On God’s Sovereignty
The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is a wondrous biblical truth. However, this article will not be a detailed examination of this topic. Indeed, how dare I be so foolish as to attempt to cover in a short essay what entire libraries have already dealt with? All I wish to do here is look at one aspect of this doctrine as it relates to our responsibilities and duties in this world.
I write it because of what has been a common occurrence: often when I have just written about some grave threat facing us, or some major conflict that we must be aware of, I will get people writing back with a brief comment with words to this effect:
-Yes but God is in control.
-No need to worry – God is sovereign.
-Do not forget about God’s control of all things.
-Fortunately God is in charge.
-Hey don’t panic – God is on the throne.
This sentiment comes expressed in different ways, but it comes often when I raise issues of real importance to all of us. Now there are two ways to respond to this: yes and no. The yes part is easy: Yes of course God is in control. Yes the doctrine of divine sovereignty is a wonderful biblical teaching. Yes we must never forget that God is ultimately in charge of all that is happening.
If my commentators simply mean that we must not get overwhelmed by looking at all the evil, mess and chaos around us, but keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, then yes I fully agree.
If my commentators simply mean that we must not forget that even in all this darkness and evil, God is working out his purposes and plans, then yes I fully agree.
If my commentators simply mean that God is ultimately going to triumph over all the sin and evil in our world today, then yes I fully agree.
If my commentators simply mean that all the plans of evil men will one day come to an end, and ultimately all evil will be defeated, then yes I fully agree.
But I suspect that perhaps more often than not, this is not quite what they have in mind. They may have this partly in mind, but I suspect they also have another thing in mind. And it is this bit I must strongly disagree with. Often they mean by this that there is no need to get involved in these battles, or to even think or worry about them.
‘Just relax and trust God,’ seems to be the intent. ‘He is in charge, so there is nothing we can do about it.’ They seem to believe that whatever happens, happens, and they have almost subscribed to a fatalistic – and unbiblical – understanding of God. They believe that whatever occurs must be God’s perfect will, so there is no need for us to get concerned about anything or do anything.
This is where my no comes in, because it betrays a faulty understanding of God’s sovereignty. Or more specifically, it betrays an imperfect and unbalanced understanding of biblical teaching. It in fact takes one biblical truth and pits it against other biblical truths. While the sovereignty of God is taught throughout Scripture, that is not the only truth we find there.
We also find the truth that God calls us to act on his behalf; that he expects us to do our bit; and that if we will not be salt and light as he calls us to be, then his will is not being carried out on earth as it is in heaven. God for some strange reason has chosen to work through us. He has decreed that part of the way that his job gets done on planet earth is by means of his people.
Of course he does not need any one of us to accomplish his purposes. He could do it all himself if he wanted. But he has so arranged things that you and I are to be up to our ears in work for the Kingdom. We have been given enormous responsibilities, and God expects us to do our part, and not sit on our tails thinking we have nothing to do.
Everywhere in the Bible God tells his people to do things for him and his Kingdom. There are hundreds, probably thousands of commands, exhortations and orders found in Scripture which we are meant to carry out. There is no thought anywhere in Scripture that we are to just sit around and expect God to do everything for us.
Instead, he chooses to work in and through us. So we all have a job to do; we all have our Christian responsibilities to perform; and we all must be busy with the work of the Kingdom. As Jesus instructed us, we are to ‘occupy till he comes’. We are to keep busy with the tasks he has given us.
This is certainly true when it come to obvious things like evangelism and discipleship. God could have done all this directly himself had he so chosen. But he instead has entrusted us with these great tasks, with these vitally important responsibilities.
And he also orders us to be salt and light in a very needy world. We are to work with God to resist evil and promote righteousness. We don’t just sit back and smile at every new inrush of evil. We seek God’s broken heart on all this, and agree to work with him to stop its spread.
Imagine if Wilberforce got some of these comments when he was battling the slave trade: “Hey Wilby, just lighten up. Don’t you know that God is in control? Why get so hot and bothered about all this. You need to let go and let God. He will work it all out. You can’t take the place of God.”
Of course that sort of attitude, if accepted, would have meant that we would still have slaves today in the West. Blacks would still be treated as second class citizens. It is a very good thing indeed that Wilberforce did not listen to these perhaps well-intentioned but gravely mistaken brethren.
Imagine what the Jews in Auschwitz would have thought if Christians in America or England simply said, “Hey, don’t get so agitated about Hitler. God is sovereign. You need to just trust God. This is not a physical war but a spiritual battle. Just let God work things out.”
