The Sovereignty of God and Man’s Responsibility (Exodus 4:21)

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh, all the miracles that I have put in your power. But, I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.'”
– Exodus 4:21

Now, this is an interesting phrase that we see all throughout the story of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. It’s interesting because sometimes scripture talks about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, which is exactly what we see here in Exodus 4:21. There are other times when we see the story talk about Pharaoh hardening his heart against God, and so which is it?

Thanks be to God that, in this mystery of His sovereignty and man’s responsibility, He has provided our salvation in Jesus.

God is Sovereign Over All

This is where the bible, and this is all of our scripture, leaves us with mystery. How this works? How does God reign sovereign in a world of evil, where men and women are responsible for sin? And so we’ve got to keep these two realities intention. Ultimately, God is sovereign over all things, over everything. At the same time, we see all throughout the bible and in the story of Pharaoh that while God is sovereign, Pharaoh is responsible for his sin. He is hardening his heart all throughout this story. There is not a desire to obey God, not a desire to glorify God. And he is held responsible for that, for his sin.

And so when we see sin around the world, is God sovereign? Absolutely. Is man and woman responsible for sin? Absolutely. How you bring those two together is theologically a mystery, but it’s true. It’s all over scripture. It’s not a contradiction. It is a mystery. And it’s one we hold intention as we read through the bible.

Even As We Sin Against God, God Is In Control

We must be careful never to fall off on one side or the other, to begin to think that maybe God is not sovereign when God is absolutely sovereign. Or to think that okay, then maybe man or woman is not responsible for sin. Maybe Pharaoh’s not responsible for his sin. He didn’t have a choice in the matter. That is never what scripture teaches. Pharaoh absolutely was choosing to disobey God, to harden his heart against God. When we sin in our lives, it is our responsibility before holy God, and yet even in that, God is not out of control. He is ultimately in control. He’s ultimately sovereign over all things.

If that’s hard to grasp, I would just encourage you go to the cross and see this mystery there. Were the people who were murdering Jesus responsible for their sin? Absolutely. They were murdering. This was sin. This was evil. At the same time, God was sovereign and he was working, even in that, to make it possible for you and me and for those who were murdering Jesus for that matter, to be able to be forgiven of their sin.

This Theological Mystery Pictured Here In Exodus 4:21 Connects Also To The Cross

Oh, this theological mystery finds its pinnacle in the cross, and there we realize that God sovereignly uses the murder of his son to make a way for the salvation of sinners, like those who murdered Jesus, and like you and me. So, God, we bow our hearts before you in awe, in wonder. Our minds are too small to ultimately comprehend you, your ways, how all of these things work, but God, we praise you. We praise you for your sovereignty over all things. We praise you for sovereignly working for our salvation, to make it possible for us to be forgiven of our sin through Jesus’ death on a cross at the hands of sinful men and women.

And so, we pray today, help us to turn from sin. You have given us choices, decisions to make, so help us to make choices in accord with your will and your ways. Help us to make decisions that are pure and holy. God, please, help us to run from sin today. Help us to turn from sin, to trust in and follow and obey you. All the while trusting in your sovereignty over all things. God, we praise you for this mystery. We bow in awe in light of who you are. And we pray, with the responsibility you’ve entrusted to us, that you would be pleased with our hearts today. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


David Platt serves as pastor at McLean Bible Church in Washington, D.C. He is the founder and chairman of Radical. He is the author of several books, including Radical, Radical Together, Follow Me, Counter Culture, and Something Needs to Change.

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