Sovereign God, Responsible People

In our youth group we have been examining the book of Jonah, and had the opportunity to go through the second chapter recently. For time’s sake we simply could not cover every aspect of the passage, but we were unable to run down one trail I was hoping to. So I will share my thoughts here:

“For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight…” – Jonah 2:3-4a

This passage, part of Jonah’s prayer from inside the belly of the fish, is interesting, because it takes choices that Jonah made, and then makes it sound as if God did it. For example, Jonah was the one who decided that he should be thrown overboard (1:12), yet He claims God was the one who ultimately cast him “into the deep”. Also, Jonah was the one who decided to “flee from the Lord’s presence” (1:3), but he claims that he is “driven” from God’s sight. So, what is going on here? Is Jonah saying that God, not himself, was really responsible for his sin?

One of the major themes in the book of Jonah is God’s “sovereignty”. What is God’s sovereignty? Here is a simple definition: God is in absolute control. Scripture tells us that God is all-powerful (Ps. 115:3; 135:6), and He accomplishes whatever He puts His hand to (Jer. 32:17; Job 42:2; Gen. 50:20). God doesn’t just know the future, but declares the future (Isa. 46:10). God sovereignly elects His church to the praise of his glorious grace (Eph. 1:4-7). And God promises that he is working all things, good and bad, together according to His purposes (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). Nothing happens in this world that doesn’t either come directly from, or pass through the hands of God (Luther). In summary, God is in control; there is nothing going on in the world today that God is not sovereign over.

In the book of Jonah, we see this everywhere:

  • God sovereignly brings the storm (1:4)
  • The casting of lots falling on Jonah (1:7; Prov. 16:33)
  • God appoints the fish to swallow Jonah (1:17)
  • Jonah recognizes that it is God’s waves that are overtaking him (2:3)
  • Jonah’s recognition of God’s sovereign hand in salvation (2:9)
  • God relenting from bringing disaster upon Nineveh (3:10)
  • The plant growing in chapter 4 (4:6)
  • The worm that kills the plant (4:7)
  • The scorching wind (4:8)

Even the people, who are all pagans (the mariners and people of Nineveh), look like they are under God’s rule. The mariners recognize that God has done “as He pleased” (1:14), and the people of Nineveh repent (3:5-10). The only thing in the book of Jonah that doesn’t seem to be under God’s sovereign control is Jonah, himself. Which is so ironic, because he is the only one who claims to be a follower of God. But as Jonah prays and recalls his own disobedience in the belly of the fish, he is able to say that even his sin is somehow still under God’s control.

Now, here is what this doesn’t mean: This does not mean that Jonah is not responsible for his sin. This does not mean that Jonah didn’t really make those decisions and he was somehow forced, like a puppet, to do it because God is in control. God holds all men accountable for their actions, and will one day judge them for their choices (Rev. 20:11-15). But God is still sovereign over everything that happens in this world (Matt. 10:29; Dan. 2:29; 4:35; Prov. 16:1).

Friends, we need to know that whatever happens in this world is under God’s sovereign control – even evil. God does not cause evil, and he holds men accountable for their actions, but he still mysteriously is sovereign. And we see that most clearly in the crucifixion of Jesus. Was Jesus being crucified a sin? Yes! If anything is a sin, killing the sinless Son of God is most certainly a sin! Was it a sin for Pilate and Herod to deliver Jesus over to be crucified? How could it not be? However, listen to this prayer to God from the Apostles, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place,” (Acts 4:27-28). Was crucifying Jesus a sin? Yes (John 19:11). Did God predestine it to take place? Yes. Does God delight in and desire us to sin? Absolutely not (Rom. 6:12).

I don’t know how that works. I don’t know exactly how to reconcile those two things. The Bible doesn’t tell us the exact mechanics of God’s sovereign rule and our moral accountability. They both are present in God’s Word, and that can be tough to wrestle with at first. But here is what we cannot do: we cannot take something that is plainly taught in the Bible, and throw it out because we can’t figure out all the ins-and-outs of how it functions. Or, we can’t emphasize one aspect more than the other, just because we can’t reconcile them in our minds (God is sovereign,  so men don’t really have free will…Man has free will, so God can’t really be sovereign). In Scripture, God has not revealed to us everything, but only some things.

But how could you worship a God that doesn’t make sense?, someone might ask. Well, our problem isn’t in that God is being illogical, our problem is simply we don’t understand how He does it because we are limited, finite beings, and God is, well, not. In God’s inscrutable wisdom, He has decided that it is not necessary for us to know how His sovereignty meshes with our responsibility. And that’s okay!

In Sci-Fi movies, space ships are able to travel huge distances from planet to planet in a matter minutes because they have something called a “warp-drive” that lets them travel faster than the speed of light. Super cool. Now, let me ask you a question: how does a warp-drive work? How is that possible? How does it function? What are its mechanics?

*shrugs shoulders*

You see, the creators of the movies know this: it is not vital for the story for us to know how a warp-drive works. They just say that it does, we trust them, and we enjoy the movie. Now, its not a perfect illustration, because thats a movie and it isn’t real, but here is the point: God tells us what is most vital for the story.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law,” (Deut. 29:29)

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name…Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written,” (John 20:30-31, 21:25)

God’s Word tells us that we all are responsible for our actions, yet God is sovereign – we may not understand how everything in that works, but that’s okay. We’re not God, we don’t have to. It isn’t our job to figure out how God does what he does. It is our job to read what is in Scripture, to believe it, and obey.

We actually do this all the time with the Bible. Can you explain to me just exactly how God created matter out of nothing? Or, how about God existing as three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Exactly how did God make the Virgin Mary pregnant with Jesus, or cause a dead corpse to come back to life? How can God be both eternal, and yet can enter into space and time? You see, there are innumerable key doctrines in our faith that we would whole heartedly believe in, be able to explain, but feel comfortable with saying that we just will never totally know how God exactly does it – because He is God and is immeasurably beyond exhaustive comprehension. We have little brains, and cannot begin to claim that our 9 lbs. minds are able to squeeze the infinite God inside of it.

But when it comes to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, we have a more difficult time. Why is that? Well, my theory is that it is just because we are Western Americans, who are saturated in a hyper-individualistic culture that tells us that nothing is more sacred than our freedom to do whatever we want. Many other cultures don’t have the same struggle with God’s sovereignty that we have. For us, the thought of a God so big that He could even be sovereign over my choices gives us the willies… but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. C.H. Spurgeon used to say that the Word of God is the anvil upon which the ideas of man are smashed. Sometimes, we need our concepts and notions pulverized by God’s truth. Paul tells us that some concepts should not be entertained by Christians, but need to be destroyed by the truth of God (2 Cor. 10:5).

So we come, feebly perhaps, but we come nonetheless and sit before our Lord’s holy Word, day in and day out, allowing the hammer to fall and temper our thoughts and beliefs. It may be painful to see what you once cherished be proven untrue and reduced to dust. But in time we will see what once seemed like attacks on ourselves, turn out to be the very blows that knock down the blinding walls we had built between us and our God.

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