Sovereignty: In Charge or in Control? Part 1: Thoughts from Scripture

I like watching sermons—a lot. It edifies me, both as a Christian and as someone who feels called to preach/teach. But, every now and then, perhaps when I find a feisty urge rising up in my soul, I’ll watch a sermon of someone with whom I know I will disagree, be it by a little or great deal. Now, to assure you, I do not go seeking these sermons out (most of the time). Many times (as is the case with the sermon under discussion), these sermons show up in my “Recommended for You” section on my YouTube front page. And, if it’s a preacher with whom I know I will disagree preaching on a topic about which I am passionate, I certainly can’t resist watching it. Needless to say, this was one of those times. Now, believe it or not, I actually recommend this practice of listening to disagreeable sermons. Hopefully, it will challenge your interpretation of Scripture or, if they are bad, further bolster them. Now, of course, this has its dangers, as it can lead to the encouragement of a cynical or critical attitude toward preachers in general. This is not what any of us want, so we have to be mindful of the risk.

Now, to the topic at hand. This particular sermon, entitled “The Sovereignty of God,” was hard to resist, as God’s sovereignty is the doctrine about which I am probably most passionate. I will not name the preacher, as my only interest is discussing the theology that was asserted. That said, I will deal with numerous quotes from the sermon.

To give something of a preface to the issue, I want to help us understand what the issue is with God’s sovereignty. Why is there an issue? Two assertions will hopefully make clear the issue: 1) God is absolutely sovereign and 2) evil exists. So, if God is absolutely sovereign and evil exists, how do we not believe God to be evil, or at least the author of evil? People—laymen, pastors, and theologians alike—have been trying to reconcile and sort through this problem for centuries, perhaps millennia. As one can imagine, there are aggressively opposing sides. On the one hand, you have those who feel they have to concede that God must not be absolutely sovereign since he could not have willed evil to exist. Then you have those (like myself) who affirm God’s absolute sovereignty, even to the point of saying that evil is most certainly in the will of God (the “will” of God is a whole other can of worms that has come directly from this debate that perhaps we may look at in a later post). The sermon discussed in this post most definitely represents the former view. In the following, I will address the sermon—though not exhaustively, but rather several of his main assertions. In doing this, I will address why this preacher’s view of God’s sovereignty (which reflects, much to my concern, the view of the vast majority of professing evangelicals), or lack thereof, ultimately contradicts the Scriptural witness we have of God.

The preacher begins his sermon with this statement (and I mean “begin” as in “this is his very first sentence”). It is the first point of the sermon.1

Any definition of God’s sovereignty that allows for evil to exist as part of his will and purpose is an immoral definition of sovereignty.

Here is what he is saying, in my estimation: If you define God’s sovereignty in a way that he ordains, wills, decrees, or even utilizes evil people and evil deeds as part of his redemptive plan, you have an immoral theology. His use of “immoral” is interesting. He didn’t say what most theologians use with regard to opposing theology: errant, wrong, unbiblical, unsupported from Scripture, indefensible. No, he uses the term “immoral.” That is a strong word to use in this context, and, personally, I find it offensive. To have an immoral theology (i.e., thoughts and ideas about God) is truly nothing short of blasphemy, the rankest of evil. This statement means that, in this preacher’s view, I have an evil theology. What’s more is that he thinks most Christians have an evil theology, for—whether they be Reformed, Arminian, Molinist or whatever—what orthodox Christian thinks that evil is not in some form or fashion, however small or insignificant, part of God’s redemptive plan? Even if you think that the only reason Satan exists is to glorify God by suffering his just wrath in hell, you have, from my understanding of this preacher’s statement, an immoral (evil) theology.

