Doctrine of God
'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty'
An introduction to Sovereignty
- Paul Blackham is minister at a brand new church plant in Lancashire, having been Minister for Theology at All Souls Church, Langham Place for nearly 11 years. View all resources by Paul Blackham
The sovereignty of God has drawn out some of the deepest thinking from the Christian church. The classic question of divine sovereignty for the church has been the problem of injustice.
Statement of the problem
Although some people accuse God of allowing too much evil in the world, in the Scriptures the problem is presented in very different terms.
1. The world is full of darkness, wickedness, unbelief and selfishness. The devil and his legions are the ‘gods’ of this present darkness and corruption.
2. All good gifts come from the Sovereign Father in heaven.
3. There is an amazing level of goodness and blessing throughout the world. Even the most wicked people often enjoy tremendous blessings from the Sovereign Father.
Now, how can this situation be explained? How can we continue to trust in a truly Sovereign God when there is so much goodness and blessing in this sinful world? It is a constant puzzle to the greatest minds in the Bible.
The Biblical Question
Job wrestles with this deepest problem in Job 21:7-15. It almost destroys the faith of the psalmist in Psalm 73. Jeremiah finds this question of injustice almost unbearable. Jeremiah 12:1-3
You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. Yet you know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts about you. Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter!
Habakkuk states the philosophical puzzle in the simplest terms in Habakkuk 1:13 – “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”
If God is good, why does He bless the wicked? Why does He fail to punish evil?
The problem is so acute because the Biblical writers are so convinced that the Sovereign Father is completely in control and completely good. If He were not good then we could understand why He prospers the way of the wicked. If He were not powerful we could understand how the powers of evil were able to steal such blessings away from the throne room of heaven. However, how can we make sense of the world if the Father really is completely sovereign and also completely good?
What kind of sovereign power does the Father wield if He allows such outrageous injustice in His world?
The Bible makes it very clear that there is no limitation to the Father’s sovereign power. He does whatever He pleases and nobody can limit or question what He does – Psalm 115:3. The Father may direct the heart of a king however He wants – Proverbs 21:1. Even things we think of as ‘random’ are all under the sovereign determination of the Father. Proverbs 16:33 – “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
Daniel 4:35 puts it most simply – “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?"”
Every aspect of our lives are determined and framed by the sovereignty of the Almighty Father. In Acts 17:26-30 we are told that He determines exactly where everybody is going to live and the precise length of their lives. Yet, why would He do this? What is the point of going to such extraordinary lengths to decree the precise details of the world and human life?
Acts 17:26-31 – “From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us… now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed.”
The wonderful sovereign power of the Father determines all the details of His creation out of a gospel passion! He has sovereignly created a world in which all that can be known about the Living God is manifestly displayed in all the glorious facets of life and history – Romans 1:19-20 & Psalm 19:1-6. He surrounds every person with His Sovereign power so that anyone and everyone may come to know Him in Christ.
The view from the Cross
The fact that good things happen to bad people must fit into this bigger picture of the kind of sovereign power that the Father wields. So, the injustice of the world cannot be because the Father does not have the power or authority to change things. We must conclude that the Father desires a world where bad people receive good things and bad things can happen to a good person.
In Romans 3:23-26 the apostle Paul looks to the cross for the answer to this frightening problem. Everyone has sinned and therefore deserves only bad. However, our Righteous God decided to ‘overlook’ this and refrain from punishing our evil. Instead He decided to wait until He could punish the completely innocent Messiah, Jesus. This decision to allow evil to go unpunished and to punish the innocent Man was actually a demonstration of His justice!
If we are to understand the glory of the Father’s sovereign power then we need to understand His righteousness and justice. If we start our ‘justice’ and power thinking from the Crucified God only then will we see why He governs the world with such amazing generosity and wisdom.
Sometimes people think of the ways of the Living God only from the perspective of decisions made before the creation of the universe. It is a very tempting place to begin. We want to celebrate the glory and power of our Majestic God and by starting our thinking from such an elevated viewpoint it guards against becoming lost in the maze of human sin and responsibility. However, one possible danger is that the actual life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus is also swallowed up in the ocean of eternity. We must make sure that the Cross is not just one more heading under the ‘Sovereignty of God’. We mustn’t assume that we know how the Father uses His sovereign power until we are viewing everything from the highest point of all – the Cross of Jesus.
