Saturday, September 21, 2002

Sovereignty of God

As described here, this post is part of my notes for my Sunday School.

In the Westminster Confession we read:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;
For scriptural support of this statement, we turn to passages such as this well-know verse from the book of Ephesians:
also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, (Eph. 1:11, NASB)
Note that the line from the Westminster confession does not say anything specific about Christianity. Jews and Moslems would agree with this definition of God’s Sovereignty. It is essentially a definition of Theism, and those who affirm it (apart from minor quibbles) are Theists. That makes those who reject it, atheists.

God is absolutely sovereign. He is in control of things large and small. Nothing happens apart from His eternal purpose.

That is worth repeating: Nothing happens apart from His eternal purpose. If He purposes Osama Bin Laden to convert to Christianity and enter a Presbyterian seminary and start radio ministry, it shall happen, and neither OBL nor all the mullahs in Arabia could thwart His will. The Apostle Paul, once the murderous Christian hater Saul, became the greatest preacher in history.

If it weren't so, then He is not God. If He wants something to happen, and it doesn't, then something or someone else is stronger than God.

This does not mean He is spending his time saying "Okay, now I am going to move that electron a few Angstroms to the left." But it does mean that that particular electron has ended up just were God intended when he set the foundations of the universe.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, 'What have You done?' (Dan. 4:35, NASB)

Sovereignty and Science

What does the Sovereignty of God imply about the study of science? Is it pointless? Not at all-- consider one example: gravity. God willed into existence the matter of the universe. He willed into existence the laws of gravity to move it around. He does not maintain the universe like a chessboard, but nevertheless it is doing precisely as he willed. It is perfectly legitimate for science to explore these secondary causes, such as Newton’s law of gravity.

Although God does not move the planets around "manually" like game pieces, He certainly can, at times, if he wants to:
Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

"Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon."
So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. (Joshua 10:12-13, NKJV)
Now that must have been impressive.

No Maverick Molecules

In his book Chosen By God, R. C. Sproul puts it this way1:
If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s Sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.
In essence Sproul’s argument is that a single maverick molecule outside of God’s control, could interact with God’s domain in an unforeseen and unpredictable manner that ultimately thwarts God’s plan. A cosmic cataclysm not unlike the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger, the mighty vehicle that tragically exploded because of a problem with lowly rubber O ring.

Now, in my opinion, some aspects of science do conflict with God's sovereignty. One is the role that chance plays in quantum mechanics. When we look at two identical radioactive nuclei, all we can say for certain is the probability that either will decay. We can't say which nucleus will decay first. This is precisely Einstein's "God does not play dice with the universe" complaint. The probabilistic view of nature allows us to be very accurate in predictions concerning macroscopic quantities of nuclei, but quite ignorant about the fate of any individual nucleus. And if a nucleus can decay out of God's control then we are back to the maverick molecule problem.

Two Big Problems with God’s Sovereignty

There are two big problems we encounter when trying to understand God’s Sovereignty. The first is: How does His Sovereignty coexist with our free will? The Westminster Confession follows its clear statement of God’s Sovereignty with a proviso about man’s will:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
Clear references to man’s will abound in Scripture:
but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. (Matt. 17:12, NASB)
The problem of reconciling a God who controls everything with man’s free will is not easy, but we will take a stab at it. For now, we stick to the subject of His Sovereignty; later we will discuss how our free will fits within.

The second problem in understanding God’s Sovereignty is the more severe problem of the existence of evil. This is a very difficult question that we will not take up in any serious manner. Indeed, this is a problem for which there is no known solution. For we know that if God is sovereign, then He could have prevented evil from entering the world. Yet He chose not to do so. Yet we also know that God did not create evil:
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. (James 1:13, NASB)
So we have this dilemma:
  1. God is Sovereign.
  2. God allowed evil to enter the world, but he did not create the evil.
  3. Where did the evil come from?
I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to this question. Some people think it came from man’s free will. But there is a problem with that explanation. We know that before Adam sinned he had to have the desire to sin. Where did that desire come from? Again, I don’t know. Did evil come into the world as a result of Satan’s fall? Where did Satan, who is a creature, get the desire to sin? It is an imponderable for which there is no adequate explanation.

Original Sin

Original Sin does not mean that God charges us Adam's sin as if we had committed it. It is much worse than that. Original sin means that man’s very nature was radically altered by the fall.

