Why Divine Sovereignty Secures Human Responsibility: A Theological Reading of Exodus

clayIt is often argued that God’s absolute sovereignty disables or demotivates human responsibility. But I contend it is just the opposite: a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty secures and strengthens human responsibility. In fact, the more we see how God’s sovereign actions work in human history, the more reason we have to trust God and move out in faith.

Much confusion exists between fatalism and biblical predestination. In the former, the world is mechanistic and impersonal, God will do what he is going to do, end of story; in the latter, God in his love is at work to bring all things together for his glory and his people’s good. To be sure, God is going to do what he wants (see Psalm 115:3; 135:6), but this is good news, not bad.

When understood according to God’s Word, God’s meticulous and exhaustive sovereignty is not a reason for despair or distrust. Rather, as we will see from Exodus, God’s predestined and pre-communicated control of events is the very foundation needed to walk in humble obedience to God and his commands.

Promise and Fulfillment in Exodus Evidences the Sovereignty of God

All of Scripture follows the pattern of promise and fulfillment. Since the Fall, God has made one promise after another. He has bound these promises in covenants. And he has bound himself to fulfilling his covenanted word (see Hebrews 6:13–20). We see this is large ways, as the protoevangelion in Genesis 3:15 directs all of redemptive history until all the subsequent promises of redemptive history are fulfilled in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 1:20). And we see this in smaller ways, like God’s promise to Sarai that this time next year she will have a son (see Genesis 18). From Luke’s perspective, all that was ever promised by God has been fulfilled in Christ (Acts 13:32–33). Hence, human faithfulness is undergirded by God’s faithfulness, which is to say human responsibility stands upon the sure, sovereign word of God.

In Exodus, a book that introduces the way God brings salvation to his people,  we can see how God’s promises are fulfilled, and how his sovereignty is more than helpful for human responsibility—it is necessary. More than five times, we find in Exodus Moses making the connection that what God said he would do, he has done. And thus, his people are meant to find confidence in Yahweh because of this, which in turn leads to greater trust and obedience. Let me mention each promise-fulfillment in Exodus, draw a couple points of application along the way, and show why God’s absolute sovereignty is good news for our faithful obedience to him.

1. Enslavement to a Foreign People

Four hundred years before Israel suffered under Pharaoh, God told Abram (not yet Abraham) that his offspring would experience that horrible plight. Genesis 15 records the predictive word, which comes to fulfillment in Exodus and is most explicitly connected to Abraham in 12:40–42.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13–16)

The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. 41 At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. 42 It was a night of watching by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. (Exodus 12:40–42)

Four hundreds years predicted; four hundred and thirty experienced. To deny the connection between 400 and 430 because these two periods are not exactly the same is to miss the force of Moses’ writing. God revealed to Abram what he would do, and in just the right timing, “on that very day,” God fulfilled what he foretold. Anyone reading Exodus is meant to see that what God in his sovereignly decreed in days past took place just as he said. This predictive word therefore invites confidence that God is the Lord over history, a God who all nations must recognize as God and worship as Lord.

2. Mount Horeb

Next, God promised Moses he would bring him back to Mount Horeb, the location of the burning bush, so that he and the people he would redeem might worship at God’s Mountain. The promise is made in Exodus 3:12; the fulfillment is found in Exodus 19:2

He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)

On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain. (Exodus 19:1–2)

Again the promise is fulfilled in God’s perfect timing, so that all generations thereafter might find increasing confidence that the God of the Exodus does what he is says he will. He is the one who rules the nations and determines the boundaries of his people (cf. Acts 17:26). Therefore, all who hear his voice, can trust him and obey him completely.

3. Signs and Wonders

In the same context at the burning bush, Yahweh also promised he would deliver Israel through the power of his mighty works.

 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. (Exodus 3:20)

This promise turned into the ten plagues God poured out on Egypt. Each time animals died or darkness invaded, another Egyptian god was exposed for its weakness (cf. Exodus 12:12). And each time God protected Israel from the plague, drawing a boundary around Goshen (see e.g., Exodus 8:22; 9:26), Yahweh displayed his power. Thus again, his sovereignty over space, time, and creation is coupled with the fact that he foretold the way in which he would work.

4. Plundering the Egyptians

God also promised that he would not send the Israelites away from Egypt empty-handed. In fact, he promised that God would so favor his people, the Egyptians would send them away with their gold, jewels, and clothing. Hence, God predicted the most unlikely scenario—that God would ruin Egypt in such a way that the beleaguered and beaten nation would yet long to give tons of precious gifts to Israel on the way out of town. Exodus 3:22 records the promise, Exodus 12:36 the fulfillment.

