I have recently been focusing a fair amount on God’s sovereignty and its relationship to, and implications for, human actions and ability. The gist of this can be summarized by saying that God is active in every conceivable and actual relationship, while man is passive in his relationship to God, but active in his relationship to creation.
As always, it is very important to recognize the distinction between God and his creation, so that we are always cognizant of the distinction between the causes of an event. When discussing God’s total sovereignty (and it is sad that the qualifier total is required here), I have found that people routinely will conflate primary and secondary causes, so that God’s causing something from eternity becomes their sole focus, and the secondary causes and actions in creation are effectively forgotten and become a mere puppet game, or less, in their eyes.
The inevitable result of this is that they will object to God’s sovereignty on the grounds that it trivializes human actions in some way. Whether this objection arises out of a discussion of aseity, or of irresistible grace (which is simply the necessary consequence of aseity anyway), or of active reprobation (to which the same applies), it inevitably follows the same basic format: since God “does everything”, there is no reason for us to do anything at all.
This objection seems usually to be couched in terms of salvation—particularly with regards to evangelism, or to sanctification. That is, it is directed toward these two doctrines with the aim of demonstrating an incongruity or absurdity between them and sovereignty—with the aim of showing that the implications of God’s sovereignty make other biblical teachings which we accept irrational or meaningless. Here are two examples I have recently received; the first regarding evangelism, and the second sanctification:
If we hold to reformed theology we say, “God will raise someone up, if I don’t pray and I don’t go someone else will because it is God’s will that certain people will be saved”.
A belief in the assurance of salvation because “I am predestined for heaven” can be very dangerous. It can lead to spiritual complacency and a failure to grow in holiness: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It can be a tool of the devil to lull people into a false sense of security.
It ought to be clear that neither of these statements accurately reflect the biblical position. Obviously they are incongruent with the scriptural commands to go out and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19), and to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). But it is this incongruence which the objector wishes to show—and by means of which he can declare my presentation of God’s sovereignty unbiblical. There are several things to observe here, in dealing with this attack.
Firstly, the attack does not engage with my actual argument at all. Even if the objection is correct, and there is an incongruity between my presentation and the doctrines of evangelism and sanctification, this incongruity nonetheless does nothing to show that my presentation is false. It could be that the incongruity is established by Scripture itself. An incongruity need not be a contradiction. And, even if there is a contradiction, it has not been demonstrated that it is my presentation which is in error. Perhaps the doctrines of evangelism and sanctification have been misunderstood. If one wishes to refute my presentation, one should refute my presentation. A reductio ad adsurdum is a valid way of doing this, but only if it leads to a logical absurdity, such as a contradiction with established true premises. This has not been demonstrated.
Secondly, though, and more concerningly, the objection assumes that if there is an incongruity between what is metaphysically required in order to achieve a certain end, and what Scripture commands as regards our own actions toward that end, then we should not obey Scripture. This faithless disobedience is, of course, obfuscated—probably even to the objector. He does not mean to be so stupid, but rather, he thinks that Scripture would not require us to do something which is not actually necessary to the end result. But why does he think this? If he thinks it would not do this, then presumably it is because he thinks that to command something unnecessary would be wrong, and Scripture is never wrong. In other words, his assumption is that Scripture should not command us to do something which isn’t necessary to the end in question—and therefore it would not command it. But from where did he get this assumption that it is wrong for God to command us to do something he doesn’t need us to do? If his assumption isn’t scriptural, then it’s rubbish; but he certainly hasn’t shown it from Scripture. No, on the contrary, he has smuggled this entire premise into his argument under the radar. But this idea that God would only command that which is necessary to some end is to presuppose that our actions are necessary to that end—which is the very conclusion which the objection seeks to prove! The objector is saying, in effect, that since our actions are necessary to achieve the end, God has commanded these actions so that the end will be achieved; therefore, God has not commanded the actions for some other reason. But if God has commanded the actions for some other reason, then he might not have commanded them because they are necessary. And the objector has by no means shown that this is not the case. There is no reason to suppose that God would not command us to do something simply because he wants us to do it. And, regardless of whether it is necessary or not, we are commanded to evangelize and work out our salvation, and so we must therefore do it.
