The sovereignty of God is His absolute right to do all things according to His own good pleasure. The Baptist Faith and Message asserts that “God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace.”
The sovereignty of God is at the heart of the Old Testament. God is depicted as being in control of world events in precise detail. God is in no sense an absentee God. Amos asked rhetorically, “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” (Amos 3:6b). When the Assyrian king Sennacherib gloried in his military conquests, Yahweh informed him that the very God he had charged with impotence was the one who controlled the entire Assyrian operation: “Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you (Sennacherib) have turned fortified cities into piles of stone” (Isaiah 37:26).
A variety of passages demonstrates the Old Testament’s insistence that God’s plan will not fail. “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). “For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:27). “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:10). “The Lord works out everything for His own ends — even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4).
God is sovereign even over calamities. In the midst of his severe misfortune, Job refused to curse God: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). In surveying the ruins of Jerusalem, Jeremiah asked, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentations 3:38).
God Himself said, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). And, “This is what the Lord says: As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them” (Jeremiah 32:42).
The New Testament, also, is replete with passages that affirm God’s sovereignty. Luke explains Christ’s death as resulting from God’s decree: “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23a). The decree of God means His counsel is predetermined and fixed. When persecution began, the disciples prayed to God: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27-28).
God is sovereign over the very fortunes of nations: “From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17: 26). God sovereignly conveys gifts to the church and sovereignly determines who receives those gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4–11). Paul understood that all things happen in accordance with God’s plan or decree. He states that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
The interaction between God’s sovereignty and human free agency is on display in the composition of sacred Scripture. Evangelical Christians believe that the biblical writers personally chose their own words (human free agency), yet the end result was precisely the words that God intended (God’s sovereignty).
Christians should joyfully embrace God’s sovereignty since it annihilates human pride, exalts God, and strengthens the believer’s faith. Nothing could be more encouraging than to know that God is sovereignly in control of all His creation and that circumstances are not due to chance or fate. It is impossible for God’s plan to fail. Among the most precious of God’s promises is Romans 8:28: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good … to those who are called according to His purpose.” That promise rests on the sovereignty of God.
Yet many Christians are troubled by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, erroneously supposing that it excludes human freedom and responsibility. Biblical theology maintains both divine sovereignty and human freedom/responsibility. Neither is to be advanced at the other’s expense. Addressing God’s grace in reference to salvation, The Baptist Faith and Message says God’s providential control is “consistent with the free agency of man.” The biblical writers unashamedly placed divine sovereignty and human responsibility side by side. Peter attributed Jesus’ death to the decree of God, then immediately ascribed blame to his audience: “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). They crucified Jesus because they chose to, and God justly held them accountable for their actions.
Nor does the sovereignty of God eliminate the need for human action. Acts 27 records a shipwreck involving Paul. In His sovereignty, God declared that no life would be lost (Acts 27:22). But God’s sovereign decree that no one’s life would be lost did not exclude the necessity of Paul warning the sailors to remain on the ship: “Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, ‘Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved’ ” (Acts 27:31). God’s sovereignty did not make Paul’s warning unnecessary; had they left the ship, they would have perished.
The sovereignty of God does not eliminate the need for evangelism. Again, The Baptist Faith and Message states that God’s plan “comprehends all the means in connection with the end.” In order to be saved, people must hear the gospel (Romans 10:13-15). God’s sovereignty should be a motivation for evangelism. That’s why Christians are to proclaim the gospel to every person (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47). Christians are to evangelize with the confidence that “whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The sovereignty of God does not negate man’s responsibility to repent and turn to God. People are to seek the Lord and call on him while he is near (Isaiah 55:6-7). The same is true of man’s responsibility to grow in grace; believers are to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Colossians 3:5) and are to put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20).
While Christian thinkers often have used speculative methods in an attempt to explain the interplay of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, finite creatures likely will never fully understand this mystery. Yet believers can live in the full confidence that God is in control and that the Lord of the universe always does what is right (Genesis 18:25b).
— Walter Johnson is dean of the College of Christian Studies at North Greenville University.