How should we understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility to evangelize? J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, is a helpful book for those considering this important question.
God’s Sovereignty and our Responsibility
Packer gives various examples of the sovereignty of God. He points out that just by praying to God we acknowledge His sovereignty. Packer points out that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught side by side in Scripture. And “far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed, the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful.”
God’s sovereignty is a great means of encouragement to us in our evangelism. Packer helpfully says that in our evangelism we
have every reason to be bold, and free, and natural, and hopeful of success. For God can give His truth an effectiveness that you and I cannot give it. God can make His truth triumphant to the conversion of the most seemingly hardened unbeliever. You and I will never write off anyone as hopeless and beyond the reach of God if we believe in the sovereignty of His grace.
So, we are responsible for sharing the gospel but God is sovereign. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is important and practical. It is important for us to realize, as Packer says, that “it is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: It is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument.” So, “the belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.” Will Metzger, in agreement with Packer says, “We should not consider… sovereignty and responsibility as enemies but rather see them the way the Bible does—as friends!” So, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility may seem at odds but they are really not, although we may not understand. We must remember that the secret things belong to the LORD but the things that have been revealed belong to us that we may do what God has called us to do (see Deut. 29:29).
The sovereignty of God is perhaps one of the most difficult doctrines in Scripture and yet one of the clearest. However, just because something is hard does not mean that it’s not helpful.
To think about and discuss the sovereignty of God can be challenging but also sweet. I think for instance of the rough shell of a coconut but of the reward contained inside. Or the difficulty of building a house but of the protective refuge you have at its completion. It may at times be difficult to wade through the deep waters of God’s sovereignty but we will never get to the island of peace if we don’t.
Our knowledge of God’s sovereignty is limited but Scripture certainly does not shrink back from saying that God is in absolute control. The Bible is replete with texts that teach us that is LORD of all (see e.g. Dan. 4:35; Is. 40:13,14; Rom. 9:15-18; Eph. 1:5, 11).
The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way:
“God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy… God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.”
The word “sovereignty” is nowhere in the Bible, yet the teaching is all over the place. We see that God declared the “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” God says “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose” (Is. 46:10). Daniel tells us that “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?’” Job tells us that “He is unchangeable, and who can turn Him back? What He desires, that He does. For He will complete what He appoints for me.” Indeed, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases,” says the psalmist (Ps. 115:3; cf. 135:6). That is what is meant by the sovereignty of God.
A.W. Tozer said this in his excellent book The Knowledge of the Holy:
“God’s sovereignty is the attribute by which He rules His entire creation, and to be sovereign God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free. The reasons are these:
Were there even one datum of knowledge, however small, unknown to God, His rule would break down at that point. To be Lord over all the creation, He must possess all knowledge. And were God lacking one infinitesimal modicum of power, that lack would end His reign and undo His kingdom; that one stray atom of power would belong to someone else and God would be a limited ruler and hence not sovereign.
Furthermore, His sovereignty requires that He be absolutely free, which means simply that He must be free to His eternal purpose in every single detail without interference. Were He less than free He must be less than sovereign” (Knowledge of the Holy, 115).
God is Meticulously Sovereign
I learned an important thing from a good friend, a young Christian that was struggling with drug addiction. He told me one night he was really upset so he turned on the radio hoping that it would help him. As he turned on the radio he prayed that God would play an awesome song. And my friend’s song came on, and no it wasn’t “My Heart Will Go On” (you know, the Titanic song); instead, his song is “I am Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave. And it came on not at the end of the song, but at the very beginning. One of the lines he heard, since he heard the whole thing, was: “I’m not who I used to be. I am redeemed.” This song had a big impact on my friend and helped him fight his enslaving sin of drug addiction that night.
I remember my friend saying, “good lookin’ God.” We can say “good lookin’ God” because He is sovereign. It truly was not blind chance that that song came on at that exact moment. Yes, God orchestrated innumerable things for that to take place. Yes God, the Ruler of every atom in the universe, wanted His son to here at that moment: “You are not who you use to be. You are redeemed.” God is sovereign. God can, and does, answer prayer. At times, even song requests.
We see in Scripture that God is meticulously sovereign. It is not something I made up or would make up. However, it is the clear testimony of Scripture, as is seen by my quite incomplete list of passages below. I list forty-one texts (which is equal to four single-space pages).
God is meticulously sovereign. For instance, flip a coin…
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD (Proverbs 16:33)
“‘Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins” (Isaiah 37:26)
“‘I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me” (Isaiah 37:28)
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.  How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:13-17)
“For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.  I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me,  that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; 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” (Isaiah 45:4-7)
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?  Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’” (Isaiah 45:9-10)
“declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’  calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11)
“Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5)
“Joshua said to them, ‘Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the LORD will do to all your enemies against whom you fight’” (Joshua 10:25)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5)
“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32)
“Sharpen the arrows! Take up the shields! The LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple.  “Set up a standard against the walls of Babylon; make the watch strong; set up watchmen; prepare the ambushes; for the LORD has both planned and done what he spoke concerning the inhabitants of Babylon” (Jeremiah 51:11-12)
“With you I break in pieces the shepherd and his flock; with you I break in pieces the farmer and his team; with you I break in pieces governors and commanders” (Jeremiah 51:23)
“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37-38)
“And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (Ezekiel 17:24)
“In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16)
“Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6)
“For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” (Amos 4:13)
“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)
“But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30)
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21)
“If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” (Proverbs 24:12)
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29 cf. Job. 38:41; Ps. 147:9)
“A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” (Proverbs 20:24)
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1)
“No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD.  The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD” (Proverbs 21:30-31)
“The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue” (Psalm 33:16-17)
“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth” (Psalm 104:14)
“He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4)
“Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6)
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7)
“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” (Ephesians 1:11)
“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3)
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3)
“And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)
“Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:1-3)
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!  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” (Romans 9:14-23)
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25)
“He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Daniel 2:21)
“God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.  For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.  He seals up the hand of every man, that all men whom he made may know it.  Then the beasts go into their lairs, and remain in their dens.  From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds.  By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast.  He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning.  They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world” (Job 37:5-12)
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36)
From all of these we see God’s sovereignty. He is constrained by absolutely nothing or no one. He does whatever He pleases! This should be a great comfort to us. Who else or what else would we want to be sovereign, governing all? Nothing! And in what sphere does God do what He pleases? “In heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Ps. 135:6). That is, exhaustively. There is no square millimeter in the entire cosmos that the Lord does not call out over: “Mine!”
We vote for a President based (hopefully) on their ability to rightly govern. The President is very much sovereign over America, so it is important that a qualified person is in office, correct? Yes.
When it comes to all things, who is ultimately “in office”? Who is the Sovereign? God. And He is eminently qualified! He always does His pleasure it says, which would be scary, would it not, when it comes to many people, yet in regards to God this is exactly what we desire and need, though we may know it not. God is good, and does good, however unclear to us. Spurgeon famously said, “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”
God is All-Powerful
Related to the sovereignty of God is the fact that God is all-powerful. God is the sovereign and all-powerful Lord of the universe (e.g. Gen. 18:14; Job 42:2; Ps. 33:11; 43:13; 115:3; 135:6; Prov. 16:9; 19:21; 21:30; Is. 46:10; Jer. 32:27; Dan. 4:35; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37; Eph. 1:4-5; Rev. 3:7). This is known as God’s efficacy. He accomplishes His will.
It may not seem as though the power of God is a practical thing but it is truly very very practical. One of my Professors told me about playing “rock, paper, scissors” with his son. They were playing and apparently making all sorts of wild sign with their hands. My Professor thought for sure he won; he had the first atomic bomb (the son had previously said he had five atomic bombs). But his son kept insisting that he won. So my Professor continued: “son you don’t understand, I have the first atomic bomb, the first atomic bomb beats all the others ones…” Then his son said, “but dad, I have God the Father…” My Professor, a Professor of theology, was humiliated. Even a five year old knows that God is all-powerful… God beats atomic bombs… God beats everything.
The power of God is practical and is practical for more than just “rock, paper, scissor” games.
We see how practical the Lordship of God (sovereignty and power) is when we think of world events. I am glad that it is ultimately God that has power over the universe! I am glad that it is God through the gospel that can save our children. The power of God, though often not thought of, is very important and is very practical for our lives. For if God were not powerful many of His other attributes would be to no end. If God were loving but not powerful He could not carry out His love.
