The Biblical Balance between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility


Several issues in theology become heated, but none like the issues between Calvinism and Arminian models. As my studies in theology have progressed, I have noticed an inconvenient truth. The Bible addresses both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. One cannot choose to accept one without the other and maintain biblical soundness in their theology. Apologist Ravi Zacharias even stated that “any system that does not hold to divine sovereignty is unbiblical. If any system does not hold to human responsibility, it is unbiblical” (Zacharias, podcast, 2014). The Bible teaches both. Some passages of Scripture provide evidence for this within the text itself. For the purposes of this article, four passages of Scripture will be given that indicate both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.


Philippians 2:12-13

Paul wrote, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Paul indicated that a person must work out their own salvation. Richard R. Melick writes in his commentary about the meaning of “working out one’s salvation,”

The Philippians were to make salvation work in their lives…Salvation was central to Paul’s theology. Normally the word has its full soteriological sense of spiritual deliverance from sin and the world. Paul described salvation as a past event (Eph 2:8–9) and as a future consummation (Rom 13:11). Here he spoke of working out salvation…Personal salvation brings with it responsibilities which Paul related to Christians’ obedience. The responsibility was to live in accord with their salvation, letting the implications of their relationship with Christ transform their social relationships. Paul really meant, in the first place, that they were to act like Christians (Melick 1991, 109-110).

Nonetheless, the process of “working out one’s salvation” depicts human responsibility. However, Paul goes on to state that the one working out one’s salvation is being worked in by God to do His good pleasure. In other words, Paul is expressing divine sovereignty in the process. Thus, one evaluates sovereignty and responsibility in the text.


Romans 8:28

Paul wrote

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

In this popular text, Paul addresses the fact that individuals love God. The act of “loving” demonstrates human responsibility. For those who love God, Paul states that God will work all things for good. In addition, Paul states that the individuals who love God were called, foreknown, predestined, and would be glorified; all of which demonstrates the sovereignty of Almighty God. Were individuals held responsible for loving God? Yes. But did God work sovereignly to bring them to that love? Yes. In some sense, both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility worked together.


Matthew 18:7

Jesus said, “Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes” (Matthew 18:7)! Jesus first indicated that “offenses must come.” Why must offenses come? We are not told. However, the fact that offenses must come indicates the sovereignty of God. God uses the offenses (the bad) for His glory and the glory of His saints (the good). Nonetheless, sovereignty is presented. Then, Jesus flips the lesson back on the one bringing the offense demonstrating the responsibility of the person bringing the offense. Therefore, Jesus presents a lesson on sovereignty and human responsibility.


Matthew 16:13-17

Matthew writes that,

  When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven (Matthew 16:13-17).

In this passage, the faith of Peter is praised. For Peter willingly proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God. Thus, the human response was demonstrated resulting in human responsibility. However, Jesus indicates that Peter could not have known this unless God the Father revealed this truth to Peter. Hence, divine sovereignty is clearly indicated. Therefore, both sovereignty and human responsibility are demonstrated in this passage.

mind in universe

The Theological Move: Moderate Calvinism

So which system fits this combination the best? It must be admitted that this writer’s perspective has changed in recent days, primarily by an exposure to different systems. Also, I can say that I did know that so many variations of systems existed until now. Norman Geisler states that there are four primary systems concerning the blend of sovereignty and human responsibility: “Of course, there are other shades and variations of views, but Pelagianism, Arminianism (Wesleyanism), moderate Calvinism, and strong Calvinism are the four main perspectives” (Geisler 2011, 786). In Geisler’s view, “the biblical, theological, and historical evidence favors the moderate Calvinist view” (Geisler 2011, 786). What is moderate Calvinism? Millard J. Erickson writes that moderate Calvinism is…

“what B. B. Warfield regarded as the mildest form of Calvinism (there are, in fact, some Calvinists who would deny that it deserves to be called Calvinistic at all). Warfield termed the position ‘congruism,’ for it holds that God works congruously with the will of the individual; that is, God works in such a suasive way with the will of the individual that the person freely makes the choice that God intends (from B.B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, 90-91)…” (Erickson 1998, 385).

The system is balanced between divine sovereign election and human freedom to respond…something that the Bible teaches. The system does not allow such strict determinism as do strong Calvinists that human freedom is eliminated. Neither does the system negate divine involvement in the salvific process as does Pelagianism. In fact, moderate Calvinism can be likened to what is called Semiaugustinianism. Everett Ferguson writes that “the final phase of the conflict over human nature and salvation aw the triumph of what may be called ‘Semiaugustinianism,’ as expressed by Caesarius, bishop of Arles (502-42)…Although Caesarius and the Council of Orange were largely Augustinian, their views allowed for predestination to grace, but not for predestination to glory (the absolute gift of perseverance)…” (Ferguson 2005, 301). Naturally, there are differences between the Semiaugustinianism of the sixth century and the moderate Calvinism being promoted by Geisler and Erickson. As I have studied theology, my theological base has moved slightly from Remonstrant theology to the congruism, or moderate Calvinism, promoted by Erickson and Geisler. Some strong Calvinists would still see the system as a form of Arminianism. Geisler and Erickson would not agree. Nonetheless, whatever system one finds as the best fit, I feel it is demonstrated that a middle system (one that is not inclined to either extreme) best fits the teachings of Scripture. For in the end, the sole authority of the doctrines for the Christian faith do not come from Calvin, Arminius, Augustine, Geisler, Erickson, or even me; it must come from the Bible itself.



All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Volume One—From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology: In One Volume. Bloomington: Bethany House, 2011.

Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991.

Zacharias, Ravi. “He Saw, He Left, He Conquered.” Podcast. Just Thinking Broadcasts. (April 14, 2014).



5 thoughts on “The Biblical Balance between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility”

  1. Thanks for that Brian. How you describe your position actually sounds quite a bit like Molinism. Have you read ‘Salvation and Sovereignty’ by Kenneth Keathley? That is a very good introduction to Molinism. It’s well worth a read. All the best.

    1. No I haven’t, but I’ll check it out. It’s interesting that you note that. Erickson said that what he called “Congruism” and what Geisler calls “Moderate Calvinism” holds a lot in common with Molinism. I believe that there may be slight differences between the two systems, but they do have a lot in common. I will put Keathley’s book on my “to read” list. Thanks and God bless.

      1. Thanks. I’ve not read much Geisler so I’ll add him to my list! God bless you too.

  2. What a fine article. Being a SWBTS graduate and aware of recent controversy in these perspectives, I shy from theological labels, but my conclusions have also evolved the same as described in the article–that middle ground leaning towards the mild model of Calvinist. I think God wants us to work these gray middle areas with care and humble caution, prayerfully seeking biblical illumination. I certainly disagree with the Pelagian and hyper Calvinist extremes and appreciate the Zacharias quote above. Thank you for the clarity of the article!

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