One issue that many Christians struggle with concerns how God can be described as sovereign over all things and yet man be held responsible for his actions and decisions. Many mistakenly view these two truths as being contradictory. If God is absolutely sovereign, then they reason that man could not be faulted for his sins or since man makes choices and is held accountable to those choices, then God could not be properly described as sovereign. However, Scripture clearly teaches both points without any hint of them being in opposition. One cannot deny either truth. Often they are displayed side by side. The following are several examples in Scripture where both God is shown to be fully sovereign and determining that everything occurs according to His divine plan while man is identified as being guilty of specific sins that he committed under God's sovereign reign. My hope is that these examples and my explanations that follow will aid those who struggle with this issue.
The Treachery of Joseph's Brothers and the Triumph of God's Promise
After the death of Jacob, Joseph's brothers feared that Joseph would get them back for their treachery against him when he was a kid (Genesis 50:15). They had sold him to the Ishmaelites due to their jealousy over their father's greater affection for the young man (Genesis 37:25-28). Instead of retaliating, Joseph says to them: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:19). Notice here that there is one event and two intentions. Joseph's brothers meant evil in their action of selling him to the Ishmaelites but God, in permitting the brothers to do it (He could have easily stopped it in some way), meant it for good. God had a greater purpose in His sovereignty. His purpose was to preserve many people alive and keep His promise to Abraham. Think about it. Had Joseph not wound up in Egypt through the means of his brothers' sin, Jacob and his children would have all died in Canaan. Thus God would not have been faithful to His promise to make a great nation with many descendants from Abraham (Genesis 12:2). It was due to Joseph being in Egypt and having been given the ability to interpret the Pharaoh's dream that predicted seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, that he found himself placed into the position of being the second highest rank in Egypt and able to save and distribute food to those who would be hurting in the time of the famine. This would include his father and his brothers. Without God's provision in this manner, Jacob and his sons would have perished without the twelve tribes of Israel developing and then Abraham left without any descendants. This means of provision through the brothers' sin was exactly how God planned for it to happen as seen with the dreams given to Joseph when he was a young boy (Genesis 37:5-10). While the brothers were held responsible for their treacherous action, God is shown to triumph through His sovereignty over them. In no way is God accused of evil in His intentions or actions in His allowance of the brothers' deeds.
The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart
Ten times Scripture describes God as hardening Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17) and ten times it refers to the king hardening his own heart (7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34,35; 13:15). I think that the best way to understand this is to view God as withholding His grace from Pharaoh which would result in him hardening his own heart. God certainly cannot cause someone to sin because it goes against His holy character (James 1:13). God in His sovereignty could have sent His Spirit to soften Pharaoh's heart and move him to release the Israelites sooner. However, God desired to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth (Exodus 9:16). Pharaoh is held responsible for the hardening of his heart and God is shown to have planned for it to occur. In fact, the first mentioning of this hardening refers to God determining that I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go (Exodus 4:21).
The Planned Rejection of God
In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel sin by demanding that the prophet Samuel appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations (v. 5). This would be a sin because they in essence rejected God as their king (v. 7). They were indicating that they thought that God was not sufficient to lead them and that they would rather be like all the nations instead of being the set apart nation devoted solely to Him that God had called them to be. However, a kingship for Israel, although a sin due to it indicating their rejection of God, was planned from early on. In fact, it was part of the promise that God gave to Abraham. He told the patriarch that I will make you into nations and kings shall come from you (Genesis 17:6). Furthermore, through Jacob, God determined that The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff between his feet, until tribute comes to him, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Genesis 49:10). Thus, God planned for man's rejection of him through their demanding of a king. As was with the case of Joseph and his brothers, God permitted this disobedience to serve as the means of accomplishing His plan.
Another planned rejection of God can be seen with the Jews in their rejection of their Messiah. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him (John 1:11). Although Jesus was the "king of the Jews," the Jews rejected Him and had Him crucified on the cross. They failed to recognize the time of your visitation (Luke 19:44). However, Paul tells us that this rejection had been planned by God from the beginning. Speaking of God's righteous dealings with His chosen nation of Israel, he quotes two Old Testament passages that demonstrate that God planned for their hardening (Romans 11:8-10). This hardening was clearly God's doing as Isaiah 29:10 states that God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day (emphasis added). The truth of Who Jesus was and His importance was hidden from their eyes (Luke 19:42) Yet, the Jews are held responsible for their rejection. God's purpose in their rejection was to provide salvation to the Gentiles (literally in Greek the nations) and in turn the extending of salvation to the other nations will result in bringing a large remnant of Israel to obedience (Romans 11:11-12, 25-27). God once again used human actions, which man was held fully responsible for, to accomplish His divine plan for His glory.
