One of Bill Johnson’s memorable one liners is that “God is in charge but not control – there is a difference”. He also says that to think that God’s will will always be done is irresponsible when it does also depend on us. Piper on the other hand, while recognising there is a profound mystery here, says God is “untimely and decisively” in control over all human decisions. But when you tell someone about Jesus does God want them to come to know him? If so will they? If not why not? When you pray for someone to be healed, does God want them to be healed? If so will they? If not why not? If God is sovereign and wants someone to be healed then why aren’t they? If God is sovereign and someone doesn’t get healed then doesn’t he want them to?
Earlier I sat in the garden and opened God’s greater glory by Bruce A. Ware. I am hoping it will help me think through some of the issues here. As I read the first chapter I got that feeling again of being so excited that I found it hard to continue reading. The reason for my excitement was that he begins by spelling out so clearly the problems that the belief in a sovereign God throws up. Let me give you his definition of sovereignty / divine providence and then summarise the questions it raises:
God continually overseas and directs all things pertaining to the created order in such a way that 1) he preserves in existence and provides for the creation he has brought into being, and 2) he governs and reigns supremely over the entirety of the whole of creation in order to fulfil all his intended purposes in it and through it. p17
He points out there are two parts to this definition: Providence as preservation and Providence as governance. It is the second part that causes the most difficulty. Here is his definition of Providence as governance:
God governs and reigns supremely over 1) all of the activities and forces of nature and natural law, and 2) all of the affairs of his moral creatures, in all cases accomplishing in them and through them (at times by divine concurrence) his eternal purposes — yet in neither realm does he govern in such a manner that it violates the integrity of creaturely moral responsibility and volitional freedom to choose and acts according to the moral agents strongest inclinations, nor does God’s exhaustive governance justly implicate the impeccable and infinitely holy moral character of God by making him either the author or the approver of evil (Deut 32:39, Ps 5:4 Ps 135:5-7, Prov 21:1, Isa 45:5-7, Dan 2:21, Dan 4:34-37, Eph 1:11, James 1:13, 1 John 1:5)
So far so good, now for the questions:
1) If God is sovereign in this way are human agents free to choose one course of action over another
2i) “how are moral creatures rightly held morally responsible for their actions when God is sovereign over the world?”
2ii) “how is God preserved from being blameworthy for moral wrongdoing that takes place, while also being fully praiseworthy for all the good that occurs under his sovereign governments?”
3) Does God stand differently behind his sovereign working of good and evil? Can we speak of him permitting evil rather than ordaining it?
4) Does God create natural laws that then govern the way the universe works (except by his miraculous intervention) or
“does God regulate all things in a direct manner, giving merely the appearance of laws of natural functioning within the structure of the created order?… Is God sovereign over tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, droughts, famines, birth defects, and so forth, which bring untold pain and suffering to sentient life in this world? And yet, is God not also sovereign over the sun and rain that cause crops to grow, the changing seasons of the years, normal and healthy child births, and bodies that heal themselves from cuts and scrapes and bumps and bruises? What, then, is God’s revelation to natural law and forces of nature, both beneficial and harmful to human life”
5) Exactly how is God is sovereign over and in salvation, prayer, evangelism, Christian service?
6) How are we to think about the very nature and character of God in the light of these things.
These are very, very, very difficult questions and so starting a book with them is a very brave and serious undertaking. I will read on and report back!