God is Sovereign While Man is Accountable. We Cannot Overemphasize Either. -D. A. Carson

This article was originally posted at my site. I’m married with three children, an SBC pastor, a PhD student at SBTS, and an average Southern Baptist. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.

This article is part of a series on the Love of God by D.A. Carson. He originally presented these papers in a lecture series at Dallas Theological Seminary. Part 1 can be found here, and part 2 can be found here.

I recently read an article by D. A. Carson titled “God’s Love and God’s Sovereignty.” I strongly commend the article to you, especially to those who overemphasize God’s sovereignty or overemphasize man’s responsibility. You can find Carson’s full article here (pdf). I’ve provided a summary below, followed by my response. You can also find Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God here for free (pdf).  

Carson, D. A.  “God’s Love and God’s Sovereignty.”  Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (July-September 1999): 259-271.

Summary of Main Points

This third address in this series on God’s love will focus on God’s love for humans, but especially in relation to His own transcendence and sovereignty. Helpful to our study of God’s love is to note some specific texts where the vibrant, affective element in the love of God is almost overpowering. One of the most striking is Hosea 11. God revealed His love for Israel, His son, by calling them out of Egypt. Yet, Israel rebelled, often choosing idolatry instead of obedience.  God speaks of their impending judgment (Hosea 11:1-7), but then it seems that God cannot endure the thought (Hosea 11:8-11). God will judge Israel through exile, but He will also redeem them due to His own compassion. There are similar references throughout Scripture where God is described as jealous, grieving, rejoicing, angry, etc. In passages like 1 John 4:7-11 believers are urged to love one another, since love is of God. God’s love transcends our love, but they belong to the same genus, or parallelisms could not be drawn.  Many Christian traditions affirm the impassibility of God. Their main emphasis is that God is unchangeable, not moody, or dependent on His creatures. Human passions indeed shape our direction and frequently control our will, but what should we say about God?

Five facts about God’s sovereignty in relation to His love need to be noted: 1) God is omnipotent and omniscient and He exists above time and space, i.e., above the created order with its intrinsic limitations (Jer. 32:17; 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 1:8; Matt. 19:26; Prov. 16:33; Heb. 1:3; Eph. 1:11; Prov. 21:1; Rom. 9:21; Matt. 11:20-24; 1 Sam. 23:11-13; Job 37:16; Ps. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8; Isaiah 57:15). 2) God’s sovereignty extends to election. Election may refer to God’s choice of the nation of Israel, to His choice of all the people of God, or to His choice of individuals (salvation or particular missions). God chose Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:11).  Furthermore, we often speak of people who “accept Jesus as their personal Savior.” These words are not found in Scripture, though they are not necessarily wrong as a synthetic expression. But Acts sums up evangelism at Pisidian Antioch by reporting that “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Paul also said of Christians that God “chose us in Him [Christ] before the creation of the world. . . He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4-5). God chose the Thessalonian converts from the beginning to be saved (2 Thess. 2:13). Believers constitute a chosen race (1 Pet. 2:9).  God’s election even extends to angels (1 Tim. 5:21). Moreover the Lord’s electing love is immutable.  All that the Father has given the Son will come to Him and He will lose none (John 6:37-40).  3) Christians are not fatalists. The central line of Christian tradition neither sacrifices the utter sovereignty of God nor reduces the responsibility of His image-bearers (compatibilism). The Scriptures agree. For example, when Joseph told his brothers that when they sold him into slavery God intended it for good while they intended it for evil (Gen. 50:19-20), he was assuming compatibilism. In the same event, God was operating and His intentions were good, and the brothers’ intentions were evil. Other examples include Isaiah 10:5-10 and Acts 4:23-29. God is sovereign while man is accountable. We cannot overemphasize either. 4) God is immutable (Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; Isaiah 46:8-11; Ps. 33:11; Matt. 13:35, 25:34; Eph. 1:4, 11; 1 Pet. 1:20). God is unchanging in His being, purposes, and perfections, but He still interacts with image-bearers in their time. 5) This view of God’s sovereignty is under attack, especially from those who hold the “open” view of God. They point to the thirty-five texts where God is clearly said to “repent” (KJV) or “relent” (NIV). Compatibilism is the answer, not open theism.  God is both sovereignly transcendent and personal.

