Preaching the sovereignty of God
by Edgar Andrews
Last month we looked at the meaning of the term ‘the sovereignty of God’ and asked a question – should we preach it? We also considered briefly the views of those who answer the question in the negative.
In this second article, by analysing Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, I want to demonstrate that New Testament preaching did indeed proclaim that God is sovereign – over the physical cosmos (in creation); over human history (in providence); and in the salvation of sinners (in grace).
Right and wrong ways
If we are to rediscover apostolic preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, we also must proclaim a sovereign God and Saviour. However, the sermon shows us that there is a right way and a wrong way to preach this truth.
Peter does not preach about God’s sovereignty. He preaches about Christ – crucified, risen and glorified. But he does so in the explicit context of the sovereignty of God. Nothing he says of Christ makes sense without this context.
God’s sovereignty is like the warp of a fabric (the latter representing the sermon). The picture on the woven cloth is provided by the weft (Christ’s person and work). But warp and weft cannot be separated without destroying both picture and cloth.
God’s sovereignty over creation
Peter’s sermon asserts the sovereignty of God over the natural world in two ways. Firstly, he quotes and endorses Joel’s prophecy, in which God promises to ‘show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath: blood and fire and vapour of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and notable day of the Lord. And … whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’.
Peter has no doubt that physical phenomena prophesied centuries earlier would in fact take place. Accordingly he cites the whole of Joel’s passage, not just the part about the Spirit – and thus leaves the prophecy concerning the outpouring of the Spirit firmly in the context of God’s control over cosmological events.
The resurrection of Christ
God’s authority over the physical world is further underlined by Peter’s proclamation of the physical resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:28-32) – an event in which the normal processes of nature were necessarily over-ruled. Without sovereignty over the material world God could never have raised Christ from the dead.
Since the physical resurrection of Christ is Peter’s central theme, God’s control over the natural world is fundamental to his message. Without it Peter would have had nothing to say!
Nor indeed would we. For Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:14 that ‘if Christ is not risen then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain’.
God’s sovereign providence
The second area in which Peter asserts that God is sovereign is providence – specifically the events of human history and experience. Peter points out to the gathered crowd that prophecies inspired by God centuries earlier are being fulfilled before their eyes.
Now, events can only be predicted if they are predetermined. Otherwise prophecy would at best be a hit-or-miss affair. If God does not know ‘the end from the beginning’ he cannot show his servants what will happen in the future. Fulfilled prophecy necessarily entails God’s sovereignty over the events of this world and of human society.
This is well illustrated by the persecuted church in Acts 4:23-28 where they thank God that Christ’s enemies were ‘gathered together to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined’.
God’s carefully planned intention
Similarly, Peter declares that Christ was crucified according to ‘the carefully planned intention and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). Not just ‘foreknowledge’, notice, but ‘intention’.
God does not just know in advance what will occur; he determines in advance that it will occur! It was God’s eternal purpose that Christ would, in due time, die on the cross in substitutionary atonement for the sins of his people. He is ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’.
But notice that this does not exonerate men from responsibility – the deed was done by ‘lawless hands’. Those who seek to play-off God’s sovereignty against man’s responsibility, cancelling one truth out by another, have understood neither the message of Scripture nor the transcendent wisdom of God.
God’s sovereignty in salvation
Finally, Peter claims that God is sovereign in salvation. We cannot save ourselves, we must be saved by prevenient grace, requiring God’s power and initiative.
Some translations render Acts 2:40, ‘Save yourselves from this perverse generation’ but the verb is actually in the passive voice – ‘Be saved’ (Young’s Literal Translation) … we cannot ‘save ourselves’; we must ‘be saved’.
The sovereignty of God in salvation does not mean that man has nothing to do. Some teach a total passivity, saying there is no point in exhorting men to seek salvation. But that is not how Peter teaches the sovereignty of God.
He exhorts his hearers to action – ‘Repent and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38). Since baptism is a public expression of faith in Christ, Peter is exhorting them to ‘repent and believe’. These are things we must do if we are to be saved (Mark 1:15).
Repentance and faith
How, then, can God be sovereign in salvation if men obtain it by repenting and believing? Because a man can neither repent nor believe until he receives repentance and faith as gifts – bestowed sovereignly by the Holy Spirit in regeneration (John 3:7-8).
Repentance is the throne-gift of the glorified Christ – ‘Him God has exalted to be a prince and a saviour togive repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins’, and again, ‘they glorified God saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life”’ (Acts 5:31-32; 11:18).
Likewise, faith is not a natural faculty of fallen man but a gift of God imparted by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God …’ (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Prior to receiving the gift of faith in regeneration, a person is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ and ‘does not receive the things of the Spirit of God’ (Ephesians 2:1-5; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
In Peter’s sermon these truths emerge clearly at several points.
Firstly, he makes it clear that the Holy Spirit (and the salvation he brings) is a gift bestowed on those who repent and believe, not a reward for their actions. ‘You shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38). The distinction is important.
The Holy Spirit is sovereign in the work of regeneration (John 3:7-8). To the Samaritan woman Jesus again described the Holy Spirit and eternal life as ‘the gift of God’ (John 4:10).
A gift ceases to be a gift if we do anything to earn it. Repentance and faith are contingent means of salvation ordained by God, but the cause of salvation always remains the sovereign grace of a merciful God towards undeserving sinners.
Secondly, Peter presents the gift of the Holy Spirit in salvation as the fulfilment of a promise (Acts 2:33, 39). That which God promises he must also bestow, for his purposes cannot be frustrated. Yet if man were free to reject the gospel, the promise might never be kept.
The call of God
Thirdly, Peter declares that ‘the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call’ (Acts 2:39). Before any can be saved they must be called.
Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me. And I give them eternal life’ (John 10:27-28). Believers are ‘the called according to [God’s] purpose’, for ‘whom he predestined these he also called’ (Romans 8:28-30).
Peter says, ‘let every one of you be baptised …’ but only ‘those who gladly received his word were baptised’ (Acts 2:41); that is, although every member of the crowd was called by the preacher to ‘be saved’ only those whose hearts were opened to receive his word were called by God and actually saved.
There is a general call to all sinners to come to Christ, and there is an effectual call of the Holy Spirit which alone results in salvation. And at the end of Acts 2 we have this principle of sovereign salvation confirmed, when Luke records that ‘The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47).
In conclusion, then, if we are to preach the apostolic gospel we must proclaim the sovereignty of God in the clearest possible terms. But let us never forget that it is Christ we must preach, not just theology!