About a month ago in episode 1105, we talked about the absolute sovereignty of God — that God finally and decisively controls everything, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest subatomic particle, and all the actions of human beings. We talked about how this transforms our daily lives.
But what if all this same theology works in the other direction? While the absolute sovereignty of God over all things seems to make some believers more energetic, ambitious, and determined to reach the nations with the gospel, this same sovereignty also seems to make other believers more apathetic, withdrawn, and passive when it comes to gospel mission. So what explains this difference? It’s the question today from a listener named Brian who seems to find himself more and more indifferent in his life. He writes, “Pastor John, I need your help. The deeper I think I understand God’s sovereignty the more it seems to fuel my own personal apathy. What’s wrong with me?”
Brian, let me sketch four kinds of responses to the sovereignty of God, and you see where you might fit in. Now, I’ll tell you why I’m doing this. This might help answer the problem. I’m assuming here that when we talk about the sovereignty of God we are referring to his total control of all things, like the roll of the dice in every human game (Proverbs 16:33). Or like the fall of every bird from the branches in the forest in every jungle in the world (Matthew 10:29). That’s my assumption about the definition of the sovereignty of God.
Two Ways to Reject
Now, there are two ways to reject the sovereignty of God and two ways to accept it. That’s what I mean by my four ways of responding. The two ways to reject this are:
1. Reject the sovereignty of God because deep down the reality itself, as it really exists in the world, is ugly or abhorrent to you. This is real rebellion against God.
2. The other way to reject the sovereignty of God is to have a conception of it that is distorted and unbiblical and thus see it as genuinely antithetical to true biblical picture of God.
“The sovereign work of God in us does not replace our working. It energizes our working.”
You can see that the first way of rejecting the sovereignty of God is rooted in deep-seated rebellion against God, while the second way of rejecting the sovereignty of God may in fact coexist with a humble, regenerate heart that for various reasons doesn’t see the true biblical nature of the sovereignty of God as it is taught in Scripture — or perhaps has some distorted notions about other attributes that they’re trying to make it fit with, so that they can’t see God’s sovereignty any other way than being at odds with the picture of God they have in the Bible.
I want to cut those people slack and say until they get their thoughts sorted out they may be deeply humble and regenerate people.
Two Ways to Embrace
There are two ways of embracing the total sovereignty of God:
1. See it for what it really is as taught in the Scriptures, and love it. See it as beautiful in proportion to all the other things taught in Scripture. Not that every question is answered or every mystery removed, but according to the limits of our own understanding the sovereignty of God and his other attributes are not contradictory. That, in my judgment, is the ideal way of embracing the sovereignty of God.
2. Another way of embracing it is to see that it is taught in the Scriptures and to see some of its implications and to admit that this is in fact the truth that the Bible teaches, but to embrace it with a heart that’s not fully docile or teachable or submissive to the whole counsel of God in Scripture. In other words, a person may be riveted on the doctrine of sovereignty while either being neglectful of other important biblical teachings, or maybe even indifferent to those other teachings or resistant to them.
My human heart and your human heart are very corrupt. All of us struggle with a kind of selective set of emphases in the Bible — emphases that we like more than others. We must constantly be humbling ourselves before the whole counsel of God so that we are submissive to all that God teaches, not just some of it.
Now, I don’t know Brian well enough to pass any judgment on where he fits into these categories, and no doubt they’re too simplistic to explain all the ways we relate to the sovereignty of God. I mentioned them because it might help Brian if he asks whether he might be in this fourth category. That’s what my gut sense says. In other words, he may be persuaded of the sovereignty of God as he sees it in the Bible, but his heart is not totally submitted to all of Scripture, and there are emotional hesitancies that keep him from rejoicing over certain teachings.
Why the Difference?
I ask, why is it that some people are hearing the news that God is sovereign over the battlefield and plunge in? They plunge in with great abandon and risk their lives for the cause of God and truth precisely because he reigns, while others react with fatalism and lethargy and passively say, “Well, what will be will be,” and they don’t go in. Why is that? Why do we respond differently like that?
“Pray that you would be thrilled by the Bible.”
My suggestion is that the passive, fatalistic, lethargic people have hearts that are resistant to what the Bible teaches on certain other matters. And this resistance keeps them from rejoicing over those teachings and being motivated by them. What I have in mind are passages that explicitly teach us not to be passive but active and energetic and hardworking and resolved to do good — not in spite of the sovereignty of God over our lives, but because of it.
Work by God’s Power
Brian, my encouragement is that, when I read these texts, you (and all the rest of us) pray. Pray that you would be thrilled by them. That’s what’s missing — a being thrilled by the text that I’m about to read.
Here are some texts:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
In other words, the sovereign work of God in us does not replace our working. It energizes our working. Do you love this truth, Brian? Does that thrill you? That’s taught in the Bible — it’s true, it’s wonderful.
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
In other words, the presence and sovereign power of God’s grace working in me does not disincline me to work, but inspires me and empowers me to work. Brian, when you hear this, do you rejoice?
For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:29)
In other words, God’s energy in Paul was experienced by him as a tremendous surge of his own energy.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:6–9)
“The sovereign power of God’s grace does not disincline me to work, but empowers me to work.”
In other words, God’s decisive role in growing his church fueled Paul and Apollos to be about the planting and watering.
My suggestion is that one reason why embracing the sovereignty of God produces courage and energy and humble, risk-taking love in some people and in other people apathy is that this dimension of biblical truth that I just read hasn’t sunk in yet. Either it hasn’t been seen — which can’t be said anymore since I just read it — or it has been seen and has not been thrilling for some reason.
It’s been resisted. And I would encourage Brian to pray over these texts until he is thrilled by the prospect that God Almighty with all his sovereignty is going to work with Brian as Brian works by faith in him.
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.