By Brannon S. Howse
Scripture assures us that God’s ways and thoughts are far above ours—as far as the heavens are above the earth, in fact (Isaiah 55:9). This greatness of God brings us face to face with aspects of the way He’s created things that we cannot fully grasp, even though we can explain that some of these incredible things are actually true. One such issue is described by the doctrine of concurrence.
Although it is closely related to God’s providential sovereignty, the doctrine draws us deeper into certain characteristics of God’s sovereign will that demands an explanation all its own. If we want a thoroughly biblical worldview, we have to understand how God’s sovereignty interfaces with mankind’s free will. This interaction is a longstanding point of conflict among theologians, but it is a conflict that is totally unnecessary for those who accurately and openly embrace the full teaching of Scripture.
Man's Responsibility or Predestination? Yes.
The term free will is a “loaded” term. Yet it seems obvious that people have the freedom to make certain decisions for themselves. For instance, I’m free to buy a pick-up truck if I want one and have the money. I can even decide whether I want a Toyota Tundra or a Ford F-150. In a more “theological” realm, though, you might wonder, “What about sinners? Do sinners have the free will to be anything but a slave to sin?” And the answer to that is “No.” A person who has not repented of sin and been regenerated through faith and repentance has no choice but to be a slave to sin. Unrepentant sinners may feel like they’re free to do as they please, but we know from Scripture that they are, rather, completely in bondage to sin. Any freedom they feel is an illusion.
Although many people take the position that one or the other—free will or predestination—is the only answer, Scripture is clear that both are true, and I want to unpack this critical reality for you. The Bible teaches that man does have a free will to make certain decisions, and by his own free will does sin and is held accountable, but all the while, God is sovereign and in complete control.
As contradictory as these two ideas seem, they actually run together. Understanding this concept is crucial to appreciating the character and nature of God Almighty. To credit Him with anything less than the full truth of these seemingly contradictory ideas is to lessen the immensity of the God of Creation. The doctrine of concurrence can also be called the doctrine of confluence, and I think you’ll find the dictionary definition to be especially helpful. Confluence is a “coming or flowing together, meeting or gathering at one point, such as the flowing together of two or more streams.” It is the place where two streams meet to combine a single, larger stream. They create a greater truth, if you will, than either stream by itself. So, God’s sovereign control over everything “flows into” the free will He has given us and creates a greater reality within which we live. This apparent contradiction is known as an antinomy, in which two things that would seem not to be true at the same time actually are.
This stands in contrast to the concept of open theism I’ve already discussed. The power of seeing these truths working together shows how weak an explanation of free will it is that God chooses not to know what we are going to do. It grieves me that outspoken and popular teachers like Greg Boyd from Minneapolis/St. Paul promote open theism. Too many people trust what such teachers say and as a result, are drawn into a false understanding of Scripture.
To give you an idea of how anemic open theism is, note this assertion by Greg Boyd: “So, God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.” God can’t know? That doesn’t sound like an omniscient God to me, and it’s not. So let’s look at the scriptural background for the doctrine of concurrence.
The Framework for Our Choices
The Bible sets up an amazing framework within which we can grasp this truth. For starters, look at the most well-known verse in Scripture: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV, emphasis mine). The word whoever has significant implications. God desires that no one should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
Contrast these words of Jesus with scriptures that teach what people would call predestination or election: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me, I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37, NKJV). We see God grants repentance by “giving” people to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 7:9, we also see that only when the Holy Spirit convicts people of their sins will they manifest godly sorrow that leads to repentance unto salvation.
So, do we see man’s responsibility? Yes. Do we see predestination, that you were chosen from before the foundations of the earth? Yes. With our finite minds, it’s difficult to understand, but we see both teachings in Scripture. As I’ve studied this issue, I’ve identified four key points that provide a basis for understanding the doctrine of concurrence.
1) Man’s free will and God’s total sovereignty are not contradictory.
