The argument is posed thus: since God is sovereign over all, does that not mean that he always gets his way, and is never confounded? And since he is never confounded, what does it matter whether I am obedient, or even if I neglect to proclaim to the lost?
It is a great argument, logically speaking, and it has been my misfortune to actually encounter people who have some derivative of it. I have entered churches who espouse the doctrine that if God wants you saved, he will do the saving, and therefore limit their invitations exclusively to Sunday morning services. Their reasoning? If God wants you saved, he can bring you into our church. Most Christians, when they encounter such doctrine, should immediately sense that something is not right.
The first premise of the argument is totally correct: God is sovereign and his will will be done. But part of that sovereignty has been to make creatures that also reflect himself in their power of choice. It pleased God, first to make Lucifer, the Shining One, who was made with the capability of choosing wrong. It pleased God, second to make man in his image, and also made with the capability of choosing wrong.
Both man and Lucifer chose wrong, and became confirmed in it. Milton, in Paradise Lost, actually has Satan, now and forever renamed, exclaim “Better to reign in Hell than be a servant in Heaven.” But I am not sure Milton has the straight of it. First, he seems to have Satan reigning in Hell, and there is no Biblical verse which would suggest this is accurate. Second, Milton seems to be off in his timing, for in the Bible judgment of the angels is yet future, and Paul reminds us that one day we will be judges of those very angels. Milton’s tale is wondrous to read, but it does not seem to fit the Biblical picture well.
The Bible does seem to present Lucifer becoming enamored of himself until iniquity was found in him, and much of the creation of man seems to have been made to expose the iniquity, the lostness, of Satan to the whole heavenly host. It may indeed be the fortune of man to be but a tiny cog in the reckoning of the heavenly host, but nonetheless, the key cog to showing both the justice and mercy of God.
Similarly, man made in the image of God, fell from unrealized heights to the common rebellious being that most often expresses himself to God by asking God to leave him alone. God, full of mercy, would have man to be rescued from his certain peril, but in the end, if the man will continue to insist, God will leave him to his own devices.
Thus both some men and some angels seem bound inexorably toward that Hell that Milton writes about. It is the responsibility of both men and angels to find a redemptive path toward God. But angels apparently never find it, for we have no record of any angel ever turning around from the evil, and according to the Bible as many as a third of all the angels are headed toward judgment. From Paul in Romans, we know that man can never redeem himself, being dependent on God to even realize his lostness. Yet, we have Christians by the millions called to share the gospel even as did Christ, and as Christ did, many suffer badly for their witness.
It is impossible that man should find his way to God. He is blind, and lost in sin. Yet, the Spirit of God convicts, and some respond. Some don’t. But all are responsible. I think of the parable of the talents, which may be applicable here, though I think its proper interpretation is with Israel. Remember the man with two talents? Instead of investing his talents and making a profit, he dug a hole and hid his talents. So, likewise, many Christians spend their lives never using the gifts that God has given them. Though we are not to lose our salvation, changing us from the interpretation of the parable of the talents, yet we are all to appear at the Bema seat of judgment, where our Groom, our Christ, will reward us for our acts of faith. What reward will those have who have buried the gifts of God?
It is an unexplained mystery of God, and is absolutely unknowable to us, how the salvation of man is wrought. I am not saying we do not know many of the mechanics—we do. We know that the Spirit convicts, and brings people to Christ. But the method of bringing people to Christ is through you and I. We need to be faithful to our calling, walking circumspectly, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, that the word of God should get out.
If you are thinking this through, perhaps you are already there. You may well ask the question, what happens if we, the church, are not faithful in presenting the message? I cannot answer that, nor, I think, can anyone else. We just do not know. If we are supposed to proclaim, and yet we do it not, how shall the plan of God work?
The difficulty is us—we are a long way from being what we ought to be, and many of us do not ever seem to appreciate what walking in the Spirit is all about. Remember how I started? With the assumption that God is sovereign over all. This the Bible clearly teaches, and it is an unequivocal truth. So we have a God who is always right, and always powerful, but we are a people who are paralyzed by our ineptness, and though we have victory offered to us in the Spirit, yet we still are not what we ought to be.
So, we have an all-powerful God, but a sinful people. It has pleased God to present his very perfect plan of salvation through imperfect people—you and I. How does that work? I cannot possible answer, yet I know it is true. How does God spread his perfect message through the imperfect? I am well-aware that we are made perfect through the power of the Spirit, but I also know my own heart, and it tells me that I have a long, long way to go.
Our confusion comes in when we see the sovereignty of God, and we see that we have choices, some of which will be wrong. How can God be totally in control with such a rube as me? Yet, Paul tells us again and again that we are responsible to perform the ministry of reconciliation to the world, that we might reach them with the gospel of freedom.
There is one passage that I wish to close with. Paul is speaking to the Corinthians, but particularly to those married couples who may find themselves living with an unmarried mate. To those he writes, “ For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” (I Corinthians 7:14-16)
Paul here is recommending that we persevere in our marriages because we simply do not know whether God will use us as a vehicle to carry the message of salvation to our mates. That is a tremendous responsibility, and one that we should not walk away from. I personally know of one lady who stayed married 35 years to the same unregenerate man, until that man was wonderfully and gloriously saved. God, in his sovereignty, in all of his might and power, deigns to use weak vessels like me—like you. We are responsible to walk carefully, but in that walk, to know always that God is sovereign.
If you notice that I did not really explain it, you are correct. But we are to be responsible in our walk, to walk in the Spirit, as he gives guidance. And still, we take comfort in knowing that our God is sovereign. One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 2, where it tells us that the kings of the earth will plot against God, and will seek to cast away all of his power. But the Psalm ends with the thought, he that sits in the heavens shall laugh, the Lord will have them in derision. We can know fully that God’s plans will come to fruition, but we should also know that he has made us responsible.