The same seeming paradox appears in the doctrine of man’s spiritual impotence and accountability: that the fallen creature is in such complete bondage to sin that he is incapable of performing a spiritual act, yea, of originating a spiritual desire or thought, and yet is justly held blameworthy for all his moral perversity and impiety—that none can come to Christ except they be drawn (John 6:44), yet are condemned for not coming to Him (John 3:18). So, too, the doctrine of particular redemption: that Christ acted as the Surety of and made atonement for the sins of God’s elect only; yet that the Gospel makes a free and bona fide offer of salvation unto all who hear it. In like manner, the complementary doctrines of the saints’ preservation by God and the imperative necessity of their own perseverance in faith and holiness—that no child of God can perish eternally, yet that he is in real danger of so doing as long as he is left in this world. Such things appear to be utterly inconsistent to human reason, which is sure evidence that no impostors, would have placed so much in the Bible as is foolishness to the natural man. Another unmistakable hallmark of the genuineness of the several branches of the doctrine of Holy Writ is the manner in which they are set forth therein. They are not presented as so many expressly defined articles of faith or items of a creed. There is no formal statement of the doctrine of regeneration or of sanctification: rather are there many brief references to each scattered throughout the whole of the sacred writings. They are introduced more incidentally than systematically. Instead of being drawn up as so many propositions, they are illustrated and exemplified in the practical history of individuals. So different from man’s method, yet characteristic of the ways of God! Man reduces botany to a system, but the Creator has not set out the flowers and trees in separate beds and fields according to their species, but has distributed them over the earth in beautiful variety. In like manner, He has not gathered into one chapter the whole of any one truth, but requires us to search and collate the numerous references to it, which are mingled with exhortations, warnings and promises. God’s Word is addressed not only to our understanding but to our conscience, and no doctrinal statement is made without some practical end being answered.
“How can salvation be solely a work of God and me be held responsible for believing or not believing? How can those two go together?”
The twin parallel truths of divine sovereignty in salvation and human responsibility, and This is a work of God, solely a work of God, but you will be held responsible if you do not believe, and you are called to believe and eternal life awaits you if you will believe. Those are twin truths that run parallel.
May I tell you? They will always run parallel. They will always run parallel. They will never come together. They will never intersect. They will never be diminished; legitimately, they are what they are. The fact that you don’t understand how they go together only proves that you’re less than you should be. It doesn’t say anything about God. Your inability to harmonize those things is a reflection of your fallenness, my fallenness. People ask me all the time, “How do you harmonize those?” And my answer is, “I don’t. I can’t.” They can’t be harmonized in the human mind.
God has a will. We know that. God will do His will, or whatever the Lord wills, He does; whatever He purposes, He brings to pass. The will of the Lord cannot be thwarted. He is absolutely sovereign. He does what He wills in every life. He does what He wills among men. He does what He wills in the world. He brings His own purposes to pass. That aspect of the sovereignty of God is clearly revealed all over Scripture.
But here’s a very interesting illustration of how that goes together with responsibility. In the tenth chapter of Isaiah, God introduces Assyria, the nation of Assyria, the people of Assyria. And he introduces that pagan, idolatrous nation in a very interesting way. Verse 5, Isaiah 10, “Woe to Assyria.” Okay, a judgment is coming on Assyria, a judgment from God: “Woe.” “Woe” is an onomatopoetic Hebrew term. We say, “Woe” in English. It actually in Hebrew, oyeeyaa,; it’s that kind of groan. That’s why I mean onomatopoetic; that’s a word that sounds like its meaning. So it’s a word of terrible distress that signifies destruction and judgment. God is going to destroy Assyria. God is going to bring divine judgment on Assyria.
Then from there we read, “The rod of My anger and the staff in whose hands is My indignation.” God says I’m going to judge Assyria, and then He identifies Assyria as the rod of His anger and the staff of His indignation. In other words, Assyria is a weapon in the hands of God. Assyria…God is picking up Assyria like a weapon to use Assyria to unleash His wrath.
