What does the bible say about God’s sovereignty

In maths you are taught to show your working. Sometimes how you get to an answer is as important as getting an answer, especially if you get to a wrong conclusion as you may still get marks for your working. That’s one of the reasons I am showing my working here. Even if I don’t get to a right answer (or can’t)  I learn will lots in the process and will have record of my thinking to revisit and revise. It can’t all be wrong! Anyway having looked at a film, I’m going to look at the bible. What do I mean when we say God is sovereign? I will look at some of the scriptures that this word summarises:

I’ll start with this:

Deut 32:39  “‘See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

While this says that God wounds and heals it doesn’t say anything about the circumstances in which he does these things, his reasons, or how he feels about it. He can and does inflict pain on people but surly his emotions, motives and reasons are key to our understanding of it. If I take a splinter out of my daughters finger it may hurt, discipline is never comfortable, and we don’t fine people or put them in prison for their pleasure. This is not even an exhaustive list of why we might inflict pain on someone so I must be cautious before concluding that God doesn’t have morally sufficient reasons for doing so.

Psalm 135:5-6  For I know that the LORD is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.

“Whatever the Lord pleases he does” is emphasising God’s unrestrained power and might. It is not saying that he delights in everything that happens and is continually happy about it. Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, and later in the garden of Gethsemane, shows me that there is great distress in the heart of God at times, even when carrying out a plan that is ultimately pleasing to him.

Next one:

Isaiah 45:6b-7 
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.

The KJV has the even more problematic: “I make peace, and create evil” while the NIV translates it I bring prosperity and create disaster“. The word translated in the KJV as “evil” has a wider range of possible meanings and given that the bible says God is not the author of evil ie:

Deut 32:4  “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.

Pslm 5:4  For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.

we can reasonably rule that out and consider the other possibilities of “injury, misery, disaster, distress and calamity”. Even these may seem troublesome, but I must remember that God is not, as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy categorized earth, “mostly harmless”. If I think that then I will end up scratching my head wondering why I should fear him. It’s like Mr Beaver said about Aslan, the great Lion in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, “He isn’t safe but he is good”.

In “Hard Sayings of the Bible” F.F Bruce et al conclude their article on Isa 45:7

“it is not as if God can do nothing or that he is just as surprised as we are by natural evil. Any disaster must fall within the sovereign will of God, even though God is not the sponsor or author of that evil. When we attempt to harmonise the statements we begin to invade the rounds of divine mystery.”

There is that word mystery again! I’ll look at another passage:

Dan 4:34-35   At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,

for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”

This passage, as the others, shows God as the king and ruler of the heavens and the earth. He can do anything and no one can stop him. All the people of the earth are as nothing next to his power and might (yet of course he sent his son to die for them so it’s not saying he doesn’t love them or mistreats them or ignores them).

A couple more for now:

Rom 9:6-26   …”For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?…”

This is a profound passage stating in no uncertain terms that God is ultimately sovereign over our salvation. What’s more it actually asks the question on everyone’s lips “why does God still blame us?” Rom 9:19 (NIV). The answer is basically putting us in our place. “Who are you to talk back to God?”. The difference between us and God is highlighted. God is not a big version of us, just because we can’t understand him, or find a human analogy, doesn’t mean there is an inconsistency here. Actually we are given in these verses a partial answer, or application, of God’s sovereignty in salvation. He doesn’t save all in order that the objects of his mercy see more clearly his grace in forgiving them. (9th July 2013 – someone has since helpfully pointed out to me that the passage actually says that he “endures” them rather than “does not save them” which I think is right. The ultimate destiny of the objects of his wrath is not actually spelled out.)  He really didn’t have to save me but he did and this is at the heart of his glory. The fact that he passes over some provides a heart breaking, sobering backdrop to his glory in saving others. (again, maybe “does not save” is going too far and “enduring” sticks closer to the text).

