The Sovereign God

In my last post (Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God), I discussed the idea of God’s Sovereignty, and how it was at odds with my previous belief. Little else has occupied my Bible study time lately, and I’ve continued to grapple with this matter. Here follows some further thoughts on this, and hope you find the discussion helpful.

I should warn you – it’s not for the faint of heart!

I spoke briefly last time about Romans 9, and how Paul was debating the same matter that we are. Does God’s Sovereignty mean He controls everything, and indeed who does and does not get saved?

Let’s read Romans 9:9-25 (and sorry it’s a long extract, but it’s hard not to include the whole chapter!)

For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 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?”21 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? 22 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,23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:9-25 (ESV)

The thrust of this passage is that God does indeed “elect” some and not others. This is not based on their performance or on their character, but rather a sovereign act of God’s will.

There are two main objections here I think (both of which Paul answers). Firstly, that if God chooses some and not others then that is unfair. Secondly, that if God controls everything, then no one can resist His will and so should not be held accountable for their actions.

Let’s take these in turn.

It is unfair of God to choose some and not others

For some people, the very idea that God has an elected group He chooses to save is completely objectionable. I believed it myself I think, on reflection. The problem is that it does appear to be the case – if you study the Bible thoroughly.

Is it unfair of God to choose some and not others for salvation? On the face of it, it does appear so. Through no action of their own, they are specially selected to belong to God’s family, while others are rejected. Surely this is the very definition of “unfair advantage”.

What do we mean by “fair” however? Do we mean that all should be treated the same? If so, then I don’t think we want that at all. Why? Because not one of us “deserves” to be saved. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and so in reality, the “fair” thing would be to reject everyone.

Given this, I’d say the last thing we want from God is fairness. Rather, we want grace.

When we look at it this way, we realise that actually for God to save anyone is a miracle.

I’ve been over this argument many times in my mind, and have come to accept that it is the case. I have only one remaining objection really, and one I’ve not yet worked through.

We are sinners, no argument there, and we need saving. So if God saves anyone, it is a great act of His mercy towards us. The issue for me though is that if God controls every action, and we have no free will whatsoever, then is it fair to say we all deserve punishment? Could I sin without God allowing it?

Here we encounter the second issue mentioned above.

If God controls everything, even our actions, then how can we be held responsible?

I touched on this last time, and there is no simple answer. Look at what Paul says in verse 20.

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?”

Romans 9:20 (ESV)

Indeed, who are we to talk back to God?

I don’t mind telling you that in the midst of this journey or battle with the sovereignty issue, there were times when I felt a whole host of negative emotions. I’ve never really been taught these things, and in fact, was taught that God does not control everything but leaves it up to humanity’s will as stewards of the Earth.

I don’t think that can be supported biblically.

What really caused difficulty for me was the conclusion of this line of thought. If God controls everything, then you cannot separate our experience from His will. If His will is paramount, then everything we all experience is exactly what He foreordained. All the suffering and pain of this world must be exactly as He willed it.

It doesn’t end there. If God does indeed control everything, and it was all planned in advance, then not only the cross was foreordained, but so was the fall of humanity.

At the time I came to that thought, it was too much for me. I had to go back over all of my study to find the flaw in my logic and understanding. Can it really be that God planned for mankind to fall in the Garden of Eden? If so, why?

I am not sure it is even possible for us limited humans to answer such a question.

Does it in any way suffice to say that it is because it brings Him glory?

I cannot, and will not, try to convince you on this point now. It is really the only natural conclusion of understanding that God’s sovereignty does mean He is in total and complete control.

We elevate ourselves in pride if we try to fathom this and question the One who made us. As uncomfortable as it may be, we cannot select the parts of the Bible that we like and ignore the rest. We must take the whole counsel of God and understand Him as best we can from it.

So how can God claim He wants all to come to repentance and be saved?

In 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, we read the following.

who [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)

A question I posed last time was how can these verses be true if God only elects some for salvation? Surely that is contradictory.

I began to read materials about the “Two Wills of God,” which I, at first, rejected. The idea is that God has a “revealed” will and a “secret” will. I struggled to find chapter and verse on such a concept.

The idea is this. I, the parent, am going out Christmas shopping for my children. When they ask, “Where are you going?” I answer, “I’m going out.” We see that my “revealed will” is “I’m going out.” But that my “secret will” is “I’m going out Christmas shopping.”

As an illustration, this works well. It is clear to see that I as a parent may not want to tell my children every little detail of my plans. This may be my choice, or it may be that they simply wouldn’t understand.

