The Buck Stops Here, Part 1

One day late in the summer of 1945, Fred Canfil, a US Marshall, visited a reform school in Missouri. On the principal’s desk was a wooden sign, the kind of sign you would expect a person’s name to be on, but this sign said: “The buck stops here.” Fred asked the principal where he got it and if he could get one for a friend of his: Harry S. Truman. October 2, 1945 it was mailed to the president, and it remained famously on his desk during his administration. That sign summed up Truman’s thought about the presidency. “The President,” Truman said, “whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”

That’s an odd phrase, “the buck stops here,” isn’t it? Have you ever wondered how that came about? I mean how did the word “buck,” ever become a synonym for “decision?” Let me give you the 30 second history of how that happened.

The “buck stops here” was derived from another common expression, “pass the buck.” “Pass the buck” was a slang expression used in poker games referring to who was in charge of dealing the cards. In order to keep track of who was dealing, a pointer or marker was kept on the table. Often times, especially on the frontier, it was a knife with a buckhorn handle. If the buck—the handle of the knife—was indicating it was your turn to deal and you did not want to, you could “pass the buck” to the next player.

Who is dealing? Who is in charge? Who is responsible? Who is making the decisions? Where does the buck stop? These are important questions. They are questions that we need answered if we are going to be living and working with people. We need to know where we fit in the chain of command…and we need to know who is at the top.

While none of us can always be the person with whom the buck stops, we here in America (and especially in New England) pride ourselves in the fact that at least we are in charge of ourselves. We make our own decisions. We make our own choices. We are, in that sense, the person with whom the buck stops. We have free will. For good or bad, for better or for worse we are free to make our own choices. Scripture it would seem, backs this up this belief. Take for instance Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV) where Joshua says,

Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

This passage and dozens of others like it seem to confirm that we have been given by God the freedom to make our own choices—that the buck stops with us.

On the other hand, if you are a student of the Bible, it will not be long before you start coming across passages that talk about God being sovereign—that He is in control of everything that happens and every decision that is made; that in fact the buck stops with God. Have you noticed that? Take for example Proverbs 21:1 (NLTse): The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases. And Proverbs 16:33 (NIV): The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. Our hearts, meaning our desires and our wills, are directed by God. Even the decisions that we make by flipping a coin are decisions from the Lord.

So which is it? Do we have free will or is God sovereign? Where does the buck stop?

The Bible does not seem to think these two things—God’s sovereignty and our free will—are mutually exclusive. Genesis 50:15-21, is a key passage that illustrates this for us. Let me fill in the backstory to this passage.

Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob and the first son to Jacob by his wife Rachel. Jacob loved his wife Rachel more than his other wife Leah (who had already given him 10 sons), so Joseph instantly became the favorite.

Joseph’s half-brothers were not the nicest people in the world. Simeon and Levi destroyed an entire city in retaliation for their sister Dena being raped by a man from that city. The stress from fleeing after their attack caused Rachel to go into labor and she died from complications giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. That caused a whole lot of resentment and tension between Jacob (and Joseph) and Leah and her sons. This was further exacerbated when we find out that Rueben was sleeping with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah who was for all intents and purposes Joseph’s mother after Rachel died.

In Genesis 37:2 we find Joseph’s first recorded act, Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

Do you think that report might have had something to do with Rueben sleeping with his stepmother? And what does Jacob do? He honors Joseph by giving him that “coat of many colors” and making him the family heir over his 10 other older brothers! The brothers were so angry at this favoritism that they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Then, being the favorite son, Joseph tells his brothers about dreams that God has given him in which he is elevated as master over them. He does this twice. And his brothers hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

The next time Joseph goes to check on his brothers, he is away from the protection of his father; they took their opportunity and stripped, beat, threw him into a pit and sold him as a slave.

In Egypt where he was taken, he worked as a slave, was accused of rape, and thrown in prison. But When Pharaoh had a pair of disturbing dreams that none of his people could interpret, his cup-bearer remembered that he had a dream that Joseph interpreted correctly for him. So Joseph is brought from prison to see if he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He does, and ends up being put in charge of Egypt to help avert a great famine that was coming in 7 years’ time, by storing up grain in the 7 years leading up to the famine.

His brothers end up needing to come to Egypt in the midst of the famine to buy food; and find that Joseph, the brother they so badly mistreated was the man they needed to depend on for food. But instead of punishing them, he invites them to come and live in Egypt with him so they will survive the famine. So Joseph’s dreams come true, and he is reunited with his father and his family.

Then Joseph’s father died. And his brothers began to worry that Joseph’s forgiveness might have just been a show to please his father. At this point we come to Genesis 50:15-21 (NIV):

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

I want to take notice of three things in this passage:

First, Joseph’s brothers believe that they were responsible for their decision to sell Joseph. They did it of their own free will.

Second, they feel guilty for what they did. They knew that they deserved to be punished for their actions. They knew that God knew what they had done and that he had the right to hold them to account.

Third, Joseph says that while their choices were malicious, God used them to be the means to bring him to Egypt so that he could save many lives, including theirs.

The Bible teaches that people have free will and that God is sovereign. It is not either/or, it is both/and. What I want to try and do this series The Buck Stops Here, is show that it is important that all three of these points—that we have free will, that God holds us responsible for our decisions, and that God is sovereign—are all undeniably biblical, and why they are each necessary to be true.


  1. ” then choose for yourselves ”

    Free will choose to follow and allow god to be part of your life or choose not to. Choose this god or that god but YOU choose. If god was in complete control there wouldn’t be any choice because he would make it for you.

    God acts in our lives when we allow him to.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. What is loving about a father in complete control allowing his 14 year old daughter to be gang raped and beaten? Why did god DO that? Why did he have me raped? Why would you think those men will answer for a crime god “made” them commit?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I believe they did it of their own free will and they will be held accountable for their actions. God did not make them do it. They were not puppets. Neither were you singled out by God for a divinely sanctioned beating. God did not say, “what that girl needs is a good.” That is crap! But I do not think it was a surprise. I don’t think God did not know it was going to happen. I don’t think God said, “If only I had been paying more attention that would not have happened!”


          1. Bingo so god did not cause of plan it. I would not doubt god knows what will happen. I just don’t believe he causes it all to happen. He started us with free will and took his hands off. Unless we go to him and say help me he doesn’t.

            We have to choose to seek him and his presence in our lives. We have to ask for his help. our free will is to choose to do or not do exactly that.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. There is a difference between being a cause and allowing. Granted. I do not believe God is the effective cause… meaning I don’t think God is the starting point of culpability for evil. But the Bible is pretty clear that He is in control of it. I know that you do not believe the Bible is authoritative for you, so that will be an unsatisfactory answer. But I think it explains reality better than any other alternative worldview out there.


          3. God allows free will. He does not plan for us to have pain in life. He does not plan our evils. Nor do I believe for a moment that he is in control of it. Again if he were then free will is a joke.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. To say that God allows free will is to say that God allows moral evil to exist. To allow is in some sense to cause is it not? The same problem exists in your worldview.


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