God's Sovereignty and Human Responsibility:
An Examination of the Remarkable Implications
of Jeremiah 18:1-12 by Jules Grisham
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
“Now therefore, say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’” (Jeremiah 18:1-12)
In 1796, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland gathered to discuss, among other things, the question of overseas missions, and concluded that such endeavors were an affront to God’s sovereignty. Listen to the Assembly’s own words and let them speak for themselves: “To spread abroad among barbarians and heathen natives the knowledge of the Gospel,” they wrote, “seems to be highly preposterous, in so far as it anticipates, nay even reverses, the order of Nature.” And then there were these now infamous words, spoken about the same time, by a gathering of Baptist ministers, in a rebuke to William Carey, the later-to-be missionary to India: “Sit down, young man. When it pleases the Lord to convert the heathen He will do it without your help or mine.”
To hear such words from groups of Scots and Anglo-Saxons, who themselves were the barbarian recipients of God’s grace through the agency of missionaries only a few centuries earlier, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I cite them here because they represent perhaps tragicomic examples of how not to apply the doctrine of the sovereignty of God to Christian life. Attempting to honor God by doing nothing, convinced that God’s sovereignty entailed the passivity of his people as the proper stance of Christian outlook, they succeeded in making fools of themselves and providing great fodder for those who would ridicule this crucially important Christian doctrine.
Many who hear these quotes might indeed be tempted to conclude that these gatherings of eighteenth century ministers were guilty of taking the doctrine of God’s sovereignty too far. But that would not quite be correct. It’s not that they carried the matter of God’s sovereignty too far – they couldn’t, we can’t – for God is totally, completely sovereign. He knows all things in his creation down to the most minute details. He knows, our Lord tells us, the number of hairs on our head. He knew us, indeed, before we were born, being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, to the glory of His praise. God’s sovereignty – his total control of the purpose, existence, and direction of His creation is so complete that it simply can’t, when properly understood, be taken too far. It is rarely taken far enough!
And this applies to those very gatherings of ministers whom we’re picking on – perhaps unfairly, but with some degree of justification. You see, while they emphasized the totality of God’s control of His creation, including all its events and destinies, they failed to apply that control to themselves, concluding bizarrely that only if they consciously maintained a stance of passivity would God’s pure control be maintained. But behind this pious stance is an amazing and audacious pride – an assumption of human autonomy which would deem itself righteous in “ceding” control to God. In other words, their application of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God was that we humans must “let God be God,” by, in a sense, not interfering with his plan.
But, as God revealed to Jeremiah in the passage we just read, such an understanding is in fact a disastrous misreading of Scripture. To assume that God’s total control of every event and every fact in creation somehow negates our responsibility to act as God’s agents in that creation is to forget that we are part of that creation. We are His creatures! We are in no position to let God do anything! God’s control will not be mitigated by anything we do. God ordains – indeed, God has foreordained – everything which comes to pass. Yet, that said, we humans live in a real universe, in a matrix of real causes and real effects. While every thing, every person, every event is contingent on God’s primary causation, yet our world (as indeed ourselves, as we remember with humility that we are part of God’s created order), our world and we ourselves are in a real sense the created instrumentality of God’s eternal purposes. And we are, as a result, responsible for our actions within that matrix of secondary causes within which we live and act. That is, we are not merely passive objects, subject to God’s control, but active created agents, subject to his authority as our Lord.
In the passage we just read, we saw the LORD liken his relationship with his people to that of a potter with his clay. He retains the sovereign right to re-form – that is, to unmake and remake – that which, after all, he shaped in the first place as he deems fit. This image of God as potter is a frequent one in Scripture, indicating his utter control over us and reminding us rather forcefully of our creaturely status. It’s picked up, for example, by Paul, in the ninth chapter of Romans, when, quoting Isaiah, he asks rhetorically, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” and goes on, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” As we said, the question is rhetorical. Yes, obviously the Sovereign Lord can do what he will with His own creatures. His control is complete and unquestionable.
But then, in the very next line of Jeremiah’s text, without so much as a transition clause, God reminds us of our responsibility to obey him, emphasizing that while he controls the world and everything that transpires in it, as by his Lordly might, yet he also exercises, as by Lordly right, authority over that world to evaluate it according to his own standards. If he declares judgment on a nation, say, and if that nation should then repent of its sin, he declares that he will relent in his stated intention. Conversely, if a nation upon which he has declared his intention to bless should abide and persist in sin, he will reconsider the good he had intended for it. This, too, is a very deep and pervasive theme in the Bible. God’s control of his creation is total, as we’ve seen, and everything that comes to pass is an actualization of his eternal purposes, his eternal plan, yet, even so, he will often speak to his creatures, issuing promises of blessing or threats of judgment. But the purpose of these promises and threats isn’t necessarily to indicate what will in fact come to pass, but what may come to pass given their current stance with regard to him.
When Jonah was sent to Nineveh to declare God’s judgment on that great city, the entire population is reported to have repented of its sin in sackcloth and ashes, with the effect that God’s judgment was averted and His mercy prevailed – alas, to Jonah’s great distress. “Who knows?” goes the repeated refrain of so many figures throughout the course of the Old Testament. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll turn and relent from his anger.” Indeed, he often will, as he promises through Jeremiah in our passage. Then again, sometimes he won’t relent. When Nathan announces God’s wrath against David’s sin, for having orchestrated the death of Uriah to cover up the sin of his adultery with Bathsheba, according to which Nathan declared that David’s infant son by Bathsheba would die in seven days, David is reported to have fasted and wept and prayed. “Who knows?” he later said. Maybe God would relent and would let his child live. When the child did in fact die, and when David found out about it, he resumed his normal routine.
