Last week, we looked at what some of the greatest minds in church history had to say about God’s providence and absolute sovereignty over all things. We saw that men like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon held that God was the creator and the sustainer of all things. They did not limit God’s sovereign hand to a few things only. Rather, they saw it to be a fountainhead of confidence in the Christian life that there was not one square inch of the world that Christ does not declare, “Mine!” This should not be taken to mean, though, that humans are left with no volition or choices. God’s providence works through the wills of human beings to accomplish His sovereign, secret purposes for His glory. This means that God does use secondary causes but it does not overrule the scriptural fact that God controls every little dot and tittle of our daily lives.
In this post, I hope to sketch some theological observations pertaining to God’s sovereignty over all things. Room will not allow for a detailed exegesis of various texts regarding this biblical truth. That is what is coming up next, and it is foundational for all that is in this post and in the former post as well. The point here is to do some systematic theology; not at all divorced from the Bible, but rather considering the doctrines that rise up from the Bible.
Systematic theology is a secondary language to that of Scripture. But the very nature of Scripture means that systematic theology is not only good but inescapable. God is a God of truth who has revealed Himself for the purposes of our knowing Him as the Triune saving God. He has communicated to us in the world but most importatantly He has given us a Book. This book is not simply any book. This book, the Bible, is God’s Word written by human agency. 44 authors used by one main Author for the purpose of communicating Himself to us. This is the foundation and guide for all truth. All truth is indeed God’s truth, but we cannot understand the world without interpreting it through the lenses of the Word. The Bible is the Word of God. B.B. Warfield said that when the Bible speaks, God speaks. The Bible is without error because God is without error. The text of scripture is inspired; this meaning that the Holy Spirit is the main author of the Bible. It is from this source that the Bible draws its authority. Finally, because God cannot contradict God, we know that the Bible is consistent in witness. Scripture must interpret scripture. The Reformer’s called this the “analogy of faith.” Systematic theology is an attempt to give a summary of what God has revealed to us in the Bible. Remember that we all have one. That is, we are all systematicians when it comes to theology. The question is whether or not our theology is biblical or not.
I hope what follows is biblical, not the product of simple reason and what not. God is honored when we think rightly about Him. Good systematic theologies (like Grudem, Horton, Bavinck, Calvin, etc.) help us to know God better. That is the whole point of this exercise. To consider the vastness of God and yet to not do so for the purpose of our own joy and wonderment in God is all vanity. We don’t need propositions alone, but the God that these propositions lead us to. Theology is for doxology: hard thinking for the hard stirring of our affections.
God: Omnipotent and Omniscient
The Scripture unapologetically points to God as both omnipotent and omniscient. Basically, God knows all and is all-powerful. We do not serve an impotent God who is trying to figure this world out. God instead created the world and has been working His plan of redemption from before the foundation of the world. God in His eternal aseity has decided to create, not our of need, but out of love and the overflow of His glory. In the face of our rebellion, God has decided to save and to do so on His own. God is worked on by any external force. He is not caught off guard. How beautiful is this in the light of our own frailty? In light of the volatile world we live in?
We can’t say that God is powerful but not sovereign or vice versa. JI Packer explains this fact perfectly in his classic, “Knowing God.” Packer realizes that God’s attributes do not conflict but work in perfect harmony with one another. God is ominpotent exactly because He knows exhaustively all things that come to pass. He is all-knowing because He is powerful to effect all that will come to pass. If we say that God is all powerful and yet refuse to say that God knows all things then we are walking in theological confusion. The Bible is clear that God’s foreknowledge (think Rom. 8:28) is not simply precognition. Meaning, God does not just look forward to see the result of the libertarian free choices of human kind. God knows because He ordains and ordains because He knows.
To Be God Is To Be Sovereign
God is sovereign simply because He is God. To be God is to be completely other. God is intensely perfect, contra the “god” of deism. God does not create and then step back to see how it all plays out. But God’s imminence must not be taken as “creaturely.” God is holy. The angels in heaven are proclaiming this even now (Isa. 6:2-3). God’s holiness has two parts. First, God is morally perfect. The Triune God is not lacking in any aspect of His character nor does He learn along with us. God is perfect. Second, God’s holiness means He is “other.” God stands alone. We are made in God’s image but that should not be taken to mean that we are like God. To be made in God’s image is mostly related to that of a statue. Statues serve the purpose of “imaging” or “mirroring” the holy character of God. God is not like us. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). God being the source of all things made on earth means that He is in complete control over that creation. To say otherwise is to try to make a finite God in our own image. Our great hope is in the immutability of God; the fact that God does not change like us. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (Heb. 13:8). He stands constant in the midst of our inconstancy. God is God and we are sinful, though redeemed, man.
