The Sovereignty of God - Introduction - Part 1
David Dunlap, Tampa, Florida, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is one of the weightiest and most important doctrines of scripture. Although the word ‘sovereignty’ is never used in the English Bible, other synonyms such as ‘majesty’, ‘almighty’, and ‘greatness’ are used many times. God’s sovereignty is expressed in one way or another on nearly every page of the Bible. In describing the sovereignty of God it has been said, ‘God in His love wills what is best for us. In His wisdom He always knows what is best, and in His majesty He has the power to bring it about’. For some believers, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is a difficult doctrine to embrace. They ask, ‘Why did God give Peter 3,000 souls on the Day of Pentecost, while faithful Stephen received 3,000 stones?’ It is in the difficult times of life that God tests our faith. Obeying God is worked out within well-defined boundaries of God’s word, while trusting God is worked out in an arena that has no boundaries. This poses the question, ‘How can we trust and love the sovereign God?’ Surely the answer lies in knowing the character, attributes, and doctrine of the sovereignty of God.
Divine Sovereignty and the Attributes of God
The Bible presents God as both infinitely all-powerful and interminably good. God’s goodness, justice, mercy, and His other attributes meet together to superintend His sovereign actions. God’s sovereignty may sometimes involve testing in the form of calamity and trials, but never without love, faithfulness, and compassion. His sovereign will may appear for the moment to be without purpose, yet His ways are always perfect. He is a God whom we can trust, love, and worship for His sovereign will. While sovereignty is surely to be believed by all who love sound biblical doctrine, it must be understood that it is not to be exercised in conflict with God’s attributes, such as love, justice, and immutability. Some have erred in this respect and have raised sovereignty to such a level that all other attributes of God have become secondary. The sovereignty of God is never exercised at the expense of His divine nature, which is love, 1 John 4. 8. Concerning this conflict, Dr. James Orr, general editor of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, writes, ‘Calvin exalts the sovereignty of God, and this is right, but errs in placing his root-ideas of God in the sovereign will rather than in love’. 1
Divine Sovereignty and the Goodness of God
The biblical principle that God is good and does good applies to His sovereign actions. God’s attributes and His purposes cannot be divorced; God will not act contrary to His holy nature. Scripture reveals that God’s mercy, goodness, grace, and compassion all under-gird His sovereign purposes and will. Abraham echoed this very principle when he said, ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’ Gen. 18. 25. Even when affliction and suffering are God’s divine will, it too is ruled by His compassion and unfailing love. Jeremiah the prophet explained, ‘Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men’, Lam. 3. 32-33 NIV. Theologians have called this linking of God’s sovereign rule with God’s infinite goodness the doctrine of providence. Providence is His divine care and sovereign rule over creation for His glory and the good of man. God never pursues His glory at the expense of His people, nor does He ever seek our good at the expense of His glory. He has designed His eternal purpose so that His glory and our good are inseparably yoked together.
Divine Sovereignty and the Wisdom of God
All God’s sovereign actions are also rooted in His infinite wisdom. God’s wisdom enables Him to direct every act that occurs upon the world stage into a perfect plan that accomplishes His divine purpose. God is the master of every situation. Man can be frustrated by circumstances outside of his control, but this is never true of God. There is never a situation or difficulty which can ever frustrate the wisdom of God. ‘Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite’, Ps. 147. 5. His ways are infinitely perfect. No act of God is flawed, marred, or suspect. No decision of God can ever be improved upon. We may not understand the ways of God, yet they remain rooted in perfect wisdom. It is not our place to raise doubts about the ‘God only wise’, but rather to bow in worship.
The Biblical Scope of Divine Sovereignty
The doctrine that God is sovereign is a truth that must be believed by all Christians. That God is sovereign means that He is the highest and greatest, exalted above all. He is omnipotent and controls everything, working everything according to His eternal plan and purpose, Eph. 1. 11. Since God is infinite, His rule must be absolute. His rule must involve total control of everything in His creation – every circumstance, every situation, every event. God’s sovereignty means that He either directly causes or consciously permits all that happens. God claims full responsibility for establishing and removing human rulers. God, according to His holy character, has the right to do those things that please Him, Ps. 115. 3. God is in complete control, and yet He does not manipulate people like mere puppets. He gives them the dignity and freedom to make decisions and holds them responsible for their choices. Those decisions may bring to pass untold misery and suffering, yet God allows it. However, through this divine omniscience, God knows every choice that man will make, and through divine sovereignty He takes those choices and uses them to serve His purposes. In this way, God has complete control over every decision and action, and man has the freedom to make decisions. However, where divine wisdom deems it best, He will overrule man’s decisions in order to accomplish His own matchless purposes.
Divine Sovereignty and the Scope of Man’s Free Will
Some have wrongly concluded that since God is absolutely sovereign, then man does not have a free will. Scripture emphasizes that God has sovereignly granted to man the ability to make free choices. This is not man usurping God’s role in the world, but this is God’s sovereign design for man. This principle is expressed by our Lord Himself in His interview with Pilate. Pilate charges the Lord, ‘Do you not know that I have power to crucify you, and have power to release you?’ Jesus answers, ‘You could have no power at all against me, unless it had been given you from above’, John 19. 10-11 NKJV. Pilate thought that his ability to make free decisions was a personal right. Our Lord rightly corrects Pilate and states that the ability to make free choices is from God – ‘it is given from above’. God exercises sovereign control in the world; but within this control, He permits certain events and purposes others. The word of God carefully sets forth both the infinite sovereignty of God and human responsibility. To detract from either of these truths is to detract from the fullness of the word of God. A proper biblical balance between the two must be rigorously sought and maintained. A. W. Tozer strikes a proper biblical balance, when he writes, ‘God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest Thou?” 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’.2 C. H. Spurgeon adds, ‘Man is a free agent, a responsible agent, so that his sin is his own wilful sin and it lies fully with him and never with God, and yet at the same time God’s purposes are fulfilled, and His will is done even by demons and corrupt men – I cannot comprehend it: without hesitation I believe it, and rejoice so to do, I never hope to comprehend it . . . I worship a God I never expect to comprehend’.3
Finally, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God must never provide man with excuses. For no man can deny full responsibility for his actions by claiming that he was irresistibly led by God; God never does violence to the free will. God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom dwell side by side in such a way that the former does not force itself upon the latter. How can this be brought to pass? It is only by and through a sovereign God who is characterized by infinite power, wisdom, love, and goodness.
- James Orr, The Progress of Dogma, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952, pg. 292.
- A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1961, pg. 118.
- C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 16, London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1907, pg. 501.
AUTHOR PROFILE: David Dunlap has served the Lord for over twenty years first as a missionary, and now is engaged in a writing and Bible teaching ministry in North America. He and his wife Faith live in Tampa, Florida and have three children.