As my small group was using the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, a question came up in 2 Thessalonians. In one section, Paul says that some will perish “because they refused to love the truth.” But in the very next section, he tells the Thessalonians, “God chose you as firstfruits to be saved.” The first statement seems to place agency in the hands (and hearts and minds) of individuals, while the second one seems to imply God’s agency in determining who is saved. How do we reconcile ostensibly contradictory statements that are right next to each other? What is the bigger picture we are missing?
This isn’t the only place in the Bible where God’s sovereignty and human moral responsibility are asserted in the very same place. For example, Peter says about Jesus in his message on the day of Pentecost, as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
It seems to me that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two sides of a mystery or paradox that we today have much more difficulty reconciling and living with than the biblical authors did. So how can we reach the place where we’re as comfortable with this paradox as they were?
I find it helpful to think about this by analogy to the understanding the community of Jesus’ followers eventually reached, after centuries of debate, about whether he was divine or human. The answer was, “Both.” The Council of Chalcedon proclaimed in AD 451 that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.” That is, he was somehow 100% divine and 100% human at the same time, without it being possible to say which things he said and did as God and which things he said and did as a man, and without either nature getting in the way of the other.
We might say similarly that when a person is saved, this is the result of a process or action that is “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.” Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, after all, that when people “refuse to love the truth and so be saved,” “God sends them a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie.” Divine and human agency working simultaneously—in this case, unfortunately negatively, but the same thing happens positively when a person is saved.
The practical takeaway is to acknowledge that we have a human moral responsibility to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation through the gospel, but also to acknowledge in all humility that our salvation is a work of God achieved only through the incarnation, life, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus.