Sovereignty, Responsibility and the Cross image

Sovereignty, Responsibility and the Cross

How do we reconcile the fact that the Bible simultaneously presents God as absolutely sovereign over all things and humans as personally responsible for their own sin? This is one of the classic questions within Christian theology and continues to be the subject of debate and differing views. But Don Carson observes that, in the end, the events at the cross mean that every Christian has to affirm both as true.

He examines Acts 4:23-30, where Peter and John re-join their friends after being released following their interrogation by the Jewish authorities. Now reunited, Peter, John and their friends pray, and their prayer speaks both of God’s absolute sovereignty in the event of the cross (it was ‘whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place’, v.28) and of the personal responsibility of those who instigated and carried out the event (‘Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel’, v.27). Carson concludes:

Even brief reflection demonstrates that any other alternative destroys the fabric of the Christian faith. Suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? All of Scripture cries against the suggestion.

Then should we conclude, with some modern theologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be—so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen”—then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed One to die in their place?

God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God. At Calvary, all Christians have to concede the truth of these two statements, or they give up their claim to be Christians.

D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, p.156.

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