Pastor David B. Curtis


Sovereignty and Responsibility

Romans 8:28-30 Part 2

Delivered 12/18/2011

For the last couple of weeks in our study of Romans 8:28-30, we have been talking about God's sovereignty, both in salvation and everything else. God not only created the universe, He controls it, all of it. And He controls it all in accordance with what He has ordained. Do you realize that whatever takes place in time is what God planned from eternity past? The "Westminster Confession of Faith" puts it this way:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass (chapter 3, section 1).

The Bible puts it this way:

also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, Ephesians 1:11 NASB

All that comes to pass in our lives is according to the eternal plan of the all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving great God and our Father.

The sovereignty of God is absolute, irresistible, and infinite. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases; whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed in eternity. Is this too strong for you? If it is, you do not understand the God of the Bible:

But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. Psalms 115:3 NASB

Nothing happens outside the sovereign will of God. Understanding the totality of God's sovereignty usually raises one big question: "If God is in control of all things, including our actions, how can we be held responsible for anything we do?"

How many of you believe that God is sovereign? Now, let me ask this question, "How many of you do something to prepare when the weather people tell us that a hurricane is about to hit? Why? If you believe that God is sovereign, and that whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed in eternity, why take precautions for a hurricane, and why pray? Nothing that we could possibly do could change God's plan, so why do anything?

The doctrine of God's sovereignty, properly understood, won't paralyze us from taking action. The doctrine of God's sovereignty is a comfort to us, it assures us that He is able to do what He has promised us. If God wasn't sovereign, He would make promises like we do--maybe with all good intentions, but without the power to carry them out. But because He is sovereign, He can, in fact, carry out every promise that He has made. But the bare fact of God's sovereignty raises one big question: "If God is in control of all things, including our actions, how can we be responsible to do anything?"

God's sovereignty and our responsibility; these two doctrines have caused much debate over the years. On one side of the spectrum, to the far right, you have the hyper-Calvinists who say, "If God wants it done, He'll do it without the help of you or me." Hyper-Calvinist don't need to share the Gospel. God does it all. On the far left of the spectrum, you have the Arminians, who say, "If we don't do it, it won't get done." In the middle of these, you have Biblical Calvinism that says, "God is sovereign, but we are responsible." They understand God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man seem to be irreconcilable in many people's thinking. Many ask, how can they both be true?

The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps. Proverbs 16:9 NASB
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, Ephesians 5:15 NASB

To the Western thinker these verses pose a problem--how can we be responsible for our walk if God is directing our steps? The problem here is that the Bible is an Eastern book, and we live in a Western culture.

David Bivin writes, "In any attempt to understand the Bible, there is no substitute for a knowledge of ancient Jewish custom and practice." The Bible, in its original languages, is, humanly speaking, a product of the Hebrew mind. Two of the great tragedies of the last 2,000 years have been: 1) The removal of all things Hebrew from the church. The church has divorced herself from her Hebrew roots. In the Byzantine period any person who became a member of a church in North Africa, Augustine's church, had to take an oath that they would never read Hebrew, they would never eat Jewish foods, they would never have Jewish friends, they would never go to Jewish festivals, and they would never read a Jewish Bible.

2) The influence of Greek philosophy upon the interpretation of Scripture. When Greek logic is used to understand Scripture, the reader is filled with feelings of contradiction.

The biblical authors never argue the existence of God; they only assume it. God is not understood philosophically, but functionally. He acts. The Hebrews primarily thought of Him pictorially, in terms of personality and activity, not in terms of pure being or in any static sense.

There are basically two ways of thinking, or approaching truth: Eastern thought and Western (Greek) thought. The Greek philosophers said the human being is god. One of the four qualities of the human that they elevated to the throne is the mind. Information is prior to experience.

Westerners are abstract thinkers, we like to put information in definition and proposition form; we like organization. We like words that carefully explain. For example if I were to ask you, Who is God? What would you say? You may say He is love, He is almighty, holy, just, righteous, awesome, omnipresent. Close your eyes and tell me what you see when I say these words. Love, just, holy; you don't see anything because these are not picture words. They are definitions. This is information that doesn't really affect us. It is abstract.

A Hebrew, an Eastern thinker, thinks in the form of story or picture. If you ask them, Who is God? They answer: God is my rock, shepherd, bread, shade, living water, Father. This is all very personal--God is "my," it is also very pictorial--you can see these! The most common First Testament symbol for God is "shepherd," the second is "rock."

And He was saying to them, "Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides. Mark 4:24 NASB

This phrase, "Take care what you listen to" is obscured in the English. The words, "Take care" are from the Greek word blepo, which means: "to look at." The Greek text says, "Look at what you hear." You can only do this if it is a picture.

