Saturday, May 14, 2016
Divine Sovereignty and Why It Matters
For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me. (Isa. 46:9)
This post attempts to answer the question, why it is important for Christians to have a firm understanding of divine sovereignty? There are three basic elements that deserve most of our focus where this doctrine is concerned: 1) what is the definition of divine sovereignty? 2) why is it important? 3) what are the implications of this doctrine for practical Christian living (Christian praxis)? Contrary to what many modern pastors would have you believe, theology matters. Why does it matter? It matters because you live what you believe every day. Therefore, if your belief is in error, your behavior will be as well. It really is that simple. Your love for others is based on a belief. Your church attendance is based on a belief. You will vote or not vote, and do so in a certain way because you have formed a certain belief about it. Theology matters! It matters a lot. Think about this: the idea that theology doesn’t matter is a belief. In other words, to say we should not take a theological position on a particular position is to take a theological position on a position. The claim that theology does not matter is a self-refuting position that should be abandoned by any serious thinker.
What does Christian theism mean when it makes the claim that God is absolutely sovereign over all the affairs of humanity? In order to answer this question, we must turn to the only source at our disposal for such an inquiry: divine Scripture. There is no other source for how one should understand and define the concept of divine sovereignty than the Christian Scriptures. When Moses asked God who it was that spoke to Him from the burning bush, God said, ʾehĕye ʾăšer ʾehĕye, I am who I am. I think John Frame is right to point out that this exchange took place within the context of God’s promise to deliver Israel from the most dominating government of that time. Surely it points to the Lordship of God as the all-controlling one. In fact, not only did God demonstrate his control over Pharoah and this government, He demonstrated His control over nature in the plagues He brought upon the Egyptians for their sinful rebellion against God’s right to be acknowledged and worshipped. Ps. 93:1 says the LORD reigns. The first words of Scripture, “In the beginning, God created,” testify to God’s absolute sovereign control over all of creation. When we say that God is absolutely sovereign, we are saying that God is the self-sufficient, independent being. He relies on no one or nothing for anything and all things rely on Him. All things are dependent on God for their existence.
When Christian theism affirms divine sovereignty, it is affirming the view that God is in complete control of all that has happened, is happening, or ever will happen. Christian theism is affirming that God does not depend on anyone or anything to carry out His divine plan.
Second, what God controls, God controls efficaciously. John Frame says it well when he writes, “To say that God’s controlling power is efficacious is simply to say that it always accomplishes its purpose. God never fails to accomplish what he sets out to do. Creatures may oppose him, to be sure, but they cannot prevail.” [Frame, The Doctrine of God] The prophet Isaiah said it like this, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” (Isa. 46:10) There is nothing that can stand between God and His purpose. This verb is translated in LXX by bouleuō or a compound over seventy times, “to give counsel, deliberate, purpose, determine.” [Theological Workbook of the OT] The only way that God can make such bold proclamations about his purpose, or what he has determined, is if he is absolutely sovereign. God’s sovereignty is efficacious to the point that God says that even the bird that flies in from the east does so because God brought it to pass and the man that comes from a far country only does so because God wills it.
Another example of what Christian theism means by divine sovereignty is found in Romans 9:21, “Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” And then again in Eph. 1:11, “also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” So when we say that God is sovereign, we are not saying that God is just a great big overseer in the sky watching men exercise their free-will with His permission. This is essentially what theologians call general sovereignty. This view claims that God has limited what he can do and control. This is not what we mean when we say that God is sovereign. The references above would indicate that God’s control is not general. To say that even the birds are directed by God is clearly pointing to God’s specific control over the smallest events. That is what we mean when we say that God is sovereign.
The reason the doctrine of divine sovereignty is important is because it is clearly taught in Scripture. Daniel 4:35 says that God does according to His will. Job 42:2 informs us that no purpose of God can be thwarted. Ps. 115:3 tells us that God does whatever he pleases. Eph. 1:11 is especially helpful in understanding divine sovereignty. God is said to be working all things according to the counsel of his will. “For God to guarantee that his decree will be accomplished means that on at least some occasions libertarian free will must be overridden. If not, there is no guarantee with libertarian freedom that God’s ends will be achieved.” [Feinberg, No One Like Him] There are multiple examples that could be offered to show that apparent acts of freedom could not have been truly outside the sovereign control of God. The numerous events of the crucifixion of Christ would clearly place divine sovereignty in conflict with libertarian freedom. There could be no guarantee of redemption if libertarian freedom is true. If God is not sovereign, it is possible that the death of Christ on the cross could have failed to convert a single soul. After all, libertarian freedom places salvation not in the control of God but, for the most part, in the control of man. Finally, a failure to understand the sovereignty of God is a failure to know God properly. “A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology, but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse.” [Tozer, A Knowledge of the Holy]
When we fail to understand divine sovereignty, we inevitably get our roles mixed up with God’s role. We witness all sorts of gimmicks, programs, methods, etc. in churches the world over. We believe that converting souls and persuading men to believe is really our responsibility. We believe that men can see and believe the gospel within their own natural abilities. We think that if we can introduce the right kind of music, create the right sort of programs, put together the perfect youth program, preach certain kinds of sermons, make just the right arguments, offer up just the right evidence, we will succeed in growing our churches. If we would just invest a little energy in accessing Scripture and seeking to understand the kind of God it is that is revealed there, we might spare ourselves a lot of time and resources.
If libertarian free-will is true, then divine freedom is false. If God is not absolutely free, it necessarily follows that God is not sovereign. If God is not sovereign, then chance rules the day. And if chance rules the day, then God cannot be trusted to deliver on a single thing he has promised to do. And if God cannot be trusted to deliver on his promises, he is just another god unworthy of worship and devotion. By now you should feel the nearness of the Greek gods in this scenario of sovereignty. A deficient understanding of sovereignty, when taken to its logical end, produces a god much like that of the Greek pantheon. If this is true, then it seems that it matters a great deal what we believe about divine sovereignty.
But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. (Ps. 115:3)
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