Hard Questions: God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

How can God be completely Sovereign over human events (a predetermined plan, exercising control over people and situations) and yet humans be considered free and responsible moral agents? Are we but pawns in God’s Cosmic Game? On the other hand, might there exist contingencies outside of God’s control—namely, our “free will,” which can trump his sovereignty?

Who of us has not been confused by the arguments and apparent inconsistencies raised by representatives of one side or the other?  Some (Open Theists) try to find a middle ground by saying that God knows some future events and will bring them to pass according to his predestined will, but other events he leaves up to the individuals to whom he has given the ability to choose.

When we examine the Bible, however, we never find an attempt to arrive at a solution that pits human freedom against divine sovereignty or creates a hybrid of the two (as in Islam). Rather, we see that the Scripture treats the issue as mystery raither than a dilemma; holding both elements as true at the same time. Thus God’s sovereignty does not destroy our freedom, but mysteriously works together with it and through it to accomplish his just and righteous purposes in this world.

1 Kings 12 is a very strategic chapter about the division of Solomon’s kingdom due to the unwise actions of his son Rehoboam. The people came to Rehoboam and asked that he lighten to load of taxation and forced labor that Solomon had demanded to run his kingdom. If he agreed to this, they said they would serve him as their king. Thus, as a free moral agent (and not a pawn), Rehoboam sought counsel from two groups of advisors (old and young) and decided to go with the harsher response to the people suggested by the young guys.

Look at verse 14, 15: …he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I wil add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” So the king (Rehoboam) did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which he spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.

The Scripture writer states that even though Rehoboam was a free moral agent and made an unforced decision that proceeded from his own character, the Lord had already sovereignly planned to divide the kingdom by giving the 10 Northern tribes to a usurper named Jeroboam. This is just one example of how Scripture deals with God’s sovereignty and human responsibility without making them crash into each other and produce confusion. I do not understand how that happens but that is how it is presented.

Another example is found in the New Testament. During the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-23), Jesus said “But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!”

Once again, there is a clear reference to the pre-determined plan of God to send Jesus to the Cross in order to accomplish our salvation, but there is also a clear warning of judgment upon the man who will betray Jesus. There is no indication that Judas was a pawn in a game that God was playing. There is no warrant for having Judas respond, as he does in the 1970 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, “I’ve been used…You knew it all the time…God…I’ll never know why you used me for your crime.” No, there is nothing in the Scripture that would warrant this perspective or indicate that Judas was anything but a free moral agent held responsible for his own choices. And yet what he did, God used to accomplish his plan of salvation for the world. Again, I do not understand it but that is how it is presented.

Thus, we must hold both of these concepts (God’s sovereignty and human freedom) together without trying to figure out the middle ground between them. It is like the Olympic gymnast on the parallel bars. Once in a while, the gymnast will work on one bar and then he will work on the other, but most of the routine will be worked using both bars at the same time – because there is nothing in the middle. So remember this visual;  hold fast to the bar of God’s sovereignty and just as tightly to the bar of human responsibility at the same time because there is nothing in the middle.

J.I. Packer, in a classic that should be in your library, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, uses the word antinomy to describe a helpful way of thinking about this apparent discrepancy. He defines antinomy as “an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths….which exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable….each rest(ing) on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other.”

Let us, therefore, give up our either/or efforts to reconcile these biblical realities into a rational system in order to escape the tension of holding them together. Let us live our lives freely, responsibly, and humbly before a Sovereign God of mercy and grace, recognizing that He “moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works his sov’reign will. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.  Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for his grace. Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” (William Cowper, 1773)



Why can’t we just get along?

I’m sure you have said such a thing in exasperation when you have witnessed some of the picky things over which we Christians disagree. My pastoral ministry in the local church as well as in an academic community has given me a front row seat to the struggle.

I will spare you a laundry list of the issues; an exercise which of itself could bring disagreement.  Suffice it to say, these issues range from the theological to the political; from worship style to life-style. While we no longer go to war to settle our differences (it was to our shame that we once did), it is my observation that we often solve our disagreements the good old fashioned American way; separate and go to another church- or start our own.

