King Jesus, Chapter 1: What does it mean when we say God is “sovereign”?

Two views among Reformed friends

Two different views of God’s sovereignty are sometimes proposed among Reformed believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

1) One is that God is fully sovereign and humans are fully responsible at the same time. This is the biblical position. It is held by Christ; it is held by Paul; it is taught from Genesis to Revelation. This is standard, orthodox Calvinism, as Calvin, Luther, and the Puritans practiced. This is the approach to truth that busted the walls of the monkish monasteries in the Reformation – a view of God’s sovereignty both in salvation (God’s “soteriological sovereignty”) and over absolutely every moment and thing (God’s “general sovereignty”).

2) The second view is that God is sovereign, but when it comes to “insignificant moments,” matters that do not pertain to salvation, and sin, God gives humans free will (or something like free will). This view is insufficient and it is not supported by Scripture. At its best, it may be fairly harmless, though not glorifying of God’s true nature. At its worst, it could shade into Arminianism and even into a sort of Gnosticism that divides the world into spiritual and material realities, significant and insignificant moments.

Those are two subtly but significantly different approaches to a vital aspect of God’s character – His sovereignty.

How do these two views differ from Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism?

The view that “God is fully sovereign and humans are fully responsible at the same time” is biblical truth. It differs from hyper-Calvinism in this respect: hyper-Calvinism promotes God’s sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility. The hyper-Calvinist says, “If God is so thoroughly sovereign, so completely in control, then I can just sit back and eat potato chips – no need to obey, no need to evangelize, no need to do.” Hyper-Calvinism is heresy. It should be feared and avoided as a stultifying, deadening force in the church of Christ.

The second view, that “God is sovereign, but when it comes to insignificant moments, matters that do not pertain to salvation, and sin, God gives humans free will,” is false, but it is not as dangerous as Arminianism. It differs from Arminianism in this respect: Arminianism denies God’s soteriological sovereignty – His sovereignty in the salvation of souls. This second view we are discussing still upholds God’s sovereignty in salvation, while wavering on God’s general sovereignty and God’s sovereignty over sin. The Arminian denial of God’s sovereignty in salvation is a grievous heresy, and it should be avoided and defended against.  

Does it matter, and can we find answers?

The following propositions undergird the discussion below:

1) The sovereignty of God matters deeply, and we can find answers. The discussion must be had, however, with an open Bible – not with mere opinions.

2) For a Reformed church (and for any biblical church), the sovereignty of God is a primary issue, not a secondary issue.

3) Moreover, the sovereignty of God and its relation to human responsibility is something that can be seen clearly in Scripture; it is something that can be clearly articulated and that should be staunchly defended. There is ample biblical evidence to enable us to discuss this matter in full, and to come to reasonable conclusions. This is not a matter that merits extra-biblical speculation, nor a matter concerning which we should throw up our hands in false humility and proclaim, “mystery!”

The biblical position, briefly stated

The biblical position is this: God is in control of all things at all times. There is no insignificant moment or molecule in this universe, and God is tending to the smallest detail everywhere at all times. Moreover, while God is absolutely sovereign, humans are totally responsible, and those facts are not mutually exclusive but are rather compatible.

Defining God’s sovereignty

God’s sovereignty means that He is the sole authority over everything at all times.

This is distinct from but related to God’s “omnipotence”; omnipotence refers to the biblical fact that God is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His power.”

One may see the difference between sovereignty and omnipotence in this way: sovereignty refers to the freedom of God’s will, while omnipotence refers to the power of God’s will. God’s omnipotence means that God is able to effect absolutely anything; God’s sovereignty means that He is free to do so because He has no rivals.

From the definition of sovereignty that God is “the sole authority over everything at all times,” it may be inferred that God is also “controlling and in control of everything at all times,” because nothing else can claim that sovereign control at any moment or in any place.

In such discussions, “control” proves to be a word that does not rest well with people. Nevertheless, it is most instructive (and absolutely faithful to God’s holy Word) to define God’s sovereignty as His absolute control over absolutely everything at all times. As will be discussed below, it is only in light of this heavy truth that we can truly come to understand the simultaneous truth that humans are responsible. Mike Morrow defines sovereignty as control in this way: “The sovereignty of God is simply that God rules over everything. He is in absolute, total control of everything. He is in control of every leaf that falls from the tree and every star that explodes, the farthest reaches of the universe. Our God is in absolute and utter control of everything.”

The following Scriptures attest to the validity of defining God’s sovereignty as His sole authority or control over everything at all times:

 1. God’s names and titles indicate that He is sovereign over all other lords or kings:

1 Tim 6:15 “…which He will bring about at the proper time – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords…”

Rev 1:5 “…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood…”

Rev 19:16 “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Deut 10:17 “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.”

Psalm 136:3 “Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords! For His mercy endures forever:”

Dan. 2:47 “The king answered Daniel and said, ‘Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery.’”

2. The extent of God’s sovereignty is related in the following passages:  

Matt 28:28And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.’” (Here we find that Christ’s authority has no bounds.)

Acts 10:36 “The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ — He is Lord of all…” (Here we find that Christ’s authority extends to all objects.)

Ps. 10:16 “The LORD is king forever and ever.” (Here we find that God’s kingly rule and lordship is eternal.)

Ps. 33:9-11: “For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast. The LORD nullified the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.” (Here we find that God’s rule is effective, and that His every word is powerful; His power can trump the counsel and plans of nations; His counsel and plans are eternal.) 

Isa. 46:9-10: “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, / Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.’” (Here we find that God has no competitors; His is incomprehensible; His declarations are completely authoritative, and they always come to pass; His purpose is not thwarted, and He does all that He desires to do.)

Concluding considerations about this definition of sovereignty

Such a definition of God’s sovereignty should be our starting point, as we must practice a “top-down” theology – starting with truths about God, and only then proceeding to truths about man. The Bible itself supports such an approach when David writes, “In your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). This means that it is only in light of who God is, and what His standards of truth are, that we can come to understand who humans are, and how humans are to react to a universe created and ruled by such a God.

Logically speaking too, we ought to start with this consideration of God’s sovereignty, before we seek to understand man’s responsibility, agency, “free will,” or lack thereof. In logic, if two categories are in apparent conflict, the broader or more general category must be considered first, because it will subsume other more specific categories under it. In the case of God’s sovereignty, a proper biblical view of this attribute must see it as the “more general category” under which man’s responsibility must be subsumed. If God is actually the “sole authority over everything at all times,” then human agency must be approached in light of that fact – as a lesser, more specific category that is subsumed by the broader category of God’s sovereignty.

To think that through again: If we were to work from the more specific category out to the more general, we might reason this way: “Humans make choices that seem to be free of any involvement from God, therefore God’s sovereignty must be limited.” If, however, we start with the more general category, we will reason rightly: “God is the sole authority over everything at all times, therefore human choices, will, and responsibility must be subject to that.”

It ought to be repeated immediately in this connection, however, that God’s sovereignty in no way lessens human responsibility. God is sovereign and humans are responsible for their actions. This truth is summarized in the doctrine of “compatibilism,” which is discussed in full here: To conclude, we ought simply to say that God’s sovereignty in its full extent, as defined above, never nullifies human responsibility, and likewise, human responsibility never lessens the scope of God’s control over everything at all times.

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