The Soverignty of God
Tim Temple

Introduction

We have recently been talking about God and more particularly about being people who know their God. We have been trying to come to an understanding of Who God is and what He does and how we should respond to that. Today we come to the very difficult doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

From a Christian perspective, by looking around at the lives of many Christians, I think most people conclude that God is too small. We would base that on the actions and the attitudes and the fears and the opinions that people express. If we think about the things that people say and do—even Christians—we would have to conclude that God is just not big enough to take care of all the needs and problems that people have. To see the way that we struggle and squirm and manipulate to solve our own problems, we would have to conclude that God really doesn't help His people in times of need and that we are on our own and have to fend for ourselves.

The biggest reason for all of that, I believe, is not that God is too small, but that Christians simply don't understand the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, the power that He has, and the way that He uses that power in our lives. Most of us have allowed God to be anywhere but on the throne in our lives; and as a result of that, as someone has said, “He is more like the light of a flickering candle than the blazing of the noonday sun.” As a result of that, many Christians have paid dearly in terms of spiritual weakness and failure in their lives.

That is the aspect of being people who know their God that we want to think about today. As we do that, we want to think about it from four standpoints. First, I want us to think about this principle of sovereignty . What do we really mean by that? Secondly, we want to think about the purpose of sovereignty . God has a purpose in His sovereign work in our world. Third, we are going to talk about a problem in sovereignty , a question that comes up any time we talk about the sovereignty of God. Fourth, we want to conclude with trying to get a proper perspective on the sovereignty of God.

The Principle of Sovereignty

Those are the things that we want to cover as we try to think about this important doctrine today, so let's think first about the principle of sovereignty. Many people are threatened by that term, the sovereignty of God . What does it actually mean? First, the essence of the definition is something like this: God's sovereignty involves that aspect of His character by which He exerts absolute rule and control over every aspect of His creation. Psalm 24, verse 1, says:

Psalm 24

1The earth is the LORD's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

It is God's world, and He is sovereign over it. In other words, everything that happens in our world happens either because He directly causes it, or at least He consciously allows it to take place. Nothing enters into history or even exists outside history that doesn't come under God's complete control. Why is that so? The key to the definition that we have been talking about is the word His . His authority is absolute, because it is His creation. The earth is the Lord's and all it contains.

In Psalm 135, we see those kinds of statements in these verses. If you will notice, beginning in verse 5:

Psalm 135

5For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods.
6Whatsoever the LORD pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.
7He causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings for the rain; he bringeth the wind out of his treasuries.

Most of those things in nature we have seen all around us—wind, rain, lightning and fog. All of those things God directly allows to come into various places on the earth and in the sea. It then goes on to say in verses 8 and 9 that not only does He control those general parts of His creation, those things that we see and experience, but He even involves Himself in particular lives and happenings in the lives of people. Notice in verse 8:

Psalm 135

8Who smote the firstborn of Egypt, both of man and beast.

Of course, the original hearers of the Psalm would have been more familiar with that catastrophe than we are. It was a signal part of Israel's history—the fact that God delivered them from their slavery in Egypt by having that holocaust of the firstborn. He goes on to say in verse 9:

Psalm 135

9Who sent tokens and wonders into the midst of thee, O Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his servants.

Then in verse 10, it talks about how God continued to do that after Israel got out of slavery and started into the wilderness wanderings. God demonstrated His power over various kings into whose path the Israelites came, powerful kings whom God slaughtered. The psalm goes on to mention those people. It is a historical record for the Israelites to look at.

Satan's Attack Against God's Sovereignty

A way that we can see that this is important is to think about Satan's furious attack against God's creation, the fact that God is the creator. You see, if God created everything that there is, then God is sovereign. If God is sovereign, He is the creator. If God did not create, then we really have no need to worry about His sovereignty or His authority or His power over us. This is the reason, I am convinced, that Satan has made such a furious attact all down through history on the doctrine of God's creation of the earth.

In the last several decades the focus has been on the theory of evolution, but if you look at history, even in a summary fashion, you know that there has always been, in every period of history, some other explanation for how the world got here. The Egyptians talked about the fact that the world was created out of the mud of the Nile River. How something can be created out of a part of what it contains I never have understood. But on the other hand, that is no more ridiculous than the ideas that are expressed in the theory of evolution. It is no more scientific than the silly idea that the world came out of the mud of the Nile River. Satan has always had an explanation that people who wanted to resist the sovereignty of God have been willing to accept about how the world got here.