We must understand God’s sovereignty and omnipotence in relation to the various Scriptures that speak of His emotions. We cannot reduce such texts to mere anthropomorphisms because the price is too high. This means we can rejoice in God’s sovereignty, but not in His love, only the linguistic expression of His love. Nor is it adequate to suggest that the “immanent” Trinity (which refers to God as He is in Himself, transcendent from the creation and focusing on His internal acts) is utterly impassible, while the “economic” Trinity (which refers to God as He is immanent in His creation, focusing solely on deeds outside of Himself and in relation to His creation) does indeed suffer, including the suffering of love.  We must understand though that God’s “passions,” unlike ours, do not flare up out of control, changing His direction and priorities, domesticating His will, controlling His misery and His happiness, surprising and destroying His commitments. Rather, God’s “passions,” like everything else in God, are displayed in conjunction with the fullness of all His perfections. Therefore, God’s love displays itself in perfect harmony with His will. For example, God does not “fall in love” with the elect; He does not “fall in love” with us; He sets His affection on us. He does not predestine us out of some stern whimsy; rather, in love He predestines us to be adopted as His sons (Eph. 1:4-5). We must understand that God exercises His love in conjunction with all His other perfections, and His love emanates from His own character; thus, it is not dependent on the loveliness of the loved, external to Himself. In similar manner, Christians should love the unlovable. Because we have been transformed by the gospel, our love is to be self-originating, not elicited by the loveliness of the loved.


I appreciated Carson’s desire to respect the classical Christian tradition while affirming and practicing the always reforming principle. Carson rejects absolute impassibility because He believes the Scriptures say otherwise. I appreciated his firm stand in the tradition concerning God’s transcendence and personal relation with humanity. Compatibilism answers the difficult passages where God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are present in the same event. 

Furthermore, I appreciated Carson’s emphasis on God loving humanity in spite of our unlovable nature. From the time we are small children, we are told how wonderful we are.  We are no longer surprised by the love of God. This notion of God not only affects our relationship with Him, but our relationship with others. If God loves us because we are lovable, then we too are only required to love those who are lovable. Maybe this is the reason why Christian love towards the unlovable is often not what it should be. Our beliefs about God concerning His love for us will affect how we love others.

What are your thoughts?

This article was originally posted at my site. I’m married with three children, an SBC pastor, a PhD student at SBTS, and an average Southern Baptist. I’ve authored two books. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube.


  1. Jess Alford says

    Jared Moore,

    This is a hard saying, but I think you are right. When it comes to love for the unlovable I know I come up short. When the lost tells me that they don’t want to hear that nonsense and tells me to go away because I was telling them about Jesus I get pretty angry sometimes.

    Great post

  2. Christiane says

    I should be cautious about ‘compatibilism’, if by it you are speaking about ‘determinism’ in the way Schopenhauer teaches:
    ” “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”

    The concept of the ‘Sovereignty of God’ sometimes is taught as God is the puppet-master . . . in which case, of course He is totally ‘in charge’ of our will . . .

    if by saying God is controls what we ‘want’, but we can control how we respond to what we want, you then get into all variations of what is possible . . .

    if you arrive at the variation that God controls your will by setting you up with ‘less’ than good will,
    and you then choose to act on that ‘less than good will’,
    I think you run into difficulty in this area . . . that God has interfered negatively on your behalf in a way that is conducive to sin, but you must take all the responsibility for that sin.

    That is not something Christians can believe . . .
    because Our Lord did not teach us that on the Cross when He said ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’

    This, then, is the downside of ‘compatibility’ as a doctrine: any possibility of the variation where God becomes a player in structuring our will along negative lines, and then holds us completely responsible for our ‘free’ response to His set up,
    that doesn’t fit who God is, as revealed to us by Christ, Who spoke and acted in the very Person of God, and Who is the most complete revelation of God to Man that we have been given.

  3. mike white says

    God saves those He loves.
    God loves those He saves.

    God knows all things.
    He created knowing that, depending on your own view (for the most part, open theists notwithstanding) that those who end up in everlasting hell do so because either God could not save them (they were unwilling), or God would not because He chose not them to save, AND YET, God created them and the world anyway. How then does God love really love them in an agape sort of love?


    them,, … amyand the world, anywsy

    • Jon says

      I think God loves everyone. And I think he created us to choose freely. Some of us respond to Him in our need while others don’t, and he doesn’t begrudge our humanity–our freedom. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the doors to hell are locked from the inside. Could it be God doesn’t interfere with their desire to live apart from Him, and to go their own separate way? In Revelation we are given an insight into the plight of the damned. We read that they cursed God in the midst of turmoil and pending judgment. They didn’t turn to him and cry for mercy.