The blazing African sun beat down upon the crowded Arab marketplace as women busily bartered with the merchants. The bustling walkways were lined with storekeepers selling their wares, as the children played nearby. The air was filled with the pungent smell of spices, and the confusing din of a thousand voices. Amid these dusty streets teeming with people, a pregnant woman began to slowly make her way across a wide thoroughfare. Suddenly, there was a great noise and commotion in the marketplace, and in an instant, an out-of-control wagon, being pulled by a team of horses in full gallop, raced through the marketplace. Without warning, the team of horses trampled down the helpless woman with tremendous force. Immediately, a crowd began to gather to see what had happened. The driver, now realizing what he had done, brought the horses to an abrupt stop. While looking at the woman lying dead on the ground, he said with callous indifference, “It was the will of Allah”, and continued on his way. To many, this account describes their view of the sovereignty of God. To them, God's actions are arbitrary, capricious, and often unjust. Their attitude is “whatever will be, will be”. No matter what happens, it is God's will. This is the fatalistic view of God. Such a God will be feared, but how can He be loved? If He cannot be loved, how can He be trusted?
Divine Sovereignty and the Attributes of God
Thankfully, the Bible does not present such a view of God's sovereignty. The Bible presents God as both infinitely all-powerful and infinitely good. God's goodness, justice, mercy, grace, and His numerous other attributes meet together to form the righteous and holy sovereign actions of God. God's sovereignty may sometimes involve testing in the form of calamity and trials, but never without love, faithfulness, and compassion. His sovereign will may appear for the moment to be without purpose or sense, yet the ways of God are always perfect. He is a God whom we can trust, love, and worship for His sovereign will. While sovereignty is surely to be believed by all who love sound doctrine, it must not be understood to be exercised in conflict with God's attributes, such as love, justice, truth, and immutability. Some have erred in this respect and have raised sovereignty to such a level that all the attributes of God become secondary, thereby causing discord in the nature of God. The sovereignty of God can never be exercised in expense to His divine nature, which is love (1 Jn. 4:8). Concerning this conflict, Dr. James Orr, general editor of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, writes, “Calvin exalts the sovereignty of God, and this is right, but errs in placing his root-ideas of God in the sovereign will rather than in love.” (1)
Divine Sovereignty and the Goodness of God
The biblical principle that God is good and does good applies to His sovereign actions. God's nature and His holy purposes cannot be divorced; for God will not act contrary to His holy nature. Scripture reveals that God's mercy, goodness, grace, and compassion all undergird His sovereign purposes and will. Abraham echoed this very principle, when he said, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Even when affliction and suffering are God's divine will, it too is ruled by His “compassion and unfailing love”. Jeremiah the prophet explains, “Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love. For He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (Lam. 3:33). Theologians have called this linking of God's sovereign rule with God's infinite goodness the doctrine of “providence”. Providence is divine care, sustenance, and love, and His sovereign rule over creation for His glory and the good of man. The two-fold goal of providence is the glory of God and the good of His people. God never pursues His glory at the expense of the good of His people, nor does He ever seek our good at the expense of His glory. He has designed His eternal purpose so that His glory and our good are inseparably yoked together.
Divine Sovereignty and the Wisdom of God
All God's sovereign actions are also rooted in His infinite wisdom. God's wisdom enables Him to direct every act that occurs upon the world stage into a perfect plan that accomplishes His divine purpose. God is the master of every situation. Man can be frustrated by circumstances outside of his control, but this is never true of God. There is never a situation, problem, or difficulty which can ever frustrate the wisdom of God. His sovereign actions are advanced by His unbounded omnipotence and ruled by His infinite wisdom. The Psalmist has said, “Great is our God, and of great power: His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). His ways are infinitely perfect. No act of God is flawed, marred, or suspect. No decision of God can ever be improved upon. We may not understand the ways of God, yet they remain rooted in perfect wisdom. It is not our place to raise doubts about our “God only wise”, but rather to bow in worshipful submission. The psalmist writes of the works of God, “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches” (Ps. 104:24).
