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The Sovereignty of God

Written By
William O. Einwechter

Although most Christians today would acknowledge the sovereignty of God (though some might do so grudgingly), few have a solid grasp of the meaning of it. This is not surprising given the woeful state of theological knowledge in the church, which, in turn, is due to the absence of theological study and reflection in the church. Many a sermon and writing is devoted to the love of God, the immanence of God, etc., while subjects like the sovereignty of God are sorely neglected. Yet, how unbalanced and detrimental this is, considering the fact that the sovereignty of God is one of the most prominent doctrines of Scriptures, and one of the most important for understanding the nature of God’s relation to His creation.

Definition of Sovereignty

Our English word “sovereign” is used both as an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, it describes some person or thing that is above or superior to all others, making them or it supreme in rank, power, or authority. As a noun, it refers to a person or group (e.g., a state) that possess the supreme authority to rule or govern others; hence, a monarch, king, or ruler. Consequently, the idea conveyed by the noun “sovereignty” is that of the status or quality of being a sovereign, i.e., one who has rule and dominion over others due to his position of having supreme authority.

The words “sovereign” or “sovereignty” do not appear in the Authorized Version (KJV), but synonymous terms do. Words such as “authority,” “power,” “dominion,” and “rule” translate the Hebrew and Greek terms that express the notion of sovereignty. For example, the Hebrew root mlk expresses the idea of reigning as king (as a sovereign), and the related concepts of dominion, rule, kingdom, and kingship. Another Hebrew root, mshl, conveys the sense of ruling, lordship, and dominion. In the New Testament, the Greek word exousia refers to authority, power, and jurisdiction in relation to the rule of others, as well as to power to do as one pleases and the ability and strength to carry out one’s plans and purposes. The idea of sovereignty is found in these and other Biblical terms, and it permeates the Scriptures.

The Meaning of the Sovereignty of God

When Christians speak of the sovereignty of God, they mean His absolute right of dominion over all His creation; that He is the supreme Monarch of heaven and earth because as Almighty God and Creator He is infinitely exalted in rank, power, and authority over all. Sovereignty speaks of the divine kingship whereby God exercises His unrestricted power to govern all of His creatures exactly as He sees fit for ends that He alone determines. A. W. Pink expresses the meaning of divine sovereignty in magnificent terms:

The sovereignty of God! What do we mean by this expression? We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God, the Godhood of God. To say that God is sovereign is to declare that God is God. To say that God is sovereign is to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, so that no one can stay His hand or say unto Him, What doest Thou? (Dan. 4:35). To say that God is sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purposes, or resist His will (Ps. 115:3). To say that God is sovereign is to declare that He is “The Governor among the nations” (Ps. 22:28), setting up kingdoms, over throwing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleaseth Him best. To say that God is sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the Kings of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.[1]

The sovereignty of God in Scripture is absolute, irresistible, and infinite. When we say that God is sovereign, we affirm His right to govern the universe, which He has made for His own glory, just as He pleases. We affirm that His right is the right of the Potter over the clay, viz: that He may mould that clay into whatsoever form He chooses. . . . We affirm that He is under no rule or law outside His own will and nature, that God is a law unto Himself, and that He is under no obligation to give account of His matters to any.[2]

The sovereignty of God, simply stated, is His right to do according to His will, His power to accomplish His will, and His authority to govern His creation as His will determines.

The Basis of the Sovereignty of God

The basis for the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is both theological and textual.

1. The sovereignty of God is deduced from His attributes.

The Scripture teaches that God is independent (self-sufficient and self-contained), meaning that He is the ground of His own being, needing no one or no thing to cause Him, sustain Him, complete Him, or help Him. He is independent in regard to His will and power, exercising both without aid or guidance from any other. In this, God is completely separate from all His creatures because they are by nature ultimately dependent on Him for all things. The contrast between God, the self-sufficient one, and His creatures, the all-dependent ones, establishes Him as the highest Lord and supreme Governor. There can be no criteria above or beyond God that can define or determine Him; no power that can control Him or limit Him; no court that can sit in judgment of Him; no law outside of His own holy nature that can direct or bind Him. God is also infinite in His being — infinite in power, knowledge, wisdom, and holiness. These perfections of His nature establish His right to supremacy in the governing of those who are finite in all respects. As Charnock explains, “God therefore being an incomprehensible ocean of all perfection, and possessing infinitely all those virtues that may lay claim to dominion, hath the first foundation of it in his own nature.”[3]

2. The sovereignty of God is manifest in the doctrine of the divine decree.

The word “decree” expresses the Biblical teaching that God has determined by the counsel of His own will a plan that encompasses all His creation, both animate and inanimate. According to Scripture, God’s decree governs all things and is single, eternal, unchangeable, unconditional, wise, and all-inclusive. Only one possessing total sovereignty could ordain and bring to pass all events, creatures, destinies, etc. But there could be no divine decree such as this if there are competing wills, rights, powers, and dominions in heaven and earth. If Almighty God and His will are not ultimate, then He is not Almighty, and for that matter, neither is He God (perhaps a god, but not God).

