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.
We began this series in part 1 discussing how the sovereignty of God is commonly conceived by most Christians. In this, God’s rule over his creation is spoken of in terms of his pre-knowledge of what will happen, his permission allowing certain things to happen, or his eventual conquest of his enemies so that ultimately his will is accomplished. He is seen much like a good and powerful earthly king who uses his might when necessary to achieve his ends, but is not directly controlling events and people. Commonly conceived, God’s sovereignty is a passive rule.
In part 2, we looked at several songs that allude to a verse in Genesis in some of their lyrics. The songs seem to affirm a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, but fail with a critical mis-quoting of what Joseph actually said. Instead, they all end up affirming the same passive view of God’s rule over us that is so prevalent among Christians.
In this post, I would like to examine several verses that speak to a different view of God’s ruling sovereignty. Rather than being the occasional “proof-text” that needs to be explained away, these verses confirm the narrative of Scripture throughout.
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.Psalm 135 6 ESV
The Bible continually affirms that the Lord God works his will over creation. He is not the passive, reactive God, responding to the things that happen. Rather, God actively accomplishes all that pleases him to do.
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.Colossians 1:16-17 ESV
These verses, referring to Jesus Christ, demonstrate the pervasiveness of his rule. As creator of all things, he rightfully rules over them all. In Christ all things “hold together” – meaning he preserves all that he has made, down to the finest detail.
I am the LORD, and there is no other.Isaiah 45:6b-9 NIV
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.
You heavens above, rain down my righteousness;
let the clouds shower it down.
Let the earth open wide,
let salvation spring up,
let righteousness flourish with it;
I, the LORD, have created it.
Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker,
those who are nothing but potsherds
among the potsherds on the ground.
Does the clay say to the potter,
“What are you making?”
Does your work say, “The potter has no hands”?
This is a powerful passage with God himself speaking, letting us know in no uncertain terms that he is the Sovereign God. His repeated use of the “I, the LORD” construction leaves no doubt who is in control. “I, the LORD, do all these things.” What things? Light, darkness, prosperity, disaster. Instead of saying that God allows these things to occur, God says he actively does them. “I, the LORD, have created it.” Created what? Righteousness and salvation. We speak of God saving people who put their trust in Christ, and rightfully so. But decisively behind that faith is the Sovereign Lord who creates righteousness and salvation. This is more than God providing a way for salvation; he sovereignly calls salvation to spring up.
This passage ends describing the folly of those who would object to this. You are not just arguing a theological point of view; you are quarrelling with your very Maker. To do this is like saying that God has no power at all (“the potter has no hands”). This is echoed in Romans 9:19-21, where Paul uses the same vessel/potter analogy to rebuke those who would “answer back to God” (v.20) in their objection to his electing choice.
Does disaster come to a city,Amos 3:6
unless the LORD has done it?
Again, to speak of God ordaining good, but merely allowing disaster is a sub-biblical perspective. For the believer, we take encouragement from all the ways that God provides for us in the midst of adversity. The doctor who happens to be driving behind us when we get into an auto accident, the job offer that arrives just as we become aware that our current job is being down-sized, the storehouse of grain in Egypt that God furnishes to feed his people in Canaan are all examples of God’s providential care for his people. We justly thank God for his gifts! But in the midst of those adverse circumstances, we often forget that God could have prevented those events in the first place, that truly, he has brought them to us by his design and plan! To say that God has worked some great and good things from something like the global COVID pandemic and not recognize that he has ordained the pandemic is to sell his sovereign rule short. (See also, Lamentations 3:37-30)
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.Acts 4:27-28 ESV
This is an explicit statement that the Lord God directly predestines the acts of people. And yet, it was also acknowledged and proclaimed by these same apostles that those predestined acts were acts for which they were responsible. In Acts 2:23, Peter says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In 3:13, Peter accuses them, “you killed the Author of life.” There is no hesitation in proclaiming that these events were predestined under God’s sovereign hand and plan, and yet the people carrying them out were not regarded as mere puppets, but were culpable of those evil deeds.
I have heard some say that just because this particular evil action was predestined by God, or others like the abduction of Joseph (see my previous post) were ordained by God, we cannot go on and assume that every event is likewise God’s sovereign plan. To that, I would ask, are you going to make the determination as to which events are and which are not sovereignly ordained? To do so would be to place yourself above God. Oh, tread lightly here! The burden of proof is on those who would maintain that God doesn’t ordain everything that comes to pass.
Just because we can’t always understand God’s purpose in ordaining events is no proof that he hasn’t done so. And just because we can’t understand how this “works” is no proof either. The Bible puts God’s predestinating power alongside man’s responsibility, and makes no attempt to explain or reconcile these truths. Neither should we.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.Ephesians 1:11 ESV
Ephesians 1:11 is perhaps the clearest statement of God’s sovereign decree. Our having been predestined – for adoption as sons (1:5) – is said to be according to, or under the umbrella of God’s “purpose” as he works all things according to the counsel of his will. Focusing on this last clause, God works all things. In other words, God’s sovereignty is an active sovereignty; all things, all events, all disasters, all blessings, all decisions are his work. As R.C. Sproul has somewhere said, “If God is not sovereign over all, he is not sovereign at all.”
Rather than these selected verses (as well as many others like them) being “problem passages” that need to be explained away or softened to accommodate our finite understanding, they form the backbone of a biblical understanding of God’s nature and decree. Again, the burden of proof would be on those who would soften the weight of these passages.
This of course raises the question: if God has ordained all that comes to pass, and even sinful actions on the part of man have been ordained by God, doesn’t this make God the author of sin? A fair question, one that we will attempt to address in our next post.
