Some of the strongest debate within Christianity is the discussion over divine sovereignty and human responsibility within salvation. Sadly, the debate often generates more heat than light and mischaracterisations abound on both sides of the discussion. One critic of Reformed theology speaks of “the contradictions, the absurdities, and the tragic mischaracterizations of our God and Savior that the Calvinist beliefs in predestination and sovereignty generate.” He considers Reformed teaching “a dreadful offense to biblical truth and common sense.” If Calvinism is true, he says, there is no point in preaching repentance to the lost, because they are predestined to the lake of fire. Worse, Calvinism makes God responsible for people’s sinful choices and leaves God with no just leg to stand on at Judgement Day.
The above critic considers any Reformed appeal to human responsibility to be inconsistent. Confession 5.7, then, in his estimation, would be inconsistent, because it affirms at the same time divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And it does so because that is what the Bible teaches.
“While the word of God places a strong emphasis on God’s initiative in the salvation of a sinner, it has an equally strong emphasis on human responsibility in the outworking of certain elements of the process of salvation: faith, repentance, sanctification and perseverance (Matthew 23:37–38; Philippians 2:12–13). This requires from the believer absolute commitment to the end of life (Matthew 10:22; 24:12–13). It is of the utmost importance to maintain the biblical tension between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in the process of salvation.” (Sola 5 Confession 5.7)
The Confession begins this affirmation: “While the word of God places a strong emphasis on God’s initiative in the salvation of a sinner, it has an equally strong emphasis on human responsibility in the outworking of certain elements of the process of salvation: faith, repentance, sanctification and perseverance” (Matthew 23:37–38; Philippians 2:12–13).
While we might attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility in various ways, ultimately we should recognise that the Bible does not seem particularly concerned to reconcile divine judgement with human assumptions about justice and fairness. Scripture assumes the justice of God and leaves us to conclude that whatever God does is just, whether we understand it or not. If the Bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, we must affirm both, whether or not it makes sense to us.
Nonetheless, the Bible does teach these dual truths. Consider, for example, Isaiah 10:5–19. In this text, Isaiah clearly identifies Assyria as God’s instrument of judgement. Assyria was the rod of God’s anger and God sent and commanded the Assyrians against Judah. Assyria was moving under divine direction. And yet God promised to punish Assyria for its arrogance and violence when his work against Judah was complete. Assyria was a tool in God’s hand, but that did not relieve the Assyrians of responsibility for their own arrogant bloodthirstiness. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility clearly come together in this text, as they do in many others.
The Confession identifies four things that the Bible emphasises must be present in the life of a genuine Christian: faith, repentance, sanctification, and perseverance.
Faith is trust in and obedience to God, based on a biblical understanding of his character, as it is revealed in the Bible. Ephesians 2:8–9 identifies faith as a gift of God (divine sovereignty) and yet it is the responsibility of the faithful evangelist to call people to faith in God (Acts 20:21) (human responsibility).
Repentance is a change of mind (about who God is; about who we are; about our sin; about what God calls us to; etc.) that results in a change of behaviour. According to 2 Timothy 2:25, repentance is something that God must grant (divine sovereignty), and yet faithful evangelism calls people to repent, to turn to God, and to bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20) (human responsibility). It should be noted that acknowledging and regretting sin, while necessary, are not necessarily the same as repentance.
Sanctification is the process by which God sets people apart as his special people and changes them into Christ’s image. God is the one who works in us to desire and obey what he commands (Philippians 2:13) (divine sovereignty), and yet it is our responsibility to practically work out our salvation (Philippians 2:13) (human responsibility).
Perseverance is the biblical teaching that those whom God saves will faithfully persist in their profession to the end. All whom God saves will ultimately remain faithful to the gospel. Divine sovereignty oversees the entire process from beginning to end (Romans 8:28–30), and we are clearly held responsible to persevere steadfastly in our faith (Colossians 1:23).
The implication of human responsibility is that God “requires from the believer absolute commitment to the end of life (Matthew 10:22; 24:12–13).” This neither means that a believer can never doubt his faith or that a true Christian will never temporarily walk in disobedience. Doubts about faith are a normal part of most Christians’ walk. Doubts can prove to be helpful, for they return us to the gospel as we pray for assurance. Doubts are often good evidence that a person is a believer. Believers can similarly stumble into disobedience and disillusionment with the faith. For the believer, however, there is always hope of repentance and restoration.
The truth of perseverance has implications for those who once professed faith but have since turned away. It is possible for a true Christian to temporarily turn away from Christ. Even Peter denied knowing Jesus, though his “turning away” was temporary and he was ultimately restored. However, those who turn away from the faith, and who persist in their apostasy, reveal that they were never Christians to begin with. It is impossible for someone to receive true saving faith and then to abandon that faith entirely and persistently. When someone turns from the faith, we should fervently pray that God will restore them if they are saved or save them if they are not.
The Confession concludes point, “It is of the utmost importance to maintain the biblical tension between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in the process of salvation.”
Christians should hold this tension regarding their own faith. It serves us well to recognise that our profession must be backed up with an appropriate change in lifestyle, appetite, and attitude. Faith without works is dead, and we should regularly be examining ourselves to ensure that we are, indeed, in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Christians should hold this tension regarding their local church membership? It helps us to remember that church membership is no guarantee of kingdom citizenship. Just because someone is a member of a local church is no guarantee that they are a Christian. We want to hold one another accountable to live a life that adorns the gospel of Jesus Christ and be consistently exhorting one another to love and good works.
Christians should hold this tension regarding their evangelism? It will help us to avoid the error of decisionism—that a person is right with God simply because they have made a decision, or prayed a prayer, or responded to an altar call. We will be committed to calling people to repentance as the Bible defines it, and to letting them know what saving faith truly looks like.
While we must be careful to maintain our own distinctives, as we are persuaded by Scripture, we must at the same time not demonise others who do not share our convictions. There are many good Christians who have not yet come to a biblical understanding of God’s role in salvation, but they are faithful brothers and sisters who are doing good work for the Lord. We should be thankful for the work they are doing in God’s kingdom.