What Does "God Is Sovereign" Mean?
(Part of the "Predestination vs. Free-Will" series)
“God is all-wise and all-powerful, so He always does whatever He wants. And everything that happens is because He wanted it to happen and made it happen. Since God is in control, He controls everything. And we have no influence on Him and no ability to exercise our own free-will.”
I think this is how many of us view God’s sovereignty. We think that because He is all-powerful, He always uses His power and controls every detail.
And this view of “sovereignty” is used to support the idea of predestination, that God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. If you end up in hell, it’s because He wanted you there . . . because He always does what He wants. We don’t have any real free-will because He is all-powerful. If we sin, it’s because God made us sin, because He wanted us to sin, for His purposes.
And this view is also used to support the idea that He controls every detail on earth. If there is a tornado, it is because He put it there. He decided the exact path and who would be destroyed and who wouldn’t. He puts the cancer there and causes it to grow or not grow. He decides if a child should be born with a handicap or abnormality.
But is this what “sovereignty” means? That because He is all-powerful, He controls every detail of our lives? Our eternal destination? Every tragedy? That we have no choice? That He makes us sin? That He caused the Fall of Adam and Eve?
Or do we misunderstand what “sovereignty” is?
Sovereignty basically means “possessing supreme power, having the right to do whatever He wants without having to answer to anyone” (not an official definition). So, yes, God is sovereign. He possesses all the power, the ability to do whatever He wants, to create life and take it. Nothing is here that He hasn’t made or allowed. And He answers to no one.
But where we go wrong is thinking that because He is sovereign and all-powerful, He always forces whatever He wants, that He controls every detail. However, I think Scripture is quite clear that this is not the way it is. I believe that God has chosen to voluntarily hold back His use of power and His right to control everything. He voluntarily restrains Himself to a degree because He wanted man to have free-will and the ability to cause things and influence what happens on earth.
Basically, He has chosen to grant us a certain amount of influence, rights, and responsibilities, starting in the Garden of Eden when He gave mankind a level of dominion over His creation and when He gave them the option of obeying or disobeying His command to not eat from the forbidden tree.
And this idea bothers some people because they think it lessens God’s power somehow, that it means He is less sovereign. That if people have any kind of power or influence, it must mean He is “weaker.”
But that’s not true.
I mean, yes, it would lessen His power and sovereignty if we had power in and of ourselves, or some sort of control because we took it from God. But it does not lessen His power at all if He voluntarily gave it to us, if He chose it to be this way and decided to hold back His use of power, and if He willingly has decided to grant people a certain amount of free-will.
It is totally within His power to control every detail, but He has chosen not to. And I believe it was His plan and His pleasure to allow people to have an influence over what happens and to decide for themselves if they want to turn toward Him or away from Him, if they want to obey or disobey.
And this does not mean He is any less-powerful, not when He Himself has decided that this is the way He wants it to be.
So how should we understand God’s sovereignty? Here is the way that I see it . . .
1. Everything that exists is because God made it. So we are all here by His power and Will and pleasure.
2. Many things happen because He allows them, not necessarily because He wants them or causes them. He did not want or cause the Fall, but He allowed it. He allowed the detrimental effects of the Fall. He allowed us – through the Fall – to unleash sin’s influence in this world, which includes illnesses, storms, conflicts, etc. And He allows what He does because He knows how to use it, work it into His plan, or make something good out of it (or simply because He has chosen to not intervene, to let what's going to happen ... happen).
But this does not mean that He causes each and every tragedy or consequence or sin that happens. But He does let them happen. (Such as letting the people become defiled by their wretched behavior - sacrificing their children in fire - in Ezekiel 20:26. He lets them dig their own hole, if that's what they want to do.)
And He is fully aware of everything that happens. He sees it all. He misses nothing. Nothing takes Him by surprise.
Yet He is not micromanaging everything.
Just because He can control everything doesn’t mean He does control everything.
And when I say that He doesn’t control everything (that He doesn’t micromanage everything and that He allows people to make decisions), I am not saying that there are things that are beyond His ability to control. I can’t stand that argument – that if you say He doesn’t control everything, it means you are saying that He can’t control everything. Of course, He could control everything if He wanted to. I just don’t think that’s how He has chosen to operate.
Consider for a moment 1 Samuel 23:12-13. (Thanks to Ryan Nelson for pointing this out in his post “Predestination in the Bible: A (Possible) Counter Example.”)
