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Monday, April 07, 2014

God’s Sovereignty, Man’s Responsibility and the Two Witnesses

In his recent post on Calvinism, Immanuel made the point that pretty much every Christian believes in God’s sovereignty. The debate, he says, is not really about whether God is sovereign, but:
“… what they disagree about is how prescriptive His management of the universe has to be in order for that to be true. Does He have to mandate the movement of every molecule that twitches? Or is it possible that God allows human beings some measure of freedom of choice and action? How “tight” does sovereignty have to be in order to remain sovereignty?”
My personal conviction, and that of many fellow believers (obviously including Immanuel), is that Scripture teaches both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

The “two witnesses” of Revelation 11 appear to me to illustrate both these principles, and one way in which the two might co-exist (I’m not suggesting that in every instance the two work together in precisely this way).

Let’s suppose in analyzing the chapter that its words are intended to be taken at face value; that is to say, that when John writes “if anyone would”, it means “if anyone would” (as opposed to something along the lines of “if the sovereign God compels anyone to”).

If we do that, is it possible to see the sovereignty of God on display at the same time as man’s will?

John the apostle is told by a voice from heaven that:
“I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. … And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes … They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.”
Let’s think about ways in which the will of man is evident in the passage: The response of those who hear the prophecy of the witnesses is virulent.

First, they try to harm them and are consumed by fire (remember, we’re giving the writer the benefit of the doubt and assuming they choose to “try to harm” the witnesses, rather than reading it as “God causes them to try to harm” the witnesses). Taken in its natural sense, that sure seems like an act of will to me. Not a smart one, exactly, but certainly an act of will.

Second, “the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them”. Sure, it’s an argument from silence, but in the absence of language like “God will cause” (which the writers of the word of God are not shy about employing when it’s true), I’m going to take the position that this, also, is a choice made by the beast.

Third, when the witnesses are eventually slain, “some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb”. Seems like a choice to me: “some” gaze, “some” refuse … and I’m reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that the word “some” also implies that there are people who opt not to gaze on their dead bodies and rejoice in their demise. Again, choice.

But even though we have allowed words to mean what they usually do, and men to act of their own volition, the sovereignty of God is not in any danger here, is it? Not at all. God is more that up to the task of dealing with this petulant display of human will.

First, the beast is allowed to kill the two witnesses, but not until, John records, “they have finished their testimony”. The witnesses testify for three and a half years, during which I’m quite sure every minute the beast and his allies are grinding their teeth in frustration and wishing they could do something about it. But they can’t. That’s the sovereignty of God. Man is allowed to work his will, but not until the exact moment that God chooses.

Second, the refusal of some of the hearers to allow the bodies of the witnesses to be buried comes back to bite them in a big way. Rather than being off somewhere out of sight, the bodies are on display when “a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet”, and the result is that “great fear fell on those who saw them” — the sovereignty of God at work again. Man plots, devises, schemes and vents; God simply overturns.

Third, after their resurrection, “they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.”

Um … sovereignty of God, may I suggest?

I have a feeling that if you read carefully, Scripture is full of incidents just like this. Man chooses evil over good or good over evil, but God ordains, anticipates, overrules ... and reigns supreme.

How prescriptive is God’s management of the universe? Does God really have to manage the movement of every molecule that twitches in order to be considered truly sovereign?

I suspect that the latitude given to man to disobey, act out and defy his Maker and Judge is considerable. God is not diminished by this one bit. What is the end result of the petulant, disobedient exercise of the will of man?

“… glory to the God of heaven.”

5 comments :

  1. To what extent is human free will inviolable to God? Will his mercy sometimes interfere with that inviolability (perhaps through a life event) in order to save a soul? Or he cannot interfere. Or is God doing that most of the time anyway because people need to be nudged in the right direction? If so, then there is hope in prayer. If not, then do we have to stand by in horror as though observing a fatal traffic accident in slow motion?