The key word in the definition of God's sovereignty is the word His . It is His creation, because He created it. If He created it, then He deserves and, in fact, He demands to be sovereign over that creation. It is only when we understand that this is the kind of God with whom we have to do that we will take seriously the issue of God's sovereignty. The earth is the Lord's and all who dwell in it, because He is the creator. He is sovereign.

When we come right down to it, most people, even Christians, don't really want God to be sovereign. We don't want this idea of a sovereign God Who controls our lives. A basic part of our human makeup is the desire to be autonomous. We want to be in charge. We want to be on our own. What most of us want, I think, is kind of a jack-in-the-box God Who will pop up when we need Him, but otherwise we keep Him in the box, and even at that, we tell him, “Don't call us; we'll call you.” We want a sovereign God when we are in trouble. We want a sovereign, powerful God when we have needs; but when everything is going smoothly, we want to be in control. Because that is true in the lives of all of us, if we will just admit it, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is a very unpopular doctrine.

Satan's Deception of Eve

We are not the first people to feel this way. Satan used that very tactic on Eve in the Garden of Eden in the very beginning of the human race. He said to Eve, “God has told you that you can't eat of that particular tree. Think about that, Eve. Why do you suppose God told you that? He told you that because He knows that if you will eat of that tree, you will be like Him. You will be able to do the things that He does, so He is trying to keep that from you.” The idea here is, “Eve, God doesn't want you to be in charge. He wants to be in charge.” That has been Satan's lie all down through the years, and Eve bought into it, and we have bought into it. We want to be in control of our lives in spite of the fact that God tells us very clearly and has shown us very clearly that God is in control of our lives.

If we can come to an understanding of the sovereignty of God, we will understand that nobody can be autonomous and, in fact, nobody ought to be autonomous. We can't handle the responsibilities, the pressures, and the problems that life brings into our experience. If once we can realize that, I believe it will graphically change the way that we think and act and live. To be able to relax in the sovereignty of God will make all kinds of difference in the way we live. That is the essence of the definition of sovereignty.

Our Attitude Toward God's Sovereignty

Let's think about some examples of the definition for a moment. First, because of His sovereignty, God governs the earth. The reason, as we saw earlier, is He created it and He owns it, as Psalm 24, verse 1, tells us.

Psalm 24

1The earth is the LORD's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

Let me ask you something. How would you feel if I were to come into your home and begin to complain about the way you had the furniture arranged and about the way you had the pictures hung on the wall? Maybe I even complained about why you would ever buy a house laid out the way your house is. How would you feel about that? You would think that was ridiculous, wouldn't you? You wouldn't like that for a minute, yet that is the way that many of us treat God. If we really believe that the earth is the Lord's and all that dwell therein, why do we think that we have any right to begin to complain against God when something happens in our lives in a way that we don't like? You see, we have no more right to complain about the way God allows our lives to go than I have to complain when I come into your home, which belongs to you, and complain about what you are doing there. You think that is ridiculous when we look at it from a human standpoint. Many of us, perhaps most of us at various times, take that very attitude toward God in His sovereignty in our lives.

Listen to me: When you have created your first planet out of nothing, then perhaps you will have the right to complain to God about the way that He is doing things. I know there are probably a number of people here today who are unhappy with God. You are complaining about the way God has arranged the furniture in your life. You are complaining about where He has hung the pictures. You have no right to do that. You may not like the way that it is done, but God is sovereign.

That is not all there is to say on the subject, so stay with me, but that is a very basic underlying thing to remember: The earth is the Lord's, the world and all that dwell therein.

Example of God's Sovereignty

This isn't just a fleeting thought in the Bible. It is mentioned all the way through the Old Testament and the New Testament. We will briefly look at some other Scriptures that deal with this same subject.

Job, chapter 23, verse 13, says:

Job 23

13But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth.

Whatever His soul desires, He does. Look at Job, chapter 42, verse 2:

Job 42

2I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.

Psalm 115, verse 3:

Psalm 115

3But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.

Psalm 135, verse 6:

Psalm 135

6Whatsoever the LORD pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.

Isaiah, chapter 45, verse 7:

Isaiah 45

7I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

It continues in the New Testament. Ephesians, chapter 1, verse 11, says:

Ephesians 1

11In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the [notice] purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:

Romans, chapter 11, verse 36, says:

Romans 11

36For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.

A summary of the whole concept is found in Revelation, chapter 19. verse 6. There John, looking into Heaven, says:

Revelation 19

6And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

The first example of the definition of the sovereignty of God is that He governs. He takes part in the direction, the placement, and the arrangement of the affairs of the whole world, including your life and mine.

