hold people responsible for their choices and actions in a universe where every single event, big or small, is worked according to his ordained plan.

Scripture gives us clues as to how these two things fit together. In Isaiah 10, it's clear that the king had his very own motives and reasons for doing what God caused him to do. Those who crucified Christ did it for their own reasons and out of their own limited understanding (Acts 3:17). Joseph's brothers had their own nasty reasons for selling Joseph into slavery (Genesis 50:20), even though it was an event purposed by God for his own good reason. God is somehow able to work his plan in our actions in a way that preserves our own real choice from our own real motives.

We also know that even though something in God's plan is certain to come about, that doesn't mean that the human choices or actions are compelled. There is always a way of escape from actions that would be sinful on our part (1 Corinthians 10:13). Up until the time Joseph's brothers made their evil transaction, the option to avoid that particular sin was there for them to take. Until the deed was done, the brothers had a "way of escape", and that way of escape was provided by God. Had they wished to avoid sinning, they could have. The same thing can be said for the crucifixion. Pilate was not compelled to make the choice he did, although as a piece of God's predestined plan, it was certain that he would make that choice. Please don't ask me to explain this in any more detail. I accept it because I believe it's what scripture tells me about these things, but I'm not making any claim to exhaustive understanding of it.

Along with this, we can also know that our choices have real results even though they are part of God's eternal plan. We cause those results by our actions, and if we chose differently, the results would be different. Even though God had already told Paul that everyone on his ship would be delivered alive from the storm and subsequent shipwreck (Acts 27:21-26), when the men in charge of piloting the ship were secretly trying to escape in a lifeboat, Paul says that those on the ship would not be saved "unless these men stay in the ship (verse 31)." When God works his plans through human means, those human means are necessary for things to come about as planned. In the same way that the fulfilment of God's plans for Paul and his shipmates depended on the actions of the sailors, our actions also bring real results and those results truly depend on our actions.

Our prayers bring real results, too. Prayer is one of the means by which God accomplishes things in this world, and we "do not have because [we] do not ask (James 4:2). " If we ask for the right things, we know that those righteous prayers will be one of the means God uses to bring those right things to pass, and if we do not pray those prayers, those right things will not happen in response to our prayers. The means by which God accomplishes it all are also in God's plan, and each little step in the plan--even our prayers--is a necessary step. The right results are carried into existence by the ordained means, including our prayers.

So act, for goodness sake! If we act righteously, we can be sure that our role will be more like Paul's than Judas's in the counsel of God's will. At the same time, we can rest in the knowledge that God has a plan he's accomplishing, and even when things look discouraging, there's a perfect plan being worked out in our discouraging circumstances. There is no luck, and if there's no luck, then there's no bad luck. It's just all part of a perfect plan that includes difficult things as the best way to accomplish a perfect end.
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