- If you had unlimited power for 24 hours, what would you use it to do?
- Have you given much thought to God’s sovereignty before? What ideas or questions does the topic bring to your mind?
Impossible is Nothing
When the angel announced to Mary that, despite being a virgin, she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, he affirmed God’s sovereignty, and Mary responded by gladly submitting to God’s will. “’…For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:37-38) The idea that nothing is impossible for God is right at the heart of God’s sovereignty. He is able to do anything he desires. Nothing is too difficult or impossible for him.
If this were not so, it would severely undermine God’s deity. Through the prophet Isaiah, God challenges the idols of the people. They cannot be divine because they cannot do anything. God’s omnipotence sets him apart from the impotent idols as the true God. “To whom then will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble. Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for 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,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:5-11) There is a similar dynamic when Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Baal is a false god because he can do nothing; The Lord is the true God because he can do anything.
- What situations, dreams or challenges in your life appear to be impossible?
- How different do these situations appear when you consider them in light of God’s sovereignty?
Upholding All Things
In the 17th Century, a group of ‘learned, godly and judicious divines’ came together to create a theological statement of belief. The result of their work was the influential ‘Westminster Confession of Faith’. In speaking of God’s sovereignty, they say,
“God, the great creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose and govern all creatures, actions and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy.” (Westminster Confession of Faith)
This statement says many things about God’s sovereignty that will be touched upon in due course. The first affirmation is about God upholding all things. The idea is that God is preserving his creation, and moment-by-moment is causing his creation to continue in existence. This is affirmed in a number of places, notably Nehemiah 6 – “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.” and (speaking of Jesus) Hebrews 1 – “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
THINK IT THROUGH
- Given that God is sovereignly upholding and directing all things, what do you think is the ultimate purpose that he is working towards?
God’s Ultimate Purpose
God has a plan for his creation. Sam Storms rightly points out that,
“We would not think very highly of God if we knew him to have created all things without a clue as to what he intended to do with them.” (Sam Storms)
Thankfully, this is not the case and not only does God have a plan, but he has revealed that plan to us. “In him we have redemption through his blood… making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:7-10)
God is sovereignly working out his purpose in history, and that purpose is to bring together all things in heaven and on earth in Christ.
Sovereign Over All
To this end, God is exercising his sovereign power, not just to uphold but to ‘direct, dispose and govern’ all things.
THINK IT THROUGH
- What are some things in which God exercises his sovereignty? (It is true that ‘everything’ is technically correct, but try to get into specifics – how many can you name?)
In his book ‘Systematic Theology’, Wayne Grudem outlines five areas where God’s sovereignty is outworked:
- Inanimate Creation.God directs the actions of the inanimate world, from the stars in the sky to the weather patterns of the earth. This is shown in a few verses, including God expressing it in the first person through his rhetorical questions to Job. “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there in no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and make the ground sprout forth with grass… Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?” (Job 38:25-27, 31-33)
- Animals.Animals and birds eat because the food has been provided for them by God, and their very lifespans are in God’s hands. This is affirmed by Jesus in a couple of verses: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26)and “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father?” (Matthew 10:29)
- Seemingly Random or Chance Events.Although certain things, such as the roll of dice or the casting of lots may appear random from our perspective, they are not random to God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).
- The Affairs of Nations.God’s sovereignty extends over the rise and falls of nations and their kings. “He changes the times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings…” (Daniel 2:21)
- All Aspects of Our Lives.There are many ways that God’s sovereignty is shown in our lives. He provides us with our daily necessities “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)and determines our success or failure “it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” (Psalm 75:7). Our talents and abilities are given by God “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.” (Psalm 18:34) as are children “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord.” (Psalm 127:3). In fact, God has mapped out our days before our birth “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; 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 even is sovereign over the steps we take along our way, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)
THINK IT THROUGH
- What miracles have you witnessed God do?
- What is your understanding of what was happening in those moments?