Let’s look again at my mundane example of choosing a truck to buy. As I said before, I’m free to buy a Toyota Tundra or a Ford F-150, but it is really up to me to decide. From a purely human standpoint, some would argue that I’ve been manipulated by advertising and therefore am not truly making a “free will” decision. The argument implies that we have to take into account our sinful desires which push us into doing all kinds of things that are not in accord with the moral will of God. We may have a free will, but then again, what is driving our choices? So, perhaps we do not really have free will in all areas.
To use another travel-related example, suppose I exit from the Interstate, wanting a Big Mac for lunch, but see only a Burger King restaurant when I get off the highway. If I drive up to the window and ask for a Big Mac, the person there will not sell me one because the restaurant has only Whoppers. So, I have to order a Whopper if I want something to eat. It’s not the choice I wanted, but it’s my only option. Am I freely choosing to order that? No, I didn’t really have any choice other than to leave without having lunch.
This analogy reflects people who are not regenerated through faith and repentance. They have no choice but to serve sin. So, even within the concept of free will itself, there is a sort of gray area. One problem people have with rejecting the truth that free will and predestination are not contradictory is that they apply a standard to theology they don’t apply to other areas of study. Do we think gravity isn’t real because we don’t fully understand it? No, we see it at work and accept that it is real. Do we not believe in cells or atoms because we don’t fully understand the complexity of them? Of course not. We know that both are real, regardless of our level of understanding. Even biologists stand in awe of what they do know about cells as evidenced by this observation:
[quote] Even if we know all there is to know about a cell and how it works, we would still be baffled how nerve cells create emotions, thoughts, behavior, memory, and other perceptions. [They] cannot yet, if indeed ever, be described in the language of molecular biology. [end quote]
Isaiah 55:8-9 puts this issue into perspective: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” Similarly, Romans 11:33 says: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”
People may argue that, because unrepentant people are slaves to sin, they have no responsibility. But if that were true, God would not have placed His moral law—a reflection of His character and nature—on our consciences so we would know right from wrong. The conscience enables us to know the right choices. So, man’s conscience makes us accountable. The conscience bears witness that we have violated the character and nature of God. That’s why we feel guilty when we sin. Even a thief knows stealing is wrong unless his or her conscience has been seared—meaning the person has sinned over and over until God finally gives the person over to that sin and he or she no longer feels guilt (a very dangerous point for someone to get to).
This is true of all kinds of sin. When people commit adultery, they feel guilty. When they lust, they feel guilt. When they hate someone else, they feel guilty. Why? The moral law, that universal content of the law placed on our hearts and our minds, tells us so. According to chapters 1 through 3 of Romans, our consciences bear witness to sin, and so, make us responsible.
2) God’s moral will and providential will explain how a holy God uses sinful man to accomplish His perfect will.
God reveals His moral will in His Word, which is a reflection of His character and nature. God’s providential will, on the other hand, resides in what God allows to happen in the world. And in His providence, God allows sinful man to make choices. Ultimately, though, both work together for God’s purposes.
God does not lose control because of sinful people. Just because we choose to do things God would not want us to, doesn’t mean that God has lost control. God’s moral will and providential will explain how a holy God uses sinful man to accomplish His perfect will. Let’s look at some examples of how Scripture describes this.
In Acts 2:23, Peter says to the Jews: “Him [Jesus Christ] being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” There are two active parties described here. One is God whose “determined purpose” is in play. The other is the Jewish leaders who put Jesus to death. So, did God cause Jesus to be put to death?” Yes, He did. But did the Jews and the Romans cause Jesus Christ to be put to death?” Yes, they did, too. That’s an example of antinomy that I mentioned earlier, an apparent contradiction. Man’s responsibility is at work, but so is God’s sovereign, providential rule.
Genesis 45:1-8 provides another example of this. In the story of Joseph whose brothers sold him as a slave, we see that:
[quote] Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Make everyone go out from me!” So no one stood with him while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard it.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father still live?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence. And Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come near to me.” So they came near. Then he said: “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.
“And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the Earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” [end quote]
Here, Joseph’s brothers stand in front of him, now a prime minister in Egypt. He had been sold into slavery when he was about 17, and now roughly 22 years have passed, and Joseph is nearly 40 years old. Having come to Egypt to get food, the brothers receive this shocking announcement from Joseph.