Not only does God govern, He guides everything that happens. There is a little bit of distinction here. Governing is a matter of His overall authority, but guidance is more of a matter of the day-to-day arrangement of our lives. If we really believe that God is sovereign, then nothing happens by chance. Everything happens only by His guidance.

No Such Luck

I am going to say something here that may step on the toes of some of you, although it is not a major toe-stepping thing. It is something that many, many of us make the mistake of saying a lot of the time. There is no such thing as luck, and a well-taught Christian, I believe, shouldn't even use that term unless it is in a very obviously joking manner. All of the time, I hear people, Christians included, saying, “You know, we really were lucky in that deal. That thing came together really well. We sure were lucky. We had good luck in that situation.” I know that you don't need to be taught when you say something like that, that there is no such thing as luck, but as Christians we really ought to think about and not really even give lip service to such a false doctrine as that.

Luck is the basis of some good jokes and funny sayings, and since a couple of my favorite jokes involve luck, I want to reserve the right to use it in that way sometimes. The one that I like the best is, when something happens that is obviously the work of God, very often I like to say, “Well, there is the doctrine of luck again. Isn't it lucky that it happened that way?” Really, you have to believe in luck or you have to believe in the sovereignty of God. So many things that happen in our lives happen because of the direct guidance and intervention of God in our lives, and we say, “Wasn't that lucky?” No, that wasn't lucky. That was sovereign. That was God's sovereign grace in our lives.

Seemingly Contradictory Truths

The question that comes up at this point is, if that is true and there are no accidents in my life, if God guides directly in every aspect of my life, then why do I need to make any decisions? Why not just go through life and let what may come, come? The Scripture is full of instructions about things that we are supposed to do, and even things that we are supposed to think about. We might think that if God is going to guide my life, doesn't that nullify any choices that I might make? Yet we have at the same time these instructions in the Word of God telling us to think and to do certain things. This is what theologians call an antinomy. This is a word that we have used from time to time in our Bible study. It is usually only used in the theological context. An antinomy is a situation in which two seemingly contradictory truths are taught side-by-side in the Scripture.

This happens many times and particularly in matters like the sovereignty of God. For example, the Scripture tells us clearly that God knows from the foundation of the world those who will be His children. He has chosen those who are going to believe in Jesus Christ, and He did that before the foundation of the world. It tells us that in several different ways all through the Scripture, yet on the other hand the Scripture is abundantly clear that whosoever will may come. Those seem to be contradictory truths. What we have to do in a situation like that is to believe by faith that both of the things are true and not worry about trying to resolve them.

I know many Christians whose joy and peace in the Christian life has been taken from them because they could not resolve an antinomy. The major antinomy that people try to resolve is in the matter of God's sovereign election for salvation. We are not even going to discuss that today because there are great depths to which we could go in any discussion of that, but that is an antinomy—truths in the Scripture that seem to contradict each other and yet God faithfully teaches throughout His Word.

God's Eternal Perspective

What we have to recognize is that even though parallel lines never cross, if we stand in the middle of a railroad track and look off into the distance on a straight stretch of track, it appears that those tracks do cross in the distance. The thing to remember in the case of antinomy, if you are bothered by one of these doctrines, is that as we stand here it looks like those are parallel truths, but as we look off into the eternal perspective, we recognize that when we get to Heaven we will be able to see how those two truths do cross and how both are true even though we can't seem to see it here in this life.

When you come to an antinomy in the Scriptures, try to keep that eternal perspective in mind. When we get to Heaven we will see that every single person who is there in Heaven was chosen by God to be there before the foundation of the world, and yet we will also find the testimony of every one of those people who is there will be that they came out of the worst kinds of backgrounds. They came out of the “whosoever will” may come. Both things are true.

The same thing is true here. God says, “I am completely in control of your life. I choose the things that are going to come into your life. I choose the way your life is going to go,” and yet He also gives us all kinds of instructions about what we should choose and about what we should do, and what we should be careful not to do.

We have to be able to remember that when we are talking about a subject as infinite as God, no human illustration is perfect. As we have gone through this series of studies, one of the biggest problems has been to come up with human illustrations that will adequately illustrate something as infinite as God. As I have mentioned before, every illustration that we come up with falls short, because we are talking about a perfect God.

Let me give you an illustration on a smaller scale that you are familiar with that maybe helps describe this to a certain extent. Every one of us knows instinctively, and the Scripture makes it abundantly clear, that every one of us has a certain amount of time to live. God knows exactly how long each person is going to live. None of us are going to die until that day God has appointed for us to die. We know that. We understand that. It is something that God has revealed to us clearly and our experience shows us, but at the same time God has allowed us to discover all kinds of things that help the quality of our lives.

