How Sovereign? (Part 1)

By Colton Corter

I remember sitting in a convention center together with three thousand others to participate in the Cross Conference here in Louisville in the Winter of 2013. Two of my heros were on the platform discussing the topic of God’s sovereignty in the context of global evangelization. John Piper gave an illustration that stuck with all of us, I think. Mark Dever, in his typical joyfully-antagonistic interview style, began to move Pastor John’s diet coke around on the table they were sitting at. He kept saying, “Did God plan this? Is he controlling this?” Piper answered with an emphatic, “Yes!” But then, as he is known to do, Dr. Piper took us even deeper into the sovereignty of God. He pointed out that not only did God plan and direct Dever’s free actions, but He controlled every fizzing bubble that filtered through that very bottle of diet coke.

This was a profound observation, meant to provide a profound basis of worship for the young audience that sat before him. God’s absolute sovereignty is to draw us into doxology. The self-sufficiency of God, His total otherness and His tender care for His people are all meant to deepen our enjoyment of God to the end of our delighting in His being and displaying His glory to the nations. However, this doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty has fallen on hard times. Some are willing to give God a shred of sovereignty. They might say that God is sovereign in general but is certainly not concerned, much less governing the details of His creation. Some rob God of any sovereignty, reducing Him to what is basically a bigger and better version of ourselves. It is my aim to show that if one sides against God’s absolute sovereignty over all things then, at this particular point, you stand on the side against God. We will look at three arguments that will all point towards the necessity of affirming God’s absolute sovereignty. First, we will look at church history. Second, we will look at a few theological discussions. Finally, as we save the best for last, we will look at exegetical proof for the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and providence.

But first we must establish why this is even important. It may seem an exercise in theological hair-splitting. But those who have their highest good as knowing God will do well to know Him correctly. Basically, even if the truth of God’s providence and absolute sovereignty yield no clear and immediate application, we should still labor to know this truth and relish it. God has revealed Himself to us. Our interest in God should carry over in an interest to know Him rightly. Thankfully though, God has shown us the great benefits of resting in His total sovereignty. In a fallen world full of destruction it is a great comfort to know that God is not absent or disabled. God is not struggling along with us. When our spouse dies or we lose our job we can look to the cross where our evil was atoned for and know that God is working all things for our good and His glory because He has called us, by His grace, to a knowledge of Himself in Christ, clothed in the gospel. Far from removing the need for obedience, rightly understood, God’s providence should lead to increased holiness and confidence in the missionary task. God’s never having taken a risk ensures us that we can take risks in safety. We are, as a wise man once said, “Immortal until God’s purposes for us have run their course.” Let’s turn our attention to more wise men who have proclaimed the greatness and majesty of our Triune God with great joy.

A Couple of Examples from the Past

The history of the church’s dealing with the absolute sovereignty of God is not authoritative. But we show a bit of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” when we fail to take in account those faithful men who have dealt with the same eternal Word when we are thinking about a particular doctrine. Generally, if you stand against the entirety of church history then you should tread softly. Let’s look at some guys from the Reformed tradition that have affirmed the absolute sovereignty of God in both the salvation of sinners and the ordinary affairs of everyday, mundane life.

John Calvin (1509–1564) 

It may not be a surprise to you that John Calvin believed in God’s sovereign decree of all things. He begins his section of providence by saying, “It is time now for us to touch on the providence of God, which extends to the control of the entire world.” We see here the extent to which Calvin saw God’s hand extending. He counts this doctrine as a “enormous help in confirming faith.” Calvin bemoans those who would render God a bit of sovereignty while denying the His total sovereignty. He posits that such views “denies him his foremost right” and “makes God the rule of the world in name only and not in fact, since it removes Him from assured control.” His best summary is as follows: “We make God the master and controller of everything, affirming that from the beginning an in accordance with His wisdom he determined what He should be, and that now by his power He gives effect whatever he has decided. Hence we concluded that not only are heaven, earth and all insensible creatures ruled by His providence, but so too are men’s intentions and wills, so that He guides them to His appointed goal.” Calvin concludes his thoughts by reminding us that God’s providence does not eliminate our responsibility to be faithful or even shrewd. “This is why the Lord willed that all future events been hidden from us, so that we might anticipate them, not knowing what is to be, and that we might continually use the remedies He provides against dangers, until we get the better of them or until they overwhelm us.”