The question is plainly this: Does God have a purpose for evil? Even more specifically, does God will evil to happen? These questions don’t seem significant until you realize what the answers, whether negative or affirmative, say—at least from a limited human perspective. If yes, then it follows that God, at least in some capacity, willed evil to exist (whether that means he “allowed” it, “permitted” it, or “ordained” it is a topic for another, much more lengthy, discussion). However, if the answer is no, then that means basically that evil was something that was completely out of God’s control. It was not part of God’s plan, and he couldn’t have stopped it from happening. In this case, God is a distant, innocent bystander. Evil was an accident. Now, in my thinking, unless one is an open theist, you must in some way fall into the former category. For if God is truly omniscient, then he knew evil would exist before he ever created, yet he created anyway. Furthermore, if God is truly omnipotent, then he could have easily (“easily” is far too weak a word) stopped it, but he chose not to. How then is evil not part of God’s will (in the sense that it is part of his decree)?

The problem is that the second view (that God does not have a purpose for evil) seems to make God look innocent, perhaps “more good.” It seems to align better with our perception (key word) of his character as good. But is this really the case? Needless to say, I think this preacher has serious problems with Scripture. Let’s look at one short passage from Acts 4:27-28.

27 For 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

—Acts 4:27-282 (emphasis added)

It is quite apparent that if you say with this preacher that any definition of sovereignty that allows for evil as part of God’s plan is immoral, surely you are in opposition to what this passage is saying here. Were the actions of Pilate, Herod, and the rest of the screaming, spitting crowd evil? Yes? Well, surely that wasn’t part of God’s will was it? I’m afraid not. This passage states clearly that what happened to Jesus (the supreme evil of world history, mind you) was precisely what God’s very will “predestined [these things] to take place.” It is unmistakably clear: Take away God’s purpose in regards to evil, and you remove the pinnacle of God’s redemptive plan (cf. Joseph’s evaluation of his life in Genesis 50), namely, the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

The second point in this preacher’s sermon is this:

Any definition of the sovereignty of God that removes our responsibility to risk everything to pursue all is an illegal definition of sovereignty.

I absolutely agree, but more has to be said. God is absolutely sovereign, yes, but in the sense that nothing that happens is outside of his definite decree and plan, including individual human actions, yet humans are absolutely responsible for their own actions. Throughout the sermon (indeed, it is one of the most common balks against the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty) is this notion that God’s absolute sovereignty somehow removes human responsibility. This is not the Reformed (Calvinist) view at all. What this preacher balks against is the idea that if God is absolutely sovereign in the sense I described above, then humans really are responsible for nothing, and should, therefore, be apathetic in everything, because “what’s going to happen is going to happen anyway.” This is fatalism—rationalistic reasoning, hyper-Calvinism and heresy.

But before we accuse Reformed theology then of being logically inconsistent, I would like to posit that there is a text of Scripture (one of many, actually) which can be applied directly to this problem. Let’s look carefully at Isaiah 10:5-15. I have underlined the words and phrases I see as important to the argument.

5 Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury!
6 Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
7 But he idoes not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few;
8 for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
9 Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
10 As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?”

12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13 For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.

14 My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped.”

15 Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!

—Isaiah 10:5-15 (emphases added)

There is a lot going on in this passage. God is going to use Assyria to punish Israel, the “ungodly nation.” However, God makes it clear that, even after he uses Assyria as a weapon against Israel, he is going to turn right around and punish them for doing so. Why? Because, in his pride, the king of Assyria thought that what he did, he did of his own power and authority! Lest we question the idea that God was merely a bystander in this, or even that God merely “allowed” Assyria to do this, he answers Assyria by asking, “Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?” It is clear that God was fully in control (and willed!) the evil Assyria committed against Israel. The difference is that God was good in his intentions (justice and correction) while Assyria was evil (arrogance and greed). The fact that God ordained these events does not in any way absolve Assyria of its responsibility. They could not have said, “We were just doing what you willed us to do! We were only your instrument!” That was—and still is—an invalid excuse, which is evident by the punishment given them by God, the very One who wielded them like an ax (v. 15). Calvin has a lot to say about this, so I hope to quote him a fair amount in the second installment of this topic.

