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Monday, June 20, 2016

Applying Concurrence

In the first half of this discussion of a forgotten doctrine that I think should be rediscovered, I defined concurrence as the simultaneity of God's work and man's in the occurrence of man's good works (but not in the evil we do).  In other words, neither occur exclusively from one another, but they concur.  We can't think, say, or do something truly good spiritually unless God's Spirit is doing it in us at the same time (with logical priority given to His work, because He is the ultimate cause of all good).  As Philippians 2:12-13 says, "It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

The practical value of concurrence lies in the fact that it affirms the great truths of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility equally. The Bible itself "walks a tightrope" between them, and much error in Christian practice has proceeded from an over-emphasis on one or the other.

To focus excessively on man's role breeds pride in success and despair in failure, both of which are displeasing to a Lord who said "Apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5) and promised that through Him we can do all things (Phil. 4:13). Concurrence keeps God's powerful hand in view and "gives theological statement to the truth of faith that while man by himself does evil, only God can be the author and finisher of whatever good man may accomplish."[1] It secures hope for God's servant as well, reminding him that the strength of the Almighty is behind his efforts.

On the other hand, God's control of every circumstance has often received too much emphasis--leading to a sinful passivity on the part of some. After all, the thought proceeds, if God has foreordained everything that will occur, why should we do anything?

It is in answer to this question that concurrence probably makes its greatest contribution to Christian thought, as it intends "to underscore the fact that God's work does not blot out human activity, but defines and contains it."[2] One convinced of God's absolute sovereignty must understand that God has ordained the means as well as the ends, as Loraine Boettner explains:

"It is not merely a few isolated events here and here that have been foreordained, but the whole chain of events, with all of their inter-relations and connections. All of the parts form a unit in the Divine plan. If the means should fail, so would the ends....If we engage in the Lord's service and make diligent use of the means which He has prescribed, we have the great encouragement of knowing that it is by these very means that He has determined to accomplish His great work."[3]

Likewise, if man does not make use of the means which God has prescribed, he incurs judgment. Boettner illustrates that by the story of "one in Scotland accused and convicted of murder, who said to the judge, 'I was predestined from all eternity to do it.' To whom the judge replied, 'So be it, then I was predestined from all eternity to order you to be hanged by the neck, which I now do.'"[4] 

The doctrine of concurrence, with its basic assertion that God's work and ours do not occur exclusively, but that they concur, especially helps to illuminate four enigmatic areas of human experience: salvation, sanctification, prayer, and evangelism.

Concurrence in Salvation

Divine concurrence is central to Paul's doctrine of salvation. In a very real sense the sinner acts in a way conducive to his acceptance by God: he repents, believes in Christ, produces works as an evidence of that faith, and perseveres. But he is also acted upon by God, who chose him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3), illumined his mind and heart concerning the truth (2 Cor. 4:6), "crucified" him with Christ (Rom. 6:6), granted him faith and repentance (Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 2:25), and began a work of sanctification that will continue (Phil. 1:6).

Concurrence affirms God's sovereignty in salvation so that sinners are comforted in knowing that their eternal destiny does not rest upon their own feeble attempts at righteousness, and so they have no reason to boast (Eph. 2:9). But concurrence also upholds the sinner's responsibility to act, for God does not grant the glorious ends of salvation to one who has refused to apply the means. As Boettner says, "If God has ordained a man to be saved, He has also ordained that he should hear the Gospel, and that he shall believe and repent."[5]

Concurrence does not explain all the intricacies of God's saving work; it only affirms that God somehow moves our will so that we desire to follow Christ, and then accepts us because "he that comes to me I will certainly not cast out" (Jn. 6:37). Paul leaves the mysteries unsolved and commands Timothy to "take hold of the eternal life to which you were called" (1 Tim. 6:12).

Concurrence in Sanctification

The historical view of Quietism is an example of an unbalanced view which could profit tremendously from an understanding of concurrence. Quietists regard sanctification (meaning the process by which a believer is conformed to the image of Christ) as entirely the work of God, with man's role being one of near inactivity. The Quietist viewpoint is perhaps best represented by the modern slogan of "Let go and let God."

To their credit, the Quietists base their viewpoint on a valid scriptural truth--that spiritual growth cannot be accomplished apart from God's power. We are not adequate in ourselves (1 Cor. 3:5) and God has promised to enact and complete the work of sanctification (Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23-24). Quietism ignores, however, Paul's numerous exhortations to apply effort in becoming like Christ. He told Timothy, "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (1 Tim. 4:7) and "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God" (2 Tim. 2:15). As R.C. Sproul writes:

"Sanctification is cooperative. There are two partners involved in the work. I must work and God will work.... We are not called to sit back and let God do all the work. We are called to work, and to work hard."[6]

Paul echoes this truth in Romans 15:30 when he says, "Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me." This verse and the afore-mentioned Philippians 2:12-13 ("Work out your salvation,... for God is at work in you") present a doctrine of concurrence in sanctification. Both God and the believer are at work in the process.

