God’s Awe-inspiring and Comforting Sovereignty

Many Scriptural proofs of God’s sovereignty

God’s sovereignty means that God is the King (Psalm 145:1) of this universe who has the absolute authority and power to do what he pleases. None can stop or resist what he determines to do. This is plainly taught in the Bible in many places. Here are a few examples. “Our God is in the heavens, he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Psalm 115:3); “My counsel shall stand and I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10); “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29-30); “When he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? And when he hideth his face, who then can behold him? Whether it be done against a nation or against a man only” (Job 34:29). The Bible is full of such verses from beginning to end! We must stand in awe at such a God as this! This is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Paul is writing with a spirit of awe (Romans 11:33) when he says, “For of him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36). God is the author of all (“of him” are all things); the sustainer and governor of all (“through him” are all things); and the goal of all (“to him are all things”). “To whom be glory forever”—God will see to it that He is honored in every event of life; either by judging the sins involved on the last day, or by demonstrating His mercy and goodness in and through that event (see also Romans 9:22-23). The reason I am including so many verses in this discussion is to enable you to go to the Bible and read it for yourself and see that these things are so (Acts 17:11).

The truth of God’s sovereignty or absolute control of all things is clearly taught in the Bible. Four examples of this great truth are: 1) God’s control and rule over the nations, 2) His control over the weather and its many effects, 3) His control over all of the details of life, and 4) his control over the souls of men. In regard to nations and rulers the Bible says: “God is the judge: he putteth down one and setteth up another” (Psalm 75:7). With respect to the weather (and the devastation caused by violent storms), the Bible says: “The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet” (Nahum 1:3). In regard to all of the details of life and creation the Bible says that God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). 

Concerning God’s sovereignty over the souls of men, the Bible teaches that it is God who determines who will be saved. We read in Ephesians 1:4-5, “he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love; having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will.” To understand this teaching in the Bible we must realize that man’s probation is over. When Adam sinned the whole race was condemned—”by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation” (Romans 5:18). Man has lost his desire and therefore ability to choose as his chief delight a sovereign God and his holy ways. The Bible describes mankind as very much alive toward selfish pursuits but dead toward God—”you who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). All those who are saved (converted, forgiven, and given a new heart toward God) are saved because God has chosen to pity them, love them, and intervene to save them. God could have justly left them to have their own way and continue in sin and perish forever, but instead he chose to pluck them as a piece of wood from the burning fire (Zechariah 3:2). Listen to what the Bible says: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5); “we love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19); “when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15). The apostle Paul confessed that it was God alone “who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9). We can see from these verses and many others like them that it is God who determines who is saved. When rightly understood, this is one of the most comforting truths in the Bible, because it says that I stand before God based on his own gracious choice of my unworthy, sinful soul, and not based on my own feeble efforts and decisions. Every believer can say this about his relationship with God.

Men are still responsible for their actions

God’s sovereignty over all of the details of life–including the salvation of men–is a great mystery and it can be confusing if we do not listen closely to the Bible. God’s sovereignty is invisible and behind the scenes and beyond our comprehension, but it is plainly taught and is to be firmly believed. The Bible also teaches that man himself is accountable and responsible for what he does in this life. As human beings we are still held responsible for all of the choices we make. We will give an account before God on the last day for all of our sins if we die unconverted. The Bible also teaches that everyone who hears the gospel is welcomed by the Lord Jesus to come to him for forgiveness and peace with God. Listen to what the Savior says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). 

A God of “means”

The Bible also teaches that God is a God of means. There are methods and means and “instruments” that he uses in order to accomplish his sovereign purposes. God uses human interaction, the events of life, and the thoughts of men to accomplish His will. In this use of means, men are conscious that the things that they choose spring from uncoerced desires that are in their own heart. Have you ever wondered where your thoughts come from? This is a mystery also. One thing we know for sure, if these thoughts ever include desires for Christ and his salvation, the Bible teaches us that God is the one who put them in our hearts. Faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9); and repentance is given by God (2 Tim. 2:25). God says, “I will put my laws into their mind and write them in their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10); “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26); “I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me” (Jeremiah 32:40). You must read the Bible for yourself and ask God to teach you these things in your own experience—that is to give you faith and repentance. 

Let us re-emphasize that God is a God of means. God is behind all of these means working out his sure and certain purposes that were determined in eternity past. Somehow, though it is unknown to us how, God so molds our lives and so works in our hearts that the Holy Spirit puts desires in our hearts that are according to God’s decree. We offer these desires up as prayer requests to God and he answers them. This is one of the ways that the Holy Spirit “helps our weakness” in prayer (Romans 8:26). We often experience many delays to our deep and earnest desires offered up in prayer. Our faith is tested as to whether we still believe that God cares. But when the answer to prayer comes we go back to Romans 8:26 and acknowledge that the Holy Spirit was the first author of that prayer. 

