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The mystery of sovereignty

November 2000 | by Peter Barnes

God is utterly sovereign in all things, yet we human beings remain responsible for our actions. This is one of the most difficult, yet also one of the most crucial, teachings of the Bible.

We cannot easily see how both these things can be true at the same time, but the Scripture certainly teaches both. Somehow the breaking of God’s will fulfils it! Sinners disobey God’s revealed will yet only manage to accomplish his providential will (that is, what actually takes place).

Calvin put it like this: ‘Those things which are vainly or unrighteously done by man are, rightly and righteously, the works of God!’

For example, we know from Job 1 that God gave Job into the hands of Satan to do with him as he pleased, provided his life was spared. Yet as Job lost his children and his livelihood, he could affirm: ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).

It would also have been correct to have said, ‘The Lord gave and Satan has taken away’, or ‘The Lord gave and the Sabeans, the Chaldeans, and a terrible windstorm have taken away’. But Job chose to speak of ultimate realities, that which is true at the deepest level.

Truths side by side

We see something similar in the outworkings of human history. Assyria attacked Israel and in 722 BC destroyed the city of Samaria. This led to the exile of the ten northern tribes. In acting thus, Assyria was being used as the rod of God’s anger (Isaiah 10:5). However, that was not her intention, for she simply desired to plunder and destroy (Isaiah 10:7).

Hence God would call Assyria to account for her arrogance and violence (Isaiah 10:12-19). The Bible does not explain how this can be, but it is not afraid to speak of God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability — and leave the two truths side by side.

Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave into Egypt, yet he was raised up to become the second most powerful person in the kingdom after Pharaoh. When their father Jacob died, the brothers feared that Joseph might take terrible vengeance on them.

However, Joseph reassured them with these words: ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today’ (Genesis 50:20).

Joseph did not minimise the sin of his brothers, yet he saw the whole episode as an expression of God’s good and sovereign will.

God works within

The story is similar in the New Testament. The apostle Paul can write that salvation ‘depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy’ (Romans 9:16). In short, God ‘has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’ (Romans 9:18).

Yet none of this leads to fatalism but rather to activity — for how can people hear the gospel unless someone preaches it to them (Romans 10:14)?

Similarly, in growing as a Christian, one is to work out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) in the knowledge that it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). We work and God works.

As Jesus looked ahead to the cross, he exclaimed: ‘For the Son of Man goes as has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!’ (Luke 22:22). On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached that Christ had been put to death both by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God — and by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:23).

As Jesus was being arrested, he told the chief priests, the temple officers and the elders that ‘this is your hour, and the power of darkness’ (Luke 22:53). Yet all through John 17, Jesus speaks of the hour as having come when God would be glorified in the death of his Son.

A time to accept

Charles Simeon used to say: ‘The truth is not in the middle and not in one extreme, but in both extremes’. Clark Pinnock objects to this approach, and says that it is ‘a sleight of hand and does not work’.

Pinnock has it terribly wrong. There is a time to understand, but when we cannot understand fully there is a time simply to accept God’s revealed truth. God works glory, even in weakness (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17).

His sovereignty is such that not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from his will. Yet our responsibility is such that we shall answer for our every thought, word and deed.

God is sovereign in a moral universe, so that, in the words of Augustine, ‘God could show both the immense evil that flows from the creature’s pride, and also the even greater good that comes from his grace’