The doctrine of the power of God was important as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace. The power of God was very important when Israel fled Egypt. The power of God was unimaginably important as Jesus’ cold body lay in the grave. The power of God was important as they prayed at Pentecost to be filled with power from on high (Lk. 24:49). And the power of God is important for us now.
The power of God is important because it is the arm that extends all the other attributes of God. Imagine if God was kind and forgiving, yet did not have the power to extend that kindness and forgiveness to us. It would be nice but basically good for nothing.
Imagine that you see Bill Gates at McDonalds. You ask him to buy you a cheeseburger because, after all, he’s Bill Gates. He says he will. He puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out his wallet. He doesn’t have any cash with him and somehow he left his debit card at home. Bill Gates, although amazingly wealthy with seemingly endless resources to buy you an infinite amount of cheeseburgers, actually can’t buy a single cheeseburger. Why? Because he cannot access it.
Michael Jordan knows how to play basketball. Yet, he no longer has the power to play like he use to. So knowledge or desire is not enough in itself, there is a necessary power that needs to be behind it to effect any change. Imagine a judge that is very righteous and just yet has no police force and no jail. A judge can be very just and yet accomplish nothing because they don’t have power. God does not have this problem. He is just, all-knowing, and has endless resources. Yet God is also all-powerful. He can effect change and one day very soon will cast Satan and all those that do not trust in Christ to the depths of hell.
God is not only good and perfect in character but He can also accomplish anything at all that He desires. This is good news.
Do you believe the Lord God is powerful? Do you believe that He made the universe, holds the universe together?! Do you believe He can hold your “universe” together?!
The Practical Importance of the Sovereignty of God
As we think about the meticulous sovereignty of God we don’t want to leave it abstract and philosophical. We want to see the impact that the sovereignty of God has in our everyday lives.
Humility and the Sovereignty of God
When thinking about the sovereignty of God there are many questions that come to mind and rightfully so. To think about something deeply and truly is to have questions. There is not a problem with questions in themselves, they are right and good. Where the problem comes in is the posture of the question. In Proverbs we are told to not be presumptuous in the presence of a king, don’t eat their delicacies it says. Don’t exalt yourself, why? Because it is not your place to do that. The posture before a king, or a President, is one of humility. How much more before God! A mere child does not proudly go up to the President of the United States of America and counsel him on foreign policy, and if he did, we would scoff at him. It is the same with us. We need to know our place before God. Notice, that when Job questioned God, God didn’t reveal His reasoning behind all that happened to Job. Instead, God showed Job what? He showed Him Himself. He showed Job that He did indeed have a reason for all He did. He had a reason by the fact that He is God and He does all He pleases, He does all that is right. What, then, was Job’s response? “I lay my hand on my mouth” (see Job 40:1-7ff).
God reminds us in Isaiah 55:9-9 that His thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways; for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts. Therefore, as we come before the LORD’s throne and look at His sovereignty we must come humbly.
Mystery and the Sovereignty of God
As we discuss the sovereignty of God we must realize that our knowledge is limited. We cannot with our limited capacity understand everything; even when it comes to things that are revealed to us. We certainly cannot completely grasp things that have not even been revealed to us. Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Job 36:22-23 says, “Behold, God is exalted in His power; who is a teacher like Him? Who has prescribed for Him His way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?” Jonathan Edwards has said,
“What are we? and what do we make of ourselves, when we expect that God and his ways should be upon a level with our understandings? We are infinitely unequal to any such thing as comprehending God. We may less unreasonably expect that a nut-shell should contain the ocean” (Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 108).
Our response to God’s Lordship should be praise, not presumption; humility, not hostility. As Paul cries out in praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).
Sin and the Sovereignty of God
“The problem of evil” is something that atheists often bring up (it should be noticed however that they don’t bring up “the problem of good”). To address this question would obviously take a lot more space then we have here but the letter of James does instruct us: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one” (1:13).
A. W. Tozer has said
“While a complete explanation of the origin of sin eludes us, there are a few things we do know. In His sovereign wisdom God has permitted evil to exist in carefully restricted areas of His creation, a kind of fugitive outlaw whose activities are temporary and limited in scope. In doing this God has acted according to His infinite wisdom and goodness. More than that no one knows at present; and more than anyone needs to know. The name of God is sufficient guarantee of the perfection of His works” (Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 117).
