If God Is Sovereign, What Then?
December 11, 2008
“The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:19-22).
My message turns on verse 19, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.”
There are at least as many reasons not to believe this verse as there are to believe it. I say that because this verse teaches a doctrine that many find troublesome-the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. A word of definition is in order. The term “sovereign” refers to a king or a ruler. To be sovereign is to have authority in a particular realm. Sovereignty is the rule a king establishes in his realm.
Our text plainly asserts that God is sovereign over the universe. That he rules all things. His throne is settled and established. It cannot be shaken by the affairs of men. His kingdom rules over all.
In the abstract, we have no problem with this doctrine. It is not hard for us to believe that God orders the path of the stars in the skies. We can’t say how he does it, only that he does it, and if he didn’t do it, the stars would cease to shine. He put the Milky Way in its place. That’s not hard to believe. After all, somebody’s got to take care of the stars. God does. We accept that.
Our problems start when sovereignty becomes more personal. To speak of the stars is one thing. We can leave that with God because we know we have nothing to do with the stars anyway. But to say that God is in charge of all that happens to me-the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the positive and the negative-and that he is working out his plan that somehow includes everything that happens to me-to suppose that he works out the details of my life and gives me what is best for me every day-that’s another story.
When there is trouble, we want to know who is running the show. A few days ago Marlene and I spent the night in a motel where our particular situation required that we check out and check back in on the same morning. That’s a bit unusual so we needed the help of someone at the front desk to make it happen. When I spoke to the man on duty and explained what I needed, he said, “I don’t know nothing about that.”
But he was the man supposedly running the show. If the man in charge isn’t running the show, pray tell, who is? If the man in charge isn’t running the show, maybe he’s not really in charge.
That’s what sovereignty is all about. It answers the question, “Who’s running the show?” A great deal is at stake in the answer to that question. That’s why A. W. Pink said very succinctly, “To say that God is sovereign is to say that God is God.”
Three Thoughtful Objections
So we return to our key verse-“The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” I can think of three reasons to doubt that this verse is true. In saying these things, I am not reaching for objections. I am saying the things that honest men would say as they think about it.
“To say that God is sovereign is to say that God is God.”
1) The Problem of Unexplainable Catastrophes
We all understand this objection because it focuses on those strange events-freak accidents-natural disasters-that are sometimes bound up in the fine print of an insurance policy as “acts of God.”
Like a volcano erupting in Hawaii and destroying twenty homes.
Like a snowstorm that hits Kansas and leaves 15 dead.
Like a hurricane that devastates New Orleans.
Like a tornado that rips through a trailer park.
Like a famine in Somalia.
Like an earthquake in China.
Like a tsunami that takes 250,000 lives.
Like an outbreak of malaria in Nigeria.
These things happen so often that we don’t pay attention to them unless it’s a really big event-or really close to us. Then Shephard Smith calls it to our attention and we shake our heads and wonder why.
Why? Why them and not me? Why me and not them? Why here and not there? Why this particular trailer park and not the one a block away?
Earlier this year, for several weeks in a row, the Mid-South region was hit with a series of tornadoes that swept out of east Texas, tore through Arkansas and Missouri, and then blew east into Tennessee and Kentucky. One tornado struck Oxford, Mississippi, about an hour west of where we live in Tupelo. We were jolted with the news that a tornado had struck Union University, a Christian school in Jackson, Tennessee, about two hours due north of Tupelo. The tornado did extensive damage to the dormitories and a number of students were injured but thankfully no one was killed. The next day CNN interviewed one of the students who called it a miracle that no one on campus died as a result of the tornado. When I saw a video of the devastation, it did seem like a miracle that no one was killed. But that same wave of tornadoes killed 55 people across the South. A detached observer might ask, “What about the ones that died? Why didn’t they get a miracle too?”
There are lots of ways to answer that question, but in the final analysis the only answer we can safely offer is, “We don’t know.”
2) The Prosperity of the Wicked
Some things that happen to us are explainable but still undeserved.
We didn’t deserve to have our marriage break up.
We didn’t deserve to be cheated.
We didn’t deserve to lose our job.
We didn’t deserve being abused as a child.
We didn’t deserve to have our children end up on drugs.
He who upholds the universe holds me in the palm of his hand.
This sort of thing bothered the godly men and women of the Bible. Read Psalm 73 and see what Asaph said. How he envied the wicked. They get away with murder. “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2). As he studied the Bad Guys, they seemed so carefree, so happy. They act like they don’t have a problem in the world. They’re living on Easy Street. If they want to swear, they swear. If they want to rip someone off, they do it. They thumb their noses at God. Then he said, “This is what the wicked are like-always carefree, they increase in wealth” (v. 12).