I can, to an extent, apply this to God and accept that there may well be things He chooses not to reveal to me, and so I should focus on what He does reveal. Where my illustration breaks down is that in terms of election AND God wanting all to be saved, they appear in direct contradiction.  My example of revealed and secret will going Christmas shopping fit together and are both true. We can’t obviously see that here in our Scriptures.

Again, it may be beyond our minds to be able to see the wide-angle view here.

For some, the “all” in these verses from Timothy and Peter refers only to the “elect” and so there is no contradiction at all. That is neat, but I’m not sure you can obtain that from the text alone and have to apply this interpretation.

Another way to look at it is a well-known ethics test. A train is hurtling towards a junction. On one side is your spouse, and the other a group of eight individuals. You have control the lever and can divert the train away from your spouse and into the group. What do you do?

Perhaps God is faced with such a dilemma. His will (revealed) is that He does not want anyone to perish, but He chooses to only elect some – this choice may be considered His “secret will”. It is impossible to put ourselves in God’s shoes here. If He owns the train, the tracks, the junction and the points, then how can it apply? I can safely say it’s beyond me.

Prayer, evangelism, healing and the rest

As I hit the bottom of the valley in this journey through sovereignty, I realised that much of what I had been taught was perhaps based on false foundations.

If you cannot separate God’s will from our experience, then you cannot say it is God’s will to heal someone if they remain sick. If it were, the sick would be healthy. This flies in the face of what I have previously believed God’s word to say.

It doesn’t end there though, and some of the classic questions about sovereignty are as follows:

  • If God is sovereign, then why pray?
  • If God is sovereign, and has an elected group, then why evangelise?
  • As I mention above, I would add – If God is sovereign, and healing (appears in my view) is His will for His people, then why do some remain sick?

This is already a long post, and I am keen to share my conclusions with you. I can’t answer the above questions fully in what little space I have left, but here goes.

Prayer

Prayer is problematic because the logic goes like this: If I pray for God’s will, then I am praying for something which will happen anyway. And if I pray against His will, then there is no possibility of it occurring. In both cases, prayer is pointless, right?

Paul, who wrote Romans 9 and stated emphatically that God is sovereign, had no issue telling people to pray. Indeed, just one chapter over in Romans 10:1 we read:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

Romans 10:1 (ESV)

If Paul saw no contradiction between Romans 9 and 10, then neither should we. Perhaps he knew something we have not yet uncovered.

I was musing about time. If I pray, when does God hear it? The simple answer is straightaway. But there is no “straightaway” for God. Not wanting to drown in physics I don’t really understand, time is a physical property and (I think) linked to gravity.

I think Einstein proposed an experiment which said that if you take twins born at the same time, and send one to our nearest star at 99.9% the speed of light, then on their return, the traveler will still be a baby and yet the one left on Earth would have grown up. Time on Earth passes at a different rate.

Hope that didn’t melt your brain!

Put it like this, God is not subject to our time constraints. We think that we pray, and God hears and then acts, influencing our future. God knows the end from the beginning, and so knows our prayers before we were even formed. I’m not sure if it breaks the sovereignty of God to suggest that maybe He heard our prayers before the foundation of the world. Perhaps in making His sovereign choices, He takes our requests on board. Just my considerations here, and nothing I can support scripturally.

Evangelism

Likewise, if prayer remains valid, then so must evangelism. You simply cannot argue that the Bible does emphatically tell us to share our faith, and by that, the full number of the elect can be reached.

Healing

If God always gets His way, and if we remain sick, we must conclude that it is not His will to heal us. And yet, physical healing is certainly Scriptural. Could it be that God wanting us well is His “revealed will” and when we don’t, it is His secret will coming into play? I leave that thought with you.

Conclusions

How can I hope to conclude such a post! My head spins writing it, let alone you reading it. This is the culmination of much thought and study, and so I cannot expect you to just swallow it whole and accept it. I urge you to look into it yourself and see what you think the Bible says.

But what does it matter?

I don’t mean to be flippant there, of course it matters. Understanding the nature of God and how we can relate to Him must matter a great deal.

My point is this. What difference does it make to the way we live?

If God is Sovereign, or indeed if you believe He is not, the Bible is very clear about how we Christians should live. Whether it is God ordaining it, or you choosing it, we must determine to live our lives in a manner worthy of God.

We cannot do it in our own strength, and must rely totally and completely o Christ, but our lives should reflect His glory. The way we live should be a witness to the rest of the world so that by their acceptance or rejection of Christ, God is glorified and praised.

