The Sovereignty of God

The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language defines sovereign as: "one that exercises supreme, permanent authority, especially in a nation or other governmental unit."1 The sovereign nature of God extends beyond this limited definition to include absolute authority over all of creation. It is the understanding, or misunderstanding, of His sovereign nature that has created the two primary viewpoints within the Protestant religious community. The opinions of the Arminians, and the Calvinists are to be looked at as those having the greatest impact on the largest number of those who would be called Christians, and in fact many are. If one were to study, in depth, the true differences between those who proclaim themselves "Calvinists" and those who call themselves "Arminian" it would soon become apparent the initial issue was not one of sovereignty, but rather predestination. What has occurred in the course of this debate, is that each side has defined God's sovereign nature in a manner that fills the requirements of their own religious philosophy. Both the Calvinists and the Armenians believe that they alone have been able to define correctly God's sovereignty.

The focus of the debate from the Armenian viewpoint was brought into clear focus early in the 17th century. The Great Remonstrance was drawn up by Simon Episcopius, a disciple of Arminius after his death in 1609, and published in 1610 by the Arminian clergy. The Great Remonstrance codified Arminius's beliefs into five major points:

  1. Rejection of the doctrine of election
  2. Rejection of predestination
  3. Rejection of the belief that Christ died for the elect alone
  4. Rejection of the belief in irresistible grace
  5. Assertion of the belief that saints could not fall from grace.

Perry Miller comments in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, "Arminianism was heresy, not because it tried to make God just, but because it secured His justice at the expense of His essential power, forcing Him to solicit the help of man, holding Him powerless to change a man who chooses to be evil. It was wrong to say that God expects anything from man in the sense of leaving any decree uncertain or dependent upon man's doing, as though God has to wait before He can tell whether the creature will fulfill the expectation, but it was correct to say that in the Covenant He expects a return from those whom he foreknows will give it" 2.

The Synod of Dort, which lasted from November 1618 to May 1619, a period of some seven months, was a response to the teachings of The Great Remonstrance. Five theological points were formulated to answer the Remonstrants in a document known as the Canon of Dort, which declared:

  1. that fallen man was totally unable to save himself (Total Depravity)
  2. that God's electing purpose was not conditioned by anything in man (Unconditional Election)
  3. that Christ's atoning death was sufficient to save all men, but efficient only for the elect (Limited Atonement)
  4. that the gift of faith, sovereignly given by God's Holy Spirit, cannot be resisted by the elect (Irresistible Grace)
  5. that those who are regenerated and justified will persevere in the faith (Perseverance of the saints)

These doctrines are often called the five points of Calvinism and are often symbolized by the well-known acronym TULIP. However, by themselves they are not a full exposition of Calvin's theology2 .

It is interesting to note that by this time (1610-1619) followers are defining and redefining the original teachings of both Calvin and Arminius. I believe that both sets of teachings, as currently taught, are not at all what their namesake's had intended, but are indeed reactionary to the others teaching. The current teachings of these two adversarial groups, for the purpose of this paper, are summed up as follows:

  1. Calvinism teaches irresistible grace, and that man has no freewill in deciding his eternal destiny. This is the doctrine of election and/or predestination.
  2. Arminians teach that while salvation is a gift, it is a gift that can be accepted then rejected or, stated another way, man can lose his salvation once attained. This teaching is the doctrine of freewill.

It is these teachings that create the errors concerning God's Sovereignty. The Calvinistic view is that had Jesus died for the sins of all men, and all men not be saved, then Jesus failed in His mission. This because God's sovereign will would require that all men be saved. So declaring God to be sovereign the Calvinistic view denies His sovereignty.

The Armenian view is that one may accept God's proffered salvation and then lose it, or return it, because of his, man's, free will. This teaching of receiving and returning is attributed to the fact that God in His sovereignty gave man a free will. It is here that they too misunderstand the Sovereign Lord. Believing that one has the will, or ability, to reject or accept a gift (salvation) is not the same as losing something no longer in the control of man.

Easton's Bible dictionary states that the Sovereignty of God is "His absolute right to do all things according to his own good pleasure."3 Within this definition lies the true meaning of sovereignty as it applies to our understanding of God. Perhaps the primary phrase, in this definition, would be "according to his own good pleasure" for it is here that both of our adversarial groups error.

The Calvinistic doctrines of election and limited atonement deny the sovereignty of God by their misunderstanding of the Bible and "God's good pleasure." The Calvinists use a number of scripture references to sustain their position. As I have often heard "text without context is pretext" and upon this statement, I intend to build my argument of God's Sovereignty. I will not attempt to answer every verse used by both sides, but only a few.

Romans 9:15 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

Romans 9:15 is a verse used to show the doctrine of election. It is God that decides who will receive the benefits of His mercy. The verse is clear that by its implication only those to whom God will show His mercy may be saved. God is merciful to all men in that He is the source of every breath man takes. God provides rainfall on the saved and unsaved, this is His mercy to all. This verse, Romans 9:15, is a quotation of Exodus 33:19 which is in response to Moses asking God to show him His glory. The passage in Exodus had nothing to do with eternal condition, but rather a desire to be more intimate with God. The first portion of Romans chapter 9 is a discourse on the relationship between God and Israel and the authority of God in choosing leaders and rulers. There is no statement in this passage that restricts salvation to an elect few, but it deals with the issues of leadership and covenant relationship. This whole passage of scripture is used to show the doctrine of election, but I will mention only one more verse.

