If God is sovereign, then what’s my responsibility?

by Alan Trippe

“Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth,

in the seas and in all deeps.” (Ps 135:6 NASB)

We can learn a lot about God from the preceding verse and others similar to it.  The words “whatever” and “all”, are absolute words that are undebatable and shed light into the nature and sovereignty of God.  Absolutes provide comfort and assurance when all else may fall short.  They are found throughout Scripture with words such as “all”, “every”, “never”, and “no one”.  Scriptures such as “Trust in the Lord with all your heart”, “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”, and “I will never leave you or forsake you” are but a few of the numerous Scriptures that we read that provide comfort, guidance and assurance because of the absoluteness they represent. 

As we study the sovereignty of God, we will inevitably discover many absolutes about God.  To all but the irrational mind, they are undebatable.  They represent truth about God.  The truth is “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does”.   Therefore the purpose of this writing isn’t to debate the issue of whether God is truly sovereign, but rather we will discuss truth about God’s sovereignty and about Man’s response and responsibility in light of this truth.  We will look into three specific aspects of God’s sovereignty:  His sovereignty over people, nature and circumstances.  At one time or another we have all asked questions such as, “Is God really in control?”, “Why do bad things happen?”, etc.   Understanding God’s sovereignty will give us greater insight into understanding the answers to questions such as these. 

Discussing the sovereignty of God is indeed an overwhelming and almost impossible task to fully complete.  Indeed, as Jerry Bridges points out in his book Trusting God, “The sovereignty of God is asserted, either expressly or implicitly, on almost every page of the Bible.”.  As we discover truth about God’s sovereignty, natural questions arise:  How do I respond to this truth?  What is my responsibility in light of this truth?  After discussing God’s sovereignty we will attempt to answer these questions.  Due to constraints, we will not address the issue of God’s sovereignty in light of salvation and predestination.  This topic will be reserved for a subsequent writing.  The more we understand about God’s sovereignty and ultimately, His control over the events of our lives, the natural outflow, I believe, will be one similar to the Psalmist who declared “Praise the Lord!  Praise the name of the Lord ... For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps ... Blessed be the Lord from Zion, who dwells in Jerusalem.  Praise the Lord!”

(Ps 135:1,5,6,21 NASB)

God is all-powerful.  With His voice He created the heavens and the earth.  To begin, let’s look at some verses relating to God’s sovereignty, and specifically his involvement with His creation:

  1. Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?

  2. (Lam 3:37 NASB)

  3. Even from eternity I am He, and there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?  (Isa 43:13 NASB)

  4. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but 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 NASB)

  5. I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. 

  6. (Job 42:2 NASB)

In Lamentations we see that no one can speak and make something happen, unless God has commanded it.  Isaiah and Daniel show us that no one can reverse God’s decision or be delivered from His hand unless God chooses.  Job’s response is interesting in light of the context in which it was made.  We are all very familiar with Job’s trials and adversities.  What started Job on this journey of adversity?  As we may recall, God asked Satan “Have you considered My servant Job?” (Job 1:8 NASB).  Job lost family, friends and possessions.  He experienced excruciating physical pain and was encouraged by others to curse God and die.  Job had undoubtedly questioned in his heart why God was allowing this to happen.  In Job chapters 38 through 41 we see that God asked Job question after question such as “Who enclosed the sea with doors”

(38:8 NASB), “Where is the way to the dwelling of light?” (38:19 NASB), or “Will the wild ox consent to serve you?” (39:9 NASB), and on and on.  The intent of these questions is more than apparent.  Job did not have all of the answers.  He wasn’t in control - God was.  We see Job’s ultimate response in the verses above where he declares that God can do “all things”.  We see that God is active with his creation.  According to Scripture, God has plans and purposes, and we cannot thwart or hinder them.

In light of this, let’s look specifically at God’s sovereignty over people.  We have already seen an example of God’s control over Job’s life, now we will look at a few other Scriptures regarding God’s control over humanity:

  1. The mind of man plans his way,

  2. But the LORD directs his steps.  (Prov 16:9 NASB)

  3. Many plans are in a man's heart, 

  4. But the counsel of the LORD will stand.  (Prov 19:21 NASB)

  5. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  (Rom 8:28 NASB)

  6. As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.  (Gen 50:20 NASB)

We plan our ways, but God directs each step we take.  We can know that “all things” work together for the good to those who are called according to His purpose.  There is tremendous comfort in these words.  Based on these truths it appears to be clear that God is in control and He does whatever He pleases.  He directs our steps.  While this is true, many of us still have questions such as:  Can I do anything that goes against God’s will?  What if someone commits murder, rape or suicide?  Was this God’s will or does the person act outside of God’s plans?  These are honest but difficult questions that we will not be able to answer sufficiently in this writing.  Jerry Bridges, however, offers his insight on this topic, “He permits, for reasons known only to Himself, people to act contrary to and in defiance of His revealed will.  But He never permits them to act contrary to His sovereign will.”  We will touch on this further, when we discuss man’s responsibility.

Not only is God sovereign over people, He is also sovereign over nature as we see from the following passages:

  1. Furthermore, I withheld the rain from you while there were still three months until harvest.  Then I would send rain on one city and on another city I would not send rain; One part would be rained on, while the part not rained on would dry up.  (Amos 4:7 NASB)

  1. … for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:45b NASB)

  2. The breath of God produces ice, and the broad waters become frozen.  He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love.  (Job 37:10-13 NIV)

Not only can God control the wind, rain, etc. - He does control them.  As we see from these passages, He may choose to send rain to one city, while withholding it from another.  Would God actually allow famine, drought, tornadoes, floods, etc. to occur?  The answer is “Yes”.  He does allow these things.  “Whatever He commands” nature to do, it does.  He may use nature to “punish men” or to “show His love”.  We may struggle with accepting this truth, but according to Scripture, it is true nonetheless.

