Featured, John McReynolds - Posted by john on Monday, June 7, 2010 21:44 - 5 Comments 6,492 views
Basics 13 – The Sovereignty of God
BASIC BIBLE DOCTRINE
Lesson Thirteen: The Sovereignty of God
As eternal, pre-existent Deity, God did not assume authority over the universe—He is The Authority and always has been because He created the universe. Sovereign God is the first cause of all reality. In His sovereignty He ordained the existence of everything that is real. Humans may possess authority in some areas, but they are always given that authority by God—“For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Rom 13:1) Kings and emperors may think they attained their authority, but in reality it was God who gave it to them—and even the most powerful emperor’s authority is limited. But God has unlimited, ultimate, supreme authority as the Creator of all things. There is no one who can alter or usurp God’s authority. There are those who think they can—which of course brings up the subject of the devil …
BASIC BIBLE DOCTRINE
The Sovereignty of God
by John McReynolds
As always, let’s take a moment to be sure that we are cleansed of sin and filled with the Holy Spirit. God is spirit, and He can only be worshipped in spirit and in truth. If we have lost the filling of the Spirit, it can only be regained by the principle of 1 John 1:9—“if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So let’s prepare ourselves to get back into the Word—let us pray:
Thank You Father for revealing a tiny portion of Your incomparably perfect character to us. As You allowed Moses to see your back as You passed by, so allow us to get a glimpse of You, that we might know You better, and that we might better glorify our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it is in His name we ask it—amen.
We are about to launch into an extended study of the attributes of God. Our last lesson was an introduction to this study and in it we touched on some of the qualities of God: infinity, immensity, absoluteness, unapproachability, undiminishability, eternality, and unity. We saw how these qualities of God revealed His absolute excellence. We also listed ten attributes, which are those aspects of His nature that become more evident as He relates to us as humans. These are: sovereignty, righteousness, justice, love, eternal life, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, immutability, and veracity. In this lesson we will examine the first of these—sovereignty.
Sovereignty and the Absolute Freedom of God
When we speak of God as sovereign we are referring to the fact that He is supreme above all other authorities. The word sovereign comes to us via Old French from the Latin word superanus, which basically refers to anyone who is high, exalted, or in supreme authority. It was used to refer to kings, emperors, or other powerful rulers. Of course, human authority is relative—we rarely find an authority who is not subject to another higher authority. And of course all rulers are ultimately subject to God—a lesson King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way in Daniel chapter 4. Since God is infinite and absolute, when we apply the term sovereign to Him we understand that He is the ultimate authority—there is no authority higher than God.
Because God is the ultimate authority He is the only Being in reality who is truly free. God can do anything because, being infinite God, He has no limits whatsoever—not in power, nor ability, nor understanding, nor any other facet of His being related to His sovereign will. I know that there are those that teach that there are certain things God cannot do—i.e. there are times when His actions are constrained by His own essence. And I’m not saying they are wrong—I’ve taught that concept myself. Theologians often state that God cannot do a particular thing because it would conflict with some aspect of His perfect character. For example, God cannot tell a lie because God is truth (John 3:33; 14:6).
But I think it is more accurate to say that God will not lie rather than to say that God cannot lie. To say God cannot do something implies limitation, and God—being infinite—is without any limits, boundaries, or constraints. God is the God of perfect self-control and he does not need any constraint—external or internal—to keep Him from doing something wrong. He has perfect freedom—He can do anything—but He will only do those things that are consistent with His plan, purpose, and character.
Sovereignty and the Supreme Authority of God
As eternal, pre-existent Deity, God did not assume authority over the universe—He is The Authority and always has been because He created the universe. Sovereign God is the first cause of all reality. In His sovereignty He ordained the existence of everything that is real. Humans may possess authority in some areas, but they are always given that authority by God—“For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Rom 13:1) Kings and emperors may think they attained their authority, but in reality it was God who gave it to them—and even the most powerful emperor’s authority is limited. But God has unlimited, ultimate, supreme authority as the Creator of all things. There is no one who can alter or usurp God’s authority. There are those who think they can—which of course brings up the subject of the devil.
Satan, or Lucifer as he was originally named, was God’s greatest creation—the super angel among angels—who was the guardian of the throne room of God. But not being content with the highest position in creation, he purposed to usurp, supplant, and overthrow his Creator, and to assume God’s authority in the universe. This is recorded in several places in Scripture, most notably in Isaiah 14:12-14 – “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning [“Lucifer” in the King James version], son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” Satan’s desire was to assume the sovereignty of God—to take that which was God’s alone to possess—and thus he sparked that ancient war, still raging unseen around us, that we know today as the Angelic Conflict.
