Divine Purposes and Culpable Humans

I read a phrase the other day which got me thinking: it was a reference to Judas as a “culpable tool”. Let me quickly look at these two words. To be culpable of course is to be morally responsible, guilty, blameable. To be a “tool” can refer to one who is being used, often unwittingly, by someone smarter or more superior.

Or if we take the older and established meaning, a tool is “a device or implement … used to carry out a particular function”. In both senses of the word, we have the idea of someone or something being used by another. We think of the user and his purposes, while the tool is just being used for the ends of another.

So to speak of a ‘culpable tool’ may seem rather contradictory. But this is in a sense how Scripture speaks about humans in the outworking of the divine plan. An admittedly huge subject, it has to do with the old seeming paradox between two biblical truths: the sovereignty of God and the moral responsibility of man.

This of course has been discussed, debated and written about for millennia, and entire libraries are filled on these mega theological issues. But I just want to revisit this, with a very brief and limited look at some of the matters involved.

My take on this massive debate is fairly simple: Scripture fully affirms the truth that God is sovereign and is in control and is working out his purposes. Scripture also fully affirms the truth that we are all accountable and morally responsible for our actions. Both things happen to be true, even if it is very hard for us to see how both can be at the same time.

But both of these truths need to be affirmed simultaneously, a position referred to as compatibilism. The Bible tells us that we must uphold both claims, and that they are somehow compatible, and not at odds with each other. And we see both these truths often brought together in a single verse, or passage.

One of the most famous passages of course concerns the plight of Joseph and all that happened to him as found in the closing chapters of Genesis. He was terribly ill-treated by his brothers, yet God was behind it all nonetheless working out his purposes. As we read in Gen. 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

On a bigger scale, we read in Isaiah 10 how Yahweh used evil Assyria to judge Israel. He even referred to Assyria as “the rod of my anger”. But he still held Assyria culpable, and later judged them as well. I speak to this further here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/09/03/god-judgment-and-the-nations/

Two very well known New Testament passages, both centring on the death of Christ, also forcefully affirm the truths of human responsibility as well as divine sovereignty:

Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

And Acts 4:27-28 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

Those who sent Jesus to his death were “evil men” and were fully culpable for their actions, yet God was able to use human decisions in his overall plans and purposes. Again, how we are to fully reconcile in our minds the way this is possible may have to wait till life in the next world.

But let me look at one final example – this time in more detail. This too deals with the work and death of Christ. In John 19:9-11 we read about this exchange between Pilate and Jesus:

“Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

Image of The Gospel according to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC))
The Gospel according to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)) by Carson, D. A. (Author) Amazon logo

What is clear here is that Pilate is one of the human actors who is responsible for sending Jesus to the cross (although reluctantly, as we read in the rest of this narrative). But it is also quite clear that Jesus is affirming the sovereign control of God in all this as well.

D. A. Carson, in his helpful 1991 commentary on John has this to say, in part, about the passage and is worth quoting at length:

Behind Pilate’s ‘power’ (exousia, ‘authority’), however, Jesus discerns the hand of God. Typical of biblical compatibilism, even the worst evil cannot escape the outer boundaries of God’s sovereignty – yet God’s sovereignty never mitigates the responsibility and guilt of moral agents who operate under divine sovereignty, while their voluntary decisions and their evil rebellion never render God utterly contingent (e.g. Gen 50:19–20; Isa 5:10ff.; Acts 4:27–28). Especially in writing of events that lead up to the cross, New Testament writers are bound to see the hand of God bringing all things to their dramatic purpose, no matter how vile the secondary causalities may be; for the alternatives are unthinkable. If God merely outwits his enemies, whose evil sets both the agenda and the pace, then the mission of the Son to die for fallen sinners is reduced to a mere after-thought; if God’s sovereignty capsizes all human responsibility, then it is hard to see why the mission of the Son should be undertaken at all, since in that case there are no sins for the Lamb of God to take away.
Pilate’s authority then, was given to him from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. The force of the Therefore is not immediately clear, and some suggestions are certainly wrong. Morris, for instance, plausibly argues that Caiaphas is the betrayer, the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate, and that Caiaphas is ‘ultimately responsible’ since Judas was merely ‘a tool’ and Pilate was serving under the delegated authority of God himself. But if Judas was a tool, he was a culpable tool; moreover, if God’s sovereignty mitigates Pilate’s responsibility, why should it not similarly attenuate the responsibility of Caiaphas (cf. 11:49-52)?

Yes, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate and others were all involved in sending Jesus to his death. And they were all in a sense culpable tools. Yet through all this God was working out his eternal purposes, and accomplishing that which he willed to accomplish. Passages like this certainly highlight the interplay between human choices and God’s sovereign plan.

Just how they can so fit together is still a mystery. But we are not asked to come up with a perfect rationale as to how these two things cohere. We are simply asked to affirm biblical truth, and in this case we have the truth that human actions are significant and praise- or blame-worthy, and that God is indeed in charge, working out his purposes.

More light on all this will undoubtedly be shed when we get to heaven. But while on earth, Christians are called to think God’s thoughts after him. We are called to seek to understand his word. As such, we are all to be theologians. And a good theologian will affirm all of God’s truth, even if we cannot fully comprehend or explain it all.

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2 Replies to “Divine Purposes and Culpable Humans”

  1. It’s hard to take it all in, but I can grasp the basic concept, that God somehow ultimately uses all things for good and to achieve His good plans. Another verse that came to my mind is when Jesus said “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come.” in Luke 17:1

  2. We tend to view these matters as “either – or” concepts rather than “this and that”. As a small container fits inside a large container so man’s will being the smaller concept fits inside the sovereignty of God with room to spare. I simply view the free will of man as part of the sovereignty of God.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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