He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
January 26, 1997
I’d like to begin by talking about the problem of spiritual indigestion. That’s a brand-new term that I learned this week after reading a chapter written by Dr. J. Grant Howard, who taught for many years at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Howard says that spiritual indigestion happens when we take in more than we understand. It’s a common problem in conservative churches where we often measure growth by knowledge. We read books, we listen to tapes and to Christian radio and TV, go to Bible studies, and we love to listen to good preaching. We are, he says, overfed and undernourished at the same time.
What happens when we get a case of spiritual indigestion? The pressure builds up and we sound forth with a doctrinal burp! That’s the sudden release of a lot of hot air surrounded by noxious fumes. It happens when we take in but don’t digest the truth, when we listen but never let the truth change our lives.
God’s Sovereignty is a truth that touches all of life. It is a truth meant to be digested so it becomes a part of our very being. We begin with the word itself. The word “sovereign” is both a noun and verb. As a verb it means “to rule,” and as a noun it means “king” or “master” or “absolute ruler.” To say that God is sovereign means God is in Charge of the Entire Universe All the Time. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “He ordains whatsoever comes to pass.”
Sovereignty: What It Is and What It Isn’t
Let’s begin by acknowledging that this is not a popular doctrine. You don’t hear many sermons on this subject in most churches. And most of us would rather hear about love and grace.
It’s also a very humbling doctrine. Sovereignty reminds us that God is God and we are not. When we think we’re ready to advise God on how to run the universe, he just looks at us and says, “How many stripes do you have on your sleeve?” It’s like a person who visits my house and starts to criticize things. He doesn’t like the color of the wallpaper, he doesn’t like the decorations, he doesn’t like the way the purple moosehead hangs over the kitchen table. Once he is finished with his criticism, only one comment is appropriate. “Mister, whose name is on the title deed to this house? When you start paying the bills around here, you get a vote on the decorating. Until then, feel free to say nothing.” That’s what sovereignty does. It puts us in the place where we feel free to say nothing about the way God runs the universe.
This is also an exalting doctrine because it gives us a very big God. Many years ago J. B. Phillips wrote the classic book Your God Is Too Small. That’s a case where the title told the whole story. Many of us have a problem because our God is too small. But if you ever understand that God is sovereign over the entire universe, you’ll never have a small God again.
This is also a mysterious doctrine because it brings us face to face with the problem of evil and free will. If God is sovereign, why is there evil in the universe? If man has free will, how can God be sovereign? Christians have debated these questions for centuries. Suffice it to say that God is sovereign and you are truly responsible for all the choices you make. Often we won’t understand how they work together, but they do.
Again, this is a clarifying doctrine. It teaches us that there is no such thing as luck, chance, fate or coincidence. You can have God or chance, but you can’t have both. When a cowboy applied for health insurance, the agent routinely asked if he had had any accidents during the previous year. The cowboy replied, “No. But I was bitten by a rattlesnake, and a horse kicked me in the ribs. That laid me up for a while.” The agent said, “Weren’t those accidents?” “No,” replied the cowboy, “They did it on purpose.” The cowboy realized that there are no such things as “accidents.” How about you, Christian? Do you believe that some things catch God by surprise? In the words of a good friend, “God is too sovereign to be lucky.”
Finally, this is an empowering doctrine. If you believe God is sovereign, no mere human can intimidate you. You’ll respect authority but you won’t cringe before it. What gave David the courage to go down into the Elah Valley and face that giant Goliath? He said, “I come to you in the name of the God of Israel, the Lord of hosts?” David had a God so big that Goliath was like a midget to him.
This doctrine is taught in many places in the Bible. Here are several crucial verses. I’m going to give the first two verses to you in the NIV and also in the New Living Translation (NLT).
Ephesians 1:11 “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” NIV
“For he chose us from the beginning, and all things happen just as he decided long ago.” NLT
Psalm 103:19 “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” NIV
“The Lord has made the heavens his throne; from there he rules over everything.” NLT
Since sovereignty humbles us, it also prepares us for salvation, for it is only the humble who can be saved. Proud people can’t be saved because they won’t admit their desperate need.</h6 class=”pullquote”>
These two verses stress God’s complete sovereignty over all the affairs of the universe. Nothing happens outside his control; all things happen in accordance with his plan. Consequently he rules over all things. These are broad, vast, breathtaking statements that admit of no exceptions. It’s not that he rules over everything except your boss or your husband or your children or your problems or your sickness or your failures. The Sovereign Lord rules over all things—including every detail of your life.