I think the tragedy in all of this is that in our attempt to love the Lord Jesus and to be faithful to His Word, we end up not loving each other and being unfaithful to His Word. If we really desire to be biblical in our approach to dealing with disagreements on non-essentials (things not having to do with the centrality of the gospel), then we need to pay attention to Romans 14:1. “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One person’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”

This entire chapter goes on to deal with disagreements between Christians in the church at Rome who were going after each other because of “disputable matters.” Luther called them “pebble in the shoe” issues; annoying disputes which cannot be settled because each person is convinced in their own conscience that they hold the correct position.

There were those whose consciences were “strong” and were convinced that they had the freedom to eat the meat sold at the temple meat-market (the only place in town to get good meat), even though all of the animals were first sacrificed to a pagan deity.

There were others in the church, however, who became vegetarians because they had a “weak” conscience— they believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols would make them participants in the pagan worship from which they had been converted. Although Paul identified more with the carnivores, he believed they were both right as long as they were acting according to their conscience (v. 5, 23).

Where they were wrong, however, was in their attitude toward each other. “The one who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him… Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (v. 5, 10, 13).

Thus, according to the Scripture, being”right” on a theological/political/worship/life-style issue takes a back seat to the love and unity which should be displayed by those who are in disagreement over that issue.

If someone is fully convinced in his own mind on a disputable matter, even if we do not share that conviction, then God forbid that we should demand them to go against their conscience. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (v. 7). I may have a strong opinion or viewpoint, but it should never trump my love for someone who has a different perspective.

And let’s remember what Jesus said in John 13:34, 35 “A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” As Francis Shaeffer used to say something like; if we Christians do not love each other, we give the world the right to conclude that we are not Christians.

So, the unbelieving world is watching and I wonder if it moves any closer to the gospel when we argue over who’s right or whether we love each other???

Just a thought…

Think before you make a promise…

Jephthah's Vow I am reading through the book of Judges and once again ran across the account of Jephthah (ch. 10, 11), which has often been misunderstood. I am reposting an updated version of something I wrote several years ago to help clarify this fascinating story.

Jephthah lived in the area of Israel called Gilead. Though he grew up in a large and important family, Jephthah was never accepted. This wasn’t something he imagined; his rejection was very real. You see, he was born as the result of his father’s sin. His mother was a prostitute and Jephthah was such an embarrassment to his family that they disowned him. In fact, he was considered such a misfit that the entire town rejected him.

He ran away to a barren land and started hanging around with other rejects. They actually became a gang and made Jephthah their leader, and they probably made their living by robbing traders and fighting as mercenaries.

In those days Israel was made up of a loose confederation of tribes with no central government or army. When attacked or abused by a more powerful nation-state, God would raise up a leader (Judge) who would be the means of rescue and protection. Gilead’s nemesis was the Ammonite nation just across its boarder to the east, which had just declared war on Israel.

The Elders of Gilead were desperate and so they sent a request that Jephthah and his little army come and help them. “Why do you come running to me after you didn’t lift a finger to help when I got kicked out of my family?” Jephthah said. “OK, we screwed up. We are sorry that we didn’t do the right thing. Hey, we’re eating humble pie here by asking you to come and help us,” the Elders replied. Jephthah agreed on condition that they take him back into the community and allow him to lead the entire army against the Ammonites. They agreed.

This was Jephthah’s chance to start over and he grabbed it. He moved his family back to his home town and was thankful to God for the opportunity to regain his honor and establish a heritage for himself when his beloved daughter (his only child) was old enough to marry and bear him sons.

Like a wise leader, he negotiated with the Ammonites trying to clear up some historical baggage between them and Israel. However, the Ammonite king was hell-bent on revenge and nixed the peace negotiations. He basically said what we hear from a lot of politicians, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Jephthah had no other recourse except the sword. He gathered his troops and prepared to march toward the enemy. Before he left, he made a vow to the Lord that “if you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph will be the Lord’s or/and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31).

