By James M. Rochford

No other attribute is more debated and also more misunderstood that the sovereignty of God. Reformed theologians exist on a spectrum of thinking on this subject.

  • On one end, some hold that God’s sovereignty requires that he meticulously controls every event in the universe. This view is called divine determinism or fatalism. It holds that human decisions and even acts of evil are ultimately caused and determined by God. While you might think that you have freedom of choice, this is simply an illusion.
  • Others in the Reformed camp hold that humans genuinely have free will, but God still fully determines their choices. This view is called compatibilism (or soft determinism). Typically, those who hold to compatibilism state that (1) free will is taught in Scripture and (2) God’s control of his universe is also taught. How do these concepts fit together? Compatibilists claim that this is a “mystery” or an “antinomy,” and the human mind simply cannot understand it.

In our view, both perspectives are misguided. We would define God’s sovereignty in this way: Sovereignty refers to God’s unlimited authority to act in any way that he chooses with regard to his creation—contingent only on his own nature. The key word here is “chooses.” God has unlimited knowledge and power, but what sort of world did he choose to create? A world where every event is caused and determined by God? Or a world where he gave humans genuine free will?

In the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984), theologian F.H. Klooster defines God’s sovereignty in this way: “The biblical teaching that God is king, supreme ruler, and lawgiver of the entire universe… The sovereignty of God thus expresses the very nature of God as all-powerful and omnipotent, able to accomplish his good pleasure, carry out his decreed will, and keep his promises.”[1]

There’s nothing controversial about this standard definition of God’s sovereignty. God is the all-powerful King who can accomplish whatever he desires. We would simply add that part of God’s “good pleasure,” “will,” and “promises” would include his desire to endow humans with free will. Other theologians (from an Arminian perspective) include these important caveats. For instance, Roger Olson writes,

Classical Arminianism goes far beyond belief in general providence to include affirmation of God’s intimate and direct involvement in every event of nature and history. The only thing the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty necessarily excludes is God’s authorship of sin and evil. Faithful followers of Arminius have always believed that God governs the entire universe and all of history. Nothing at all can happen without God’s permission, and many things are specifically and directly controlled and caused by God. Even sin and evil do not escape God’s providential governance in classical Arminian theology. God permits and limits them without willing or causing them.[2]

Nothing occurs without God’s decision to either cause it to happen or allow it to happen. We often say, “God is in control.” By this, we do not mean that God meticulously causes and controls every event in the universe. Rather, God sovereignly governs his universe—either through direct commands or through his permissive will.

A.W. Tozer captures the heart of the matter when he states that God sovereignly chose to give humans free will. This very thought might cause our heads to spin. But think about it: Why isn’t God free to choose to give humans genuine freedom? Tozer writes,

God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.[3]

Well said! God’s choice to give free will to billions of human beings doesn’t depreciate his sovereign rule; it amplifies it. Consider a chess player who forces the other player to move her pieces. Would we consider him a better chess master if he grabbed her hand and moved her pieces for her? Of course not. His control of the other player would highlight his strength and power, but not his overall greatness. Similarly, God’s greatness is magnified by the fact that he rules and reigns over the universe by allowing free will.

God can intervene to override human free will whenever he chooses. But this doesn’t mean God does this for all events. We might refer to sovereignty as the expression of God’s power. If God chose to not express his power or control, this would also be an expression of his sovereign choice.

Biblical Basis

God owns all of creation. God told Job, “Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine” (Job 41:11). God is the “possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19), and “to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it” (Deut. 10:14). David wrote, “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1; cf. 50:12).

God rules over all of creation. David prayed, “O Lord, you are great, mighty, majestic, magnificent, glorious, and sovereign over all the sky and earth! You have dominion and exalt yourself as the ruler of all. 12 You are the source of wealth and honor; you rule over all. You possess strength and might to magnify and give strength to all” (1 Chron. 29:11-12 NET). Likewise, Jehoshaphat prayed, “You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations” (2 Chron. 20:6 NIV; cf. Ps. 22:28; 47:2-8).

God works “all things” contingent only on his own nature. Paul writes, “[God] works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). Not one event in all of creation is outside of the boundaries of God’s sovereignty. All things come under the direct action or permissive will of his brilliant mind and plan.

God does whatever he wants. Isaiah writes, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isa. 46:10 NIV). The psalmist writes, “God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3; cf. 135:6). At the same time, God has sovereignly chosen to give humans significant free will. Later in the psalm, we read, “The heavens are the heavens of the LORD, but the earth He has given to the sons of men” (Ps. 115:16). Why is God not free to create a world where he gives significant freedom to humans? We shouldn’t limit God’s sovereign freedom.

God determined when and where we would live. Paul writes, “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).

God’s purposes will triumph over those of humans. Isaiah writes, “I act and who can reverse it?” (Isa. 43:13) Jehoshaphat prayed, “Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you” (2 Chron. 20:6 NIV). Solomon writes, “Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand” (Prov. 19:21; cf. Isa. 14:24, 27).

In the sixth century BC, Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful man on Earth. Yet God humbled him, and Nebuchadnezzar prayed, “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35 NIV; cf. Dan. 2:21)

In Psalm 2, David describes a daunting vision of a world unified against God. All of the rulers of the world “conspire” and create a “plot” to overthrow God and his Messiah. He writes, “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed” (Ps. 2:1-2 NIV).

Yet even though all hell is breaking loose on Earth, God isn’t worried or scared in the slightest. Instead, he laughs and scoffs at these small leaders with such big egos! David writes, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4 NIV) God feels about as threatened by the human race as a man feels fighting a cluster of fruit flies!

God has the power to override human free will. Solomon writes, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

If God is sovereign, why should we pray?

If God is really sovereign over all things, then why should we pray? Atheistic comedian George Carlin captures this difficulty in this way:

Pray for anything you want… But, what about the divine plan? A long time ago, God made a divine plan. He gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, and put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the divine plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along and pray for something. Well, suppose the thing you want isn’t in God’s divine plan? What do you want him to do? Change his plan? Just for you? Doesn’t it seem a little arrogant? It’s a divine plan… And suppose your prayers aren’t answered. What do you say? ‘Well, it’s God’s will. Thy will be done.’ Fine, but if it’s God’s will and he’s going to do what he wants to anyway, why bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me. Couldn’t you just skip the praying part and go right to his will?[4]

To begin, God clearly commands us to pray. James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask” (Jas. 4:2), and he writes, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (Jas. 5:16). So, we should begin with divine revelation before we venture into the realm of philosophical speculation.

Second, the real difficulty here is not with affecting God’s will through prayer, but affecting God’s will at all. It is certainly a mystery that God would allow us to play a role in his plan. Yet, the Bible clearly teaches human agency (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 10:14). Once we concede this point, why should it surprise us that God allows us to utilize our human agency through the use of prayer? Why would we accept human agency in service or speaking ministries, but not in prayer ministries? C.S. Lewis explains, “We know that we can act and that our actions produce results… It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.”[5]

Third, it is a category error to think that knowing the future results in God causing the future. For instance, you might know that I ate bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning, but that doesn’t mean that you caused me to eat that for breakfast. Knowing that an event will occur doesn’t mean that we are causing it to occur (see “Omniscience”).

If God wasn’t sovereign, what implications would this have for our lives?

If God wasn’t sovereign, we would be terrified when we watch the news. Our modern world gives us unrestricted access to simply horrific images. War, disease, and disasters fill the news, and the media report on all of it. When you take in these images, you feel like you’re viewing the world through omniscient eyes, and it can easily feel like the world is spinning out of control.

Yet, even the world superpowers are nothing compared to God. Isaiah writes, “All the nations are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless” (Isa. 40:17). Think of this the next time you turn on the TV and see images of the world superpowers threatening one another with their weapons of mass destruction. These big and powerful people that run the world are “less than nothing” compared to God. They are utterly “meaningless” when measured next to him. Isaiah continues, “[God] reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless” (Isa. 40:23).

