Some issues are like cut gems: there are lots of facets to look through and no single viewpoint will tell the whole story.
The other day I was minding everyone’s business (aka looking at my Twitter news stream) and up pops a tweet from @Dawn_Morris1:
“@garynealhansen how do you explain God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility/accountability?”
I told her that this one would take more than 140 characters. She suggested a blog post. This post makes no claim to being the whole story. I’ll look through one facet today, and through some others in coming weeks.
(I have to say it is fun to get a suggestion for a blog post from an interested reader — so thanks Dawn!)
Dawn’s question comes up a lot: If God is “sovereign” as the Reformed tradition understands the term — the great King of the universe who actively governs and guides everything that ever happens — then are we really free? Are we really responsible for our actions?
When I think about theological questions I like to include some friends in the conversation — long-dead friends who wrote influential theological texts. This year is the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism, so I’m frequently including it in the conversation. Heidelberg does not have the final answer on theological questions, but it has carried a lot of weight for Reformed Christians for a very long time. It is always worth listening to, even if I don’t always agree.
When you ask today’s questions of yesterday’s Christians you often find they approached the issues very differently. Turns out our questions are not the only questions. Sometimes older questions can seem more important than the ones vexing us today.
The sovereignty of God is not such a clear focus in Heidelberg as in other Reformed theological texts. You first encounter the concept in Question 11: Heidelberg’s discussion of God’s mercy and justice, both of which are true of God’s character and of God’s response to us. The reference to God’s sovereignty comes in passing. It is easy to miss it entirely:
“God’s justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished…”
It is that reference to God’s “supreme majesty” we need to notice. Heidelberg thinks of God the King of kings, the holy and majestic ruler of all, and says this is exactly why we are accountable. God the king is the rightful lawgiver, and we are responsible to live as God instructs.
You occasionally hear people from England contrast their own legal status with that of Americans: “We are not ‘citizens’. We are ‘subjects.’” Even in modern days when the Queen of England leaves most of the governing to the Parliament, the people in her realm are there under her authority. Those of us who have never lived in a monarchy are not so used to such personal government — but the Kingdom of God is that like that. God is our King and we are God’s subjects.
That is my first observation on Dawn’s question via Heidelberg: God’s Sovereignty does not take away our responsibility; God’s Sovereignty is precisely the thing that makes us accountable.
- What questions, puzzles, and problems does the idea of “God’s sovereignty” bring to mind for you?
- What gifts and blessings come from the idea of “God’s sovereignty”?