Isaiah 40:22-24 “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
In just two days we will inaugurate Bill Clinton for a second term as President of the United States. Isaiah 40 is a good reminder of how God views us. The nations are like a drop in the bucket, the people are like grasshoppers, and the rulers of this world are like dust in the wind. He blows on them and they disappear. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Even the mightiest ruler lasts only a few years. He prances on stage, does his thing, and then disappears. Just remember that on Tuesday. God isn’t impressed with all our claims to greatness.
A Man Who Learned This Truth the Hard Way
Daniel 4 tells the amazing story of a pagan king who learned the truth about God’s sovereignty the hard way. In order to fully grasp the message, we need to go back some 25 centuries to the ancient city of Babylon. There we meet the most powerful man in the world, a man with a very imposing name—Nebuchadnezzar. One night while he was sleeping in his palace, he had a very strange dream. He dreamed of a vast tree that stretched to the sky. Its branches were large and strong so that all kinds birds nested in the tree and all manner of animals found shade beneath the limbs. Suddenly the tree was cut down, its branches stripped, its fruit scattered. Nothing was left but a stump bound in iron and bronze. He also dreamed of a man who lost his mind and began to live among the animals.
None of the king’s advisors knew the meaning. So the king asked Daniel if he could interpret the dream. The meaning was all too clear to him. “You, O king, are the tree” (Daniel 4:23). Nebuchadnezzar had become so great in his kingdom that people from all the earth flocked to him. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the king would lose his mind and would eat grass like the cattle for seven years, “until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (v. 25). Daniel then implored this pagan king to repent and show kindness to the oppressed.
But the king ignored Daniel’s advice. One year later, as the king took a walk on the roof of the royal palace, he began to say, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (v. 30). Even while the words were on his lips, the voice of God spoke announcing his punishment. In that very moment the mightiest man on earth lost his mind, began to run through the streets of the capitol city, shedding his clothes as he went, bellowing like a cow. He made his way outside and began to live with the cattle. His hair grew long and his nails were like the claws of a bird.
Seven long years passed while Nebuchadnezzar lived with the beasts of the field. Verse 34 tells what happened next: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.”
He looked up.
He woke up.
He spoke up.
Then the king gives us the moral of the story in verse 35: “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?’” You can search through all 66 books of the Bible and you won’t find a better statement of what God’s sovereignty really means.
Let’s wrap up this story with the final verse of Daniel 4. This is what the pagan king has to say about the God who has humbled him: “Everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” Did you get that? “Everything he does is right.” That’s a powerful statement. Can you say that?
The Practical Uses of God’s Sovereignty
I believe the doctrine of God’s sovereignty has many practical uses in the life of the believer. Let me suggest five of them.
A. Confidence in God’s Ultimate Victory and Satan’s Eventual Defeat
Because God is sovereign we know that he will eventually win the battle with Satan. In fact, because God lives outside time the victory is already won in eternity. But from our perspective the battle rages all around us, and all too often the bad guys seem to be winning.
Recently I talked with a friend whose marriage broke up because of infidelity. Since the divorce, she has grown enormously in her faith, but one question troubles her mind. Why is her ex-husband doing so well? He seems to be so happy despite his sin. Why doesn’t God judge him? It looks to her as if he’s gotten away scot-free. My answer was to remind her that every football game has four quarters. It doesn’t matter who’s winning in the middle of the second quarter or the end of the third quarter. The only thing that matters is who’s winning at the end of the game. I told her that as far as God is concerned, we’re still in the second quarter. In the end her ex-husband will reap what he sowed in spades. He will live to regret his sin, and if he doesn’t regret it in this life, he certainly will regret it in the next.
This principle applies in every situation where we wonder if truth and justice will prevail. God’s sovereignty guarantees the ultimate victory of good over evil. It’s just that God’s timetable and ours aren’t the same.
B. Comfort in the Midst of Trials and Afflictions
Many of you remember Shane Corona, the former gang-banger who came to Christ through the ministry of Glen and Jane Fitzjerrell. Last summer when I baptized him, he gave a powerful testimony for Christ in all three worship services. Now he’s serving a 15-year sentence in the Pontiac Penitentiary for a crime he committed before coming to Christ. It’s a maximum-security facility where the inmates are on lock-down most of the day. As you can imagine, it’s a tough place for a new believer—or any believer for that matter.