A baby is not brought into the world in a state similar to Adam and Eve before the fall, only to begin some downward spiral as the sins start mounting. No, human beings are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are born sinners.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5, NIV)
Man’s relationship to sin is summarized as follows:
  • Pre-fall man (Adam and Eve before the fall)
    • Able to sin
    • Able not to sin

  • Post Fall Man (Any person before being saved)
    • Unable not to sin

  • Reborn Man (Any person who is saved)
    • Able to sin
    • Able to not sin

  • Glorified Man (Any person in heaven)
    • Unable to sin
The true meaning of Original sin is that we are born into the state that is similar to Adam and Eve after the fall. It is impossible for us not to sin.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jer 17:9, NIV)

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. (Titus 1:15, NIV)

Not until conversion does God restore us to something similar to pre-fallen man. Of course, unlike Adam and Eve before the fall, we find ourselves in a totally corrupted world, and with corrupted bodies as our heritage, where temptation and examples of sin are everywhere. Although we have the ability “to not sin” (and to boldly split infinitives no man has split before) it usually doesn’t take us very long after conversion to commit our own original sin. By God’s Grace and Christ’s Sacrifice this doesn’t cause an entirely new fall from which we must time and time again be saved.

Sometimes people disagree that before being saved we are unable not to sin. But choosing not to sin means to exhibit righteousness. And the Bible tells us that we possess no legitimate self righteousness
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
(Isa. 64:6, NASB)

Are we, after conversion, exactly like pre-fall Adam and Eve? No. We are similar only in the fact that we can choose not to sin. The effects of our corruption are still with us.
but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. (Rom. 7:23, NIV)
Fortunately, we look forward to a time when we be in an infinitely better state and place. A place where we will lose the ability to sin.

The question always arises as to whether God knew Adam and Eve would sin. The answer is, of course He did. God was not the author of their sin, but he knew they would fall. His redemptive plan was already in motion- believers were chosen before the foundations of the world.
For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Rom. 11:32, NIV)

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph. 1:4, NIV)

Three Types of Will

Formal discussions of God’s Sovereignty introduce the concept of three distinct types of God’s will. I think it is important, so here goes:
  1. God's Decretive or Sovereign or Efficacious Will. (This is just one type with three different names.) These are things that God decrees; they most certainly will happen. The verse from Daniel (Dan. 4:31), above, reflects God’s decretive will. The most familiar expression of God’s Decretive Will occurs in the creation account:
    Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. (Gen 1:3)
  2. God's Preceptive Will. This involve things that God will not do Himself, but that He desires of man, such as to obey His commandments. Man can and does disobey. This does not thwart His will or violate His sovereignty. He has not decreed that we obey, but He does desire our obedience. And He knows what we will do.

    We find an example of God’s perceptive will in his desire for our salvation:
    The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9, NKJV)Read gingerly this intentional double negative: God does not decree that nobody should perish. (He could, but he doesn’t. Why? I don’t know) According to this verse, He desires that all should repent. But alas, we don’t.

  3. God's Permissive Will. This relates to the things that God does not decree or even desire, but He permits them to happen. Since He could prevent them, He is still in absolute control. These are not things that happen in spite of God, but because God allowed them to occur. In no way can one conclude that God endorses that which happens as a result of His permissive will.
    and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind; (Jer. 19:5, NASB)
    When you pray for something and add “God willing” as in: “I will visit you in Buffalo and bring fresh kumquats, God willing” you are essentially appealing to His permissive will.

What about 9/11?

Many people have raised the question of whether we were punished as a nation on 9/11. After all, God is sovereign, so if not ordaining them outright he could surely have prevented the attacks. By divine edict he could have struck all the terrorists dead the night before the attacks. So the attacks proceeded, at the very least, with His permission. He wasn’t sleeping, and there is no uncontrollable evil running amok in the universe and outside of His province.

We can be sure that if God was punishing, He was punishing a nation, not specifically those who perished:
"Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:4, NASB)
That, in and of itself, does not prove God’s intent was to punish. All sorts of terrible things happen in people’s lives that are not (necessarily) punishment. All that we can be sure of is, like in the case of Joseph, what ever happens is ultimately for good:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. (Gen 50:20, NASB)

And we 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, NASB)
The terrorists attacks on New York and the Pentagon, however, were so huge – so national in scope – that to many of us it “smelled” like national punishment. The thinking was:
  1. This is a reprobate nation
  2. God, although longsuffering, has had enough
  3. He used his “servants”, the terrorists, to send a message.
That in no way diminished our support for the war on terrorism. God may use the wicked for His purposes but he still holds them accountable (which must really annoy them).

There is a semi-infinite amount of precedence for this in the Old Testament, including referring to the wicked as God’s servants. Consider the Babylonian exile:

behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,' declares the LORD, 'and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. (Jer 25:9, NASB).

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

In the early 1980’s, Rabbi Harold Kushner had a best selling book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People . This book had the noble aim of trying to bring solace to those who suffered unspeakable personal tragedy. It could not have done a worse job. The premise of the book is that there is evil that exists outside of God’s domain. When bad things happen to good people, in Kushner’s view, God is weeping with us, powerless against the evil causing our grief.

Kushner’s god is not sovereign. Kushner’s god is not God. There is no comfort in a weak god. We may not understand God’s plan, and we may at times recoil at His methods. But we find great joy in the knowledge that He is in absolute control of all of His creation.

1 Chosen By God, R. C. Sproul, Tyndale House, 1986.

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