The above caption will immediately raise in the mind of our readers the thought of a certain point of discussion that was for some time coming to the foreground in our Christian life.
The history of the individual Christian life and of the Christian church has a way of bringing such points to the foreground, and to draw then into the focus of discussion. And this is undoubtedly because the thoughts of God are so rich that they are one after the other in turn brought into the center for a full consideration and development. This is no less true of the awfulness of sin of course, which is also given its different seasons and times through the different ages and centuries of history in order that its many sides may develop and be seen.
Today we are undoubtedly living in a time of great doctrinal development. Is it because the Lord is stimulating His people to bring their doctrines and understanding of the Scriptures into vital touch with the fast changing times; to awaken their consciousness and understanding so that they can live their Christian calling in 1953? So that their Christian armor and their Christian equipment is up to date for the awful things of today and tomorrow?
It is sometimes said of certain doctrines that they can become the object of discussion only within the Reformed faith. Outside of that circle they are no problem, but are simply taken for granted. The examples are well known, such as human freedom, good works, justification, prayer and others.
And so it is with the concept of responsibility. Its problems are most acute in the field of the vigorous Reformed faith. But it is also there that in the light of the Word of God we receive the answer.
The problem usually comes up in the form of two correlated concepts, that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, or God’s sovereign council and human responsibility.
And the calling of the Church and the path of her healthful life in the service of God wherein she reveals and extols His great saving righteousness and— wisdom and glory is that she keeps these two in their proper relation to each other. She may not lose either of these two concepts which are given her in the Bible. If she has a distorted view of either, or if she minimizes the importance of either she has a distorted view of the whole and is going astray.
Now it should be plain that of the two poles in this correlation, the positive pole, the ruling pole is the sovereignty. This is simply plain from such passages as Rom 11:36, “For of Him and through Him and unto Him are all things, to Him be the glory forever, Amen,” or Rev. 4:11, “Worthy art thou, O Lord and our God to receive the glory and the honor and the power, for thou hast made all things and because of thy will they are and were created.”
Hence we might be inclined to say that thus it appears the sovereignty of God, the ruling pole in this correlation is everything and therefore the other, namely that of responsibility is really of no account, and is quite dispensable.
But we see that we can only say that in the abstract. We can only say that if we think of God without His creation, if we can separate Him in our thoughts from all that exists. But of course we cannot do that. Our texts above have already said too much. He made, he created, there are creatures; and further, He receives, yes He receives from them homage. We cannot think of Him without His creatures for in our thinking we are creatures ourselves, and we cannot think of Him without His creatures, because He has thrust Himself upon us and our perception through His creation which reveals Him.
But let us also notice that the highest form, the crown of that creation is man, the creature that bears His own image, the responsible creature, destined is such to become the Body of the Son of God Himself. That is the aspect of the created things that receives the emphasis in the Bible, in the plan of God. It is on the life, on the doings, on the reaction on the forming of this creature in his responsible relation that God gives His chief attention through the six thousand years of history and through the endless ages of eternity, of the righteous who serve Him in heaven and the disobedient in hell.
And then we can also say that the things that receive the emphasis in respect to them is their responsibility. Not that they are flesh and bone, not that they are creatures of time, not that they are subject to deep adversity or great delight of prosperity, but that they are responsible creatures is the focal point.
What this means we have already intimated above. It means, (1) that man is made so that he is the image of God. He is moral, ethical, rational, reasoning and all relations to the rest of created things, he can give the service and homage and glorification that is delightful to God. (2) that according to all the revelation that comes hand in hand with his creation and position, according to all the intimations and conclusions he is expected to fulfill this task and calling, (3) it means that this is reasonably asked and expected of him, because everything in his construction and adaptation, and all around about him to which he is related argue the reasonableness, the equity of his purpose and calling, (4) that when he fulfills this task he experiences the pleasure and approval and blessing of God to reveal that God has great pleasure in His own glorification as the Highest Good; and conversely by default the creature is punished and made miserable to reveal that God has an eternal displeasure in the denial of His glory.
That is the implication of the responsibility of man. Thus it appears too that it is exactly the Bible-believing Church that can really understand the meaning of the concept. And thus the more we see creation as planned by and formed by God, see man as God’s image bearer, and history as God’s history, will we also more and more understand the tremendous meaning of responsibility.
But then conversely we will also against the background see more fully more in its meaning and implication the idea of God’s sovereignty. For the sovereignty of God is not the abstract idea that He is endless in force and can do anything. But it is the prerogative that arises out of His infinite perfections of goodness and wisdom and righteousness, to will, create, administer and dispose over the creature for His own glory. This virtuous sovereignty comes to its clearest expression in His dealing with man in his responsible position.
But we must hasten to add the next thought here. For since also this arrangement of responsibility is out of God and for God’s sake, therefore it also reaches its highest manifestation not in man. This plan of responsibility reaches its highest function when the Son of God Himself enters into it.
I think we can say that this arrangement was eternally conceived especially with a view to Him. He comes into the flesh in the awful consciousness that all his brethren have lived in this wonderful iframe and have completely defaulted and fallen into death in its gripping frame. And He himself comes into this plan of responsibility, born under the law in all human relationships except sin, and as faithful servant in the awful sense of responsibility he labors and suffers and toils to conform to His assignment.
It is in this frame that the glory of God in the Servant-Christ with His Church will eternally shine.
From this we can also see the importance of the law for the Christian. It is only the Christian who can really feel his responsibility for a walk in holiness and for his sinful life.
A clear illustration of the latter is the great prayer of Daniel 9:4, “O Lord, the great and dreadful God keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love Him and to them that keep his commandments, we have sinned . . . righteousness belongeth to thee, but to us confusion of face, therefore the curse is poured out upon us . . .
A New Testament instance is that of the Apostle Paul; I am the least of the Apostles, not worthy to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God, I Cor. 15:9 and of a similar more general awareness he speaks in the passage of Romans 7:7, 13ff. In which passage every progressing step emphasizes his being carnal and sold under sin, and that with the flesh he serves this law of sin. Therefore the Catechism also says that God will have His commandments so sharply preached to us that we more and more learn to know our sinful nature.
It is this heightened sense of his sin and his sinful nature that drives the sinner to Christ so that by faith he can say, I am not my own but I belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ who paid completely and delivered me. Thus the freedom and solvency from sins past present and future, which was eternally decreed for us in Christ and completely merited become our actual possession and enjoyment by faith in time.
Thus it is also the Christian who knows his responsibility to live in all the commandments of God. Again we may recall that man is created and adapted to that purpose, it is the revealed will of God that he shall do this, and this causes “the wrath of God to be kindled”. But in the kingdom of salvation the obligation is greatly heightened. Now it is said, Because of the great grace of Christ we are debtors to live after the spirit, Rom. 8:12 and again, If God so loved us, we are owing (wij zijn schuldig) to love one another. I John 4:11. The exhortation makes use of the sense of fittingness and obligation. For Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Hence it is still operative.
It will be the standard according to which the wicked shall be judged in the day of Christ. It shall be the frame in which He stands with His people in that day and His works and merits are openly accorded to them so that they may be rewarded in His works of righteousness and He Himself thereby fully rewarded and in Him the saving wisdom and power of God may be seen.