Divine Sovereignty and Human Accountability Briefly Harmonized

The two questions at the heart of the matter are this: How can God justly hold one accountable for his sins when God is the one who predestined that the sins come to pass? The question on the other side of the coin is: How can one's good choices be genuine when God is the one who predestined them? For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on the first question since the same principles apply to answering both of the questions.

That the Scriptures teach that God predestines that sin comes to pass and then holds those whom He ordained to sin guilty is clear. Those who crucified Christ did so because God had predestined them to do so (Acts 4:28), yet they are considered morally guilty for their sin (Acts 2:23; 7:52). Judas betrayed Christ according to the divine plan, yet Judas was also justly guilty of sin when he did so (Luke 22:22). Pharaoh refused to obey God's command to let Israel go because God hardened his heart, and yet God responded by judging Pharaoh for his sin (Exodus 7:2-4, etc.). Joseph's brothers sinned in selling him into slavery, and yet God was the one bringing this about all along (Genesis 50:20).

Many teach that harmony of these two truths is a mystery. Without claiming to know everything about the way God works, however, I think that if we take a closer look at the assumption underlying all of these Scriptures we will see that it is not a mystery. This doesn't mean that we can learn everything that there is to learn about this issue; it simply means that we can understand how it is just for God to hold us accountable for sins that He has predestined us to commit (and also how it is that our good choices are genuine when God is the One causing them). Rather than simply saying, "I don't know how God can do that, but He does and He is right in doing so," we can say, "Although I don't know everything there is to know about the issue, now I see how it is that God is able to do that and be right in doing so."

The first step in solving the mystery is to make a simple inference from the Scriptures. We saw above many cases where God sovereignly ordained sin to be committed, and then regarded as morally guilty those whom He ordained to commit the sin. The implication revealed by these Scriptures is clear--a person does not need to have the power of ultimate self determination in order to be held accountable for his sins.

I think that the main reason that we have a tendency to think that the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery is because of a certain presupposition we have: that moral accountability requires that we have the final say (ultimate self-determination, ultimate causation) over our choices. But since the Scriptures show that God ultimately determines what we will do and yet we are still accountable for our actions, we must conclude that the common belief that moral accountability requires ultimate self-determination is false. Ultimate self-determination is unnecessary for moral accountability. Therefore, we see that moral accountability is based upon something other than the power of ultimate self-determination.

To clarify, just step back and ask yourself this question: What is it that makes us morally accountable for what we choose? We have just seen what does not make us morally accountable for our choices--namely, the power of ultimate self-determination. It can't be what makes us morally accountable because of the numerous explicit cases in Scripture where people lacked this and yet were held accountable. On top of this, Jonathan Edwards does an excellent job in his book Freedom of the Will showing that the concept of ultimate human self-determination is philosophically contradictory and thus impossible.

So what, then, does make us morally accountable for our choices? As Jonathan Edwards answered, it is not the cause of our choice that makes us accountable for it, it is the way our choice was caused that makes us accountable for it.

Edwards points out first of all that there is always a cause to our choices. This is simply a universal, axiomatic truth that applies to all things. If something happens, it was caused by something. It is absurd to deny the truth that nothing happens without a cause. But to say that a choice can be made without a cause would be to deny this axiom and say that something can happen without a cause. Second, we must recognize that there are two main ways that a choice can be caused.

First, it can be brought about by physical causes compelling us to act. For example, if I were to touch a hot stove, my hand would automatically remove itself as a reflex. In such a case, my mind tells my hand to remove itself because it is physically wired to do so. So this is an example of a physical cause. Clearly, we cannot be held morally accountable for choices caused by physical causes. Second, however, a choice can be brought about by moral causes. A moral cause is simply the reason or preference moving us to act. For example, if I choose to eat a sandwich instead of meatloaf because I prefer sandwiches over meatloaf, that preference moving me to act is a moral cause.

Edwards demonstrates convincingly that it is always the greatest preference that causes us to act. We always choose according to our strongest preference. So, for example, if I choose a sandwich over meatloaf it is because I preferred the sandwich more than the meatloaf.

Now we come to perhaps the most important thing to grasp: Moral causes do not remove our moral accountability. For example, could anybody honestly say something like, "My choice to give money to the poor wasn't genuine because I was doing the option that I had the greatest preference for"?! Would a judge really excuse the criminal who said, "You can't hold me accountable for my crime because I wanted to do it! In fact, I wanted to do it so much that I couldn't have done otherwise"? Of course not!

What this all boils down to is this: we are morally accountable for choices that God predestined us to make because God brings our choice about through moral causes. Since moral causes do not remove our moral accountability, we can be justly held accountable for our sins even though they are ultimately ordained by God. To put it another way, since moral causes do not remove our moral accountability, the fact that we are being ultimately caused to act by God does not remove our moral accountability as long as God is using moral causes to move us to act. Since moral causes do not remove our moral accountability, the cause of those moral causes does not remove our moral accountability either.

Let me piece this all together with a simple example. Think of a time where you've had two pieces of cake to choose from--one white, and one chocolate. Now, you did not make the choice by deciding to prefer chocolate that day and then choosing accordingly. Rather, you recognized within yourself a preference for the chocolate over the white (for whatever reasons--diet, flavor, appearance) and then chose the chocolate because it is what you preferred most. And you would certainly not argue that your choice was not genuine simply because you were choosing what you most preferred!

So it is with the way God brings about His decree concerning what we will do. If He ordains that you will do something and be accountable for it, then He brings things about such that the option that He has ordained for you to choose is the option which you most prefer. Since you are choosing it because you prefer it the most, the fact that God had ordained you to choose it does not remove your moral agency.

Finally, let me address one objection. Often people will respond, "But I didn't choose what my greatest preference would be, and therefore I still can't be held accountable even though I am choosing in accordance with that greatest preference." But this objection can be put to rest by understanding more clearly what we have already seen--namely, the it doesn't matter that the choice wasn't ultimately caused by you, for that is not what makes one morally accountable. Rather, one is morally accountable simply because he is acting from moral causes. It doesn't matter that there was a cause, what matters is the nature of the cause. As long as the nature of the cause is moral rather than physical, one is justly accountable. This agrees with our judicial sentiments. As we saw in the example above, a criminal could never be resolved from his guilty by stating that he was only doing what seemed most preferable to him!

Jonathan Edwards said (at least) one other very helpful thing concerning this objection in The Freedom of the Will. He said, "The Essence of the virtue and vice of dispositions of the heart, and acts of the will, lies not in their cause, but in their nature." As he goes on to explain, "Thus, for instance, ingratitude is hateful and worthy of dispraise, according to common sense; not because something as bad, or worse than ingratitude, was the Cause that produced it; but because it is hateful in itself, by its own inherent deformity" (in Works, Vol. I, p. 59).

Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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