Romans 9:17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.

The Calvinist would say that this verse clearly states that Pharaoh was not one of God's elect, and therefore condemned. Pharaoh was predestined to perish and spend eternity in hell. Such a position is understandable since Pharaoh was not at all kind to God's chosen people. However, what purpose did the plagues have if not to warn Pharaoh? In Exodus 8:15,32 and 9:34 "Pharaoh hardened his heart" this would indicate an opportunity to repent and submit to the will of God. God knew the response of Pharaoh, as God knows every decision by every person from Adam to eternity future, before the event took/takes place in time.

A.W. Pink writes in Sovereignty of God chapter one, "To say that God is sovereign is to declare that God is God." This would lead me to conclude that only God can adequately define His sovereignty. Mr. Pink later states in the same chapter "To declare that the Creator's original plan has been frustrated by sin, is to dethrone God. To suggest that God was taken by surprise in Eden and that he is now attempting to remedy an unforeseen calamity, is to degrade the Most High to the level of a finite, erring mortal. To argue that man is a free moral agent and the determiner of his own destiny, and that therefore he has the power to checkmate his Maker, is to strip God of the attribute of Omnipotence. To say that the creature has burst the bounds assigned by his Creator, and that God is now practically a helpless Spectator before the sin and suffering entailed by Adam's fall, is to repudiate the express declaration of Holy Writ, namely, "Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain" (Ps 76:10). In a word, to deny the sovereignty of God is to enter upon a path which, if followed to its logical terminus, is to arrive at blank atheism."4

Like many Calvinists Mr. Pink fails to understand the very nature of salvation as a gift. It is apparent from Scripture that God knew what would occur in the Garden of Eden. It is equally obvious that God had made provision for the fall of man before the fall. 1 Peter 1:19-21 states "But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God." God in His sovereignty gave man the ability to choose, to make decisions. Because He made man in His image man has intellect, the ability to reason. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD:"5 by God's sovereign will man is given the privilege of will.

Romans 5:18 states "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." The question that the Calvinist can never answer is: "What does all mean if it doesn't mean all?" Neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian questions that all men came into condemnation. Why then is it so hard to understand that the free gift of salvation is for all men.

To respond completely to the subjects of election and predestination is beyond the purview of this short paper. Let me conclude by saying that it is a misunderstanding of the sovereign nature of God that is the root problem. Having defined God's sovereignty, the Calvinist denies The Creator the power to create a creature with a will of his or her own. I wonder how they would explain the fall of Lucifer. That is another topic and will not be addressed here.

Having been eternally saved in a Freewill Baptist Church, I am somewhat familiar with the teaching that man can lose his salvation. It is believed that if man has eternal security that he then has a license to sin. Another Arminian belief is that since salvation is a gift it may be returned to the giver. Clearly both of these teachings are in error and the result of not clearly searching the whole of the Bible.

The Arminian teaching that because God in His sovereignty gave man a freewill man is responsible to decide to be saved, and to remain saved. What appears to be missing here is an understanding of the change in position that occurs at salvation. While we are unsaved, we are the masters of our own destiny, living only for the moment. The lost, having no spiritual discernment, is not capable of understanding the Lords intention for our lives. To be saved is not to accept the gift of heaven, but to turn our lives over to the Saviour. Ownership was transferred from me to He at the moment I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour.

A Bible verse that is often used to show that man can willingly lose his salvation is Exodus 32:32 "Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written." The fact that Moses asks to be blotted out if he doesn't get his own way does not mean that God will do so. The Lord answered Moses by saying "…Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book."6 One could conclude from God's response to Moses that the Lord would do the deciding as to who would be blotted out. This is not the Lamb's Book of Life, for none will be lost from that book. As it is written in John 18:9 "That the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake, Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none." In Hebrews it is recorded "For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." (Hebrews 10:14). It is not "he hath perfected for a while," but forever.

The belief that if man has eternal security in Christ he has a license to sin shows a misunderstanding, both of Scripture and God's nature. Hebrews 12:6 states clearly that the child of God will be disciplined for his transgressions. Being secure in our salvation is not to be immune from the law or the consequences of sin. As I recently heard in a message sin always has consequences, just not eternal damnation for the believer.

Having shown, at least partially, the error of Calvinism and Arminianism what then is God's Sovereignty? How then are we to understand that limitless authority that is the Lord's? Is there in fact an answer to the question? The Bible says:

Revelation 4:11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.

The Sovereignty of God is that all things created by Him and for "His good pleasure." He alone is able to understand or define His ultimate sovereignty. It is man, in his arrogance, that would limit God by defining His sovereignty. As the Psalmist has written, "For thou art great, and doest wondrous things: thou art God alone."7 In power, majesty, and glory God alone is God. Clearly the Scriptures teach us "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist."8 How wondrous is the sovereign nature of God.

Written by
Bro.Norman Gartin

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end notes:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language Third Edition ©Houghton Mifflin Company 1996
  2. Taken from Grace Valley Christian Center-Davis California website - Last updated: January 30, 1997
  3. Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary - OnLine Bible 8.10.01 Edition
  4. Sovereignty of God by A.W. Pink - Online Bible 8.10.01 Edition
  5. Isaiah 1:18
  6. Exodus 32:33
  7. Psalm 86 verse 10
  8. Colossians chapter 1 verses 16 and 17