The Unlikely Friendship between God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility


Recently, my Bible plan placed me in two parallel passages (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). Both accounts tell the story of David’s sinful choice to take a census of the Israelites. As I read, I wrestled again with the notion of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. If God fully reigns over all events, then is man responsible for the sins he commits?

Here are a few quotes from the two accounts. As you read them, consider with me, “Who’s responsible for David’s sinful census? God? Satan? David?

2 Samuel 24:1 — Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying,  “Go, number Israel and Judah.”

1 Chronicles 21:1 — Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.

2 Samuel 24:10 — But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”

1 Chronicles 21:7-8 — But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. And David said to God, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”

2 Samuel informs us that God incited David to take the census. 1 Chronicles tells us that Satan incited David. And, in both accounts, David takes full responsibility for his folly. It’s confusing to say the least.

The ultimate question I pondered is this one: If God incited David, through the means of Satan, because he was upset with the nation of Israel, then is God the ultimate cause for David’s sinful actions?

I know the correct theological answer is a resounding “No, of course not!” The Belgic Confession, rings in my mind:

We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment: nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly (italics added).

And, while I know the answer, I still sit in this place of wrestling.

How do I reconcile the competing actions of all the players in this story? How can God be sovereign over all things and not be the author of the sinful choices of men and the schemes of the Devil? The truth of God’s full reign over all things (which everything in Scripture points to) and man’s responsibility over his own actions (which Scripture also fully attests)—how can these two seemingly incompatible truths fit together?

Years ago in college, I read one of the most helpful books for me on this topic. J. I. Packer addresses many of these questions in his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.  This morning, I flipped through the well-worn pages, pondering the wisdom of his words. Here are some of the quotes I find most helpful and compelling:

An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. There are cogent reasons for believing each of them; each rests on clear and solid evidence, but it is a mystery to know how they can be squared with each other. You see that each must be true on its own, but you do not see how they can both be true together . . . two seemingly incompatible positions must be held together, and both must be treated as true. Such a necessity scandalizes our tidy minds, no doubt, but there is no help for it if we are to be loyal to the facts.

What the Bible does is to assert both truths side by side in the strongest and most unambiguous terms as two ultimate facts; this, therefore is the position we must take in our own thinking. C. H. Spurgeon was one asked if he could reconcile these two truths to each other. “I wouldn’t try,” he replied; “I never reconcile friends.” Friends? — Yes, friends. This is the point that we have to grasp. In the Bible, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not enemies. They are not uneasy neighbors; they are not in an endless state of cold war with each other. They are friends, and they work together.

As I study the complexities of God, I am forced to remember and reflect upon the limitations of my own nature. I am a finite being trying to understand an infinite God.

Just because I do not understand how something can be so, does not mean it is not so. It simply means my understanding is insufficient. Surely, God can be and act in ways outside of our ability to comprehend. As Paul rightly questions, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34)

Reading these passages reminds me to be patient with mystery. I can hold these truths in the balance, experiencing great comfort in them both. My own responsibility for my actions causes me to rejoice all the more in the grace of God. The perfect righteousness that I am unable to attain, he freely gives.

God’s sovereignty allows me to trust in the promises of God. If one iota of the universe was outside of his domain, I could not rest secure. As R.C. Sproul notes, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”

However, God declares that he reigns over all. His promises are sure. Not one circumstance can happen to us that is outside of his good plan for our lives (Rom. 8:28).

Mysterious? Yes. Incomprehensible? Of course. Wonderful? In every way.