This article was published in the February issue of “The Courier” at The Geneva School (online here: http://www.genevaschool.org/about-us/publications-media/courier/the-courier-february-2016/).
In the course of my teaching seventh and eighth grade students, I ask them to memorize four primary themes for the Old Testament and four more for the New. One major theme in the Old Testament is “God is sovereign; humans are responsible.” As you can imagine, this theme (and a corresponding New Testament theme: “The required human response: Repent and Believe”) needs a lot of “unpacking” through my two courses of Biblical History of the Ancient Near East (in seventh grade) and New Testament Survey (in one semester of eighth grade). Allow me to unpack these ideas just a bit in this article and in a following article later this spring. Some of this material is drawn and adapted from two chapters of a resource that Bob Ingram and I produced in 2009 entitled “The Biblical Motifs Project.”
The Lord God Almighty is the First Cause and the Final Cause, thus he is called the “Alpha and Omega,” the first and the last. In this same regard, Jesus is called the “Author and Finisher” or the “Founder and Perfecter” of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
The Scriptures are replete with one affirmation after another, from the mouth of God, from the prophets, from Jesus, and from the apostles, that God holds all things, determines all things, controls and providentially moves all things. But at the same time, of course, God allows us tremendous freedom and responsibility in our lives. I remind students that they choose each day (admittedly from a limited range) what color polo shirt they will wear to school. In my class they decide where they will sit when they enter the room (unless they arrive late at which point their choices are necessarily more limited). But it is clear that within the realm of God’s sovereign rule, we also bear responsibility each day for a multitude of choices, small and large, consequential and inconsequential, that we make.
God’s divine sovereignty in the spiritual realm can seem to come into tension with human responsibility. We can see both sides of this tension in Deuteronomy. First, God requires of man that we fear, love, and serve him with our whole heart, and further that we circumcise (that is, cleanse) our hearts (see Deut. 10:12–16). These commands are impossible for us to fulfill. We are unable, due to our sinful and fallen nature, to accomplish what the law requires. But toward the end of Deuteronomy, that which God requires of us, he graciously provides for us saying, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). So we see that God intervenes on behalf of his chosen children to change hearts that are predisposed by sin to rebel into hearts now disposed to respond with gratitude to his grace and his call. And as an added benefit of this, he gives us life! When we read this with “New Testament eyes” we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they [God’s “sheep”] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
I try to communicate this to students by asking them to think about what part they played in their own physical birth. With just a minimum amount of reflection, they admit that they were the passive party in this great event. They did not choose to be conceived, to grow, or to leave their mother’s womb. In fact, they were not even “conscious” of these events as they were happening to them. But they each receive life all the same. In this way, our physical life is a metaphor for our spiritual life. Just as God creates physical life (admittedly through natural and profoundly mysterious means), so God creates new spiritual life.
When Jesus spoke about spiritual rebirth to Nicodemus in John 3, that wise teacher did not see the spiritual lesson—he could only ask how he could enter again his mother’s womb to be born again. As so often happened in John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke about spiritual realities, but people saw physical realities and did not understand. Jesus told him that the Spirit of God moves like the mysterious wind, bringing life where and when he intends to. This is still true with us.
In conclusion, the Scriptures teach that God is sovereign over every aspect of our being: body and soul, will and emotions, personal relationships in our daily lives as well as the movements of international governments and rulers. He rules over every kingdom and every culture. In Jesus Christ he is head over the church, with all things eventually working to the praise of his own glory. This is, not surprisingly, summarized well by John Calvin (Institutes, I.16.1–2):
- It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed his work once for all, and then left it. Here, especially, we must dissent from the profane, and maintain that the presence of the divine power is conspicuous, not less in the perpetual condition of the world than in its first creation …
- That this distinction may be the more manifest, we must consider that the Providence of God, as taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous causes. By an erroneous opinion prevailing in all ages, an opinion almost universally prevailing in our own day—viz. that all things happen fortuitously, the true doctrine of Providence has not only been obscured, but almost buried.
If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death—all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse, carnal sense will attribute to fortune. But those who have learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), will look farther for the cause, and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.
In my next article, we will consider more carefully where our personal and corporate responsibilities lie. But it is always good to remember what Paul said as he addressed the Areopagus in Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thanks be to God!