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Sovereignty vs Responsibility

Sovereignty vs Responsibility

“And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

‭‭Acts‬ ‭26‬:‭15‬-‭18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Paul is recounting to King Agrippa about his conversion. The paradox or irony, inherent in this verse reflects an age old theological debate, namely the issue of sovereignty vs responsibility. Jesus, who sovereignly appears to Paul and opens his eyes, commands Paul to go to the gentiles and open their eyes.

Many times we get caught up in debates about sovereignty and responsibility. We categorize these things under theological names like Calvinism or Arminianism and each of us hides out in our particular camp fixated on just one side of the argument. But when we focus on just one side of the argument, to the detriment of the other, we do a disservice to the text as a whole.

Throughout scripture, we see Jesus commanding us to repent and other passages telling us that God grants repentance. We see Jesus telling us to believe, but then we see that faith is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that we don’t receive until after the new birth. We see Jesus saying that no man can come to Him unless the Father draws him, but then He also says that if anyone is thirsty let him come unto [Jesus] and drink of the waters of new life. And we see in the above passage, Jesus opening the eyes of the blind and then commanding Paul to do the same likewise. We simply cannot fixate on only one side of the argument and remain faithful to scripture. Instead, we need to acknowledge both sides of the text and recognize that the two have to be reconciled together.

So how do we reconcile these? The Holy Spirit.

In the case of this text, Paul is being commanded to take the message of the gospel to the gentiles and to OPEN THEIR SPIRITUAL EYES. Read it carefully for my faithful Calvinists. PAUL, is being commanded to open their eyes. The Bible often refers to our spiritual eyes and the hardness of our heart synonymously. So how can Paul do this? The Holy Spirit that resides in him.

The best way that I can reconcile this is that while our words have the power to affect minds, only the Holy Spirit can affect hearts.

If the mind is changed and the heart unchanged it leads to a professing believer which will ultimately fall away. There are those who will debate “they were never saved” or “they lost their salvation”, which to me really becomes a matter of semantics or more precisely perspective. Semantics in the sense that either argument leaves “the fallen” in an unredemptive state regardless of your theological view. And perspective in the sense that it really comes down to whether you are seeing that individual through God’s eternal lens, by which He knows all those who are truly His. Or from a temporal earthly lens, by which from our perspective we counted this individual as a brother, only to see them fall away.

If the heart is changed and the mind unchanged we see this as an immature believer in need of growth. This involves the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification. A process by which the Holy Spirit uses His Word, discipleship from mature believers, discipline and pruning to accomplish. An immature, yet born again, believer can be nearly indistinguishable from a pseudo-believer but Jesus said there would be traits we could look for. An immature believer grows. He grows in both faith and repentance. He produces fruit. Both in the fruit of the Spirit and in the offspring he begets (as Paul is being commanded by Jesus to do). He perseveres.Perseverance is a byproduct of the testing of our faith. The pseudo believer is not characterized by these traits because his heart remains unchanged. And while he may exhibit some of these traits for a time, without a new heart he is utterly incapable of sustained growth in these areas.

I cite as two examples: John Mark and Demas. Both of these men accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. Both of these men were commended by Paul as being “good for the ministry”. And both of these men departed and abandoned Paul. In the case of John Mark, he abandoned Paul during his first missionary journey, to the extent that Paul did not want him to come on the second. Somewhere between Paul’s first and second missionary journey John Mark would return to the faith. John Mark’s return demonstrates an immature believer that left Paul’s service for an untold reason but whose heart never truly left God. We know this because during his absence from Paul, John Mark would go on to author the gospel of Mark.

On the other hand we have Demas. A man Paul mentions in two of his epistles as being “good for him” and the ministry yet Paul would later write would “abandon him, having loved the things of this world more”. We have no indication that Demas ever returned. Demas’s departure might have lended itself to immaturity but his failure to return is really just indicative of a pseudo belief. An intellectual belief resulting in a change of mind but not accompanied by a change of heart. Jesus spoke of this in the parable of the sower. He said some would fall away because of persecution and fears. Others would fall away because of the temptations and desires of this life toward the world.

So how does this play into Paul having some supernatural ability to open the spiritual eyes of the lost. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells Peter that to “him”, He would give the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Those keys, that key, is none other than the Holy Spirit which resides in the hearts of all born again believers.

The Holy Spirit is the only power believers possess to affect the eyes of another’s heart. It is by yielding to the message of the Holy Spirit through faith that we activate that power. I say “through faith” because oftentimes we struggle with the message as He has revealed it in His Word. Whether for fear of rejection, fear of harm or fear of some other consequences, the temptation to present the message on our own terms, in our own words, is real. But while we possess the power to change minds we are utterly destitute of the ability to change hearts. It is only through the faithful presentation of His Word that hearts can be transformed.

So we see within this mechanism, from Paul’s perspective, the responsibility to faithfully present the words of truth by the Holy Spirit without compromise. But we also see within this the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit to effectively change the heart of recipient.

Conversely, we see from the perspective of the recipient, the faithful words of the Holy Spirit opening the eyes of the heart through conviction, drawing him to Christ by creating in him the thirst that Jesus spoke of in John 7.  This is why Paul contrasts in 1 Corinthians 1:17-25 the uselessness of wise words, which originate in us, having the power to change minds but not hearts, with the foolishness of faithful preaching empowered by the Holy Spirit to sovereignly work in the recipients heart.

The work on the mind is intoxicating and produces speedy results with no resilience. The work on the heart is arduous and requires time to take root. But those roots grow deep and attach to something immovable, Christ. Charles Spurgeon commented on the useless endeavor of dead men begetting dead men. Those without the Holy Spirit do not possess the keys of the kingdom of heaven and thus lack the ability to open one’s eyes. Therefore they tend to gravitate toward speedy conversions with immediate gratification.

When we understand that it’s the Holy Spirit within the life of the believer which bridges the gap between sovereignty and responsibility we can reconcile all these paradoxes.

Jesus calls us to repent but we’re told that God grants repentance. Because it is through the conviction of the Holy Spirit that God illuminates our need for a savior. Therefore God retains His sovereign ability to call men and draw them unto Christ. Something that we are utterly unable to do in our spiritually blind state. And we retain our responsibility in that as the Holy Spirit illuminates our need we are told not to harden our hearts, close our eyes or venture back into the darkness.

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