Praise the Sovereign and Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!

Wrestling with the Sovereignty of God

I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been wrestling with a tough issue of late – the sovereignty of God.

This began a while ago, when after a comment in a previous post, someone challenged my view of what sovereignty means. I am determined not to shy away from such challenges, even if uncomfortable, as it can only lead to growth of understanding to review one’s position. You either confirm what you already thought, or learn something new which changes your perspective.

In this case, I am certainly reviewing my previous view.

What does “Sovereignty” mean?

This, I think, is part of the problem. We all have a slightly different understanding of what we mean by the term “Sovereignty”.

One definition is simply that God being sovereign means He is the Supreme Being, Ultimate and without equal. I hope that no Christian can take argument with such a definition.

Going further though, some take sovereignty to mean that God controls every aspect of our lives here on Earth. Nothing happens by chance and everything happens according to God’s will.

This definition I struggled with. Like all who have faced this subject, the obvious question is “If God controls everything, then how come a) bad things happen, and b) how can anyone be held responsible for their actions?”

I previously did not hold to this view. I did not believe that God’s Sovereignty meant that He controlled every little thing in life, and that our very decisions were ordained on high by Him.

I could be wrong…

Two texts

There were two main Bible texts which challenged my view. I should clarify that I mean two main texts which I examined, rather that the big two.

The first is Ephesians 1:4-5, which says:

just as [in His love] He chose us in Christ [actually selected us for Himself as His own] before the foundation of the world, so that we would be holy [that is, consecrated, set apart for Him, purpose-driven] and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined and lovingly planned for us to be adopted to Himself as [His own] children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the kind intention and good pleasure of His will

Ephesians 1:4-5 (Amp)

This idea of being chosen by God opens up the heart of the sovereignty issue for me. Did God choose me first, or did I choose Him? Did He choose me, knowing that I would choose Him? If this doesn’t make your mind tilt, then you’re a wiser person than I!

The key here is to look to when God made the choice. “When” is a difficult one to apply to God, as He is outside of time. We think linearly, there is a start, a middle and an end, but we can’t think that way with God. He has no beginning, middle or end, and He just is.

What does the verse say? “Before the foundation of the world…” This means, put simply, before the Creation. If this is true, and as it is Scripture, it is, then it means that before you and I were born, before we did anything right or wrong – then God had chosen us.

The next obvious question is – on what basis did He make this choice? If it was before we did or said or thought anything, then it cannot be on our performance and behaviour. God did not choose you because you were “good” or “bad”, rather it was an act of His will.

We want to understand how and why God made His choice because we want to understand something fundamental. Why me and not them? A scant understanding of the Gospel should tell us that it is nothing to do with us – not our performance or how well we did or didn’t do, but completely and totally on the finished work of Christ.

The second text is from Romans 9:18-20

Therefore, God has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. 19 You may ask me, “Then why does God still find fault with anybody? For who can resist his will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?”

Romans 9:18-20 (ISV)

Here, Paul addresses what is at the very heart of this issue. Indeed, verse 19 asks the precise question we hope to answer. “If God controls everything, then how can anyone be held responsible for their wrongdoing?”

What is his answer? And I warn you, it may not satisfy…

who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God? Can an object that was molded say to the one who molded it, “Why did you make me like this?

Who are we to ask such a question of the Sovereign God? We are trying to wrap our limited minds around an unlimited concept. Human thinking cannot comprehend the sovereignty of God. Who are we to question Him in this matter?

If, like me, you feel somewhat unsatisfied by this, then I understand.

I want to give you a “better” answer here. I want to be able to explain this to you in such a way as to enable you to accept and understand it. I tried. Then it dawned on me that if the great apostle Paul can only give the above answer, then how can I expect to come up with something better?

One author suggested we approach this issue in the same way that we approach the Trinity. That is, we approach it knowing that it is true and having no human understanding of how it can be so.

I sigh at this point, realising that theologians have considered this for centuries and no “good” answer exists. God is God, and we are not. His ways are higher than ours, and this is one of those (few) occasions where we cannot explain or understand Him.

We can do nothing except humbly accept it.

Conclusion?

Hardly! I can’t hope to conclude such a topic in a few simple lines here. Like many who have gone before me, we can only walk this road our own way. At each step we must try to see the Bible as a whole in a systematic way. There will always be things, this side of heaven, that we do not comprehend.

Does it make God any less? No, if anything it highlights how “Sovereign” He is.

Does it somehow weaken our faith? It should not.