This was not a bargain, but a vow of gratitude and devotion. Leviticus 27 describes this kind of vow in detail. There was a redemption factor built into most vows so that one could buy back a vowed item by paying a certain value set by the priest. However, if someone dedicated another person in the family (1 Sam. 1:11), animal or family property, these could not be redeemed because they became holy (set apart) to the Lord.

So, when Jephthah returned and saw that it was his beloved daughter who first came out of his house to meet him, he was horrified. Was it because he had to kill her as a burnt offering to the Lord? Here we need to interpret Scripture by Scripture; human sacrifice was an abomination to the Lord and was forbidden because Israel was not to be like the surrounding nations (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10).

Instead, Jephthah was horrified because he had to sacrifice his only hope for a lineage that would come through the marriage of his daughter. Instead she would now live perpetually as a virgin, as one of the women who ministered to the Lord at the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). This is why she mourned her virginity; not because she was going to die, but because she would never have children.

The rashness of Jephthah’s vow was not because it condemned his daughter to death, but because it sacrificed her future. It also dashed his hopes; of a family he never had and a dignity that he had never experienced. “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before the Lord…It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Eccles. 5:2-5).

So, think before you make a vow to the Lord! Just a thought…

Addicted to Attention?

I remember reading a story in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago about a pro-life blogger known as “April’s Mom” or “B.” Maybe some of you remember  it as well. She posted the tragic news of the death of her newborn daughter, whom she had carried to term though diagnosed with a terminal case of Trisomy 13 and HPE.

This came at the end of a nine-month pregnancy which she shared with the internet world. She wrote about her Christian faith and pro-life values often quoting Bible verses and Christian music. People responded with prayers, gifts, and pro-life bloggers rallied around the cause. Twenty-six year old Rebecca Beuschausen could have ended there, but she decided to post a picture of the baby. The picture was identified by some readers as a toy doll. Things unraveled and Beuschausen admitted her deception.

Why did she do it? She told the Tribune, “I’ve always liked writing. It was addictive to find out I had a voice that people wanted to hear. Soon I was getting 100,000 hits a week, and it just got out of hand. I didn’t know how to stop. . . . One lie led to another.”

The name Beuschausen sounds a lot like Munchausen doesn’t it? Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Munchausen lived in the eighteenth century and he was known for his tall tales and exaggerations. In fact, Rudolph Raspe compiled a collection of his apocryphal stories in 1785. There is a disorder called Munchausen Syndrome which describes a troubled person who will fabricate illness or injury in order to gain attention or sympathy through treatment. In reality it is just a fancy name for lying.

Munchausen was a liar, a fabricator, and so was Beuschausen. Her main problem (and ours) was not her addiction to attention, but her sinful human nature which acted against what she knew to be true.

Let’s face it, there is a Munchausen/Beuschausen in all of us: our fibs, white lies, tall tales, and exaggerations (yes, and maybe some of our blogs and selfies) are designed to make ourselves look or feel better. Let us be humble people who love to tell the truth more than we want to escape our pain. Just a thought…

“Stinking Thinking”

I watched a program on the Animal Channel that I cannot get it out of my mind, so I’ll write about it. A group of five people were sailing on the ocean and their boat capsized by a storm. They ended up floating in a rubber raft for five days without food or water.

One of the women was injured and her wounds drew sharks- hundreds of them. Two of the men became so thirsty that they started to drink from the ocean. It did not take long for the effects of the salt water to produce a type of mental illness characterized by a state of altered consciousness and hallucination. One of the guys was convinced he saw a Seven-Eleven and stepped out of the raft to get some food. CHOMP! He became shark bait. The other guy saw his car parked just over yonder, stepped out of the raft and WHOMP! I

I think that following our own sinful desires is like drinking salt water. The more we drink the thirstier we become, and the thirstier we become the more we desire the things that do not satisfy. We begin to imagine the things that are not and ignore the reality of the things that are. It is like “the god of this world has blinded our minds” (2 Cor.4:4).