But here, in the eighteenth chapter of Jeremiah, God himself addresses his people in Judah and Jerusalem, and tells them how they may avoid his wrath: “Turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” If they do this, God will relent. It’s not too late. His words of warning to his people are given that they might be stimulated to respond properly, and the effect of these words is to increase Judah’s liability for their sins should they not respond. God has told them clearly through Jeremiah what he was planning, and has told them plainly how they might avoid it – by turning from evil in repentance, and returning to godliness in faith. Recall our Lord’s words in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” With what, then, were the Jews of ancient Judah and Jerusalem entrusted? “Much in every way!” we might exclaim with Paul. “They have been entrusted with the very words of God.” “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them [would be] traced the ancestry of [God’s Messiah, Jesus,] who is God over all, forever praised. Amen!” And now they’d been blessed with a final warning and plea to repent. Should his people fail to respond, the coming of God’s wrath would become inevitable, in the truest sense because they’d spurned his kindness and continued on in their evil paths.
Tragically, Israel responded to this merciful revelation exactly as the LORD said they would. “But they will reply, It’s no use,” He declared through Jeremiah. “We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.” Here we see the focus shift back to his total control. Having declared what should happen if only his people would turn from their sins and repent, yet sadly this is what will happen. And it will happen, like every other thing in creation by God’s sovereign ordination. But the offer was real, such that if Israel had in fact turned to him, he would have relented. They didn’t, and so they secured the condemnation they had already merited, the avoidance of which this last offer of mercy was intended to effect.
Well, this of course is the very pattern of our salvation in Christ. John 3:16 and forward: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This then is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of the light because their deeds were evil.” Confronted with God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, it’s as if the unbeliever is saying, with ancient Judah, “It’s no use! I will continue with my own plans. I will follow with the stubbornness of my evil heart.”
Scripture teaches us that our hearts are desperately sick and mislead us. But the secret of the Christian condition is that we’ve been given a new heart.
And with it, we are freed from the fatalism of sticking to our own failing plans. We are freed to live in a new obedience, freed from the tyranny of our sordid little individual dramas to the glorious opportunity of writing our lives into the cosmic drama of God’s great redemption. That’s what separates the Christian from the non-believer – not a greater morality, not being a better person, nor possessing a self-righteousness which is esteemed in the eyes of society, but a new heart, born of the Spirit, dedicated to God’s glory and to the enjoyment of that glory as its truest fulfillment. In Christ our Lord, we are freed to follow our hearts in faithful acts of love, because he has given us new hearts and new desires. Praise God!
Well, then, have we been freed from the fatalism of our stubborn sinful hearts and been brought into new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit only to embrace a new fatalism, by which we are now afraid to act, lest God’s sovereignty be somehow lessened or undermined? Paul shows us how to answer such questions – Certainly not! God’s sovereignty is no excuse to not act. It is no righteousness to effect a passivity by which we would presume to “let God be God.” No, God will remain fully God whether you act or not! But your failure to obey his commands – that you love him and that you love those who bear his image – will certainly affect your relationship with him. God’s control doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility to act! Rather, we are to act boldly as his obedient agents, his authorized ambassadors, as the very instrumentality by which His purposes are accomplished.
So to the Scottish Assembly of 1796 we must cry, “Wrong! Wrong! We are most certainly to engage in missionary outreach, going forth in obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission, for “how shall they believe unless they have not first heard.” Likewise, to those who are so confused by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as to think, “What’s the use of praying? God will do what God will do without my intervention.” Wrong! For He uses your prayer as the very means of effecting his purposes. We must adopt the profound humility of the prophets and say – even as we profess God’s thoroughgoing control of his creation, yet from my creaturely perspective – “Who knows? Maybe God will save this person, or heal that person. Meanwhile, it is our most urgent duty to profess God’s love, proclaim the gospel, to pray for the spiritual and physical healing of any and all.
Here’s the problem. All that we do in an ultimate sense is the will of God in that he foreordained it. Yet much of what we do offends God’s righteousness, consisting in acts of rebellion against his authority. How is this terrible tension resolved? The answer is found in God’s awesome grace to us in Christ Jesus. The answer is in the gospel, which is the very power of God unto the salvation of sinners, and the gospel is essentially this: that we are more sinful and flawed than we had ever dared imagine, yet we can be more loved and accepted than we had ever dared hope, because Jesus Christ, in our place and on our behalf, lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, to save us. Christ’s is the righteousness which is acceptable to God, and insofar as we are in Christ – by believing in him – we too are reckoned righteous, and are freed from the awful judgment which was ours by merit. And since this salvation was by God’s grace, not by anything we’ve done, then we who are in Christ cannot lose that salvation. We are free, then, to live boldly for God.
Christians, do you see this? Do you see this amazing grace? We need no longer be afraid of losing God’s favor, because it is ours by, in, and through Christ! We are free to act boldly as agents advancing God’s eternal plan of redemption. And our limited knowledge – by which we might at times be forestalled from acting boldly because we don’t perfectly know God’s plan – this is no excuse. We are to proceed, prayerfully, according to the extent of the revelation he’s given us. Be bold, and return ever to the foot of the cross, and we need no longer fear God’s wrath.
Thus, for Christians these words of Charles Wesley ring joyously true,
No condemnation now we dread; Jesus and all in him is mine.
Alive in him my living head, And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne, And claim the crown through Christ my own.
Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me.