3. The sovereignty of God is displayed in His works.

God carries out His decree by the works of creation and providence. By creation, the Lord establishes His ownership of all things and His right to govern all things, i.e., His dominion over all. “The sovereignty of God naturally ariseth from the relation of all things to himself as their entire Creator, and their natural and inseparable dependence upon him in regard to their being and well-being.”[4] The doctrine of providence teaches that God is actively exercising His authority and power in the creation, and this ensures that the plan of God will come to pass in time and history. Divine providence entails both the preservation of the creation and the government of the creation. Not only are all things dependent on God for their being; they are also dependent on Him for their continued existence.

4. The sovereignty of God is declared in the text of Scripture.

The Bible teaches that God is the King of all the earth, governing in all the affairs of men so that His counsel will come to pass. Since He is the Creator and the King of kings and Lord of lords, the supreme Potentate of heaven and earth, all must humbly bow to His authority. The texts of Scripture that teach the doctrine of God’s sovereignty are too numerous to list here. May this compilation suffice to reveal the extent of the Biblical witness to this great truth:

Sovereign Will: “. . . who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11; cf. Ps. 33:10-11; 115:3; Isa. 14:24-27; 46:10-11; 55:11; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 9:11-19; 11:33-36; Eph. 1:4-5; 3:10-11; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 6:17).

Sovereign Power: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27; cf. Jer. 32:17-19; 27:5; Gen. 17:1; Job 40:1; 42:2; Ps. 89:8-13; 135:6; Isa. 40:12-26 Luke 1:37; Rom. 1:20; 9:19; Rev. 1:8; 4:8).

Sovereign Authority: “For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great king over all the earth” (Ps.  47:2, 7-8; cf. Ps. 2:4-11; 93:1-2; 103:18; Dan. 4:25-26, 34-35, 37; 7:13-14; Rom. 9:20-21; 13:1; Eph. 1:20-21; Matt 28:19; 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 1:6; 17:14).

The Application of the Sovereignty of God

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God applies to every creature and every sphere of life because this doctrine reveals the relationship of God to His whole creation: His will determines it, His power creates and sustains it, and His authority governs it. All that God is and all that He does is within the context of His own complete sovereignty. The following applications are representative.

1. The sovereignty of God directs all His works.

The works of creation, providence, and redemption are carried out irrespective of the counsel, will, or power of any of His creatures. The universe exists as it does solely because God so willed it. The history of the world has transpired and will continue to unfold in exact conformity to the plan of God for He is present to govern all events and actions of all His creatures. The work of redemption is based solely on the will and power of God. He alone determined the plan of salvation; He alone brought it to pass in Christ; and He alone determined to whom it would be applied and on what terms. God did not consult men on the matter; neither did He surrender any aspect of His sovereignty to men for the accomplishment of redemption. The effecting of man’s salvation displays the sovereign power, wisdom, love, mercy, and grace of God.

2. The sovereignty of God means that His revealed law is the standard of ethics for all men in all spheres.

The moral law of God is based on His own perfect nature and is the binding rule of conduct for those that He has made in His image and for His own glory. As law is the will of a sovereign for his subjects, so Biblical law is the will of the Sovereign of heaven and earth for His subjects — all mankind. And since God’s sovereignty is comprehensive (He rules over all), so His law is also comprehensive in its reach, governing all spheres, actions, and associations.

3. The sovereignty of God indicates that all human authority is derivative.

Men can only have a measure of authority to govern others if God first grants it to them. There is no exousia (authority, power) but of God! The granting of authority to men does not entail the surrender of the least element of divine sovereignty. The delegation of authority is so that men might serve as ministers of God’s authority for the sake of His glory and kingdom and for the good of those He has created. Thus, those who rule over men in any sphere (family, church, or state) are under God’s law and completely answerable to Him in the use of their authority. Other men are not bound to obey the unlawful commands (i.e., those commands that command what God forbids or that forbid what God commands) of God’s subordinates lest they be guilty of disobeying their supreme Sovereign.

Conclusion

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God reveals the glory, power, and dominion of God, and ought to cause all of His creatures to bow to Him in humble adoration and to walk before Him in complete submission. R. J. Rushdoony beautifully states the practical implication of God’s sovereignty:

What does it mean then to believe in sovereignty, government, and providence as a Christian? It means that my life and being are under the sovereignty and government of the all-wise and most holy Trinity, whose ordering, preserving, and government of all things is for His own purpose and glory, and my only joy and purpose is to acknowledge that sovereign, governing providence, and to rest in its sufficiency. It means that, in every area of life, I must acknowledge and establish rule, law, and authority only in terms of his law word and in faithfulness to His Kingship. This means that, in every area of life and thought, I must assert the crown rights of Christ the King and bring all things into captivity to Him.[5]

1. ^ A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Edinburgh, [1928] 1961), p. 20.

2. ^ Ibid., p. 22.

3. ^ Stephen Charnock, Discourses on the Existence and Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, [1853] 1979), 2:367.

4. ^ Ibid., 2:369.

5. ^ Rousas John Rushdoony, Systematic Theology (Vallecito, 1994), p. 211. The quotation is a fitting tribute to the life and work of Rev. Rushdoony. He, perhaps, more than any other in our generation pointed out the usurpation of divine sovereignty by autonomous man. He taught that no man or institution is sovereign, and that only the law of God can serve as a standard for all spheres of life.

This is a slightly revised version of an article that was orginally published in the Chalcedon Report, June 2001, and then was republished with five others articles as the monograph A Conquering Faith: Doctrinal Foundations for Christian Reformation.