Alcoholics’ Anonymous has a phrase called “stinking thinking behind the drinking.” It is used to describe the fact that bad behavior begins in the mind; and when we start thinking wrong, we will start living wrong. I think Paul would agree because most of his letters are divided into two major parts: doctrinal and practical. Right thinking precedes right living.

We are all creatures of our culture, but we must be careful, brothers and sisters, not to drink the waters of this world and allow “stinking thinking” into our lives. (I’m thinking here not only of addiction, but also of the politics of hate that seem to accompany every cultural issue.) We have been made new creations in Christ and our conformity to his image rests in the renewal of our minds. (Rom. 12:2)

We are to no longer to think of others from a worldly point of view, but strive to be agents of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:16)  We are to drink in the pure water of God’s Word and to think like him; whatever is true, noble, right, pure and lovely. (Phil. 4:8)

If you are struggling with “stinking thinking,” do not go it alone; get some help from the community of faith. Send me a note and I’ll pray for you. Just a thought….

“Addiction is a Disease and Not a Moral Failure”

I just heard that quote from the Surgeon General in an advertisement for a rehabilitation program touting itself to be a place of mercy and compassion and not one of judgment. They likened addiction to the disease of diabetes which caught my attention because I have diabetes.

The disease model of addiction has definitely become the prevalent paradigm by which our culture understands the subject. It is also the basis of a $36 billion rehab industry in this country which must show a medical model in order to receive health insurance payments for treatment. Certainly the influence of genetics and the biological and physiological components of addiction need to be recognized for effective treatment.

In a similar way, Diabetes (type 2) has a hereditary link (but no gene for diabetes) which makes a person more susceptible to the disease. However, genetics does not guarantee its inevitability. There are other life-style factors that come into play with diabetes; age, obesity, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, etc.

Unlike diabetics, most recovering addicts that I have spoken with have recognized far deeper issues than a disease model can explain.  They remembered days of being out of control; when they reached the point when “the drink (or drug) made the choice” and not them. Yet, when they sobered up for any length of time they recognized the need to take responsibility for their powerless condition and to realize they were not helpless; though they felt out of control, they still had choices to make. One person said that her alcoholism was a “disease of the free-will”. While genetics and biology may predispose to addiction, they cannot an addict make. There is a vast difference between predisposing and determining.

God created us with physical needs and desires which when kept within the boundaries of our love and obedience to Him can lead to pleasure and joy. However, sinful human nature is curved in upon itself and wants to consume these cravings upon itself without the limits of restraint. These cravings become our idols and we worship them so they will give us what we want. Edward Welch in his helpful book Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave writes: “The purpose of all idolatry is to manipulate the idol for our own benefit. This means we don’t want to be ruled by idols. Instead, we want to use them. For example, when Elijah confronted the Baal worshippers on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), the prophets of Baal slashed themselves and did everything they could to manipulate Baal to do their will. Idolaters want nothing above themselves, including their idols. Their fabricated gods are intended to be mere puppet kings, means to an end.”

Bottom line: We do not want to be ruled by God. Every addiction breaks the command “You shall have no other gods before me.” We also do not want to be ruled by our cravings. No one wants to be a sex addict, a gambler, an alcoholic. We just want to be happy and to satisfy our hearts with our “drug of choice” without any consequences. Our selfish hearts want to construct a world in which we can live as we please and have everyone else live for our benefit and under our control. (I think Hitler tried that.)

However, our idols do not cooperate (Welch). Instead of allowing us to manipulate them for our benefit, they begin to control us. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matt.6:24) In the context Jesus was talking about money, but it should be noted that there is a deeper significance here. Jesus implied that we are never the master, but always the slave. Paul said the same thing; “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey; either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” (Rom. 6:16) So much for being in control!

How could sticks and stones enslave Old Testament Israel? How can simple substances or lifeless objects or harmless images enslave us? Certainly they hook some of us who have emotional vulnerabilities or trust issues because of our dysfunctional backgrounds, while others of us are captured biologically or physiologically. All of this is explained by the disease model. However, there is a deeper spiritual struggle that rages in every form of idolatry. First, there is desire to run from the worship of the true God, and run to those gods who will help us cope, give us pleasure, and ask nothing in return (so we think). Second, behind every idol of addiction there is a world of the demonic and we expose ourselves to the power behind “not-the-god.”

