God’s sovereign power over all his creation and over every one of his creatures is one of the grandest themes through the Bible. And we love to celebrate this magnificent reality over and over on the podcast, so often that it may be a little daunting for newcomers to the theme. For someone looking for a primer into this grand reality, what are the basics of God’s sovereignty? It’s a great question from a listener named Steven, who writes us from China.
“Hello, Pastor John. Can you explain to me the sovereignty of God in a very simple way? What are the big things to see and grasp and understand first? I don’t know where to start.” Pastor John, what would you say to Steven?
Defining the Term
Well, I like to make every effort to keep things clear and simple, and I think one of the reasons we don’t speak with much clarity sometimes is that we don’t start with definitions. That’s where I like to start on almost every conversation I have.
“One of the reasons we don’t speak with much clarity sometimes is that we don’t start with definitions.”
Let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. Let me propose some definitions, and then we’ll test them with the Bible. Then we’ll end with maybe what he’s asking: “What are some of the big issues surrounding it?”
When we say God is sovereign, we mean he is powerful and authoritative to the extent of being able to override all other powers and authorities. That’s my effort at a definition. Nothing can successfully stop any act or any event or design or purpose that God intends to certainly bring about. That’s my definition.
Is it biblical? That’s the question. Because what I think really doesn’t matter. If it’s a reflection of what the Bible says, it matters a lot.
Nothing Can Stop God
I’m arguing that nothing can thwart or stop God’s purposes. When all is said and done, Job says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). I think that’s just about the best definition of sovereignty in the Bible. Daniel 4:35 states, “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” That is, nobody can stop it.
Here’s the positive way of saying that he will accomplish all his will: “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” Then he says this in the next verse; it is God talking about his goodness: “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9–10). There’s nothing that he purposes that he does not accomplish. Nothing can stop him, and he does it all.
Then you have Ephesians 1:11, one of the most sweeping statements of sovereignty in the Bible: “. . . according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Whatever happens, it accords with the counsel of God’s will.
Then, you can test those general statements about God’s sovereignty with lots and lots of examples. I’m working on a book about this, so there’s hundreds of places I could have gone. The Bible has lots of examples. The Bible talks about God being sovereign over many specific places: seemingly random events, nature, animals, nations, human decisions.
“God is powerful and authoritative to the extent of being able to override all other powers and authorities.”
Seemingly Random Events
He is sovereign over seemingly random events. It says in Proverbs 16:33 that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” So something as random as rolling dice or casting a lot is in God’s control.
He is sovereign over nature.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. (Psalm 135:6–7)
Or we read in Matthew 8:27, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” So the winds and sea, they do his bidding.
He is sovereign over animals. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29).
I think that’s Jesus’s way of reaching for the most minute, seemingly insignificant thing in the world. When a little bird drops out of a tree in the midst of some jungle somewhere that nobody knows about but him, he decides when it will fall.
He is sovereign over the nations. This is at the other end of magnitude from the birds in the last example. The Bible says, “You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you” (2 Chronicles 20:6). No nation does anything that God does not purpose.
We also read, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever” — I love these sentences! — “the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:10–11).
He is sovereign over every single human decision. We have all kinds of thinking that we do, but in the end, the Lord decides.
“Nothing can successfully stop any act or any event or design or purpose that God intends to certainly bring about.”
The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:1)
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)
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)
This next sentence, coming from Genesis, ought to be written like a banner over every evil and sin that’s ever committed: “As for you,” Joseph says to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). So the very same thing that is evil in someone’s intention — the same event God intends for good.
Then you could go to Psalm 115:3 and read, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” So my answer is yes, it is biblical to say that God is sovereign and to mean by that that he has such power and such authority that nothing can successfully stop any act or purpose which God intends to certainly bring about.
Two Big Truths
Now, Stephen asked, “What are the big things to see and grasp?” Let me mention just two big things.
First, the sovereignty of God is governed by his wisdom. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Everything that is unsearchable and inscrutable to us is governed by the deepest divine wisdom. God never does anything or allows anything whimsically — that is, in a meaningless way or randomly or without an infinitely wise purpose. That’s huge. That is a big thing that we must come to terms with when we think about God’s sovereignty.
Second, his sovereignty is governed by his justice and his mercy. “For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18). Or, “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (Romans 9:14). God never, never wrongs anyone. All that he does is righteous and just, but even justice is not the final and highest aim of God’s wisdom. The ultimate aim is that he be glorified for his mercy and his grace toward undeserving rebels. He sovereignly planned and accomplished salvation for sinners by the death of his Son. Because of that, we get a quote like this, from Romans 15:9: “And in order that the Gentiles [the nations] might glorify God for his mercy.”
Those, it seems to me, are the big things to grasp about God’s sovereignty. First, it is unstoppable power and authority over all things, including the human will. Second, it is all in accord with infinite wisdom, infinite justice, infinite mercy through Jesus Christ.