May 30, 2014 Broadcast

The Sovereignty of God

A Message by Steven Lawson

Resounding throughout the pages of Scripture is the proclamation that God is King. And the concept most closely associated with His kingship is His sovereignty. To say that God is sovereign is not to say merely that He is stronger than everyone else, although this is true. Rather, to call Him sovereign is to ascribe to Him a rule and authority that transcends space and time, leaving nothing outside its scope. In this lesson, Dr. Lawson examines the nature and extent of God’s sovereign rule, showing how a biblical understanding of this topic can change the way we view the progress of history, the events of the present world, and the circumstances of our own lives.

From the series: The Attributes of God

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Why Sovereignty Matters

  2. article

    Fear and the Sovereignty of God

  3. article

    Mere Coincidence?

Why Sovereignty Matters

Affirming the biblical understanding of election is not usually a way to win many friends. Most Christians are shocked that anyone could believe God’s choice determines who will be saved. Others scratch their heads when Reformed believers get excited and promote the Lord’s sovereignty over all things. After all, what is the practical relevance of the doctrines of election and providence?

We ought not fault Christians who reject Reformed theology because they have heard it only from overbearing Calvinists. Nevertheless, we confess wholeheartedly that our Creator’s sovereignty is the most “practical” of all doctrines, as today’s passage reveals.

Joseph assures his brothers of his pardon, stating the lesson his life teaches us: God overrides the intents and deeds of wicked men to bring about good (Gen. 50:20). Or, “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). What the Lord does and allows is always good — because a good and praiseworthy end is always His goal, and He always accomplishes it. God blamelessly works concurrently with men, even in their evil events, to achieve an ultimate good.

We can only trust with confidence a Lord who controls everything. If He is unable to use wickedness to further His plan, then evil remains free from His rule, and we could never be sure of His final victory. Some say God only foresees human decisions without ordaining them, but Scripture never teaches this. Moreover, if the Lord only looks into a future in which He has not ordained all things, then there are “chance” events to come that He will have had no control over. How then is He God in any meaningful way? How, then, can He prevent those events He finds undesirable?

If the Lord is sovereign over all things, then every wicked event is in His plan, not because He loves evil, but because He wants to work through and against the sin to achieve a worthy end. Knowing that God does this enables us to fight the good fight of faith and stand against the forces of darkness. Nothing they do to us is outside of the Lord’s will, and so they can never derail His good plan for us.

Fear and the Sovereignty of God

Kim Riddlebarger

"God is in control." These words can be a wonderful comfort to people struggling with common phobias, natural fears, or even deep-seated terrors. The reminder that God is in control often brings great relief.

But there are times when the words "God is in control" might make matters worse. A terrified Christian may have already wrestled with the fact that God is sovereign, and come to the misguided conclusion that God is punishing him, or worse, that God has abandoned him. At the root of such fear and anxiety is not likely the issue of whether God is in control (a doctrine most Christians readily accept), but why God would allow Christians to feel uncertainty and dread. The awareness of God's sovereignty may not be a source of relief in every case—only another source of doubt, frustration, and fear. Fear can do this to people, even Christians.

There are two points to consider about confronting our fears in the light of God's sovereignty. The first is to consider those biblical passages (there are many) which tell us what it means for God to be "in control." When we have a good (or better) grasp of God's control over all things, we discover that nothing which comes to pass is random or outside the will of God. The psalmist reminds us, "For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth" (Ps. 135:5-6). In Proverbs, we read that God's sovereignty extends even to seemingly incidental things: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33). This information is given to remind us that nothing outside the will of God can happen to us.

God knows when a sparrow falls from the sky, and if He cares for them, how much more does He care for us? (Matt. 6:26). Paul tells us that "for those who love God all things work together for good" (Rom. 8:28), and James states, "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one" (James 1:13). James adds, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (1:17). God does not tempt us (or cause us to be afraid), He gives us all good things, and He promises to turn everything (even our fears) to our good.

This short list of biblical passages reminds us that any fear we may be facing can bring God glory, be turned by God to our ultimate good, and grant us needed reassurance when we are afraid. Scripture calms our fears by reminding us that God is our heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us even when we fear Him, or dread His sovereign purposes. He still loves us even when we are afraid that He doesn't.

The second thing to consider is that if anyone believed in God's absolute sovereignty, it was Jesus. The Gospels reveal that even though Jesus knew God's purpose in advance and that the outcome to His suffering would be a glorious triumph over death and the grave, He nevertheless felt both fear and anxiety before the ordeal of the cross. In the resolution of Jesus' fear and anxiety we can find great relief for our own.

