The Sovereignty of God—Has God Lost Control?
The condition of our world is such today that many are questioning whether the classical doctrine of the Absolute Sovereignty of Almighty God can still have any meaning. Human society is in a state of seething unrest. Quite apart from such “natural” calamities as famine and flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes, there is an appalling carnage and destruction of modern warfare, bringing death and devastation to civilian and soldier alike. There is no corner of the globe that is not a potential battlefield, ripe for an annihilating holocaust. Scientific achievements which hold out immense benefits to mankind are perverted into machines of slaughter and instruments of lying propaganda. While millions are perishing for want of the barest necessities of existence billions are being spent on the build-up of death-dealing weapons capable of the blotting out of still more millions. The conquest of outer space vastly expands the opportunities for international espionage and the raining down of destruction on the cities and countries of our planet. At the same time the alarming increase in senseless violence, brutality, and crime within the communities of mankind goes hand in hand with the alarming increase in mindless superstition, moral degeneracy, and gross materialism. It is a dark and frightening scene indeed! What has happened to God? Is he really sovereign? Can we really believe that he is almighty?
Two cautions are necessary: firstly, we must beware of judging by appearances only; and, secondly, we must beware of blaming God for the sickness of our world. It is true that on all sides we see men and nations behaving with the utmost insanity and the most callous inhumanity, not to mention their casual unconcern for God and his laws. But it does not follow that God has lost control of the world. Nor does it follow that he is either powerless or unwilling to intervene and set things right. The fault, as Cassius admonished Brutus, is not in heaven above but in ourselves. It is man, not God, who is responsible for the mess this world is in. Generation after generation, man is pleased to listen to the satanic lie that in rebelling against God he himself will be as God (Gen. 3:4f.). Moreover, in suppressing the truth about God (Rom. 1:18ff.) man simultaneously suppresses the truth about himself; for the denial of his Creator is in fact the denial of his own creatureliness. And this in turn is the denial of the true meaning of his existence, since it is only in his creaturely relationship to and dependence on his Creator, who is the source of his existence and also of his knowledge, that man can realize the purpose and the integrity of his being.
Thus in the folly of his wickedness and ingratitude man cuts himself adrift from the source of his existence and of the meaning of his existence. His condition, consequently, has become one of lostness and alienation, in which he is estranged from God, from his fellow men, and from himself, because of the disruptive effect of sin at the very center of his being. How can it be otherwise when he has exchanged the truth for a lie and worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25)? Man has set up Satan, who also is a creature and certainly no god, as the god of this age (II Cor. 4:4), with the result that, while the Christian believer knows he is of the true and only God since in Christ his vital relationship with his Creator has been restored, the whole world is in the power of the evil one (I John 5:19; cf. John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Eph. 2:2). This is the biblical diagnosis of the world’s sickness. Yet, even so, granting that this is the true state of affairs, the question may still be asked: Why does not God take action to rid his world of this usurpation?
The answer to this question is, briefly, that God both has taken action and also will take action. What is meant by this will soon be more fully explained. First, however, it must be emphasized that God’s action, precisely because it is God’s action, cannot fail to be effective action. In other words, it is important that we should have a proper conception of what is implied when we speak of God. The powerlessness of the churches today is to a major degree due to the fact that preachers and theologians have, so to speak, reduced the size of God. They have presented a God who is too small. They have depicted him as subject to the contingencies of our finitude. Many, indeed, have diminished him to merely human proportions. But the infinity of God cannot be reduced or diminished. God, by definition, is the Supreme, the Infinite, the Eternal Being who as Creator necessarily exercises absolute sovereignty over the whole of creation. This is the meaning of the term “God,” and if we speak of God in lesser terms we cease to speak of God and are speaking instead of a figment of man’s imagination or a projection of his arrogance. We must, as Luther put it, let God be God!
If, therefore, we speak of God, we are speaking of him who is absolutely sovereign. To challenge the sovereignty of God is inescapably to challenge God himself. To confine him within any degree of relativity or contingency is to dethrone him and to bring all things under the chaotic uncertainty of uncontrolled chance. God who is not completely sovereign is a contradiction in terms. Under God, however, all things without exception are fully controlled. Hence when God sovereignly takes action, as he has done and as he will yet do, he cannot fail to do so in a manner which is altogether effective. The reality of the sovereignty of God and the infallible power of his action may be considered under three main headings, namely, creation, redemption, and judgment.
