What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 4

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.

We began this series in part 1 discussing how the sovereignty of God is commonly conceived by most Christians. In this, God’s rule over his creation is spoken of in terms of his pre-knowledge of what will happen, his permission allowing certain things to happen, or his eventual conquest of his enemies so that ultimately his will is accomplished. He is seen much like a good and powerful earthly king who uses his might when necessary to achieve his ends, but is not directly controlling events and people. Commonly conceived, God’s sovereignty is a passive rule.

In part 2, we looked at several songs that allude to a verse in Genesis in some of their lyrics. The songs seem to affirm a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, but fail with a critical mis-quoting of what Joseph actually said. Instead, they all end up affirming the same passive view of God’s rule over us.

Finally, in part 3, we looked at some Scripture verses that portray God’s active rule over his creation. Rather than seeing these texts as “problem texts” that need to be explained away, we should take them at face value as indicative of the comprehensive teaching of Scripture about the sovereignty of God.

Now I will look at several historic Church creeds that affirm what the Bible teaches. Rather than these statements being the heretical statements of fringe Christians, they are the consistent testimony of the Church for centuries, even from the beginning.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) puts it this way: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The London Baptist Confession (1689) similarly says, “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The Belgic Confession of 1561 reads, “We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment” (13).

All of these statements are simply systematizing what is said in Eph. 1:11 – God works all things according to the counsel of his will. Each of these statements is notable for affirming a sovereignty that is not passive but rather active. “Ordain, decree, rule, and appoint” would be the active verbs in use.

Now these statements, in all three cases are immediately followed with qualifiers:

  • WCF: “…yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • LBC: “…yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • BC: “…nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”

Simply put, the Confessions all assert that (1) God ordains whatever comes to pass, and (2) God is not the author of sin, and (3) violence is not done to the agency of men.

Now, how can we reasonably hold these seemingly contrary statements together? It’s because the Bible holds them all as true. All of those statements are backed by Scripture. How can we reconcile them? In our finite minds, we cannot. We start to get in trouble when we attempt to explain or reconcile these assertions; that is when we fail and when we create a theology that is not biblical.

If you are in a place where you feel you “can’t figure it out,” good! That is where you must be. There is mystery here, as is always the case when we approach closely to the nature of God. How can three persons be God, and yet there is only one God? As soon as you attempt to explain the Trinity or offer a meek analogy, you diverge in some way from the biblical teaching. And so we embrace the mystery of the Godhead.

How can infinite-eternal God come to earth in the flesh in the second Person of the Trinity, so that Jesus is fully God AND fully man in one person? Terms like “hypostatic union” sound profound, but don’t really help us understand how it could be. Again, we embrace mystery here and accept what the Bible unflinchingly teaches, that Jesus is eternally God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:14) and dwelt among us.

So should it also be when we consider the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. We ought to accept the mystery as something that God has not chosen to explain to us fully or not equipped our minds to grasp. This is as it always must be when considering the Godhead. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

In his book The Five Points of Calvinism, Edwin H. Palmer points out two inadequate attempts to solve the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility – Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Both groups, while holding to the Bible to a point, come to a place where rationalism takes over. The Arminian, Palmer says, “holds to man’s freedom and restricts God’s sovereignty.” The hyper-Calvinist “sees the clear Biblical statements concerning God’s foreordination and holds firmly to that. But being logically unable to reconcile it with man’s responsibility, he denies the latter” (p.84-85). He goes on to state, “Thus the Arminian and the hyper-Calvinist, although poles apart, are really very close together in their rationalism.”

Instead, Palmer writes, “Over against these humanistic views, the Calvinist accepts both sides of the antimony….[and] holds to two apparently contradictory positions. [Footnote: It should be emphasized that the contradiction is only apparent and not real. Man cannot harmonize the two apparently contradictory positions, but God can.]” (p.85).

So, rather than seeing the teaching of God’s active sovereignty as an aberration of Christian theology, one that is to be ignored as “obviously” wrong or dismissed as Satanic (as some have said), we see through the confessions that this has been the creed of the historic Church for centuries – yes, even to the beginnings of the Church and beyond throughout all of the Bible.

To God alone be the glory!

4 Comments

  1. One of the people in our church asked: “How does sovereignty affect faith?” One of the other men said, “I have to faith that my prayers will be answered. God is in control.” The first said, “I was afraid of that.” The thing is, the first guy who trusts God for answers–gets them. The second doesn’t try.

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    1. Yes! I have been flat-out asked, if God is sovereign why should I pray? To that I would say if God is not sovereign why should we bother to pray? Don’t we count on the power and authority and sovereignty of God when we ask him to change someone’s heart and become a believer in Christ? Aren’t we praying to a sovereign God when we ask him to intervene in anything in this world?

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