The Biblical Scope of Divine Sovereignty
The doctrine that God is sovereign in His created universe is a truth that must be believed by all Christians. That God is sovereign means that He is the highest and greatest, exalted above all. He is omnipotent and controls everything, working everything according to His eternal plan and purpose (Eph. 1:11). The Bible states that God is eternal, self-existent, self-sufficient, unchanging, all-powerful, all-knowing and He alone stands unequaled, above all. “For Thou, Lord, are high above all the earth: Thou art exalted far above all gods” (Ps. 97:9). Since God is infinite, His rule must be absolute. His rule must involve total control of everything in His creation--every circumstance, every situation, every event. God's sovereignty means that He either directly causes or consciously permits all that happens in human history. God claims full responsibility for establishing and removing human rulers. God, according to His holy character, has the right to do those things that please Him (Ps. 115:3). Yet we must never forget that those things that please Him most are marked by love, mercy, and justice. God is in complete control, and yet He does not manipulate people like mere puppets. He gives them the dignity and freedom to make decisions and holdsthem responsible for their choices. Those decisions may bring to pass untold misery and suffering, and yet God allows it. However, through divine omniscience God knows every choice that man would make, and through divine sovereignty He takes those choices and uses them to serve His purposes. In this way, God has complete control over every decision and action, and man has the freedom to make decisions. However, where divine wisdom deems it best, He will overrule man's decisions in order to accomplish His own matchless purposes. Only an omnipotent God can take man's choices and the suffering that follows and cause them to ultimately serve His sovereign and perfect will. God does not always allow man's sinful actions to run their full and natural evil course, but He intervenes and overrules. Moreover, we should not question God's sovereignty, but rather yield to the good and perfect will of God.
Divine Sovereignty and the Scope of Man's Free Will
However, some have wrongly concluded that if God is absolutely sovereign, then man does not have a free will. It is thought that man can only act insomuch as God will allow him to act, and that man must act only as God desires. Therefore, according to this view, man cannot resist the sovereign will and desires of God. This view may strike us as biblical and logical; however, Scripture does not seem to support this view. Moreover, Scripture emphasizes that God has sovereignly granted to man the ability to make free choices. This is not man usurping God's role in the world, but this is God's sovereign design and purpose for man in the world. Man could not make free choices except that it was given by God. This principle is stated by our Lord Himself in His interview with Pilate before the crucifixion. Pilate charges the Lord, “Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and have power to release You?” Jesus answers, “You could have no power at all against Me, except it were given to you from above...” (John 19:11). Pilate thought that his ability to make free decisions was a personal right. Our Lord rightly corrects Pilate and states that the ability to make free choices is from God--“it is given from above”. Frequently throughout Scripture we see man acting in defiance to God's desires. This ability is granted to man from God. King Solomon in the book of Proverbs declares, “For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord: They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof” (Prov. 1:29). God has not determined and caused all things to come to pass as they do. God exercises sovereign control in the world; but within this control, He permits certain events and purposes others. It is of great importance to carefully distinguish between these two aspects of God's sovereignty. For this reason, the sinful consequences of man's will must never be attributed to God. The Word of God clearly states that all sinful temptations, the acts of the flesh, wars, lust, killings, and the misery that results because of sin are not caused by God, but by the free choices of man (James 4:1). The Word of God carefully sets forth both the infinite sovereignty of God and human responsibility. God is sovereign, and yet in this infinite sovereignty, God has granted to man a free will. To detract from either of these truths is to detract from the fullness of the Word of God. A proper biblical balance between the two must be rigorously sought and maintained. Respected author A. W. Tozer strikes this proper biblical balance between the sovereignty of God and man's free will when he writes, "God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give limited freedom, whois there to stay His hand or say, 'What doest Thou?' Man's will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so." (2) Dr. Norman Geisler adds further clarity, writing, "Human freedom is not contrary to God's sovereignty. God sovereignly gave man his freedom by creating him a free creature, and God sovereignly continues to allow man to exercise his freedom moment by moment in existence. Thus the sovereignty of God is not thwarted by human freedom but glorified by human freedom. For God gave man free will, He sustains man so he can act freely, and he brings about all his purposes without violating man's free will." (3) The scholar and gifted preacher C. H. Spurgeon draws together the importance of these two lines of biblical truth: "Man is a free agent, a responsible agent, so that his sin is his own wilful sin and it lies fully with him and never with God, and yet at the same time God's purposes are fulfilled, and His will is done even by demons and corrupt men--I cannot comprehend it : without hesitation I believe it, and rejoice so to do, I never hope to comprehend it...I worship a God I never expect to comprehend." (4)
Finally, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God must never provide man with excuses. Systems of theology may give reasons to do so, but not the Word of God. For no man can deny full responsibility for his actions, claiming that he was irresistibly led by God; for God never does violence to the free will which He has graciously given to man. God's sovereignty and man's freedom dwell side by side in such a way that the former does not force itself upon the latter; but in some cases He does overrule for His highest eternal purpose. In a future day we will see that mankind, in complete freedom, in uncoerced decisions, has been working out God's eternal divine plan. How can this be brought to pass? It is only by and through a sovereign God who is characterized by infinite power, wisdom, love, and goodness. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!...” (Rom. 11:33-36).
(1) James Orr, The Progress of Dogma, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), p. 292
(2) A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (New York, NY: Harpers and Row Publishers, 1961) , p. 118
(3) Norman Geisler, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker , 1986), p. 429
(4) C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 16, (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1907), p. 501