STUDY NINETEEN: SALVATION AND HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY

© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014

 

We come now to the opposite side of reality: the responsibility of the human in salvation.

As we have seen above two misconceptions cloud and confuse the issue from the start:

[1] the concept that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are actually in conflict.
[2] the concept that human responsibility means the same as human freedom.

We have already seen that human responsibility can only exist if God is indeed sovereign. We will look now at how emphasis on one or the other results in conclusions that are non-valid, and we will at the same time see the confusion that results from equating responsibility with freedom.


A. PERSPECTIVES ON HUMAN ‘RESPONSIBILITY’ OR HUMAN ‘FREEDOM’

A.1 From the perspective of Creation

The sovereign God created man with the responsibility, freedom and ability to live, and to choose to live, a life dependent on God that would reflect God’s glory forever.

If we deny human freedom, we end up with an altered, non-valid, description in which human responsibility, freedom and choice are denied:

That the sovereign God created man and everything else, and rules over all in such a way that everything that happens is predetermined by God’s sovereign decision.


A.2 From the perspective of the Fall

[1] From the perspective of the fall, if we over-emphasise Human Freedom, we end up with the following non-valid perceptions:

The fall did not impact the will or the freedom of man. Although under the judgment of sin, and under physical death, man still has the freedom and the ability to make morally and spiritually right choices and to turn to God.

Man’s ability and freedom of will and choice are maintained throughout his history

The necessity of God’s sovereignty in salvation is diminished or denied

[2] From the perspective of the fall, if we over-emphasise Diving Sovereignty, we end up with the following non-valid perceptions;

Human sin and the fall were in the deliberate purpose of God from eternity.

Man’s ability and real freedom of will and choice denied throughout his history, from his creation onwards.

Human responsibility is effectively minimized or denied.


[3] From the perspective of the fall, if we hold Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in biblical balance, we arrive at the following biblically valid perceptions:

We affirm the definition of the human found in the order of creation – ability, freedom, dependence, responsibility.

We understand that at the fall man lost his freedom and his moral and spiritual ability. His rejection of God severed him from God, the source of life. Dead in trespasses and sins he neither can nor wants to make a move towards God, and has no desire and no ability to keep God’s law. The Bible portrays him as bound in sin and condemnation, and a slave to sin, law and Satan. [Man is still free to make non-moral choices, and to make moral and spiritual choices within the boundaries of his bondage to sin; but he is not free to choose to escape from his bondage, he does not want to return to dependence on God; he is in fact a rebel against God.]

True Human Freedom in spiritual and moral areas ceases at the fall.

Human accountability and responsibility to God are maintained.


A.3 From the perspective of salvation

[1] If we wrongly emphasise Human Freedom, believing that since the fall man retains his moral and spiritual ability and the freedom to choose God or reject God, we end up with several non-valid perceptions:

Man is saved because, of his own will and ability, he chooses to repent and believe in Jesus. This choice is not the result of God’s loving, sovereign intervention, God’s choice or God’s purpose, but of man’s own will, ability and free choice.

Man’s ability and freedom of will and choice are maintained throughout his history.

Divine Sovereignty in salvation is denied.


[2] If we wrongly emphasise Divine Sovereignty in salvation, believing that everything is pre-determined apart from human will and human choice, we end up with non-valid conclusions:

All man’s choices and actions– both good and evil - are determined by God

Those who are predestined to salvation and life will repent and believe, those who are not will not. The preaching of the Gospel and the offer of salvation are relevant only to the elect.

Man’s real responsibility is denied throughout his history.


[3] If we hold Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in their biblical balance we understand that:

Man’s will is bound in sin and spiritual death. He has no desire to choose God or to depend on God.

By God’s regenerating action man repents and believes, is restored to spiritual life, redeemed from the slavery to sin and Satan in which he was bound, and set free and enabled to again live in dependence upon God and to glorify him.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility are maintained throughout man’s history

Human Freedom, lost at the fall, is restored by salvation.


We can see from the above that:

A Biblical view of creation and the fall supports a view of salvation in which both the Divine Sovereignty and the Human Responsibility are maintained.

A non-Biblical view of God’s sovereignty from the point of creation onwards results in a deterministic view of salvation in which both real Human Responsibility and real Human Freedom are absent.

