What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 4

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.

Finally, in part 3, we looked at some Scripture verses that portray God’s active rule over his creation. Rather than seeing these texts as “problem texts” that need to be explained away, we should take them at face value as indicative of the comprehensive teaching of Scripture about the sovereignty of God.

Now I will look at several historic Church creeds that affirm what the Bible teaches. Rather than these statements being the heretical statements of fringe Christians, they are the consistent testimony of the Church for centuries, even from the beginning.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) puts it this way: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The London Baptist Confession (1689) similarly says, “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The Belgic Confession of 1561 reads, “We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment” (13).

All of these statements are simply systematizing what is said in Eph. 1:11 – God works all things according to the counsel of his will. Each of these statements is notable for affirming a sovereignty that is not passive but rather active. “Ordain, decree, rule, and appoint” would be the active verbs in use.

Now these statements, in all three cases are immediately followed with qualifiers:

  • WCF: “…yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • LBC: “…yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • BC: “…nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”

Simply put, the Confessions all assert that (1) God ordains whatever comes to pass, and (2) God is not the author of sin, and (3) violence is not done to the agency of men.

Now, how can we reasonably hold these seemingly contrary statements together? It’s because the Bible holds them all as true. All of those statements are backed by Scripture. How can we reconcile them? In our finite minds, we cannot. We start to get in trouble when we attempt to explain or reconcile these assertions; that is when we fail and when we create a theology that is not biblical.

If you are in a place where you feel you “can’t figure it out,” good! That is where you must be. There is mystery here, as is always the case when we approach closely to the nature of God. How can three persons be God, and yet there is only one God? As soon as you attempt to explain the Trinity or offer a meek analogy, you diverge in some way from the biblical teaching. And so we embrace the mystery of the Godhead.

How can infinite-eternal God come to earth in the flesh in the second Person of the Trinity, so that Jesus is fully God AND fully man in one person? Terms like “hypostatic union” sound profound, but don’t really help us understand how it could be. Again, we embrace mystery here and accept what the Bible unflinchingly teaches, that Jesus is eternally God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:14) and dwelt among us.

So should it also be when we consider the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. We ought to accept the mystery as something that God has not chosen to explain to us fully or not equipped our minds to grasp. This is as it always must be when considering the Godhead. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

In his book The Five Points of Calvinism, Edwin H. Palmer points out two inadequate attempts to solve the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility – Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Both groups, while holding to the Bible to a point, come to a place where rationalism takes over. The Arminian, Palmer says, “holds to man’s freedom and restricts God’s sovereignty.” The hyper-Calvinist “sees the clear Biblical statements concerning God’s foreordination and holds firmly to that. But being logically unable to reconcile it with man’s responsibility, he denies the latter” (p.84-85). He goes on to state, “Thus the Arminian and the hyper-Calvinist, although poles apart, are really very close together in their rationalism.”

Instead, Palmer writes, “Over against these humanistic views, the Calvinist accepts both sides of the antimony….[and] holds to two apparently contradictory positions. [Footnote: It should be emphasized that the contradiction is only apparent and not real. Man cannot harmonize the two apparently contradictory positions, but God can.]” (p.85).

So, rather than seeing the teaching of God’s active sovereignty as an aberration of Christian theology, one that is to be ignored as “obviously” wrong or dismissed as Satanic (as some have said), we see through the confessions that this has been the creed of the historic Church for centuries – yes, even to the beginnings of the Church and beyond throughout all of the Bible.

To God alone be the glory!

13 responses to “What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 4”

  1. One of the people in our church asked: “How does sovereignty affect faith?” One of the other men said, “I have to faith that my prayers will be answered. God is in control.” The first said, “I was afraid of that.” The thing is, the first guy who trusts God for answers–gets them. The second doesn’t try.


    • Yes! I have been flat-out asked, if God is sovereign why should I pray? To that I would say if God is not sovereign why should we bother to pray? Don’t we count on the power and authority and sovereignty of God when we ask him to change someone’s heart and become a believer in Christ? Aren’t we praying to a sovereign God when we ask him to intervene in anything in this world?


