King Jesus, Chapter 5: Compatibilism: God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

The doctrine of compatibilism helps us to define an astounding truth: God is sovereign and humans are responsible. God is in control and yet humans have agency. God is totally in control and at the same time humans are totally responsible.

This delicate but profound truth has been conveniently called “compatibilism,”[1]  pointing to the fact that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are “compatible” realities – they go together, they work together. The Christian believes these are compatible realities because God in His Word – the 66 books of the Bible – presents them as such.

While it may not be readily evident how we are to reconcile these apparently conflicting truths, a study of them bends our mind and encourages us to “lean not on our own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

Note that this doctrine simply teaches us how to synthesize deep truths in the Scriptures. The doctrine does not explain everything about how these deep truths work together.

And yet, it is also worth noting that the Bible itself does not call compatibilism a “mystery” or a “great mystery.” We want to be careful about calling doctrines “mysteries,” because doing so can make us lax in our approach to, and defense of, the truth. (In fact, the mysteries named in the Scriptures are really mysterious truths that have been largely revealed to the church, not points of eternal obscurity.) The harmonious facts of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty are in fact not mysteries at all; they are clear facts presented in Scripture and, while they may be difficult for the human brain and heart to comprehend, they are not set forth as inherently obscure in Scripture. Instead, the Scriptures present compatibilism as a doctrine full of practical and devotional implications.

1) How does compatibilism work?

How, then, does “compatibilism” work?

Let’s start with two simple examples.

First, in Exodus 8:2, God threatens, “I will smite your whole territory with frogs.” But in Exodus 8:5, God commands Moses to command Aaron to “make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.” Picture this: God will smite the whole territory with frogs, but Aaron is to make the frogs come up on the land. Here, God is sovereign over the frog-punishment, while Aaron is responsible for carrying out the frog-punishment. Notice that God is sovereign the whole way through, as He is the one who “will smite” the territory – He will strike the land; He will do the punishment. And yet Aaron must follow God’s command. Aaron’s task is very real, and he is fully responsible to carry it out, even while God is the one who will ultimately bring about this punishment.

As a second example, consider Exodus 31. In Exodus 31:6, God says, “in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill, that they may make all that I have commanded you.” Consider here how intimately God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are working together. The craftsmen are skillful, but God puts skill in their hearts. They exercise responsibility and full human agency in being skillful and in “making all that God has commanded them,” and yet God is the one who puts this skill in them, and God is the one who commands the work to be done.

In these two seemingly insignificant examples, we start to see how God is sovereign and yet humans are responsible. God is in control and we have agency. God is totally in control and yet we are totally responsible.

2) Using God-given logic to understand this doctrine  

Before we study some of the primary texts on compatibilism, let’s look at how our God-given logic can help us understand this doctrine.

First, with a consideration of primary and secondary causes, one can better view the truths of compatibilism as entirely harmonious. This would mean understanding God’s actions as “first causes” and human actions as “secondary causes” by which God’s actions are fulfilled. Again, in Exodus 8:2, God makes clear that He is going to do what He then commands Aaron to carry out in Exodus 8:5. God is the primary cause; Aaron and Moses are secondary causes.

For another nifty example, consider the question: who wrote the book of Romans? The primary author of all Scripture is God, for “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). So the primary author of Romans is God Himself. But it is clear from Romans 1:1 that the apostle Paul is the human author of the letter. And yet, we can go a step further and see that, in fact, Paul did not hold the pen when Romans was being written. A man name Tertius was the scribe or “amanuensis” who took down the letter as Paul dictated it (Rom. 16:22). So if we want to consider the authorship of Romans in terms of “causes,” God was the primary cause, Paul was the secondary cause, and Tertius was the…tertiary cause. Note that all three “authors” or “causes” of the book of Romans worked in complete harmony.   

Likewise, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible realities because they work together in a relationship of primary and secondary causes.

Secondly, with a consideration of the nature of human “free will,” one can reconcile the truths of compatibilism. Humans can indeed act as “free” moral agents, but if we peer behind the veil, we find that God was and is in control all along. Human “free will” is a reality insofar as humans feel that they are free. And it is a reality if we mean by it simply that humans make real choices, have deep responsibility, and have actual agency. But it is an illusion if by “free will” we mean that humans can make decisions without God’s control and sovereign rule over all that occurs in His universe.

God’s sovereignty is magnified, and human “free will” is seen as a merely apparent truth, when we study Paul’s words in Romans 6, where the apostle speaks of only two options for the will of man: bondage to sin or bondage to righteousness. Under either of those options – and there are only two! – “free will,” in the sense that humans can act without any predetermining factors, is a spiritual impossibility. It is more correct to say that humans have the ability to choose various moral actions, but even that ability is entirely enslaved to one of two masters: sin or righteousness.  

Keeping in mind the total inability of man to come to God of man’s own accord, and keeping in mind the doctrine of regeneration (being “born again”), one can come to see how human choice and responsibility are always under the sway of God’s purposes and God’s regenerating influences. Check out John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”

In this light, we see that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are entirely compatible realities because human choices are at all points under the sway of God’s sovereign choice either to give men over to sin (and allow them to continue as “slaves to sin”) or to regenerate men (and make them “slaves to righteousness”).

3) Scriptures that show compatibilism at work within just a few sentences

The following texts are some of the clearest passages in Scripture that teach how God is sovereign and omnipotent while humans are utterly responsible for their actions.

With the above logical considerations in mind, let’s watch as the harmony of God’s sovereignty and human agency becomes vivid and glorious in God’s own words. Here I have merely listed some of the briefest passages on “compatibilism” in the Scriptures:

i) God grants repentance, while humans have the responsibility to repent:

2 Timothy 2:24: “…with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

ii) God grants belief, while humans have the responsibility to believe:

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

John 6:39–40: “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. / For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

iii) The work of sanctification (becoming more holy) is the duty of man, while it is also the result of God’s action.

Leviticus 20:7–8: “You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. / You shall keep My statutes and practice them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”

iv) God is sovereign over man’s evil actions and intentions, while men are fully responsible for such actions and intentions:

Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

Luke 22:22: “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”

Acts 2:22-23: “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know – this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” (Read all of Acts 4:23–30)

Acts 4:27–8: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

v) Humans seek and “work out” their assurance of salvation, even while God is the one doing the work of salvation:

Philippians 2:12–13: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

vi) Humans have the duty to evangelize, even while God “has our back,” and has determined his elect people in any given place:

Acts 18:9–10 “And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”’

May the doctrine of compatibilism work a greater sense of intimacy with God into our hearts. For we are not our own. We belong to our Creator. And every moment of responsibility in our lives is a moment when God is exercising His sovereign authority, whether we know it or not. All praise be to our omnipotent Christ!                                                                                                  

[1] See Justin Taylor’s helpful condensation of D. A. Carson’s work on compatibilism here: Most of the texts I cite are also cited in Taylor’s article and in Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

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