A non-Biblical view of Human Freedom from the fall onwards results in confusion of the meaning of Human Responsibility and a view of salvation in which God’s Sovereignty is absent.

The confusing issue, and the issue on which many stumble, is the debate over the issue of the ‘freedom of the will’ (the concept of ‘man’s free will’); this is brought into the debate by equating and confusing ‘human freedom’ with ‘human responsibility’ – an equation that should never be made. People like Pelagius and Finney have further confused the issue by proposing in one way or another that ‘ought’ [responsibility] implies ‘can’ [freedom and ability], and on that basis maintaining that man after the fall retains the ability and freedom to make the right moral and spiritual choices.

The big question here is: what did man lose at the fall?

His responsibility? No. God still holds him accountable. This responsibility is constantly confronting him [1] in creation/nature which proclaims the nature and character of God, and [2] in the Word of God, in which God speaks to him of his sin and guilt. Even [3] the law of the land, appointed by God, confronts him with his sin and wickedness and holds him responsible for his choices and actions. The avidness with which man tries to avoid these evidences of his responsibility is testimony to the existence of that responsibility. This is the ‘common grace’ of God by which God continues to confront sinners with their responsibility, and to remind them of that God-imaging, God-honouring life for which they were created, and from which they have fallen.

His moral ability? Yes. Because the very nature of his sin is rejection of the word of God. He is trapped, enslaved, in his own sin of rejecting the word of God. He will not change and submit to the word of God because as a sinner he is by definition opposed to the word of God. Any apparent submission of the unregenerate sinner to the word of God is a self-focused and therefore ungodly submission, and contrary to the purpose of the word of God, and, because it is apart from faith, cannot please God. [Example: Saul the Pharisee.]

His spiritual ability? Yes.  Because he is alienated from God. He is trapped, enslaved, in his own alienation from God and he loves to have it so. He will never turn to God, the source of spiritual life, because the essence of his being a sinner is that he has turned his back on God. In addition to this, the judgment of God upon his sin has condemned him to that which in his sin he chose: a life severed from God.

His natural ability? No. Because he possesses all the human faculties needed to honour God. He could honour God, if he would, but because morally and spiritually he will not, he can not.

His freedom? In the matter of choosing God, yes. He is not free to choose God because the essential nature of his identity as a sinner is rejection of God.

[For further on the question of responsibility, ability and inability read Chapter 8 in AW Pink’s book ‘The Sovereignty of God.’ This is available on line at http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Sovereignty/sov_08.htm ]

Sinful man is still responsible to God, but he is not free. ‘Redemption’, as a salvation concept, takes its significance from the fact that we are not free. As we have seen, it is only the blood of Christ that is sufficient to redeem/ransom us from this bondage. We cannot liberate ourselves. Only this grand and gracious sovereign act of God can do it for us.


B. THE RESPONSIBILITY OF MAN

The real and continuing responsibility of man is identified and inherent in the fact that the sovereign God has spoken to man. By giving him his word, God has given man responsibility. It is not to the inanimate creation, or to the animate, non-human creation that God speaks. Nor are they held answerable and accountable to God in terms of personal responsibility and personal judgment. This responsibility and liability to judgment constitute part of man’s identity.

Thus man is responsible to the sovereign God to obey the word of the sovereign God by which the sovereign God has defined man’s responsibility. When man fails to fulfil his responsibility there are unavoidable moral and spiritual outcomes which lock man into a lostness, separation from God and spiritual death from which man can only be saved by the loving and gracious intervention of the sovereign God.

 

B.1 Man’s original failure to fulfil his responsibility

We have already looked at the original failure of man to respond rightly to the word of God in Genesis 3. This failure did not annul man’s responsibility, for both the word of God and the responsibility of man to obey that word, still stand.

Man’s original choice to disobey and reject God and his word impacted all of Adam’s offspring and continues to express itself to the present. In choosing freedom from God’s word, in trying to escape from God’s authority, man has chosen to live separated from the one true God, and has, in that choice also severed himself from all that gave him moral and spiritual ability and freedom. Man’s moral and spiritual ability and freedom existed only when he lived in right relationship with God, dependent on the word of God.

His responsibility to depend on God and to image God has not ceased, but as a sinner his will is locked into rebellion against that responsibility. It is such ‘sinners’ that Jesus came to ransom, precisely because they cannot ransom themselves.