The Cross shows us how Divine sovereignty and human responsibility collide. Whereas the human wicked intention was to destroy the Author of Life, yet our Gracious Father’s intention was to freely save humanity… even the very people who nailed Jesus to the Cross.
Acts 2:22-24, 37-38 – “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him... When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
The sovereign power of God, them, did not over-rule the injustice of the Cross. Rather, precisely through the injustice of the Cross, another work of injustice was accomplished… the salvation of people who deserve only Hell.
If this problem of injustice is the deepest philosophical challenge, as always Jesus is the perfect philosopher. Far from seeing injustice as a problem, He sees this as the demonstration of the Father’s perfection! Yes, because the Father is perfect, He loves His enemies, causing the blessings of sun and rain to fall on even the evil. Far from trying to explain this injustice away, Jesus actually wants all His followers to practice this same injustice in our own lives!
Matthew 5:43-48 – “You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now, if the perfection of the Father is found in the fact that He loves and blesses even His enemies, then what do we really mean when we speak about the sovereignty of the Father? The sovereignty of the Father is shown in His grace. Human wisdom tells us that sovereign power is all about ‘getting your own way’, but the Living God teaches us that real sovereign power is self-sacrificial and serves others.
Sovereignty in Salvation
Humanity is utterly ruined in our sin and rebellion. Under the power of the devil, dead in our sins and wilfully ignorant of Christ, we are conceived in sin and happily enlist in the world’s war against the LORD’s Christ. Foolish combatants in a hopeless war, the only logical and just outcome is our eternal torment in the fires of Hell.
If there is to be any salvation for us then it must all lie in that free, evangelistic sovereignty of the Father. If it were down to us to devise or implement a way of escape then we would only further damn ourselves. The way, truth and life of Jesus has to emerge entirely from the sovereign evangelism of the Father.
The Bible goes to great lengths to show that human efforts at salvation, whether based on genetic heritage [being descended from Abraham] or any activities [good or bad], are excluded from the Father’s way of salvation. He has announced, without any consultation or input from lost humanity, the way of salvation in Jesus. The only possible response to this is... simple trust. Instead of relying on our own ‘sovereignty’ or ‘religion’ or ‘ethics’ or ‘sincerity’, we must look only to Jesus as the true and only expression of the Father’s glorious, gracious and just sovereignty.
Sovereignty in Suffering
We experience all kinds of suffering in this present age, whether health, finance, family or friends. Sometimes we find the sovereignty of the Father difficult in these times as we wonder why He would allow such suffering if He wants to abolish all injustice and suffering.
Praise God that the Scriptures are so real and down to earth. The Bible is full of people going through the very same sufferings that we experience and we are given so many examples of how to keep our eyes on Christ through all these times.
The Scriptures equip our minds and hearts to be “Cross-shaped” – that is, to have the wisdom and power of the Cross of Jesus through all our thinking and feeling. From a human perspective all the suffering seems pointless and empty. Sinful ‘wisdom’ whispers in our ear that all these seeds of suffering are sown into an empty ground, disappearing into a bottomless abyss. However, the wisdom of the Cross knows a sovereign Father who brought an infinite harvest from the suffering of Jesus. In our sufferings we can be nearer to Jesus than at any other time, as we share fellowship in His sufferings. The power of His resurrection is known only in the shadow of the Cross.
It is through the shadow of injustice and suffering that the sovereign power of the Father shines so brightly. In my own experience, I spent two months going through a time when I often wondered how I could get through another hour. Yet, the Scriptures pointed me to the sufferings of Jesus. I found that there was even joy in the terrible darkness as I shared in the Way that Jesus walked. As I focussed on Him and tried to follow His example, so I found that He became more real to me than ever before. I understood so much more of His teaching and the teaching of His prophets and apostles. Looking back, I find the strange truth that it was one of the hardest of times… yet also one of the most fruitful times.
Knowing that the endless treasures of Jesus were unlocked by His Cross tells us that no matter what suffering we pass though, He has sanctified the path of suffering and transformed it into the holy way of resurrection and glory. When we see the sovereign power of the Father from the Tree, then we can, with suitable joyful fear and trembling, step forward into whatever today has for us.