Thus we do not struggle in our addictions “against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) This is why we need a power greater than ourselves not only to restore us to sanity (a new mind), but to help us turn our lives and wills over to God (a new heart). This comes through the gospel.

Any treatment program that is going to have the maximum effect must be based upon more than a disease model. Our addictions may have morphed into a disease, but our healing will always begin with the spiritual. As Christians, we believe it must begin with the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. From there we must learn to be people who are responsible for the choices we make. Then, we must  learn to make those choices daily to deal with the biological, physiological, and social components that have  intertwined to make our lives “insane.” This will take a lifetime; we will not be driven by the fear of slipping back, but by trusting in God’s grace to grow up and move on.

When Christians Win, They Lose

The following blog post is from Peter Wehner (contributing opinion writer for the New York Times) giving his reflections on Good Friday and Easter.

“The writer Philip Yancey recently offered this:

I wrote in Vanishing Grace about an important insight I learned from a Muslim scholar who said to me, ‘I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.’

“(Yancey) put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. One, born at Pentecost, thrives cross-culturally and even counter-culturally, often coexisting with oppressive governments. The other, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state….”

“While Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics, Yancey wrote, Christianity works best as a minority faith, a counter-culture…. Historically, when Christians have reached a majority they too fall to the temptations of power in ways that are clearly anti-gospel. Add to this the fact that, as sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has pointed out, Christianity’s greatest period of vulnerability and political weakness was the time of its most explosive growth. He estimates that Christianity saw a 40 percent growth rate per decade from 30 AD to 300 AD. As a result a tiny and obscure movement became the dominant faith of Western civilization. And its enduring symbol is not the shield or the sword but the cross.”

“Early on in my faith pilgrimage – a journey that did not come particularly easily to me – I was struck and to some degree captivated by how in many respects the Christian faith is a radical inversion of what the world deems worthy and worth celebrating. The last shall be first. Strength is made perfect in weakness. The humble will be exalted. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Love rather than hate your enemies. Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for God. Whoever loses his life for God’s sake will find it.”

“Jesus himself came not as a king but as a servant. He was born not to wealth and privilege in Rome but in a manger in Bethlehem. He was a God who wept, was acquainted with grief and was ‘counted among the outlaws.’ He preferred the company of sinners to that of religious authorities, with whom he repeatedly clashed. He was abandoned and betrayed by his disciples. And he endured an agonizing death on a cross.”

“It is hardly the script you or I would write, a God whose crown was made of thorns. But for those of us of the Christian faith, Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday – the days of God’s overpowering acts in history, acts in which God’s judgment and grace were revealed to all the world, in the words of the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

I would agree with this assessment. What have we learned from the Moral Majority, the rise of the Evangelical Voting Bloc, and apparent majority of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump?  We have learned that our victory at the polls have not produced a more Christian nation; just as the Crusades and the Inquisition did not advance the gospel to the world. Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was a king; his reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

In no way am I saying that we should be uninvolved in our society. Social reform was very much a part of evangelical thought (at least in the North) from the 1830’s to the Civil War. However, after the war, the evangelical movement became more centered on personal salvation and piety than social concerns. For example, leading evangelists D.L. Moody and later, Billy Sunday, held crusades that were segregated, especially when they preached in the South. Evangelicals were more concerned about the evils of alcohol and liberalism than the issues of race and women’s rights. (Divided By Faith, Emerson and Smith, 41).

What I am saying is that we (the Church) have not been called to rule, but to serve and to live out Christ’s kingdom here on earth. Our sign will never be a scepter, but always a cross because it will include suffering. Our prayer should not be for America to become “great,” but as Francis Schaeffer used to say even back in the 1960’s, we should pray that God would have mercy on America and bring us to our knees in humble repentance. This will be our greatest victory and greatest witness to the world. This is the pathway that Jesus took from Good Friday to Easter and beyond.