 

B.2 Sinful man’s continuing responsibility to hear and obey the word of God

In his sovereign grace God did not leave man alone in his lostness and alienation. Instead of acting in strict justice and cutting man off completely and forever, God continued to speak. Every word of God is a word of grace, an expression of his love for man. Even God’s word of law is a word of grace, for it identifies the responsibility in which man is held by God and it identifies man’s failure to fulfil this God-ordained responsibility. Even God’s word of judgment is a word of grace for by it he warns man of his predicament and calls him back to his responsibility and back to his freedom. Every word of God reminds man of his responsibility and challenges him to return to dependence on God.

However, because of his mindset in which he wants only to reject God and establish his own sovereignty, man refuses to hear the word of God, indeed, the more he hears it the more obstinate his opposition to God becomes. This is clearly seen in the response to the word of God spoken by the prophets, and in God’s clear knowledge of what that response to his word would be. Man will do anything – deny that God exists, deny the validity of the ‘word of God’, create his own ‘gods’, create his own ‘word of god’ – rather than submit to the true word of the one, true God.

As we look at these references from the prophets, we notice also that God is determined that his word continues to be proclaimed so that the people continue to be reminded of their responsibility. The men of God must speak God’s word. The people must continue to be held accountable. They must be told that their choices have catapulted them onto a path of inevitable and horrendous judgment. The extreme necessity of repentance and a return to a right relationship with God must be put before them, even while they are living in the perceived ‘freedom’ obtained by their rejection of the sovereign God, even while they continue to reject him.

 

Task #1: Biblical research

Check out the references below. Discuss:

[1] the responsibility of the hearers,
[2] the cumulative impact of constant rejection of the word of God,
[3] the human responsibility of communicating God’s word, and
[4] the divine appointment to preach God’s word.

Isaiah 6:8ff

 

Jeremiah 1:4-12; 3:12-4:4

 


Ezekiel 2:3-7; 3:4-11

 


B.3 Jesus’ perception of human responsibility

Most, if not all, questions relating to biblical truth can be answered by looking at Jesus Christ. We have already seen that Jesus taught the sovereignty of God in salvation – that it is by God’s will and God’s action that people are given understanding, regenerated, redeemed, brought to faith, etc.

At the same time Jesus maintained human responsibility. He called people to repentance and faith, he warned people to escape from the judgment to come, he urged people to follow him, he debated urgently with those who refused to acknowledge his deity, he wept over the lack of response of the people of Jerusalem, grieving that they refused to come to him to be saved. At all points such as these he affirmed the human responsibility to respond appropriately to the word of God.

Like the prophets of old he spoke the word of God and held people responsible to respond to that word. He revealed God to the people, and the people refused to listen. By that refusal to hear and respond to the living Word of God, they incurred irrevocable condemnation.

 

Task #2: Jesus’ perspective on human responsibility
Describe the human responsibility evident in these words of Jesus. What will happen if man fails to fulfil these responsibilities?

The responsibility to repent:
Matthew 4:17
Luke 10:13-16
Luke 13:1-5


The responsibility to believe in Jesus:
John 3:14-21
John 5:24
John 8:24

The responsibility to come to Jesus:
Matthew 11:28
Luke 13:34-35
John 6:40

The responsibility to acknowledge/receive Jesus:
Luke 12:8-9
John 1:12

The responsibility to follow Jesus:
Mark 10:34-38

The responsibility of responding to Jesus’ invitation/command:
Luke 14:15-24


The responsibility to hear and understand the word:
Matthew 13:1-23
Luke 8:21

The responsibility to obey Jesus:
Luke 18:18-24
John 14:15


The responsibility of being ready:
Matthew 25:1-13

The responsibility to love God and man:
Matthew 25:31-46
Luke 6:27-36

 

B.4 The apostolic perception of human responsibility in salvation

The apostles used by God to write the New Testament strongly affirmed divine sovereignty in salvation. We have already seen that clearly. But they also affirmed human responsibility; they urged people to respond to God’s self-revelation in Christ with faith and repentance, and, having responded, to live a life that demonstrated the validity of their profession of faith. So strong is this necessity that those whose apparent response of faith is not accompanied by submission to the word of the Lord are not considered to be true believers.