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)

Herman Bavinck wrote a few hundred years after Calvin died. Bavinck stood in line with Calvin, anchored in the unchanging Word of God. Bavinck begins his discussion in his work “Reformed Dogmatics” by quoting the beautiful Heidelberg Catechism’s article on divine providence (Lord’s Day 10, Q&A 27). It states: “the almighty and ever present power of God which he upholds, as with His hand, heaven and earth and all creatures and so rules them that…all things, in fact, come to us, not by chance but from His fatherly hand.” Bavinck describes providence as “one simple, almighty, and omnipotent power.” Unlike pantheism and deism, the Christian view of God’s “government” acknowledges God’s creation and care for that creation. Bavinck states that this is the “glory of the Christian faith.” He says providence is “a positive act, not giving of permission to exist but a causing to exist and working from moment to moment.” Bavinck, as Calvin, does not deny God’s usage of secondary agents or the category of human responsibility. “One can say,” writes Bavinck, “that the world is pregnant with the causes of beings.” Bavinck warns against the opposite errors of fatalism and arrogant calculation of human free ability, saying “We are called to child-like submission to God and to exercising about human ability.” We are to acknowledge the primary cause of all things while at the same time not denying the legitimate use of secondary causes. Bavinck finished by saying, “Christian theology teaches that secondary causes are strictly subordinated to God as the primary cause, but nevertheless remain true causes.” This Dutch theologian has gone unread by many but is a wealth of biblical knowledge. Bavinck holds the absolute, undiluted sovereignty of God, while reminding us that this ordaining includes our free (in the biblical sense of the word) choices and actions.

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)

19th century Baptist pastor, Charles Spurgeon saw that the Scriptures taught that God was completely sovereign over the affairs of men. As a pastor these truths took on flesh and blood. Day in and day out he would have seen the book of providence opened up and interpreted by the Word. Perhaps one thing that is unique about Spurgeon is his gift of illustration. He makes plain the lofty writings of Calvin and Bavinck. He writes: “I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes – that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens – that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence – the fall of . . . leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.” Here we see just how sovereign God is. It is one thing to acknowledge it intellectually. It is another thing all together to look at the ocean and realize that when God tells us that He is the ruler of the waves, He means it. Providence works to make us astounded by God. He too contrasts the sovereignty of God over against blind fate. Spurgeon writes, “What is fate? Fate is this – Whatever is, must be. But there is a difference between that and Providence. Providence says, Whatever God ordains, must be; but the wisdom of God never ordains anything without a purpose. Everything in this world is working for some great end. Fate does not say that. . . . There is all the difference between fate and Providence that there is between a man with good eyes and a blind man.” God’s providence stems from His good pleasure and character. We are never to be suspicious of God’s plans, but rather we take comfort in the God who commands both the good and the bad.

Louis Berkhof (1873-1957)

Finally, we’ll turn to another Dutch theologian, Louis Berkhof. Berkhof is the closest to the present day and yet there is little deviation from the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty. These old truths continue to be burnt into the hearts of increasingly modern generations. Berkhof cites Augustine as one of the church’s chief proponents of a biblical view of divine providence. It seems Berkhof was jealous to show that he stood in a long line of faithful men. Calvin, Luther, Hodge and the confessions are all cited as brothers-in-arms alongside him. He defines providence as “that continued exercise of the divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all His creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world and directs all things to their appointed ends.” See again the scope of God’s sovereignty. God is not only a big picture God, but also a God whose big picture is made up of a million tiny cogs, all under His sovereign control. Berkhof saw foreknowledge and divine activity as inseparable. He introduces the doctrine of “concurrence.” This simply means that God’s ordaining includes the actions and outcomes of men, though they in man’s own volition. Helpfully, he concludes his section with a question and answer format.

It is my hope that our brothers-past have helped us see the glory of God in His sovereign care for all things. This is not blind fate, but is instead the rule and reign of a holy, saving God. Our God is in the heavens and does as He pleases (Psalm 115). And this God is good, just and loving; working all things together for the good of those that He has saved based on nothing good in them but based entirely on His good pleasure, the person and work of Jesus and the operation of the Holy Spirit. It is a great comfort to know that God is not impotent or calloused, but is working in all things (including us) an eternal weight of glory.

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