One of the questions I get asked most by our small group leaders is how to explain our church’s belief in the doctrine of election (the biblical teaching that “before Creation God selected out of the human race, foreseen as fallen, those whom he would redeem, bring to faith, justify, and glorify in and through Jesus Christ“[ref] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology [/ref] ) and how that corresponds with our ability to make a real choice to become a Christ follower? It’s a great question, and one I like to explain by looking at the flow Romans 9-11.
Romans 9 and God’s Sovereignty
To read Romans 9 is to be awash in God’s sovereignty. Paul, in defending why every Israelite hasn’t received salvation, points to the reality that God must first act in election for an individual’s redemption. Highlighting an example from Isaac and Rebekah’s twin children, Paul writes in Romans 9:10-12,
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
There’s no mistaking which doctrinal category this falls under – God’s sovereign power in election. Paul continues to show how God’s election isn’t something novel but how God acts. Anticipating objections on the part of human responsibility, Paul responds in Romans 9:14-21,
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay…
Wow! You’ve got to put on your big boy pants to the receive the kind of truth Paul’s dropping here. The picture painted is of a Being who has the prerogative of getting to call the shots in the who, what, and how his mercy is given…and is completely okay with doing so. Paul is saying, “Make no mistake, this is a part of who God is!” Now, I could go on but I think the point is well-founded that Romans 9 establishes the idea that God sovereignly elects individuals for salvation.
Romans 10 and Human Responsibility
Paul shifts gears in the next chapter to challenge his readers to share the gospel with everyone they meet because “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Aha! It seems like, in Paul’s mind (one inspired by the Spirit to write this text), that anyone who wants to receive Christ and the great salvation offered in him must do so by responding with personal faith in Jesus. Paul even quotes Joel 2:32 to support his idea: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Sounds like every individual is responsible for embracing Jesus? Indeed. Paul goes so far to say that is why Christians are called to a very specific task – sharing the gospel with all people. Romans 10:14-17 says:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Wait a second? It sounds like Paul is saying that when it comes to salvation, every person has a responsibility to place their faith in Christ? That’s exactly what he is saying. Belief is our responsibility.
The Big Question: Then Who?
Once I outline these seemingly contrasting thoughts, the question always pops up: Okay Yancey, so when it comes to salvation, does God choose or do we choose? The answer is ‘Yes.’ My engineer-friends in my congregation don’t like this as much because it seems impossible, illogical, nonsensical. Yet, based on what the Bible says, this is exactly what’s at play. God is sovereign and we are responsible. He must choose and we must choose.
When, invariably, the next question is “How can this be?” I simply reply, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” I do believe that from start to finish the Bible clearly teaches election AND it does the same with human responsibility. What it doesn’t clearly teach is how that all works out in the mind of God. But I’m okay with that. There’s a lot of truth about who God is or what he does that forces me to put it in the “mystery” category (e.g., Trinity, suffering, the Houston Astros). In fact, I’m more at peace with a God I can’t completely figure out. It kind of reinforces the fact he is God and I’m not. So mystery in the case of election isn’t a cop-out but one more reason I want to listen to God and not lecture him about why he does salvation the way the does. It is a mystery, and to look at Romans 11 is to see that’s what Paul was left with as well.
Romans 11 and Mystery
He concludes Romans 9-11 (which most scholars believe to be a a self-contained unit of thought in Romans) writing about salvation coming to the Gentiles, and, while definitely applying to the immediate chapter, I believe Paul’s final words in Romans 11:33-35 serve as a conclusion to the entire section. Quoting the Old Testament, Paul writes:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
Follow his train of thought. Mind you, this is one letter…even a complete, particular unit of thought in Romans 9-11. In other words, Paul isn’t being schizophrenic dropping in random and unrelated ideas; on the contrary, all of these truths about salvation are tied together. Paul clearly states salvation is by God’s sovereign election (Rom. 9) AND we are responsible to believe Jesus by faith (Rom. 10). Notice Paul’s conclusion to it all in: It’s a mystery! Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
This is why at Clear Creek Community Church we offend people on both sides of the conversation. We upset those who say God doesn’t have any say in our salvation and we upset those who say we have no choice to make. We simply believe in both sides. We don’t hold these two truths in tension by mystery because it’s easier or a cop-out, but simply because we believe this is the revelation of our good and great God in his Word. God chooses, we have a choice, and mystery ties it all together.
As you can see, I use Romans 9-11 as one way to understand God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in salvation. Is this a legitimate way to look at it? Obviously I think so. Are there better ways? Sure. Will everyone agree with my conclusions? Definitely not. Can this discussion provoke more questions than answers? Probably. But I don’t use this way of working through Romans 9-11 as a debate starter but simply to introduce to others how CCCC sees these truths and the tensions they bring. If you have other or better ways, more power to ya!
Other Resources for those who want to understand the tensions in God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in salvation:
- Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer
- Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility by D.A. Carson
3 thoughts on “One Way to Understand God’s Sovereignty & Our Responsibility”
When I saw what this post was about, I knew I had to make time to read it, and that’s saying a lot with our 6 week old Clara Kate! The subject of election has always been a tough one for me to accept. Your post gave me new understanding and perspective about it. Thanks so much for sharing!
Thanks Laura! And congrats on Clara Kate.
Hello Pastor Yancey,
Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with them.
One possible solution to the ‘mystery’ of how it’s both is found in these quotes:
“When God gives Jacob his call and promise in Genesis 26, He reiterates that the purpose of the call is to bring blessing on the nations. Jacob is elected to bring salvation to “all” the families or people of the earth. Therefore, the idea that Jacob’s call was at the cost of Esau’s damnation goes against the flow of the promise made. Yes, Jacob was specially chosen, but chosen for a redemptive purpose that would bring blessing to all the families of the earth—including his own family. Therefore, Jacob’s election is not Esau’s condemnation, rather it is meant to be Esau’s salvation. However, whether or not Esau participates in that salvation will be determined by how he responds to Jacob.”
Samuel Whitefield’s article “Understanding What the Bible Says About Election”:
and this quote too:
“But election in Romans 9:10-13 is not selection for eternal salvation or damnation. Rather, it is selection for the roles God has called individuals and nations to play in their earthly life.”
-The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, NT Editor Everett F. Harrison, Moody; 1962.