I’ve asked God the big questions as I’ve begun to examine this subject. It can only weaken our faith if we allow ourselves to engage in pride. “I should be able to understand this” or “How can God choose some and not others?” This betrays an attempt by us to somehow reach God’s level. When we question His ways, we are on some level suggesting that we know better. Such thinking is not only futile, it’s comical.

My journey has not come to an end here. I began this post by saying it had led to me to review my way of thinking about God’s Sovereignty. This is true, but I’ve not completed it yet (and I suspect I never will!)

I have questions, and I’m guessing you do too.

If what I’ve shared above from Ephesians and Romans holds true (and it does), then I prayerfully wonder how the following Scriptures fit with this. It’s a heavenly jigsaw puzzle if you will, and I’m quite certain all the pieces fit. It may simply be that only God can see the big picture.

Abraham negotiates with God

In Genesis 18, we read a story where Abraham (very respectfully) negotiates with God. God sets out His intention to inspect Sodom and Gemorah (verse 21) with a view to destroying it, and yet Abraham appeals to Him.

This is relevant to our discussion because it seems contradictory. What was God’s will in this matter? Was it to destroy Sodom and Gemorah without any regard for any righteous people living there? Was it always God’s will to save the righteous before He destroyed it? A close reading may suggest that God never intended to destroy it while even one righteous person was there.

Although Abraham very cautiously “talks God down” to withholding the city’s destruction if only ten righteous are found there, in the end we see that it only took one. Indeed, the Angel of the Lord “could not” destroy the city while Lot was still within its limits.

Hurry and take refuge there, for I cannot do anything [to punish Sodom] until you arrive there.” For this reason the town was named Zoar (few, small).

Genesis 19:22 (Amp)

So how do we determine God’s Sovereign will in this matter? The destroying angel could not do a thing until Lot was safe, meaning God had given His Word that the city would not fall while Lot remained.

What does that mean for what God had discussed with Abraham right at the beginning? – did Abraham’s intercession somehow restrict God’s will, or rather his prayers cause God to give grace to Lot who dwelt in Sodom?

It is God’s will that everyone be saved?

Likewise, these are key passages for me that suggest God does not always get His way. If He does, and He does indeed control everything as we have expounded above, then how can we reconcile these verses?

who wishes all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge and recognition of the [divine] truth.

1 Timothy 2:4 (Amp)

The Lord does not delay [as though He were unable to act] and is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is [extraordinarily] patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (Amp)

We can clearly see that it is God’s will that everyone be saved. And yet, they are not. How can we place these verses alongside the verse from Ephesians 1 (discussed above) and fit them together?

If God wants all to be saved, then why only choose some?

One way to fit them together  (and it is completely flawed) is the idea that God chose everyone, and that means all will be saved. Indeed, some teach that God will have mercy on everyone irrespective of what they did with Christ on the Earth, and therefore both verses can be true. This is false.

Such teaching does not take a serious view of Scripture and indeed cheapens the sacrifice of Christ. If all are saved irrespective of Christ’s sacrifice, then Christ had no need to come at all. Clearly this is not the case.

There must therefore be another way that these verses fit together.

Your will be done (the Lord’s Prayer)

Finally, we look to the Lord’s prayer. While it is my belief that this is a template for prayer, rather than something we should repeat over and over, one of the points is rather clear.

“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given what we have said above about God being in ultimate control of every aspect of life, why should we pray for His will to be done? Surely His will being done is a given?

Extending this thought, why pray at all? Indeed, if God’s mind is already made up and His will already established, how can we expect to change anything with our act of prayer?

The Bible makes it absolutely clear that indeed we should pray. Moreover, that our prayers make a tremendous difference on the earth.

And finally…

We could go on. We could cite Scriptures about God controlling the weather from Isaiah, or hardening Pharoah’s heart in the Exodus, or sending a great fish to swallow the reluctant prophet Jonah. Equally, we could look to Deuteronomy 30:19 where life and death, blessings and curses are set before us, and God encourages us to choose life!

Is it God, or man, who makes such choices?

We could go on…

I can’t hope to bring answers to all of these questions here. I also do not want this to come across as a crisis of faith – far from it. If anything, my conviction about the absolute supremacy and infallibility of Scripture is even stronger. I do not doubt His kindness or love, nor do I question His intentions.

I hope this makes you think if nothing else, and it certainly helps me to lay out my thoughts before you. Thanks for reading!

I say again that I can do no better than the apostle Paul who said, “who are you—mere man that you are—to talk back to God?

Indeed, I am not God, but I worship the One who is.