God’s Control and Our Responsibility

R.C. Sproul's ministry was largely built on the central idea that if God is not sovereign, then He cannot be God.

we read in 1 Timothy 6:15–16 that God is called the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, [and] who dwells in unapproachable light.” In Psalm 95:3, we are told that nothing is more powerful or more authoritative than God. He is “a great King above all gods.” No one can resist His will (Rom. 9:19), no one can stay His hand (Dan. 4:35), He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:28), and the kings of the earth are all subject to Him (Ps. 2).

 

R.C. Sproul will be remembered for many things, but perhaps foremost among them all will be his high view of God. In his lifetime, R.C. helped to initiate something of a modern-day reformation that beckoned the church to embrace what might best be called the “Godness of God.” His ministry—which is continued in and through the work of Tabletalk and Ligonier Ministries—was largely built on the central idea that if God is not sovereign, then He cannot be God. R.C. regularly reminded us that common sense proves this idea must be true. For, if there were anyone or anything in the universe more powerful or more authoritative than God, then that anyone or anything would, by definition, be God.

But common sense is not the only thing pointing in this direction; the overwhelming teaching of Scripture certainly does this as well. And R.C. regularly reminded us about that, too. Thus, we read in 1 Timothy 6:15–16 that God is called the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, [and] who dwells in unapproachable light.” In Psalm 95:3, we are told that nothing is more powerful or more authoritative than God. He is “a great King above all gods.” No one can resist His will (Rom. 9:19), no one can stay His hand (Dan. 4:35), He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:28), and the kings of the earth are all subject to Him (Ps. 2).

But, what is more, passages such as Ephesians 1:11 and Psalm 115:3 helpfully demonstrate that sovereignty is not just about what God is but also about what God does. He is sovereign, and He acts sovereignly. He “sits enthroned forever” (Ps. 9:7), and He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) and always does “all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

Such a view of God—while tremendously encouraging—should never lead us to a fatalistic approach to life that refuses to take responsibility for our actions and decisions. The Bible says clearly that human beings are genuinely responsible. Romans 14:12, for instance, tells us plainly that every person “will give an account of himself to God.” And Scripture consistently commands us to repent (Acts 17:30), to believe (16:31), to obey (Matt. 28:20), to work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12), to do good (Gal. 6:9), to set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2), to pray at all times (1 Thess. 5:17), and to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18). These things indicate that our thoughts, words, and deeds actually do matter.

But how do we put these two things together? How is it that God can be sovereign to such a degree that everything that happens takes place “according to the counsel of his will,” and human beings can still be genuinely responsible for their actions and decisions? In order to answer this question, theologians have relied upon two main distinctions. On the one hand, they have distinguished between the hidden will and the revealed will of God, and on the other, they have distinguished between primary and secondary causation. We will look at each in turn.

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