Looking at it from a human perspective, physicians would say that these things even prolong life. We know on the one hand from the Word of God that it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment. Yet, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't take advantage of these various things that science has discovered and experience has shown will, if not prolong life, enrich the quality of life.

The same thing is true spiritually. God has indicated that He has a plan and a purpose for each of our lives, and yet He tells us to make decisions. Those decisions and those actions that we take, those thoughts that we think deliberately, are a part of moving toward that appointed plan that God has for our lives. He has all of that in mind, and yet part of His guidance in our lives, a part of His sovereignty over our lives, is calling on us to make decisions as a part of that.

Prayer as Part of God's Design

Another question along this same line is prayer. If God already has everything laid out and if God has already decided what He is going to do about everything, why should I pray about it?

Let me give you another illustration that might help along this line. Think about a sick child. God often uses the illustration of children in describing His relationship with us. When a child is sick that child feels free to tell his parents how he is feeling. In fact, he often does it as he cries, “I'm hot. I'm cold. I'm about to throw up.” All these various kinds of things he expresses to his parents. He asks how much longer the illness is going to last. He asks how much longer he has to take this yucky medicine. The child communicates with his parents about various things. None of those things are going to help the child get better. The child is going to get better when the medicine takes effect and when his body heals, and yet the child feels free to ask those things if nothing else because it helps him to know that he has expressed those things. It gives comfort to him to know that his parent is there in charge.

God knows exactly what He is doing in our lives, yet at the same time He tells us to pray about everything. I am convinced that ninety-nine percent of prayer is for our good. God knows that it gives us comfort to be able to express it to Him and think about the tremendous privilege of expressing our needs to the God of the universe.

Many times we, as parents, when our children try to tell us something, say, “Not right now, honey. I'm too busy.” God never does that. God says, “You come to Me. Bring all of your burdens to Me. Pray about everything, and don't worry about anything.” He says that over and over again in many ways. Our prayer to God fits in with His sovereign design in such a way that it comforts us. I said ninety-nine percent of prayer is for our sakes. Those percentages are mine. I'm just guessing, but I think it is pretty accurate. There is that place in the Scripture in James, chapter 4, where He tells us, “You have not because you ask not.” There are things that God has chosen to wait to do until we ask Him, and that one percent of those prayers have to do with things that God is waiting to see what we are going to do.

Again, we are talking about a sovereign God, and how can that be? Think about it this way: Let's talk about the sick child again. That child is sick and night comes, and the mother knows that during the night the child is going to call for her. She is going to have to go and minister to that child in some way. The mother knows because of the nature of the illness, at least in the illustration that we are talking about, that it is something she can wait to do until the child needs it to be done. She probably will get up in the night and give the child some medicine at the time the prescription calls for anyway, but other than those things the mother is going to wait until the child calls before she goes. She has already decided that she is going to do whatever she needs to do to take care of the child, but she has also decided that she is going to wait until the child calls. You see, God does that in some areas. God already knows what He is going to do, but He has also decided that He is not going to do it until we ask Him to do it. So within the sovereignty of God there is still room for our personal choosing. These things have to do not with the length of life, but with the quality of life.

God is going to get glory through our lives, but He is going to get it by allowing us to choose the various ways in which He will glorify Himself in our lives, even, in fact, in the lives of those who rebel against God. The Scripture tells us in Philippians, chapter 2, that every knee shall bow to Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ will be called Lord by every human being that has ever lived. Unfortunately, some of those who call Him Lord will do so from Hell, but God will get glory even in the lives of those who have chosen to reject salvation and accept the punishment of God that He pours out on those who reject His salvation. Even that will glorify God, because those people will realize that they could have had salvation, that salvation was theirs had they called upon the name of Jesus Christ.

The Purpose of God's Sovereignty

That is the principle of sovereignty, but it will help us in understanding that principle if we understand the purpose of sovereignty also. It is hard to give allegiance to any ruler if we don't understand that ruler's goals and purposes. Down through history many very powerful rulers have been overthrown because people saw that their purposes were wrong. Their purposes were evil and selfish. By the same token, many governments have endured—some for thousands of years—because the people understood the purpose of the government was good and noble.