 

Task #3: The apostles and human responsibility
Identify human responsibility in these groups of selected verses. What is man required to do? What depends on him doing it?

Acts 2:38; 3:19
Acts 17:30

Acts 16:31
Romans 10:9
Colossians 1:23
Hebrews 11:6
1John 5:1,5,11-13


Galatians 5:7
2Thessalonians 1:8
1Peter 4:17


1Corinthians 15:2
1Timothy 6:20-21
Hebrews 2:1-3a
1John 2:18-24


2Thessalonians 2:15
Hebrews 4:14
Hebrews 10:23


James 2:14-26
1John 2:3-11
1John 3:3-10


Romans 12:1-2
Ephesians 4:1,17
Philippians 2:12-16
Colossians 3:12ff
2Peter 1:5-11


B.5 The responsibility to proclaim and to hear the word of God

We have already seen in sections B.1 to B.4 that man is responsible to hear and respond to the word of God. We have also seen in B.2 the human responsibility to speak the word of God in order that others can be confronted with their various responsibilities in relation to the word of God.

Both Jesus and the apostles refer to this responsibility and necessity of proclamation, and to the role proclamation of God’s word plays in God’s sovereign purposes. It is in keeping with his divine sovereign purpose that his word must be spoken, and that without the human responsibility of speaking, hearing and responding to God’s word no one will be saved.

 

Task #4: Human responsibility and the Word of God
Identify and discuss the role and the necessity of the human responsibility of proclaiming the word of God in the selected texts below.

Jesus himself spoke the word of God
Matthew 4:17
Mark 1:38
Luke 4:18,19,43

Jesus commanded others to preach and teach the word of God
Matthew 10:7,27
Matthew 28:19-20
Luke 9:2,60

Jesus stressed the essential role of the word of God in bringing people to new life/salvation
Matthew 4:4
John 5:38
John 12:48
John 15:3
John 17:20

The apostles had an overwhelming burden to preach the word of God
Acts 4:20
Acts 9:15
Acts 10:42
Rom. 1:5,9,14-15
Romans 10:13-15
1Corinthians 9:16-18
Galatians 1:16
Philippians 1:15-18


All of this affirms the real responsibility of man. Here we see what man must do in order to be saved and in order to demonstrate that he is indeed saved. We see here also that it is through the human activity of proclaiming the word of God that people come to knowledge of Christ and to salvation through Christ.

 

IN CONCLUSION

We are left now with the question: what is the relationship between divine sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility in salvation? Spurgeon, when asked if he could reconcile these two truths, replied: ‘I wouldn’t try. I never reconcile friends.’ They are not antagonistic principles. The problem is not in these two principles, but in our own misconceptions, and, most of all, in our own human pride.

If we seriously try to empty ourselves of our own self-importance the scripture teaches several facts that can help us to understand how these two obvious but apparently opposing doctrines relate to each other.

[1] God existed before us.

[2] When God first created us it was by his sovereign decision alone.

[3] When God created us he created us dependent on him.

[4] When God created us he set the boundaries and the responsibilities.

In all of this the divine initiative and sovereignty precedes the human responsibility. We had no life before he created us. We could not obey and glorify God unless he had first created us. Our very existence as responsible creatures is the result of his sovereign decision. We accept this priority of divine sovereignty here at the point of our original creation.

[5] The Son of God existed in eternity.

[6] At a point in created time, the incarnation took place, and he became a real human being.

[7] We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man, even though we cannot explain how this could be so.

In all of this Christ existed as God prior to his incarnation as man. The divine is prior to the human. We also accept this, we do not fight against it.

This relation of the divine and the human in these two examples maintains both the divine and the human to their full extent, but in both, the divine is prior to the human.

If we apply this principle to the relationship between divine sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility in salvation, we come to this conclusion: that both the divine sovereignty and the human responsibility are fully maintained, but the divine sovereignty in salvation is prior to and necessary for the exercise of human responsibility in salvation. Here, as in the original creation, we are nothing until he recreates us.

Rather than being threatened by the priority of divine sovereignty in salvation, and trying to deny it or reduce it in order to sustain the priority of our human choice, let us rather thank God for his amazing and unexplainable sovereign grace that reached into our blindness and bondage and set us free to believe his word and to live for him and with him for ever.