So, who are the acting parties in this story? First, we can say the brothers are. Out of jealousy due to their father’s favoritism, they sold Joseph, and Joseph doesn’t pull any punches. He says that the brothers did it. But he also says God caused it to happen. God allowed it or ordained that it would come to pass. God used the sinful action of Joseph’s brothers to accomplish His ultimate purpose.
Now, let’s go over to Genesis 50:19-21 and pick up the same theme:
Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
God meant all of Joseph’s difficult circumstances for good. Sinful man does what he does, but God is not limited by it. God is not wringing His hands saying, “Oh, boy, I didn’t know that was gonna happen. What do I do now?” No. God is providentially involved in the affairs of man to accomplish His will. Bob DeWaay writes about this in one of his position papers:
[quote] In using Joseph to bring about salvation for Jacob and His family, and thereby preserving the messianic promises to Abraham, many evil acts were committed. Those acts are contrary to God’s moral will, but God used those acts to bring about His saving purposes. His brothers mistreated him as did Potiphar’s wife and others. But God used all of that mistreatment to further His saving purposes; God’s providential will was furthered by people transgressing God’s moral will. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
God’s moral will is revealed in His Word, but people do not obey it, particularly unbelievers who are slaves to sin. They make sinful choices and decisions, but God uses those choices to fulfill His overall, providential plan. Using the story of Joseph and his brothers, R. C. Sproul also offers an explanation of how this works:
[quote] However, what if Joseph’s brothers had been obedient? Joseph would not have been sold into slavery. He would not have been taken captive into Egypt. He would not have been sent to prison, from which he was recalled to interpret a dream. What if Joseph had not become prime minister? What would have become the historical reason for the brothers settling in Egypt? There would have been no Jewish settlement in Egypt, no Moses, no exodus from Egypt, no law, no prophets, no Christ, no salvation.
Can we therefore conclude that the sins of Joseph’s brothers were, in fact, virtuous in disguise? Not at all. No. Their sin was sin, a clear violation of the preceptive will of God for which they were held responsible and judged to be guilty. But God brought good out of evil. This reflects neither a contradiction in God’s character, nor a contradiction between His precepts and His decrees. Rather it calls attention to the transcendent power of His sovereignty. [end quote]
R. C. Sproul has studied extensively the doctrine of concurrence, something most people neither teach nor write about. I appreciate Dr. Sproul’s work even more as I think of how many pastors I’ve asked about their thoughts on concurrence, and they don’t have a clue as to what I am talking about. Yet if we want to have a truly biblical worldview, we have to understand the doctrine of concurrence.
The story of Moses provides another fascinating glimpse into the confluence of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. It begins in Exodus 2:2-6:
[quote] So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took an ark of bulrushes for him, daubed it with asphalt and pitch, put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.
Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. [end quote]
Notice the human action taking place in this story. Moses’s mother does things. She takes bulrushes, coats it with waterproof material, and sends Moses off on the river. The baby’s older sister even takes part in the story by watching what happens to Moses. Then, Pharaoh’s daughter gets in on the action. She has compassion on the baby, knowing that other babies like him are being killed simply because they are Hebrew children. Finally, Moses’ sister really takes the bull by the horns:
[quote] Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the maiden went and called the child’s mother. Then Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. So she called his name Moses, saying, “Because I drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:7-10, NKJV). [end quote]
A lot of people make decisions and take action in this story, yet we see God’s providential rule also at work. Again, R. C. Sproul explains the connections:
[quote] We could summarize that if the baby had not cried, there would have been no Moses. Had there been no Moses, there would have been no incident at the burning bush. No burning bush, no exodus. No exodus, no giving of the law at Sinai. No law, no prophets. No prophets, no Jesus. No Jesus, no cross. No cross, no redemption. No redemption, no Christianity. No Christianity, no Western civilization as we know it. But there are no “what ifs” in God. He is a God whose providence is in the details. [end quote]
History works out according to God’s plan because He sovereignly and providentially rules in the affairs of man. Along the way, though, He uses the free will choices—even those made by sinful man—to accomplish His ultimate purpose. This same combination of ingredients appears as far back as the ancient story of Job. Take a look at Job 1:6-15:
[quote] Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the Earth, and from walking back and forth on it.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the Earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” [end quote]
That’s just the beginning of Job’s calamities, but it sets the stage for the drama that follows. What we see from the narrative is that God allowed Satan to do certain things by lowering the hedge of protection God had placed around Job. He forbids Satan only from killing Job. You can see, though, that Satan is on a leash. He has to ask permission of God to do bad things to Job.