David describes a daunting a world unified against God. All of the rulers of the world “conspire” and create a “plot” to overthrow God and his Messiah. He writes, “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed” (Ps. 2:1-2 NIV). Yet even though all hell is breaking loose on Earth, God isn’t worried or scared in the slightest. Instead, he laughs and scoffs at these small leaders with such big egos. David writes, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4 NIV)

If God wasn’t sovereign, we couldn’t trust God through times of suffering. We would think that the pain and suffering in our lives was a cosmic accident—perhaps the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of our energy would be spent avoiding suffering or trying to escape painful circumstances.

An entirely different attitude emerges from the godly men and women in the Bible. For instance, when Paul faced imprisonment, he called himself “the prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:1). It would’ve been very easy for Paul to call himself a prisoner of Rome, a prisoner of Satan, or a prisoner of the religious authorities.

Yet, Paul held a vertical perspective—not a horizontal one. If he was chained to a Roman guard, Paul believed that Jesus had allowed him to be placed in prison for a reason (cf. Phile. 1, 9; 2 Tim. 1:8). Thus, instead of asking, “Why am I suffering?” Paul could ask, “What is God teaching me through this?” or “How can I respond to God during this adverse circumstance?” For instance, in Philippians, he could see that God was opening doors to reach the “whole praetorian guard” (Phil. 1:13) and “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22).

Paul had deep convictions regarding the sovereignty of God. This is what gave him the ability to endure various pain and hardship throughout his life. He was able to know that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Even evil people and evil acts would eventually serve God’s morally justifiable purposes (Prov. 16:4).

If God wasn’t sovereign, we would have difficulty forgiving others. When people hurt us, it feels like the result of coincidental circumstances. Often, we think, “If I never met that person, then I never would’ve been hurt” or “If I wasn’t in that place at that time, then I never would’ve had the opportunity to allow that person to hurt me.”

Yet, where is God’s sovereignty in the picture? Consider the life of Joseph. His brothers mistreated him, threw him down a well, and left him for dead. But at the last minute, they sold him to slave traders to make a meager amount of money. And then, his life went from bad to worse: He wallowed in prison for a significant portion of his life—and all based on false accusations!

Yet, years later, after years of brutal mistreatment by his own family, Joseph told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20 NIV). Joseph possessed little revelation of God. Indeed, he lived before the Scriptures were even written (~1,800 BC). Yet, he was able to grasp that God had been ruling and reigning over his life, bringing good out of evil.

If God wasn’t sovereign, we would wonder if Satan really had the upper hand. God might be all-powerful and all-knowing, but without the attribute of sovereignty, we wouldn’t know if God was ultimately the ruler over Satan. Yet Satan cannot do anything without God’s permission (Job 1:12; Job 2:6; Luke 22:31-32; 1 Cor. 2:8; 10:13).

If God wasn’t sovereign, we would think that we are ultimately in control of our lives. After all, if God isn’t the sovereign ruler of the universe, then someone needs to fill that role. And why not you? Indeed, who would do a better job leading your life than you?

The sovereign God has far better credentials to lead your life. All of our possessions belong to God because he owns the entire Earth (Ps. 24:1). But more than this, we ourselves belong to God. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19)

If God wasn’t sovereign, we would be controlled by our anxiety. If you didn’t think that God was ruling and reigning in each and every situation, then you’d wonder if crises could enter your life that are cosmic mistakes (e.g. loved ones dying, getting sick, financial hardship, etc.).

Yet again, we need to let the sovereignty of God travel deep into our minds and hearts. When your quarter gets stuck in the vending machine, sometimes you need to pound the machine until the quarter drops. The same is true with the sovereignty of God. We need to pound our minds with this teaching until it makes its way deep down into our souls.

[1] F. H. Klooster, Walter A. Elwell (general editor), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), 1038.

[2] Emphasis mine. Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL), 116.

[3] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Zeeland, MI: Reformed Church Publications, 2015), 101.

[4] George Carlin, “You are All Diseased.” 1999. “There is No God.” Track 17.

[5] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 105-106.