I would first like to take time and thank InsanityBytes for hosting two of my recent posts with her own thoughts on the topic of being unpunishable. Feel free to visit. You may find our lively exchange in the comments section of interest.
Recently the topic of God’s sovereignty has hit my radar from two different sources. One is pastor Kris Vallotton of Bethel Church recently giving a prophetic word about us entering into a sovereign season. The other is pastor Bill Johnson discussing the recent tragic death of the two-year old Olive Heiligenthal, daughter of one of Bethel’s worship leaders, and his discomfort with the tendency of believers to label any tragic event “God’s sovereign will.”
Let’s define what we mean by God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty means that God exercises complete and total control over His creation. This means that all that happens in human history and in your life and mine reflects His sovereign will. That is: What takes place is ultimately what God orchestrated.
The definition of God’s sovereignty is relatively easy to understand. But what makes it difficult are two things: Free will and tragedy. Let’s first look at free will. Free will says I am an autonomous creature who has the power to make my own choices and exercise my own will. I am not, in other words, controlled by something or someone else: I control my own actions.
Free will makes God’s sovereignty problematic because to our finite minds, it would seem to the extent I am in control of my own actions, God is no longer in control of me — and therefore, not in control of His own creation. It just seems reasonable that there can only be one person in control. So what that would mean is we are either robots who have no free will, or God is not in control. At least that is what it would seem.
Free will makes God’s sovereignty problematic because to our finite minds, it would seem to the extent I am in control of my own actions, God is no longer in control of me — and therefore, not in control of His own creation.
What is ironic is that in the modern secular culture, there is a strong trend to believe we have no free will, not because of God, but because of nature. You would think of all places free will would be embraced would be in secular culture, where there is such a strong belief in our autonomy. But fate would have it that the very denial of God and the very insistence that the physical universe is all there is means that ultimately the chance interaction of matter, not us and not God, is what controls us. Of course, if we truly have no free will and what we call thought is no more than chance chemical interactions, then the very argument upon which such a belief is based is meaningless (a topic we have discussed before). This modern belief, therefore, is best understood as how far humanity will go in order to deny its own divine origins and the supernatural nature of reality, both of which lead to God. That at least is how I see it.
Whether because of God or matter, free will would seem to be incompatible with God’s sovereignty. However this is not what we see in Scripture. What we see is free will at the center of God’s relationship with humanity, from the Garden to the Cross and beyond. That is, the Bible makes clear we live in a world where humanity’s power to exercise free will not only exists but is the hinge upon which eternal and temporal consequences are determined.
And yet, simultaneously, we see God in control of it all. Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but God hardened it as well. A sparrow falls to the ground, but not outside the Father’s care. Humanity put Jesus to death, but God the Father gave His own Son. We chose Jesus, but in fact He chose us. We make our choices, but regardless of those choices, God is working all things for our good. Our decisions are paramount, but ultimately God is the one who decides.
It is important we have a good understanding of God’s sovereignty, because it meets us where we are at. Faith is what moves mountains, and our faith in God’s sovereignty is no different. Earlier this year, I found myself in a really hard place. I had been through a lot in a short period of time and I just crashed. I felt like I had lost it, and I did not know if I was going to regain it. But what kept me going was God, specifically the knowledge that He was at work, orchestrating things for my good. In the midst of this season, I rested in His goodness. He would get me through this. And He did. And He continues to. In each of our lives, God is working all things for our good. He is in control. He is carrying us. And thank God: We are not carrying ourselves.
It is important we have a good understanding of God’s sovereignty. Faith is what moves mountains, and our faith in God’s sovereignty is no different.
But how exactly does God’s sovereignty work? Vallotton describes God’s sovereignty as a suspension of free will, explaining that there are seasons where God just takes over. I believe there are such seasons where God exerts His power and authority. But I see God’s sovereignty a bit differently. I think God has never had a need to step in and take over because He has always been perfectly in control. And the exercise of our free will always happens in the context of His sovereign will. In other words, the exercise of our free will is what accomplishes God’s sovereign will. This is because God, being God, not only knows the ultimate outcome of our choices but actually orchestrates them. He is that in control of His creation.
One way of understanding how free will and God’s sovereignty works is to think of the relationship of characters in a novel to the novel writer. Within the novel, the characters obviously exercise free will. The novel writer does not need to interrupt the story and violate their will to get them to do what he or she wants. And yet, the novel writer knows the end from the beginning. Not only this, the novel writer is writing it: Every chapter, every scene, every sentence. So it is with God. And it is equally important for us to realize that just as it would be impossible for the characters in the novel to fully understand how the novelist does this, so it is for us to fully understand God’s sovereignty.
Here is a good place to introduce the other difficulty with God’s sovereignty, and that is tragedy. But for the sake of brevity, we will leave that to our next discussion. Be blessed, and rest in the knowledge God has you and is orchestrating everything — everything — according to His perfect will.
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash
8 thoughts on “Sovereignty”
Great teaching on God’s sovereignty. I like what you said here: “That is, the Bible makes clear we live in a world where humanity’s power to exercise free will not only exists but is the hinge upon which eternal and temporal consequences are determined.”
Powerful words. I have always told people who want to argue this doctrine that I believe in Gods sovereignty and mans human responsibility to respond to the gospel.
Blessings to you and your ministry. Happy 2020!
Thank you chaddamitz and also for the follow. Blessings to you as well!
