Who Did That?

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Who did that? Parents are all too familiar with that question. Who broke the cup? Who did not do the dishes? Who hid their dinner under the plants? We struggle with this question in our relationship with God as well.

Two theological extremes exist. One says that God is responsible for everything and the other says humanity is responsible for everything. Those who hold to God being responsible for everything reject any hint of human effort in religion. Those who hold to humanity being responsible for everything reject any hint of divine influence in religion. One sees the world as a machine that God runs without any influence from humans. The other sees the world as cut off from God’s influence and entirely under the will and work of humanity. Shawn D. Wright noted the errors of the extreme positions when he wrote, “Neither Arminians nor hyper-Calvinists preserve the duality of Scripture’s witness. Instead of holding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility together in tension, they prioritize one of them and in the process deny the force of the other.”[1]  These two options are not the only options. It presents the false dichotomy that every action is either human or divine.

The Bible presents human and divine actions happening concurrently—at the same time and in the same events. This is called compatibilism. Compatibilism recognizes both the act of the sovereign God and the responsibility of humans to respond appropriately to God. D. A. Carson wrote, “God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.”[2]

One of the most natural examples of this is in Genesis 50:20 where Joseph said to his brothers “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.” Notice that Joseph’s brothers had meant to do him harm and did horrible things to him, but God used these events to bring about Joseph’s journey to second command in Egypt, the rescue of the Israelite people from the famine, and ultimately the birth of Christ from this same family.

When we ask whether God, Joseph, or Joseph’s brothers were working in those events, we can answer that all three were active in bringing about the circumstances and outcomes. It is easier for us to see the human element, but it is more glorious to focus on how God used those seemingly insignificant things to bring about beautiful things. God’s providential work, though often hidden, brings about hope which only the Gospel can explain.

The same phenomenon is seen in the death of Christ. In Acts 2:23 the Bible taught that Jesus was crucified according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” In Acts 4:27-28 the Bible says “Herod, Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel” were gathered to do what God “predestined to take place.” Who crucified Jesus? The Bible says that God did it. The Bible also says that all these people did it. Which is true? Both are true.

This principle of compatibilism is essential for Christians to have an appropriate view their relationship to the Gospel and Gospel work. Even Grudem and Horton, noted Calvinists theologians, understand the compatibilistic work of God and man. Grudem wrote:

“By contrast to the mechanistic picture, the New Testament presents the entire outworking of our salvation as something brought about by a personalGod in relationship with personal creatures. God “destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). God’s act of election was neither impersonal nor mechanistic, but was permeated with personal love for those whom he chose. Moreover, the personal care of God for his creatures, even those who rebel against him, is seen clearly in God’s plea through Ezekiel, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11)”[3]

Horton noted the tension between God’s act and the human response when he wrote, “Persuasion” is too weak a term to express this analogical connection. God did not persuade creation into being or lure Christ from the dead, but summoned and it was so, despite all the odds. At the same time, one can hardly think of these acts of creation and resurrection as coerced.[4] Jesus invited people to come to him. This invitation involves the work of God and the response of man. God continues to work providentially to bring the Gospel to people and people to the Gospel. Therefore, the Bible says that God saves sinners (Titus 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:9) and at the same time commands sinners to be saved (Rom. 10:9-10Acts 2:38, 40; 3:19).

Finally, this is why we pray. We ask God to work and we are confident that he will work. We trust that the “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Js. 5:16). Yet, we recognize that as we pray for individuals to be saved and for God to work providentially in this world that humans remain active, make real decisions, and are responsible for those decisive actions. We do not give up on prayer because we reject determinism. We do not give up on prayer because we know God will act. We pray because we know that God works personally with other persons to bring about his will.

How blessed we are to be a part of God’s most excellent plan (Phil. 2:12-13). How blessed we are to be junior partners with God in the Gospel (2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 1:16).


[1] However, perhaps we should argue for compatibilism rather than Calvinistic or Arminian compatibilism. To label this phenomenon creates division. Shawn D. Wright “A Plea for Calvinistic Compatibilism” in Credo Magazine vol. 3 Issue 3, 2019.  https://credomag.com/article/a-plea-for-calvinistic-compatibilism/

[2] D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 201.

[3] Wayne Grudem. Systematic Christian Doctrine, 674-675.

[4] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 570.

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