Whole Counsel Theology

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Our God is [Absolutely] Sovereign

The title of this post I think is interesting; it is interesting that there should be any need for an adverb to modify the adjective of "sovereign." A book I am reading for a discipleship class at church right now during our F.A.I.T.H. semester brings this out quite nicely:
The psalmist declared that "The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all" (Psalm 103:19). This verse gives us a perfect definition of sovereignty: to rule over everything. A ruler cannot be semisovereign anymore than a woman can be semipregnant. Either He is in control or He is not. The Bible affirms God's rule over all of humankind, over all of His created beings (including Satan), and over all circumstances.
--from Hell? Yes! by Robert Jeffress, page 57

That being said, to say "sovereign" really means "absolutely sovereign," because by default it means "ruling over all."

Our class talked about this a for about half an hour last night, and we readily agreed with the statement in the above quote. We all agreed that, even though we may not understand (and in fact will not understand) how or why God does things, we believe He is sovereign, in control, and in some sense the ultimate cause behind everything, because that is what the Bible teaches. He does as He pleases (Psalm 115:3), and no one can stay His hand! (Daniel 4:35) We don't have to understand it to believe it, and we have no right whatsoever to call God into OUR court of justice. As was said clearly last night, God is just, holy, righteous and loving because that is who He is, and not because he conforms to any standard of ours; God IS the standard, and we must accept it.

This was a wonderful discussion, and I enjoyed it a lot -- until the end of it. The teacher of the class asked a question at the beginning, how to respond to a person who might say, "How can you believe in a God that is loving when there is so much suffering in the world?" My answer at the beginning of the class was simply this, "That is the wrong question." The problem this person is having is that he or she doesn't understand the magnitude of their own sin, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to explain that part of the Gospel to them, I would have to think. God is completely just in bringing these disasters on the world, and even more than He has, because He is just that -- just and righteous. We deserve nothing but wrath from Him for our sins, and we should be thankful that He's been as merciful as He has been.

My response, while regarded as correct, was deflected for a time. It was, after all, the beginning of the class and we had some discussion to do, and the teacher also said that it was not the only way to respond, and perhaps not the best way. I really have no problem agreeing with that; after all, I'm fallible. I would maintain that is a very good way to repsond however.

At the end of the class, the question was revisited. One of the men in the class who I respect very much gave a much different response than me, not in contrast to it, but just as another possible way to answer the question. However, the way he answered it left me with an eyebrow raised. He said that what we should explain to the person asking why God allows suffering is that this is not "the world that God planned." The sinful state of affairs that we are in was not part of God's plan in the Garden -- that was what he was implying.

As I sat there with my eyebrow raised, I began to look around the room to see a few heads nodding in agreement. I was almost dumbfounded -- did this not stand in stark contrast to the rest of the discussion that we had? Could we not agree that the fall of mankind was in fact planned by God, even though we don't understand all of the details or why?

I asked this gentleman after the class what exactly he meant, and offered what I typed above as an explanation for the fall. I also began to suggest that what he stated seemed to be contradicting the rest of the discussion that we had in our class. He gave the reason for the fall as "man's free-will" and then stated to me very clearly, almost forcefully:
David, if Calvinism were true, then there wouldn't be any lost people.

My response was, "Really?" He simply said yes, and then we went out on our visitation for the evening; we didn't have time to continue.

I had to laugh at myself a little; really. I thought he was Reformed himself; he's the guy that got me to listen to Alistair Begg a little, after all; shows what I know. :) My response was one of surprise and confusion. I chuckled to myself a little and then, after our visitation, began to think about what he said a little more. I already knew part of the biblical response for that, and God willing, I hope to be able to share it with him so that God would receive all the more glory in both our lives for it.

What he seemed to be saying was that if God really did predestine everything, then there wouldn't be any lost people because there would be no point to their existence. There is no conceivable explanation why God would decide to create the reprobate -- or so the argument goes.

