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Appendix One A Useful Illustration of Sovereignty and Responsibility Over the years I’ve kept an ear to the ground

for useful and helpful illustrations of how God’s sovereignty works together with man’s responsibility. It is a mystery, to be sure. But we should always be seeking to give an accurate apologetic for the truth that we do know. I know for sure that God’s Word teaches that God is sovereign – free to act and move as He pleases – and that man is responsible – accountable to God alone for all his actions which he freely does. I also know that though they seem contradictory, they are not. They are not contradictory, not because I can figure them out in my finite, human brain. They are not contradictory because God’s Word teaches both. And by virtue of the Scriptures teaching both, that means they are both true, regardless of whether or not I can figure out how they work together. Illustrations, however, are useful sometimes in attempting to explain what we do not understand. Such attempts have been made for centuries upon centuries with the trinity, for example, or the divinity and humanity of the Son of God. Some of these are useful, and some are downright pitiful. But they all come from human attempts to help fellow humans understand what is divine. While we know that we will never be able to fully peer behind the curtain of mystery, we are certainly allowed our best guesses as to what is actually there, as long as those guesses protect the truth and are guided by it. Now with that in mind, I’m going to offer a personal illustration I’ve come up with as to how sovereignty and responsibility might possibly work together. I put those two words in italics because I know my depravity and its consequent noetic effects upon my mind all too well. This is a feeble, fallen effort at best to describe something truly and mysteriously magnificent and majestic. It is much akin to the apostle Paul trying to draw a picture of what he saw on the Damascus road that day, were he to have tried. Anything he drew could never come even remotely close enough to conveying all that was inherent in that experience. And my illustration will fall just as short. Before I give it to you, let me offer a suggestion about illustrations first. They all fall short. Don’t look for a point-to-point correspondence in everything you read. That’s not what illustrations are for. Actually, I guess my illustration is better called an analogy. An analogy is intended to point to similarities in something else using other words. Aristotle’s usage, for example, along with the Greeks in general, pointed to the similar ways that two particular things functioned in their own contexts. He would have stated it like this: “As A is to B, so C is to D.”

Eventually this evolved to be understood in the middle ages as a tool to argue from the greater to the lesser, or vice versa. This time period produced the belief that the greater ordered universe in which we live provided a pattern for its smaller ordered parts. What this meant for them is that the smaller parts could be used to describe the principles behind the greater universe. That is generally, in a very oversimplified sense, the way in which analogy began to be used in theology, especially with men like Thomas Aquinas. Though he spent quite a bit of time considering analogical details of theology which were of no real importance, in my opinion, he did hit the nail on the head in understanding that the explanation of divine things must always be done in human words. He also understood well, if I recall my seminary days accurately, that the only way we can understand the divine is to make comparisons using human things. Yet these things cannot be used univocally, or in a point-to-point comparison. To do that is to ignore the fundamental difference between finite and infinite. But neither can they be used equivocally, or in very unconnected senses. To do that is say meaningless things about Him. No, these human things which we use to illustrate and explain the divine must be used analogically. To do that is to say something meaningful about the divine while simultaneously recognizing the distinctions between the divine and the created.1 My analogy will hopefully say something meaningful about the divine while recognizing that what I am saying is in no real way describing the true substance of the divine. I believe that an orchestra best illustrates the way in which the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man work together. Consider it thoroughly and feel free to interact with me on it. Perhaps it really stinks and I just don’t know it! Perhaps it is a great illustration and you want to tell me how it worked for you. Or perhaps it needs tweaking to be more useful. Whatever the case, consider that an orchestra is made up of several essential components. There are the musicians who play, the score they play from, and the conductor who leads them. Many times the conductor who leads the orchestra is also the one who composed the score. The composer produces what I will call the master composition. That is the score of the entire composition with all its parts. You see, the composer writes the score for the brass section, the woodwinds, the strings, and the percussion. Many times, he even writes varying pieces for musicians in each section of the orchestra. The point is that he is the one who writes every note of music that every

The Encyclopedia Britannica has a wonderful article on this topic, especially as it relates to analogy in theology. See Volume 1.

musician in his orchestra will play. And he has all of it in front of him while he conducts the group. Every musician has a part of the master composition in front of them while they play their instrument. They play what has been written for them. They do not write their own music, for that would not harmonize with what the rest of the orchestra is playing. Nor does the composer work with them to write their own piece. Again, the composer writes every single note that each musician will play for the course of that composition. But each musician is playing their own instrument. They are responsible for their own skill level as well as any mistakes that they make. Now let’s examine the analogy and the truth to which I hope it points. God is the composer of the universe. He has, before the foundation of the world, already written the composition for His creation. I love the words of Isaiah, the prophet who for me, more than any other prophet, describes this amazing sovereignty of God. “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…” (46:10). “Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen” (44:7). Consider also that the composition which He has written is set in stone and cannot be altered. That master composition includes the score which He has already written for every created thing. And that score includes every single note which every created thing will play as He conducts it. No man, woman, child, animal, organism, molecule or any created thing will somehow “white-out” what He has planned from ancient times, nor will they ever be able to change something. Every created thing will perform the function for which it was created by the Creator. “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psa. 33:11). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21).

“…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?" (Dan. 4:35). There are some who think differently. David describes one particular group in his second Psalm. Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us. He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury…” (2:1-5). Consider Psalm 33:11 again with the previous verse this time. “The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (33:10-11). As I stated before, the composer does not take counsel with the musician about how to write the score. And neither does the Creator of the universe take counsel with any of His created beings to determine their course in life. “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust…All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness…Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.” (Isa. 40:13-14, 15, 17, 2123).

