Servants Through Whom You Believed
It should be said of all Christians that we desire to live faithfully unto to the Lord and also bear much fruit as His disciples. However, the sphere of our fruitfulness does not depend on our ability—or does it? The tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is one that has constituted many debates throughout church history. While it is important to discuss and debate these matters, it is vastly more important for us to understand how it impacts our practical Christian living.
We can function in an unhealthy and unbiblical manner when we misunderstand and misapply divine sovereignty to life. We can conclude that “God is sovereign over all. From beginning to end, salvation is the Lord’s work. If He is going to save anyone, He’ll get it done.” This statement can imply a functional passivity that is not found in Scripture. One of the ways that you can be sure you misunderstand divine sovereignty is if you use it as a justification card for disobedience or lethargic ambivalence. Disobedience to Jesus is wrong on all accounts, but using theology to justify disobedience is doubly wrong.
On the other hand, we can misapply human responsibility in our daily living. We can forget the difference between “fruit”, which comes from abiding in Christ and from the work of His Spirit’s within us, and “work”, which is sourced in our ability and effort to accomplish the task independent of divine resources. Wrongly thinking about our responsibility can cause one to ignore God’s providence and sovereign purposes in and through all things to bring about His eternal will. Failure to rightly understand human responsibility can cause us to think we are responsible for doing the work that only God can do in the world.
A Case Study in the Church at Corinth
One of the clearest places where sovereignty and responsibility are taught is 1 Cor. 3:5-9 where the Apostle Paul wrote: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building."
The Apostle Paul understood this tension, and throughout his letters, you can find him emphasizing both divine sovereignty and human responsibility together. For the sake of this article, I want to emphasize his letters to the church of Corinth.
The believers in Corinth had an unhealthy view of their leadership, causing sinful division among the church family. The way they viewed leaders in the church revealed their immaturity. To correct their thinking, Paul asked them, “What then in Apollos? What is Paul?” (1 Cor. 3:5). His answer? “Servants through whom you believed.” Servants. Why make a big deal about servants, right? Paul wanted the church in Corinth to see him and other leads the way they viewed themselves.
Another way of deflecting the unhealthy attachment to leaders came as Paul explained the nature of their work. Paul planted, and Apollos watered, but what is he who plants or waters? Paul says, “Nothing.” The person who should be emphasized is the one who causes the growth, and that person is God. The workers belong to God. The field belongs to God, and the fruit comes from God. Clearly, this is an argument for God’s sovereignty in salvation and His effectual work in bring sinners to salvation. God alone should be praised, for He alone has rescued and redeemed us, causing us to come and see and believe in His Son.
Having acknowledged that, however, there’s another important aspect of life and ministry that must be seen in this text, namely affirmation of human instrumentality. Indeed, God caused the growth, but the growth came after the seed was planted and watered by human agents. God could have designed the work such that God planted, God watered, and God gave the growth so that there would be no need of human responsibility. That seems to be the safest and sure way of accomplishing His work, right?
God’s Use of Means (Human Instrumentality)
Divine sovereignty includes the use of means--of human agence that are morally responsible for their actions. As the 1689 London Baptist Confession states,
Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, Who is the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that nothing happens to anyone by chance, or outside His providence, yet by His providence He orders events to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
God, in His ordinary providence makes use of means, yet He is free to work outside, above, and against them at His pleasure.
God has chosen to use His people to accomplish His purposes; and, to the Corinthians, Paul declared to the people that he and Apollos were “servants through whom you believed.” This is no small thing to affirm! While in one sense Paul was playing down his significance in the eyes of men (servants), he was esteeming correctly his significant role as an instrument in God’s global work of building His church. This affirmation continues as Paul argues each worker “will receive his wages according to his labor” as “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:8-9). While Paul affirms that every person who comes to faith in Jesus does so “as the Lord assigned to each”, he no less affirms that this happens through servants as instruments to bring that about.
The two great realities of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility must not be divorced from one another. Theoretically, we can make the argument in accordance with this conviction; however, the challenge is to function in a way that does not diminish a robust commitment to either in everyday life. Do I love, care, serve, and minister to others with a conscious understanding that God is working through me to accomplish His purposes, that I am an integral means to bring about God’s appointed end? Do I labor and toil with all my might with an understanding that God is the one who causes the growth, assigns faith, and speaks with the voice to raise the dead? If not, we are in danger of despair on the one hand (ignoring God’s sovereignty) and disengagement on the other (ignoring human responsibility). Let us pray that we will labor and love with the same mind of Paul, that God would so make us servants through whom others would come to believe in Jesus Christ!
Paul David Tripp Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands
D.A. Carson Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
J.I. Packer Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God