    This is a question important to anyone caring for a friend or loved one who is ill and/or is not turning to God, seemingly bent on self-destruction.

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  2. So true, Qman. I believe in a sovereign God; a God so sovereign that he can allow us to make bad choices while still accomplishing his purposes perfectly. Can't say I have a lot of profound thoughts on the subject of whether human free will is inviolable, but I do believe there is hope in prayer, or a loving Father would not have his Son teach us to pray.

    We all have that person -- or more often, persons -- that it just breaks our heart to imagine going into eternity without the Saviour. I'll be praying for yours.

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    1. Hi Tom, thanks for your comments, your empathy and prayers. I agree with you completely about the importance and effectiveness of prayer in situations such as this, and here is the reason why.

      Had a chance to think it over a bit more and realized that God does not have to override free will to help a person out when seemingly stuck in intractable situations. That is because free will is a malleable thing, it is not static but is formed and shaped in a person through experience and feedback from that person's sphere of influence. Thus potentially, free will choices are based on a person's response and learning from life events and available, teachable material, simply put, by that person's response to experience (as modified by a person's illness, see the recent news concerning Robin Williams). Thus free will can be inviolable but nevertheless shapeable.

      I would assign to free will a property similar to viscosity in the material sciences and this is where there can be trouble. By virtue of accumulated responses over a lifetime free will can become more hardened (viscous) so that a person, if hardening in a negative way, is more and more difficult to reach by God's grace as encountered through life experience. Even if completely set, hardened, I do not think that God would then smash the rocks of poor free will, i.e., do violence to that person's free will to save that person. After all it is free will and there must be responsibility and accountability at the end or everything in life is inconsequential.

      Now, I still think that God's mercy never rests even in such situations and then, in my opinion, the TOC (Thief On the Cross) phenomenon comes into play. That means there is always hope up to the last second that if there is a remnant of goodness left in you and you are willing to avail yourself of God's grace, then you stand a chance. It is for that reason, as you point out, that prayers are relevant and never futile giving us the power to affect events around us for the better. So, in prayer, there is indeed always hope and consolation.

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  3. Hi Tom, thanks for your comments, your empathy and prayers. I agree with you completely about the importance and effectiveness of prayer in situations such as this, and here is the reason why.

    Had a chance to think it over a bit more and realized that God does not have to override free will to help a person out when seemingly stuck in intractable situations. That is because free will is a malleable thing, it is not static but is formed and shaped in a person through experience and feedback from that person's sphere of influence. Thus potentially, free will choices are based on a person's response and learning from life events and available, teachable material, simply put, by that person's response to experience (as modified by a person's illness, see the recent news concerning Robin Williams). Thus free will can be inviolable but nevertheless shapeable.

    I would assign to free will a property similar to viscosity in the material sciences and this is where there can be trouble. By virtue of accumulated responses over a lifetime free will can become more hardened (viscous) so that a person, if hardening in a negative way, is more and more difficult to reach by God's grace as encountered through life experience. Even if completely set, hardened, I do not think that God would then smash the rocks of poor free will, i.e., do violence to that person's free will to save that person. After all it is free will and there must be responsibility and accountability at the end or everything in life is inconsequential.

    Now, I still think that God's mercy never rests even in such situations and then, in my opinion, the TOC (Thief On the Cross) phenomenon comes into play. That means there is always hope up to the last second that if there is a remnant of goodness left in you and you are willing to avail yourself of God's grace, then you stand a chance. It is for that reason, as you point out, that prayers are relevant and never futile giving us the power to affect events around us for the better. So, in prayer, there is indeed always hope and consolation.

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    1. Well said. I hang on to what the Lord said about the work of the Holy Spirit in John 16: "He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me."

      This is not simply the Holy Spirit convicting believers that they have to get right with the Lord for their breaches of fellowship, but specifically those that "do not believe in me".

      If that's his job, then like you say, there has to be a certain "viscosity" there.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

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