Many hear the gospel, so why do only some believe? 

In God’s sovereign use of means we know that God also uses Christian people to influence others. He uses the consciences of men to channel their thoughts. “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts” (Proverbs 20:27). God uses his providence (events of life sent our way by God) to mold and direct our lives. He uses the Bible to teach us and change our way of thinking and acting. There are many who are not savingly changed by these influences. We know that there are many who hear the gospel and are exposed to these same influences, but not all are converted. What is the difference? The difference is that, beyond all of this use of means, it is God who makes the truth “stick.” He makes it real and life-changing. He is the one who saves. The Lord Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). Only God can save a soul. Paul said by the Spirit of God, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). We can see why Paul would say later, “Who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). 

All who hear are welcomed to God’s grace

In Ezekiel 33:11 we read: “As I live saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Again, we must emphasize that all are welcomed to salvation, but not all will come. It is sad to say, but it is true that we all want our own selfish ways (Isaiah 53:6) and will continue in them until God intervenes and turns us around. 

The need for trust in God’s character

It takes trust in God’s character to truly appreciate God’s sovereignty. We cannot understand why God included the entrance of sin into his universe, but we trust His all-wise purposes, and we know that he teaches us that where sin abounds grace does “much more abound” (Romans 5:20). We cannot understand why God does not decree everything that is good and pleasing to him. He does allow much evil and suffering to exist in this fallen, rebellious world. He must in his infinite wisdom have a higher purpose to accomplish. We cannot grasp it right now in this life, but we must trust him because we know he is just and holy and good and wise in all his ways (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 145:9). We do know that the presence of evil and suffering are used to remind us that this world is under a curse and it should cause us to set our final hope on the new heavens and new earth that God is going to establish when he destroys this one (2 Peter 3:13). God’s delay of putting an end to it all is because there are more people that he is going to bring to salvation (2 Peter 3:15). Beyond this there are many things that we cannot explain in this life.

Sovereignty believed produces humility, awe, and comfort

The truth of God’s sovereignty is designed to produce humility, awe, and comfort in the hearts of God’s people. If these truths produce anger and bitterness in us, it is because we lack humility, reverence, and trust in God’s word. Why do we say this? Think about it. Here is a person who is upset at what the Bible plainly teaches. Something is wrong with that! Some people are even argumentative. Some are surprised because they have been a Christian so long and no one has ever taught it to them. We must approach the subject in with a teachable spirit. The Bible also warns us not to question God in an irreverent spirit—”Thou wilt say unto me, why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?” (Romans 9:19-20). The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon said that he passed from being a boy to being a man when he embraced the truths of these words in Romans chapter nine. These truths are revealed in the Bible to be “profitable” to us (2 Tim. 3:16). They will be profitable if they produce in us a spirit of reverence for God’s infinite majesty and rule over all things. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).

The need for a childlike faith

God’s sovereignty must also be received in a spirit of childlike faith. We don’t know the answers to the difficult questions that some may raise against us, but like the captive children of Israel 800 miles from home, we believe “thy God reigneth” because the Bible says it (Isaiah 52:7). When painful things occur in our lives we must embrace God’s sovereignty in the same child-like faith that David expresses in Psalm 131:1-2. “LORD my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty, neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely, I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.”

God’s sovereignty humbles us. When disappointing things come into our lives, God is pleased when we humble ourselves under his mighty hand (1 Peter 5:6) and say like the Lord Jesus, “not my will, but thine be done.” When painful, hard, and dark things happen to us, the Bible does not use terms such as God “allowed it” or God “permitted” it. When we use terms like this, it ought to be our intention to express that God is not the author of sin or that God is never cruel to his people. We should never use this kind of expression (i.e., “God allowed it”) to deny that God is in absolute control of every detail of our lives. Job was right when he said, “Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me” (Job 19:21). Job did not know the part that the Devil played in his trials, but actually it did not matter, because God could have prevented it if he had determined to, but he did not, so in effect God had said, “This shall be done to you.” This is what Augustine meant when he said that God “effectually permitted” the fall of man. To understand God’s present rule over evil men we must realize that God releases his restraint on sinful men and that is why they commit the sins that they do. They want to sin and they are responsible for their sins. God could stop them and many times he does (as with Laban not hurting Jacob, Genesis 31:24; note God’s protection of Sarah in Genesis 20:3; cp. Psalm 105:14-15). Even so God is still in control of sinful creatures, though they are still the authors of their sinful desires and actions. The Scriptures teach that the Devil has a chain (Revelation 20:2) and we also read: “surely the wrath of man shall praise thee” (Psalm 76:10). 

An anchor to help us in our “tragedies”

I knew of a Christian woman who was sexually assaulted as she was alone in a small laundry room in back of her apartment complex. She was devastated emotionally. She continued in shock, in fear, and in humiliating sorrow for a time. Thankfully, as a believer she was able to turn to the Word of God and take comfort from the fact that God is sovereign and so he must have an overruling purpose. If such a man were caught in Old Testament days he would have been killed. This is what God thinks of his sin. But what do we say to the woman? She was willing to entrust herself to God as her heavenly Father who felt her pain and cared for her deeply. God could have prevented it. But He didn’t. Why not? We don’t know. But there are many such things in our lives (Job 23:14), so we had better learn to trust God with what we don’t understand or else we will not find any comfort in this life. We will fall into the terrible mental prison of a victim’s self-pity and bitterness. Our life will come to a halt and we will not go on to enjoy God’s companionship. We will not go on to fulfill our responsibilities as husbands or wives, as parents, as grandparents, as friends, or as church members. We will miss many golden opportunities to serve God. Why has our life suddenly ended? Because we will not trust God with what we don’t understand. We must go on with God for heaven awaits us—and much of God’s goodness in this life also. Do you have the confident expectation that many good things lie ahead in your life from the hand of God? This is what we must say to embrace that familiar, comforting verse: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6).

How much better it is in the midst of our deepest disappointments and sorrows to pour out our hearts to God and believe in his love. We must trust his wisdom to teach us to walk in the steps of the Lord Jesus (1 Peter 2:21) who suffered cruel things from the hands of men. God will be with us and take us through the overwhelming floods of this life (Isaiah 43:2). Rather than saying to ourselves, “I am a victim! I am a victim!” We must say with the woman who had just lost her young son, “It is well” (2 Kings 4:26). I pray that we can also sing, “It is well with my soul” and “Have thine own way Lord.” True believers must find nearness to God as their only sure portion in this life (Psalm 73:28). Have you found Him to be yours?

Though our personal “tragedies” are very painful, we must humble ourselves, trust God, stand in awe of his majesty, and worship him. Listen to Job in the midst of his deep sorrow and loss: “Then Job arose and rent his mantle and shaved his head and fell down upon the ground and worshipped and said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (Job 1:20-22). 

Always rest assured: the heart and hand of God is toward his people 

We know that God’s wisdom, goodness, and love is behind all that happens, so we trust him and He somehow comes near to us and comforts us when we cast our cares upon him (1 Peter 5:7). We know that God is making his people more like the Lord Jesus and that the Savior Himself experienced a life of suffering (Romans 8:29). He is in glory now, and so will we be one day, if we are one of his people. But for those who will not repent and trust God; they “shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). We all have hard things happen to us, but let us be wise enough not to fight against God. Let the Savior in the garden of Gethsemane be our pattern. Let us say with Him, “Not my will but thine be done.” Submission to God’s sovereign will is a beautiful quality in a life set on continuing on with God. Let us say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). 

If God was not in control of every detail of life, we could not have any comfort. But the Bible says, “and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose, for whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28-29). Remember this ‘working of all things for good’ includes the “calamities” in our lives (which are sometimes called “evil” in the Hebrew language). Hear what God says: “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). Yes, trials come our way from God, but because he is in control we do not lose heart. God told Jeremiah, as the Babylonians came to destroy Jerusalem and take the people captive to Babylon, that he would bring the people back to Israel in seventy years and restore them. It was hard to hope when the wicked Babylonians were destroying everything in sight. Listen to a sovereign God encourage Jeremiah: “Behold I am the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27). We must put our trust in an all-controlling, almighty God, who is our Father and Savior.

A doctrine that deflates pride, stirs up gratitude, and spurs on watchfulness

Understanding and believing the Bible’s teaching on election and predestination should produce three things in a believer’s life, namely: humility, gratitude, and a holy watchfulness against sin. Let’s consider each one briefly.

