You may have heard it said that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign. But what exactly does that mean?
We may have personal questions: Can I trust his sovereignty? What about my freewill?
We may have intellectual questions: How is the presence of evil part of his will? If God wants everyone to be saved, why do some (sadly) reject him?
So what exactly do we mean when we say that God is sovereign?
Well once a month Gerard and I attempt to read some of Herman Bavink’s Reformed Dogmatics to try and keep sharpening ourselves as pastors. Last month we looked at God’s sovereignty as we read chapter 5 of book 2. Here are some of Dr. Bavink’s insightful thoughts on this great topic.
God is completely sovereign. That is, everything happens because God wills it. From creation and preservation (Rev 4:11) to election and reprobation (Rom. 9:15ff); from Christ’s sufferings (Luke 22:42) to our suffering as Christians (1 Peter 3:17); from our life and lot on a grand scale (James 4:15) to even the most minute details of life (Matt. 10:29); everything happens because it is the will of God.
We can also say that God’s will is absolutely free. That is, he is able to do whatever he pleases (Ps. 115:3). “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15). “If he snatches away, who can stop him? Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Job 9:12).
However even though God’s will is absolutely free, it is consistent with his character. That is, his will is bound to his benevolence, his wisdom, and all his other moral perfections. We should never think of God’s will as separate from his goodness. Jesus teaches us that God is an almighty sovereign AND gracious father who will always act in accordance with his goodness towards his children.
So what about human free will?
We maintain that we have a limited free will because we are limited creatures. So we are free to decide some things, but it is limited because we are not able to, for example, be in two places at the same time, no matter how much we will it. However when it comes to spiritual matters we will always find that any act toward God (whether reaching out initially, or ongoing as a Christian) is always an enabled act, because God first willed it.
And what about the presence of evil?
There are two approaches to this question about the presence of evil. The first approach is basically to say evil ‘just exists’ and God just ‘tolerates’ it. This view tries to protect God’s holiness and keep him from being accused as the author of sin.
However, as Bavink argues, there is a second position that “does more justice to God’s holiness, for it is more in accordance with Scripture and Christian faith as a whole to believe that for good and wise reasons, though these reasons are unknown to us, God has in a certain sense willed sin than to believe that, not willing it any sense, he tolerates and permits it.” (p.244)
As moral beings with limited free will, God comes to us and instructs us to keep away from evil and not to dabble with it, while he is able to work much more closely with it and use it for his purposes. “Just as a father forbids a child to use a sharp knife, though he himself uses it without any ill results, so God forbids us rational creatures to commit the sin that he himself can and does use as a means of glorifying his name.” (p.244) Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Bavink concludes: “Certainly, it cannot be denied that we witness God’s sovereignty at its most brilliant when he magnifies his wisdom in human folly, his strength in human weakness, and his grace and righteousness in human sin.” (p.245)
Are you able to rejoice in God’s sovereignty even in today’s trials and frustrations?
We may never fully know why things have turned out the way they have, but we can sing with great confidence William Young Fullerton’s hymn:
I cannot tell how silently he suffered,
as with his peace he graced this place of tears,
or how his heart upon the cross was broken,
the crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, he heals the broken-hearted
and stays our sin and calms our lurking fear
and lifts the burden from the heavy laden;
for still the Saviour, Saviour of the world is here.