God’s Sovereignty and Free Will
Nothing about God being completely sovereign means that man is not free to choose whatever He wants to do. However, we must define freedom as the Bible does. The fact remains that the Bible in no way says that man is completely free to do good or evil. Man does not have absolute free will. The will is free insofar as it can do whatever it wants to do. This is where a biblical doctrine of sin is so crucial. Man chooses as he wants and always chooses to sin. Only when we are born again are we able to do spiritual good, covered in the blood of Christ
With regards to providence, we must remember that God causes all things to be and that includes our real choices and actions. So if you sin, it is your fault. If you do something good, it is all by the grace of God. How does this make sense? David Platt illustrated it like this. He and J.D. Greear where going to preach in Nepal for a week. Unfortunately, Delta Airlines had tons of problems and David’s flight was delayed for sometime. His trip to Nepal was drastically shortened. Greear went on to preach both of their messages. Now it was God’s sovereign working that caused David to be late to Nepal. But, as Platt quipped, “it was definitely Delta’s fault.”
How does this all work out? I am not sure. We must come to concede that in the long run, God is the ultimate cause of all things. Only God is sovereign and free. The Bible calls us to see that our freedom is limited in a least some ways. This is humbling. We must be biblical. The Bible says that God causes all things to happen. The Bible also says that man is responsible for his actions. That is the biblical doctrine of providence. It is at this point that we are invited by Paul to fall on our faces. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not symmetrical. Simply put, God is God and He does as He pleases. But remember the superior character of God. He is good and works all thins, including the decisions and sins of mankind, for His glory and the good of His elect.
Practical Implications (Why this matters)
It has become evident that I do not have enough time or space to tackle this question fully, or at least as fully as I would like. I’ll include some good resources at the end of this post. They will be better than this attempt to expound the excellencies of Christ. Let’s take a few minutes to consider the practical implications of God’s total sovereignty. This is not some esoteric doctrine that does not matter if we affirm or not. First off, we need to affirm this because God does. It is a great tragedy when we lie about who God is by our lives and doctrine. But there are also many reasons why God’s providence in all things is exceedingly sweet.
I would not contort my life in the way it is being shaped now if God is not sovereign. Western African looks to be my future home. It is a beautiful continent with a beautiful people. But those people are as dead in sin as any American. I have no confidence that those people love the gospel. It is impossible for them, in the flesh, to do so. So why go? Why go to these God-hating people if I know that they will hate the gospel I preach? Western African is dangerous. It is home to many Muslim groups who stand as enemies of the cross and are now shy about resorting to violence in order to express that fact. Why go there if it might cost me my life? Only because God is sovereign. God is sovereign to open the eyes of the blind. God is sovereign to protect me as long as He will. God has saved me and given me all that He has promised to me. With that knowledge, I take risks. I take risks precisely because God doesn’t. Missions is dependent on the sovereignty of God.
Our view of scripture begs a high view of the sovereignty of God. How is it that the Bible has come together? There are around 44 different human authors who all wrote within a span of thousands of years. Since God is sovereign, though, we have His revelation to us. The Bible is inerrant and sufficient because God has guided His people to discover what books were inspired. The Bible has been preserved in translations, coming to all peoples, because God has seen fit to orchestrate this in His good pleasure.
Finally, God’s sovereignty means that what He says about our future is true. God has already told us the end of this story. God will reign with His redeemed people; a people so satisfied in God that their enjoyment of Him will burn with the heat of an inexhaustible sun for the duration of forever. How excellent is our sovereign Lord! We know that we will not fall away because of God’s sovereign upholding. We know that we are safe until God calls us home because even the wind and waves obey Him. We know that Revelation 21 is our secured hope because God is God and does whatever He please. And God is pleased to do only that which accords with His righteous character.
God’s sovereignty is a sweet doctrine. It is a theological and practical necessity. If God is not sovereign over all things, if we cannot trust His providence, we are most to be pitied. God is sovereign and that is really, really good news.
David Platt’s “Divine Sovereignty: The Fuel of Death-defying Missions)
RC Sproul on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
John Piper “The Sovereignty of God: My Counsel Shall Stand”
Got Questions? Articles
A host of resources form monergism.com