The sovereignty of God. Some people love it, some people hate it. Let’s talk about it. Five points:
1. The sovereign King
Much like a discussion of free will, the topic of God’s sovereignty is subject to great confusion if we don’t define our terms. Here’s a working definition: God controls and governs his creation, either by direct action or by permission, such that all things work according to his eternal decree and by the counsel of his will, to the praise of his glory.
Notice that the definition begins with God: He controls and governs all things. God is sovereign over the natural order: “He covers the heavens with clouds; He prepares rain for the earth; He makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry” (Psalm 147:8-9). He controls human history: “The LORD brings the counsel of nations to nothing; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:10-11).
He is sovereign over human life: “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16) and “He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). Paul proclaims that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). God’s control over all things is exact, meticulous, and exhaustive. In the words of R.C. Sproul, “There are no maverick molecules if God is sovereign.”
2. The Author of all good
God is sovereign over nature, human history, and individual human lives. Indeed, God is in control of all things. But here we must make the necessary distinction we see in our definition: God governs all things either by direct action or by permission.
The first point is the “direct-causative” action of God: God directly causes all good within his creation. The reason for this is that all goodness comes directly from the nature and character of God. Goodness is not a separate entity apart from God; rather, it is the extension of God’s own being and action. Consider the words of James: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17).
Or take note of these words from Jesus: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The implication is that God gets the glory because He is the ultimate author of our good works. Thus, we see that God directly causes all good.
3. The Author of sin and evil?
Many Christians readily agree that God is sovereign over the good. The more difficult issue is sin and evil. Our definition says that God controls and governs his creation either by direct action or by permission. God directly causes all the good as an extension of his nature and character. But what about evil? “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), so we cannot say (or even think!) that God causes evil. But we can meaningfully say God is sovereign over evil without being its immediate cause.
This notion is called “indirect-permissive” divine action. Indirect-permissive action is as exact, meticulous, and exhaustive as the direct-causative action of God, but it is of a different kind. In this type of action, God allows or permits events to occur while retaining the ability to prevent them and remaining fully in control of them. The difference is that God cannot be said to be the direct cause of these events; rather, He sovereignly allows them to occur.
For a biblical example of this, notice the story of Abraham and Abimelech. Abraham concocted a (stupid) plan to say Sarah was his sister so that Abimelech would not kill Abraham for her. Then Abimelech takes Sarah to be his own, but before he can do anything, “God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her‘” (Genesis 20:6, emphasis added). Thus, language of divine permission is not only biblical, but necessary for our understanding of the work of God in the world.
Another place we see God’s sovereignty in all its splendor is Acts 4:27-28: “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 predestined to take place” (emphasis added). Thus, God’s indirect-permissive action is what accounts for the sinful actions of the perpetrators of Jesus’ death. God predestined the death of Christ, remaining fully in control of the entire situation, including the human actions (because, after all, He had predestined it to occur). Yet God is not the author of sin or evil because his action regarding the sin and evil was one of indirect permission, not direct causation.
If you’re still not convinced, consider the following texts:
Deuteronomy 32:39: “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Lamentations 3:37-38: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” I submit that these texts make no sense apart from an understanding of both direct-causative and indirect-permissive categories of divine action.
4. God’s sovereignty and man’s salvation
This formulation requires deep thought and careful nuance, but it is vital to a right understanding of God. Now, since God is completely sovereign over all things, He is completely sovereign over human salvation, which is simply a logical continuation of the preceding discussion. In biblical language, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10).
From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, God is completely in control of who is saved and who is not. A simple walk through Ephesians 1 will demonstrate this.
From the beginning: “Even as He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (vv. 4-5).
In the middle: “To the praise of his glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (vv.6-7).
To the end: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (vv. 13-14).
Suffice it to say: if God is truly sovereign over all things, it must be that He is sovereign over salvation.
5. God’s sovereignty and his glory
Now, you might ask, “Why does all this matter?” To answer, refer back to Ephesians 1. God has elected us not because He saw any foreseen faith or good work, but solely “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (vv. 5-6). Moreover, the outworking of this is that “We have obtained an inheritance” in Christ “according to the counsel of his will” so that we might be “to the praise of his glory” (vv. 11-12). Finally, we have received the Spirit as the “guarantee of our inheritance,” knowing that God will keep us from stumbling (see Jude 1:24) until the end, “to the praise of his glory” (v. 14).
The theme is obvious: The praise of God’s glory is the end toward which all of his actions work. So God’s sovereignty matters because God’s glory matters. God exercises his sovereignty in order to bring about his glory, which is the ultimate purpose of all creation and redemption. God’s sovereignty matters because God’s character matters. He is fully in control of all good and all evil, though not in the same way. God’s sovereignty matters because the prayers of God’s people are meaningless unless God is sovereign over all things. How could you possibly ask God for anything if He is not in control of everything? God’s sovereignty matters because God matters. As Creator, God decides how He will interact with the world. As Sustainer, God decides in his infinite wisdom how He will provide for the world. As Savior, God rescues his people from beginning to end, all to the praise of his glory.
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.