God’s sovereignty—His absolute rulership of all reality—cannot be usurped, Satan’s mad ambition notwithstanding. It is the most central fact in the universe, and the one ultimate reality with which we as humans must finally contend. This authority has been vested in the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:9-11 says, “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Someday every person, human and angelic—including you and me, all peoples, all angels and even Satan himself—will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ and acknowledge Him as the sovereign Lord of the universe.
God’s Sovereignty and the Angelic Conflict
This ancient conflict that we just alluded to deserves closer examination. In order to understand the way in which God’s sovereignty relates to us as humans we need to have an understanding of the Angelic Conflict. In a future lesson, the Lord willing, we will look at the subject of the Angelic Conflict in detail, but for now we will just present a short summary. As we saw a couple of paragraphs ago the Angelic Conflict began when Lucifer, the highest of the angels, desired to assume the position of God (Ezek. 28:12b-19).
Omniscient God knew Lucifer’s heart and, as Ezekiel reveals, He condemned Lucifer for his blasphemy. Lucifer apparently appealed to the other angels, claiming that God’s condemnation was unfair. The basis for his claim was that since God gave him and all of the other angels free will, He could not fairly condemn Lucifer for using what He had given him. Lucifer was successful in persuading one third of the angels to his cause (Rev. 12:4). When Lucifer made his appeal and corrupted a third of the angelic creation he became known as Satan—from the Hebrew SAWTAWN [שׂטן], meaning accuser, adversary, or opponent.
So in order to prove to Satan and his angelic allies that His condemnation of them was fair, God created man a little lower than angels, and gave him the same free will He had given the angels. He placed the first man in the Garden He created in Eden—a place of perfect environment where all of the man’s needs were met. But God also placed a test of the man’s volition there by prohibiting the man from partaking of the fruit of just one particular tree in the Garden.
We do not know how long the man and the woman lived in the Garden before they partook of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—it might have been just a matter of a few hours, or it may have been days, weeks, or even years. But evidently it was long enough that Satan began to feel that if the test of man’s volition was ever going to resolve in his favor, that the man and the woman needed some “help”. So Satan appeared to the woman in the form of the serpent—perhaps by indwelling a creature already in the Garden that she was familiar with. The well-known story of how Satan successfully tempted the woman and the man is found in Genesis chapter three.
A Wrong Assumption of Victory
When the man and the woman failed the test by disobeying God, no doubt Satan thought he had won his case. But then God gave His promise of the Redeemer, which added an unexpected dimension to the case. Satan thought the test was over. What he didn’t realize was that the test would continue in Adam and Eve’s descendents.
Satan had accused God of unfairness in condemning him and the fallen angels that joined him for exercising their free will to go against God’s sovereign will. God countered Satan’s claim by pointing out that Satan and the other angels had been created perfect, and from the moment of their creation they possessed an adequate understanding of who God is, who they were, and the nature of the creature/Creator relationship. Just as He has with us, God gave them tremendous latitude within the freedom He granted them. However, He set boundaries for them—also adequately understood by them—which they were not to transgress. Satan crossed that boundary when in pride he first articulated the five “I wills” recorded in Isaiah 14:12-14 and the fallen angels crossed it when they sided with Satan—Rev. 12:4. They knew perfectly well that they were rebelling against God. The fallen angels fell with their eyes wide open.
God undertook to prove His case by creating a much more difficult scenario. As we stated a moment ago, God’s test continued in Adam and Eve’s descendents. We have seen in previous lessons that human beings are born fallen—born with a sinful nature that guarantees that we will sin. Besides that, because we all descended from Adam, we are also guilty of Adam’s sin. So we are born condemned in other words. For humans this is a far worse situation than for the fallen angels who were created perfect and knowingly fell through their own choice.
Proof of Satan’s Defeat
To deal with our far more difficult situation, God authored the plan of grace, in which God Himself became a man, paid the eternal death penalty for man’s sin, and made it possible for man—from man’s free will—to accept the free gift of salvation. Now, every time another person accepts the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on their behalf and believes unto salvation, it proves God’s fairness in condemning Satan and his demons. Really, only one person would have needed to believe in order for God to prove His case, so assuming that there will be many billions of people saved by the end of human history, God will have proved his case many billions of times over—a massive weight of evidence.
