God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

I have been a Christian now for 40 plus years, with 34 of those spent in full-time Christian ministry. I have witnessed many tragedies and heartbreaks among fellow believers of Jesus Christ. And I have experienced many trials and hardships in my own life. So, I often wonder why I am still Christian today in spite of everything. On the one hand, I’m still a Christian because God has preserved me. On the other hand, I have managed to persevere through hardships.

Knowing that there is a fundamental tension in the Bible—God’s sovereignty and human responsibility—has helped me immensely. This tension is found in hundreds of passages, and is clearly expressed in 1 Thess. 5:12-24. Paul writes in 5:23-24: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” God’s sovereignty means God is the one who sanctifies us. He is the one who calls or elects us to salvation. So, our confidence is in who God is.

Yet the previous verses lay out the emphasis on the perseverance that we have to do. Paul instructs believers to admonish one another, encourage one another, which presupposes that some of the Thessalonians were wavering in their faith (5:14). Whatever still being a Christian means doesn’t always mean walking in ease and comfort. There is clearly bitterness among believers in this church and fear of retaliation. To persevere means to always do good to each other (5:15). Moreover, Christians are commanded to do God’s will (5:16-18). Lastly, we are called to moral discernment if we are to persevere (5:19-22).

We never find this logic in the Bible—God is sovereign, so it doesn’t matter what we do. It doesn’t mean God will save people without our effort to witness or to evangelise. At the same time, we don’t find in the Bible the teaching that we alone are responsible for our faith. In other words, it’s unbiblical to say that God has done his part in electing us, and now it’s up to us to persevere or we will lose our salvation. Rather, we must hold in tension the sovereignty of God and human responsibility, if we are to live rightly and finish well.