  2. Hi Mark.
    You cite three Calvinistic creedal statements and claim that they represent “the consistent testimony of the Church for centuries, even from the beginning”. That claim raises some problems for me:
    1 As far as church history can tell us, the view that (the Christian) God unchangeably ordains whatsoever comes to pass was first invented by Augustine of Hippo, towards the end of his life. This was hundreds of years after the last book of the New Testament had been written. Between the NT and Augustine, there had been Christian discussions of determinism as held by Stoics or others, but only for the purpose of disagreeing with it. (At least, this is the history that I have been able to discover so far.)
    2 Calvinists have not been able to persuade the rest of the church that their view of God’s pre-ordaining sovereignty as meticulous and exhaustive is correctly based on Scripture. It has remained a minority viewpoint.
    3 If we want to understand what the Bible teaches about the relation between God and mankind, mightn’t it be helpful to start in the early chapters of Genesis?
    In chapter 1, God creates the heavens and the earth and exercises his right as Creator to name what he makes (eg, vv 5, 8, 10 etc). Then he makes mankind in his own image and commissions them to exercise rule over the earth (1:26-28). The nature of this commission involves granting real agency to human beings to act as his representatives.
    In chapter 2, this is vividly confirmed. God “brought them [all the wild animals and all the birds] to the Man to see what he would name them; and whatever the Man called each living creature, that was its name” (v19). We could debate the extent of picture language and symbolic elements here, but the message is clear: this is a real delegation of God’s naming powers, God’s own agency, to humanity. Someone who believed that God pre-ordains everything that comes to pass would never have dreamed of introducing the created relationship between God and humanity in this way.
    Chapter 3 describes the disobedience of the Man and the Woman. It is depicted as their wrong and disastrous choice. It is hard to imagine that someone who believed that God pre-ordains everything that comes to pass would have presented the story in that way.
    Chapter 4 starts with the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was a man in God’s image (see Gen 9:6). God warns Cain: “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it”. If God pre-ordains everything that comes to pass, those were misleading words, giving the false impression that Cain had a genuine choice to make, whether to give in to sin or not, and that the choice could go either way. It is clear that the writer did not intend to convey that God pre-ordains whatever comes to pass.

    The book of Job depicts God as knowing and setting limits to what other agents (such as Satan) do, not as predetermining everything that they will do.
    There are numerous passages of Scripture which depict God as changing his mind or his conduct, in response to human choices. Calvin dismissed all of them as mere figurative expressions (Institutes, 1.17.12-13). As far as I can see, he did this because of his adherence to the Greek philosophical idea of God’s unchangeability – even to the extent of having no emotions (in direct contradiction of Scripture). But if the Scriptures were written down to instruct us (1 Cor 10:11; 2 Tim 3:16-17), are they not teaching us (among other things) how we should usefully think about God and his relationship to human beings?

    I do understand you are saying that God’s fore-ordination of all things and the reality of human agency only appear to be contradictory: in truth, for inscrutable reasons which are beyond human understanding and known only to God, they are not contradictory. But I find that an unsatisfying assertion, since the contradiction is only produced in the first place by an (in historical terms) idiosyncratic view of God’s sovereignty as taught in Scripture. And it appears that Moses (or whoever else wrote Genesis) simply did not think of God’s sovereignty in the way that you present it. I do not think it is credible that someone with your belief about the nature of God’s sovereignty would have written the opening chapters of Genesis to say what they do say. The same is true of many other passages of Scripture.


  3. I perhaps overstated my position when I said the Creeds I mentioned as
    the consistent testimony of the Church for centuries, even from the beginning.” At issue is my use of the phrase “even from the beginning.” You are correct to call me into question there.

    To be sure, the early Church Fathers did not advance a systematic treatment of these doctrines – indeed they didn’t really advance much of anything systematically. They were too busy surviving amidst intense persecution as well as defending early challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Jesus Christ.

    However, the early Fathers did not largely deny sovereign truths, and Augustine, the first to systematize teaching on it would hardly consider that he was inventing some new teaching. Neither did the Reformers.

    “Calvinists have not been able to persuade the rest of the church that their view of God’s preordaining sovereignty as meticulous and exhaustive is correctly based on Scripture.” Interesting way to state that. If you’re speaking of the current milieu of the Church, you are correct; we have not been able to persuade. Arminian and semi-Pelagian thinking is the predominant view of evangelicalism. However, at the time of the Synod of Dort, when the Arminian Remonstrants presented their case, their contentions were soundly rejected. They, in fact, were unable to persuade, and the general view in Reformation countries was Calvinistic at the onset.