This week Shane wrote a very encouraging letter about what God is teaching him in prison. This is part of what he had to say:
I am a Christian and proud of it. I know that all that I need in life is the Lord in my life and it doesn’t matter where I am, how much money I have, or what I look like because he will give to me what I deserve and need. He loves me and everyone in his world and doesn’t wish bad things to any of us. I know this because he has said it. Here’s a little poem I wrote one day:
As I walk through the yard sometimes I look at the sky,
And find myself asking the Lord questions like Why?
Because yet and still I have to do this time.
Even though I know what I did was wrong and I am changing inside
So he looks at me and smiles and says, “In the end you will see
That everything is the way it is because it was meant to be.”
He closed his letter with these words, “Oh don’t forget that God has been looking out for me so don’t even worry about my well-being. And all God’s people said, Amen.”
Shane is not yet 20 years old and in a maximum-security prison. Barring a miracle, he’ll be in for at least seven years. But he has learned more about God’s sovereignty behind bars than many Christians learn in a lifetime of church attendance. I submit to you that God uses hard times to teach us about his character. He humbles us through difficulty so that, like Nebuchadezzar and like Shane Corona, we will come to the place where we can say, “Everything he does is right and all his ways are just.”
C. Encouragement in Evangelism
We don’t save anyone. God does that all by himself. We’re participants and also spectators of God’s grace at work. </h6 class=”pullquote”>
God’s sovereignty gives us encouragement in evangelism because we know that winning the lost is not our job. Our job is to spread the Good News, share the gospel, tell the story, talk about Jesus, look for opportunities, and pray for open doors. It’s God’s job to lead us, to empower us, to give us those open doors, and then when we share Christ, it is the work of a Sovereign God to convict sinners and create in them a hunger for the Lord. We don’t save anyone. God does that all by himself. We’re participants and also spectators of God’s grace at work. That takes a ton of pressure off us. In the words of a good friend, “Do your best and sleep like a baby.”
D. Deep Sense of Security
I received another letter this week from a new friend who, along with her husband, has just traveled to Ireland to begin a new ministry. It hasn’t been an easy transition. She spoke without regret of what she is missing—especially her two-year-old nephew’s birthday party. Her heart longs to be with her extended family, but she has no doubts about the path she and her husband have chosen. “There is the calm assurance that this is where we’re supposed to be (most days, that is). I appreciate the parenthetical comment and the little smiley-face she drew beside it. That makes it very real. Is it worth it? she wonders. Then she ponders what Jesus said about losing your life for his sake and gaining it in the end. Here is her conclusion: “That compels me to recognize the joy I have in living where he wants me—even on the days when I don’t feel happy to be here.” How wonderfully simple that statement is. Because she is where God wants her, she can have joy even when she isn’t particularly happy to be there.
That’s what I mean by a deep sense of security. If you know that God is sovereign, then you can be content—and even find joy—in the midst of circumstances that are less than ideal.
E. Shows Us the Only Way to Be Saved
Since sovereignty humbles us, it also prepares us for salvation, for it is only the humble who can be saved. Proud people can’t be saved because they won’t admit their desperate need. We must humble ourselves before a sovereign God and accept his gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
If you ever visit the Holy Land, one of the sites you will visit is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built over the reputed spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. To get to the church, you first walk across a broad plaza and then come to a very small entrance. In fact, it’s so small that you have to duck down low to get inside. The entrance is deliberately made so low because several centuries ago the local bigshots liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary. The priests felt that was inappropriate so they lowered the entrance to force the great men to dismount before entering the church.
The same is true of salvation. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse. Until you do, you’ll never be saved.
Just As I Am
The year was 1834 and a young woman named Charlotte Elliott was making her debut as a singer in a London concert. In attendance that night was a noted preacher named Caesar Milan. As he listened to Miss Elliott’s beautiful voice, he felt that he should speak to her after the concert about her need for Christ.
When he spoke to her about Christ, she stamped her feet in anger and began to walk away. As she did, the preacher said, “I did not mean to offend you. But I want you to know that Jesus can save you if you will turn to him.” That night she went to bed but couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for hours, she got out of bed and began to write a poem.
Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Fifteen years later William Bradbury set the words to music. Since then it has become the most beloved invitation hymn of all time. Billy Graham has ended every crusade around the world with the choir singing those words. The third verse contains Charlotte Elliott’s own testimony:
Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt.
Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
And the last verse contains the gospel promise:
Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
That is also the promise God makes to you and to me. If you will come—just as you are—and if you will believe the gospel promises, he will welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve. May that be your experience as you come by faith to Jesus Christ, the great Lamb of God.