Sovereignty, Foreknowledge, and Human Responsibility

The curious case of Judas:

Here I am again, taking on some of the biggest, most complex, and most debated issues in the world of biblical studies, theology and even philosophy. The big-ticket item of how God’s sovereignty coheres with human responsibility has been discussed and debated for millennia now. As such I can offer nothing new here. But at least for those who want a brief intro and outline of things, a piece like this might be of some help.

I have been writing of late about divine knowledge, including divine foreknowledge. One woman wrote in asking about Judas, and whether he was saved in the end, because he returned the thirty pieces of silver. I replied to her as follows:

Thanks ***. Scripture does not give us any reason to believe that Judas really ever repented. There is a difference between remorse and repentance. A lot of people might feel bad about something they have done (especially if they have been caught) but that is not the same as biblical repentance. Committing suicide is another indication of his unsaved state. And as Jesus said, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24). But even more telling is what we read in John 17:12: “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”

But that answer also raises other questions. If Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray him, does that mean Judas had no choice in the matter? In other words, does foreknowledge entail causation? If something is known ahead of time, does that mean that those doing various actions have no moral culpability?

Again, this has been discussed for centuries. My short answer is God can know things in advance, yet people are still held to account for what they have done. Even though it is a mystery to us, God can be in control, but humans can still be accountable. And they can be held accountable even when their actions are known by God long before they even happened.

The classic case of this involves the crucifixion of Christ. This was obviously fully foreknown by God, and part of his divine plan. And yet those who carried out this evil act are fully held to account. Two key passages in the book of Acts make this crystal clear:

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.

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.

Note how both passages specifically speak of the foreknowledge of God. But both assign blame to those who did this. All throughout Scripture we find this happening. Our fallen and finite and fallible minds may find it hard to fathom all this, but the Bible certainly affirms these major truths: God is sovereign and knows all things, and human beings are morally responsible for their actions.


We have a number of passages in the gospels (some of which I have shared above) that make it clear that Jesus knew ahead of time that he would be betrayed by Judas. Consider what we find in the gospel of John. John 13:10-11, 18-19 and 21-27 say this:

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”

We get more of the same in John 6:64, 70-71:

“But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)

Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

So there is no question that Jesus knew what Judas was going to do. But the question then arises, does that mean he had to do this and was therefore not responsible for his actions? Again, if we take all of Scripture, we find that this pattern of God being behind various events, yet humans being responsible for their decisions is the norm.

Genesis 50:20 is just one of many key texts. All the actions that the brothers of Joseph were involved in were genuine, evil actions, and yet God could somehow use even those for his purposes. As Joseph said to them: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Note how they intended evil – yet God was somehow using all this for his sovereign purposes.

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As Norman Geisler and H. Wayne House say of the openness of God theologians who have real troubles with all this: “[they appear] to confuse God’s determination with direct causation. A person may know something without causing it in such a way as to take away any human self-determination, and so may God. If a person standing on the side of the road sees a car coming toward a person in the road, and then it hits that individual, he has not caused the accident.”

They go on to say that classical theists,

such as Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, point out that there is no contradiction in claiming both that a future free act is determined as it relates to God’s infallible foreknowledge and that it is free as it relates to the individuals’ power to do otherwise. Thus, infallible foreknowledge and free choice are not contradictory. The law of noncontradiction demands that, to be contradictory, two propositions must affirm and deny the same thing in the same sense and in the same relationship. But in this case, an event is determined in one relationship (God’s foreknowledge) but not determined in a different relationship (free choice).

As mentioned, all this gets to be massively complex, and many issues arise here, including God’s relationship to time, our understanding of freedom, how we understand divine foreknowledge, and what makes for a morally accountable action, and so on.

Perhaps I can wrap all this up by mentioning another quite similar theological stance to that of the open, or free-will theists. Known as the ‘moral government of God’ teaching, it was popular in some missionary groups I was once a part of. I assume the two main proponents of this view have now passed on to glory.