The final aspect of God’s sovereignty we will emphasize is also one of the most difficult for people to understand and accept.  We will look at God’s sovereignty over circumstances.  This truth is closely related to the truth of God’s sovereignty over people.  The proceeding verses have already laid the foundation to this truth.  We have seen how God controlled the circumstances in Job’s life to ultimately cause him to lose possessions and family.  We also see in Genesis 50:20, Joseph’s response to his brothers “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”  Joseph knew that it wasn’t by chance that he was there in Egypt; it was by God’s plan that he was there.  Joseph knew that God had controlled the circumstances of his life to accomplish His will.  God allows both good and adversity as we see from the following Scriptures:

  1. In the day of prosperity be happy,

  2. But in the day of adversity consider--

  3. God has made the one as well as the other

  4. So that man will not discover anything that will be after him.    (Eccl 7:14 NASB)

  5. The One forming light and creating darkness,

  6. Causing well-being and creating calamity;

  7. I am the LORD who does all these.  (Isa 45:7 NASB)

God causes “prosperity” and “adversity”, “well-being” and “calamity”.  Yes, this may be difficult to understand, accept or comprehend, but it is true. 

As we begin to understand more fully the sovereignty of God, we inevitably must ask:  What is our responsibility in light of this truth?  How can God be in complete control, but man be held accountable for his actions?  Throughout the Bible we see verses such as “Whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Gal 6:7 NASB) and “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” (Heb 12:6 NASB).  Daily we see people, including ourselves, make decisions based on our own plans and desires, not God’s.  It is difficult to understand how both teachings can be true (i.e. God is truly sovereign, but man is responsible for his choices).  J.I. Packer expounds on this difficult subject in his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God:

  1. People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over those actions.  They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.

In light of everything we have discussed to this point, we must ask ourselves: How should we respond to this truth?  And more specifically, we may ask how should we respond to life’s circumstances, knowing that God is in control?  Even though there are many possible responses to this truth, we will look primarily at two of them:  trust and obedience.

In Proverbs we are encouraged to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5 NASB).  We may desperately desire to understand why God allows things to occur to us and to others, but we may never know or understand why.  We are encouraged to lean not onto our “own understanding” because our own knowledge is finite and will fail us.  We must “trust in the Lord”.  This should be our response, when things don’t make sense.  When we see circumstances that are beyond our control and understanding, just as Job and Joseph did, our responsibility is to trust in God.  Bridges takes this point a step further by emphasizing that in order to trust, we must understand God’s continuous work in every aspect of our lives.  “If we are to trust God, we must learn to see that He is continuously at work in every aspect and every moment of our lives.”

Throughout Scripture we are commanded to do a variety of things including “Go and make disciples”, “Honor your parents”, “Ask”, “Pray”, “Hold fast”, “Set Your mind”, etc. The sovereignty of God does not negate our responsibility to obey the commands of Scripture.  On the contrary, it should encourage our obedience.   Bridges addresses this issue of obedience regarding praying when he writes that “Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God.  If God is not sovereign, we have no assurance that He is able to answer our prayers.”   Accurately understanding God’s sovereignty allows us to boldly and confidently read and obey the teachings of Scripture knowing that God is able to fulfill His truth and promises revealed in them.

We will never be able to understand completely in this life how God can be in control of everything, but we also have a responsibility to trust and obey Him in our daily lives.  Charles

Spurgeon explains this apparent contradiction very eloquently in his message entitled “Sovereign Grace and Man's Responsibility”.  The explanation is so well stated, it is included in its entirety.  Following is the excerpt from his sermon:

  1. The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that "it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." I see in one place, God presiding over all in  providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring. 

Even though Spurgeon’s message is specifically addressing the issue of salvation, he provides an excellent explanation of God’s will and man’s will.  They may appear contradictory, but they will ultimately converge “close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring”.

Spurgeon brings up two potential dangers that we should briefly draw attention to.  Without a proper and balanced view of Scripture, we may have a tendency to emphasize one truth over another.  As Spurgeon states “If I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there is no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism.”  We must be careful not to place too much emphasis on Man’s free will to make choices. Additionally Spurgeon points out if “I declare that God so overrules all things ... I am driven at once to Antinomianism or fatalism.”  Either extreme leads to an improper and un-balanced view of the truths we have discussed.  We should make every effort to “accurately handle the word of truth” as Paul encouraged Timothy to do (2 Tim 3:15 NASB).

According to the Bible, we have seen that God is sovereign over people, nature and circumstances.  He does whatever He pleases.  Each of us have a choice in how we decide to respond to this truth.  In this life, we will never fully understand and reconcile how God can truly be sovereign and how humans can make their own choices daily.  God desires for each of us to not “lean on our own understanding”, but to respond to this truth with trust and obedience.  There is a great comfort knowing that God is not limited by our weakness, inability and lack of understanding.  As God illumines our hearts and minds to more fully understand and accept the truth of His sovereignty, I believe our response will be one of gratitude, thanksgiving and joy, resulting in further praise to our sovereign God and Father.