But God’s fairness is also proved on the other side of the scenario. When someone hears the Gospel of Salvation, the Holy Spirit supernaturally reveals the truth of salvation to that person. At that point the person becomes responsible to accept God’s free offer of Grace. If the person rejects God’s offer of salvation, that is tantamount to spitting in the face of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is Himself sovereign God. This is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—the unpardonable sin (Luke 12:10b – “… he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.”). It is a sin only unbelievers can commit—rejection of the Gospel, of the only means of eternal salvation—rejection of Jesus Christ.
So then every time someone finally rejects God’s offer of salvation he is condemned to the same Lake of Fire reserved for Satan and his fallen angels—“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.’” (Matt. 25:41). And this demonstrates that God judges both men and angels by the same righteous standard, and that His judgment is perfectly, absolutely fair.
God’s sovereign rule is perfect, even when opposed by Satan, the mightiest creature in the universe. God could have simply blasted Satan out of existence for his disobedience, but He sovereignly decided to allow Satan to appeal, which started the Angelic Conflict. And to resolve the Angelic Conflict, God sovereignly created man. And by His sovereign will redeemed humanity will someday be purified and sanctified and elevated far above angels, to rule the universe with the Lord forever (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:6). What a wonderful future awaits the Child of God!
God’s Sovereignty and the Divine Institutions
Because mankind is fallen God knew that some men would try to dominate others to rule and control them for their own benefit and pleasure. He knew that human freedom would be under constant attack by Satan and his demons. For this reason He delegated from His sovereignty certain spheres of authority by which man could be self-governed and still maintain the freedom that he needed to make uncoerced decisions about the choices God offers mankind.
These spheres of Divinely delegated authority exist on four basic levels: authority of the Individual over himself—individual freedom and self control in other words; authority in Marriage — the headship of the husband in the marriage relationship; authority in the Family — the authority of parents over their children; and authority in Society, which covers such broad areas as the authority of government — local, state, and national, authority of the police, of judges, of employers, of teachers, coaches, superior officers in the military, etc. What we refer to as the Divine Institutions were established at different times in human history. These four Divine Institutions were created to insure not only the survival of humanity, but also for the general welfare and indeed the happiness of the human race, and are intended for both believers and unbelievers.
There are many things that can be said about the Divine Institutions, but we have neither the time nor space to pursue them here. God willing, we will examine each of these Divine Institutions in detail in a later study. The point is, that since these are Divinely delegated spheres of authority, rejection of legitimate authority within these spheres constitutes rejection of God’s authority, which He condemns as sin.
God’s Sovereignty and Divine Will
One of the most commonly encountered aspects of God when considering His sovereignty is His will. When experiencing some disaster, or a sudden or unexpected death, or some other calamity we might remark, “it was the will of God.” Usually we do this because of our inability to affect the situation or to make sense of it. And it is very true that often God’s will is impenetrable. But there is much we can learn from Scripture concerning the sovereign will of God. The Bible gives us many examples of God’s will. Theologians studying the will of God have placed each of these examples into one of three categories: God’s Directive will, His Permissive will, and His Overruling will.
Here is a diagram illustrating these three spheres of God’s will. In the center we see God’s Directive will. God’s Directive will is that expression of His sovereignty by which He reveals His will to men. In Old Testament times God frequently revealed His will by dreams, visions, and occasionally face to face, as with Moses in the burning bush or on Mount Sinai (Exo. 3:1-4:17; Exo. 19:20 and following chapters). Nowadays God speaks through His written word, the Bible. He has given us everything he has to say about how we are to live within in the pages of His Book. This is not to say that God does not also guide us by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit. God may occasionally impress upon our hearts the way we should go in a particular situation, but mostly the choices we should make in life are addressed somewhere in the Bible—which is why it is so important that we be thoroughly and consistently immersed in it.
Outside of God’s Directive will we find His Permissive will. God’s Permissive will is the expression of His sovereignty by which He allows men to make their own choices. They can be right choices, or they can be wrong ones that conflict with His directive will. It is by God’s permissive will that He sovereignly allows sin and evil to exist in the world. And this existence is temporary, because the time will come when sin and evil will be abolished forever at the final resolution of the Angelic Conflict. There are many examples of God’s permissive will in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. Notable Old Testament examples include Balaam and Jonah—in fact, just about every Old Testament character had failures, and for the most part God sovereignly allowed their failures rather than preventing them—for the most part.