The good die young, or so we’re told, and the wicked live to be 85. Where is justice? And where is God when his people are backed against the wall? What does it mean to say “His kingdom rules over all” when we are kicked in the teeth?
It’s a vital question. If you do not grapple with it sooner or later, you may end up losing your faith. Of course that may not be such a bad thing-losing your faith, that is. Sometimes we have to lose it in order to find it all over again.
3) The Paradox of Sovereignty and Free Will
We’ve all thought about it at one time or another. It’s simple to lay out. If God is sovereign and in control of my life, how I can have truly free will? Or if I have a truly free will, how can God be sovereign?
When there was only one will, the universe was filled with peace and harmony.
Again, from our point of view-our limited, finite, extremely human, “We’re-not-God” point of view, you can’t have it both ways. I may be a puppet or I may be a free agent, but I’m not both. And that can lead you to some very interesting questions, such as If God is sovereign, why pray? He’s got it all figured out anyway. If God is sovereign, why not just kick back and watch TV? Why do anything?
In laying out these objections, I am not saying, nor do I believe, that there are no answers. There are many helpful answers. I am merely pointing out issues that thoughtful believers, including our best theologians and spiritual leaders, have wrestled with for thousands of years.
Where do we turn for help in believing? Or how do we keep believing in a world like this?
Three Crucial Considerations
Three considerations will help us immensely.
1) There are two wills let loose in the universe.
Here I am using the terminology of Donald Grey Barnhouse. He said it something like this. In the beginning there was only one will-God’s. When there was only one will, the universe was filled with peace and harmony. But now Satan (whose will is completely opposed to God’s will) has been set free to roam about the universe, working his diabolical deeds. Ever since Lucifer fell from heaven and became Satan, there has been another will in the universe. A will opposed to God as completely as one can ever be opposed to another.
God is light.
Satan is darkness.
God is truth.
Satan is a liar.
God is the source of life.
Satan brings only death.
And now, in this age of two wills, there is untold misery and heartache. Satan committed the first sin. He led the first rebellion. He engineered the first temptation. He was in the Garden of Eden. He was there when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
So far from being a cold, hard doctrine, the sovereignty of God fills the believer’s heart with comfort.
He roams the world today like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). He stirs up trouble, makes false accusations, and incites us to commit every sort of evil deed. He is a world-wrecker and a home-destroyer. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). He comes to steal your purity, your honesty, your integrity, your decency, your kindness, your compassion, your generosity, and every other godly impulse. He intends to destroy your friendships, your home, your career, your godly ambitions, and he certainly wants to destroy your marriage and your family. He’s taken dead aim at your church too. He wants to stir up controversy, hatred, division, strife and quarreling so that churches split, Christians become bitter, friends part ways, pastors give up and churches blow up. He does all that he does so that God’s work might come to an end and he might remain the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Never forget that “the Evil One controls the whole world” (1 John 5:19 NCV).
Satan wants to stir up controversy, hatred, division, strife and quarreling so that churches split, Christians become bitter, friends part ways, pastors give up and churches blow up.
In recent years as I have come to understand Satan’s power in the world more deeply, my thinking has changed a bit. I heard about some friends who are on the brink of divorce. Because we haven’t seen them in a long time, we didn’t have a hint of any trouble in their marriage. The crisis seemed to come out of nowhere. Understandably, family members are struggling with the news and trying to help any way they can. Beyond that I really don’t know any details. But when I was asked to offer a prayer for them, this is the prayer that came to my heart.
O Lord, in your wisdom you gave marriage as a gift to the human race. You knew that we needed each other, that it would be good and we would be blessed if we joined together, man and woman, in Christian marriage. We believe that the marriage you gave to this man and this woman was no mistake but was a gift from heaven. And now here comes Satan, the Destroyer, to tear down what you established and blessed for many years.
O Lord, do something big. Do something strong. Raise your mighty arm and push Satan away. I pray that _________’s heart will soften, that his eyes will open, that he will think hard about what he is about to give up. Lord, grant ____________ faith and patience and hope. And for the children, protect them by your Holy Spirit. Keep them safe in your loving arms. Watch over them in these scary days.
Please, Lord, work some miracle in this marriage that it might be saved. Bring about repentance and deep heart change and healing and a new beginning. We cannot do any of these things, but you can do them all because you are the Most High God and you hold every heart in your hand. We trust in you.
Increase our faith. Increase our love. Give us strength to keep believing. Deliver us, Lord, from evil and from the Evil One. Where sin abounds, grace super-abounds. Now may that be seen in what you do. We pray with confidence because nothing is impossible with you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
I have underlined certain parts of that prayer because I doubt that I would have prayed that way five years ago. When we see a marriage on the brink, we need to remember that Satan has his evil hands at work in that situation. We fight back through prayer and spiritual warfare because that’s what this is-not just the breakup of a marriage but true spiritual warfare. Seeing it that way clarifies things and moves it from the relational (he said-she said) to the realm of the spiritual. Satan has struck a blow and now we must ask the Lord to deliver us from his power.
