One of the most foundational of all the thirty-year theological trademarks of Bethlehem is the priceless truth of the sovereignty of God. Let’s go right to our text, lest even from the beginning we import something here that does not come from the word of God. This matter is far too serious, and touches on so many painful realities, that we dare not trust ourselves here to come up with truth without being told by God himself.
In Isaiah 46:9, God says “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” So the issue in this text is the uniqueness of God among all the beings of the universe. He is in a class by himself. No one is like him. The issue is what it means to be God. When something is happening, or something is being said or thought, and God responds, “I am God!” (which is what he does in verse 9), the point is: You’re acting like you don’t know what it means for me to be God.
What It Means to Be God
So he tells them what it means to be the one and only God. He tells them what’s at the heart of his God-ness. Verse 10: What it means for me to be God is that “I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” Two statements:
- I declare how things turn out long before they ever happen.
- I declare not just natural events but human events — doings, things that are not yet done.
Verse 10: “I declare from ancient times things not yet done.” I know what these doings will be long before they are done.
Now at this point you might say, “What we have here is the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge, not the doctrine of his sovereignty.” And that is right, so far. But in the next half of the verse, God tells us how he foreknows the end and how he foreknows the things not yet done. Verse 10b: “I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” When he “declares” ahead of time what will be, here’s how he “declares” it, or “says” it: “saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”
In other words, the way he declares his foreknowledge is by declaring his fore-counsel and his fore-purposing. When God declares the end long before it happens, what he says is, “My counsel shall stand.” And when God declares things not yet done long before they are done, what he says is, “I will accomplish all my purpose.”
Which means that the reason God knows the future is because he plans the future and accomplishes it. The future is the counsel of God being established. The future is the purpose of God being accomplished by God. Then, the next verse, verse 11b, gives a clear confirmation that this is what he means: “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” In other words, the reason my predictions come true is because they are my purposes, and because I myself perform them.
God Purposes All Things
God is not a fortune-teller, a soothsayer, a mere predictor. He doesn’t have a crystal ball. He knows what’s coming because he plans what’s coming, and he performs what he plans. Verse 10b: ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’ He does not form purposes and wonder if someone else will take responsibility to make them happen. “I will accomplish all my purpose.”
So, based on this text, here’s what I mean by the sovereignty of God: God has the rightful authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to bring about everything that he intends to happen. And therefore, everything he intends to come about does come about. Which means, God plans and governs all things.
“The reason God knows the future is because he plans and accomplishes the future.”
When he says, “I will accomplish all my purpose,” he means, “Nothing happens except what is my purpose.” If something happened that God did not purpose to happen, he would say, “That’s not what I purposed to happen.” And we would ask, “What did you purpose to happen?” And he would say, “I purposed this other thing to happen, which didn’t happen.” To which we would all say, then, “But you said in Isaiah 46:10, ‘I will accomplish all my purpose.’” And he would say, “That’s right.” Therefore, what God means in Isaiah 46:10 is that nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.
Now if that seemed a little too complicated, let’s do something simpler. Let’s confirm this view of God’s sovereignty by looking at some other passages of Scripture.
A Statement on Sovereignty
But before we do that, let me read from the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith so that you don’t think I am expressing a private opinion of my own. I’m simply expressing and supporting a doctrine to which all the elders of this church give their heartfelt affirmation.
3.1 We believe that God, from all eternity, in order to display the full extent of his glory for the eternal and ever-increasing enjoyment of all who love him, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his will, freely and unchangeably ordain and foreknow whatever comes to pass.
3.2 We believe that God upholds and governs all things — from galaxies to subatomic particles, from the forces of nature to the movements of nations, and from the public plans of politicians to the secret acts of solitary persons — all in accord with his eternal, all-wise purposes to glorify himself, yet in such a way that he never sins, nor ever condemns a person unjustly; but that his ordaining and governing all things is compatible with the moral accountability of all persons created in his image.
3.3 We believe that God’s election is an unconditional act of free grace which was given through his Son Christ Jesus before the world began. By this act God chose, before the foundation of the world, those who would be delivered from bondage to sin and brought to repentance and saving faith in his Son Christ Jesus.
So this is the way the sovereignty of God is expressed in our Elder Affirmation of Faith. Now, consider with me the extent of support for this in the Bible, and then some closing implications, and why it is so precious to us.
Facing a Crucial Question
When I am finished, you may be overwhelmed at the extent of God’s sovereignty — at least I am. And we will face a choice: Will we turn from our objections and praise his power and grace, and bow with glad submission to the absolute sovereignty of God? Or, will we stiffen our neck and resist him? Will we see in the sovereignty of God our only hope for life in our deadness, our only hope for answers to our prayers, our only hope for success in our evangelism, our only hope for meaning in our suffering? Or, will we insist that there is a better hope, or no hope? That’s the question we will face.