And outside of God’s permissive will, and acting as a boundary to it, we find God’s Overruling will. God’s overruling will is when God directly prevents some intended action from being carried out. The story of Balaam in Numbers chapters 22 through 24, and also chapter 31 also contains examples of God’s overruling will. The Book of Jonah also shows a good example of God’s overruling will when it tells the story of how God prevented Jonah from journeying to Tarshish by causing a great storm that threatened to sink the boat he was travelling on. When the sailors cast Jonah overboard when they found out he was the cause of the storm God caused a great fish to swallow Jonah and then spit him out on dry land. God seldom invokes His overruling will nowadays, and when He does it’s usually understated and subtle—but not always.
Sometimes God will divinely intervene in history in a dramatic way. He certainly will during the Great Tribulation as recorded in the Book of Revelation, chapters 5 through 19, and He has many times in the past. Such intervention has happened even in our own time. I remember the Six Day War between Israel and the neighboring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria who, along with support and troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Moslem states, attempted to invade Israel in early June of 1967. The resulting brief war (June 5th through the 10th) completely repulsed the Arab armies, resulted in a brilliant victory of Israeli air power in which Israel essentially destroyed the entire Egyptian air force without losing one of their own aircraft, and left Israel in control of the whole Sinai peninsula, the west bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.
The extent and swiftness of the Israeli victory was seen by many as supernatural, and evidence of divine intervention. The modern Moslem states have often expressed their intention to “push Israel into the sea,” — to completely destroy the Jews in the Holy Land in other words. But such anti-Semitism has always provoked severe reaction from God—as He promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse.” God’s overruling will has often been exercised in history when His people Israel has been threatened.
God’s Sovereignty and the Free Will of Man
We have been looking at some of the facets of the sovereignty of God. Different theologians have viewed God’s sovereign will in different ways throughout the centuries, and these differences have generated some splits in the Church. One of the most enduring controversies among Christian theologians is the issue of the apparent conflict between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. It is this issue that is at the heart of the schism between those who hold to the Calvinist and the Armenian views of the atonement, election, redemption, propitiation, and other doctrines central to the subject of soteriology—the study of salvation.
In the Armenian view, man’s will is capable of choosing for or against salvation—each person’s destiny is determined by the choice he or she makes relative to the Gospel of Christ. But in the Armenian view, a person can also—by an act of that same human will—choose to lose his salvation; salvation is impermanent.
Calvinism, on the other hand, says that fallen man is totally incapable of choosing for God—in their view man is totally depraved and therefore cannot even come to an understanding of the Gospel, much more to respond positively to it. They believe that God must regenerate the lost person and give him a new nature. God even gives the believer the faith to believe—it is not something that depraved man can do on his own—God must do it for him.
Calvinists also believe that once God begins this work in a person, that person is irresistibly drawn to Him—he cannot help but believe and be saved. But since, obviously, not everyone is saved, then the Calvinists are forced to conclude that the atonement had to have been limited—in other words Jesus did not die for everyone, He died only for the elect—those He sovereignly chose in eternity past to be called out from among the rest of lost mankind. This is essentially the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement.
The Armenian view is the viewpoint of many of the mainstream Protestant denominations, whereas the Calvinist view is prevalent in the Presbyterian and other Reformed churches. As you might guess, there are problems with both views. Both hold what we consider correct Biblical views, but then adulterate them with unbiblical interpretations.
For example, to the Calvinist, God’s sovereignty trumps all. The notion that God would allow the puny will of man to override His purpose and will in salvation is unthinkable. The Calvinist cannot concede that God could decree that His will and the free will of man could coexist in human history. But by denying that, they actually limit the One that they declare to be limitless. In other words, the Calvinist is forced to deny the permissive will of God, which is that sphere of God’s will that allows man’s free will to function. But at the same time, their doctrine of irresistible grace—which to them means the elect of God are irresistibly drawn to salvation, also means that salvation is permanent—the believer cannot lose his salvation, which is of course the correct Biblical view of eternal security.
