Lecture 2, God's Sovereignty:

As King of all creation, God exercises His sovereignty throughout the world. But how sovereign is sovereign? Are there realms in the created universe where God does not govern? Does God have the ability to save everyone? If He does, then why didn’t He? Dr. Sproul considers these questions in this message as he teaches us about the relationship between human freedom and “God’s Sovereignty.”

Message Transcript

In this session of our study of predestination, I want to focus our attention on the sovereignty of God. One of the reasons I think it’s important that we begin here with our study of the doctrine is that this is an area in which virtually all Christians agree. We agree that God is sovereign. How we understand the sovereignty of God may differ from Christian to Christian, but certainly we would all make the confession that God is sovereign.

The third chapter of the Westminster Confession begins with these words: “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and immutably (that is, without possibility of changing it) ordain whatsoever comes to pass;”—let me take a breath there at the point of the semi-colon.

No Different from Atheism

“God from all eternity according to His own holy and wise counsel, did freely and immutably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

I paused at that point in the seminary classroom and said to my students, “How many of you believe that statement?” You have to understand, this was a Presbyterian seminary, so these fellows were pretty well-steeped in the Augustinian tradition. I got about a 70% vote of those who believed it.

Then I said, “Okay, how many of you don’t believe that statement?” and thirty or so hands went in the air. I said: “Fine. Now let me ask another question. Without fear of recriminations—nobody’s going to jump all over you, we just would like to know, so feel free to state your position—how many of you would call yourselves atheists?” And nobody put their hand up.

So I went into my Lieutenant Columbo routine as if to say, “There’s just one thing here I can’t understand,” and I looked at those thirty who had raised their hands and said: “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? I can’t figure out why those of you who raised your hands saying you did not believe this statement didn’t raise your hand when I asked if you were atheists.” And they looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement and bewilderment—the same kind of looks I’m seeing in your eyes here today. I was saying, “Because if you don’t believe this statement, you understand that fundamentally, bottom line, you’re an atheist.” And that was about the most outrageous thing they ever heard in their lives.

I said: “Let’s understand that this statement I have just read, that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, is not a statement that is unique to Calvinism or to Presbyterianism. It doesn’t distinguish the Reformed tradition from other traditions. It doesn’t even distinguish Christians from Jews or from Muslims. This statement distinguishes theists from atheists.”

They were still puzzled as I continued this harangue. I said, “Don’t you see that if there is anything that happens in this world outside the foreordination of God, that if there’s no sense in which God is ordaining whatsoever comes to pass, then at whatever point something happens outside the foreordination of God, it is therefore happening outside of the sovereignty of God?”

Understand that when we talk about God’s ordaining things, there are different ways God ordains things to come to pass. This doesn’t necessarily mean that God jumps down onto the planet and makes something happen through a direct and immediate personal involvement on His part. But the trick in the statement has to do with the word “ordain.” All that statement means is that God is sovereign over anything that happens. Nothing in this world can happen apart from divine sovereignty.

We distinguish sometimes between God’s efficacious will and His permissive will. You’ve heard those kinds of distinctions, but let me state this in the easiest of all possible terms. If something happens in this world, whether by the power of men, the power of nature, the power of machines, etc., God always has the power and authority to at least prevent it from happening, does He not? And if He does not prevent it from happening, that means at least this much: He has chosen to let it happen.

That doesn’t mean that He applauds it. That doesn’t mean He’s in favor of it insofar as He gives His divine sanction to it. But He does allow it to happen (again, not always in the sense of approving) and, in so allowing, He is making a decision and making that decision sovereignly. He knows in advance what is going to happen, and if He decrees that it shall happen, He is retaining His sovereignty over it.

If things happen in this world outside the sovereignty of God, then that would simply mean God is not sovereign. The reason I brought up the question of atheism is because if God is not sovereign, God is not God. It’s that simple. If God is not sovereign, God is not God. And if the God you believe in is not a sovereign God, then you really don’t believe in God. You may have a theory of God. You may have theoretical theism. But bottom line, for all practical purposes, it’s no different from atheism because you are believing in a God who is not sovereign.

No Maverick Molecules

Now, what are the practical implications of a non-sovereign God? Think of it from the perspective of those of you who are professing Christians.

I like to explain it this way: if there is one molecule in the universe running loose, outside of the control of God’s sovereignty, what I like to call “one maverick molecule,” then the practical implication for us as Christians is that we have no guarantee whatsoever that any future promise God has made to His people will come to pass.

Remember when you were little kids, and you learned a little rhyme: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of the shoe, the horse was lost; for want of the horse, the rider was lost; for want of the rider, the battle was lost; for want of the battle, the war was lost”? One grain of sand in the kidney of Oliver Cromwell changed the whole course of western civilization. A tiny little thing like that can change the course of history. A bullet into the head of John Kennedy changed the course of American history.

