As you know, Pastor John, new listeners are continually coming to the podcast every day, and many of them do not know what lies behind your answers to the questions people send in. For example, your view of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Bible, of the human condition, of the future. We thought it would be helpful now and then to include a podcast about the foundations of everything you say — those deepest convictions that shape the way you think and approach all the many questions about life that we get. So, Pastor John, you have said many times that you believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. That he finally and decisively controls everything, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest subatomic particle, including all the actions of human beings. I think what our listeners would like to hear is not only why you believe that, but mainly, how does this truth make a difference in our daily lives?
Well that’s right. That is precisely one of the foundational, pervasively influential convictions that I have behind everything I do and think. Let me give just one passage of Scripture as to why, and then four really practical ways this makes a difference in our lives.
Dead or Alive
I recently spoke to the new students at Bethlehem College and Seminary. I shared with them what difference it would make in their lives as students as they pursue rigorous studies if they believe in the sovereignty of God. So this is fresh on my front burner.
“Luck, chance, fate — they’re nothing. They’re just words describing emptiness.”
The text that gives a glimpse into why I believe this is from the book of James:
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. (James 4:13–16)
So, there it is. You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live.” So I conclude that if the Lord doesn’t will for us to live, we die. If he does will, we live. The Lord is absolutely in control of everything that determines our life and our death.
We don’t live a second longer than he wills. We don’t die a second sooner than he wills. I believe this brings amazing stability and strength and courage and boldness and risk-taking into the Christian life if we believe that God is good and sovereign.
Then he says not just we will live, but rather, we will do this or that. That’s James’s way of saying everything. He’s referring to practical things like “tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” James says, “No, you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will do this or that.’” I conclude that this means we won’t do this if it’s not the will of the Lord, and we won’t do that if it’s not the will of the Lord.
There’s a text, especially James 4:15, which I think tells us to practically believe and govern our lives by the conviction that God is completely sovereign over all the details of life, death, and whether we do this or that.
Now does that make a practical difference in our lives? Oh, it is so amazingly practical. Let me give you four glimpses of why this undergirds everything I say on Ask Pastor John. Let me just list them off for you. It has to do with gospel joy, sacrificial love, fearless witness, and confident planning. Those are my four practical glimpses into how this is so personally relevant to our lives, so let me just take them one at a time, and give one text and a brief word.
First, gospel joy. Every day John Piper needs the gospel. That is, I need fresh assurances that my sins are forgiven, that God is for me and not against me, and that I’m not destined for wrath but everlasting joy. I need the gospel preached to me, with assurance, every day. I need confidence that when Jesus died on the cross, under Pontius Pilate, this was not a fluke of history. This was not random. This was God’s sovereign plan to save John Piper.
“God’s will always happens. That’s part of your plan, and that’s the most important part.”
Here’s the text that connects the sovereignty of God down to the details of a sinner’s actions and the gospel. Acts 4:27–28 says, “For 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.”
Amazing. Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentile soldiers, the crowds crying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” did what God had predestined to take place. Or to paraphrase using the words of James, since the Lord willed, they lived and did this or that.
Jesus’s death, down to the details of the fulfillment of prophecy (like the throwing of dice for the choosing of his clothing) was under God’s sovereign control. It was not a random event, which brings to me the strong assurance. God was totally in charge of saving John Piper’s soul. I need the gospel, and I think that text says, “No sovereignty, no gospel.”
Second, I am called upon as a Christian now to love people, to love even my enemies, to do good all the time to those who don’t do good to me, to make sacrifices to my life, inconvenience myself, and not be a selfish person. Where in the world do you get the resources in your soul to do good to others when they’re not doing good to you? Even more, when it may cost you tremendously? When you might have to suffer in order to do good for other people?
The New Testament is filled with the summons to live that way. Peter argues, or counsels, or offers wisdom for how we are going to be able to do good when we are suffering. He says we must remember God’s detailed sovereignty over suffering as we do good.
Listen to these two verses:
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)
In other words, suffering is going to come, especially to those who are committed to doing good — especially doing good to those who don’t do good to them. Peter says take heart; God is sovereign over your suffering. No suffering befalls you apart from the will of God.
First Peter 1:17 says he is your Father. First Peter 4:19 says he is your maker. He’s faithful. You can trust your soul to him and get on with the tough, hard business of doing good even to those who don’t do good to you. That’s number two. No sacrificial love without sovereignty, according to the Bible.
Third, the sovereignty of God over my fearless witness. I’m called upon to bear witness to Jesus no matter what the fearful circumstance is. How can I overcome fear and be a faithful witness? Here’s Jesus’s answer in Matthew. Watch how sovereignty figures in:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:28–31)
The absolute sovereignty of God over which a bird falls dead to the forest floor is the foundation of my fearless witness. And I am precious to him. More precious than all those birds whose lives are in God’s detailed, sovereign control. How much more, then, is God watching over me in all my witness — to take care of me and only let me fall dead to the forest floor precisely when it is best for me to fall dead to the forest floor?
Finally, number four, the sovereignty of God in confident planning. Not much happens of any use in this world without planning. Yet a lot of people think that planning might be pointless if God’s will is always holding sway. That’s not true.
“Where in the world do you get the resources in your soul to do good to others when they’re not doing good to you?”
When you make a plan, which would you rather say? Something like “If I’m lucky, I’ll live and do this or that,” or, “By chance, I may live or do this or that,” or, “As fate may have it, I’ll live or do this or that”? Or would you rather say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this or that”?
Luck, chance, fate — they’re nothing; they’re just words describing emptiness. But when you make a plan that says, “I plan to do this, not that, if the Lord wills,” you are building your life on an unshakeable foundation — the sovereign will of God. The wise man in the Old Testament says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Or Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans of the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” So, it’s right to plan. We don’t accomplish things without a plan.
If you rest in the wise, good sovereignty of God in all your plans, you will be a confident, peaceful person. You’ll know that whatever details of your plan don’t happen, God’s will always happens. That’s part of your plan, and that’s the most important part, and therefore, you can rest in sweet peace.
So there it is, Tony. Joyful gospel dependence every day, sacrificial love every day, fearless witness every day, and confident planning every day. Those are daily, practical realities every Christian should live with and needs help with. Those texts that we just looked at, all of them point to the absolute, detailed sovereignty of God. He’s in full control, so that we can say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and do this or that.” That conviction informs everything I say and everything I do on this podcast.