Sovereignty of God
The Sovereignty of God is misunderstood by many. The correct understanding is important to rightly appreciate the true character of God. It also helps to answer the “why” questions that people ask in relation to the many struggles of life.
Traditional Legal Model – God can do whatever He pleases. Some believe He determines everything that happens, all of our choices, even whether we will be saved or lost (predestination as promoted by Calvinism).
Biblical Healing Model – While God is all-powerful, His use of that power is limited by His own character of love, His honoring (accommodating) the free will of others and His desire to make others happy.
The words “sovereignty” and “sovereign” do not occur in the KJV but the terms are very important for understanding God and His character.
- the quality or state of being sovereign, or of having supreme power or authority.
- the status, dominion, power, or authority of a sovereign; royal rank or position; royalty.
- a monarch; a king, queen, or other supreme ruler.
- a person who has supreme power or authority.
A sovereign is one who has power, authority and control.
The Sovereignty of God – Is God in Control?
We certainly wouldn’t say “God is out of control” or “God can’t control Himself.” If yes, if God is in control, we need to understand what is He in control of.
People can raise all kinds of related questions. For example, if God is truly in control:
- Why do bad things happen?
- Why doesn’t He stop wars?
- Why doesn’t He stop disease and suffering and natural disasters?
- Why doesn’t He stop accidents abuse and murder?
The Sovereignty of God in Philosophy
Theodicy deals with the apparent contradiction of the existence of evil, suffering and pain and God Who is claimed to be a God of love. This problem was famously stated by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270 BC):
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Let’s establish that the Bible claims that God is sovereign:
“But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.” (Psa 115:3)
“And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan 4:35)
“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:” (Exo 19:5)
“And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. … And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:39, 41)
If the sovereignty of God is accepted, that raises even more questions:
- can He harden hearts?
- can He pressure someone to do something?
- does He insist on His way?
- does He demand strict obedience in every detail?
- does He impose punishments for disobedience?
- can He really do whatever He wants?
If God is Sovereign, Does He Harden Hearts?
In one extreme, God is sovereign over every detail and that would include whether they obey and follow God or not, even whether a person is saved or lost. Consider this verse:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” (Exo 4:21)
One website commented on that verse like this:
“Clearly, this is an instance where God stepped in and prevented Pharaoh from making the decision.” (https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/1479/if-god-controls-our-decisions-does-this-mean-we-dont-have-free-will)
With the understanding that God respects the free will of others, that cannot be correct. However, it does present an apparent contradiction which must be resolved. Clearly, scripture says all of the following:
- God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exo 4:21; 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1)
- Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exo 8:15,32, 9:34)
- Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (Exo 7:22, 8:19, 9:35)
|The key to sort this out is to recognize how a heart is hardened. Understanding this case will help provide answers to the many questions that are brought up in regard to the sovereignty of God in specific situations.
A “hardened heart” implies one that has become unchangeable. We know that the decisions we make contribute to thought and habit patterns. The thinking becomes more fixed with each choice we make until we become “set in our ways.”
God’s role regarding Pharaoh was to present truth and leave Pharaoh free to accept or reject it. It is actually making a choice that makes it harder to later choose the alternate. And pride would certainly have been a factor in Pharaoh’s case. Scripture connects a soft or tender heart with humbling self (2 Kings 22:19, 2 Chron 34:27).
So, God had a role in that He confronted Pharaoh with a choice but the intent was, as with every person, that Pharaoh would accept truth and be saved. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened only because of the choice he made. Had he made the opposite choice, the record would be that “Pharaoh’s heart was softened” even though God’s actions would have been no different. We would then also read that “God softened Pharaoh’s heart.”
Read the definition of hardened and more about the Pharaoh’s hard heart.
If God is Sovereign, Can He Pressure Someone to do Something?
Moses’ story includes an interesting case. Again, there is misunderstanding when the larger context is not considered.
“’Why me?’ Moshe asked HaShem at the burning bush. ‘Why choose me to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ Moshe did not want the job. He pleaded, he argued, he insisted that he wasn’t the man for the job. His resistance was so persistent that an increasingly frustrated G-d eventually lost His temper.” (The Temple Institute Newsletter, January 12, 2023)
“Lost His temper” – would be an example of God not being able to control Himself but is that what happened? Read about God’s interesting reaction when Moses turned Him down. It gives an interesting perspective on God’s sovereignty.
If God is Sovereign, Does He Insist on His Own Way?
With God, is it: “My way or the highway”? When one looks at many stories in scripture, one can see the principle of Divine accommodation at work. That is the action on God’s part to, essentially, give in to the wishes or demands of others. The most obvious example of God not insisting on exercising His sovereignty actually directly involves His sovereignty. Read the short study of Granting a King for Israel and other examples.
|A correct understanding of God’s law is very fundamental to answering this and is discussed in the glossary definition for law. Please read that and connected pages.
Sovereignty or control, in our culture, implies laws and their strict enforcement. Thus, we tend to understand God’s law to function the same way. But in God’s government, His laws are design laws, they are not imposed. See more about God’s laws and how they relate to free will.
We are left free to observe them or not; God does not control or coerce or punish us. Thus, God is in control of what God controls; God controls Himself and all His natural laws – He keeps them in operation.
“Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;” (Heb 1:3)
Here (1-minute video to the right) is a look at the question Does God Require Perfection/Obedience?
If God is Sovereign, Does He Impose Punishments for Disobedience?
God punishes in a different sense than man does. God, while still respecting free will, simply allows (does not interfere with) the natural consequences of man’s actions. Negative (hurtful and therefore sinful) actions bring negative results. That is the very reason God regards them as sins and says don’t do them – you will get hurt. See a list of examples. That sin itself is what causes the hurt (not God) is taught in many ways in scripture, the most basic being:
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal 6:7)
Even major disasters such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes are, perhaps not the result of a single sin in each case, but the results of the cumulative effects of man’s abuse of the dominion of the earth.
The Sovereignty of God Misunderstood
Along with so many other things that most of Christianity gets wrong, this factor – “Is God in control” is one of the worst or most basic; one that very much affects others.
Is this an example of the exercise of sovereignty? Of God’s desire to be at the top?
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil 2:5-8)
Hardly! It is an extreme example of abdicating sovereignty and stepping down to serve rather than be served.
“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11)
Bow, not so much in submission to an overlord, but in admission that God has been righteous in all He has done and that He has not exercised sovereignty for His own benefit.
What Does Control Imply?
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23, NKJV)
God sustains reality; He keeps the universe running according to the protocols and laws He has established. And one of those laws is the law of liberty, which grants real freedom to intelligent beings. Why? Because God is love and love only exists in an atmosphere of freedom.
It turns out that God controls Himself and the natural, design laws He has established for our happiness. He controls no other beings – they are totally free to do they please.
See a video of a group study on the meaning of the sovereignty of God.
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