Not long after making this second point, he gives an anecdote which I found ironically interesting. He tells the story of a young man who wanted to go evangelize India. (I already got a thought in my head as to the person to whom he was referring.) However, upon voicing his plans to go to India, an older minister says to him, “If God wants to convert the heathen, he can do it without your help.” Now, this preacher uses this to try to show his congregation that this doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty is harmful to evangelism. Well, to my great pleasure, I found that the young man to whom he was referring was none other than William Carey, a man who became one of the greatest missionaries in the English world, to be now known as “the father of modern missions.” Here is the irony: William Carey was a Calvinist. And, just as I said above, the man who made the comment to him about “convert[ing] the heathen” was indeed a hyper-Calvinist. I wonder if this preacher realized this. Surely he didn’t, for with this anecdote he refutes his own point! Furthermore, any student of history knows that many of the world’s greatest evangelists and preachers were firm Calvinists who held to God’s absolute sovereignty: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Charles Spurgeon, and a whole host of others. Not only are this preacher’s assertions unbiblical, they are utterly counter-factual, anti-historical, and simply unfair.

This is the danger one faces when a pastor is only concerned with propagating his own view rather than educating his congregation on the plurality of views. For those of us in (or planning on going into) ministry, let us strive not only to present our view on any doctrine but to educate our congregations as to why we reject other views. While it seems trivial to pick out a random sermon on YouTube and respond to it on a no-name blog, it really is important that ministers and pastors are thorough in their education. This post, more than simply a Calvinist response to a heavily Arminian (really Open Theist—for how can an omniscient, omnipotent God not have a plan for something about which he knew before he created and which he could easily have stopped?) sermon, but a plea for honesty and thoroughness in our teaching and preaching. I respond because what this pastor did is not fair. It’s not fair to his congregation, for they have been misled into thinking they were presented with a full treatment of Scripture. It’s not fair to those, like me, who disagree because we are caricatured and then painted as immoral (what hubris!). Finally, and most troublesome, it is not fair to Scripture, and therefore God, because it treats his Word as if it has no value. This pastor brands himself a preacher, yet there was no exposition of Scripture, and hardly even quoting of Scripture! He makes blanket assertions, yet does not back them up from Scripture or deal with Scripture passages that frustrate his beliefs. For example, what will be his reply to the Scriptures dealt with above (Acts 4:27-28 & Isaiah 10:5-15? What about this one:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?

—Amos 3:6b

…or this one:

Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?

—Lamentations 3:37-38

…or yet this one:

The Lord (not Satan) gave, and the Lord (not Satan) has taken away…Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil (from God)?”

—Job 1:21c, 2:10b (parenthetical additions mine)

…what about this one:

I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.

—Isaiah 45:7

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. While people may not agree with my convictions regarding God’s sovereignty, and while they may accuse me of “making God look bad,” I don’t believe anyone can say I do not attempt to deal with the totality of Scripture, even the Scriptures that grind against our fallen understanding of goodness, fairness, or love. So, I believe it can be stated that, as Calvin himself so appropriately said, “[these cavils are] not hurled against me but against the Holy Spirit.”3 This pastor must wrestle with Scripture in this regard.

Please—teachers, preachers, ministers, mentors—my exhortation is this: do not deprive your flocks of the whole counsel of God. Let Scripture shape your thinking. Do not, as this pastor did, present your beliefs, and then cover the mouth of God so that your thinking goes both unconfirmed and unchallenged. Surely that is immoral.

* In the second installment of this series, I plan to see how different theologians deal with this topic of the sovereignty of God.


  1. I would like to point out that the sermon is around an hour long. It takes half an hour before the preacher even gets to Scripture. However, the Scriptures he does use, strangely, have nothing to do with his assertions; he makes no attempt to back them up from Scripture.
  2. Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. I. xviii. 3.
Advertisements

One thought on “Sovereignty: In Charge or in Control? Part 1: Thoughts from Scripture

  1. Thank you for the post. For more on George Whitefield, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s