Alright, so the Hebrews think differently than we do, and we need to have an understanding of how they think if we are going to properly interpret the Scriptures. The Hebrews often made use of block logic. Marvin Wilson wrote this about Hebraic reasoning: "Concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antimony, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension--and often illogical relation--to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic."

The Greeks used a linear logic that flows in steps from premises to a conclusion. Each step linked closely to the next in a coherent, rational, logical fashion. The conclusion is almost always limited to one view--a human being's limited perspective on reality.

Hebraic reasoning does not focus as much on linear thought (argument), or linear narrative. Instead, it focuses on blocks of context, or subject matter. For example, the Gospel narratives have chronological problems at some points, because in the Hebrew mind, chronology takes a back seat to theme and content. Chronology is subsumed by more important principles. This doesn't mean that the Bible cannot be trusted in its chronology. Rather, we must understand where it is attempting to be chronological and where it is not.

Rabbi Akiva, who lived one generation after Jesus, was regarded as one of the greatest Jewish rabbis. The Talmud (Menachos 29a) compares him favorably to Moses, which is the ultimate compliment in the Jewish Lexicon. A pronouncement of Rabbi Akiva, is in effect an affirmation of the two contradictory sentiments: "All is subject to providence, yet man possesses free will" [Mishnah, Avot 3:16].

The Hebrew mind was willing to accept the truths taught on both sides of the paradox; it recognized that mystery and apparent contradiction are often signs of the divine.

The renowned biblical scholar Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, "We [Jews] are practical. We are more interested in discovering what God wants man to do than we are in describing God's essence." He goes on to say, "Judaism is never afraid of contradictions . . . it acknowledges that full reconciliation of the two is possible only in God. He is the coincidence of opposites."

It is particularly difficult for Westerners--those whose thought patterns have been influenced more by the Greeks and Romans than by the Hebrews--to piece together the block logic of Scripture.

Eastern thinkers can live with the tensions and paradoxes surrounding block logic. To the Jew, the deed was always more important than the creed. He was not stymied by language that appeared contradictory from a human point of view. Neither did he feel compelled to reconcile what seemed irreconcilable. He believed that God ultimately was greater than any human attempt at systematizing truth.

Christianity has written a lot of creeds, can you think of one Hebrew creed? It was gentile Christians, influenced by Greek philosophy, who both intellectualized and systematized Christian doctrine. The biblical Hebrews, and the Apostolic Era of the Church, had no formal theology as such. Nothing was systematized.

Christians are inclined to subject each other to litmus tests of orthodoxy, while Jews are concerned mainly with behavior. In fundamentalist Christian circles, it is often more important to believe and espouse "the right thing," than to live the right way. This is why we are so obsessed with creeds, doctrinal statements, Systematic Theologies. This mode of thinking is thoroughly Western, utterly Greek.

Intellectually, we are Greeks, not Hebrews. We apply Aristotelian and Socratic thought patterns to practically everything. It is surprisingly difficult to escape these patterns and enter into the Hebraic mind-set. We insist on rendering everything into logically consistent patterns; on systematizing it; on organizing it into tight, carefully reasoned theologies. We cannot live with inconsistency or contradiction.

So if we are going to understand the Bible, we will have to understand it Hebraically, not Hellenistically. This will require a philosophical and intellectual paradigm shift on our part.

With that said, what I want us to look at this morning is the subject of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. There is a tendency of some individuals to see the Doctrine of Sovereignty as fatalism. For example, back to the subject of a hurricane, the fatalist would say, "God is going to do what He wants to do, so I'm not going to concern myself about it." They would make no preparations; they wouldn't run to the store for supplies, or make sure they had batteries or water. They wouldn't bring in or tie down the things in their yard. They would say, "If God has determined this thing to blow through my window, it will." Because they know that God is sovereign over the weather, they would make no preparations, and they wouldn't even bother to pray about the situation. You can see how this could become an excuse for all kinds of irresponsible behavior.

On the other hand, the person who rightly understands God's sovereignty would make all the preparations that wisdom dictates while the whole time praying for wisdom and protection. You might ask, "How do prayer and the sovereignty of God fit?" Or, "If God is sovereign, why pray?" That is a good question, I'm glad you asked it. Let's think about this for a minute. If God wasn't sovereign, what would be the use of praying? Why pray to a god who couldn't answer your prayers? The sovereignty of God, when properly understood, is an encouragement to pray, not an excuse to fall into fatalism.

