Written by Peter Blanch
What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty (his total control of everything in the universe) and human responsibility, especially when it comes to evangelism?
Some have said that because God predestines people we don’t need to evangelise. Since everything depends on God they think, “What difference can it make whether or not we evangelise?” As one man put it, such people become “evangelistically paralysed”.
Others have placed such emphasis on our responsibility that if your loved ones are in hell it’s because you didn’t tell them about Jesus or you didn’t pray hard enough for them. The temptation is then to push and push, or nag and nag. Worse still – you might be tempted to change the gospel so that it becomes more ‘attractive’ to the hearer but in the end you have a different Jesus.
As with many things, the key is to carefully hold both truths at the same time. God is sovereign AND we are responsible. The Bible constantly teaches that our God is completely in charge. The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths [Psalm 135:6]. That control extends to our salvation as the apostle Paul writes in Romans “and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. [Romans 8:28-30].
Jesus himself teaches Gods sovereignty over salvation when he said; “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” [John 6:44]. From the beginning of our salvation before Creation right through to the end when we are in glory it is God who does it. It is all of grace.
But the Bible also clearly teaches human responsibility. Jesus called people to believe and repent. God holds people responsible for the decisions they make about his Son. No one is thrown into hell for not being predestined. They are cast into hell for rejecting what they know of God. Otherwise, God would be unjust.
This sovereignty of God and human responsibility going hand in hand is seen in what God teaches us about repentance. Repentance literally means to ‘change one’s mind’.
Repentance is something that we are called to do. Jesus says, “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15]. Jesus is calling on us to take responsibility for ourselves and change our minds about God. Yet at the same time that repentance is a human responsibility, repentance is also seen as a gift from God, given even to false teachers at God’s discretion. Paul instructs Timothy to gently instruct those who oppose him, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth. [2 Timothy 2:25]. In repentance we see God’s sovereignty and human responsibility not cancelling each other out, but both truths being held together at the same time.
Smarter men than I have tried to find how both human responsibility and God’s sovereignty intersect and are compatible with each other. It is important work because too many Christians have ended up cancelling out one view by the other. And while we might not know exactly how they interconnect, what we must not do is misuse these truths against each other.
The apostle Paul is perhaps the one man who best understood the predestining sovereignty of God in salvation – yet in his life he did not allow this to make him “evangelistically paralysed”. Instead, knowing his human responsibility, he … “worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.” [2 Corinthians 11:23]. Knowing God’s sovereignty helped Paul to see his human responsibility with clarity and so he gave himself fully to the work of the Lord.
Why then evangelise if God is sovereign? Let me suggest several reasons. The first reason is that God tells us to. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” [Matthew 28:19]. It is true that God does not need us for anything, whether it is feeding our children or bringing in the lost. But he has commanded us to do both [feed our children and evangelise the lost] and so both we must do, according to the roles and the gifts he has given us.
Secondly, we evangelise knowing that the God-given pattern in this world is that people can’t hear and believe unless someone tells them. God calls people to himself through hearing God’s word. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” [Romans 10:14]. We evangelise so people can hear.
Third, we evangelise because it is a privilege knowing that God would allow us to be called his co-workers in this task. It is amazing that even though God doesn’t need us, he chooses to use us. We should never overlook the sheer privilege it is to share in Gods work. He gives to us the honour of calling people to himself. [1 Corinthians 3:9]
So, keep witnessing, because God is sovereign. When we evangelise we do so prayerfully because we know it is not the skill of the preacher or the person witnessing but the work of the Spirit that convicts people of the truth. We do so with a sense of urgency for today is the day of salvation and God has numbered our days. We do so respectfully because we know that it is God’s work and he is the only one who calls. We do so patiently for God and with endurance through hard times, because even though witnessing can be hard, God has his elect out there and they will come to Him in His time.