One final scripture summaries God’s sovereignty in predestining some to salvation:

Eph 1:11   In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, (ESV)

Basically in these passages God is presented as having no equal, no greater power to restrain him and nothing he is not powerful enough not to do (sorry too many negatives). It does not say he is pleased with everything that happens; delighting in sickness in the same way he delights in healing. He can work sovereignly through some things that he hates to achieve other things that the delights in. As bad things happen he is not out of control, nor limited to working around them, but rather works through them. He does so in a way that does not make him the author of their evil, but allows him to achieve a greater good. It seems to me that the cross is a template, a blue print, even a shining example of this. Evil men sinfully put Jesus to death. God was working right in the heart of their actions to carry out exactly what he wanted to be done. It was his will but I don’t think there was the same degree of joy in God’s heart on good Friday and there was on Easter Sunday. God is not emotionally neutral as his plans unfold. He may grieve or be joyful at various points of implementation. Also, his sovereignty does not mean he makes bad things happen in the same way that we make things happen. It’s just not like that.

I must handle this doctrine in the same way I handle the trinity. You make certain truth statements based on scripture and live faithfully in the good of them. For example we say “there is one God but there are three persons each who are fully God”. Someone says “ah, so it’s like water, ice and steam”, to which we say “no it isn’t, they are distinct coexisting persons“. Someone else pipes up “ah, I see, they are each part of God” to which we say “no, they are each fully God“. The ball comes back again (it’s almost Wimbledon)  “so there are three God’s them” to which we have to say “no there is only one God” and so on.

It’s like that with God’s sovereignty. Just was with the trinity something doesn’t quite add up in our thinking. “God is sovereign and nothing and nobody can oppose his will, but his will is not always done”.  Someone says “Ah, so God made the robber steal my stereo“. No, the robber stole your stereo but God was working sovereignly through that event in some way we may never know. “Ah, so God wanted to give my mum cancer”. No, he didn’t. Not in the same way that I might inject you with a potent carcinogen to harm you. He is in control of the circumstances and situation though so we can confidently trust him and call on him and ask him for help. In fact the bible tells us that he wants her to be well. I guess it’s harder than the trinity because the issues seem more concrete and the situations more distressing (I’m not very happy with this paragraph. I feel like I’m not quite brining something into focus. I’ve sat on it for a few days but hey it’s just a blog so I’ll let it go as is).

The aim of this blog was to look at a few concrete biblical passages so that when I think about God’s sovereignty it’s not in the context of a man made doctrine that has been smoothed and shaped by the need to systematise it, but has roots and context in the actual word of God. 

I think these passages emphasise that God is unconstrained by forces or powers outside of himself, stating things like “ I am the LORD, and there is no other.” or “the Lord is above all other God’s“. But God is internally constrained by his own nature. Constrained is not quite the right word, but I can’t think of a better one. That’s often the case when talking about God. He is the ground, the basis, the foundation of all things. Any description of him in terms of those things is going to fall short. I get a headache when I try to understand and define is Holiness or righteousness. That’s because he simply is those things and actually impurity and unrighteousness are defined in relation to his perfection.

I am tempted to talk about “tensions” in the heart of God, for example his love and justice, but the word feels too negative. The cross seems like a point of tension, the Son pleading with the Father for another way, then submitting to his will in expectation of the joy to come. But are love and justice in tension or at the cross or do they kiss? If I can remove all negative sense from these words then perhaps they will do.  Rope in tension in a ships rigging or pulling a heavy load is not a bad thing.

Another time I will look at how the bible testifies to our moral responsibility.


3 thoughts on “What does the bible say about God’s sovereignty

  1. You seem to be a little mistaken in your paragraph after the quote from Romans. You wrote that: “The fact that he passes over some provides a heart breaking, sobering backdrop to his glory in saving others.” That is VERY incorrect!!! God has/does not pass over anyone! In his glory, power, and wisdom, he gave us the blessing of freewill. He gave us the opportunity to make our own decisions.
    In the Bible we are told, “Jesus died for all”. His perfect life and his death in our place gave everyone the opportunity to be saved. Many people will not go to Heaven, this is because(and only because) their pride will not let them believe that they have a Savior who was willing(and took on their sin and guilt) to redeem them from their sin.
    Jesus died for all… however, many reject this saving message.

  2. ‘He doesn’t save all in order that the objects of his mercy see more clearly his grace in forgiving them.’

    That is not what this passage states..it does not address a ‘choice to pass over’ some in order to demonstrate mercy to others. It does address his decision to ENDURE them. He endures the vessels of wrath in order to make known his glory in His children…simply put, he does not destroy them but tolerates them in order to reveal the depth of his love and grace.

    Correcting your statement..’He endures (not refuses to save) them in order to show more clearly His grace.’

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