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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.

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