I will say this however, regarding the mystery of evil and sin. Adam and Eve didn’t and in fact couldn’t “praise God’s glorious grace” in the Garden. They couldn’t worship the pre-incarnate Son as the Lamb that had been slain, why? Because He hadn’t been slain and they didn’t even know He would be! They could not know God like we do, though He walked in the Garden. In the book of Revelation it says of Jesus “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (5:9-10). Adam and Eve could not say that.
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is actually very encouraging when we think about suffering. How is this so? Because God, as the sovereign Lord of the universe, can and will one day soon end suffering for all those who trust in Christ.
I think for example of Romans chapter 8. If God were not sovereign than He could not necessarily
work all things together for good. However, the fact that God is sovereign is a means of great encouragement as it was for Paul when he was going through some of the things that he listed in Romans 8. Nothing—no thing at all—can separate us from the love of God! Why? Because God is sovereign! The sovereignty of God may be a difficult truth to grasp but it is much more difficult if we do not grasp it.
Let’s rework a little bit of Romans 8 and we’ll clearly see how cherished God’s sovereignty is: Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Perhaps. Shall distress? Maybe… I am not sure if death or life, or angels or rulers, or things present or things to come will separate us from the love of God. How could I be?
Imagine laying on your deathbed not knowing if God was in control, sovereign over death. What a distressing thought.
Well, praise the Lord we can know! We know that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ Jesus because God is sovereign over all things! What a precious truth. What a practical truth.
So first, we must remember that God is God. He is the creator and sustainer of all, not us. If we understand that, though bad overwhelm us, we will learn with Job not to question the providence of God.
Second, God is good. We see from 1 John that God is love. And we will see next week that God is good and faithful so all God does is good and right and ultimately loving. God’s sovereignty is also good and loving and right though we don’t see or understand it. We must trust God.
Jesus, when He looked helpless and powerless, gave His life up. No one took it from Him, He gave it. He is sovereign and He could have smote all who came to Him. Do you remember what happened when Jesus was betrayed? The people came to Him to arrest Him and Jesus said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They said to Him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am He.” It says, in John 18:6 that “When Jesus said to them, I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground.”
Jesus has power over life and death. He was not a merely a victim on the cross. Jesus reigned from the cross. Remember Hebrews 1:3 remind us that “He upholds the universe by the word of His power,” even the nails in His hands. So, when God’s sovereignty is a hard and mysterious truth, when in the midst of suffering, remember that God sovereignly laid His life down for you in Jesus Christ. When you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart. Trust the fact that He loves you. Remember Jesus stretched out on the cross. Remember that He cares. That He bore the wrath that you deserve.
Trust and the Sovereignty of God
I am sure you remember Bob Ross. Bob Ross would paint his “happy little trees.” He once said, “In painting, you have unlimited power. You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers. But when I get home, the only thing I have power over, is the garbage.” Yet, sometimes Bob Ross would “move mountains” and “bend rivers” and it didn’t seem to make sense.
Sometimes he would say:
“Just ‘smoosh’ it in there. It’s not a real word, but people seem to know what it means” [I don’t know what he means]
“Just put a few do-ers in there…”
“Decide where your little footy hills live”
“Shwooop. Hehe. You have to make those little noises, or it just doesn’t work”
“The only thing worse than yellow snow is green snow”
Or, listen to this: “If you did this with yellow, and you went over it with blue, you would end up with a .. with a translucent… green. And it’s gorgeous. It is GORGEOUS.” Did you know that? Would you have guessed that? I certainly wouldn’t have.
Well, if you have watched Bob Ross you might think he was a little crazy and didn’t know what he was doing. But by the end of the episode you see a beautiful picture. After you have seen one episode you don’t question him as much; you know he is a great painter.
Well, God’s power is analogues to this. God is the Great Painter. He will accomplish His will. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to us. But we can trust His character. We can trust that the end will be beautiful. Better then we could have imagined.
Not even the terrible sufferings of this present time are worth comparing to the amazing glory that will be revealed to us. God will indeed work all things together for good. He will make all things new. He will accomplish His perfect will.