Satan also uses sinful people to carry out his evil plans. The first group in the Job story does what terrorists do: kills people. A second group, the Chaldeans, steal Job’s camels, doing what was already in their hearts to do as well. God did not place new evil in their hearts to cause them to do this. They were already sinful, fallen, depraved people. So, this doesn’t make God the author of evil as some people charge against this way of thinking. God is not the author of sin. The people—terrorists and Chaldeans—were the perpetrators of the evil. James 1:13 explains this distinction: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.” And 1 John 1:5 is similar: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”
We see many times in Scripture that God allows specific things to happen. He allowed Pharaoh, for instance, to “harden his heart.” In fact, some passages say that Pharaoh “hardened his heart,” and others “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” So, what is meant by the hardening of a person’s heart? When the person hardens his or her heart, it means that the individual has purposely turned from God’s ways. When God hardens someone’s heart, though, it means that He gives someone over to what they have chosen. In essence, He says, “You have disobeyed me. You have blasphemed. You have mocked, scoffed, and ridiculed. You have worshipped other gods. You have pursued evil. And now I’m giving you over to what you want to be.” This is what happens with Pharaoh. He is simply being given over, but the sin of Pharaoh was responsible for the situation, and God let him have it his way.
People like Pharaoh are doing what is already in their sinful hearts. When God chooses to give them over, they are allowed to have their way. It means God removes any grace from their lives.
Concurrence—Now and Later
Only by understanding the doctrine of concurrence do we understand the truly biblical view of how God works all things together for good (Romans 8:28). God can use even the things sinful people do to you or to me for good in our lives. As 2 Timothy 3:12, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” But this persecution and these trials and tribulations create in us a far greater faith. The people who do these things—persecute, revile, and speak evil against us—are responsible for what they’ve done, yet God uses it for His ultimate purpose. Our “good” may not come in this life, but ultimately we will see everything in clear focus and see God’s purpose and plan accomplished.
Romans 8 is so clear on this point that I’m often baffled by teachings I see on suffering. Pat Robertson is one teacher who mystifies me. In “Why There Is Suffering in the World,” an article on the CBN website, Robertson says, “We must remember that God is not the cause of our suffering.” That position certainly is not consistent with what I’ve just explained. God does allow suffering to come into our lives. He brings trials and tribulations because whom He loves He chastens. God disciplines. But that is not evil. Is it evil to punish your child? No. If you love your child, you discipline him or her, and because God loves us, He disciplines us. We may consider it suffering at the time, but it’s not evil. When you discipline your child in a loving, appropriate, and biblical manner, you are blessing the child, showing your love for him or her. Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin, and God allows the consequences of our sin to cause us to repent. For somebody like Pat Robertson to say that God doesn’t cause suffering, the theological ignorance is shocking.
But why does having the correct understanding of the doctrine of concurrence matter so much? What does it have to do with our day-to-day lives? Let me tell you what I’ve come up with in answer to those questions. I’ve noted below several significant truths revealed specifically by the doctrine of concurrence.
1) The doctrine reveals God’s sovereignty.
The doctrine of concurrence reveals that God is totally in control. Even when sinful people make sinful choices, God’s total authority is not undermined in the least. That knowledge should give us great peace and comfort.
2) The doctrine reveals God’s providence.
It shows how God moves and works and ordains what comes to pass. God doesn’t necessarily agree with everything He allows because there’s a difference between God’s moral will, what He reveals in His Word, and His providential will, what He allows to happen.
Did God agree with Hitler? No. God cannot agree with evil, but Hitler’s wickedness ended up allowing the return of many Jewish people to Israel. Even when sinners make horrible choices, God’s purpose—in the case of Israel, His purpose predicted millennia ago—is not thwarted. And the same is true of many world events.
