I am really interested seeing the interplay of God’s sovereignty and the responsibility of individuals in the book of Acts. I think we too often end up on one side of a spectrum, either vehemently defending the sovereignty of God or the freedom and responsibility of people. Rather than a spectrum, the Bible presents these concepts as a tension. Both are equally true and must be upheld, but we simply don’t have the ability to understand precisely how this works. At the end of the day we have to say that people make choices and are held accountable for them AND God in his sovereignty is superintending all of history, the lives of individuals, and every molecule in existence for His glory.
There are a few great examples of this in Acts 13.
…for those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.
(Acts 13:27 ESV)
In this example we have the leaders of the Jews, who conspired against Jesus worked to fulfill God’s word about him. They are accountable for having killed Jesus, yet his death was also a necessary part of God’s sovereign plan to save a people for himself.
In the first example, Paul show how people’s actions accomplish the plan of God. In this next example, Paul uses prophecy as a warning:
Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:
“‘Look, you scoffers,
be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”
(Acts 13:40-41 ESV)
Here Paul is clearly holding out a choice for his hearers. They are called to believe the gospel, and are warned against incredulity.
Ultimately the vast majority of the Jews Paul was talking to in this scene refused to believe. I’m sure if you asked them, they would not say, “Oh, I wanted to believe but God just wouldn’t let me”. No, they were vehement in their CHOICE. However, their rejection of the gospel once again is the fulfillment of God’s word.
And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:46-47 ESV)
The Jews choice to reject Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament, and was fulfilled as that gospel was preached and multiplied in non-Jewish communities.
In this final example from Acts 13, there is as clear a statement on God’s electing grace as any found in scripture:
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48 ESV)
It is clear that God “appointed” those who received the gospel, and also that they “believed”. People are not puppets in this passage. They are called to believe, and some respond in faith. Though their response is their choice, it is ultimately God’s choice. This should be very humbling, ingratiating, and encouraging to us.
Because we know God is sovereign in salvation, we must be filled with humble gratitude because there is nothing intrinsically special or meritorious in us to deserve God’s grace. We should also be encouraged in our witness to others that God has appointed people to himself, and though we call people to respond in faith, when all is said and done, the Lord himself is responsible for the outcome of our preaching and evangelism.