I taught biblical studies for six years at Bethel College before becoming pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1980. In virtually every class, students brought up the issue of the sovereignty of God. The question was unavoidable, no matter what the class was about.
If you’re embarking on a new year of study, I hope this question — this reality of God’s utter sovereignty — will follow you all the way through your studies in every class. It is an all-comprehending, all-influencing, Bible-pervading reality.
James 4:13–17 shows just how relevant the meaning of the sovereignty of God is for the life of students who are beginning an academic year of rigorous study.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Four Species of Pride
James has just confronted men and women who are spiritual adulteresses (James 4:1–10). They claim that God is the love of their lives, their husband, but they keep a prostitute on the side for what really satisfies them. This prostitute is called “the world” (James 4:4). James sees this as a form of pride and says in verse 6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” and in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
“God is absolutely sovereign over all the causes of life and death, and over everything everyone does.”
Then in verses 11 and 12, he deals with another form of pride, namely, standing in judgment over your neighbor and over the very law of God, and he says in verse 12, “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” In other words, again it is arrogance that is behind this sin of self-exalting judgment.
Then after James 4:13–17, he excoriates the rich landowners (James 5:1–6) who hold back the wages of their workers (verse 4) and even murder the weak who offer them no resistance (verse 6). In other words, their wealth has gone to their heads and made them feel above the law like petty tyrants.
Now in James 4:13–17 we have another form of arrogance. Alongside the arrogance that extorts money from a naïve divine husband to pay for a prostitute, and arrogance that stands in judgment over the law of God, and arrogance that exploits the poor, there is now in 4:13–17 the arrogance that lives in the dreamworld of ordinary life that denies the sovereignty of God. You can see the point in James 4:16: “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” Indeed, as verse 17 shows, since you know what’s true about your life as a mist, and God’s governance of the world, your God-ignoring presumption is sin.
So, what does this sin, this arrogance and boasting, look like? It looks pretty ordinary, pretty common, pretty innocent — pretty much like 98 percent of the people in the world. Verse 13: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’”
- “Today or tomorrow” — We’ll decide on this one, or that one. When we go is our choice.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go” — Or stay. Our choice. This or that, stay or go.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town” — This town or that one. We’ll choose.
- “And spend a year” — Or two. Or six months. Our choice. This duration, that duration. We’ll decide.
- “We’ll spend a year there” — Or move around from town to town. Different business strategies. This kind or that kind. We’ll choose.
- “We’ll spend a year there and trade” — Or take some time off. We’ll decide how much we work. This amount or that.
- “We’ll spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — We know how to turn a profit. This much or that much. We’ll make it happen.
Life as a Vapor
What’s the problem here? Verse 13 seems like a pretty ordinary way of talking. Doesn’t everybody talk like this? Here is James’s response, first in verse 14: “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” The first thing James does is focus on the fact that they are utterly ignorant about everything they just asserted. “You do not know what tomorrow will bring.”
- You don’t know when you will leave for such and such a town.
- And if you leave, you don’t know if you will get there.
- And if you get there, you don’t know if you will spend a year or a minute.
- And if you spend a year, you don’t know if you will trade, or be flat on your back paralyzed from a fall.
- And if you do trade, you don’t know if you will make a profit or fail completely.
“You do not know what tomorrow will bring.”
And then James zeros in on one of the reasons they don’t know what tomorrow may bring. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (verse 14). They are as tenuous and as temporary as the vapor that comes out of your mouth on a cold morning. They can’t control it. And they can’t make it stay. It’s not in their power, and before they can try to shape it or guide it, it’s gone.
So behind the words of verse 13 (“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”), there is an operating belief that life is controllable and durable, and future action is predictable. James says: all three of those beliefs are false. Life is a vapor. Tomorrow is unknown. And you don’t have decisive control over anything.
‘If the Lord Wills’
“Life is a vapor. Tomorrow is unknown. And you don’t have decisive control over anything.”
Is James saying, then, that the world and all this human action is simply random, the product of blind materialistic processes — call it fate or chance? No. He’s not. Verse 15 takes us to the heart of what he believes and what is missing from the minds and mouths of these ordinary folks.
Verse 15: “Instead [that is, instead of what you said in verse 13] you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” “If the Lord wills, we will live.” So what is your life — this fragile, ephemeral vapor? It is as solid, and unshakable, and durable as God wills it to be. If he wills it, your heart keeps on beating. If he wills it, your heart stops. You do not live one second beyond the time God wills for you to live. And you do not die one second before God’s will for you to die.
Make sure you see this in verse 15: “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live.’” This profound, conscious awareness of our absolute dependence on the sovereign will of God was not part of the mindset of those who spoke in verse 13. And it is not part of the mindset of most of the people in the world. Is it part of your mindset? I hope so.
God Will Decide
Then James reveals the absolute sovereignty of God not only over how long we live, but in everything we do. Verse 15: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” If the Lord wills, we will do this, or that.