Let's look at how the New Testament saints dealt with situations in light of the sovereignty of God. In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, Peter and John are threatened by the Jewish Sanhedrin and commanded not to speak any more of Jesus. When they shared this with the other believers, the response was, "Well, God is sovereign, I guess He'll do what He wants to do." NO! This was not their response. Their response was what? It was prayer!:

And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, "O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, Acts 4:24 NASB

I want you to notice that the first response of this group of believers was to turn to God in prayer. Is prayer your first response in difficult situations?

They are going to God in prayer because He has commanded them to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world; and their rulers, the Sanhedrin, had commanded them not to ever preach Jesus. They had told the court that they would not obey them, and they all knew that this was going to get ugly. So they go to God in prayer. And they begin their prayer by affirming God as the sovereign Creator of all things:

"For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. "And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, Acts 4:27-29 NASB

Notice verse 28; what does it teach us? There were no Arminians in the early church-- they all knew that God was sovereign over everything. Even the death of His Son. These evil men were only doing what God's hand and council had foreordained. Their belief in the sovereignty of God didn't cause them to fall into fatalism, but was an encouragement to pray. Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God.

What did they pray for? Protection? No, boldness! They were more concerned about their mission than their comfort.

Paul, more than any other New Testament writer, taught the church about the sovereignty of God, and he lived trusting in that sovereignty. But notice that he still encouraged believers to pray:

At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you. Philemon 1:22 NASB

Prayer was the expression of his confidence in the sovereignty of God. God's sovereignty does not negate our responsibility to pray, but, rather, makes it possible to pray with confidence.

Just as God's sovereignty does not set aside our responsibility to pray, it also does not negate our responsibility to act wisely. Acting wisely, in this context, means that we use all legitimate, biblical means at our disposal to avoid harm to ourselves or others, and to bring about what we believe to be the right course of events.

David gives us a good illustration of acting wisely as he fled from Saul. Saul was determined to kill David. So David did everything he could to avoid Saul. David acted wisely. David knew that he was to be king some day:

Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah. 1 Samuel 16:13 NASB

He had already been anointed to succeed Saul. And David knew that the Sovereign God would carry out His purpose:

I will cry to God Most High, To God who accomplishes all things for me. Psalms 57:2 NASB

David knew that God would fulfill His purpose for him. Yet, David didn't just sit down and say, "Saul can't hurt me because God had ordained that I be king, and I can't be king if I'm dead." David fled from Saul and took every precaution so that Saul could not kill him. David didn't presume upon the sovereignty of God, but acted wisely in dependance upon God to bless his efforts. He ran from Saul, and he prayed to God.

We see this same wisdom in Paul's life. Paul was a prisoner of Rome on his way to Rome when the ship was caught in the midst of a severe storm. Let's pick up the narrative at verse 19:

and on the third day they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing us, from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned. When they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, "Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete and incurred this damage and loss. "Yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. Acts 27:19-22 NASB

How could Paul say this? How did he know that no one would die? God told Him:

"For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, saying, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.' "Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. "But we must run aground on a certain island." Acts 27:23-26 NASB

Paul and the men on the ship had a promise from God that there would be no loss of life. At this point, did they all just sit back and enjoy the ride? No! They still used wisdom and did all they could to save the ship and themselves. When some of them tried to leave the ship in lifeboats, Paul said:

Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, "Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved." Acts 27:31 NASB

Why did Paul say this? Even though he had a promise from God that none of them would die, he still acted wisely--he used all legitimate, biblical means at his disposal to avoid harm to himself and others, and to bring about what he believed to be the right course of events. Paul did not see a conflict between God's sovereignty and his responsibility to act wisely.

Paul knew God's sovereign will on the matter, and yet he still worked hard to bring it about. We don't know God's sovereign will in specific situations. So, we, too, should use wisdom and act responsibly, praying the whole time. We need to act wisely because God usually works through means. We see this in the story of Hezekiah:

In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, "Thus says the LORD, 'Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.'" Then he turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying, "Remember now, O LORD, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "Return and say to Hezekiah the leader of My people, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David, "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD. 2 Kings 20:1-5 NASB

Hezekiah had been told by God that he was going to die, and yet he still prayed. He didn't say, "Well, God You're sovereign, so do what You will." He cried out to God in prayer, and God added fifteen years to his life:

"I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake and for My servant David's sake."'" 2 Kings 20:6 NASB

Great story! Hezekiah prays, and God grants him fifteen years. God told him, "I will add fifteen years to your life." That is a promise from God, and Hezekiah could depend upon it. But notice the next verse:

Then Isaiah said, "Take a cake of figs." And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered. 2 Kings 20:7 NASB

What if Hezekiah had said, "God is sovereign and He said I am to live for fifteen more years, I don't need the figs." I believe he would have died because God used the means of the figs to preserve Hezekiah's life.

