Sovereignty

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Terry Roberts, one of my In Ministry students, who is also a pastor in Spokane, sent me this picture. It’s typical of his great sense of humor, but still thought provoking. He knows tragedy with the seemingly senseless death of his wife a couple of years ago. I heard John Piper illustrate his sermon on Romans 8:32 (He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all things?) by telling of a troubled young mother. As she drove down a Minneapolis freeway she tried to solve her problems by throwing her baby out the window of the speeding automobile. According to Piper, this horrific act is one of the “all things” given as a grace from the Lord. One way to summarize it is that God uses what He hates to accomplish what He loves. Yesterday I was talking with Josh White, a local church planter (Door of Hope). While he was touring with his band, he heard Piper preach at Bethlehem Church. Piper was presenting his view that God does not allow evil but ordains it. This includes moral evil rapes and child abuse. He wondered at the deadness in people’s faces as they nodded assent.

My own “ship” theory is that God is in overall control, but there is a genuine freedom of the creature both in good and bad things. So things happen that are not the will of God, but nothing happens outside the control of God. God is loving enough and powerful enough to do good in the worst situation. While not everything is from God’s purposed will, nothing is beyond His purpose to do good. Mystery: how can God control the big picture and not the details? What good is God going to do in this evil?

A key biblical point is that God is super angry at moral evil. See Deuteronomy 29:24ff or Isaiah 1 for example. There are times when He uses evil to judge evil as in raising the Babylonians to destroy sinful Jerusalem (Habakkuk 1), or in the crucifixion of Jesus, but mostly sin is against His will (though not out of His control) resulting in His wrath.

Another point is the meaning of the word “sovereign.” Many simply assume this term means that God controls everything that happens so that no act occurs without God having a specific purpose for it. Many who take this view think God allows evil rather than actively ordaining it as Piper asserts. But they agree that God is in control of all that happens.

But the Bible never actually says it this way, I think. Rather sovereign means that God does not give account to anyone (Psa. 33:11). No one can stop Him when He decides to act. He does whatever pleases Him (Psa. 115:3), but not everything that happens pleases Him.

One outcome of this is that evil is against the will of God, but not out of His control. When I want to press my point, I assert that there are genuine accidents such as the combination of genes that results in Down syndrome.

This can be very troubling. One student had been pretty comfortable believing that God controlled everything so life would be good based on Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. But as he realized that the very people who received this promise suffered horribly in Babylonian captivity, it rocked his confidence that life would be good. When he added in my view that there are events that are against or apart from God’s will, he was visibly distressed. “How can I trust,” he wondered.

I affirmed God’s powerful promise that we need fear no evil because He will be with us in the valley of the shadow of death. He will prepare a table of goodness but it may be in the presence of enemies (Psa. 23:4-5).

I am feeling really connected with the disaster of Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan. It killed hundreds and caused billions of dollars of damages in very poor areas of the island, areas near where Sherry and I have been. People prayed for relief (video here). Do they pray to the God who “smote” them? This is what the New American Standard translation of Romans 8:28 says: we know that God causes all things to work together for good.

Or do they pray to the God who is with them doing good even in disaster He did not will? This is what the NIV translation of Romans 8:28 says: we know that in all things God works for the good.

It is one of those foundational questions that we all answer thoughtfully or reactively. Our answers are only partial because the mystery of evil can never be anything but irrational. The greater mystery of the LORD remains. But He tells us He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, faithful, loving, forgiving and just in that the guilty never go unpunished (Exodus 34:6-7).

I’m standing there.

5 thoughts on “Sovereignty

  1. Dr. Breshears,

    VERY thought-provoking! I’ve always taken the NASB view of Rom. 8:28 – that God “causes all things to work together for good…” (emphasis on “to work together” vs. “causes all things”) in the sense that He “ties up the loose ends” caused by the proponents of evil to the point that He always has His way in the end. Example: Hitler’s holocaust led to the formation of modern Israel.

    I remember Southern Baptist pastor Ron Dunn describing it this way in light of Paul referring to his thorn in the flesh in 2 Cor. 12 as a messenger of Satan while asking God to remove it (and God answered: “My grace is sufficient…”): ONE METHOD – TWO PURPOSES. In other words, Satan had his purpose for the thorn and God had His. According to Rom. 8:28, God’s purpose always eventually wins out.

    I find Piper’s view overly radical, but I didn’t hear the whole sermon. I would find his view – as stated – difficult to embrace if, at the same time, you acknowledge – as Piper does – God’s right to punish sinners for all eternity! But he probably comes back with the classic reformed answer in Rom. 9:20, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” Yes, we may, like Piper, get to this point with our questioning too, but it comes down to, as you say, how one defines “sovereign.” THAT is the question!

    Thanks for making your readers and former students think – again!

  2. Hi Gerry—Thanks for your posts. They are particularly timely since I just had a frantic phone call from my mother the other day, all upset about a new Sunday School class she was attending. The teacher must be a Piper fan. My mom apparently had never heard any of the TULIP teachings, and was shocked and upset. He furthermore told her the ONLY purpose of prayer is for change in ourselves. God has already decided EVERYTHING–who is saved, who is not, and everything else. So when we “make our requests known to God” it cannot be with the expectation that he will actually DO anything as a result of our prayer, because everything is predetermined! Yikes!

    So of course I have been going over all the Bible verses with her, including the Jeremiah 18 passage. And BTW if Piper is right, then to my mind God plays a mean-spirited game with us—calling us to repentance, etc—when all along He not only knows what our response will be but has DETERMINED it.

    Regarding sovereignty, I think we can use the illustration of an earthly sovereign. An earthly sovereign can grant various freedoms to his subjects without violating his sovereignty. It is precisely his right to do so. I know the analogy breaks down at some point (they all do . . . ) but it helps me understand the relationship between God being Sovereign and mankind having some measure of free will.

    By the way, Piper would find a friend in many Muslims. The “will of Allah” is usually portrayed in pretty fatalistic terms. Thanks again for the post.

  3. Hey Gerry:
    This is so encouraging for sure! I have similar convictions on this matter and have for years. It is great for me to see someone much more learned than I seeing the same things. It makes my heart thankful. it also gives me confidence to stand by my convictions while doing ministry.
    Thanks

  4. Gerry,

    I am intrigued by your definition of sovereignty. This is a timely post and your thoughts on the subject are helpful as I navigate James 1 for the sermon this week. Thanks.

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