“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”
The doctrine of the Sovereignty of God is a doctrine that on the surface is embraced, but quite often misunderstood. It is not uncommon to hear one affirm, “Yes, God is sovereign! I believe that,” yet at the same time hear one struggle with the will of God, or wrestle with the problem of evil, or even place erroneous emphasis on man’s responsibility.“ Could that be us? Might we be affirming God’s sovereignty, but not speaking or living out the truth of that doctrine? Let us examine the common missteps:
The Will of God
One of the bedrock pillars of the sovereignty of God is the fact that God’s will cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2; Psalm 33:11). No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever disrupt, change or alter the will of God. His will for our lives has been fixed from eternity past (Ephesians 1:3-4; 1 Peter 1:2; Revelation 13:8). Yes, even the finest details of our lives reside under the sovereign knowledge of our God (Psalm 139:1-7). The well-meaning Christian can nod that, but at the same time struggle with the fear that somehow they will fall out of the will of God. It is as if our lives are a series of choosing the right doors – miss one and look out! Consider for a moment the implications of that belief. So, somehow, by our actions we can put ourselves out of the will of God. The question then would be rightly asked: Is God still sovereign? Something now resides out of His will? He, in that sense, has (even to the smallest percentage) lost a degree of control. A God that has lost any degree of control is not sovereign.
No. God is all-powerful, which means He is fully sovereign. He reigns as the only, almighty Sovereign over every detail in our lives – which includes the bad and evil choices as well as the good and right ones. That’s right, and Scripture cannot be clearer about this. Every roll of the dice (Proverbs 16:33), every dead animal (Matthew 10:29), and even the exact length of your life, right down to the day, is determined by God (Job 14:5). He has fixed it all. Greater than stirring perplexity, this doctrine must stoke peace.
The Problem of Evil
So, we cannot fall out of the will of God, but what about our wrong, bad, or evil choices? Certainly you were thinking that as you read above. Well, God’s Word does not propose to reconcile everything for us with our limitations this side of glory, but God’s Word certainly affirms that God’s sovereignty is all-powerful over our evil choices. Consider the account of Joseph in the final chapters of Genesis. On an earthly level, everything about Joseph landing into Egyptian hands was a result of the evil intentions of his brothers (Genesis 37). From their original plan, where they conspired to kill him (v.18), to the deposit in the pit (v.24), right up to the sale of their brother to Ishmaelite traders (v.28), who would in turn sell Joseph to Potiphar (v.36). Nothing in the text suggests they were acting as robots or as helpless pre-determined beings. Yet, what are we told at the end of that account, when Joseph has risen to prominence in Egypt and successfully lobbied for the preservation of his family? Joseph looks at his brothers, in the wake of those evil choices, and says:
“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, as they are today.”
God did not bring about the evil, but He worked through the brothers’ evil choices for His sovereign will and intention. This is one picture of how God operates through all things (good and evil) and brings about good, for those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Well, if God is sovereign over all choices and works through our evil choices to good ends, one might question if we are still on the hook for our evil choices. We are reminded of the cry in Romans 9, that great passage on the sovereignty of God, where Paul anticipates our response and says: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ (v.19). God’s Word then replies with a picture of the potter and the vessel, and reminds us that it is the potter that has ultimate rights over his creation (vv.20-23). In other words, the sovereign creator God, over, above, and through all things, has every right to call His creation to account for their choices (v.28).
Once again, the Bible serves us with a clear illustration of this truth in action. This time, we turn to the New Testament and the life of Judas. On the night our Lord was betrayed, He dined with His betrayer, Judas. As they eat, Jesus tells his disciples that indeed one of you will betray me (Matthew 26:21). Then, as the disciples grapple with such an evil intention in their midst, Jesus says this:
“He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
Don’t miss what is shown here. First, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was written of him (v.24). Jesus uses language that would have been familiar to the ancient Jew. ‘As was written’ would communicate that God had foreordained this event, this betrayal here, from of old, long before Judas had a thought, or was even born. Jesus says later, that all of this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled (v.56, see also v.54). Yet, Jesus also very swiftly follows that with a declaration of Judas’ culpability, by way of declaring a ‘woe’ on him for that evil choice (v.24). Woe pronouncements were declarations of judgement. Jesus declared similar ‘woe’ judgement on the Pharisees evil resistance and actions (Matthew 23). In other words, Judas, your betrayal was written before you took breath, but that does not take away from the fact that you are responsible for what you are about to do.
Understanding God’s sovereignty, rightly, should draw out at least two things in us:
Our peace. God is in control of all things. Everything. The big, the little, the good the bad, all of it is in His complete control. Christian, do not fight (in vain) to hold on to a piece of control that doesn’t exist. God rules over all. That is, every magistrate, menace, and molecule. All is under Him. In such chaos today, that should do nothing less than bring us peace.
Our holiness. God is sovereign, and under that, we will still appear before the judgement seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). Thus, we pursue holiness and settle our hearts to choose good, not evil. We will answer for every careless word we speak (Matthew 26:36), regardless of how we use the evil we spin. In the wake of the holiness of God, and His pursuit of us in our rebellion (Romans 5:8-11), how can we not be stirred to pursue holiness? In the wake of His amazing mercy, grace and love, how can we not be stirred to offer ourselves as living, holy, and acceptable sacrifices to God (Romans 12:1-2)?
We are called to live according to the commandments God has given us - and praise be to Him that, under His sovereignty, we are enabled to live in a way that does please Him! We know that “He who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 1:6). Our sanctification is in the hands of our Sovereign Father. What better encouragement and exhortation to rest in peace, pursue holiness, fight the good fight, and run the race!
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.”