On whom? Verse 6, “I send it against a godless nation and commission it against the people of My fury.” That’s a sad designation because He’s talking about Israel. God, and it happened in history, picked up Assyria and sent Assyria as a destroyer against an apostate idolatrous Israel. God says, “I am going to pick up Assyria, the rod of My anger, the staff of My wrath, My indignation, and I’m going to send it against a godless nation, against Israel.” And that’s what He did. Assyria was God’s tool. You know the story of the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom in 722—took them captive, massacred them, and they never returned from captivity; the northern part of the divided kingdom. Assyria was the weapon. And He says in verse 6, “To capture booty, to seize plunder, to trample them down like mud in the streets,” and that is exactly what happened.
Then you come to verse 7, most interesting. “Yet, it does not so intend, nor does it plan so in its heart.” I’m going to use Assyria to do this and this is not Assyria’s plan. This is not what Assyria is choosing, this is what I am choosing for Assyria to do. This is not Assyria’s intent. This is not its plan. Rather, it has its purpose—to destroy and cut off many nations.
Assyria is targeting all kinds of nations and their names in the next verse, verse 9, that identify some of those. Assyria has its plan, but I have My plan, and I without their planning it, or intending to do it, I’m going to pick them up and use them as My weapon.
Well, this is amazing. Assyria has no intention of doing this. God literally, sovereignly picks them up, drives them at Israel to accomplish His will, and then He says in verse 5, “Woe to Assyria.” Woe to Assyria, a nation to be destroyed for doing something they didn’t choose to do, doing something they didn’t plan to do, doing something that was not their intention to do.
Assyria had its own plans. God had different plans. But Assyria will be destroyed. Verse 12, “It will be when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion, representing Israel and Jerusalem, He will say, ‘I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.’” And then He goes on to quote what the king of Assyria said when he became proud and launched against Israel. God says, “I’m going to destroy him.”
Verse 16, “I’m going to send wasting disease. Under His glory a fire of kindle like a burning flame. The light of Israel will become a fire, his Holy One a flame and burn and devour his thorns and briars in a single day. He will destroy the glory of his forest and fruitful garden, soul, and body as when a sick man wastes away,” etc. This is an amazing juxtaposing. God punishes a nation for doing what God picked them up and made them do. There’s no explanation. There’s no way to harmonize those things. Full responsibility for pride fell on the king of Assyria. Full responsibility for evil intention and massacre fell on Assyria. Even though they were acting by divine decree, they bore full responsibility for what they did. This again is an illustration of those parallel realities: human responsibility and divine sovereignty. And they will always run parallel, and they will always have to be understood that way. Sinners bear the full weight of responsibility for their acts of defiance against God, even when God is using them to accomplish His purposes. And yet all things are decreed and determined by God as to their final end.
Sect. CLXVII. — I SHALL here draw this book to a conclusion: prepared if it were necessary to pursue this Discussion still farther. Though I consider that I have now abundantly satisfied the godly man, who wishes to believe the truth without making resistance. For if we believe it to be true, that God fore-knows and fore-ordains all things; that He can be neither deceived nor hindered in His Prescience and Predestination; and that nothing can take place but according to His Will, (which reason herself is compelled to confess;) then, even according to the testimony of reason herself, there can be no “Free-will” — in man, — in angel, — or in any creature!
Hence: — If we believe that Satan is the prince of this world, ever ensnaring and fighting against the kingdom of Christ with all his powers; and that he does not let go his captives without being forced by the Divine Power of the Spirit; it is manifest, that there can be no such thing as — “Free-will!”
Again: — If we believe that original sin has so destroyed us, that even in the godly who are led by the Spirit, it causes the utmost molestation by striving against that which is good; it is manifest, that there can be nothing left in a man devoid of the Spirit, which can turn itself towards good, but which must turn towards evil!
Again: — If the Jews, who followed after righteousness with all their powers, ran rather into unrighteousness, while the Gentiles who followed after unrighteousness attained unto a free righteousness which they never hoped for; it is equally manifest, from their very works, and from experience, that man, without grace, can do nothing but will evil!
Finally: — If we believe that Christ redeemed men by His blood, we are compelled to confess, that the whole man was lost: otherwise, we shall make Christ superfluous, or a Redeemer of the grossest part of man only, — which is blasphemy and sacrilege!
De Servo Arbitrio “On the Enslaved Will” or The Bondage of Will