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.

8 thoughts on “What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 1

  1. Hi Mark. I’m trying to work out what I should think about this.
    In the view that you believe to be inadequate, you refer to “an authoritative, benevolent … king”, who does not control all that his subjects do. That reminds me of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray “Our Father …”. As our Father, he deals with persons in a personal way.
    I think your description of God’s sovereignty according to Tozer as “passive and limited” is pejorative in a way that mistakes Tozer’s intent. It is easy to take an illustration and press it further than is meant. In the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), the Judge represents God, but Jesus is not teaching that God is unjust. Nor is Tozer meaning that in life there is total freedom of choice and only the final destination has been decided upon.
    We could make Tozer’s illustration more ample and say that the captain of the liner controls some things, such as the course and the overall destination, while allowing the passengers a limited degree of free choice. That would then roughly correspond to Paul’s view that God determines some things while deciding to leave others to human choice, as reported in Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-31 (see especially 17:26-27 “he marked out their appointed times … so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him”).
    The quotation from R.C. Sproul is problematic. It appears that the “God” to which he refers is so lacking in power and wisdom that he cannot cope with anything that is not predetermined by him. I don’t see any logical or scriptural objection to believing in a much wiser and more powerful God who is well able to predetermine what he wishes to predetermine, to allow genuine choices to be made by human beings to an extent which he decides, and to bring all things to a conclusion that is satisfactory to him.

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  2. Andrew, thank you for your gracious and detailed comments on all four posts in this series. It will take me some time to comb through and respond to some of your points, but I intend to do that as time allows.

    I will say at this point, that I too am always learning. I fully expect that when I die and go to be with Christ, that my understanding then will be much beyond what it is now in ways that I can’t even imagine. I am well aware that on this earth “we know in part.”

    Please be patient as I try to navigate your thoughts and formulate my responses.

    In Christ,

    Mark

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  3. Andrew, again thank you for the dialog.

    Let me begin to respond to some of your questions and points.

    Regarding God being a Father responding to us in a personal way, of course I don’t discount that when I say he’s considered an “authoritative, benevolent king.” I was simply speaking for the sake of my argument of what the common conception of God is in regards specifically to the question of sovereignty. Don’t accuse me of denying an aspect of God’s character and role simply because I didn’t mention it.

    I don’t think I’ve mischaracterized Tozer at all. His view of God’s sovereignty is that it is definitely passive and limited, even if he doesn’t use those terms. You described Tozer’s illustration of the captain of the liner pretty much exactly – that the captain controls some things while allowing limited freedom of choice. What is not passive and limited about that? I don’t think I misrepresented his analogy, nor did I stretch it beyond his usage. His quote that I alluded to – “the eternal decree decided not which choice that man should make but that he should be free to make it” – has no biblical support.

    You mention “Paul’s view that God determines some things while deciding to leave others to human choice, as reported in Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-31.” The free offer of the gospel – which I fully affirm – does not counter the idea of God “working all things according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). In fact, in the immediate verses that follow this statement, Paul references his placing hope in Christ and his readers doing the same after hearing the word of truth.

    These truths are placed side by side in Scripture again and again. The answer is not that God determines some things and leaves others to human choice. This is never the biblical perspective. Rather, the approach I take is to hold truths in tandem, and perhaps in tension, even as I am unable to fully reconcile them intellectually.

    To “leave some things to human choice” (your words) is to leave some things outside of God’s rule. It would mean that some things could happen that God didn’t account for. This is the thrust of the Sproul quote. Your objection to it by saying that God could still bring all things to a conclusion that is satisfactory to him causes me to ask – on what basis could you guarantee this? To say that God is sovereign over some things and not others means he is not sovereign at all. Just appealing to a “much wiser and more powerful God” is like asking whether God is powerful enough to make a rock so big he cannot lift it. Could God be so sovereign that he allows somethings to happen outside of his sovereign ordination? That would be an equivocation on the term “sovereign.” A more powerful God cannot be both sovereign and not sovereign. In your scheme, God is responding to events outside his control, and this is exactly the passive and limited sovereignty that is so often taught today.

    And who’s to determine which things are not ordained by God and left to choice? If you just say, “some things are, others are not,” how is this any better at answering the objections about free agency? For would not God in the end determine the outcomes?

    As I continue to reply to your thoughts, I keep coming back to what the Confessions affirm: 1) God has ordained whatever comes to pass, 2) he does this in a way that does not make God the author of sin, 3) he does this in a way that does not violate the agency of man nor eliminate secondary causes. I hold all these in tension because the Bible does. The more we try to reconcile these thoughts, the more we have to distort one or more.

    I will have more to say on this matter, but I wanted to begin to respond to you. Thank you for your thoughts and the graciousness in which you commented. It is refreshing to dialog with someone who may have objections but doesn’t call me a devil.

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  4. Thank you, Mark, for your reply.
    God as Father: I am sorry you felt that I made the accusation that you mention. I don’t know what words of mine you took in that way, but I am happy to confirm that I did not make it. Do you have a concern about how to reconcile a view of God as Father with your view of God’s sovereignty?
    Tozer’s illustration: I don’t understand why you would characterize (for example) steering an ocean liner as “passive”. Tozer was writing in the mid-20th century. He wasn’t imagining computerized autopilot.
    Acts 14:16 “he [God] allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways”. On the face of it, that is not consistent with God predetermining whatsoever comes to pass; it sounds like allowing people to make their choice.
    Acts 17:27 “and perhaps feel their way toward him”. The word “perhaps” is inconsistent with the idea that everything is predetermined by God.
    In your paragraph about the R C Sproul quotation, you are advancing a philosophical argument (not a Biblical argument) for insisting on your particular view of what it means for God to be sovereign. From what you say, you regard it as axiomatic that the sovereign God cannot grant genuine agency to a personal being created by him, so as to allow some real choices that are not predetermined. I’m inviting you to prove that axiom from Scripture.

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