Should we preach the sovereignty of God?
Evangelicals believe in the sovereignty of God yet are often reluctant to preach it explicitly. This article and its sequel argue that we should clearly proclaim that God is sovereign in all things.
Let us try to define the word ‘sovereignty’ as it applies to God. For me ‘sovereignty’ as an attribute of God combines the three concepts of absolute authority (exousia), absolute ability (dunamis) and absolute autonomy (autonomia). Consider these in turn.
Firstly, God has absolute authority over the whole created order because he is the creator and sustainer of all things. He is the ‘God who made the world and everything in it … Lord of heaven and earth … he gives to all life, breath and all things’ (Acts 17:24-25; cf. Genesis 1:1).
He further declares, ‘My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand has stretched out the heavens. When I call to them they stand up together’ (Isaiah 48:12-13).
Of God the Son we are told that ‘all things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things and in him all things consist’ (Colossians 1:15-17; cf. Hebrews 1:1-3), while Revelation 4:11 declares that by the will of God the Father all things exist and were created.
The triune God, therefore, has not only created all things but has done so to fulfil his own pleasure and purpose – not least for the glory of his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things (Hebrews 1:2).
God’s absolute authority over the created order is thus his moral right and prerogative; that is, he is morally entitled to do whatever he wishes in, with and to the created order. ‘He does according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”’ (Daniel 4:35; cf. Romans 9:20-21).
Secondly, God has the absolute ability to fulfil his desires – the power to perform whatever he purposes. Divine authority is backed up by omnipotence, so that his purposes can never be frustrated. ‘Has he said and will he not do it? Or has he spoken and will he not make it good?’ (Numbers 23:19).
In Isaiah 46:8-11 we read, ‘I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning … Saying “My counsel shall stand and I will do all my pleasure” … Indeed I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass’.
God’s word does not return to him void, but accomplishes what he pleases and prospers in the thing for which he sends it (Isaiah 55:11). Paul adds his testimony – God ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).
Note the word ‘counsel’ in these quotations. God’s will is not exercised in an arbitrary or feckless manner but always in conformity with the peerless wisdom of the eternal Mind.
Thirdly, in exercising his authority and power, God has absolute autonomy. He is not answerable to – nor can he be influenced by – anything or anyone outside of himself. Daniel 4:35 again testifies to this truth – ‘No one can … say to him, “What have you done?”’
That is, no one can legitimately question what God chooses to do. Paul makes this clear in Romans 9:20: ‘O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honour and another for dishonour?’
But what of prayer, we may ask? Don’t we influence God’s actions by our prayers? Not in the sense of changing his mind. The principle to grasp is stated in 1 John 5:14: ‘Now this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us and … we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of him’.
Answered prayer is that which accords with the will of God. We do not change God’s mind when we pray but, rather, are privileged to enter into an understanding of his will and pray accordingly – being divested of our ignorance of the divine will by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26).
Is God really in control?
It would be tempting to develop these ideas further, but my purpose is more limited. I want to ask and answer a single question – should we openly declare that God is sovereign in the sense described above? Is this a suitable subject for preaching, whether to the saved or the unsaved?
Many who consider themselves Evangelicals would answer ‘no’ to my question. They fall generally into three groups.
Firstly, there are some who reject the very idea that God is sovereign in the sense outlined. A modern manifestation of this view is ‘Open Theism’. Ligon Duncan describes Open Theism as ‘a movement within evangelical Christian theology that seeks radically to change the way we think about God …’
Duncan continues, ‘Open Theism, according to Clark Pinnock, is the belief that God’s sovereignty is necessarily self-limited by virtue of his creation of free agents. God’s power stops where human will begins, by God’s own deliberate
‘God cannot foreknow the future actions of free agents, because then those future actions would not be free. Therefore, God’s foreknowledge also is self-limited.
‘Hence, the future is not certain, and God’s greatness is not found in his divine control of the future or in his exhaustive foreknowledge of the future, but rather in his flexible, adroit, wise, quick responses to things as they unfold’.
Making excuses for God
This is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Many who would not identify with Open Theism are nevertheless quick to deny God’s involvement in such events as natural and man-made disasters, wars, social evils, disease and personal tragedies.
They say that a God of love could not be responsible for the human suffering these things entail. But by excusing God of responsibility, they implicitly deny God’s control over world events.
We do have to grapple with the problems of pain and evil in a hazardous, fallen world. But to do so by rejecting the sovereignty of God is to abandon the only real solution and lose all hope of consolation.
Everything but salvation?
Secondly, many who accept that God is sovereign in a general sense believe that his sovereignty stops short of the work of salvation – where (they say) the determining factor must be man’s decision as a free agent.
They maintain that God does not save people in a sovereign manner but rather makes salvation available to those who choose to receive it, leaving the final decision to human will. Salvation through the work of Jesus Christ is offered freely to all who hear the gospel but is not ‘forced’ upon anyone, being received or rejected by a person’s own volition.
At first this may sound fairer than election and predestination, but in reality the reverse is true. For what ‘fairness’ can there be in the fact that millions have died without ever hearing the gospel of Christ?
The modern ‘solution’ is, of course, the concept of the ‘noble savage’ – the idea that people who have never heard of Christ may nevertheless be saved by Christ if they follow their own conscience and worship the creator. Such notables as Billy Graham have embraced this view to escape the dilemma posed by the unevangelised masses.
The biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty in salvation cuts through all such reasoning. It assures us, quite simply, that all God’s elect will hear the gospel by one means or another and will believe on Christ!
The only dilemma this teaching poses is an affront to human pride – our unwillingness to submit to the clear teaching of Scripture on the all-embracing sovereignty of God.
Finally, however, there is a group who fully accept the sovereignty of God in creation, providence and grace (redemption) but who regard it as a ‘family secret’ to be taught only to regenerate and mature Christians – and even then with caution.
They argue that to preach the sovereignty of God to the unconverted and immature will offend their sense of God’s fairness and turn them away from biblical truth.
Clearly, each of these three groups will, for different reasons, reject the view that the sovereignty of God should form an integral part of a Christian preaching ministry. However, my purpose in this two-part article is to maintain that if we are to be truly ‘evangelical’ (that is, biblical) in our preaching, then our message must be based upon a clear and explicit presentation of the sovereignty of God.
To demonstrate this I will consider next month that most famous of apostolic sermons, Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost.
Based on a paper given at the Verax Institute Conference, Basel, 9-10 February 2007.