God has revealed again and again what His purpose is. God's purpose is to make us like Himself. Did you know that? The overall purpose in all that goes on around us is to make you and me like Himself. Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, records when God said, “Let Us make man in Our image after Our likeness.” He goes on to say that each of the things that He created was good as He created it. One of the essential elements of the nature of God is that the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—before the human race was even created, had fellowship with each other. After untold ages of fellowship with each other, at some point in time, God said, “Let's make man in Our own image after Our own likeness.” God decided to expand the circle of His fellowship and of His enjoyment, and so He created human beings in His own image and His own likeness.

Revelation, chapter 4, verse 11, says:

Revelation 4

11Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

All things were created for God's pleasure and God's enjoyment, to be like Him. Romans, chapter 8, verses 28-29, say that all things work together for good. That is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, but did you know verse 29 goes on to say that His purpose is that we could be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ? God's purpose in everything that He does is to make you and me like Himself. He wants to enjoy our fellowship. He wants us to enjoy His fellowship, and everything that happens in the universe is a part of that purpose. That's the very purpose of the sovereignty of God.

In order to accomplish that, God has to do some chiseling. He has to do some cutting, sanding and polishing. No doubt you have heard the illustration about the sculptor who brought a huge block of granite into the studio. Someone said, “What are you going to be able to do with that block of granite?” The sculptor said, “There is a beautiful horse hidden in that block of granite. All I have to do is to knock away everything that is not a horse.” That is exactly what God does in our lives. God has His image hidden in that block of granite that is your life and mine, and God brings events and things into our lives with the purpose of knocking away the rough edges, sometimes knocking off big blocks of that granite in order to reveal Himself in us. That is His purpose. That is the purpose of sovereignty. God has to be a sovereign God in order to do that.

You and I cooperate in that. You and I bring that about perhaps sooner than it could have come about. You and I bring that about perhaps more easily than it could have come about, but God's purpose is to reveal Himself in us. Don't ever forget about the purpose of God's sovereignty as you move through life. A wonderful thing to know is that this God Who is so sovereign, Who is completely sovereign, is sovereign with a completely perfect and good purpose.

The Problem of Sin

We have talked about the principle of sovereignty, and the purpose of sovereignty. If you have been thinking, you might have come up with a problem. If God is completely sovereign, and if furthermore God's purpose is to make us like Himself, why did He include sin and suffering in the picture to begin with? If God wants to make us like Himself, why did He make it so that we can sin? If God is really sovereign, how can He allow such things?

Like every other aspect of sovereignty, godly scholars have wrestled with these questions down through the years, and so I am not going to be able to give the definitive answer today, but let me make some suggestions. First, let's think about the reason for sin in the first place. Generally speaking, Ephesians, chapter 1, verses 11-12, say that God does everything for His greatest glory. Therefore, we have to conclude that allowing sin in the universe was a part of getting glory for Himself. In these verses He says that we should be to the praise of His glory.

One way in which that is true is that sin and evil will provide a backdrop for God's grace and goodness. God provided evil so that we could see the beauty of His goodness and His perfection. The greatness of His love shows clearly against the backdrop of our sinfulness. By the same token, God's holiness and wrath, two indispensable aspects of His nature, are only understood in the context of the terribleness of sin.

Second, in allowing sin, God is allowing the worst threat that could ever come against His kingdom so that in eternity future, as we look at our sovereign God, we will see that He has triumphed over the worst that human beings could do, that no threat has been able to dislodge His kingdom and His authority.

A third reason for allowing sin is that our ability as human beings to choose to rebel against Him makes our choice to love Him that much more real. You see, if we could only love God, that wouldn't be very meaningful love. If we were created so that all we could do is love God, that really wouldn't carry much weight with Him. But God created creatures who could choose to love Him or could choose to rebel against Him, and therefore when we choose to love Him and when we choose to receive His love, it makes it that much more meaningful to God. The choices which humans make to glorify Him are genuine and sincere. We have to be able to make those kinds of decisions, else it would be meaningless to God.

Conclusion

As we conclude, let me just impress upon you the fact that the sovereignty of God is not the frightening topic that most people think it is. We think of the sovereignty of God as God getting a grip on us and not letting us do what we want to do. The way the Scripture reveals the sovereignty of God is that it is God gently and tenderly moving us along toward that ultimate glory of being like Him, being able to love to the extent that He loves, being able to show grace the way that He shows grace, being able to reach out in the way that He reaches out. That is what God in His sovereignty wants to do in our lives—to make us like Jesus Christ. He works all things together for that purpose. The good things, the bad things, the difficult things—all of those together—He works in just the right mixture to bring about that ultimate good in you and me like Jesus Christ. That is what the sovereignty of God is all about—not about becoming slaves who get knocked around by an unfair master, but becoming loving children whose heavenly Father guides their lives in the best possible way.


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