The truth is, such an attitude would not have emptied the concentration camps nor halted the Nazi terror advance. Indeed, we would all be speaking German right now if that silly attitude prevailed. It was not a resigned fatalism that saved the Jews and won the peace, but Allied tanks.
Imagine if these comments came through when discussing the threat of militant Islam and a nuclear-armed rogue Iranian state. Well, these comments are coming – right now. As I try to alert people of this very real danger, I am still getting Christians – and not necessarily just Calvinists – coming back with what is almost a cheap cliche: “Yea, but God is on the throne. Nothing to get worried about.”
There is everything to be concerned about here. Freedom and democracy, as imperfect as they may be, are at stake. They are always worth fighting for. If lazy Christians want to sit back and allow the Islamists to take over the free West, that is up to them.
I however will fight this with all the ability God has given me. In the same way I will fight on all the other battle fronts which we face. And I will fight on all levels: political, social, legal, cultural and spiritual. I will pray like mad about these things, but I will also work like mad about these things.
I will take the attitude of Augustine when he said: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” The interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is ultimately a mystery. We don’t really know how it all works. But Scripture insists upon both elements of the equation.
God will certainly do his part. The question is, will we do our part?
Postscript: Also related to this discussion is an issue I am often queried about. People will ask, “But could it be that God is using the Muslims (or the radical homosexuals, or the whoever or whatever) as a means of judging the West, or the church? My answer is again yes and no, but that must be the stuff of another full-length article at least. So stay tuned.
16 Replies to “On God’s Sovereignty”
Bill, I see it this way; that the sovereignty of God has two important aspects to it. First, from before the beginning of time, the Triune God determined all things whatsoever that should come to pass, and it is His Providence that orchestrates all things towards His pre-determined ends, yet not so as to attribute sin to God.
However, as sovereign, God’s Word is a sovereign Law-Word, and all His subjects are bound absolutely to obey that Law-Word in every minute detail, down to the last jot and tittle. Our obedience and disobedience to that Law-Word contributes to the unfolding course of God’s pre-determined sovereign will.
Sit back, smug in the sovereignty of God, and refuse to work according to God’s Law-Word, and we reap the deserved judgments of God. Roll up our sleeves and labour according to God’s sovereign Law-Word, and we walk under an open heaven of blessing.
In all this remembering, that it is God who gives us the desire and strength to do His will.
Be complacent, and the sovereign will of God is our destruction. Be vigilant, and the sovereign will of God is our blessing, and that blessing being heaped upon our children’s children to a thousand generations.
And this is how I see it, IMHO.
Lance A Box
Perhaps I should be the first to comment here. It has occurred to me that my examples above may be too theoretical or too far removed for some. So let me offer a much more practical and down-to-earth-example:
Suppose a husband has allowed the dishes to pile up, the grass to turn to weeds, the car to be coated in mud, and the house to be in general disrepair. And suppose he has not fed the kids in four days. If his wife gets on his case – and rightly so – and rebukes him for his sloth and irresponsibility, and the husband replies, “Hey, God is sovereign,’ he will likely get a well-deserved kick in the pants. We don’t use God’s sovereignty as a cheap excuse to forego our ordinary responsibilities, so why use it in the bigger issues facing us?
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Or the response that goes something like “this is what the Bible predicts will happen in the ‘last days’ so we may as well get used to it.” Such a view is myopic in outlook thinking what is happening in our own backyard is somehow representative of what is happening in the whole of the world, or that for some reason biblical prophecy uniquely describes the fate of Western civilisation. Christian influence in the West may be declining and our moral standards crumbling, but these things have happened to past civilisations too and the world hasn’t ended, and anyway, isn’t Christianity growing rapidly in the non-Western world?
Ewan McDonald, Victoria
Yes quite right Ewan
Far too often Christians allow their eschatological views to become an excuse for opting out, and refusing to take seriously their responsibilities to be salt and light in society. I discuss this here for example:
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Hi Ewan, I often talk about what the Bible predicts regarding the last days, if I appeared to mean that there was nothing to do about it and just sit back and relax I apologise.
The meaning of that is the end is coming faster than most people realise, there are so many still not saved to Jesus, or they have gone to sleep and are not aware of Jesus’ imminent return. Basically when I talk about the Biblical prophecies, is to point out the markers that are being lit up all over the world, and we have so much work to do, that we have little to no time left to diddydaddle around with touchy feely niceties. Hope that makes my thoughts a little bit clearer.
Coherent writing was never my strong suit, which is why I wish I could just spend all day in the garden, plants and insects never ask for long essays. Which is why Bill needs congratulations and all the support we can give him.
