Issue No 67

Autumn 2014


Much ink has been spilt on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Back in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Pelagius (a British-born monk) caused great controversy by his denial of predestination and insistence upon man’s moral ability not to sin. He was refuted (indirectly) by Augustine of Hippo and his doctrines were eventually condemned at the Council of Carthage in AD 418. Many centuries later, the debate was re-ignited by the writings of Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius (AD 1560-1609) and his followers, who taught that election was on the basis of foreseen faith, a universal atonement, grace that could be resisted and from which lapse was possible. These teachings were enshrined in the Five Articles of Remonstrance (AD 1610) which were later rebutted by the Synod of Dort in AD 1618-19, from which we gained the classic mnemonic of Calvinism – TULIP. More recently, the concept of God’s sovereignty over the events of human history has been challenged by proponents of open theism.

Debates on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility sometimes take place in the cool (and somewhat abstract) confines of university departments, seminaries or synods. But in regular church life the question is rarely asked from a merely academic standpoint. More often than not the backdrop to the question is an experience of intense suffering, either for the questioner themselves or for one of their friends. This is a topic with which we should engage with great seriousness, pastoral sensitivity and Berean-like humility (Acts 17:11).

Over the past two editorials we have been looking at how the maxim “distinct but inseparable” assists in our understanding of the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. It is also a great explanatory aid when considering the relationship between God’s sovereignty and responsibility. Scripture leaves us in no doubt that God is absolutely sovereign over his creation. “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psa 115:2-3). The apostle Paul reminds his readers in Eph 1:11 that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will”. Yet Scripture is equally clear that God’s sovereignty in no way functions to exclude or diminish human responsibility. As D. A. Carson notes: “There are countless passages where human beings are commanded to obey, choose, believe, and are held accountable if they fail to do so” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Nottingham: IVP, 1992), 149). Jesus’ call as he began his earthly ministry “[T]he kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15) presupposes that we are sentient moral beings who are responsible for our actions. The same presupposition underlies the call of Peter at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).

The complex interaction of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is seen with particular prominence in Joseph’s recounting of the causal factors leading to his sale into slavery and eventual elevation to the rank of first minister of Egypt. In Gen 50:20, Joseph addresses his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” We notice that there are parallel intentions running throughout the whole course of events. It is not that the brothers intended an evil outcome for Joseph but that God turned it around for good at the last minute. Nor is it that God’s plans for good were somehow frustrated by the brothers’ evil intention. Rather, in the same course of events (Joseph being sold into slavery) God had good purposes (the salvation of his people) and the brothers had evil (a desire to be rid of their brother). In no way was God contingent on human actions or implicated in the brother’s guilt.

The same parallel intentions are seen in the greatest event in human history – the cross and resurrection of Christ. Following their release from prison in Acts 4, Peter and John return to their people and the church begins to pray. The prayer opens with an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the whole sway of human history (recalling Psa 2:1-2) and then provides this commentary on the cross: “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 plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28). The church is not slow to ascribe guilt to Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the Jews. The cross was the ultimate act of culpable rebellion as humanity united to murder God’s anointed king. And yet the prayer also attributes the events to God’s good, predestining will. Again there are parallel intentions with God’s will in no way being contingent upon the actions of humanity, nor his character impugned by their evil motives. Likewise, the conspirators’ guilt is not lessened or excused in any way by the events unfolding according to God’s predestining plan.

In explaining the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility it is important to emphasise their distinct, yet inseparable, relationship. If we separate God’s sovereignty from human responsibility we end up truncating God’s sovereignty and making him contingent upon human agents – turning the creator of the universe into a divine Garry Kasparov. If we fail to distinguish sovereignty from human responsibility we end up implicating God in the evil intentions of mankind. Instead we must recognise that God stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. As Carson rightly observes: “God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to him: it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary causes” (How Long O Lord (Leicester: IVP, 1990), 213). The maxim “distinct but inseparable” does not resolve all the mysteries and complexities of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. These are ultimately tied up with the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God. However, the maxim does guide our feet as we walk the narrow path of biblical orthodoxy in this crucial and pastorally sensitive area.

Having focussed upon the growth and development of gospel partner-ships in the previous issue of Foundations, this issue contains articles covering a broader range of theological topics. Cornelis Bennema, a lecturer in New Testament at WEST and speaker at next year’s Theological Study Conference, examines the historical reliability of John’s Gospel. He engages with some of his previous work, noting where his position has since developed, been refined and clarified. Bennema concludes that the Gospel of John provides the accurate and reliable eyewitness account of John of Zebedee about the life and ministry of Jesus.

Chris Richards, a consultant paediatrician in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, provides a stimulating and provocative evaluation of the ethics of IVF. Writing from a Reformed perspective, he challenges the prevailing view that IVF is permissible where only one or two embryos, derived from a married couple, are created and implanted at each attempt. Richards argues that, even under such conditions, artificial conception transgresses the Sixth and Seventh commandments. John James evaluates the account of conversion in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, considering to what extent Bunyan believed it to be paradigmatic. James traces out a number of theological and pastoral considerations that may be significant for contemporary evangelicalism. He concludes that, while conversion is tortuous, complicated and varied, it is right to recognise the place of despondency and perseverance which in turn will guard us against easy-believism.

Paul Davies, writing from a missional perspective, proposes that Luke / Acts is structured around the concept of “the advance of the way of the Lord”. He draws out a number of missiological observations from this reading and then considers what applications they might have for the Latin-American Church’s mission. Also included in this issue are review articles of Copan and Litwak’s recent work on apologetics, Dan Strange’s monograph on the theology of religions, and Ray Evans’ book on church growth dynamics.

As ever, I trust that you enjoy reading this issue of Foundations. Contact details for correspondence and the submission of articles are available here on the Affinity website.

Ralph Cunnington
November 2014

The Historical Reliability of the Gospel of John

Cornelis Bennema

Senior Lecturer in New Testament, Wales Evangelical School of Theology, UK

Read More

The Ethics of IVF

Chris Richards

Consultant Paediatrician, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Read More

Tortuous and Complicated: An Analysis of Conversion in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

John James

Pastor, Helier Chapel, Northfield, Birmingham, UK

Read More

Following the Way: Mission in Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts for Latin America

Paul Davies

Former Tutor and Lecturer in Theology, All Nations Christian College, Easneye, Ware, UK

Read More

Review Article: ‘For Their Rock is Not as Our Rock’ (Dan Strange)

Mark Pickett

Lecturer in Missiology, Wales Evangelical School of Theology, UK

Read More

Jon Putt

Assistant Pastor, Grace Community Church, Kempston, Bedford, UK

Read More

Review Article: Ready, Steady, Grow (Ray Evans)

Neil Powell

Pastor, City Church Birmingham, UK

Read More