God is in control, and we are responsible for our choices. How exactly this works is a mystery:
There are many things mere fallen and finite minds will never properly understand – at least in this life. Perhaps in the next world everything will become perfectly clear, but for now, we must settle for some mystery and for plenty of unanswered questions, partial knowledge, and limited understanding.
Indeed, when it comes to biblical and theological understanding, with the main topic being the infinite, absolute God who is there, we will always have very incomplete knowledge and a very limited perspective – even with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. We will always, as the Apostle Paul put it, “see through a glass darkly”.
One of the most obvious areas in which we will always have very limited understanding and countless questions is how we are to affirm and hold together two clear biblical truths: God is sovereign, and humans are responsible for their choices.
God quite often works through human agents – both good and evil – to accomplish his specific purposes. But God is not involved any less when he does so, nor is man morally unaccountable. The work of Christ at Calvary for our salvation is a clear case in point: it certainly was the direct will of God, but those immediately responsible for the death of Christ were Roman and Jewish leaders. See Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28 for example.
Throughout the Bible God’s judgment is seen in exactly those terms. Consider just one of many cases: God used the evil pagan Assyrians as his instrument of judgment on Israel. We read about this in Isaiah 10 for example. Evil men are responsible for their actions, but God is able to use them for his purposes. I have spoken to this text often, eg.: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/26/god-and-the-nations/
But given what an incredibly important chapter this is, and given that I just read it again today in my daily reading, it is worth revisiting once more. Several clear themes arise in this chapter. One, because of the sin and disobedience of Israel, God had to punish it.
Two, God will use the cruel, pagan nation of Assyria as his instrument of judgment. Three, because Assyria arrogantly thinks it could easily smash Israel because of its own strength and might, Yahweh in turn will judge Assyria. Despite calling Assyria “the rod of my anger,” God will nonetheless also bring judgment upon this nation as well.
Let me offer a bit of commentary here, and then look at some modern-day application to this. Just one commentator will suffice: Raymond Ortlund. In his 2005 expository commentary on Isaiah he says this about chapter 10:
This is one of the most important passages in the Bible on the sovereignty of God. What is the sovereignty of God? It is his ultimacy as King of the universe. It is his glorious Throne, from which he rules all things in unfrustrated supremacy: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Isaiah loved the sovereignty of God. But the nation God used as the disciplinary rod in his hand was itself evil. The Assyrians have been called the Nazis of the ancient Near East. In fact, the problem is worse.
Against a godless nation I send him [Assyria], and against the people of my wrath I command him. (v. 6)
“Wait just one minute here!” Isaiah’s readers in Israel would have said. “We aren’t a godless nation. Assyria is! How can you say, Isaiah, that God is sending that cruel war-machine against us?” But God doesn’t respect a double standard. The sins he judges out in the world he also judges among his own people (cf. Romans 2:11; 1 Peter 4:17). Belonging to God does not protect us from discipline; it makes us all the more accountable to obey. If we refuse, we are, in practical terms, “godless.”
God is able to use godless worldly powers to discipline his godless covenant people. Human oppressors don’t even have to be aware of God to be useful for his purifying purpose.
But he [Assyria] does not so intend, and his heart does not so think. (Isaiah 10:7)
Verses 8-11 reveal what Assyria was thinking. Not only were they salivating over the northern Israelite kingdom as a trophy of imperialistic expansion, they saw nothing to stop their advance all the way to Jerusalem in the south. The tool in God’s hand was very impressed with itself. The annals of Adad-Nirari II (911-891 B.C.) openly express the Assyrian mentality:
“In these days, when at the command of the great gods my lordly sovereignty has manifested itself, going forth to plunder the goods of the lands, I am royal, I am lordly, I am mighty, I am honored, I am exalted, I am glorified, I am powerful, I am all powerful, I am brilliant, I am lion-brave, I am manly, I am supreme, I am noble.”
Right. But Isaiah can see two sovereignties at work in this world — the sovereignty of man and the greater sovereignty of God. And God’s domain is able to use man’s domain, whether man wants it that way or not. How can human power outflank a God like that?