3) The doctrine reveals God’s omniscience.
This doctrine refutes open theism. It reveals God’s total wisdom and knowledge.
4) The doctrine reveals that Satan is on a leash.
Ultimately, Satan is God’s servant. He can only do what God allows him to do—and even that will ultimately accomplish God’s purposes. As Scripture shows, what Satan is allowed to do eventually causes Scripture to be fulfilled. This predictive character of scriptural prophecy reveals the supernatural nature of the written Word of God. Prophecy comes to pass because God knows that Satan is going to do what Satan is going to do.
5) The doctrine reveals man’s need to trust God in good times as well as bad.
Whether we find ourselves in a time of global peace or global upheaval, our knowledge of God’s sovereignty helps us not to lose heart.
6) The doctrine reveals our need to be thankful for the talents God has given us and the blessings He has bestowed.
His giftings underscore our purpose in the plans He has for us and our place in the world.
7) The doctrine reveals that God can do extraordinary things to accomplish His honor and glory even in everyday life and through “ordinary” vocations.
This one is especially important because I hear and read far too many Christians talking about how you need to be a “radical Christian.” By “radical,” they mean you need to go into the inner city, or overseas, or give all your money away to the poor. Yet there’s not a single verse in the Bible that says we, as believers, are to take all of our resources—or even a big chunk of them—and redistribute our wealth to unbelievers.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved in mercy ministries as a platform for the Gospel, but if redistribution of wealth would cause people to become believers, then we should be in the middle of a full-on biblical revival in America today. After all, we have redistributed billions of dollars through the war on poverty. And what do we have? More sin and more poverty.
In order to conclude that we should give away our resources to non-believers, people take Scripture out of context. Instead, we see in Scripture that we are to financially care for believers in the Church. The truth is, you can be sold out for Christ doing a mundane job day in and day out that you don’t really enjoy, but you do it because you’re providing for your family. If you’re a believer, walking in truth and obedience, then God can use you to accomplish wonderful things for His honor and glory, no matter how mundane a vocation you may think you have.
8) The doctrine reveals that man is responsible for the sinful choices he makes and for his rebellion against God’s moral will.
We all make choices, and because we make them, we are responsible for them.
9) The doctrine reveals that God often accomplishes His will by judging men and nations through the principle of giving them over to their sinful rebellion.
We often suffer His “wrath” through the natural consequences of our actions.
10) The doctrine reveals the need to fully trust God.
There are many things our human minds cannot fully understand or comprehend, but concurrence highlights our limitations so we see that we have no real choice other than to trust in God.
In addition to what it reveals, the doctrine of concurrence is also critical because of what it refutes.
1) The doctrine refutes the unbiblical concepts of open theism and deism.
It shows that God is neither ignorant of the future nor that He simply “wound up the world” like a clock at Creation and walked away. Rather, He providentially moves in the affairs of man.
2) The doctrine refutes pantheism and panentheism.
The doctrine shows that God is distinct from His creation. Creation and God are not the same. He is beyond all that He has made, not part of it and not even made up of it. Otherwise, He would be unable to assure a sovereign plan for the universe.
3) The doctrine refutes dominionism.
It is not up to us to take back the earth for the Kingdom of God. Dominion thinking such as the seven-mountain mandate I’ve detailed in Religious Trojan Horse is false doctrine. We do not reclaim the world for the kingdom through our work in the areas of law, government, family, the arts, et al., and thereby take dominion. Daniel 2 says that God will bring His kingdom. We don’t build it for Him in the physical realm. We build it in the spiritual realm as we preach the Gospel.
4) The doctrine refutes the idea of good luck or chance happenings.
Believers receive the benefit of God’s guiding hand in our lives. He is always providentially moving, so nothing happens to us purely by chance.
5) The doctrine refutes the belief that God is the author of evil.
He allows evil actors—whether Satan, demons, or people—to have their way but only to accomplish His ultimate ends.
The doctrine of concurrence makes a difference in how you look at life each day. Our lives in God are a both/and proposition because our choices work alongside His sovereign plan.
Copyright 2015 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.