One sixteenth-century confession claims that “nothing happens in this world without [God’s] orderly arrangement.”1 Actually, every Reformed confession says this or something similar. “God’s sovereignty”—His freedom from external control—“is the marrow of doctrinal Calvinism.”2
But is God’s sovereignty real? Is God truly in control of everything? And if so, how should God’s absolute rule affect the way we live?
What does Scripture teach about God’s sovereignty?
God’s sovereignty is shown in His providence—His total rule over His creation. Here’s how God describes His dominion:
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isa. 45:7)
Humans are the crown of creation. But not even the most important person can outmaneuver God’s providence:
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he wills. (Prov. 21:1)
Jesus’ argues that if God governs even the seemingly insignificant things—such as the hairs that fall daily from our bodies (Matt. 10:30)—then surely He also rules over the big events of history. Nothing escapes God’s notice or eludes His control:
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases. (Ps. 115:3)
If we lived in a sinless world, accepting God’s sovereign providence would be simple. But what about when things go against us? Scripture teaches that God so restrains Satan and all our enemies that they cannot hurt us without His permission. But sometimes they do—and God wills it (Job 1:12; 2:6):
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6)
Sovereignty is complicated, so it is important to understand the purpose behind God’s governing of both good and evil. If God’s providences seem blameworthy to us it is because we forget that God is executing His good plan and has plenty of patience. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, no one but God could see the intended end: the Lord sent Joseph to Egypt to keep many people alive by his shrewd leadership (Gen. 50:20). The providential medicine in Joseph’s life brought sweet salvation, even if it tasted bitter.
God’s sovereignty and the wicked acts of men coordinate most shockingly in the death of Jesus. God used “the hands of lawless men” to execute His “definite plan” to offer His precious Son as payment for our sins (Acts 2:23; 4:28). God works all things according to His holy will. For believers, this is always good (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:28).
What does a faithful response to God’s sovereignty look like?
Sovereignty may not seem to warrant any response, but it does. After all, “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means.”3 For example, God promised that no one would die on Paul’s doomed ship (Acts 27:24). But He also required the travelers to stay on board (Acts 27:31). So, what does a faithful response to God’s sovereignty look like?
Particularly hard providences tempt us to curse heaven. Job’s wife sensed God’s hand in their tragedy but failed to revere His sovereign activity. Her husband asked a critical question: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). All providence warrants obeisance (Job 1:20).
The sovereign God who values His children is always in full command (Matt. 10:31; Ps. 121:3–4). If you know Christ as Savior, the Spirit as Comforter, and God as Father, then you can trust divine providence. A holy God will never cast away His children. No trying circumstances can divert you from God’s loving plan for your life (Rom. 8:38–39). In fact, God sometimes troubles His children “to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself.”4
Young children assume the doctor is cruel for administering a shot. Mature Christians regard God’s providence more carefully. The once-confident Job came to realize his ignorance of divine ways: “I have uttered what I did not understand” (Job 42:3; see also Ps. 77:19). As students of Christ, we should claim to know only what He has revealed to us and admit our lack of understanding in hidden matters.
Proper grappling with God’s sovereignty produces worship. God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge are deep, His judgments unsearchable, and His ways inscrutable. We know little of His mind beyond what He has revealed to us in His Word. Mustn’t we then worship Him “to whom be glory forever” (Rom. 11:33–36)?
Before the English pilgrims set out for America, their Calvinist pastor, John Robinson, pronounced this blessing: “He who hath made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all rivers of waters, and whose providence is over all His works, especially over all His dear children for good . . . guide and guard you in your ways, as inwardly by His spirit, so outwardly by the hand of his power.”5 Based on the pilgrims’ rough first year, a critic might claim the prayer had failed. But those inwardly guided by God’s Spirit know better. God’s sovereign providence never fails to accomplish His good will.
- Belgic Confession of Faith, art. 13.↩
- Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Lake Mary, Fl.: Reformation Trust, 2008), 40.↩
- Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.3.↩
- Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.5.↩
- Jordan D. Fiore, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth (Plymouth: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985), 10.↩