Given that God is permanently upholding and governing all things, this gives us a new perspective on miracles. Miracles are both remarkable and to be expected. Whether or not a miracle is seen, God is involved and active in the situation. When we see a miracle, then God is active in the situation in a way that is different to how he usually upholds creation.
For example, every day God causes the sun to pass through the sky as the earth rotates on its axis. However, on one day (see Joshua 10:12-14), God held the sun in the sky for 24 hours longer than usual. On another day, he hid the sun during the height of day (see Luke 23:44-45). Both of these instances are remarkable, not because God was ‘more involved’ than any other day, but because he chose to express his sovereign providence in a different way to usual. Similarly, every day God provides food for beasts of the field, birds of the air and fish of the sea, but on one day he caused a coin to appear in the mouth of a fish (see Matthew 17:24-27)
- Many ‘cessationists’ would argue that although God can do miracles today, he chooses not to, and miracles are restricted to three ages: the days of Moses and Joshua, the days of Elijah and Elisha and the days of Jesus and the twelve. How would you respond to this position?
Working Through Means
To assert that God is sovereign in an event does not invalidate earthly cause and effect.
It is true that God causes the sun to rise, and equally true that the effect is produced by the earth spinning on its axis. It is true that God sends the rain, and equally true that the water cycle causes water that has previously evaporated and formed clouds to fall as precipitation. It is true that God provides the food for a bird, and equally true that the bird itself puts in the work of foraging for worms. It is true that God is responsible for the downfall of nations, and equally true that this can be attributed to hostile invaders. It is true that children are a heritage from God, nevertheless, mum and dad still have a role to play.
All this is to say that God works through means. On some occasions (often miraculous), God directly intervenes in a situation to produce a desired result. In other situations, God’s intervention in indirect, and rather than causing the outcome itself, he sets into motion a process that will result in that desired outcome, all the while providentially upholding all things.
The idea is one of concurrence. Simultaneously, a person (or other part of creation) will be acting according to their purpose and God will be using that action to bring about his own purpose. For example, consider the story of Jonah. When the sailors threw Jonah from the ship, they were acting according to their own survival instinct, guided by their superstition. When the large fish swallowed Jonah, it did so to satisfy its own hunger, being totally true to its nature as a large fish. Nevertheless, we are told that “The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), and even that, “The Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” (Jonah 2:10) Moreover, we saw earlier (in Proverbs 16:33) that it is the Lord who determines the results of the lot, and who guided the sailors to throw Jonah from the ship. At the same time as the sailors were fulfilling their purposes, and the fish was fulfilling its purposes, God was at work through it all to bring his purposes to pass – namely, bringing his reluctant prophet to Nineveh to preach his message.
- Think through some of the key seasons of your life. Can you spot some times where people were working out their own purposes, and God was concurrently unfolding his sovereign plan?
God’s sovereignty over all things raises the question of how we understand evil things. There is clearly much in the world that is wrong and sinful. Should we conclude that this is outside the sovereign control of God? Should we instead attribute these evils to God, since he is sovereign over them?
THINK IT THROUGH
- How would you understand evil in light of the sovereignty of God?
Neither of these options stands up in light of Scripture. We cannot conclude that evil deeds are outside of God’s sovereignty. The opposite can be seen in verses such as “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go.” (Exodus 10:20) and “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.” (2 Samuel 12:11). These are far from isolated verses, and we read similar sentiments in many other places. Moreover, to say that evil is outside God’s sovereignty would suggest that God can do nothing to stop it, and his plans can be thwarted by evil-doers, including the persecution of his church and even the death of his son.
On the other hand, the Bible is clear that God cannot be blamed for evil and that the responsibility lies exclusively with the wrong-doer. “Let no-one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no-one.” (James 1:13) and “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” (Habakkuk 1:13)
Again, the idea of concurrence helps. A person can do something according to their own purpose, and God can use that same action for a different purpose. We looked at this in the example of Jonah. Another example that can illustrate the idea is that of Joseph. Joseph was the victim of evil deeds committed by his brothers. They beat him, abandoned him and sold him into slavery. Their hearts were filled with jealousy and their intention was evil. Through those same actions, Joseph was set on a path that resulted in him becoming the second most powerful man in the known world – the Prime Minister of Egypt. Moreover, he was able to use this power to save many lives, as God had revealed through Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams that a famine was coming and Joseph was able to use his power to do much good. The same action that Joseph’s brothers committed with the intention of evil, God purposed to bring about much good. God was sovereign over the evil deed, but he was not responsible for the evil of it. Instead, he is responsible for the good that he brought about through it. Joseph himself articulates it this way: “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.” (Genesis 50:20).