The concealed root of this objection is the underlying assumption that, if our actions are not necessary to achieve the result in question, then there is no point in doing them. But this is a remarkably sinister assumption indeed, and I can only view with the deepest suspicion the alleged faith of anyone who would demand such pragmatic justification from God for the commands he gives us. We do not consider God’s commands worth following because of some pragmatic result which they bring about. We consider them valuable because they are God’s commands! I cannot imagine a more perverse mind than one which considers God’s commands worthless if they do not describe a course of action in which we ourselves have some personal power to bring about a change. For a Christian to hold such a warped sense of priorities suggests a most profound spiritual immaturity and attachment to humanistic philosophy. It is by no means an excuse for him to affirm this foolishness without full cognizance of it. Certainly I don’t imagine that the majority of professing believers who make such objections realize the sinister assumptions implicit to their reasoning—but this only reveals how very intrinsic it is to their thinking, and thus, if anything, condemns them more.
Thirdly, and most pertinently, this objection conflates what is necessary in a primary or ultimate sense with what is necessary in a secondary sense. I by no means affirm that it is not necessary, in the secondary sense, for us to evangelize in order for people to be brought to faith. God has decreed that the way by which he will save his elect is through the evangelistic actions of other members of that elect. So, most importantly, the idea that we need not pray or evangelize because God has already decreed certain people to be saved is a self-contradictory statement. Since those whom God has decreed to be saved he has also decreed will be saved through the means of prayer and evangelism, it is honestly difficult for me to fathom how anyone could suppose that predestination must mitigate the need for these things. It takes a certain kind of obtuseness to think that God’s primary causation of all things somehow obviates those things altogether. What I mean is, if God has determined that all his elect shall work out their sanctification to some degree during their lives (to take our other example), has commanded his elect to work out their sanctification, and then proceeds to cause his elect to do this, it is simply bewildering to then encounter the suggestion that, since we are elect, we do not need work out our sanctification! It is akin to saying that, since God has determined that I will come to know his word, I don’t need to read my Bible.
Such a view completely ignores that, in addition to God determining certain ends, he has also determined certain means. He could have determined some other ends, or some other means; but he did not—he determined these ones. If I don’t read my Bible, then it is most certain that he did not determine that I would come to knowledge of his word. But if he has determined that I will come to such knowledge, then he most certainly has also decreed that I will read my Bible. Many people seem to become confused at this point, by merit of the fact that I am involved in this process. But why? It is not as if God’s primary action obviates the need for my own secondary action. If God has determined that I will read my Bible, then I will read my Bible—but I will not do it like a puppet or automaton, apart from my own will. Similarly, if God has decreed that some person I know will be saved, and he has decreed that it will happen through my evangelism, then my own actions are the means he has determined and will cause. But his determination and cause are primary; my own actions are the secondary means he uses to bring about the result, and part of those secondary means is my own conscious and willing effort. Certainly God is causing me to write this article—but this is happening in the primary sense. It does not obviate or conflict with my own writing of the article in the secondary sense; and to assume otherwise is simply to commit a category error by conflating the two contexts of discussion.
Therefore, there is no incongruity at all between God’s sovereignty, and his commands to evangelize to others and sanctify ourselves. Mounting an argument on the basis of such a supposed incongruity is not only to commit a category error by equivocating between primary and secondary causes, but also to beg the question and presuppose an ungodly moral pragmatism by which to judge scriptural commands. These are all irrational fallacies we should expect from unbelievers—but they are more difficult to tolerate from professing Christians. Nonetheless, if I seem harsh it is only to emphasize the seriousness of the error, and the sin which underlies it. I would expect the same treatment of my own errors. Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it (Ps 141:5).