It seems to me that every time we try to fit Scripture into a tight, neat system, Scripture has the tendency to frustrate our finite efforts to contain the Living and Active Word. For example, the tension between God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility has been fought over for centuries creating in essence two camps needing it to be one way or the other.
It is most amusing when this tension is held within one verse or one passage. Paul does this often and I love it. The most famous one that I know is when he says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b-13) The tension is very apparent in this verse and obviously you cannot separate this sentence or it could be dangerous. Work out your salvation but it is God who works through you. Sounds confusing and contradictory, but maybe just maybe there is a Divine Tension there.
Another one that I love is when Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10-9) Paul sees this paradox as an inseparable truth.
By Grace we are what we are. In the absolute state of death we cannot choose life. It is impossible. God is always and forever the Agent of Salvation. He is the one who brings us to life, loving us into lovingness. Yet there is something in our responsibility towards our Maker. We are called to Confess, to Repent, to Believe, to Turn, to Love. All actions commanded by God. By no means can we earn God’s favor. That can only be done on the cross. Still, we are called to train ourselves for Godliness, but this does not seem to offend God’s Sovereignty.
Hence the tension.
I like how Paul articulates it. “I worked harder than any, though it was not I but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul qualifies his efforts but does not shy away from them. We should not shy away either from our best efforts to live a life pleasing and worshipful to God, but always realizing that it is only by the Merciful Holy Spirit that we are what we are.
This definitely does not answer the intricate theological questions of this complex debate, but merely asks if it has to be either/or. It seems to me that Scripture enjoys both concepts, holding them together without the one offending the other. When C.H. Spurgeon was asked how he could reconcile God’s Sovereignty with Human Responsibility he responded, “I would never have to reconcile friends”. Maybe he is on to something there.