What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 2

To say that God is sovereign over all is a given among Bible-believing Christians. What is not a given is what we mean by that. Dig deeper and you’ll find that there are differences in what various teachers mean when they affirm God’s sovereignty.

In part 1 of this series, I wrote about how God’s sovereignty is commonly conceived by the typical Christian – that nothing happens unless God allows it to happen, that God knows what will happen before it does, or that in the end God’s ultimate will will prevail as he triumphs over his foes.

All these are true to a point, but suffer from the same flaw. They portray God as ruling in a kind of passive and reactive way. In this post, I’d like to show how this viewpoint has shown up in a couple of songs from recent contemporary Christian music.

The first song is Sovereign Over Us by Aaron Keyes. This is a poignant, encouraging anthem of great comfort to those who sing it. The second is See a Victory from Elevation Worship, a somewhat repetitious declaration of triumph over our battles. A third song is For My Good by R&B artist Todd Galbreath. I don’t believe this was designed as a corporate worship song, but is worth considering here.

All three of these songs have some lyrics that are so similar that the teaching in those common lyrics points to a similar shared understanding of God’s sovereignty as regularly conceived. Namely –

Sovereign Over Us – “Even what the enemy means for evil, you turn it for our good, you turn it for our good and your glory.”

See A Victory – “You take what the enemy meant for evil, and you turn it for good, you turn it for good.”

For My Good – “And what the enemy meant for evil, God has worked it out for my good.”

These lines make an allusion to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers took him captive to kill him and decided to sell him into slavery instead. In time, Joseph rose to a position of power and influence. When his brothers came before him to beg for food during a famine, not knowing he was their long-lost brother, Joseph was able to provide for and save his family (and thus the nation). Later, the brothers feared Joseph’s reprisals for the wrongs they had done to him. But Joseph, in one of the great personal declarations of God’s sovereignty in all of Scripture, calmed their fears and said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).

There is a subtle, yet critical difference between Joseph’s statement and the lyrics of the three songs I quoted above. Did you catch it?

The songsActs meant for evilGod turns (or worked) for good
The BibleActs meant for evilGod meant for good

This is a simple distinction that makes all the difference. In the song lyrics, God is responding to the prior act of the enemy and “turning” it to good (“worked” in the third song). In these songs, God is regarded as the responder to our situation. This implies a passivity prior to his stepping in to turn things around for us. In other word, life gave us lemons, and God makes lemonade out of it.

But in Joseph’s statement, it’s, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Same word used. Grammatically, equal agency. Theologically, God has prior agency. “Before you intended to harm me, God intended for me to be harmed.” God is the sovereign worker here. This is not simply semantics; this is a critical statement. Do not gloss over this.

In fact, the entire story of Joseph is a testimony to God’s sovereign work. When Pharaoh dreams disturbing and confusing dreams, Joseph is able to interpret them. He begins by saying, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do” (Gen. 41:25, emphasis mine). Not only is the selling of Joseph into slavery by his evil brothers intended and planned by God, but the famine itself is part of God’s sovereign design.

If we as believers are to have any hope that God will work all things for our good (Rom. 8:28), then it must be on the basis of his sovereign intentions over all things. Indeed, the promise of Romans 8:28 is based on his prior decisive acts of foreknowing his people, predestining them to be conformed to Christ, calling them by the gospel, justifying them, and glorifying them.

Whatever we go through in this life, it will not do to only be able to say, “This was meant for evil, but God will turn it for good.” That would be a God of limited, passive, responsive sovereignty. It is ultimately an empty promise.

But to be able to say with confidence, “This was meant for evil, but God designed it, ordained it, intended it, meant it for good” is to proclaim a sure promise based on the character of an actively sovereign God. This is the God of Joseph, the God of the Bible. This is our God.

In my subsequent posts, I will discuss some of the clear biblical evidences of God’s active sovereignty as well as how the various Confessions stated the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

6 responses to “What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 2”

  1. Hi Mark.
    Is it reasonable to criticize single lines of song lyrics for failing to express the full nuances of the Biblical teaching about God’s sovereignty? That is like criticizing Psalm 37:4 (“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”) for failing to say that the Lord may sometimes refuse to give you the desires of your heart because they are wrong desires (James 4:3) or for failing to mention the Lord’s call to endure suffering (Romans 8:17).
    As to the distinction between God intending good from an evil action and God bringing good out of an evil action, is God really so limited and lacking in power and wisdom that he is unable to do either or both, as he chooses?


  2. “Is it reasonable to criticize single lines of song lyrics for failing to express the full nuances of the Biblical teaching about God’s sovereignty?”

    Yes, song lyrics should be brought under scrutiny for their theology. However, I didn’t call the three songs into question for failing to express full nuances of theology; I criticized them for avoiding biblical language that gives a false theology – namely, that God merely reacts to the enemy’s intentions for evil. I was especially disappointed in Keyes’ Sovereign Over Us, because an otherwise excellent song taking great comfort in God’s sovereign care missed an opportunity for a courageous expression of a biblical assertion.

    I’m not going to criticize Psalm 37:4 in the manner you described, because it’s inspired Scripture. Plus, your take on it is wrong. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” is not negated by the Lord’s refusal to give us our wrong desires, or taking us through the path of suffering. When “taking delight in the Lord” IS the desire of your heart, he promises you will receive…him. Not a quid pro quo for getting what you want.


  3. Thank you, Mark. My question was: “As to the distinction between God intending good from an evil action and God bringing good out of an evil action, is God really so limited and lacking in power and wisdom that he is unable to do either or both, as he chooses?” I cordially invite you to answer that question, if you are willing to do so.


  4. Let’s see if I can clearly understand the distinction in your question.

    “God intending good from an evil action” – Based on context, I think you mean here that God is purposeful and direct, actively sovereign.

    “God bringing good out of an evil action” – Are you meaning an evil action that God does not plan nor anticipate and one that he turns to good?

    If this is what you mean in this distinction, then the question “is he so limited and lacking in power that he is unable to either or both as he chooses?” is still an invalid question.

    You already assume the validity of both when you ask the question. Appealing to God’s power to validate both doesn’t really do that. If something is possible, then yes, God is certainly able to do it.

    I am unwilling to admit that there are some things that happen that God doesn’t first know about, allow to occur, and ordain to happen. We can speak in terms of God “allowing” something to happen, but that doesn’t make it less ordained of God. As MacArthur has said, there is no difference between what God knows, what he allows, and what he ordains.

    Again, you are advocating a scenario where some things are ordained and some things are not. I cannot accept this, and since this is the basis of your question, I find it unanswerable.


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