Let it be said loud and clear that nothing you are about to hear, as paradoxical as it may seem to our finite minds, contradicts the real moral responsibility that humans, and angels, and demons have to do what God commands. God has given us a will. How we use it makes our eternal difference.
Let’s divide God’s sovereignty into his governing natural events on the one hand, and human events on the other. In the first case, he is governing physical processes. And in the second case, he is governing human choices.
God’s Sovereignty Over Nature
He is sovereign over what appears the most random acts in the world. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” In modern language we would say, “The dice are rolled on the table and every play is decided by God.” There are no events so small that he does not rule for his purposes. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus said, “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29–30). Every role of the dice in Las Vegas, every tiny bird that falls dead in the thousand forests — all of this is God’s command.
“Will we see our greatest hope in the sovereignty of God, or will we insist there is a better one?”
From worms in the ground to stars in the galaxies, God governs the natural world. In the book of Jonah, God commands a fish to swallow (1:17), God commands a plant to grow (4:6), and commands a worm to kill it (4:7). And far above the life of worms, the stars take their place and hold their place at God’s command. Isaiah 40:26 says, “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.”
How much more, then, the natural events of this world — from weather, to disasters, to disease, to disability, to death.
Psalm 147:15–18 says, “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.” Job 37:11–13 says, “He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning. They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen.”
God Could Have Stilled the Winds
So snow and rain, and cold, and heat, and wind are all the work of God. So when Jesus finds himself in the middle of a raging storm, he merely speaks, “Peace! Be still!” And as the text says, “the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). There is no wind, no storm, no hurricane, no cyclone, no typhoon, no monsoon, no tornado over which Jesus can say “Be still,” and it will not obey. Which means, that if it blows, he intends for it to blow. “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6). All Jesus had to do with Hurricane Sandy last Monday was say, “Be still,” and there would have been no damage and no loss of life.
And what about the other sufferings of this life? “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Exodus 4:11). And Peter said to the suffering saints in Asia Minor, “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).
Whether we suffer from disability, or from the evil of others, God is the one who ultimately decides — and whether we live or die. Deuteronomy 32:39 says, “There is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Or consider James 4:13–15: “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.’” Or, as Job says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
The roll of the dice, the fall of a bird, the crawl of a worm, the movement of stars, the falling of snow, the blowing of wind, the loss of sight, the suffering of saints, and the death of all — these are included in the word of God: “I will accomplish all my purpose” — from the smallest to the greatest.
God’s Sovereignty in Human Actions
And when we turn from the natural world to the world of human actions and human choice, God’s sovereignty is just as extensive. You should vote on Tuesday — on the candidates and on the amendments. But let there be no man-exalting illusion as though mere human beings will be the decisive cause in any victory or loss. God alone will have that supreme role. “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; . . . the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 2:21; 4:17).
“‘I will accomplish all my purpose’ — from the smallest to the greatest.”
And whoever the next president is, he will not be sovereign. He will be governed. And we should pray for him that he would know this: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). And when he engages in foreign affairs he will not be decisive. God will. “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:10–11).
When nations came to do their absolute worst, namely the murder of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, they had not slipped out of God’s control, but were doing his sweetest bidding at their worst moment: “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). The worst sin that ever happened was in God’s plan, and by that sin, sin died.
Boasting Is Excluded
And so our salvation was secured on Calvary under the sovereign hand of God. And, if you are a believer in Jesus, if you love him, you are a walking miracle. God granted you repentance (2 Timothy 2:24–25). God drew you to Christ (John 6:44). God revealed himself to you (Matthew 11:27). God gave you the gift of faith. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). The sovereignty of God in our salvation excludes boasting.
There may have been a hundred horrible things in your life. But if today you are moved to treasure Christ as your Lord and Savior, you can write over every one of those horrors the words of Genesis 50:20: Satan, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
I conclude therefore with the words of Paul in Ephesians 1:11, “God works all things according to the counsel of his will.” All things — from the roll of the dice, to the circuits of stars, to the rise of presidents, to the death of Jesus, to the gift of repentance and faith.
Why God’s Sovereignty Matters
What then does this mean for us? Why is this precious to us? I will speak them to us as exhortations:
Let us stand in awe of the sovereign authority and freedom and wisdom and power of God.
Let us never trifle with life as though it were a small or light affair.
Let us marvel at our own salvation — that God bought it, and wrought it, with sovereign power, and we are not our own.
Let us groan over the God-belittling, man-centeredness of our culture and much of the church.
Let us be bold at the throne of grace knowing that our prayers for the most difficult things can be answered. Nothing is too hard for God.
Let us rejoice that our evangelism will not be in vain because there is no sinner so hard that the sovereign grace of God cannot break through.
Let us be thrilled and calm in these days of great upheaval because victory belongs to God, and no purposes that he wills to accomplish can be stopped.