Life Beneath a Sovereign Lord

How His Power Unleashes Us

Some truths about God we receive into our minds as we might receive a houseguest, expecting them to behave nicely and generally keep the furniture in place. But then, sooner or later, we hear the sounds of drills and saws. We feel the rumble of a sofa being dragged across the floor. And we discover that we have welcomed not a houseguest but a construction worker.

One such truth, for many of us, is the sovereignty of God. That God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11) struck me, at first, as both biblically plain and experientially sweet. I became a Calvinist almost without realizing it. But then, in time, no truth caused me more mental angst, and even anguish, than this doctrine of God’s total, unstoppable sovereignty. I had imagined myself the calm host of this truth, until my mind became a construction zone.

“Over creation, over history, and over hearts, God reigns.”

Many could testify to a similar experience of mental renovation. Open the door to God’s sovereignty, and walls of supposed rationality may collapse. Stairways of instinct may be turned right around. A whole new floor of possibility may be added. You will emerge “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23), but the process may sometimes feel like a hammer blow.

How Sovereign Is He?

Whatever place God’s sovereignty has in our present mental framework, we may find help from Acts 4:23–31, a passage that has renovated many minds. Perhaps nowhere else in Scripture do we get such a sweeping sense of God’s sovereignty in so small a space.

The early church prays, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . .” (Acts 4:24). Their “sovereign Lord” is none other than the sovereign Creator of Genesis 1: star-speaker, mountain-maker, ocean-carver, creature-crafter. And as the rest of Scripture celebrates, the same God who spoke the world into being goes on speaking, upholding “the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). His sovereignty over creation continues every second. Not a blade of grass grows without him saying so.

But his sovereignty doesn’t end with creation. “Sovereign Lord . . . who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?’” (Acts 4:24–25). The events of Good Friday may have seemed to some like a chaotic tragedy, like innocence caught in the death gears of political corruption, but the believers say, “No, the death of Christ fulfilled the story of David’s ancient psalm. For a thousand years, the threads of history have been running toward the cross.” History, to them, was prophesied, predestined, planned (Acts 2:23; 4:28).

And not just the events of history, but even the desires and impulses of human hearts. “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” (Acts 4:27–28). Why did Judas betray his Lord? Why did Herod mock the King of kings? Why did Pilate, knowing his duty, let justice be trampled by the raging mob? On one level, because Judas wanted money, because Herod “was hoping to see some sign” (Luke 23:8), because Pilate feared man. These were “lawless men” (Acts 2:23), fully responsible for their sins. But on another level, on the ultimate level, they acted as they did because this is what God had predestined to take place.

Here, then, is the sweep of God’s sovereignty in the space of a few verses. Over creation, over history, and over hearts, God reigns. And such a reign cannot help but renovate our minds.

Renovation of the Mind

One of the marvelous features of Acts 4:23–31 is that these believers not only affirm God’s exhaustive sovereignty, but they also teach us how to apply it. And oh, how we need such teaching. Countless errors creep into minds and churches when we take true doctrine from Scripture without also allowing Scripture to guide our applications. And few doctrines are more prone to misapplication than the sovereignty of God.

The prayer of Acts 4, repeated, internalized, embraced, would guard us from a dozen dangers and keep us on God’s level path, even if the process brings pain. For truth can indeed seem “painful rather than pleasant” for a time. But like God’s fatherly discipline, “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Here, then, are three new rooms (among others) God’s sovereignty builds into the minds of those who welcome it.

1. God is sovereign — so pray boldly.

Remarkably, the high sovereignty we encounter in Acts 4 comes to us not in a treatise, a confession, a debate, or even a sermon, but a prayer. While some hear of sovereignty and wonder what difference their prayers could make, the early church received sovereignty as a reason to pray. Here, they kneel before a “sovereign Lord” (Acts 4:24); they plead beneath his providence.

God’s sovereignty rightly communicates something of his transcendence, his highness and holiness. But the believers in Acts 4 know something else about God: in his transcendence, he remains deeply personal with his people. He speaks and listens, invites us to pray and responds to our prayers — all while somehow weaving everything into his “definite plan” (Acts 2:23).

Rightly understood, faithful prayer depends on both God’s transcendence and his nearness. If God were only transcendent, he wouldn’t bend to hear our prayers; if he were only personal and near, he wouldn’t be able to answer our prayers. But if God is both transcendent and personal, mighty and near, then he can both hear our petitions and act. We don’t need to know exactly how he sovereignly folds our prayers into his plans. It’s enough for us to know that he does.

2. God is sovereign — so take action.

The early believers were heirs, as we are, to Jesus’s promise to build his church (Matthew 16:18). As the kingdom spreads throughout the book of Acts, they know they are not the ones spreading it, not ultimately. Such expansion was the work of the risen Jesus, who had poured his Spirit upon his people (Acts 1:1, 8). Seated upon his throne, he was sovereignly fulfilling his promise to build the church against the gates of hell.

But the church did not for that reason grow passive or complacent. They did not merely wait and watch the Holy Spirit act. At Pentecost, Peter gets up and actually preaches (Acts 2:14). Before the council, Peter and John take a breath and actually obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19–20). And when persecuted, the church prays for boldness and actually continues “to speak the word of God” (Acts 4:31). They trusted God would sovereignly fulfill his promises — and then they acted as if he just might do so through their efforts.

For these believers, a seemingly closed door (“Speak no more to anyone in this name,” Acts 4:17) was no reason to stand back and watch; it was reason to pray for boldness, stand up, and turn a handle. They trusted that the same “hand” that governed history was with them still, ready to “stretch out” not before, but precisely “while” they went forth and spoke (Acts 4:28, 30). So, as you stand before some opportunity for the gospel, even if many obstacles stand in the way, take courage from God’s sovereignty and act.

3. God is sovereign — so draw near.

Amid their affliction, we might have expected the believers to address God as something other than “sovereign Lord” — perhaps “sympathetic Lord” or “merciful Lord” or “loving Lord.” These titles are certainly appropriate, and Scripture proposes them to the suffering elsewhere (Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 1:3). But this time, in their pain, these Christians drew near to the sovereign Lord. They did so for at least two reasons.

First, they knew that only a sovereign God could take the wrongs done against us and turn them for our good. Sympathy, mercy, and love are precious qualities in our God, but their preciousness runs thin if he cannot actually do something about our pain. But oh, how he can.

“In his sovereignty, he became a Lord with scars.”

The God we serve was able to take the worst moment in the history of the world and turn it into a moment of eternal remembrance (Acts 4:27–28). And the early church knew that if God could do that at the cross, then he could do it anywhere and everywhere for anyone, no matter how black the sorrow or deep the loss. As on the world’s worst Friday, he can take our most shattered days, rearrange the pieces, and make them spell good.

Then, second, who is this “sovereign Lord”? He is not only the God who turned such a Friday good; he is the God who felt this Friday’s sharpest grief. In his sovereignty, God could have stayed aloof from us, working out his plan from his high throne. But he didn’t. Instead, in his sovereignty, he put on flesh and bone. He took the dark prophecies of the Messiah’s sufferings and laid them on his own human shoulders. He received the whips and the nails and the thorns. In his sovereignty, he became a Lord with scars. And therefore he is, and ever remains, the strongest refuge for suffering saints.

Receive, then, this renovating doctrine of God’s unstoppable sovereignty. Watch how it inspires your prayers, emboldens your witness, and then, in the pit of your deepest pain, leads you to the one who once died under sorrow, and now lives forever as Lord over it all.