If God is sovereign, how can he hold us responsible for sin?

This is a common objection thrown up against those of us who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. If God ultimately determines all things, how can he hold us accountable for our sin? As one person put it to me, if God is in control of absolutely everything that happens, how can Judas be a son of perdition – that is, end up in Hell – when he was only doing what God wanted, wasn’t he?

Most who hold to Calvinistic doctrines on God’s sovereignty tend to argue in favour of compatiblism. That is the idea that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not at odds with each other. It is entirely possible for God to be completely sovereign and yet for human beings to be responsible for their own sin before God. Which is all very well, but how do we justify that?

There are two ways to think about it. There is the theological case and there is a philosophical case. The theological case is what the Bible outlines about this issue and the doctrines that interact with it whereas the philosophical case is the logical coherence of the biblical position.

Theologically, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign and yet man is responsible for their own sin. So, if we simply take the Bible at face value, that is what it says. The Bible is unequivocal that God is in control of all things and yet equally clear on the fact that we are responsible for our own sin.

Compatiblists would then point to the doctrine of Total Depravity. The belief that, since the fall, all people inherit Adam’s sinful nature and sin now taints every part of the world. As such, the Bible talks about people being dead in sin. Our natural state is to always incline towards sin. That is, in effect, all we are able to do. It does not mean we are always as sinful as we might be (that would be utter depravity, which we do not believe) but that we are, by nature, always tainted by sin and inclined towards sin.

Philosophically, compatiblists would see an inverse relationship between God’s active and permissive causation. For human beings not to sin, God has to intervene in the world. He has to actively cause good to come about. For sin to occur, God doesn’t have to do anything at all. He simply allows our natural inclinations to follow their course. There is an inverse relationship between the causation of good – which is active – and the permission of evil, which is passive. Clearly God remains sovereign inasmuch as the decision to intervene or to passively allow something to occur is nonetheless a choice on his part. But in one scenario, God actively causes things to occur whilst in the other he passively permits them to unfold.

Further, God sovereignly ordains circumstances around people, knowing precisely what they will do. He knows what set of circumstances are required to get people to so act as he wills. As he places the circumstances around them, he either passively allows them to follow their natural inclinations or he actively causes them follow the leading of his Spirit towards the good. In this way, all circumstances and actions are ultimately under the sovereign control of God.

Nevertheless, human beings remain responsible for their choices because they are making a choice. Although their circumstances may have been set around them by the Lord, their choice in the moment is theirs. God either causes them to do right or he allows them to act in line with their own sinful inclinations. But in either case, there is a human choice and it is to act in line with their greatest affection in the moment. What the Lord judges is not the circumstances that put them there, nor his ultimate decision to intervene or otherwise, but their own personal choice so far as their affections of the moment were concerned.

So, to take the example of Judas, God can hold him responsible for his sin. Judas was acting in line with his own affections. Yes, the Lord knew what he would do. Yes, God set the circumstances around him knowing he would do it. Yes, the Lord chose not to intervene to stop him for his own greater purposes. But in the end, Judas’ sinful choice in the moment was his own. The evil he perpetrated was hatched in his own heart. God was sovereign over the matter, but Judas nevertheless remains responsible.