I sat under both men and received a lot from their teaching, but I always had problems with some of their main premises. At the risk of over-simplifying things, they held to similar things as does openness theology:

-God does not have perfect knowledge of the future.
-Things can take God by surprise.
-Only actions which are freely chosen are morally praiseworthy or blameworthy.
-Actions that are foreknown are not freely chosen, and therefore are not morally accountable.
-God generally never causes humans to do anything.
-When he does, they are free of any moral value.

Their aims, like that of the free-will theists, is to absolve God of any blame for evil. That is a noble aim, but if it ends up doing real injustice to the biblical data, then it is not all that helpful. To illustrate the problems with this view, let me mention one story from a long time ago.

I was in an evangelism school of a mission organisation, and a teacher who fully held to the views of the two men mentioned above was presenting this view. At one point I raised my hand and asked him this question:

‘I have sat under these two well-known teachers, and asked them this question, but I did not get a satisfactory answer, so let me ask it of you. If actions are only morally significant if freely chosen and not foreknown, then what are we to do with the most morally significant action, and the most clearly foreknown and foretold action, the death of Christ on a cross?

‘We have so many specific and detailed prophecies of what Jesus would go through at Calvary. It was all predicted long before it happened. Yet according to your theology, if it is foreknown, it is not something freely chosen or morally significant. How can the greatest act in human history be said to have no real moral worth?

‘Either you must deny the many, many specific prophecies about what Christ would do on our behalf, thus making his actions freely chosen and morally significant, or you must admit that they were clearly foreknown – even from eternity past as Paul and others clearly state (eg. Ephesians 1), and therefore not anything we can praise or blame, because they were caused.’

Needless to say, this speaker was not able to answer my question either! The truth is this: God DOES know future events, he is in control and working out his purposes and plans, and human beings ARE responsible for their actions, even if foreknown.

Again, it is hard to see how all these biblical truths fit together, but they do. It is far better to affirm the whole counsel of God and live with some tension than to create neat little theological systems which result in rejecting much of the biblical witness.

[1859 words]

6 Replies to “Sovereignty, Foreknowledge, and Human Responsibility”

  1. Interesting. That’s always been a deep question of mine. What is free will and what is pre determined in our lives. If God wishes none should perish, why did he create Lucifer, knowing he would turn and take many with him?

    In the Catholic Easter Vigil Mass, which has always been one of my favorite services, one of the prayers state “Oh necessary sin of Adam”. If Adam had not fallen, we would never have required the death and Resurrection of Christ. Yet God is Omnipotent, etc. so when he created man with free will, and created Lucifer he knew man would fall. He knew he would need to send our Savior. Not arguing at all, just sharing my musings.

  2. A great article on a tough topic, thankyou.
    I have one question still rising in my mind, As it is not obvious to me that because we can choose things freely that it therefore means that our will is indeed free. For the following reasons.
    1/ Often times we choose freely and are oblivious to all the available choices. Means our will is not as free as many would like it to be.
    2/ Still other times we have available to us choices that we would never choose (because we don’t like that choice, for what ever reason). Means our wills are at least restrained by our characters/likes and dislikes.
    3/ Then as some point out, our wills are not free enough to choose beyond our abilities, be that ability spiritual, physical or emotional.
    Just how free is your free will?

  3. Thanks Doug. The theological and philosophical discussion on what is free will and what it entails is huge. One line of thought that I find helpful is this: We choose – more or less freely – in line with who we are and what our character is. In a fallen world where we are all fallen, sinful and selfish, we choose to act according to that nature or character. Thus we choose selfishly and sinfully. Until God by his Spirit breaks through in our lives, we will keep choosing in accordance with who we are by nature.

  4. I agree Bill, ‘God DOES know future events, he is in control and working out his purposes and plans, and human beings ARE responsible for their actions, even if foreknown.’ God is all-knowing that whatever we do, he knows the outcome even though there are a million ways we can go. He knows us better than ourselves and so He knew Judas’ character would betray Jesus and pilot would give in to those who wanted Jesus crucified. I think the Bible says he knows the beginning from the end so even if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, someone like me would have given in to Satan’s temptations and therefore we would need a saviour. Its all planned this bit of history we are in and whatever happens God knows how it will all turn out whatever way we go. The best thing to do though is to pray and ask God to lead us as He is the Shepherd and we are the sheep and try to read His Word to know His Will.

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