Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 14 - John MacArthur

This year, R.C. Sproul's Ligonier Ministries Conference focused on "Tough Questions Christians Face." Dr. John MacArthur addressed the question, "Does the Doctrine of the Divine Decrees Eliminate Human Will?" MacArthur's answer radically affirmed Biblical paradox and divine incomprehensibility, while also radically affirming the clarity and reliability of Scripture. His words rang with the humility of a man who has wrestled with the twin truths of God's sovereignty and human responsibility, and found himself standing in baffled awe before the transcendent wisdom of God, as revealed in His Word.

Here are some excerpts from MacArthur's message . . .

"This is a very, very important question, and I think . . . for folks who are new to . . . Reformed theology, this is the big hurdle to get over. If God is sovereign - if God is in control of absolutely everything - then what place does human responsibility play? . . . It is also, I think, the most pervasive, nagging question in the minds of people who have already embraced Reformed theology, who still grapple with the solution to how divine sovereignty and human responsibility work together. It is unquestionably a paradox, at least apparently. Certainly it is not contradictory to God, nor is it contradictory in reality, but it appears to us to be contradictory. I know all of you have struggled with this question, all of you have. I have. It's not a question that goes away. You don't get a short answer. In wanting to prepare my thoughts for this occasion . . . I began to read everything I could find on how human responsibility comes together with divine sovereignty. What I got was a lot of philosophy, a lot of rational thinking, a lot of reasoning, a lot of adjectives, qualifying absolutely everything, but I really didn't get any satisfaction."

"I want you to see the way Scripture handles this issue. There is a reason why nobody yet has given you a fully satisfactory answer, and I know no one has. You may be a teacher of Reformed theology, and you haven't read or heard a really satisfactory answer to this difficult dilemma from the standpoint of human reason. Where you have to go with this is to set all of that aside and just see what Scripture says."

"The Scripture never equivocates on presenting these two great side by side realities in the very same place. . . . Human responsibility both for faith and culpability for unbelief is crystal clear, and it is put in the passages where sovereignty is emphasized strongly."

"The Bible doesn't tell you one side of this in this book, and then four books later sneak in the other side. It's in the same place over and over and over again. . . . I can't resolve this. You just need to enjoy the pain. . . . and you certainly don't want to come up with a hybrid in the middle which denies the reality of both. They are what they are. And if you're under the illusion that you can figure it out, you're on the level of a man who thinks he's a poached egg."

Can I just encourage you? Have you been struggling with this? Of course you've been struggling with this! . . . these two things go together and there is no explanation beyond that. You're there. . . . you've got it."

"You say, 'look, I'm struggling a little bit with this.' Good. It means you're human. . . . Are you surprised that you're struggling with this? Get over it. Who do you think you are? 98% water. Are you kidding me? Why should you expect to understand this? . . . This is way beyond us, but we love these truths, don't we? We love the truth of divine sovereignty. We embrace the truth of human responsibility. And we cherish Gospel duty. . . . These mysteries for us are inconceivable, incomprehensible, unfathomable, unsearchable. You don't need more information . . . You got it."

"Listen folks, not your individual intellect or our collective intellects are going to be able to comprehend the incomprehensible, inscrutable mind of God."

See the video here:


  1. I'm just finishing Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by Packer, and his conclusions are the same. This is certainly one of the mysteries of God, and we cannot, as finite creatures, even begin to sort out this paradox and pack into neat little boxes.

    One of those passages that juxtaposes sovereignty and free will is John 6:38-40 where Jesus speaks of "all that He has given me" (the elect) and then "everyone who looks on the Son...has eternal life."

  2. Blaine,

    Great point. Dr. MacArthur mentioned that very Scripture, along with Isaiah 10, John 3, some verses from Acts and Romans 9.

    Someone offered me a free ticket to the conference a day before it started, and I'm still kicking myself for not going!

    There is another really good treatment of this subject on, a 2-part lecture series about free will and predestination by Brian Borgman.

    Only mainstream Reformed theology seems to be able to handle these tensions. Arminians, Pelagians and Open Theists reduce divine sovereignty until human responsibility takes over, while hyper-Calvinists reduce human responsibility until it disappears or is rendered meaningless. Both are grave mistakes that ultimately diminish God's glory.


  3. I know that both of you guys know that other great preachers have worked hard to preserve this paradox. I never get tired of this Spurgeon excerpt you posted a couple of years ago, Derek:

    "That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring." (New Park Street Pulpit, 4:337)

    I love the illustration he uses in that last (long!) sentence of two nearly parallel lines. They do eventually meet, but they meet somewhere far beyond our current ability to see.

  4. Barry,

    I agree, that is one of the all time most classic affirmations of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

    Didn't I steal that quote from your site? Hadn't you taken it from Randy Alcorn's article on Biblical paradox? Hard to believe it's been a couple of years now!


  5. Derek,

    I did find it in an Alcorn article several years ago and then used it in a post when I started blogging, but you may have written your post before mine. I'm not sure.

    Besides, no matter who posted it first, "steal" is such a strong word; I like "borrow" better. :)

    Blessings to you, Derek.

  6. Another verse to support this issue is Philippian 2: 12-13 - 12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

  7. Ivan,

    Thank you for commenting. This is an excellent point, and a great paradoxical passage. We easily think our way into the false dichotomy of sanctification, believing that it is either God who "works," or it is we who must "work." As we see here, BOTH are working: He "works in" so that we can "work out." The purpose fulfilled is His; the salvation is ours. Beautiful and encouraging words! Reason to tremble with fear, and yet also to rejoice. And again I say, rejoice . . .



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