I suspect all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God. It is so frequently attested in Scripture that it would be difficult not to believe in it. However, we often inject qualifiers that effectively limit, even neuter, his sovereignty; God is sovereign… but he will never interfere with human freedom; he does not orchestrate the behaviour of nations; he is never behind any evil that happens; tsunamis and other natural disasters are not his doing… and so on. God is sovereign but only in a titular sense; in reality most of the acts of human beings and the rest of. creation are not controlled by him. Mainly, the nice things are his doing and not much else.
Of course, the opposite is true. God is ‘the Lord’. ‘Lord’ among other things means simply that he rules everywhere and over everything (Cf. Ex 3:14).We are told unequivocally that God arranges all things according the counsel of his own will (Eph 1:11). Notice the scope of his sovereignty; he controls ‘all things’. It is not merely that God manages some big strategic events, he manages all the small events too; he micro-manages history. We have seen this in a previous post in his control of the lot (Prov 16:33). It is he who controls the tides (Job 38:11), the weather (Job 38; Ps 135:7, 147:16,18) and the seas (Ps 65:6 ). He provides the prey for the predator (Prov 38:39-41). All living things are under his providential care (Job 39). Even the most fearful of creatures are controlled by him (Job 41). The harvest, the rain, the sunshine come from him. The natural disasters and the wars come from him too (Rev 6). This controlling is not in a cold mechanistic or deterministic way but in a way that flows from a heart wise, loving and holy. His people can trust his sovereignty for it is for our good. John Piper writes,
To know him in his sovereignty is to become like an oak tree in the wind of adversity and confusion. And along with strength is sweetness and tenderness beyond imagination. The sovereign Lion of Judah is the sweet Lamb of God.
This absolute and universal sovereignty must not be diluted nor limited to make God fit our preconceptions (Job 42:2; Ps 135:6; Isa 4:10; Lam 3:37; Dan 4:35). The outcome of the thrown dice is in the hands of the Lord (Prov 16:33). The smallest matters are controlled by him. There is no domain that is outside of his sovereignty. In particular we must affirm God is sovereign both in human history and in human hearts. He controls human history. He does whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3, 135:6). Catastrophe and calm, both come from the Lord (Isa 45:7; Amos 3:6). He kills and he makes alive (Deut 32:39). Kings are raised and erased by him (Dan 2:21). This pervasive rule of God in humanity is expressed in the words of Paul to the Athenians, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Every aspect of our existence is contingent upon him at every moment.
This is important because, for some, so sacrosanct is the concept of human self-determining that the idea God will act within a heart in a hidden and sovereign way is anathema. Human autonomy must be preserved intact. If it is then frankly there is no hope for humanity. The popular notion of ‘free will’ as a ‘human right’ is not one championed by the Bible. Human autonomy is not a biblical ideal nor is it a biblical reality. In fact the human will is in bondage to sin. Free will is at best freedom to sin; it will take us to hell but never to heaven. If left alone the human heart, given over to sin, will always reject God; the natural mind is opposed to God (Roms 8:7, 7:18; 1 Cor 2:14; Ps 58:3; Gen 8:21). If someone comes to Christ it is a specific work of God that brings him or he would never come (Jn 6:44, 65; Jer 13:23). The gospel through the Spirit must overcome human nature inherited from Adam and create a new humanity that stems from Christ. This is a profoundly internal work – a new creation accomplished by God just as surely as he accomplished the first (Gen 1). If God does not invade the human heart there will be no salvation.
However, God’s involvement in the human heart is not simply in salvation he influences the human heart for providential reasons. It is his will that prevails in human behaviour; a man’s steps are from the Lord. We make plans but it is the purpose of the Lord that prevails (Prov 20:24, 16:9, 19:21; Jas 4:13-15). From conception the Lord shapes the person who will be (Ps 139:13-16) and maps out his life (Ps 139:16, 5). We read in Exodus, Then the LORD said to [Moses], “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Ex 4:11). He is the Potter and who is the clay to complain at the way it is moulded (Roms 9:19-21; Isa 29:16, 45:9).
Human beings fondly imagine they are sovereign but they are not. There can only be one sovereign and that sovereign is God. Only God is completely free. His will is never thwarted (Ps 115:3, 135:6; Job 42:2; Ps 103:19, Dan 4:35; Isa 46:10). He rules completely in the kingdoms of men.
It is a mistake to think that God must pander to human autonomy by only ordering events ‘outside’ of them. His sovereignty extends to activity ‘inside’ human beings. The human heart is a domain to which he has access and over which he rules. We must allow God’s sovereignty to be as absolute as the Bible does. There is no suggestion that there is any place in the universe that is beyond his control. He is Lord of all things including the defiant sinful heart and rebellious will of man.
• It is impossible for history to be micro-managed without God internally shaping human hearts. The intentions of the human heart are inextricably involved in the events of history and of necessity the controlling of events involves the controlling of people.
• All we have observed of God’s sovereignty points to his profound involvement in in the human heart. As we read the Scriptures we are told that God controls human hearts in a variety of ways (Ex 3:19, 4:2, 14:4; Deut 2:30, 32:29; Isa 44:28. 45:1-7, 9, 11, 13, 63:17; Jer 1:5. Acts 4:27,28; Ps 33:15, 105:25; Judg 7:22; Dan 1:9; Ezra 5:22; 1 Kings 22:20-23; 2 Thess 2:11). He is involved in the shaping of a life from the moment of conception (Ps 139). His activity in redemption involves a profound involvement in the human psyche that is nothing short of a new birth by the sovereign blowing of the Spirit (Jn 3).
• Scripture explicitly tells us God intervenes in the thoughts and actions of people. Proverbs tells us ‘the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it whatever way he will’ (Prov 21:1). This text is surely difficult to limit to him making suggestions that can be accepted or rejected. This is shaping the heart and mind to do what God decrees; there is no refusing this divine directing. A similar sovereign intervention is found in Genesis. Then God said to him [Abimelech] in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6). And again, in Ezra we read, “In the first year of Cyrus the king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing . . .” (Ezra 1:1).
• I find the view that God can ‘influence’ the human mind as long as he doesn’t ‘shape’ it to his will strange. God, it seems, is allowed to exert considerable pressure as long as he doesn’t interfere with ‘free will’. Yet pressure exerted is doing just that. It is bending the will. Is there really a difference between externally ‘persuading’ and internally ‘shaping’. Is he allowed to be the potter? Is he free to be sovereign?
Let me repeat, God’s creation does not exist independently of him; it is in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28 Cf. Roms 11:36). The intention of the human heart may be quite different from the Lord’s but he nevertheless directs human actions (Gen 45:5-8). In the face of a mountain of evidence pf God’s involvement with the minutia of his creation the onus lies firmly with those who deny God’s interference in human hearts to prove their case.
When I read the Bible God’s sovereignty is writ large. It dominates the story. The story is his story. It is the story of his creating, his providing, his ruling, his saving, his judging and his recreating. It is the story of God being God.
This is not to say that the Bible always presents God as being in control, There are verses which suggest otherwise. Consider these words of Jesus.
Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
On the face of it it seems that the city has thwarted the will of God. Yet earlier Scriptures we have cited show clearly God controls the activities of nations and turns human hearts. Perhaps a topic for a future post.