On the other hand the Armenian view takes the Biblically correct position that Jesus’ atoning work on the cross was unlimited in its scope—that Christ died for the sins of all of mankind. The limiting factor then becomes the free will of man—man is capable of choosing against the declared will of God, but by thus doing, condemns himself to hell. But then the Armenian goes a step farther by supposing that man’s free will is also unlimited. So the Armenian supposes that man can, by an exercise of his own free will, undo the salvation work of God and nullify his own salvation. He does not suspect that within the permissive will of God He allows man to go only so far—and no farther. That’s why in the above diagram I’m showing God’s overruling will as a solid boundary around permissive will on this diagram. God will allow man to determine his own destiny, but once salvation has been determined, that salvation is kept secure, not by man, but by the sovereign, overruling will of God.
In truth, there is no conflict between the free will of man and the sovereign will of God. Within God’s sovereign will it has pleased Him to allow man to participate in the innumerable ways that time can progress. From man’s perspective the future is unknown, holding unlimited possibilities and potentials. And we all, by the function of our individual free wills, affect how the future possibility resolves into the present reality, and from thence to become the history of the past.
But from God’s perspective there is no past, present, or future—there is only one eternal Now. Therefore He simultaneously perceives all of the possibilities, permutations, and combinations, of all creatures’ choices that He is pleased to allow. And, like a tapestry on a loom, he weaves the threads of the choices of men, angels and all lesser creatures, and all of their consequences into the grand tapestry of His will and plan. In other words, within the limited scope of the choices available to individual people—God’s permissive will in other words—whatever man may chose to do with his free will, those things can only exist within the permissive will of God. And from that perspective, what man chooses, he chooses according to the will of God.
An example can be found in considering Adam’s first job. Gen 2:19 says that God gave the job of naming the animals to the man. This was according to God’s will. Suppose Adam called a certain long necked creature a giraffe. Then he named it according to God’s will, and that creature was a giraffe. But if he had instead decided to call the creature an elephant, or a monkey, then according to God’s declared will that would have been its name, since God declared that whatever the man called it would be its name.
Simply put, anything that occurs within the boundaries of God’s permissive will is His will, even if it goes against God’s directive will! As we have seen, God’s permissive will also includes all of the possible consequences of the choices of men, for good or for evil, or for eternal bliss, or eternal damnation. And here is one of the hardest pills for us to swallow: All of the suffering, misery, hardship, privation, pain, and death that has resulted from the sinful and evil choices of men and of angels, has all occurred within the permissive will of God.
I have heard many people ask when contemplating some horrendous event or some tragic personal loss: how could a loving God allow that to happen? And the answer is always the same: I don’t know. Nobody can know—not this side of heaven. I do know that God is a just, righteous, and loving God—a God of perfect integrity, and He desires the best for His creation. But nevertheless, we will never fully understand God’s sovereign will.
Application of God’s Sovereign Will
So what can we take away from this study of the sovereignty of God in terms of personal application? We have learned that, from the human perspective there are three spheres to God’s sovereign will: God’s directive will, God’s permissive rule, and God’s overruling will.
- God’s directive will tells us what we should do. It is the place where we should remain, since there is where God will maximize our blessings.
- His permissive will is what God allows us to do—it’s where we live; no matter whether we are right or wrong, good or bad—we are in God’s permissive will.
- And God’s overruling will is the boundary to God’s permissive will—we can go that far, but no further.
As I said just a minute ago, we can never fully understand the sovereign will of God. But hopefully this morning we have shed some light on enough of the principles God has revealed about His sovereignty that we can better appreciate that God’s sovereign will is right and best and that we can absolutely trust Him to order the steps of our lives.
We’re thankful, Father, that You have revealed Your sovereign Person to us. As we grow in grace and knowledge of You we gain a greater appreciation and love of Your sovereign will for us. You have commanded all men, Father, for their benefit and Your glory, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ unto salvation. And those who believe, Father, You have commanded to study Your word to show themselves approved unto You, so that at Your judgment seat they will not be ashamed. May we always seek to remain in Your directive will for our lives, that we will stay in the sphere of maximum blessings in time, and in eternity.
Bless now Your word; let it not return unto you void. Bless all who read this, and make us confident in the knowledge that You who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we ask it with thanksgiving, amen.
To the reader: If you have read this lesson, I would greatly appreciate any feedback, questions, or comments you have. Getting feedback from my readers is very helpful and encouraging to me. I promise to respond to all legitimate questions or comments as appropriate. But please, do keep your questions and comments appropriate and constructive.
Thank you very much.
In His Service,