Minister's Blog

Divine sovereignty and human responsibility

By Steve Jeffery, 15 Jun 2017

We looked at this topic at our Wednesday Night Bible Study this week. Here are a few of the notes:

Divine sovereignty and human responsibility

1. How can I be free if God is sovereign?

What kind of “freedom” do we have?

Freedom of indifference: “I’m free to choose, seek, desire or will anything at all.”

Freedom of spontaneity: “I’m free to choose, seek, desire or will anything that is in keeping with my character.”


Illustration: Are you “free” to eat a bowl of live cockroaches?

If you find yourself thinking that the answer is “yes and no”, you’re right.

Yes, in the sense that there’s nothing physically stopping you from doing so. (In technical terns, there is no natural inability constraining you.)

But no, in the sense that there is (probably!) something “within” you that prevents you from tucking in to the crunchy arthropods. (In technical terns, there is a moral inability constraining you.)


Natural inability and moral inability

Examples of natural inability: “I can’t fly to the moon; I can’t do the ironing and wash the dishes and cook the dinner in 3 minutes.”

Examples of moral inability: “I can’t stop myself checking my Facebook feed; I can’t obey my mum’s instruction to do the ironing when Strictly Come Dancing is on TV.”


2. How can I be morally responsible for sins that God has predestined?

Moral responsibility requires freedom of spontaneity, not freedom of indifference

Knowledge and consent are required for moral responsibility

The freedom to have chosen to do otherwise (freedom of indifference) is not required for moral responsibility


Illustration: The red door, the green door, and the perfect bank robbery

Johnny is in a room with two doors, a red door and a green door. The doors look identical apart from their colour, and they both lead out of the room to the same destination.

There is only one difference between the doors: Johnny is reliably informed that if he exits through the red door, £10,000 will be withdrawn from the bank account of a random individual and deposited in his (Johnny’s) personal account. The transaction will be irreversible, the victim of the theft will not be compensated, Johnny will never be able to discover the victim’s identity, the destination of the money will never be traced, and the crime will be completely undetected. The money will be Johnny’s to keep.

Johnny is instructed to leave the room through whichever door he wishes.

He chooses to leave through the red door.

Is Johnny guilty of theft?

Think very carefully about your answer.

Don’t scroll down yet.









In particular, think very carefully about why Johnny is guilty of theft.








Keep thinking...









It later transpires that the green door, which Johnny never even touched, was in fact locked.

Does this fact make any difference to Johnny’s guilt?

Why not?


In order to be morally responsible for a sinful action, it is sufficient that you (1) Knew what you were doing and knew about the relevant ethical norms (knowledge); and (2) Chose to perform the action (consent).


In order to be morally responsible for a sinful action, it is not necessary that you should have been (hypothetically) “free” to have done otherwise.


3. How can God predestine sin without being morally culpable for doing so?

Aspects of ethical actions: Context, consequences, motives, intentions


Biblical texts

Acts 4:23-30, esp. v. 24 (“Sovereign Lord”) and v. 28 (“whatever your hand and your plan had predestined”)

Isaiah 10:5-19, esp. vv. 5-6 (“my fury ... I send him”), v. 7 (“but he does not so intend”), v. 12 (“the arrogant heart of the king ... the boastful look in his eyes”)


Illustration: Dark regions of a beautiful multi-textured painting

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