And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, 22 but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.” (3:21–22)

And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. (12:36)

Again, God’s promise became a reality. For those exiting Egypt it must have felt like a dream (cf. Psalm 126). For all subsequent generations, God’s unlikely promise perfectly fulfilled invites us to trust God. Indeed, we can only trust and obey him to the measure that we have confidence in his promises. And his promises are believable only to the measure that he has to fulfill them. Therefore, if God’s sovereignty was variegated in anyway—he is sovereign over most things, but not all things—than his unbelievable promises would in fact be unbelievable. But because he turns every human heart, the king included (Proverbs 21:1), and every nation (Psalm 33:7–11) as he wishes, we can know for sure that his absolute sovereignty undergirds every promise. And thus our faith for living depends on his sovereign predestination.

This is seen in the way God worked in the promises to bless Israel and in the promise to destroy Pharaoh.

5. The Passover

Our last example concerns God’s praiseworthy (see Psalm 136) and predetermined plan to destroy Pharaoh.

In Exodus itself we find Yahweh displaying incredible power as he saves his people Israel. And like everything else we have seen, God does not just work and explain afterward. Rather, he foretells what he will do, he does it, and then he explains what just happened. This Word-Act-Word pattern repeats through Scripture and is the normative way we learn who God is.Most powerfully in Exodus this Word-Act-Word pattern is seen in the Passover.

Exodus 4 indicates the kind of force Yahweh will use in liberating Israel from Egypt. Although his words are conditional (“If you refuse. . . [then] I will kill you firstborn . . .”), because Yahweh knows the content of Pharaoh’s heart (3:19), his statement is not one of undetermined contingency. Rather, in keeping with his absolute sovereignty, his words reflect his predetermined plan and intention: God will save his firstborn through his just judgment on Pharaoh’s firstborn. Hence, Exodus 12:29–32 confirms Exodus 4:22–23.

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (4:22–23)

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. 31 Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. 32 Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!” (12:29–32)

Again, God’s sovereignty is put on displace. As Exodus 9:16 records, God raised up Pharaoh to display his mighty power. Because of Pharaoh’s strong obstinance, God was able to display his power. But again, because God is the Potter of every human vessel, what we find in Pharaoh was a man made by God himself. This, it might be argued, strips all motivation for human responsibility: because God has predetermined all things.

But that is not how Exodus portrays it; God is in control of everything, directing all things, bringing to completion all his purpose. For this reason Exodus beckons us to trust God—just like Moses did when he learned beforehand that God would liberate Israel through Pharaoh’s defeat at the Passover. Even more, the generations after Moses learned to trust God because of the way his pre-communicated promise was enacted by God in just the way he foretold.

Indeed, this is Paul’s whole point in Romans 9. The apostle, pointing back to Pharaoh, warns agains the man who criticizes his Maker, the heavenly Potter, for his divine choice in making different clay vessels for different reasons. It is the height of hubris to reject God because he is absolutely sovereign over creation. Only a fallen mind persists in unbelief when confronted with an all-powerful, all-loving God.

Likewise, it is equally foolish to reject God’s absolute and meticulous sovereignty because someone believes it denies human responsibility. As Exodus shows us, it is just the opposite. Because God has declared the end from the beginning, he shows just how trustworthy he is. Because he is absolutely in control of all things, his children can trust him with every detail of their lives.

God’s Sovereignty Invites and Secures Human Responsibility

From Exodus (and the rest of the Bible), we learn human responsibility is not precluded by (a doctrine of) God’s sovereignty. Rather, for those who understand the personal, loving, redeeming nature of God’s predestination, it is the greatest inducement to trust in him. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

In Paul’s verse, the promise of good works is undergirded by God’s eternal plan and purpose for every child born in his household. It would be height of folly to reject obedience because God predestined that obedience. Rather, such knowledge (that God predestined my faith, my obedience, my good works) invites me, his  new creation in Christ, to marvel at my Father’s eternal plan, and to praise him for bringing it to fruition in my life.

This truth of God’s absolute sovereignty puts the follower of Christ on solid ground. It doesn’t lead to despair or to a question of God’s volitional overreach. Rather, it affirms that he is God; he is the Creator and Ruler who has absolute control, authority, and power. It simultaneous affirms that I am not God; I am a creature who has no right to talk back to God. In this way, we, his creations, obey him best when we trust in his sovereignty most. Personally, I praise God he has predestined every step of my life. It makes me want to live more for him, and to walk in the good works he has given me in Christ Jesus.

I pray that you come to that same conclusion.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds