How does God display his sovereignty?
by: Roger Smalling, D.Min
Excerpt from Smalling's book, Unlocking Grace
Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. Matthew 10:29
According to Jesus, the Father controls the lives of animals. Not even the most insignificant bird can die without God’s permission. The same is true for us, Jesus said. We are worth much more than the birds, and cannot die until our Father allows it.
God brought quail to the Israelites. He closed the lions’ mouths in the presence of Daniel. He placed a coin in the mouth of a fish that Peter would catch. He used frogs, lice and flies as judgment on Egypt. He sent grasshoppers against Israel, brought the animals to Noah’s ark, and fed Elisha by means of ravens.
God also manifests his sovereignty through use of the inanimate. He controlled the Flood, sent darkness, hail and fire upon the Egyptians. Christ rebuked and calmed the storm. God caused the sun to stand still at the command of Joshua. Not even a fly can buzz without divine permission.
Over human governments and the human race
And he has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, Acts 17:26
The first thing Paul preached to the Athenian pagans was the sovereignty of God. He realized that this truth is central to a proper understanding of the Gospel.
The book of Daniel is a complete study of God’s sovereignty in human government. God taught King Nebuchadnezzar a difficult lesson about Who establishes kings on the earth. (Daniel 4:17) After having received divine punishment for his pride, the king recognized this with the words,
All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; he does according to his will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain his hand Or say to him, What have You done? Daniel 4:35
Over the human will
Can God overrule the limits of the human will? Does God’s sovereignty extend even to man’s will and thoughts? The Scriptures provide an answer.
The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, Like the rivers of water; he turns it wherever he wishes. Proverbs 21:1
For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill his purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. Revelation 17:17
If it is easy for God to alter the course of a river, then it would not be difficult to change the heart of a king. So if he can change even a king’s heart, how much more the hearts of ordinary men?
God gave Israel favor in the sight of the Egyptian people, and then hardened Pharaoh’s heart to show his power.
And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.
Then I will harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he will pursue them ... Exodus 12:36; 14:4
There are many plans in a man's heart, Nevertheless the Lord's counsel that will stand. Proverbs 19:21
True, man has a will. But it is not sovereign. Some have preached as though the will of man were a holy ground on which God himself cannot tread. The only inviolable will in the universe, is God’s.
God never compels anyone to sin. Though he is sovereign, he cannot be accused of being the Author of sin. Man sins because he has a sinful nature, not because God compels him.
Nevertheless, no one can sin unless God permits it. The Bible reveals that even the circumstances surrounding sinful acts are under God’s sovereign control. He has power to prevent or to allow man to sin. It is just as offensive to declare that God cannot prevent man from sinning as to declare that God causes sin.
How can God limit sin and control its circumstances without being guilty of causing it?
When a rat is placed in a cage, it usually runs around the inside walls. Rarely will it just sit in the middle of the cage, because its natural environment is usually closed-in areas such as tunnels, under the ground, etc. Rats feel more comfortable pressing against something. If we want to see a rat running in circles, we simply place it in a round cage. Its movements are predictable without any violation of its nature.
The same happens with man. God controls his sinful actions by simply arranging the circumstances surrounding the act. Through his intimate knowledge of the nature and character of those involved, God remains in control of everything, yet is not responsible for the sin committed. He obliges no one to sin, though he may indeed arrange the circumstances that allow people to express what is already in their heart.
The outstanding example of this is the arrest and crucifixion of Christ.
Jesus said to them, Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord's doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes'? Matthew 21:42
Paradoxically the rejection of Christ by the Jews was something that Matthew attributed to God. Not only did he know about it ahead of time, but, The Lord has done this. Nevertheless, the Jewish leaders acted according to their own desires, without compulsion. God’s will of command told them not to harm his prophets. God’s will of purpose decreed that this was exactly what needed to take place to fulfill his higher purposes in redemption.
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together, …to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Acts 4:27-28
The sovereignty of God and man’s freedom run together through Scripture like two train rails. They complement each another. The Bible writers never considered this a contradiction. They affirmed the two, as shown in the preceding text, without the slightest reservation.
Motivated by selfishness and hatred, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Obedience to God was farthest from their minds. Notwithstanding, the Scriptures describe this treachery as a divine act.
So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. Genesis 45:8
But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Genesis 50:20
As part of the divine judgment upon David for his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, God declares that other men will lie with the wives of David, before all Israel. The way this decree is expressed is very revealing:
Thus says the Lord: 'Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.' 2 Samuel 12:11-12
When David’s son Absalom temporarily ruled, he committed incest with his father’s wives. Though it seems odd to assert it, this happened as God’s judgment on David. God himself raised up Absalom as a rebel against David and decreed this would take place. Nonetheless, Absalom alone was guilty of the sins of rebellion and incest although God decreed these acts as judgments.
How could God decree this and remain holy? The Lord simply provided Absalom the opportunity to express what was already in his perverse heart.
Doctrines of this type are like raw meat for some people ...hard to swallow. But they are the clear teachings of the word of God. If God is sovereign over all, then he is also sovereign over evil. Otherwise, we cannot call him sovereign.
Other Scriptural examples of the sovereignty of God over evil are: King Saul killed himself by falling on his own sword, according to 1Chronicles 10:4. Yet in Chapter 5, verse 14 we note that it was God Who killed him.
The Apostle Paul teaches that the unbelief of the Jews forms part of the divine plan to include the Gentiles in the covenant of grace. (Romans 11:7-11)
When David fled from Jerusalem, Shimei cursed him. This was wicked on Shimei’s part. Nonetheless, David recognized that Shimei did what the Lord had decreed.
Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the lord has ordered him. 2Samuel 16:11
Even evil spirits are under God’s control. God sent an evil spirit to speak through the false prophets during Ahab’s reign.
Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you. 1Kings 22:23
The deceptions that afflict men sometimes come from God as judgments for rejecting the truth. The sovereign Lord himself chooses the kind of deception suffered.
And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. 1Thessalonians 2:11
I also will choose their delusions ...Isaiah 66:4
The Scriptures attribute to the Lord the stubbornness of Eli’s sons in spurning their father’s reproaches. God allowed them to express their wickedness as judgment against Eli for his fatherly negligence and poor example as priest.
Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the Lord desired to kill them. 1Samuel 2:25
Sickness came into the world because of sin. But, Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Exodus 4:11
A hurricane destroys a town. A landslide buries a village. If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it? Amos 3:6b
Although Satan is an active agent of evil, divine permission limits his activities. Like a tethered dog, he has freedom up to the length of the leash. The same is true of man. We know who holds the other end of the leash.
A comforting tension
We find ourselves in a philosophical tension between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. This tension may feel uncomfortable. How can we arrive at a comfortable position?
The answer is that we cannot escape the discomfort entirely. Paradoxically, God wants us to experience comfort in the midst of an uncomfortable tension. He considers this tension healthy for us. God’s sovereign power on one side, and man’s responsibility on the other, are two truths, neither of which we can abandon.
As the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer put it, For God to be God, and for man to be man, both must be true.[i]
Jesus went to the cross conscious that the time of darkness had arrived. Although he knew that the agents of darkness had captured him, it was not into the darkness that he commended his Spirit. He accepted the cup of suffering from the hand of the Father, not as from Satan. He did not rejoice in the pain, but in the greater good that would result. This is the consolation point in the tension where God wants us to live.
[i] Spoken in this author’s presence at L’Abri, Switzerland during a discourse to students, c. 1968.