The greatest example of this concurrence is seen in the death of Jesus. “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) The people who killed Jesus were evil. They were acting sinfully and are fully responsible for their actions. Nevertheless, God was acting sovereignly in the same situation. His purpose was to bring redemption to multitudes. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
THINK IT THROUGH
- What examples can you think of from your own life where God took something that was meant for evil and used it for good?
One question that is frequently asked regarding God’s sovereignty is, ‘what’s the point?’ The thought goes that If God has already determined what shall be, and will sovereignly bring it about, then what difference do our actions make? The question can be asked generally, though it is usually focussed on one of two specific areas – evangelism (which will discussed in the article entitled ‘Free Will & Salvation’) and prayer, which we will consider now.
The implication is that prayer is pointless if God is sovereign as, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8) and he has already determined what will happen. Of course, the opposite point could be raised, namely, that prayer would be pointless if God were not sovereign, because he would be unable to answer the prayer.
Some have tried to resolve this question by suggesting that the point of prayer isn’t to change God, or even to change circumstances but to change the person who is praying. For example, John Calvin states it this way:
“(Prayer) was not so much for God’s good, but for our good.” (John Calvin)
There is truth in this view, in that prayer is definitely beneficial for the person praying. It can help us to adjust our perspective more in line with God’s perspective.
However, there is much more to prayer than simply changing the person praying. Jesus promises that God will answer prayers. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) and “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14). Furthermore, the Bible is filled with examples of God answering the prayers of his people. For instance, in Exodus 2, the people groaned and cried out. God heard, had compassion and so raised up Moses to lead them to freedom. In Acts 12, Peter was in prison and the believers were praying for him. God answered their prayer and delivered Peter.
Prayer is instrumental is seeing God’s kingdom established. When people pray, things happen that would not have happened otherwise. This is no threat to God’s sovereignty. He is sovereign over both the means and the end. God sovereignly causes us to pray and then sovereignly answers those prayers to bring about his purposes.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Can prayer change God’s mind?
“But Moses implored the Lord his God… And the Lord relented from the disaster he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (Exodus 32:11) Moses prayed and God relented. In some English translations, this is rendered ‘God changed his mind’. God was going to do one thing before Moses prayed, and as a result of that prayer did something different. We must be careful not to be too quick to say that prayer cannot change God’s mind.
We must also be careful not to be too quick to say that prayer can change God’s mind. We are told in Numbers 23, “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man that he should change his mind. He has said, and will he not do it?” (Numbers 23:16)
Both of these verses are true. God doesn’t change his mind and there is no danger of him failing to come through on what he has said. His word is sure. At the same time, God’s purpose is sometimes specific to a situation. When God saw the evil of the city of Nineveh, his purpose was judgment. When the situation changed because they repented, then God changed his mind – not because God himself changed but because the circumstance did. Jonah struggled to understand this.
Prayer always adds an extra factor into a situation. Just as the repentance of the people of Nineveh added an extra dimension to their situation that resulted in a different response from God, so Moses’ prayer also added a new dimension to a situation that also led to a different response from God.
This is the power of prayer. We have a sovereign God, and we have a call to pray, knowing that our prayers will make a real difference in seeing the purposes of our God played out.
- How does the knowledge of God’s sovereignty make a difference in your prayer life?
- It has been quipped, ‘pray like it all depends on God, work like it all depends on you’. To what extent do you think this is helpful advice?
- In what ways does thinking about the sovereignty of God increase your trust in him for the circumstances of your life?