We also see how God uses means to carry out His sovereign will in the book of Nehemiah. When Nehemiah was rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, he and the people faced the threat of attack from their enemies:

Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. Nehemiah 4:7-8 NASB

Notice, carefully, Nehemiah's response:

But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night. Nehemiah 4:9 NASB

They turned to God in prayer, and they posted a guard. They prayed to God, and they also acted in wisdom:

From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah. Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon. As for the builders, each wore his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me. Nehemiah 4:16-18 NASB

Did they have their weapons because they did not trust in God? NO! They trusted God:

"At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us." Nehemiah 4:20 NASB

They knew that God would fight for them, but they also knew that God uses means, so they were ready to be used of God in the fighting. Nehemiah 4:9 really gives us a good picture of what it means to trust God:

But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night. Nehemiah 4:9 NASB

Prayer is the acknowledgment of God's sovereignty, and of our dependence upon Him to act on our behalf. Wisdom is the acknowledgment of our responsibility to use all legitimate means. We dare not separate these two. We also see this truth illustrated in:

The sons of Reuben and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, consisting of valiant men, men who bore shield and sword and shot with bow and were skillful in battle, were 44,760, who went to war. They made war against the Hagrites, Jetur, Naphish and Nodab. They were helped against them, and the Hagrites and all who were with them were given into their hand; for they cried out to God in the battle, and He answered their prayers because they trusted in Him. 1 Chronicles 5:18-20 NASB

Here we have a bunch of well trained, well armed warriors. They had wisely prepared for battle, but they did not trust in their training or their ability. They used wisdom and prepared for battle, and they trusted in God when the battle came. They "cried out to God in the battle"--this is prayer. They prayed because they trusted God and not their own ability. Please notice carefully why God answered their prayers--"because they put their trust in Him."

I hope that you can see from this that trust in God does not negate acting wisely on our part. We do all we can do to prepare for a certain situation, and while doing it, we trust completely in God and not our own wisdom. All of our wisdom in planning is useless without the Lord:

Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. Psalms 127:1 NASB

This verse sums up our responsibility--building and watching. In all areas of life, physical and spiritual, we should be building and watching. But according to this verse, none of our efforts will be prosperous apart from God. This verse speaks of God Himself doing the building and watching, but that doesn't mean that we are not involved. It means that we are totally dependant upon Him if our efforts are to be successful. This is dependant discipline. We are totally dependant upon God, and yet we discipline ourselves to do what we know is wise.

We need to trust God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. There are times and circumstances in life when we can do nothing but trust in God's sovereignty. An example of this is seen in:

"He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. Deuteronomy 8:3 NASB

The Israelites didn't need to work for their food, all they needed to do was trust God to provide it. God was teaching them to trust in Him.

We must also trust Him to enable us to do what we can do for ourselves. The farmer must work very hard to produce a crop; he plows, plants, waters and harvests. But he is completely dependant on God to make the crop grow. God controls the forces of nature which he depends upon to bring forth the harvest. We all know that a farmer must depend upon God for the harvest. But what we might overlook is that the farmer is also dependant on God for the ability to plow, plant, and harvest. Every ability he has, every ounce of strength he has, every bit of knowledge and skill he has comes from God also:

For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 1 Corinthians 4:7 NASB
"But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 8:18 NASB

Everything we are and have comes from the hand of God. We are dependant on Him for every breath we take and for every beat of our heart. There are times when we can do nothing, and there are times when we must work. In both circumstances we are equally to trust in God.

We are never to use the Doctrine of God's Sovereignty as an excuse for our laziness or our lack of wisdom. Because God is sovereign, should we just sit back and count on Him to feed us? If He has planned for us to eat, we will--right? Wrong! God uses means to accomplish His ends, and the way He feeds us is through our labor:

The sluggard does not plow after the autumn, So he begs during the harvest and has nothing. Proverbs 20:4 NASB
Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks. Ecclesiastes 10:18 NASB

The house is not said to decay because of God's sovereign plan, but because of man's laziness. If a student fails an exam because he did not study, he can't blame it on God's sovereign will, but on his own lack of diligence. God is sovereign over everything that happens in life, but we are still responsible. Don't ever use God's sovereignty as an excuse for your failure to use wisdom.

Alexander Carson put it this way, "Let us learn... that as God has promised to protect us and provide for us, it is through the means of His appointment, vigilance, prudence, and industry, that we are to look for these blessings."

The Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign, He rules the universe, He controls everything that happens. The Bible also teaches just as clearly that we are responsible to act wisely. Let's hold equally to both, doing our duty as it is revealed to us in the Scriptures, and trusting God to sovereignly work out His purpose in us and through us.

I pray that the teaching on God's sovereignty will not be misused by us to neglect our responsibility, but that it will encourage us to pray and act wisely as we trust in our sovereign God.

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