My friend was not the first person to say this of course. I used to think this way, as have many respected Christian leaders of times past. This includes godly men like Adrian Rogers (to whom I'll be indebted no doubt for some time) , whom God used mightily in the Southern Baptist Convention during the conversative resurgence (which I'll maintain is still continuing in some ways). In fact, regarding Romans 9:20-23, Dr. Rogers made this statement:
Now use a little sense. What potter in his right mind would be making vessels so he could turn around and destroy them? What potter is going to say, "I'm going to get a whole stack of them over here on the wall and then I'm going to break them all?" That sounds more like a madman.

Dr. Rogers rejects that people are created as reprobate as is clear by his statement above, but is that really a fair treatment of the passage? If reprobation is true, is that all God does, just create people who will never believe the Gospel just so He could "turn around and destroy them?" I certainly don't believe that, but do in fact believe that God creates people elect and reprobate, and that these distinctions were made before the foundation of the word (see my Ephesians 1 exegesis).

I mean no disrespect to Dr. Roger's memory at all, nor would I mean any disrespect to the man were he still living. However, the passage in Romans 9 and other parts of Scripture do in fact mean what he appears to be mocking, and it is NOT without purpose that God does this. Let's look at a couple of passages:
Proverbs 16:1 The reflections of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
Proverbs 16:2 All a man's ways seem right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the motives.
Proverbs 16:3 Commit your activities to the LORD and your plans will be achieved.
Proverbs 16:4 The LORD has prepared everything for His purpose--even the wicked for the day of disaster.

This short passage in Proverbs makes a couple of things clear about God's sovereignty. First, in verse one, though we think to ourselves, nothing comes out of our mouths that God has not ordained. The anwer of the tongue is from the LORD; seems pretty simple.

Verse four is a bit more pointed. It declares that God has prepared everything for His purpose. How much has God prepared? The answer this verse gives is "everything" and the word does not appear to be qualified by anything else around it; Proverbs often don't have much context anyway. However, the writer gives us an example of what he's talking about. We cannot ignore it --- it is right there in front of us. Even the wicked are prepared for the day of disaster. God prepared everything for HIS purpose -- get that -- HIS purpose. This includes the destruction of the wicked! It is not a purposeless, madman-style breaking of pots on a shelf in a house that were there to look pretty. There is PURPOSE in God's preparing the wicked for destruction. What purpose is that? It is HIS purpose....and there is more.
Romans 9:17 For the Scripture tells Pharaoh: For this reason I raised you up: so that I may display My power in you, and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.
Romans 9:18 So then, He shows mercy to whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.
Romans 9:19 You will say to me, therefore, "Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?"
Romans 9:20 But who are you--anyone who talks back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, "Why did you make me like this?"
Romans 9:21 Or has the potter no right over His clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor?
Romans 9:22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction?
Romans 9:23 And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory--

It seems clear from this passage that yes, God does indeed make some for honor and some for dishonor. There are some (those made for honor) that are "objects of His mercy" and some (those made for dishonor) who are "objects of wrath ready for destruction." There is a reason given for it in this passage: God endured with patience those objects of wrath so that He would not destroy them all before all those who He had selected as objects of mercy would indeed receive His mercy.

Paul uses Pharoah as the example of this, quoting from Exodus 9:16. God raised up Pharoah for the very purpose of displaying His (God's) glory. It was for showing His power, to make the greatness of His Name known. Paul makes it clear that God "shows mercy to whom He wills and hardens whom He wills," and just like the example of Pharoah, those things that were made for dishonor were made that way so that God's glory and power would be made known.

John Piper compiled an excellent biblical argument for God's decreeing that evil exist here; I recommend reading it. It was certainly not purposeless, and neither are those who are reprobate. At the end of Dr. Piper's article, he quotes the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards in his answer to the question "How does the existence of evil serve a good end?"

It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God's glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . . .

Thus it is necessary, that God's awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God's glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God's holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God's grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. . . .

So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature's happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.


Edward's answer takes into account the teaching of the passage in Exodus, Romans, and many, many others. It is indeed why there is evil in this world.

I would challenge anyone who would take a different view of election than this to see what kind of response your view gets when you share it with people. Does it get the response that Paul anticipated getting in verse 19? If not, perhaps you should rethink it and go back to the Word of God on it; just a thought.

Having said all of those things, I would have to disagree with Dr. Roger's assessment of Romans 9. I would also have to disagree with my friend's understanding of Calvinism when he said that there would be no lost people if it were true. I'm a Calvinist, as was Jonathan Edwards, as is John Piper. We Reformed people simply affirm that God does indeed have a purpose for those who remain lost, and it is to reveal His glory in His justice.

Does this grant complete understanding? Does it answer all questions? No, it does not, and I don't think we can have total understanding of it. However, this does not by any means exempt us from accepting it. Why is that? It is because this is the teaching of the Bible. Just like we accept the fact that God is sovereign over all His creatures and all suffering, we accept that He was sovereign in the Garden, and that yes indeed, this fallen world was part of His plan, for the display of the Glory of His Name. We don't need to understand it to accept it.

The Bible says it, and that settles it.

Soli Deo Gloria!

5 Comments:

  • Nice post David. What book study are you doing on the sovereignty of God? I teach a Masterlife class in my SBC church. This quarter I am teaching through a study on the sovereignty of God. It has engendered many intense discussions similiar to the one you had. In fact, I had two guys who deliberatly disrupted my class as I was trying to answer a question on election. I read Romans 9 and was nearly shouted down. All I was doing was reading those verses.

    That one hurt a little, but I learned that the Arminian may not be able to prove their point Biblically, but they seem to be very determined to protect their beleif system as if they are in some sort of turf war.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

    By Blogger Mike Ratliff, at Wednesday, February 15, 2006 2:43:00 PM  

  • Wow...shouted down for reading the Scriptures? I'm sorry to hear that for sure.

    The book we are reading was the one I referenced in the first quote in this post. It's not a book about God's sovereignty per se, but it does have a chapter that definitely makes reference to it. It is called "Hell? Yes!" and is by a Texas pastor by name of Robert Jeffress.

    SDG,
    Dave

    By Blogger David B. Hewitt, at Wednesday, February 15, 2006 3:40:00 PM  

  • Ah, I guess I didn't read that part. I have heard of him. The incident started with a question on election. I read John 6:44 then Ephesians 1 and Romans 8:29-30, etc. I would then answer questions from these guys after each set of verses. Then I moved to Romans 9. I paused after each complete thought and these two guys took turns interrupting me. One of them started talking gibberish so that no one could hear me as I read. It was pretty much everything I could do to keep from being as rude as them. They got louder and louder as I read the part about the potter. When I said that God elects believers not the other way around I thought one of them was going to hit me. Anyway, neither of them were regulars in my class and I haven't seen them since.

    However, the good part: since this has happened the rest of my class has started opening up to the truth about election and God's sovereignty. I believe that is because I have been praying that God's truth will reign in those people's hearts above all.

    By Blogger Mike Ratliff, at Wednesday, February 15, 2006 4:10:00 PM  

  • "I believe that is because I have been praying that God's truth will reign in those people's hearts above all."

    Well said, sir. God is the one Who convicts of truth! It was true before our salvation, and it is true now. :)

    God uses things even like you described to bring glory to Himself. Nothing is an accident, and nothing is outside of God's control -- and your testimony demonstrates just that.

    Thanks for that reminder and for your posts.

    SDG,
    Dave

    By Blogger David B. Hewitt, at Wednesday, February 15, 2006 8:23:00 PM  

  • Thanks Brother!

    By Blogger Mike Ratliff, at Wednesday, February 15, 2006 8:51:00 PM  

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