    Besides which, the supposed inability to persuade others is no argument for the contrary view. That there is controversy in the opinion doesn’t mean I should hold one. I continue to maintain (despite your extensive survey of Old Testament narrative) that I can hold a high view of God’s sovereignty as developed in the New Testament writings alongside of natural expressions that assume the humanity and agency of man. If you find that an “unsatisfying assertion,” I understand. Sometimes Reformed thinkers do not speak as the Bible speaks, but talk as if we are machines. This is unfortunate. The Scriptures never do this. I am comfortable with the mystery here.


  4. Mark, my second point (that Calvinists have not been able to persuade others) was not an argument about whether Calvinists are right or wrong, but an argument against your extravagant statement that Calvinist creedal statements represent the consistent testimony of the Church, when in fact they are a minority view. Thank you for graciously withdrawing that statement.
    Reliance on the Synod of Dordt is shaky ground. The Remonstrants were treated not as conversation partners but as defendants. And they were forbidden to argue their case in the manner that they wished. Even Donald Sinnema (an apologist for Dordt) says “there was no excuse for the vitriolic nature of [President] Bogerman’s speech to expel them”. Calvinist scholar Dr Mark A. Ellis candidly admits that the Calvinists “engineered a synod guaranteed to fulfil their purposes” (Ellis, ‘Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin’, 35). The only foreign delegates invited were those who were known in advance to reject the opinions of the Remonstrants. Even so, the Remonstrants were “condemned with a ferocity that dismayed some of the foreign delegates” (MacCulloch, ‘Reformation’, 378). Once the Synod was concluded, the Remonstrants’ political leader, Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, was beheaded on spurious charges. Others were exiled or imprisoned. The whole thing was a sorry exercise which should leave us shaking our heads in sorrow at how badly Christians can behave towards even their brothers.
    You refer to the Calvinist view of sovereignty as “a high view”. That sounds odd to those who are not convinced, to whom it sounds like a low view. Tozer wrote: “Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so …” (‘The Knowledge of the Holy’, 117). Calvinists seem to say that God is unable to refrain from exhaustive, meticulous, deterministic rule over his creation. To a non-Calvinist, this seems a low view of his sovereignty.
    Thank you for the discussion, which has clarified some things for me.


  5. The Tozer line you quoted doesn’t quite sit well with me, simply because it’s more philosophical than biblical.

    To the general dialog we’ve been engaging in, let me offer an extended quote from R.C. Sproul’s “Willing to Believe.” Here he is describing Luther’s view of the will and touches on some of the greater issues of God’s ordination of what comes to pass.

    “It is the first assertion that has evoked furious debate: God wills whatsoever he foreknows. Augustine made the same assertion but with a qualifier: God ordains (in a certain sense) everything that comes to pass.

    “Augustine’s ‘in a certain sense’ softens the blow a bit. Behind the assertions of Augustine and Luther lies the full doctrine of God. Both rigorously affirmed his omnipotence as well as his immutability and omniscience. Omnipotence contains the idea that God has all power and authority over his creation, including the actions of human beings. Whatever God knows will happen, he knows he can prevent from happening. Even if God’s will is regarded as passive or is described as his ‘permissive will,’ he still has the power and authority to prevent it. If, for example, God knows I will choose to sin, he has the power to annihilate me in an instant to keep me from sinning. If he chooses not to destroy me but to ‘let’ me sin, he chooses to do so. Insofar as he knows it and permits it, it is within the scope of his will that I do it.”