- “Today or tomorrow” — God decides whether you leave today or tomorrow.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go” — Or not. And God decides.
- “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town” — This one or that one. God decides.
- “And spend a year” — Or two, or none. God decides.
- “We’ll spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— Maybe there. Maybe somewhere else. Maybe trade. Maybe lie paralyzed from a fall. Maybe turn a profit. Maybe fail. At every turn. God will decide.
So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” because God is absolutely sovereign over all the causes of life and death, and over everything everyone does. Not to live with this conviction and this mindset, James says, is arrogant. Verse 16: “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
Four Glimpses of God’s Sovereignty over Your Studies
“As you launch into the new academic year, you will need the gospel every day.”
As you go back to school this fall, I encourage you to press into this reality of God’s utter sovereignty with all your heart and all your mind. Believing that God decides ultimately whether you live, and whether you do this or that, is as practical as your plans for tomorrow, this semester, and the rest of your life.
And to help you embrace God’s sovereignty, I want to give you four glimpses of how relevant this is for your life as you begin an academic year of rigorous study.
1. Gospel Joy
As you launch into the new academic year, you will need the gospel every day. You will need continual reassurance that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’s sake, and that God is for you and not against you because of Christ. You are not destined for wrath, but for everlasting joy, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In other words, you will need deep and ever-renewed confidence that the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate was not a random fluke, but the sovereign plan and work of Almighty God to save your soul. And that is exactly what Luke reports in Acts 4:27–28.
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
In other words, God planned and predestined — he was in absolute sovereign control of — everything that Pilate and Herod and the Jews and the soldiers did to bring about the death of Jesus. Therefore, we ought to say, “Since the Lord willed, they lived and did this or that.” The death of my Jesus was not random. It was a sovereign plan to save your soul. You will need that this year. Your survival and your joy will depend on the gospel, which depends on the sovereignty of God.
2. Sacrificial Love
You will be called on this year at some point to love someone — some family member, some classmate, some unbeliever — and the love will be costly. It will require sacrifice. Time. Inconvenience. Effort. Money. Risk of reputation, or your very life. And it may be for someone you don’t even like, and who has treated you badly.
“The absolute sovereignty of God is the foundation of your fearlessness.”
Over and over in the New Testament, especially in 1 Peter, we are told to do good to people who have not been good to us — to love people even if it requires suffering. How are we to do this? Peter’s answer — and he says it twice — is that we must remember God’s sovereignty over our suffering as we do good. Whatever suffering love may require, we accept as the sovereign will of our faithful Creator.
Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:19)
It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17)
Suffering will come, especially for those committed to doing good — to loving their enemies. But take heart because God is sovereign over your suffering. No suffering befalls you apart from the will of God. He is your Father (1 Peter 1:17) and your Maker (1 Peter 4:19). He is faithful. This school year, entrust your soul to a sovereign, faithful Creator in doing good.
3. Fearless Witness
As you enter this year of studies, things are going to happen that make you afraid. Some of those fears may be small, like looking foolish in class. Others may be huge — a malignant tumor, a city blown to pieces with racial hatred, being kidnapped by terrorists.
In all of this, Jesus calls you not to shrink back into security, but to step forward in fearless witness. How does he support and motivate that?
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. . . . Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:28–29, 31)
The absolute sovereignty of God apart from which no bird falls dead to the forest floor is the foundation of your fearlessness. You are precious to him, and he is sovereign over you. Whatever happens in the world, whatever happens in your family, fear not.
4. Confident Planning
One of the implications of being a student is that you are planning something. Your plan may not be clear, but you did not come to study so that you could waste the rest of your life. You have come because you believe that these studies will make you more fruitful. And as your plan for a life of fruitfulness takes shape, which would you rather say, “If I’m lucky, I will live and do this or that. By chance, I may live and do this or that. As fate may have it, I will live and do this or that”? Or would you rather say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this or that” (James 4:15)?
Luck and chance and fate are nothing. They are not a foundation for any plans. They can do nothing because they are nothing. They are simply words that describe emptiness and meaninglessness. But when you make a plan and say, “I plan to do this, not that, if the Lord wills,” you build your life on an unshakable foundation: the sovereign will of God.
“Luck and chance and fate are nothing.”
The wise man says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). It is right to plan. Little of enduring value is accomplished without a plan. But the Christian plan, the humble plan, always includes, “If the Lord wills.” That’s part of the plan.
God Gives Confidence and Peace
If you rest in the wise and good sovereignty of God in all your plans, you will be a confident person and a peaceful person. You will know that whatever details of your plans don’t happen, God’s will happens. And that was part of your plan. In fact, that was the most important part of any of your plans.
As you continue in your studies, may God make you joyful in his gospel, sacrificial in your love, fearless in your witness, and confident and peaceful in your planning, because you love his sovereignty, and say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this or that.”