All things were created and brought into existence by the will of God (Rev. 4:11; Eph. 3:9; Gen. 1:1). As the maker is master of what he has made, so God is sovereign over the whole of his creation. Created reality is the expression of the divine will, and in its cosmic perfection it reflects the perfect order of the divine mind. As, moreover, nothing that God does is aimless or futile or without purpose, so creation, designed in accordance with the will of God, is conformed to the purpose of its Creator. The sovereignty of God is displayed in the indefectibility of all that he purposes: a failure of his purpose would be a failure of his sovereignty. And all things are from him and through him and to him (Rom. 11:36); it is for him as well as by him that they exist (Heb. 2:10). That the divine purpose in creation should meet with frustration is unthinkable, for then it could not be the divine purpose. It is unimaginable, likewise, that God should abandon his creation and allow it to collapse into perdition, for this would mean the abandonment and the defeat of his purpose, which in turn would argue that he does not possess that sovereign supremacy which belongs properly to God alone, and thus is not God after all.
Accordingly, we find that as Creator God also sustains his creation. Not only were all things brought into being through the Word, who is God the Son (John 1:3), but the Son also upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3—where the sense of the Greek verb is not static but dynamic: he bears the universe onward to its destined goal). A father who begets a son also cares and provides for him; how much more does God care and provide for his creation! This is what we mean when we speak of divine providence; for providence is the corollary of creation. The whole created order is totally dependent on God not merely at the moment when it is brought into being, but at every moment for the continuation of its existence. The psalmist expressed this truth in the following words: O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures… . These all look to thee to give them their food in due season. When thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things (Ps. 104:24, 27f.).
The providence of God is seen, year after year, in the unfailing sequence of the seasons, in the blessings of sunshine and rain and the productivity of the earth, in seedtime and harvest. It is apparent also in the settled courses, of the heavenly bodies, indeed in the orderliness of all things, whether it be the immensities of cosmic space or the minute and astonishing patterns of the differentiated and precisely functioning cell-structures of animal and plant life and the marvelous designs even of inanimate matter. No less wonderful is the discovery that the basis of all matter is energy, that every infinitesimal atom has its own solar system the potential energy of which is beyond our comprehension. Such is the dynamism of God’s creation. All things, both great and small, testify to the wisdom, the purpose, and the power of Almighty God, who by his word has brought them into being and who by the same word also providentially sustains his creation and carries it forward to the destiny he has willed for it. The dynamic of providence, then, is identical with the dynamic of creation, namely, the totally efficacious word of the divine will.
But, again, all is not well in our world. Evil is present as well as good, darkness as well as light. On all sides human society is marred by hatred, greed, brutality, and irrational behavior of every kind. Even the individual self is torn asunder by passions and frustrations. The disintegrating force of sin is such that it threatens the very structure of creation. Why does not God take effective action to deal with this problem? Why does he not assert his sovereignty? To this we have already said that God both has taken and also will again take action for the vindication of his sovereignty. But first it must be affirmed that sin, though mysterious in its origin and destructive in its effect, presents no threat to God and the fulfillment of his will. The devil, who is the leader of the rebellion against God and his sovereignty, has no possibility of success. To be sure, we know evil as a dreadful reality, and there are depths here which our understanding cannot plumb; but, as we have already observed, the very fact that creation is the work of God and the expression of the will of God means that it cannot fail of its purpose. Satanic evil is indeed an assault upon the sovereignty of God, but it is doomed by its own futility. The assault has been going on for a very long time now; God, however, continues providentially to sustain his creation in accordance with his indefectible purpose.
At the same time God certainly does not ignore evil as though it did not exist; nor is he powerless to deal conclusively with it. The action he has already taken, sovereignly and decisively, for the eradication of evil from his creation is the sending of his Son into the world to partake of our human nature, so that “through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:14f.). This is the intervention of God, for, as St. Paul explains, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (II Cor. 5:19). The divine sovereignty is evident, moreover, in the fact that in this reconciling work the initiative belongs entirely to God. The prior love of God for his creation is the sole foundation for its redemption (John 3:16). To quote St. Paul again: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); or as St. John says: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). Christians, therefore, ascribe their salvation entirely to the sovereign grace of God, who has miraculously raised them from the death of sin to the new life in Christ. This is their confession: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… . For by grace we have been saved through faith; and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:4f., 8).
Thus the incarnation itself is an act of God’s sovereignty. Far from its being a makeshift operation to meet an unforeseen emergency, it took place in fulfillment of the promises and prophecies given from the earliest times onwards, as the pages of both Old and New Testaments testify. And it took place in the moment in man’s history sovereignly chosen by God. Hence the apostolic affirmation that “when the time had fully come God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4). The Son’s coming into our world was his sovereign coming to fulfill a predetermined purpose, namely, “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Appearances, however, were to the contrary. It is true that the divine power and glory of the incarnate Son shone through for all who were not blinded by prejudice to see in his wonderful works of mercy and healing and in the sublime perfection of his teaching. But in his humble poverty, without property or possessions, he did not look like God incarnate; when he was thirsty and fatigued he did not look like God incarnate; alone in the wilderness and close to death after forty days and nights without food he did not look like God incarnate; when he was arrested, falsely accused, and unjustly condemned, and most of all when he was nailed to the cross and died there, and when his dead body was taken down and laid in the tomb, he did not look like God incarnate. Appearances proclaimed the contrary, for all seemed lost in the dark powerlessness of death. Even his apostles were engulfed in despair.
But the reality was quite otherwise. At every moment of all that happened God was in complete control. Christ’s death on the cross was precisely the fulfillment of the purpose of his coming into the world. It was for this reason that he became man, for specifically as man he was able to offer himself, the holy and just one, in the place of mankind, defiled and separated from God by sin, and by bearing our sins and their punishment to bring about the exchange of his righteousness for our unrighteousness (I Pet. 1:18; 2:24; 3:18; II Cor. 5:21). Thus the incarnate Son sovereignly proceeds to Calvary: “I lay down my life that I may take it again,” he declares. “None takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17f.).
This does not mean that what was done to Jesus was not sinful and wicked; on the contrary, in the judicial murder of him who was the incarnate Son we see the greatest concentration of evil and hatred in the history of the world. But God’s sovereignty is shown in the fact that he makes the lowest depth of human viciousness to be at the same time the highest summit of divine grace. Instead of frustrating the divine purpose of our redemption, the satanic raging against Christ actually promotes it! This striking perspective is certainly that of the apostolic Church. Thus, for example, Peter proclaims that Jesus, though “killed by the hands of lawless men,” was actually “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); and, on a later occasion, the disciples express their interpretation of the recent events in Jerusalem as they pray to God in the following terms: “Truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27f.). Their intention, of course, was exactly the opposite, but God sovereignly overrules their enmity for the fulfillment of his own redemptive purposes. Thus the complete futility of all opposition to the divine will is demonstrated, and we see that God truly “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).
The redemptive work of Christ not only brings salvation to mankind but also achieves the restoration of the whole created order in accordance with God’s unchanging purposes. Just as man, who had been given dominion over the works of God’s hands (Gen.1:26-28; Ps. 8:6), dragged down the rest of creation with himself when he fell away from God, so also the salvation of man means the raising up of the rest of creation with himself as in Christ he is reconciled to God. By virtue of Christ’s saving work “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
The effect of redemption, then, is a new creation, or the renewal of creation, in Christ, that is to say, the bringing of the created order to its destined goal as sovereignly decreed by God. Thus the man who is in Christ is a new creation (II Cor. 5:17); he has experienced a new birth (John 1:13; 3:3, 5); he is God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that he should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). God, who at creation said, “Let light shine out of the darkness,” renews his creation by causing the light of his glory to shine in the heart of man (II Cor. 4:6). Now, therefore, “according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Pet. 3:13), evermore free from pain, sorrow, defilement, and death (Rev. 21:4, 22-27). This is the predestined fulfillment of all God’s purposes in the creation of the world and the ultimate vindication of the divine sovereignty.