4 responses to “What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 3”
[…] in part 3, we looked at some Scripture verses that portray God’s active rule over his creation. Rather […]
If I’ve understood your view correctly, your proof-texts are designed to demonstrate the proposition that God pre-ordains everything that comes to pass.
Psalm 135:6 does not demonstrate your proposition. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with that topic. It simply tells us that God does whatever he pleases.
Colossians 1:16-17 tells us that he creates and sustains all things. So, that doesn’t tell us whether or not God pre-ordains everything that comes to pass.
Isaiah 45:6b-9 likewise does not say anything about what is or is not pre-ordained.
Amos 3:6. From your explanation, you seem to be reading this verse as if it were an axiomatic statement in a theological textbook. What if we are careful to read it faithfully, that is, with attention to the context and to what kind of writing it is? See the whole chapter, and note especially the series of seven vivid questions which starts in v3 and culminates in v6. The point in each case is that the outcome is to be expected. The prophet is telling the people that, in view of their disobedience, disaster from the Lord is to be expected.
Lamentations 3:37-40. These verses do not support your proposition. Even if one were to read them as intended to be literal and absolute statements, they do not address the question whether everything that comes to pass is pre-ordained. The “calamities” and “good things” of v38 could be God’s responses to human free choices. However, more importantly, the text we are reading is a lamentation, not a dispassionate list of absolute theological statements. This is readily illustrated by comparing v31 (“For no one is cast off by the Lord for ever”). Bible-believing Christians would not read v31 as an absolute theological statement, because Jesus warns of destruction for some.
Acts 4:27-28 with 2:23 and 3:13. You acknowledge: “some say that just because this particular evil action was predestined by God, or others like the abduction of Joseph (see my previous post) were ordained by God, we cannot go on and assume that every event is likewise God’s sovereign plan.” This seems to me to be a strong objection to using those particular verses in support of your proposition. You make four responses to it, which do not appear to me to answer it.
(1) “I would ask, are you going to make the determination as to which events are and which are not sovereignly ordained? To do so would be to place yourself above God.” I don’t understand how this response answers the objection. You are doing the very thing that you warn against, by yourself making the determination that all events are sovereignly ordained. But I don’t see how expressing that opinion places you above God.
(2) “The burden of proof is on those who would maintain that God doesn’t ordain everything that comes to pass.” I don’t see why. If you want to demonstrate a particular view, it is up to you to demonstrate it. “He who asserts must prove”, as lawyers say.
(3) You say that our lack of understanding of God’s purpose in ordaining everything, or of how it works, does not prove that he has not done it. I agree that it does not. Nor does it prove that he has done it.
(4) “The Bible puts God’s predestinating power alongside man’s responsibility, and makes no attempt to explain or reconcile these truths.” This does not advance the discussion. It says nothing about the extent to which God predestines events.
The verses in Acts do not say that God predestines or pre-ordains all events.
Ephesians 1:11. You suggest that this is perhaps the clearest statement that you can rely on. I agree with you that it is probably the high point of possible Scriptural support for your proposition. However, if we remember Paul’s outlook elsewhere (eg, Acts 14:15-17; 17:26-27), we immediately have to ask ourselves whether it is really conceivable that the “all things” of v11 refers to every detail of everything that happens, or whether it may refer, instead, to the big picture and final result. More particularly, if we attend to the context, we see that the focus from v3 to v10 is God’s redeeming plan, and v11 continues to be on the same subject-matter, so it appears appropriate in context to understand “all things” as referring to every aspect of God’s redeeming plan.
I thought I would respond to each of your remarks regarding my use of various Scriptures, but in rereading my post, I already made comments on each, and for the most part I’ll let those stand with a few additional thoughts here.
First, you seem to miss the point of my use of these verses. While they may not directly “tell us whether or not God pre-ordains everything that comes to pass,” I believe all these verses I cited certainly support, and do not contravene, my thoughts. Taken together, along with other passages, they paint a picture of a sovereign God who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).
And speaking of Eph. 1:11, you say this is only said in the context of working redemption. Yes, the passage speaks of redemption and the various aspects of it, including justification (holy and blameless before him), adoption, and inheritance. But the language of vs. 11 points toward the larger purpose and will of God behind the redemption – “having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” With his use of “according to” in two places, Paul’s thrust is clear that he is speaking of a greater and grander counsel of God that the predestination is based upon. You probably won’t see it that way, but I think this is the proper perspective.
You say that I am not “advancing the discussion” when I assert that the Bible “puts God’s predestinating power alongside man’s responsibility, and makes no attempt to explain or reconcile these truths.” You are correct; I am not advancing the discussion…on purpose. There is mystery here, and any attempt to explain it mitigates one or other of the truths we hold in tension.
For example – orthodox Christian teaching has always upheld the doctrine of the Trinity. There is one God, who exists in three distinct, eternal Persons. How can this be? If the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and we say that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father (as the Athanasian Creed affirmed), how can there not be three Gods? So, if we try to “advance the discussion” and say that God merely appears in different forms, we fall into modalism, which has been condemned as heresy. And so on with other attempts to explain the Trinity. So, we hold to the truths of the Trinity in tension, because there is mystery. This should be expected the closer we come to any teaching on the being or actions of the Godhead.
So, I will continue to refuse to reconcile these truths. As Spurgeon (I think) once said, you don’t try to reconcile friends.
As for the rest of your comments on these verses, I’ll let my original thoughts in the post stand.
Ok, but since you are teaching people that God pre-ordains absolutely everything, I’m a bit surprised that you are not taking up the opportunity to lay out how that proposition is proved from the Bible.