In this passage, David asks the Lord if the people of the town, Keilah, will hand him over to Saul, who is pursuing him to kill him. And God says that they will. Armed with this foreknowledge of what will happen if he stays in that town, David leaves. So this thing that God foreknew would happen – that the townspeople would hand David over to Saul – never happened.
But if “foreknowledge” means “predetermined by God to surely happen” then David would have stayed in that town and been handed over to Saul. David would not have had a choice about leaving the town.
But he did have a choice. He had the choice to heed God’s warning or to ignore it. God didn’t determine David’s choice. But He did know the outcome of both choices. He knew that if David stayed, he would be handed over to Saul . . . and that if David left, he would evade Saul. But God let David choose! (Reminds me how important it is to “inquire of the Lord” instead of just making decisions in my own wisdom!)
And then there’s 1 Samuel 13:13-14. In this passage, Saul has disobeyed the Lord’s command by improperly performing a burnt offering. And Samuel tells him that if he had kept God’s command and done it properly, God would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel for all time. But since he disobeyed, God was now taking the kingship from him.
God had a plan, but it hinged on Saul’s obedience. God was willing to secure Saul’s kingship, but Saul changed the plan when he disobeyed.
If you think that God always does what He has pre-planned, that He does not allow us to make our own choice about obeying or disobeying, and that our choices don’t affect His plans ... then you would have to call Samuel a liar for claiming that God had a different plan in mind that hinged on Saul’s obedience. There would have been no different plan in God’s mind if it was His pre-planned Will that Saul disobeyed and lost the kingship. After all, if God always did what He pre-planned, how could He have a plan in mind that He never carried out?
To a degree, God sits back and lets life happen. He lets us decide. He lets us “inquire of Him” or go off in our own wisdom. He lets us heed His warnings or ignore Him. He lets us obey or disobey. He lets us affect His plans and the path we take in life, for good or bad. He lets us accept or reject His invitation to salvation and the gifts of faith and grace and forgiveness.
And, unfortunately, He lets the bad things happen. He lets our cells go wonky. He lets our smoking and poor eating lead to bad health. He lets the natural environment stir up storms and tsunamis. He lets us hurt each other. It is part of living in a fallen world. (And we have to remember that our definition of "bad" is not the same as God's, and vice versa.)
In the Garden of Eden, He gave us a degree of ownership over the earth. And we blew it. We introduced fallenness into the world and handed over part of our “ownership” to Satan by choosing to listen to him instead of God (when Adam and Eve ate the fruit). And God has allowed us to face the consequences of it ever since. (And don’t kid yourself! Any of us would have eventually eaten the fruit too, given enough time in the Garden of Eden.)
Consider Job. God did not micromanage every tragedy that came into Job’s life. He did not tell the “fire from the sky” to strike the animals or the wind to blow the house down while Job’s children were inside. God gave Satan a certain amount of leeway. He gave a boundary such as “Do not touch Job himself,” but then He let Satan run wild and do as he wanted. God allowed the tragedies and He saw the tragedies, but He did not cause them to happen as they did.
I think this is how the world operates today, in general. Satan and people are allowed to do things within certain boundaries. So when you do something, it’s not that you have total and complete “free-will,” the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. It’s that He allows it. He allows you to do it. He has the right to stop you – to put an end to your plans and even your life – and He has boundaries. But within those boundaries, He gives us freedom to act and decide and choose.
And nature is allowed to run its course within certain boundaries. Meaning that air currents can cause tornadoes and earthquakes can cause tsunamis and cells can go bad.
So did God cause that tornado to wipe out your house but spare your neighbors? It’s possible. Did He give you cancer or cause your child to be handicapped? Maybe.
But more likely, it is life and nature and the consequences of the Fall running its course. God sees it and allows it, but doesn’t necessarily micromanage it. Our cells are imperfect now. Nature is imperfect. People are imperfect. And Satan still has a lot of influence over the world. There are far too many factors involved for us to say that “God did it.” And allowing it to happen is not the same thing as causing it to happen.
[Yet for all intents and purposes, you could say “God caused it” if you want to boil it all down to one simple truth . . . because He did indeed know it would happen and He could have stopped it, but instead He allowed it to happen. For whatever reason. So in all practicality, you could say that problems and trials are from His hand, regardless of who or what caused them. In that sense, it’s just mincing words to say “allow” instead of “cause.” But the reason I like to differentiate it is because it takes into account all the other factors and reasons that problems happen in this world. However, regardless of “cause” or “allow,” our response should still be to cling to Him, to trust Him, to obey Him, and to praise Him. Because He is still God over all. And we can trust that He has reasons for what He allows, even if it hurts.]