In Matthew 26:36–38, we read "Jesus went . . . to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, 'Sit here, while I go over there and pray.' And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, 'My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.'" Jesus also said, "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.'" Then He prayed, 'My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done'" (vv. 41–42). In Luke's account, the extent of Jesus' fear is revealed: "And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44).

Fear and anxiety are not necessarily sin—that Jesus was anxious before His suffering upon the cross proves this to be the case. Fear of pain or danger is quite natural. Yet in the midst of Jesus' anxiety in Gethsemane, He nevertheless trusted His Father to see Him through the horrific ordeal to come. Jesus may sweat drops of blood, but He drinks the cup of wrath to save us from our sins. Remarkably, Jesus is an example to us when we are afraid, and His suffering and death removes any guilt we may have for doubting God's promises or for fearing His approach or purposes. Jesus died for our all sins, including all sinful fear.

Even better, we have a great high priest, who never sleeps nor slumbers, and who knows what it is like for us to experience fear and anxiety. It is Jesus to whom we pray when we are afraid, and it is Jesus who prays for us, even as we pray to Him (Heb. 4:14–16). This is what it means when we say "God is in control."

Mere Coincidence?

Keith Mathison

One of the most interesting stories ever published was a novella called The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility by Morgan Robertson. Robertson tells the story of the sinking of a large luxury liner named the Titan. The Titan in Robertson’s book was the largest ship in existence at the time: over eight hundred feet in length with a passenger and crew capacity of three thousand. It had numerous watertight bulkheads and was considered unsinkable. It carried the minimum number of lifeboats required by law, but far short of the number needed for three thousand people. While carrying many wealthy passengers across the North Atlantic on a cold April night, the Titan struck an iceberg at 24 knots just before midnight about ninety-five miles south of Greenland. The iceberg tore a gash in the ship’s starboard side, which flooded the watertight compartments. The unsinkable ship sank. Because the Titan did not have enough lifeboats, more than half of her passengers died in the icy waters.

We’ve all read books or watched films that claim to be “based on actual events.” Those who are familiar with the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, would naturally assume that Robertson’s book was a fictional account based on these actual events. The numerous similarities are just too striking. The problem is that Robertson’s book was published in 1898, fourteen years before the “unsinkable” Titanic sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic with too few lifeboats.

I’ve been interested in so-called coincidences since I was a child. In fact, my first research paper of any substance during high school was on the subject of coincidences. I recently ran across this old paper, which I wrote before I was a Christian. After giving examples of some of the more remarkable coincidences to be found in the annals of history and looking at some of the different theories that have been suggested as explanations for these phenomena, I concluded that perhaps coincidences were somebody’s way of trying to tell us something. I also added at the time that if this someone or something were trying to tell us something, there were probably better ways to do so. It wasn’t too long after writing those words that I read the Bible for the first time.

Some of the events that skeptics would attribute to chance or coincidence are examples of God answering our prayers. I have experienced these in my own life. As an example, the week I began seminary studies, I did not have enough money to take a full course load, which meant that my new wife and I could not stay in the seminary housing. The only person I had talked to about this was the housing director. I stayed up all night praying. The following day I went to buy a loaf of bread (I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew we had to eat). When I returned, the phone rang the very moment I opened the door. I picked it up and discovered that a fellow first-year seminary student was on the line, a student I did not even know. He had heard of my situation and had paid the remainder of my tuition, enabling my wife and me to stay in the student housing and begin seminary studies. A skeptic would say the timing of the phone call was a mere coincidence, pure chance, nothing more, nothing less. No, in reality, it was God’s dramatic answer to my prayer.

Even Tabletalk has been involved in “coincidences.” Our daily Bible study for September 11, 2001, covered the text of Judges 9:42–49. This text tells the story of the deaths of a thousand people who perished in the tower of Shechem when it was burned by Abimelech. The study was written months before the events of September 11, 2001, but it had particular resonance to those who read it on that tragic day. Such stories could be multiplied hundreds of times over. Most people can share similar stories of coincidence. Atheists and other skeptics relegate these kinds of events to pure chance, but Christians do not believe in chance. We believe in a sovereign God who providentially controls all things. So what’s going on?

Scripture explicitly teaches us that things we might attribute to mere chance are actually controlled by our sovereign God. The entire book of Esther is an example of God’s providence working through seeming coincidences. Proverbs informs us that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (16:33). God, then, is in control even of things as simple as the “roll of the dice.” As the Westminster Confession explains: “God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least” (5.1).

So-called coincidences appear to be striking glimpses of God’s providence in our day-to-day world. We know and confess that all of life is under God’s providential control, but we tend to forget this in the humdrum regularity of our lives. So-called coincidences are a splash of water in the face, as it were, to us and to others who can tend to forget that our world is not simply matter in motion. God is always trying to tell us something. We just don’t listen very well.

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