Where does man’s responsibility fit into all of this? Very clearly, in all of the contexts of these texts, man is the one in the crosshairs because of his own freely-chosen sinfulness. Go back and examine the contexts and you will find that man is the one spoken of negatively. He is the one under God’s certain judgment in some texts, and in others his puny, frail powers and abilities are not even microscopic in God’s sight. I hope you are feeling the tension right about now. How can I say that God is sovereign, that He has written every note of every score for every created thing, and yet also say man is responsible for what he does, for the free choices he makes? Let me start my answer to this with our analogy. When each musician plays his or her score, they are playing. They are playing their own score with their own instruments using their own talents and skills. But when they play a note off key, or perhaps the wrong note altogether, they are responsible, not the conductor. No musician can stand up and yell, scream and shake their fist at the conductor saying, “You made me play that note wrong!” No, the correct notes were written down for them, and they messed up all on their own. Now it is at this very point that my analogy does what all analogies eventually do – they break down. The composer does not outfit each musician with his or her skills and talents. The conductor does not make the musician play the wrong note or play a note off key. But God does outfit each created being with the skills, talents, personality, and rationale to do what they do. And their sinful choices and mistakes are in fact a part of His decreed plan. Once again, every single choice – word, thought and deed – made by every single individual has already been decreed from ancient times. Let me attempt to resolve the tension created by the analogy and its necessary break down in this way. In the theological realm, the choices each individual makes, whether sinful or righteous, may not necessarily be “on key.” Like the musician in the orchestra, it may be off key or an entirely different key altogether. But in God’s ancient decrees, every mistake or sin is somehow sovereignly and mysteriously included in the Conductor’s overall orchestration. God conducts each person’s score of the master composition. But they are individually responsible for how they play their part, that is, how they live their lives. But even if their sinful choices are sovereignly made a part of the master composition, they are still held responsible for what they do, and God is responsible for orchestrating the master composition. Now here’s how I see it fitting together. The discordant notes of an master composition played by an orchestra stand out and detract from the overall performance. One note can cause the properly tuned ear to

wince and grimace the face. Undoubtedly the conductor may catch some flack for not having practiced his group enough. But (and here’s the part of the analogy breakdown I love!) with God, the discordant notes of sin, while certainly standing out, do not detract from the overall performance. Rather, they have already been masterfully woven into the performance so that His reputation, fame and glory are not tarnished. Yes, He wrote the composition. Yes, they play it. Yes, they make mistakes when they play. But He does not put His hand on their hand and actively cause the mistake. What He does do, however, is that He sovereignly and mysteriously orchestrates their score in such a way that indirectly He causes them to make that mistake so that for some humanly strange yet divinely sovereign reason, that mistake (and all the other mistakes combined) seem to glorify Him in the end. Surely you see the difficulty with my analogy. Perhaps you are ready to burn my book too! When a person sins, was that sin written into their score? If so, then God wrote that sin into their score, which makes Him the author of sin. That’s one view of this analogy. But another view is that a person’s sin is not written into his score by God. However, God conducts that individual’s score in such a way that they are led to do what they do. Thus, they are not made to sin by God, but their act of sin was orchestrated by Him. What’s the difference? Not much, is probably what you are saying. And the whole analogy, again, is frail at best. But while it is my theory, my way of attempting to understand this problem, it is helpful in trying to explain how God can be active with regards to a person’s sin and yet that person still be held responsible for their sin. “You didn’t do a very good job at all, Rob!” is what I know some are saying. I’m terribly sorry if this is true. But hey, at least I gave it a try! The difference then between God writing a sin into a person’s score and orchestrating their life so that they would sin is the difference, in my mind, between entering their bodies and minds to make them sin and creating an environment around them so that they would make the choice God wanted them to make, while that choice still belongs to them. Now, use this statement I just made and compare it to the inspiration of the Scriptures. God wrote the Bible, yet man wrote it. God wrote it, but He did not write it in such a way as to overpower the writers. That would mean something akin to mechanical dictation, bypassing their minds and using their bodies to write. And neither did men write it independently of God. Rather, as Peter stated it.

“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Somehow, sovereignly and mysteriously, God orchestrated the writing of the Scriptures in such a way that it was a product of both He and the biblical writer. A specific biblical writer was writing to a specific group of people, at a specific point in time, to discuss a specific issue or issues, for specific reasons. God was behind the scenes orchestrating the plan He had set into motion back in ancient times. And the way He seemed to do that was creating an environment or atmosphere, if you will, so that each person would live and move as He decreed, producing choices that were made by individuals themselves, yet effects that were decreed by God Himself. So am I saying God wants a person to sin? The Bible says God wants us to be perfect (Matt. 5:48). It nowhere teaches that God wants anyone to sin. But it does clearly narrate time and time again of many circumstances and situations in which the sin a person committed was definitely orchestrated by God. Judas and Pharaoh are but two examples of this. How do we explain this? That’s where I end this appendix as I did many chapters previously – who can understand this God? We’ve hit a brick wall and bumped into mystery. We can’t go any further than this. Consider Wayne Grudem’s thought in closing “We must note that while Scripture is willing to affirm God’s ultimate ‘destining’ of wrongful actions…the blame for these actions is always given to the moral creatures (men and angels) who willingly choose to do wrong; the blame is never given to God. (cf. Jb. 1:22). If we ask how God can ‘destine’ that something happen through the willful choice of his creatures, yet himself remain free from blame (and not be the ‘author’ of sin in the sense of actually doing wrong himself), then we approach Paul’s questions in Romans 9:19, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ Yet here Scripture gives us no answer except to say, ‘But who are you, a man, to answer back to God?’ (Rom. 9:20).”2


Grudem, First Peter, p. 110.