If we have one maverick molecule running loose out there, we have no assurance whatsoever that this single molecule may not be the grain of sand in the machinery of God’s eternal plan. It may be the thing that runs amuck and makes it impossible, ultimately, for Christ to return to this planet. It may be the thing that destroys any hope for the consummation of the kingdom of God, leaving all those promises of God unfulfilled. There are no maverick molecules in a universe where God is sovereign. 

The Thorny Problem

I need to continue with what the Westminster Confession of Faith says. Remember, I gave you a semi-colon. After that semi-colon, the Confession is quick to add that, though God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, He does it in such a way “as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of secondary causes taken away, but rather established.”

We’re not talking about a rigid determinism that eliminates free creatures. But we are affirming a sovereign God who is sovereign even over free creatures. That is the point the Confession is making.

This brings us to the thorny problem that came up briefly in one of our discussion periods: If God is totally sovereign, and if people are fallen and some perish, how can God, who is sovereign, allow evil in the world? How can God allow people to perish? If God knows in advance, for example, that a certain person is going to be born, and is going to live their life, only to perish everlastingly in hell, how could a good God let that happen?

To set the problem even more graphically for you, let’s consider for a moment the relationship of a sovereign God to a world that is fallen, because there are two things that all Christians agree on: 1) that God is sovereign, and 2) that the world is fallen.

Don’t we all agree on that? Certainly there is no dispute on that point between Calvinists and Arminians, or Augustinians and semi-Pelagians. We all agree that God is sovereign, and we all agree that men are fallen. It’s the question of the relationship between a sovereign God to a fallen world that now grasps our concern and our attention.

Four Ways for God to Relate to a Fallen World

There are basically four ways in which God can relate as a sovereign God to a fallen world.

No Salvation

Number one: God could decide to give no one who is fallen an opportunity for salvation. His love is a just and holy love, and a just and holy God is never required to love a rebellious creation to the extent of extending mercy to it. He could love fallen man and punish fallen man, whom He loves, as an expression of His justice. More on that later. For now, let’s keep our eyes on the four things God could do. He could decide, “I will provide no opportunity for anybody to be saved.”

Now, before we go any further, let me ask you this question: If God decided not to save anybody, would there be anything wrong with that? If God decided to punish the entire human race for their rejection of God and rebellion to God, the only objection we could give at that point is that God is just—and that’s hardly an objection.

Can you imagine the attorney standing up in the courtroom and saying, “Objection, Your Honor. I don’t like that decision because it’s just.” How far would that go? God would be perfectly justified to exercise justice against an unjust creation.

But you see, lurking behind all of this is the assumption that God, if He’s really going to be a good God, must be merciful. As I’ve often said to my students, that is one of the greatest pitfalls in Christian thinking.

As soon as your mind tells you that God must be merciful, or that God ought to be kind—as soon as you think for a second that God is obligated to be merciful—a bell ought to go off in your head and alert you to the fact that you’re not thinking about mercy anymore.

The big difference between mercy and justice is that mercy is never, never, never obligatory. Mercy, by definition, is something God doesn’t have to do. It’s something that God does voluntarily and freely. But as soon as you think He owes us mercy, you’re not thinking about mercy anymore. Justice can be owed, but mercy is never obligatory. We have to understand this principle.

So that is one option: God could have said that nobody on this planet would be saved. Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and since He sees us and our fallenness from all eternity, He could decide to provide no opportunity for salvation.

Possible Salvation

The second option is that He could provide an opportunity for everyone to be saved. Actually, there are really six things that He could do (I’m just trying to shortcut this for the sake of time). I’ll add parenthetically that He could create an opportunity for some people to be saved.

The bottom line is that God could give the world an opportunity for salvation and set it up in such a way that everybody, or some people, at least would have a chance to be saved, but there is no guarantee that anybody would ever be saved. That is what we mean by “opportunity.” God is an equal opportunity redeemer in this scheme.

Ensured Salvation for Some

The third option is that God, exercising His power and His sovereignty, could intrude into the human situation, not only providing an opportunity for salvation, but also working in the hearts of fallen people to ensure the salvation of some.

Ensured Salvation for All

The fourth option is that He could ensure the salvation of everybody. That is, God can intervene for everybody, ensuring their salvation.

In His sovereignty, He could so guide the steps of a person and so inwardly influence their hearts as to actually bring them to faith. Does God have the power to do that? Yes. He could do that for some, or He could do that for everybody.

These are different options that God had. What we are trying to get at in this course is, “What in fact has He done?”

Two Clear Eliminations

Does the Bible indicate that God has provided no opportunity for anybody to be saved? We can eliminate that one right off the bat as Christians. There is no argument there; we all agree that it is not the biblical view to say that God has made no provision whatsoever for salvation.

How about the idea that God intervenes in everybody’s life and ensures the salvation of everyone? What do we call that view? Universalism. And there are Christians who believe in universalism, but the debate historically between semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism is not a debate over universalism. These two viewpoints both agree that, ultimately, only some people are saved. They are particularists rather than universalists.

The Bible seems to teach clearly that there are those who are ultimately lost and who, at the last judgment, will be lost. As our Lord indicates, some will be sent out into outer darkness forever, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Luke 13:22–28). We believe that there are some people who will never be redeemed, so universalism has to be eliminated.

We are left with these alternatives: either God gives an opportunity for all, or only some; or God does more than simply make an opportunity available—He actually comes in, intervenes, and ensures that some people are saved.

The position of Augustinianism is that God ensures the salvation of the elect, or of those who are predestined to be saved. The non-Augustinian views fall under the category of providing an opportunity for salvation so that God makes it possible for everybody, or for some, to be saved. Everybody has the opportunity, or some have the opportunity.

“That’s Not Fair!”

Before we debate about which one is actually the case, let me ask this question: Could God ensure the salvation of everyone, if He so decided? Does He have the sovereign power to do it?

Keep in mind that one of the most frequent objections to the Augustinian view of predestination is that God intervenes in the life of certain people and ensures their salvation, but He doesn’t do it for everybody. The objection from the non-Augustinian view is, “Hey God, that’s not fair! If you’re going to do it for some, then you ought to do it for everybody.”

But do you see that the non-Augustinian has the same problem? If this person believes that God has the power to bring everybody to salvation, and He doesn’t, that argument falls on its head because all God does in that case is give the opportunity to fallen men to be saved.

In the Augustinian view, God does more than give the opportunity. He ensures that some people will be saved. In the non-Augustinian scheme, there is no assurance that anybody will be saved. In fact, as we will see later, if we take seriously the biblical view of fallen man and his attitude toward God and God’s grace, it assures us that nobody would be saved.

In other words, what I’m getting at is that one of the chief objections to the Reformed (or Augustinian) position is that it’s not gracious enough, when in fact it’s so much more gracious because God doesn’t just say, “Okay, here’s the cross, choose it if you will,” and leave people to themselves. Rather, God applies the work of Christ. The Holy Spirit works in people who are dead in sin and trespasses in order to bring them to faith and to ensure that the death of Christ is never in vain. Christ will see the travail of His soul and be satisfied (Isa. 53:11). The Scriptures speak of God the Father giving people to God the Son (John 6:37).

An Opportunity for Everybody?

What the non-Augustinian view has going for us is that, theoretically, the opportunity is at least given to everybody. Anybody who believes in the gospel can be saved.

However, there are millions and millions and millions of people who never hear the gospel and who, in fact, don’t have the opportunity. The only thing we can really talk about on the non-Augustinian side is that some have the opportunity to be saved. That is, the non-Augustinian argument would be that everyone who hears the gospel at least has an opportunity to be saved.

God, however, has not made sure that everybody in the world hears the gospel. Could God make sure that everybody in the world hears the gospel? Could God print it in the clouds if He wanted to? Yes, but He doesn’t. So we are left with the problem that God does not do everything He conceivably could do within the bounds of His own righteousness. He does not do everything conceivable to ensure the salvation of the world.

Why not? I don’t know. I have no idea. I know that He doesn’t, that much is clear. And I know that there is no shadow of turning in Him. I know that God is under no obligation to save anybody, and I know that God does save some.

Justice, Injustice, and Non-Justice

But God is God, and God reminds His people of one crucial principle of divine sovereignty, which we will look at more closely later on in this course, where God reminds Moses, and then later the church through Paul, of His divine prerogative: “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15).

God never owes mercy.

If God only saves some people, then we have to understand that there are two groups of people in the world—the saved and the unsaved—but they are all part of a group of sinners. All are fallen and all are in rebellion against God.

What God does, according to the Augustinian view, is that He sovereignly elects, chooses, and redeems some, and the rest He passes over. So what you have in this schema is that one group gets mercy, and what does the other group get? Justice. Who gets injustice? Nobody gets injustice.

Now, mercy is not justice. Mercy is non-justice, and injustice is non-justice. But injustice and mercy are not the same thing. They’re both outside the category of justice. In one category we have justice, and in another we have non-justice. Non-justice is of two types: mercy and injustice.

So one form of non-justice is mercy. Is there anything sinful or wicked about mercy? No, mercy is perfectly good. Is there anything sinful or wicked about injustice? Yes, injustice is a violation of justice. Injustice is sin. Injustice is evil.

If God gave mercy to one group and injustice to another, then God would have His integrity compromised. But God gives justice to one group and mercy to another. Nobody has ever been a victim of injustice at the hands of God.

I need to stop at this point and say that, in our next session, we will consider where man’s free will comes into play in all of this.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.