Concurrence in Prayer

The believer should merely accept God's promise that "the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much" (James 5:16), but it often becomes difficult to do so when that promise is considered in the light of God's sovereignty. If God has pre-ordained every event, why pray?

First of all, prayer is primarily meant to effect a change in the believer rather than in God, as many Bible commentators have pointed out--for God certainly does not change His mind. But secondly, there is a real sense in which prayer is effective, because it is an ordained means by which God carries out His plan. God takes pleasure in granting the requests of His children, because He then receives their praise:

"And He will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many." (1 Cor. 1:11)

God's ultimate ability to answer our prayers and the fact that He works concurrently with our actions provide the incentive for the believer to bring petitions before Him. As one author wrote, "If you find yourself exercised with benevolent desires for any object, there is a strong presumption that the Spirit of God is exciting these very desires, and stirring you up to pray for that object, so that it may be granted in answer to prayer."[7]

So answered prayer is made possible by Divine concurrence: God is inclined to act at a time when His children call unto Him fervently (James 5:16), repeatedly (Luke 18:1-8), and from pure motives (James 4:3).

Concurrence in Evangelism

Nowhere does the doctrine of concurrence need to be stressed more than in the realm of evangelism. The relationship between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility is most volatile here, leading easily to an imbalance in emphasis.

Though the Bible clearly and repeatedly states that God has foreknown and predestined those who would believe in Christ from before the world began (Eph. 1:4,11; Rom. 8:29), many react to this doctrine and ignore it, considering it incompatible with their desire to reach the lost.

On the contrary, Divine sovereignty is the central truth in the whole doctrine of salvation and should be stressed in the context of evangelism. When the truth that "God saves" is foremost in the mind of the evangelist, he will be unlikely to become proud if the results are good and unlikely to sink into despair when they are not.

Furthermore, a belief in God's sovereignty does not destroy incentive toward evangelism, as some think. The confidence that God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6) breeds persistence and endurance, as J.I. Packer asserts:

"Far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility--indeed, the certainty--that evangelism will be fruitful."[8]

That is because of what Jesus said in John 6:37: "All that the Father has given Me shall come unto Me." The results are guaranteed; God will save his people. This was great comfort and incentive for Paul when God spoke to him in Corinth: "Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city" (Acts 18:10).

God is sovereign, and the Bible does not consider that to be a harmful truth. But does that negate our responsibility to evangelize? Many have thought so, at least in practice if not in creed; but this represents the opposite extreme and is equally in error.

Those believing in God's absolute control must once again remember that God works concurrently with our action. He uses means to accomplish His ends, and the means he has ordained in the salvation of men is evangelism. As J.I. Packer wrote, "He sends us to act as vital links in the chain of His purpose for the salvation of His elect."[9] Paul, after his most thorough discussion of God's sovereign choice in Romans 9-10, denounces the idea that evangelism is unnecessary:

"How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:14-15)

Once again an understanding of concurrence is proven beneficial; in this practical area of evangelism it allows God to receive all the glory for His marvelous work, yet allows men to play a blessed part in it.


The term concurrence needs to be rediscovered in theology, and the doctrine it represents taught more widely. When emphasizing the sovereignty of God, it becomes "a kind of theological praise,"[10] declaring that any good thing originates in Him alone. And when man's responsibility is in view, the doctrine acts as a safeguard against spiritual lethargy.

John MacArthur finds a parallel to Paul's teaching of concurrence in Exodus 14, where Moses and the children of Israel are trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, the Egyptians in pursuit and closing in. Moses shouts to the people with confidence, "Don't be afraid. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord" (which MacArthur describes as "great faith but bad advice"). The Lord then speaks to Moses, saying, "Why are you crying unto Me? Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward." MacArthur comments:

"It's not 'stand still and see the salvation of the Lord,' it's 'Go forward.' God was going to give the victory, and He was going to give it in such a way that no one would deny that it was Him who did it, and in such a way that it could have never been done with any help from man. But He wasn't going to do it until the Israelites moved forward. What an analogy that is, because that is precisely what Paul is saying to us in the spiritual dimension."[11]


[1]Roger Hazelton, God's Way With Man (New York:  Abingdon Press, 1956), 77.

[2]G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids:  Eerdman's, 1952), 128.

[3]Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1932), 257.


[5]Ibid., 254.

[6]R. C. Sproul, Pleasing God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1988), 227.

[7]Charles G. Finney, Revival Lectures (n.c.: Revell, n.d.), 54. Finney’s theology of Divine sovereignty was deficient, I believe, but I also believe he happened to get it right in this quote.

[8]J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downer's Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 106.

[9]Ibid., 98.

[10]Hazelton, 73.

[11]John MacArthur, Jr., "God At Work In You" (Grace to You audio recording, 1988).

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rediscovering Concurrence

When I wrote the original version of this article as a seminary student over a quarter of a century ago (which explains some things about the style and content), I began it with these words:  "Whereas the sovereignty of God and His providence are doctrines that have suffered from too little emphasis in the modern evangelical church, Divine concurrence is one that has nearly vanished. This doctrine is helpful, however, in understanding God's government and the part men play in it."  During the last 25 years or so, the doctrines of Divine sovereignty and providence have been rediscovered to a significant degree in the American church, but for some reason concurrence has not.  And I still think it would be helpful for people to know about it, perhaps even more now.[i]

According to G.C. Berkouwer, the term concurrence is intended to illuminate the relationship between Divine and human activity.[ii] The Bible repeatedly affirms two paradoxical truths: God is completely sovereign in the affairs of men, yet men make genuine choices and are held responsible by God for their actions. Scripture yields a doctrine of concurrence when it presents the actions of God and man occurring simultaneously, thus allowing some insight (however limited) into the means by which God achieves His will in the world.

Objections to concurrence as a doctrine, raised throughout the history of theology, have contributed to the diminished use of the term. For instance, Charles Hodge (according to Berkouwer) "is of the judgment that in the concurrence doctrine man tries to explain the inexplicable, not content with the simple and certain declaration of the Bible that God does govern all his creatures and all their actions. In concurrence we want to know more than this, we want to know how this is done."[iii]

Hodge is correct when he says the result of such speculation is that "we land in all sorts of metaphysical questions which no one can solve."[iv] Certainly no man can pretend to understand all the intricacies of how God accomplishes His will in the world--His ways are infinitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). But concurrence, rightly understood, simply affirms the relationship between God's action and ours, rather than attempting to explain the spiritual dynamics involved. It holds that neither occur exclusively, but that they concur. (And the practical benefits of that truth, presented in part two of this discussion, are significant.)

Webster's dictionary defines concurrence as "agreement in action, opinion, or intent." (Concur is "to happen together, to coincide, to act together to a common end or effect" and concurrent is "happening or operating at the same time.") The plain meaning of the word makes it appropriate for theological use, for it echoes much scriptural teaching about the relationship between God's action and ours.

So for this discussion the doctrine of concurrence is defined as the simultaneity of First Causes (God's will and action) and Second Causes (man's will and action), with logical priority given to First Causes.[v]

The final phrase in that definition counteracts another prevalent criticism of concurrence as a doctrine--that it makes God merely a "helper" or an accomplice in our endeavors, allowing men to take some or most of the credit for their good works. On the contrary, "to believe in the Divine concurrence or assistance means that man stands in dire need of such help and indeed cannot go on without it,"[vi] and "that man, in order to bring his works to a good and right end, requires the assistance of God."[vii] In other words, although men and women make choices and commit acts that are essential for the drama of human history to unfold, but they do so according to a Divine script and under the Director's control.

Concurrence is a theme woven through the entire Bible (cf. 1 Kings 8:58, 61; Ezra 1:5, 7:27; Prov. 21:1; John 15:5; 2 Peter 1:3), but nowhere does it receive more attention than in the writings of the apostle Paul.

God's absolute sovereignty over man is never questioned by Paul. He calls God "the blessed and only Sovereign" (1 Tim. 6:15) "who works all things after the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11). He boldly proclaims God to be the First Cause in the salvation of men (Eph. 1:3-11, Rom. 8:29), their subsequent sanctification (Rom. 8:28, 1 Thess. 5:23), the establishment of governments (Rom. 13:1), and even everyday events (1 Cor. 4:19, 16:7).

Paul places equal emphasis, however, on man's responsibility. His epistles are filled with commands enjoining men to exercise their will in conformity with God's law at the risk of eternal or temporal judgment. Realizing his own responsibility before God, he says "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).

But Paul does more than merely assert the dual truths of God's control and our action--he frequently indicates a unique connection between the two. Consider, for example, his admonition to the Philippians in 2:12-13:

 "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

We are at work and God is at work, at the same time, toward a common end. Paul presents this same co-operation of causes in 2 Corinthians 8:16 when he says, "Thanks be to God, who put the same earnestness on your behalf in the heart of Titus." As Jerry Bridges writes, "Titus' actions are attributed by Paul to both God, who put a concern for the Corinthians into Titus' heart, and to Titus, who acted with enthusiasm and on his own initiative. Titus acted freely, yet under the mysterious sovereign impulse of God."[viii]

Likewise the churches of Macedonia (in the same chapter), who gave in abundance because of their own desire, did so "by the will of God" (vs. 5).

When Paul speaks of himself, he mingles God's work with his own desire and effort. He begins five epistles by stating that his apostleship is "by the will of God." But his service to God was also the consuming desire of his heart: "I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls," he says in 2 Cor. 12:15 (cf. Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 9:16-17). He refuses to boast in what he claims God has done through him (Rom. 15:18), but admits that his own effort is a necessary ingredient in the Divine work:

"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me." (1 Cor. 15:10)

"And for this purpose I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me." (Col. 1:29)

Paul knew this concurrence of Divine and human action did not take place in him alone; therefore he could tell believers, "We have confidence in the Lord that you will do what we command" (2 Thess. 3:4). He commands them to "Stand firm in the Lord" (Phil. 4:1), but affirms that "he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:4; cf. Jude 24). He says "Rejoice in the Lord" (Phil. 3:1, 4:4) but also "May God fill you with peace and joy" (Rom. 15:13). And for those he admonishes to "be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might" (Eph. 6:10) he prays "that He would grant you,... to be strengthened with power through His Spirit" (Eph. 3:16).

Of further note are Paul's constant references to Divine concurrence in phrases such as the following: "We overwhelmingly conquer through Him" (Rom. 8:37), "giving thanks through Him to God" (Col. 3:17), and "Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure" (2 Tim. 1:14).

Finally, Paul's doctrine of concurrence "has primarily in view man's good works"[ix] and does not extend to the area of man's sin. Paul is clear that God does not cooperate with man in evil, but rather "will provide a way of escape" from it (1 Cor. 10:13). He also tells the Galatians that "this persuasion," which was hindering them from obeying the truth, "did not come from Him who calls you" (Gal. 5:8). Paul ascribes full responsibility for sin to the sinner (Rom. 7:24); therefore "the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things" (Rom. 2:2; 2 Thess. 1:6).

Paul agreed with the concern of his fellow apostle James, that God should never be blamed for our sin. James wrote, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” (James 1:13-15). But James also clearly agreed with Paul about Divine concurrence in all the good things that happen in this world, because he immediately adds, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures” (vv. 16-17).

The apostolic teaching in the New Testament is consistent in affirming that the active and responsible agent in all good is the Creator, while the active and responsible agent in all evil is the creature (whether fallen angels or sinful humans). So although it is theologically accurate to say that God ordained evil, has planned for it to occur, and brings good out of it for His sovereign purposes, it is not correct to say that He “cooperates” in it or “causes” it in the sense of active and responsible agency. That is what the Westminster Divines were trying to communicate when they said that God is not “the author of sin” [x]—though they may have chosen some regretful and confusing terminology. God is the “author” of sin in the sense that He planned it and controls it (the analogy of a scriptwriter/director in our culture may be more helpful), but He is not the “author” of sin in the sense that he promotes it or acts it out (both ideas that are related to the etymology of the word).

God does, however, do all of those things when it comes to decisions we make and actions we take that are pleasing to Him. He is the source of all good, in every way, and He even “rewards His own gracious gifts,” as Martin Luther was fond of saying. He arranged for the universe to work this way so that only He would ultimately receive glory, which is in fact the ultimate good that could ever be achieved. He is our Creator and perfect in all he does, therefore He is the only One truly worthy and deserving of glory. So, as Jeremiah 9:24 and 1 Corinthians 1:31 say, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” The doctrine of Divine concurrence reminds us that one day it will be crystal clear that God deserves the glory and thanks for everything good, so that we can give it to him now as a part of our everyday lives.

In part two I'll discuss some practical implications and applications of the doctrine of concurrence...



     [i]Whenever Christians become aware of the scriptural doctrine of God's sovereign control, numerous questions inevitably arise in their minds about the relationship of that doctrine to human responsibility (such as those mentioned in the second part of this article). Concurrence is the most concise and appropriate designation for the answers to those questions, and that alone makes the term useful for theological discussion.

     [ii]G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1952), 126. To my knowledge, Berkouwer is the only well-known scholar who made wide use of the term "concurrence," although most other scholars have discussed the doctrine it represents to some degree.

     [iii]Ibid., 128.


     [v]Marc Mueller, Theology I Syllabus, The Master's Seminary, 1989.

     [vi]Roger Hazelton, God's Way With Man (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 74.

     [vii]Ibid., 75

     [viii]Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts (NavPress, 1988), 61.

     [ix]Hazelton, 77.

     [x]The Westminster Confession, Chapter III Section 1. One of the Scripture references they include for this statement is James 1:13-17.