3. However, there are times when God does indeed cause “bad things” (or good things) to happen. Being sovereign means that He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants for His purposes, with or without our cooperation or approval. The Bible shows times when He causes storms or plagues or deaths or wars or whatever. There are times when it might be His Will to cause a certain thing to happen. So this is possible.
(Yet I still think that, in general nowadays, it’s more about allowing it than causing it. But ... to be clear ... God never causes anyone to sin or to be evil or to do evil, although He can and does work someone’s choice to sin into His plans. But it doesn’t mean that He made them be evil or sin. It's one thing to say God caused something bad to happen, such as a storm or illness, but it's another thing to say God caused sin and wickedness. Two totally different things! He can cause "bad" things and still be a good, just God. But He can't cause sin or wickedness and still be a good, just God. Once again, He never causes sin or evil or wickedness! That would go against His revealed character.)
But if He does allow bad things to happen, it’s because He knew how He could turn it into something good. He causes or allows things that He doesn’t like or want, in order to accomplish things He does.
But we cannot often know when He has caused it and when He has just allowed it. So we just have to fall before Him humbly and trust Him.
And we cannot make proclamations against people, such as “God caused this to happen to you because your sins deserve it.” Haughty Christians love to do this, to pass judgment on why bad things happened to a city or a person. But who are we to know the mind of God and His reasons and how involved He was in a certain tragedy? Keeping our mouths shut and our judgments to ourselves (knowing that we don’t know God’s mind like we like to think we do) would be erring on the side of compassion and caution and humility.
4. While God does let things run their course to a certain degree, He is always available to hear our prayers and to intercede if we pray for His help, if it is in line with His Will. However, He also allows us to not pray and not seek His help. And if we go out in our own wisdom, whatever happens is on us. Not on Him.
Consider Joshua. In Joshua 7 and 9, we see two instances when Joshua does something without “inquiring of the Lord.” Every other time that Joshua did something, he sought God’s guidance. Yet these two times, Joshua acts on his own. And God lets him. God was there, ready and willing to help. But Joshua failed to seek Him. And it reaped consequences. And God watched it happen because He has granted us the right to seek Him or not seek Him, to pray or not pray, to obey or disobey.
To a degree, He lets us live life as we want to. With Him or without Him.
He allows us to tackle life on our own if we want to, and to reap the consequences. But He is always waiting for when we cry out to Him. He will listen to our cries for help.
(But He does not have to answer us the way we want. And if He doesn’t, He has His reasons. And we have to learn to trust Him, even in the face of “no” answers. Personally, I think those “no” answers are the greatest testers and refiners of our faith. And while He might let the bad things happen now, He will someday make it all right again and He will work good things out of the bad.)
5. God has certain over-arching plans for mankind that we cannot thwart. They will happen, regardless of us. Restoring the earth and restoring us from the effects of the Fall. Having all people bend a knee and admit that He is God. The redemption of mankind. Having a family of believers with Him in heaven. Putting an end to evil. These are some things that will happen for He has planned it so. And we can do nothing to change the plans that He has determined to carry out.
[And if He has planned something in particular, He will use whatever means He can to work it out. He can use demonic influence (2 Chronicles 18), angelic activity (the angel and Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22), a person’s willful rebellion (Jonah and Pharaoh and Judas, etc.), a person’s willing obedience (such as Moses), or even insanity (Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4) to make His plans happen.
This doesn’t mean He has planned every little event of our life or every choice we make or that He overrides our free-will. But it does mean that when He has willed a particular thing, it will come to pass because He knows how to “manipulate” the circumstances and to influence us to make it happen. He knows what kind of pressure we need to make us willing to do His Will, and He knows how to incorporate our resistance if we choose to remain stubborn and rebellious.]
But then there are things that He has planned – things He wants to have happen on earth, in this life - that He has chosen to do in cooperation with us. It was God’s plan that the Israelites went from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. He planned it. It was His Will. It was sure to happen. But He allowed the people to rebel. And this earned them death in the desert. And then, He took the next generation – the generation who was willing to follow Him – into the Promised Land. He still accomplished His Will, but only with those who were willing to follow Him.
I think this is how He operates in this life, in general. With mankind’s cooperation. His plans will still happen, but with those who are willing.
In Job 42, it was God’s Will to forgive Job’s friends for what they said about God. Yet, God asked Job to pray that He would forgive them. He waited to forgive them until Job prayed. This is God accomplishing His Will with mankind’s cooperation.