But, it may again be objected, if God has sovereignly and decisively intervened by the coming of Christ into the world, why is the world still in such a sorry state, nearly two thousand years after his coming? Where are the peace and justice that he came to establish? The answer to such questions is that God, who has already intervened redemptively in Christ, will intervene yet once more, this time in judgment, when Christ comes again at the end of this age. The day of reckoning will surely come and then the rule of universal peace and righteousness will be fully and eternally set up. Meanwhile the risen and ascended Redeemer is already glorified and enthroned (Acts 5:30f.; Phil. 2:9; Heb. 1:3; 8:1), and those who acknowledge him as Saviour and Lord know the joyful love and peace of his rule in their lives.
Judgment, after all, belongs to the very fabric of society. Human dignity suffers a monstrous affront when crime and violence are allowed to flourish unchecked. The whole system of justice which condemns and punishes the guilty is a necessity if we are to live together with any degree of sanity as communities. And this in itself is a reflection of the justice of God, who is the source not only of all life and knowledge but also of all authority. St. Paul even describes those who exercise civil authority, commending well-doing and punishing wrong-doing, as ministers of God (Rom. 13:6). The distinction between right and wrong operates at every level of our existence. Government is expected to be just and impartial; business must be honorably conducted; schools must function in accordance with approved standards of learning and behavior; in the family there must be discipline and mutual respect; and there would be no point or possibility of games and sporting contests if they were not played according to prescribed rules, with the imposition of suitable penalties for infractions, and with acquiescence in the decisions of umpires and referees. With our awareness of right and wrong, fair and foul, we instinctively accept judgment as a necessary part of everyday life.
The injustices which we now deplore in the world as it now is cry out for judgment. This is generally agreed. But this agreement makes no sense if there is no absolute standard of justice and .no supreme judge. It is in effect an acknowledgment both of the necessity and of the inevitability of ultimate judgment. Now if we, finite and fallen though we are, have this sense of what is just, “shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). The Lord is indeed a God of justice (Isa. 30:18), who “will judge the world with righteousness” (Ps. 96:13). Moreover, as St. Paul told his Athenian audience, “God commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness,” and respecting this final judgment, which will be executed by Christ, God “has given assurance by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30f.). The apparent delay of judgment affords the opportunity for repentance and is a sign of the forbearance, not the weakness, of God, “who does not wish that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Pet. 3:9). All history, none the less, is moving towards the coming of Christ Jesus in glory, when he will judge the living and the dead (II Tim. 4:1).
This universal judgment, then, will be God’s final act of intervention. It will effect the purging from creation of all that is unjust and ugly and hateful. It will establish for evermore the reign of justice and righteousness throughout the whole created order (Isa. 9:7). God, who in the fulness of time acted for our redemption in Christ Jesus, will again at his appointed hour act for the ultimate judgment and permanent purification of his creation. Thus his absolute sovereignty will be conclusively demonstrated to the whole world and his purposes as Creator, Redeemer, and Judge everlastingly achieved.
Meanwhile those who know the transforming power of the gospel expectantly move on to the glorious consummation which awaits them, with the assurance that as their new life in Christ is entirely due to the sovereign grace of God so also he who has begun a good work in them “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). On the other hand, those who refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of their Creator and despise the redemption freely offered in Christ Jesus hasten on inexorably to the destiny of final judgment. All at last will confess the supremacy of Almighty God and the triumph of his will both in creation and also in the renewal of creation, as they experience either the joy of his redemption or the terror of his judgment (John 3:36).
The serene constancy of the divine will is displayed, finally, in the declaration that those who are God’s redeemed were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), indeed, that their names were “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain” (Rev. 13:8). It is precisely the unassailable sovereignty of Almighty God and the immutability of his will which guarantee the unshakeable security of those who by grace and through faith are united to Christ and also the inevitability of judgment for those who persist in suppressing the truth of the eternal power and deity of him who is the Creator of all. (Rom. 1:18ff.). Has God lost control? Indeed not: he is still, as he always has been and always will be, the Sovereign Lord of his creation!
Dr. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes was a visiting professor of, New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa. Dr. Hughes received his B.A., M.A., and D.L.H. from the University of Cape Town, his B.D. from the University of London, and his Th.D. from the Australian College of Theology. Known as one of the finest minds in New Testament studies, Dr. Hughes has written the Commentary on Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (N.I.C.N.T. Series) and has contributed to and edited numerous works including Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology.