Archives For God’s Sovereignty

God Is Sovereign, But…

Mark Beuving —  August 25, 2014 — 4 Comments

God is in control of what happens in this world. “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan. 4:35). He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Even the roll of the dice and wicked events of this world ultimately fall under his orchestration (Prov. 16:33; Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23, 4:27–28).

In other words, God is sovereign.

But…

We are terrible at interpreting his sovereign plan as it unfolds.

Every Christian can take comfort in knowing that at every moment, “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). So however unpredictable or devastating your circumstances, God knows, he sees, and he is weaving it all together into a beautiful tapestry that will one day illustrate true good, true glory. That is something we don’t have to second-guess. It’s a promise we can count on.

Magic 8 BallBut we often go further than trusting the promise. We want to know what it all means. It’s not enough to know that God is doing something in our circumstances, we want to know what he’s doing. So we interpret. “I lost that job because God wanted me in this other career.” “She broke up with me because God wants me to be single for awhile.” “I was late and missed the interview because God wants me somewhere else.” “We were the only two people who showed up at that group event because God wants us to get married.” God is sovereign.

But God’s sovereignty is not an excuse. Maybe you missed the interview because you’re a lazy procrastinator. How do you know God is telling you to switch careers? Maybe he’s showing you the consequences of your decisions so you’ll pursue discipline. Similarly, taking an unexpected one on one conversation with a member of the opposite sex as a sign from God that you should be together is sketchy.

When we over-interpret life events, saying that this or that circumstance means that God says _______ or God wants ________ , we’re doing something very similar to (or exactly like) putting words in God’s mouth. And he frowns on that:

“I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.” (Jeremiah 23:21)

“Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! …They say, ‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them… Have you not seen a false vision and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, ‘Declares the Lord,’ although I have not spoken?” (Ezekiel 13:3, 6–7)

We all do the best we can to discern the Lord’s leading day by day. It’s not wrong to wonder whether or not this or that turn of events means that God is directing you. He is certainly working in your life circumstances. But be careful about how much weight you give to your interpretation of events.

Joseph didn’t have a clue what God was doing through his twisted life story until his brothers walked into the room asking to buy grain. Job never got an explanation for the cataclysmic turn of affairs that struck his life—but his friends proved to be fools when they over-interpreted his circumstances and Job himself was rebuked for thinking he knew what should have been happening.

God’s sovereignty is a reality, not an excuse. It is a source of comfort, not a palm-reading. God will reveal what he’s up to when the time is right. Until then, trust that his plan is perfect, and that you know only what you need to know. God knows, and that’s enough.

In a sense, only God creates. Only God can “stand” in the “middle” of complete nothingness and call as-yet-non-existent things into being. We call this creation ex nihilo: “out of nothing.”

So we can truly look at every aspect of our world and say, “God made this.” But as every parent knows, it gets more complicated when your children start asking, “Did God make cars?” “Did he make your computer?” My fumbling answers to these questions have gone something like, “Well, yes. He created the metal that the car is made out of, and he created the minds of the people who put the car together.”

Only this week have I begun to realize the true genius of God in this respect. It was John Frame who helped me think this through as he wrote about human choices: How is that we go through life making decisions based on our desires, and yet the Bible is still able to insist that God ordains all that comes to pass? It’s an old question, and I wasn’t expecting any fresh insight.

But Frame began talking about “our participation in God’s creativity.” He says,

“Our choices among possible alternatives image the choices that God himself has made in eternity, and they serve as the means by which God actualizes and rejects possibilities in history.”[1]

When we go about creating in God’s world, we are making choices, and in doing so we are acting like God, following his image, which he placed within us. But it’s bigger than us simply making choices. It’s that as we create in this world, God is creating. He is working through us to create. Our acts of creation are both ours and his—we are making the creative decisions, and in doing so we are playing out God’s perfect eternal plan.

The Creation of Adam

All of this is guaranteed to hurt your brain if you try to comprehend it entirely, and the mere raising of this topic sends people scurrying for their copies of Attacking Arminians or Countering Calvinists. (If those aren’t books yet, they should be.)

But this is why Paul is able to thank God for the Philippians’ partnership in ministry. The Philippians chose to work together with Paul; Paul saw their involvement as the working out of God’s plan. This is why Joseph was able to point to the same event (being sold into slavery) as both the evil intention of his brothers and the good plan of God (Gen. 50:20).

Now let me cut the urge to argue short: I’m not interested here in settling the fee will vs. predestination debate. What I find fascinating here are the implications for human creativity. Ultimately, we create because God made us in his image.

“Much about the divine image is mysterious, because God himself is mysterious. But among other things, there does seem to be something in us analogous to God’s creativity…”[2]

Dorothy Sayers looked at the context of the “image of God” passage in Genesis 1:26 and says that the only thing we know about God leading up to this is that he is the Creator. All he’s done in Genesis 1:1–25 is create. So when God sets out to make a being “like himself,” he seems to be creating another creator. Sayers identifies this as at least a part of what the image of God means.

Here’s why it matters. God has a plan for history. God formed this world with his words and his fingers, and he has not stopped speaking, he has not stopped shaping. Everything—everything!—from the largest imperial expansion to the slightest shifting of the smallest grain of dust is seen by God, known by God, captured in the interest and attention of God.

And as we step out into this world to create, to shape, to dream, God is stepping out to shape the world through us. When Steve Jobs created the iPhone, God was shaping his world through Jobs. (The same goes for whoever invented the Android, everyone calm down.) When I hug my daughters, God is wrapping his arms around them. When I work, play, sing, sleep, and eat, God is working out his plan for this world. My choices (at least, so my experience tells me), his plan.

(As an aside, let me just acknowledge that this gets much darker when we ask where God is in the evil moments. For example, where is God when an innocent man is wrongly accused, beaten, and murdered? But according to the Bible, God is still working out his plan in those types of events: Acts 2:23, 4:27–28.)

So be assured, God is still working in this world. And he is all of the time working through us. We are his image-bearers, his mini-creators, his world-shapers. Let’s be careful to shape his world in ways that fit his mission and highlight his glory. And let’s be confident that in all of it, God’s plan is being worked out, drawing ever closer to its good and glorious culmination. God has never taken his hands off of his world. He continues to work in it in deeply mysterious and incomprehensible ways. And he also continues to work in our creative decisions, shaping his world through our hands and feet and mouths.

 

 

[1] John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013) 837.

[2] Ibid., 836.

I often get asked if I’m “Reformed.” Oftentimes people just assume that I’m “Reformed.” Since I don’t care for labels and resist giving yes or no answers to always reformingcomplex questions, I usually give an answer much longer than the asker cared to receive.

I’m I “Reformed?” No, but I am “reformed”—lower-case “r.” Here’s why.

I believe that God’s agency is primary, prior to, and causative of a person’s response to God in salvation. (Whoa dude, I thought this was “Theology for Real Life,” not “Theology for Real Geeks.”) In other words, I chose God because He first chose me. I repented and believed because God’s Spirit enabled me to. When I heard the gospel, God opened up my heart to understand and welcome the truth, just like He did to Lydia in Acts 16.

I also emphasize, cherish, and rejoice in God’s sovereignty over all things. I love it. I don’t always understand it, but I love the fact that God reigns over the universe. I believe that God can do whatever God wants to do, and He can tell me to do whatever He wants to tell me what to do. He’s God. I’m created. He makes up the rules. I’m only to follow them. From Genesis through Revelation, with some extended pit stops in Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Romans 9, the Bible celebrates God’s freedom. Sometimes it’s hard to rejoice in. Still, the Bible doesn’t seem to make excuses for God’s actions in the world. He made it. He governs it. He will redeem it as He sees fit. And I live by this truth. Yes, I’m “reformed.”

I also believe in and will take a bullet for the authority of the Bible. Our beliefs and behaviors should be derived from the text—even if the text offends our presuppositions and tradition. If my student says “I believe that God…” I immediately ask where? What passage? What book? What theological theme are you deriving your beliefs from? When my heart says, “I feel like God is…” I challenge my deceitful heart with the God-breathed text. Yes, I’m “reformed.”

But I’m not “Reformed.”

I’m not part of any specific “Reformed” tradition and I think that the Bible challenges all theological systems—not just Arminian ones. And not everything about the “Reformed tradition” (or traditions) rightly captures, to my mind, what the Bible actually says. In fact, just the other day I hung out with a bunch of Arminians from the Nazarene tradition and I was pleasantly shocked at just how passionate they were about the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and even God’s sovereignty in salvation and the world. Sure, we may quibble about the ordo salutus and finer points of the atonement, but on the central points of the gospel I felt that we were on the same team. Unfortunately, some “Reformed” people only know of one team; the “Reformed” team. No, I’m not “Reformed.” I love to learn from people outside my tradition.

I’m also very willing to ditch, reevaluate, shift and sift various doctrines that have been traditionally called “Reformed.” That is, if the Bible demands it. Justification, sanctification, baptism, hell, heaven—we lay them all before the text of calvin and lutherScripture because we’re reformed. We don’t lock them in a safe and throw away the key because we’re Reformed. Remember, semper reformanda: “always reforming.” To be truly reformed is to be in a constant state of humbly submitting what you think the text says before the text itself since the text—not your, or your favorite Reformed preacher’s, understanding of the text—is inspired and authoritative.

And I believe in grace. Not just the “doctrines of grace” but “incarnating grace.” Showing favor (grace) unconditionally (biblical grace) to people of every sexual orientation. If believing in the doctrines of grace doesn’t move you to love your enemies, then you don’t really believe in the doctrines of grace. You endorse them. Sign off on them. Nod your head when you’re reading Calvin’s Institutes. But until we love the unlovable, we fail to incarnate grace and imitate the one who died for His enemies.

Jesus. Died. For. His. Enemies.

He calls His followers to merely love them. He cut us some seriously slack!

And I’m not Reformed because, well, many Reformed people I know seem arrogant. I know this is a stereotype, a generalization, so if you know a ton of people who are both Reformed and humble, then please ignore this paragraph. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve been around a bad crop. But most Reformed people I’ve met, hung out with, read, and listen to, give off an overly confident, some would say arrogant, air about their beliefs. Again, this isn’t all of them, but in my experience it’s a lot of them. And almost all of my friends who are turned off by a reformed way of thinking are actually turned off more by their Reformed friends than their beliefs. So even though I hope I’m alone, I don’t think I am. For some reason, discovering the doctrines of grace becomes like a second conversion where the Reformed person now has it all together, doctrinally speaking, and looks down upon all those lesser species of Christians who are merely 4 or 3 point Calvinists.

I know this, because I used to be one. I was so locked into an airtight theological system and I thought, or knew, I had it all figured out. And I honestly looked down upon people who weren’t Reformed like I was. It didn’t matter that they led hundreds of people to Christ, if they called people to “choose Christ” or quoted the “Nearly Inspired Version” (NIV), they were a lesser-informed Christian. And I looked down upon them. I was overly confident. I was arrogant. I was ignorant and acting contrary to the doctrines of grace.

I’ve since abandoned this way of thinking, even though I’m still reformed. I still believe that God does all things ultimately to bring glory to His name. I believe there is a real hell. I think that election is unconditional. And God’s sovereignty is broadcasted and celebrated on every page of Scripture. But believing these things should push us to be more humble, more careful about thinking you have it all together theologically.

Yes, I’m reformed. But I’m not Reformed.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I believe God is sovereign. Not just vaguely in control, but possesses the freedom to do whatever he wants. “Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases,” declares the psalmist (115:3). God has the freedom to kill, make alive, harden hearts, condemn, regenerate, and send floods of water to (nearly) erase the earth’s population. God does all things to bring glory and honor to himself, as the prophet Ezekiel redundantly stated over 70 times.

So God’s in control. He ordains, he saves, he condemns, and he extends mercy to “whomever he wills” (Rom 9). So does prayer actually do anything? When humans pray, does it actually move God to act?

Yes.

Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but I prefer the term “tension.” The Bible says that God has absolute freedom; the Bible also says that prayer moves God. And how it all works out, we don’t know. Consider the following texts:

“Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, 22 this is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him…” (Isa 37:21-22).

“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the LORD…and after that God was moved by prayer for the land.” (2 Sam 21:1 14)

“ David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. Thus the LORD was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel.” (2 Sam 24:25)

“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” (James 5:16-18)

Hezekiah and Jerusalem were saved from the Assyrians “because” the king prayed; God was “moved” by David’s prayers; and James argues quite explicitly that prayer doesn’t just do something, it “can accomplish much.” The very language that God chose to tell us about prayer is unambiguous. Prayer does not just teach us to depend on God (though it does do that), and prayer does not just acknowledge that God is in control (though he is). The Bible says explicitly and consistently that prayer is dynamic, it is powerful, and it can actually move the God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Does this sound totally outrageous? Or is it a no-brainer? I’d love to hear any pushback you might have. A lot of folks seem to either cling to God’s sovereignty or endorse the real power of prayer. It seems to me that the Bible firmly endorses both without explaining how it all works out behind the scenes.

Now, a confession. I believe this with my head, but not with my heart. I’ve got a plethora (cf., The Three Amigos) of other passages I can throw out to show that prayer moves God, and yet my prayer life does not reflect my intellectual endorsement of these texts.

Ugh! I’m 36 years old, I’ve been a Christian for 17 years, I have a Ph.D. in Bible, and yet my prayer life reflects spiritual infancy.

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