What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 1

To say that God is sovereign over all is a given among Bible-believing Christians. What is not a given is what we mean by that. Dig deeper and you’ll find that there are differences in what various teachers mean when they affirm God’s sovereignty.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “God’s sovereignty is the attribute by which He rules His entire creation, and to be sovereign God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free.” So far, so good. To the average Christian, to say God is sovereign is to reference that all-powerful rule over his creation.

The question then becomes, how does he exercise his rule over creation?

I believe that for most Christians, this rule is envisioned much as one would envision an authoritative, benevolent earthly king. This king rules with a kindly governance that oversees but does not dictate. For the most part, he has put things in place to ensure the smooth operation of his kingdom but is not hands-on in the day-to-day of his people. Occasionally, he may bring his force to bear when it suits his needs to achieve desired ends. This force may be a gentle persuasion, or at times it may require the full range of his might to subdue his enemies. But as to the dictating of his peoples’ everyday actions, this is beyond the scope of his chosen means of rule, for his people live and move and breathe freely. This king sees to it, however, that his desired end is achieved.

This is God’s sovereignty, commonly conceived.

This is where Tozer, in his otherwise excellent Knowledge of the Holy (quoted earlier) lands in his attempt to reconcile the idea of God’s sovereignty with the will of man. He gives a “homely” (his word) illustration of an ocean liner that the captain steers to its final destination, but within the ship, the people move freely about. Tozer bases this on his statement, “the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it” (p. 111). In other words, God is sovereign over the end but not the particulars of the meantime. The passengers on God’s ship do as they please within the bounds of the boat and the Eternal Captain steers them to his desired end.

In this view, God’s sovereignty is viewed in a passive and limited sense. God is not decreeing each and everything that happens, but he works with what happens to turn it to good and to finally in the end see his plan come to fruition. While A.W. Tozer has been something of a spiritual hero and mentor to me through his prolific writing, he is wrong here. For one thing, there is no Scriptural basis for his claim that God has only decreed that man should be free to make choices. Neither does his analogy fit with the Bible, as we will see.

I believe that most Christians, however, are satisfied with this explanation. To them the sovereignty of God may mean that nothing happens unless God allows it to happen, or that he knows what will happen before it does. It may simply mean that no matter what happens, in the end God will have the last word (see Tabletalk magazine, March 2017, p. 30).

This kind of understand ultimately fails because to see God’s sovereignty as limited or passive in this way is to deny his sovereignty at all! To quote R.C. Sproul, “if there is one molecule in the universe running loose, outside of the control of God’s sovereignty, what I like to call ‘one maverick molecule,’ then the practical implication for us as Christians is that we have no guarantee whatsoever that any future promise God has made to His people will come to pass” (Chosen by God, Lecture 2: God’s Sovereignty). Namely, there’s no guarantee the ocean liner will make it to harbor!

We will have more to say on the biblical view of God’s sovereignty later. In my next post, I want to delve into a couple of modern Christian examples from our worship music on how this passive view has manifested itself.

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