    • “more philosophical than biblical”.
      That is a perennial problem in this area of discussion. I am unsure, therefore, why you have responded with a philosophical quotation from Sproul. The section of Sproul’s book from which your quote is taken, under the heading: ‘God’s Will and Foreknowledge’, is a philosophical discussion which cites Martin Luther and contains no explicit Bible references.
      The discourse about God’s “immutability” originates not from the Bible but from Plato and Aristotle. It is one thing to hold that God is always good in his character (James 1:17) and unchangeably faithful to his covenant promises (Malachi 3:6). It is quite another to insist on rigorous Greek philosophical ideas, according to which God cannot change in any respect or choose to respond to anything that happens, because he is the unmoved prime mover, and change would imply a departure from perfection, with the presumed consequence that everything in the universe must be predetermined.
      Sproul’s quote sounds ambivalent in regard to whether he believes that God permits things. The sentence about God’s permission starts with “Even if …”. Believing that God permits some things to happen is not the same as believing that God predetermines everything that happens.
      We see similar ambivalence in Calvin. On the one hand Calvin asserts that “men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God” and that talk of God’s “permission” is “evasion” and “merest trifling” (Institutes, 1.18.1). But in his heart of hearts he knows that no human being can live on the basis of that extreme deterministic belief. So, when he talks about the believer’s daily trust in God, Calvin himself adopts the language of permission and emphasizes the comfort that “neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do [the believer] harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit.” (Institutes 1.17.11).
      Coming up to date, John Piper candidly admits that no one can live on the basis of the deterministic view that Calvinists like him put forward – as he says, “These things have driven people mad.” [Desiring God website, “Has God Predetermined Every Tiny Detail In The Universe Including Sin”]
      The apostles’ focus is “truth that leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1). Right belief is supposed to lead to right living. If you have to live as if a proposed theological truth were not in fact true, I think that is an indicator that it is probably untrue.


  6. Ah Andrew, you caught me! Even as I considered and was typing out my last reply, I thought about how philosophical the quotation was. I went ahead and posted it, because even philosophically, the sovereignty of God makes sense.

    But philosophical arguments won’t ultimately carry the day. Both Tozer’s and Sproul’s quotations make a certain amount of sense out of a confusing conundrum. Ultimately, we rely on biblical revelation.

    You’ve pulled the Piper quote completely out of context. He begins that article by answering the question, “Has God predetermined every tiny detail in the universe, such as dust particles in the air and all of our besetting sins?” by flatly answering, “Yes.” It’s a one-word paragraph. HIs statement about contemplating these things driving people mad is pointing to those who don’t center their thoughts on the cross as the demonstration of God’s sovereign rule over the most sinful act in the history of the world (Acts 4:27-28). The line you cited completely says,

    “These things have driven people mad. But it won’t drive you mad if you say, ‘He loves me. And he governed the most wicked thing that ever happened in the world, the crucifixion of my Savior and my God.’ If you stay right there and then just work out from there as far as your mind can handle, then you’ll be safe. Your mind will be safe and your heart will be safe, because you’ll be kept humble. People get very arrogant with these kinds of doctrines. They can use them to club people. But if you stay with the cross, you won’t.”

    I hadn’t read this article before. Thank you for directing me there. Note his approach – center on revealed Scripture and the working of God in the cross, and “work out from there as far as your mind can handle.” I like that.

    I don’t deny the mystery in what I have proposed. What I cannot agree to in your statements is that there are some things God has ordained and some things he has not. I’m not big enough to make that determination.

    Andrew, thanks for the dialog. You also have given me things to think about. For example, I will further examine your statements on the Synod of Dort. Up to this point, I had not heard those historical claims.

    I also see from the first email you sent me that you are a published writer with IVP. Last year I self-published my first book, and I’m working on another. I would welcome any constructive criticism on my writing. I always aim for “a good story well-told” in my writing. Let me know if you see any ways I could improve.


    Mark (M. Graham)


    • Many thanks, brother Mark, for adding the fuller context of John Piper’s remarks. That makes the point even more vividly. Piper is giving practical advice: Don’t think about the Calvinistic doctrine of exhaustive determinism (because you can’t live by it – it will drive you to madness) but instead think about God’s love at the Cross, which is something that Scripture says he planned (because that is something that you can truly live in response to).
      My thanks, too, for the time you have given to the whole dialog.


  7. Additionally, in regards your comments about God’s immutability. the Scriptures you quoted not only refer to God’s goodness or covenant-keeping but are statements about his character. Additionally, Hebrews 5:8 and Psalm 102:25-27 speak of the unchanging nature of God. “You will change them (heavens and earth) like a robe, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” I don’t see this understanding as originating in Greek philosophy.

    God being able to “chose to respond to what happens” assumes he has not ordained it to begin with, and here we are, back at the center of our disagreement.


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