Great article, Bill. Always good to find a balance so one does not stray too far into extreme Calvinism or Arminianism, since both taken too far can lead to erroneous doctrine and practice.
I adhere more closely to the ideas of Luis de Molina, who reconciled God’s sovereignty with free will, holding that in addition to knowing everything that does or will happen, God also knows what His creature would freely choose if placed in any circumstance.
Thus His intervention in the created order is limited only to those instances when our own free will would stray too far from His plan, but on the whole He created each of us and directly or indirectly shaped the course of HIStory, knowing what choices we would make – in fact, counting on us to make our own choices.
In these Last Days, we have received the fullest revelation of His will, so we should choose of our own volition to love one another, be holy, and GO spread the Good News!
Yes Molinism is one option here, and it has gained some amount of acceptance by evangelicals.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Bill, I thoroughly endorse what you say above; it’s just a cheap cliche to say “God is sovereign” as a pretext for opting out. Likewise, as you well remark, “Far too often Christians allow their eschatological views to become an excuse for opting out, and refusing to take seriously their responsibilities to be salt and light in society”. The trouble is, when I for instance in this context make a remark about eschatology, as I did in a recent post, people jump to the conclusion – yourself included I’m afraid to say – that I am contending for just such an “opt-out”. If I believed that I would not be involved in the work of Saltshakers!
On the contrary, we pray and work, we testify and warn of coming judgment, and all the time have an eye to the signs of the times, and “look up, for our redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28). I see that complementarity as entirely Biblical.
Murray R. Adamthwaite
I wonder if at least some of the difficulty we have getting our head around the correct relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will lies in our misconception that these 2 are on a scale as it were, equal parts of an equation. But isn’t the free will rather part of God’s sovereignty, since he created both man and our free will? To me God’s sovereignty has ordained the free will of man and has made provision for it even to the point of making up the lack of good that our sins have caused, not only in the wrong we have done, but maybe especially in our sins of omission, of the good we have failed to do. He is able to restore all the good we have failed to do, the fact that he doesn’t always appear to, seems to me to make us aware of our lack of love and goodness so we may come to Him for forgiveness and restoration.
Thanks for your thoughts Ursula. In this and other recent comments you show that you have a good theological head on your shoulders.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
thinking biblically is the easy bit, we have the holy Spirit to interprete His scribtures to us. Doing it is the hard thing, “loving till it hurts”.
Men such as Whitefield and Spurgeon and early missionaries such as Carey, as well as most of the sixteenth century Reformers, and countless others, believed that God has chosen from eternity those who will be saved. They worked extremely hard at evangelism and in many cases on social improvement. Some died early through overwork and work-related illness and some died as martyrs.
These men are good examples to us of Christians of the past who believed wholeheartedly in God’s sovereignty and believed wholeheartedly in human action. They were mostly what would be called strong Calvinists.
I think your quote from Augustine sums it up: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” We could modernise it – think and pray as a Calvinist but work and persuade like an Arminian.
I note you speak of God’ sovereignty and man’s responsibility. I don’t like the expression “free will.” I haven’t got free will and I don’t know anyone who does. If I had free will I would determine to be perfect and never sin again.
Grant Vandervalk’s “harmonisation” between God’s sovereignty & man’s “free will” is invalid & superficial. If God’s plans are based on Him knowing in advance how each one of us will respond, then it is us who are directing events, not God. Note Romans 9:11-13 in this regard: “Yet, BEFORE (my emphasis) the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by Him who calls – she was told,’The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated.’ ”
Molinism, therefore, effectively destroys the sovereignty of God because man’s choice becomes sovereign. Cheap explanations like this are inane – we are talking here about a deep mystery.
Spero, I think you misunderstand de Molina. Never undermine God’s omniscience in that He actually created you and even shaped your circumstances, He knows every choice you could and would make, so what appears to us as free will is actually all part of His plan. There is cases where He directly intervenes to affect a person’s decision, but I think examples such as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart worked in synergy with his own already hard heart.
Do not discount other sound Christian doctrines with plenty of Biblical evidence on account of your. At best we should agree to disagree. At the risk of starting a debate here, let me briefly ask you, why would the Bible be filled with commands and blessings or consequences for obeying or disobeying if we were not to choose to obey or disobey? Luis de Molina is not the only one to have worked towards this harmony, post-Calvinism has done much to reconcile Arminian and Calvinist thought also.
“But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” -Joshua 24:15
Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having – C. S. Lewis
Why is there evil, if there is no such thing as free will? Did Adam and Eve choose to eat of the forbidden fruit or not? What merit is there in love or obedience without free will?