First, consider how this doctrine produces humility. When a believer can say and grasps with his heart the fact that God looked down the corridor of time and saw me and my sin and that I would never chose him—and in spite of this God chose to save me anyway, understanding this has a sweet humbling effect on my spirit. I know that I would never have chosen God, but he had to choose me. I would still go on rejecting him, if he had not chosen me. This means that in and of myself without God working in my life that I am self-centered, sinful, Christ-rejecting, and motivated by a disposition that goes away from a holy God instead of toward him. May I always be ashamed whenever I discover pride in my life, because only deep humility will bring honor to God for saving “a wretch like me” (Amazing Grace).

Secondly, look at what a spur to gratitude and worship the doctrine of election is. Everything toward God in my life such as repentance, faith in Christ, love for his word, his people, the love of holiness, and joy in Christ—all of this came from God. It all is a result of his choosing me and determining to work these things in me, by his Spirit. If these are the most precious things in my life and I have them because God determined to give them to me, then daily a fountain of gratitude and worship should well up in my heart toward my Father in heaven. That we were predestined to be the adopted children of God, is set before us in Ephesians 1:5-6 as one of the themes that should fill our praise throughout our whole life.

For a third effect that the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace should produce in our life, look at how it stirs us on to a watchful holy walk, in other words, a life before God. If the fruits of saving, electing grace (repentance, faith, love for holiness, love for God’s word and love for his people) are not in my life then I cannot make my calling and election sure. Now, I must use the means God has appointed to stir up and strengthen these signs of grace so that they flourish. I must pray, read the word, obey, be patient with God’s people, and serve them. I must watch against and fight against the Devil’s ever-recurrent inroads into my life. If these evidences of the new birth are not present in my life in a discernable degree, then how can I say he has chosen to give me new life? Because I must live close enough to God and His word to discern His work of the new birth, the doctrine of God choosing me actually spurs me on to holier living and on to more grateful, humble, living before Him. In perhaps an unexpected way, understanding God’s sovereignty in saving me and the sure fruits this salvation produces helps me to be more responsible and watchful than if I thought that my act of the will was the ultimate deciding factor in my salvation. 

Many encouragements attend this doctrine

Every believer ought to know this blessed truth of election. When God shows you from the Word and you can say, “the Father chose me before the foundation of the world” (Cp. Eph. 1:4); it is one of the greatest moments of worship that you will ever know in this life. This doctrine also revives my heart when I am discouraged at a sinful failure in my life. Yes, I confess it and repent of it, but I ask myself why would God be so patient with me. The answer is that he knew all of this before He chose me and he chose me anyway. This is the everlasting love of God set upon my soul!

God’s sovereignty also encouraged Paul to persevere and not lose heart when he was in prison in Rome and was soon to be beheaded (2 Tim. 1:8-9). Paul knew that God would use his efforts to preach the gospel. He would bless the word of God to save a people he had chosen for himself out from among all the nations (note Revelation 5:9). Paul did not know who God’s elect were, but he preached the gospel to all as Christ commanded (Mark 16:15)—and so must we. Preaching to people who want to go on in their sins can be very discouraging, but Paul persevered because He knew salvation was ultimately up to God and that he would break through and save a people for himself from among rebellious, hard-hearted men. He said, “Therefore, I endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). May we say the same as we seek to be useful for the Master.

In conclusion, let us be convinced that we must cast ourselves upon God’s indisputable sovereignty. We must also believe in man’s responsibility. Man’s responsibility means that man is still under obligation to obey God even though he is unable to on his own because men love their own sinful ways more than God’s ways. The Bible says, “Men shall be lovers of their own selves, . . . lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:3). He is fallen, sinful, blind, and helpless—he is spiritually dead. Man is unable to turn to God until God works in him—until God raises him from the dead (Ephesians 2:5)—until God gives him a spiritual birth from above. Has God worked this great miracle in your life? If you have not repented of your sins and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive you of all your sins, you are welcomed and commanded by God to come to him today. Only Christ’s death on the cross can pay the penalty that is due your sin. Only by trusting in Him can you be forgiven. Beware of thinking that you can do that any time you please. The Lord Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). Don’t put God off. Your salvation depends on his sovereign grace. What should you do? Flee from the wrath to come (Luke 3:7)! Call upon God to draw you to Christ! If all of this seems so far and distant from you, cry out to God to convict you of your sins, then you will see your need. You will see how helpless you are to change your own heart. You will see how dependent you are upon God to save you. If you truly call upon the Lord to save you, this will be because God is at work in your heart. If you do come to the Savior, you will spend the rest of your life and all eternity praising God for his sovereign grace! The Savior says to you today, he “that cometh to me, I will in now wise cast out” (John 6:37).

Pastor Gary Carter 
Free Grace Church of Tampa Bay