As Spurgeon said, even when cannot trace God’s hand, we must trust His heart. We must trust that He is good. We must remember that He demonstrated His goodness as He hung, stretched out on the tree, for us.
George Muller, evangelist and Director of the Ashley Down orphanage in England, also trusted that God’s ways our perfect. When Muller’s wife of 39 years was on her death bed he said,
“though my heart was nigh to be broken, on account of the depth of my affection, I said to myself, ‘The Lord is good, and does good; all will be according to His own blessed character. Nothing but that which is good, like Himself, can proceed from Him. If He please to take my wife, it will be good, like Himself. What I have to do, as His child, is to be satisfied with what my Father does that I may glorify Him” (Delighted in God, 162).
The next day Muller read in Psalm 119:75:
“I know, O Lord, that your judgments are right, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me.” Muller read these words over and over again. “’Yes, Lord,’ he said to himself, ‘Your judgments are right, I am satisfied with them. You know the depth of the affection of Your poor child for his beloved wife, yet I am satisfied with your judgments; and my inmost soul says that You in faithfulness have afflicted me. All this is according Your love with which You have loved me in Christ Jesus, and whatever the issue, all will be well’” (Ibid., 162).
When Mary, Muller’s wife passed away, George Muller’s heart was broken. Yet, he preached his own wife’s funeral and he preached it from Psalm 119:68, “You are good, and what you do is good.”
We see the same type of response from Sarah Edwards, Jonathan Edward’s wife. Jonathan Edwards was a pastor, theologian, philosopher, and some say the foremost thinker in American history. After he died of smallpox his wife wrote this to Esther their daughter:
“My dear child, What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore His goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and He has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father has, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and I love to be” (Steven J. Lawson, The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards, 19).
Sleep and the Sovereignty of God
I love to sleep. I have the tendency to want to be lazy and stay in bed all day. But, at the same time, I hate to sleep. This is because when I’m sleeping I can’t accomplish anything. I have to trust God when I go to sleep. John Piper says, “Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message everyday: Man is not sovereign. Man is not Sovereign. Man is not Sovereign” (Piper, “A brief theology of sleep”). It reminds us that God keeps us and He will neither slumber nor sleep (Ps. 121:4).
I am not sovereign. The CEO of Apple is not sovereign. The President of the United States of America is not sovereign. Terrorists are not sovereign. We can all sleep. We must all sleep.
We can sleep in peace because we know that God is in charge and the world is still churning on without us. The sun doesn’t need us to rise. Realizing that God is sovereign is practical because it allows for rest and relaxation; though not rebellion and rejection of calling.
Just as Jesus slept and escaped from the crowd (e.g. Lk. 5:16), so can we. So must we. Especially if Jesus did. Jesus had more to offer to a lost and broken world then anyone else. Yet He slept. He relaxed with His friends. And so must we. We are responsible, yes. We must be faithful stewards of what our Lord has entrusted to us. We must seek to please Him with all we are. Yet, we can trust our Lord. We can rest. He is sovereign.
Responsibility and the Sovereignty of God
John Frame points out that “although theologians take great interest in the ‘problem’ of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, it is not one of the main concerns of the biblical writers” (Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 120). God rebukes Joseph’s brothers for what they did (Gen. 50:20) but also has good intentions in all that happened.
We also see human responsibility and yet also God’s sovereignty in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus was crucified according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God and yet lawless men who carried it out our responsible for their sin (see Acts 2:22-24); as was Judas Iscariot (Matt. 26:24 cf. Acts 4:27-28; Lk. 22:22). Yet Genesis as a book and Genesis chapter fifty is not about sovereignty and responsibility; nor is the book of Acts.
This illustration, though not perfect, may be helpful for some:
“An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. Nothing can change it. This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty.
On board the liner are several scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree. They are completely free to move about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port.
Both freedom and sovereignty are present here and they do not contradict each other. So it is, I believe, with man’s freedom and the sovereignty of God. The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history. God moves undisturbed and unhindered toward the fulfillment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began. We do not know all that is included in those purposes, but enough has been disclosed to furnish us with a broad outline of things to come and to give us good hoe and firm assurance of future well-being” (Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 118).