When we see a marriage on the brink, we need to remember that Satan has his evil hands at work in that situation.
Is God sovereign over the devil? Absolutely. Why doesn’t he destroy him? He will. Until then we live on the battlefield of a vast spiritual conflict between God and Satan, between good and evil. We happen to be on the winning side, but that does not mean we won’t suffer casualties as the battle ebbs and flows.
2) There are Two Ways to Look at Life.
We have the opportunity to look at life two ways-from the bottom-up or from the top-down. From the top down means to start with God and then go to the problems of life. From the bottom up means to start with my problems and then work upwards to God. Most of us instinctively start from the bottom and go up if we can. What difference does it make? Only all the difference in the world. Maybe the difference between keeping your faith and losing it. The difference between joy and bitterness, between self-pity and victorious faith.
If you start with you, you’ll end with you and be no better off. If you start with God, you’ve started in the only possible place to find any lasting answers. This may be the central message of the book of Job. In the beginning Job faces unimaginable loss, a series of catastrophes that left him scratching his sores on the ash heap, with a wife urging him to curse God and die. The largest part of the book is a dialogue with his friends over why these things have happened.
If you start with you, you’ll end with you and be no better off.
Here’s the most amazing fact. Job never finds out why God chose him for such suffering. His central question remains unanswered. He apparently never finds out about Satan’s part in the whole scheme. So in terms of specific answers, he is left in the dark. But by the end of the book there is a huge difference. When he at last bows before the Lord, he acknowledges God’s sovereignty. “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you” (Job 42:2 NLT). I suppose the question might be put this way:
Am I willing to believe that God knows what he’s doing in my life when I don’t have a clue?
3) There Are Two Choices We Can Make.
In his book “If God is in Charge,” Steve Brown tells the story of a class his associate pastor was teaching in which he said that God is sovereign, God is love, and no matter how bad things get, Christians should praise him. He went on to say that the real test of praise is not when things are going good but when they are going bad. During the question and answer period, a man raised his hand and said, “I just can’t buy what you say about praising God in the midst of evil and hurt. I don’t believe that when you lose someone you love through death, or you have cancer, or you lose your job, that you ought to praise God.”
If God is not sovereign, then who is?
The associate pastor offered a simple yet profound answer. “What other alternatives do you propose?” The question begs for an answer. If God is not sovereign, then who is? If God is not in control, who’s running the show?
But the good news is this. Our God is in control. “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” I admit that it doesn’t always appear to be so. But it is true.
There are two choices we can make. We can reject God’s sovereignty, which ultimately leads to despair and frustration, or we can bow before him in humble submission, which leads to praise and freedom.
If God is sovereign, what then? See the application in verses 20-22.
Since God is in control, let the angels praise him. Verse 20.
Since God is in control, let the heavenly hosts praise him. Verse 21.
Since God is in control, let all his works praise him. Verse 22a.
Since God is in control, let everyone praise him. Verse 22b.
God’s Track Record
Only one question remains. How do we know-really know-that what God has in mind for us is good? We know this because we have seen him in action. He has a track record and that record is good.
It is an old and oft-told story, the one about a young boy who worked for days building a toy boat. One day he took the boat down to the creek to see how it would float. When a puff of wind blew the boat out of reach, the boy ran alongside the creek crying for his boat to return. But soon it drifted out of sight.
Day passed, then weeks. A long time later the little boy was walking in the city and came upon a pawn shop. In the window he saw his toy boat. Someone had found the boat, taken it out of the water, and sold it. The boy ran inside, found the owner, and said, “Sir, you have my boat in the window. I made it myself.” The owner said, “If you want your boat back, you will have to do as all the customers do and buy it.”
God has a track record and that record is good.
Over the next few days the boy did odd jobs around the neighborhood. He mowed grass, carried out garbage, walked dogs, washed cars, and painted fences, saving every penny. When he finally had enough, he went back to the store, hoping his boat was still there. Paying his money, he reclaimed his boat. Walking out of the store, he was heard to say, “I made you. I lost you. I found you. I bought you. Now you are mine forever.”
So it is with God. He made us, we left him, he found us and bought us with the price of Jesus’ blood. Now we are his forever.
That’s God’s track record. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) So far from being a cold, hard doctrine, the sovereignty of God fills the believer’s heart with comfort. In this world with so many questions, we know with certainty that his throne is in heaven, he rules over all, and he loves us so much that he gave his Son that we might have everlasting life. He who upholds the universe holds me in the palm of his hand. He who guides the stars guides my life too. He who knows all things from beginning to end knows me. And I entrust my life to him. Amen.