I think there are times and ways that God’s plans hinge on us. And this is the way He made it, giving us a certain amount of influence and responsibility. But if we always think He will do whatever He wants regardless of us, we don't stop to consider how important our obedience is and how necessary our prayers are, that God might just be waiting on us to get His Will accomplished.
6. When it comes to salvation, I don't think it was His desire to decide each person’s eternal destiny. I think He wants people to decide for themselves. He paid the price and He offers us forgiveness, faith, love, salvation, grace, etc. And He calls to us over and over again. But He allows us to accept it or reject it. And He allows us the consequences that go with our choice – heaven or hell.
And He did this because He is a relational being who wants a genuine relationship with people who choose to love Him, not who are forced to.
But to allow people to choose to love Him means allowing people to choose to reject Him. He does not want people to reject Him and to end up in hell, but He allows it to accomplish His goal of having an eternal family of people who choose to love Him, who are willing to follow Him
Salvation and a relationship with Him is still all initiated by God. All because of His efforts and pleasure. He chose to make us, call us, love us, reveal Himself to us, and pay the price for our sins so He could offer us forgiveness and salvation. All of this was set up by Him and possible only because He wanted it to be, because He made it that way. We couldn’t love Him if He didn’t first love us. We couldn’t choose Him if He didn’t make Himself known and call to us. We couldn’t have faith or salvation unless He made it possible, offering it as a gift that we can accept.
But . . . He gave us the right to choose to accept or reject His gifts of faith, salvation, grace, forgiveness, love, etc. He lets us decide.
And then, He responds accordingly. If we turn towards Him and reach out to accept these gifts, He opens our eyes and softens our hearts and we receive these gifts He has made available. (2 Corinthians 3:16: "But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.")
But if He ends up hardening our hearts and blinding our eyes, it’s because we did it first. Because we turned our backs on Him and His gifts. (Romans 1:21, 24-25: "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.... Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts ... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator....")
Granted, I think He is patient and long-suffering, wooing people for years because He wants no one to perish. But we cannot blame Him for randomly hardening hearts, for “sending people to hell with no choice,” because He follows our lead. He responds to our response to Him. He gave us the choice and the right to decide. And in the end, He will give us what we wanted. Eternity with Him or eternity without Him!
A couple examples to illustrate what I mean by “following our lead, giving us what we want”:
-- People who believe in predestination (Calvinists) often say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart for His purposes. But Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues . . . then God hardened his heart. And in the concordance, “hardens” is a retributive hardening. It’s punishment, being handed over to your own self-chosen hardness after resisting God for so long. Basically, God gave Pharaoh what he wanted. Pharaoh chose to have a hard, resistant heart. And so God made Pharaoh’s self-chosen hardness permanent. And then He used it for His purposes.
-- And on the other side of the coin is Lydia. Calvinists usually say that God made her become a believer because Acts 16:14 says “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” They think this means that God caused her to have faith.
But if you look back a few words, you read this: “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia . . . who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
God didn’t make her become a believer; she already was one. He just opened the heart of a believer to respond to Paul’s message, most likely helping her see the importance of being baptized (which is what happens in the next verse). She had a heart for God, and so God led her further along in her faith.
I may be wrong, but this is how I understand the balance between His sovereignty and our free-will and responsibility.
Personally, I think God is much more amazing, complex, wise, and powerful than Calvinists think He is. A Calvinist God can only manage the things He causes, as if He is simply not wise enough to manage anything else, as if He can only handle Himself and His own choices.
But the God of the Bible is much, much bigger than that! He has the ability to manage so many other factors, to work everything into His plans - things He causes, things we cause, things nature causes, things Satan and the demons cause, our obedience and our disobedience, our good and bad choices, etc.
Calvinism does not give God enough credit for being the big, powerful, complex, amazing God He is! And personally, I think it's pretty amazing to have a God who would willingly stoop down and allow Himself to be rejected by His own creation, who would give us a choice about Him, so that He could have a family of people who want to be with Him. That makes me love Him even more!
And that's where Calvinism really gets it wrong. They don't believe that He is a relational Being. They can't believe that He made people simple because He wanted us, because He wants to be in a relationship with us. To them, He is nothing more than an impersonal Supreme Ruler who only cares about Himself and His glory and being famous among people.
But, oh, how that misses the heart of God. And how it hurts the heart of God. Because the whole reason God created us and sent Jesus to die for us is because He loves us, because He wants to love us and to have us love Him and to have us in heaven with Him for all of eternity.
Goodness, Calvinism hurts my heart. And with the damage it does to our relationship with God, I'm sure it hurts His heart too.
For the posts in this series, click here.