The Punishers and Their Punishment
Through the prophet Isaiah, God declares the nation of Assyria as the rod of My anger; the staff in their hands is my fury (Isaiah 10:5). To punish His people, the nation of Israel, God plans to send the Assyrians to capture them. Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of My wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (v. 6). While God intends to use the Assyrians to attack the people of Israel and take them into captivity, they have a different intention. But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few (v. 7). Instead, they desire to make themselves look great through the conquering of the nation of Israel. Just as God used the wicked motives of Joseph's brothers for a greater intention that He had, here He uses the wicked intentions of the nation of Assyria. However, the Assyrians were still held responsible for their sinful intentions and punished. When the Lord has finished all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes (v. 12). It may be important to note that this states that God punished them for their attitude and intentions and not necessarily the act of capturing Israel. They are faulted for exalting themselves over God and not recognizing Him using them for His work (v. 15). God used wickedness to punish wickedness and made sure that none of the wicked went unpunished.
The Predetermined Sin to Take Away All Sin
As part of his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter refers to Christ's death as a product of both God's sovereign plan and man's sin. He describes Jesus as being delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). Thus, Jesus' death occurred as planned and ordained by God. This plan was definite, meaning that God intended for it to occur and would ensure that it would occur. It was predetermined as indicated by it transpiring according to God's foreknowledge. He formulated this plan before hand. Yet, man is held responsible for the sin that was done according to the divine plan. Peter states that this Jesus . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God ordained the sin of the murder of His Son to serve as the means to take away the sins of those who would trust in Christ. Basically, God conquered sin with sin!
Saving the Shipwreck
While caught in a storm sailing towards Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, Paul tells everyone on the ship that an angel had appeared to him, promising that God has granted you all those who sail with you (Acts 27:24). Due to God's word on this matter, Paul could boldly state that there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship (v. 22). However, when some of the sailors were attempting to leave the ship in fear that it would hit the rocks, Paul tells them Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved (v.31). Paul certainly did not forget God's promise that He would preserve everyone's life of those who were on the ship. The next day he reminded them of that promise. for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you (v. 34). Instead, he recognized that God not only ordains the end of His plan but also the means to that specific end. Had the sailors left the ship in their small boats, no one would have been left on the ship who were skilled in directing the ship to its intended destination and who would have been able to handle the shipwreck they would experience. God used the means of the sailors serving on the ship to ensure that they all made it safely to the land. In fact, God also used the means of the centurion to ensure that the prisoners would not lose their lives when the soldiers desired to kill them in case they tried to escape during the shipwreck (vv. 42-43). Through the means of the sailors staying on the ship and the centurion convincing the soldiers to spare the lives of the prisoners, all were brought safely to land (v. 44). God kept His promise through the means of these men's actions. Had the sailors left or the centurion remained quiet, lives would have been lost.
Our and God's Work in Our Sanctification
Paul commands believers to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). This is clearly a command as the Greek verb is in the imperative mood, which indicates a command being given. However, Paul goes on to explain that God also is at work within them both to will and to work for His good pleasure (v. 13). The implication here is that, although Paul commands us to work and live out our salvation, we cannot obey that command without God's work in us. We can work only because God is working in us to enable us to do so. Augustine understood this when he stated "Give what you command and command what you will." In other words, "command me to do whatever you wish, but give me the ability to obey that command." Thus, man is responsible for this "working" and God is sovereign over it.
Some Final Reflections
In all of these passages, you see God presented as sovereign over every person and event, yet people still being held accountable for their actions. In each case we have one action, two actors, and two intentions. Often the human actor's intentions differ from God's who serves as the other actor. However, one action results from the two actors and their two intentions. God uses the human actor with his intentions, though often sinful, to accomplish the action of His intention. He thus can be described as the "primary" cause of the action with the human actor deemed as the "secondary" cause. The human actor only does what God allows or enables the human actor to do. He is still held accountable for his sinful intentions and desires. All of this is to accomplish God's ultimate purpose. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this point well: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
As students of Scripture, we must affirm that both God is sovereign and man held responsible for his actions and decisions, exercised under God's sovereignty hand. We may not fully understand how these two fit together but we cannot deny either. Let's always remain true to the text of Scripture, especially in regards to the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.
Soli Deo Gloria!