Hi Patrick. I appreciate what you’re trying to say but would respectfully disagree with the premise that God’s sovereignty necessarily means that He’s always exercising complete and total control over His creation. What you’re giving is the Reformed definition (Calvin, who got from Augustine, but this definition was unheard of before that in Christianity), but sovereignty simply means that God has supreme power or authority, therefore, can do whatever He wants when He wants. And like a King of any kingdom, He is free to create whatever environment He desires for His subjects. How He decides to control, or not control, would be within His sovereignty, but control doesn’t define it. In His sovereignty, He can simply choose to give us free will to choose Him, which would make the most sense since He is love, and love can only exist where we have free will to choose.
But I do completely agree with you that God is working all things for our good and that He is carrying us. 🙂
Blessings to you, brother.
Hi Mel! Thanks so much for visiting and investing your time. It is always good to hear from an old cyberfriend.
I too appreciate what you are trying to say 🙂 and must take your first statement as a total compliment, given that I have not studied Calvin or Augustine as it pertains to sovereignty (nor am I from a Reformed background) yet have managed to draw the same conclusions as they. Who knew?
In the playful spirit of debate, to your points I would respond as follows. First, the definition of God’s sovereignty as stated is not technically a premise (MW: “a proposition antecedently supposed”; “something assumed or taken for granted”). I mean, never in my wildest dreams would I assume something as outlandish and profound as God’s sovereignty as a starting point, then attempt to read it into the text. Rather it is a conclusion drawn from the text. Which kind of matters for our discussion.
Second, your statement that God’s sovereignty “simply means . . . he can do whatever he wants” is not written in stone anywhere (or in the stars for that matter) as far as I know. Which is okay. But it also means it carries no authority. Meaning, it is either equally a premise that is assumed unquestioningly, or it is a conclusion drawn from the text. Unfortunately you don’t engage with the text, so I am left to draw my own conclusions.
Lastly, as far as i can tell (I am a bit fuzzy on your final statements), you seemed to be building a case for free will and I am guessing a case against God’s sovereignty as Calvin has defined it. But if you read my essay, and it may be many things, but the one thing it is not is an argument against free will.
Thanks again for stopping by. Blessings.
Thanks Patrick. I should probably explain my overly verbose comments here. 🙂
I, too, was not from a Reformed background but I’ve found myself unwittingly parroting some of their doctrines over the years, like divine sovereignty, without actually investigating what I was teaching. I just assumed it was true. But I was always troubled by some of it. And I agree with your point about assumptions. I believe the healthy thing to do is to faithfully question all of our assumptions. So I took to studying Calvinism in depth (along with my own Charismatic background, Eastern Orthodox, and the early church fathers) and where I landed on this is that if we define divine sovereignty as controlling all things, we arrive as some very troubling conclusions. Some of them are actually untenable and unbiblical, even though the proponents try to make the proverbial square peg fit in the round hole.
As you correctly pointed out, we do need to defer to the Scripture text, but the full scope of the text, not just our learned proof-texts. And we do not find this particular definition of sovereignty (that God is necessarily controlling all things and the implications that derive from it) nor was it even taught before Augustine. Again, God certainly has the power and authority to do so. What was more troubling to me was that we DO find this definition in non-Christian philosophies/religions like Stoicism, Gnosticm, and Manichaeism. The preeminent scholar on Augustine, Dr. Kenneth Wilson, has laid this out undeniably in his scholarly work, tracing the roots of these Augustinian doctrines all the way back to 3000 BC. He also wrote a layman’s version on the subject titled, “Augustinian-Calvinism.” It’s quite easy to read and mercifully brief. 🙂
If you’re interested in a very good “Southern Baptist” understanding (non-Calvinist) of these arguments without having to read all the ponderous literature I did, I would suggest perusing Dr. Leighton Flowers’ YouTube channel: Soteriology101. (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPRJ7X3hyFvm-3Jo8rVWYOw) It’s very good, too.
Btw, I know that free will was not your point. I was simply using that because our view of sovereignty will have direct impact on free will. I probably got carried away on my point, which I’m doing now, so I will stop here. 🙂
I also very much agree that we can’t be too dogmatic about our doctrines. We CAN know that God is good and He loves us. God bless.
Thanks Mel! If I can summarize your response (and not do so unjustly), you unquestioningly believed in God’s sovereignty as defined by Calvin but some of it troubled you and then you did research and found not everyone believes in God’s sovereignty and you concluded it was unbiblical. Given that Calvin and Augustine both embraced it, I would be curious to know what you discovered that they did not 🙂
That said, I do agree our understanding of any truth does not rest on “that guy believed it and he is smart.” Clearly not at play in this essay, since I have cited neither. But I would like to address two of your arguments, one of which you introduced and reiterated this time and the other being new,
The first is the idea that God’s sovereignty as defined “was not even taught before Augustine.” I guess this line of argument holds little weight for me, partly because I would argue that Paul taught it, but more importantly my mind does not think that way. I don’t think, “Well, if it wasn’t or isn’t taught, then it probably is not true.” Not that I think you are saying that exactly. But if someone comes to me challenging a position and says, “You know that wasn’t even taught before x” or “You know that only x and y taught that,” I have to think they are saying this as an argument against the position. My response to both is, “What does the text say?”
The second is the argument that if a position is believed by x and we know all of what x believes is not true, then that is troubling. I support your right to be troubled, but I also do not see what the trouble is. If we are convinced the position has been derived and influenced by x, and the only reason for the position is x, then I see the trouble. But the fact is, even if we could establish that an idea was derived or borrowed or even influenced by x, it would not mean the idea is incorrect. My response again is, “What does the text say?” I really honest to goodness feel that our beliefs about the Bible should come from what the Bible actually says.
Blessings and thank you again for the opportunity!