God will accomplish all of His good pleasure. In other words, the “ocean liner” will arrive in “Liverpool.” Yet, that doesn’t make what we do on the “ocean liner” irrelevant. The fact that God is meticulously sovereign does not negate the fact that we are responsible for our actions. The Apostle Paul believed in the sovereignty of God but he didn’t respond in laziness, as we’ll see below. Instead, he toiled and struggled with all the power that God worked within him (Col. 1:29). See also Ex. 23:31; Deut. 2:33; Judges 3:28-29; 1 Chron. 10:4, 14; 1 Kings 8:58, 61; Lk. 22:22; Acts 21:19; 2 Tim. 2:10.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
When we think about evangelism we are reminded that God is sovereign and man is responsible. Ephesians shows us that God predestines and chooses. However, we see that we must not be inactive.
“Far from it. In this very context, in which our salvation is attributed entirely to the will of God, our own responsibility is also described. For (verse 13) first we heard the word of truth, which is also called the gospel of your salvation; then we believed in him (Christ), and so were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. Let no one say, therefore, that the doctrine of election by the sovereign will and mercy of God, mysterious as it is, makes either evangelism or faith unnecessary. The opposite is the case. It is only because of God’s gracious will to save that evangelism has any hope of success and faith becomes possible. The preaching of the gospel is the very means that God has appointed by which he delivers from blindness and bondage those whom he chose in Christ before the foundation of the world, sets them free to believe in Jesus, and so causes his will to be done” (Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 48 cf. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God).
It may seem strange but when I think about evangelism and the sovereignty of God I think about the California Gold Rush. During the Gold Rush, people went west because there was a good chance that they would strike gold. We who believe in the sovereignty of God, are motivated by the fact that there is a good “chance” of “striking gold” as well. Let me explain…
During the California Gold Rush (1848-55), men and women left everything they knew to go “out west” because they knew that there was a chance—a good chance—that they would strike gold. Clearly, they would not have left family, friends, and security to go west if there was only a random chance of striking gold. However, there was a chance, and so there was a “Gold Rush.”
In total, around 300,000 people saw the potential gold as a great opportunity and set out for California. Men and women left their lives in the East—many times at great cost, sometimes even of life and limb—to travel to the west. This Gold Rush even brought people from as far away as Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. The life of a prospector was a difficult one: the work was hard, the environment was harsh, and there was the constant fear of Indian attack. Yet, people still went because there was gold in California.
So why does the California Gold Rush remind me of evangelism and the sovereignty of God? Because God says there is “gold” among the nations. Paul tells us that he endures everything for the sake of the elect (2 Tim. 2:10). Thus, far from making Paul relax his missionary zeal it encouraged it. In fact, one night the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent… for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:9-10)
Paul was encouraged to keep speaking because God had many elect people in the city. There are elect people among the nations—or “gold”—that only have to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ to be saved. So, it is true that we who believe that God elects people to salvation (see for example Eph. 1:4) but it also true that God uses us as means to bring about that salvation (see Rom. 10:13 for instance). So it is a great evangelistic encouragement to us that there are people ransomed for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (see Rev. 5:9-10). This truth, far from causing us to cease our evangelistic efforts, should cause a type of evangelistic “gold rush.”
One of the greatest encouragements in evangelism and missions is that there is a chance that we will “strike gold.” There is a chance that those to whom we are ministering are of the elect—chosen by God to be saved. Far from discouraging from evangelism, this truth should stir us up all the more to evangelize. When we think about God’s sovereignty we should see “Gold!” God has not only made evangelism possible, but He has in fact guaranteed that our evangelistic efforts are not in vain, for “He has many people in this city” (recall Acts 18:9-10 above). Our eyes should light up with the prospect of spiritual riches for us and for those with whom we can share Christ.
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God can be difficult. But it is also comforting. Saying that God is Lord can sum up this paper. He alone is the Sovereign of the universe. This is good news because God is good, loving, and wise; even when we don’t understand the intricacies of why things happen.
Jesus is the sovereign Lord of the universe that holds all the atoms in place and the stars in orbit (Heb. 1:3). Yet He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. Jesus is Lord and He can be trusted. Thus, as Spurgeon said, when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.
Praise God that though He is “Holy, holy, holy!” He is also “perfect in power, in love and purity.” He is “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!” And He is “Merciful and mighty” (Reginald Heber, “Holy, Holy, Holy”).