Just because God deploys human ambition doesn’t mean he condones human arrogance. Being used by God does not exempt anyone from humility before God. The truth here is twofold. On the one hand, God is on the side of the victor. The ebb and flow of this messy thing called human history follow the will of God. It was God’s will in 722 B.C. that Assyria conquer Israel. . . . But on the other hand, God is not on the side of the victor. God judges opportunistic people and nations, even if he uses them for his own higher purpose. God is able to use evil without being compromised by it. He holds every useful villain accountable, and no one is getting away with anything, not even arrogant speech and boastful looks.
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. (v. 12)
God appoints days of reckoning here within history, and he has a day of final judgment waiting at the end of history (Acts 17:31). The ruins of Berlin in 1945 bore witness to the wrath of God in our time. But Berlin was given another chance. The divine wrath on that future day will not be remedial in its intention or its effects. It will be eternally devastating.
I hope it is somewhat obvious why Christians today would want to consider carefully passages like Is. 10. When we see wicked nations getting away with murder – often quite literally – we should rightly ask some questions:
-Is this the judgment of God?
-Is God at least allowing these evil tyrants to do these things?
-If so, should we resist such evil, or just accept everything without question?
Consider the evil Hitler. Perhaps God allowed him to be used in some way (we do not have an Isaiah today informing us whether or not this is the case). But I think we were quite right to resist him and the Nazis. I do not think that passive acquiescence and acceptance of this monstrous evil was required of us – whether of Christians or non-Christians.
So again, we have the age-old conundrum: Is God sovereignly working out his purposes? And should we also be doing things even as all this occurs? I think we should answer both questions in the affirmative. The biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty is never meant to lead us to complacency, inactivity, and sheer passivity.
For example, even if you believe God elects some people to salvation, that does not mean we have no role to play here. We go out and evangelise, and we pray for the lost. (And no, I do not here wish to get into that particular hot potato debate thanks. I simply raise it as but one example.)
Part of the reason I discuss all this here is because – as you might know – I have been writing a lot lately about the place of resistance to evil, including evil governments and leaders. Again, trying to bring together two clear biblical truths is always difficult at best.
On the one hand, God is in control, and he does set up leaders and nations (and also takes them down). On the other hand, he does expect us to be his instruments of justice and righteousness in a fallen world. Thus Bonhoeffer was quite right to resist Hitler. He may have even been quite right to seek to see him assassinated.
I realise that these are very big issues that I am raising here. I finish where I began: There are plenty of questions, and there is so much mystery involved in all this. I do not have all the answers. No one does. But we all can at least carefully and prayerfully think about such matters. They are not at all just theoretical, but they have practical implications for all of us.
At the very least I can take comfort in knowing what a passage like Is. 10 is telling us. Right now, places like North Korea and Communist China are getting away with horrific, demonic evil. It is helpful to know that their days are numbered. God will fully judge them at the right time.
Sure, in the meantime, it is hellish to live under such horrible regimes, just as it is quite painful in the West to live under evil governments, although admittedly much less evil – but still, evil. Consider the former Soviet Union. It is no more, but for an entire 72 years its reign of terror took place (1917-1989).
An entire generation of people had to endure this – they were born, lived and died in that Communist hellhole. It is great to know that this too came to an end, but it was terrible indeed to have to live through it all. The same today. Even if we wonder whether something like the coronavirus might be the judgment of God – and it might be – we still are not fatalists. We can still work to see it lessened or alleviated.
In the end, God is at work. But he expects us to work as well. This intersection between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a deep mystery. But both truths are taught in Scripture. We may not know how it all works, but we can trust in a God who is too wise to make a mistake, and too loving to be unkind.
That last line is taken from Charles Spurgeon, as is this one: “When you go through a trial, the sovereignty of God is the pillow upon which you lay your head.” We are going through plenty of trials right now. Covid is one, as are the often-incommensurate lockdown policies which are causing added harm, suffering and death.
As we seek to know how we should respond to the trials of life, we also must keep in mind the vital truth that God has never for a moment removed himself from his royal throne. He is still there, he is still at work, and one day all trials will end, and all wrongs will be dealt with. In the meantime, hang in there, saints.