Let me say it from the front end: I think understanding God’s ultimate sovereignty over all things is one of the key doctrines that unlocks so many others. That isn’t to say other doctrines aren’t important, or foundational, but I do think understanding God’s absolute sovereignty over everything goes a really long way to helping us understand so much about the Christian life.
Now, before I go on to defend that a little bit, I acknowledge that belief in the absolute sovereignty of God is not a salvation issue. There are plenty of people who do not believe God is sovereign over all things – mainly, or specifically, they believe over human will, heart and sin – but who nonetheless believe by faith in the Lord Jesus and whose sin has been forgiven on that ground. So, I want to be clear, this is not a salvation/gospel issue here per se. Not agreeing with my view on this does not keep you out of the kingdom.
Nevertheless, what I do think the absolute sovereignty of God does for us is unlock so many of the issues of the Christian life for us. So many of the thorny problems we encounter, so many of the questions we have, can be helpfully approached with a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty. And just to be totally clear, I believe there is absolutely nothing that happens in the universe that is not under God’s sovereign control. As Charles Spurgeon put it:
I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes – that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens – that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence – the fall of . . . leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.
The tiniest thing in the universe that Spurgeon could think of does not move one iota without God’s say so. Today, we might say there isn’t a single atom that does anything without God’s explicit permission. And as it goes for atoms, it goes for hearts, wills and minds too.
With all that said then, how does God’s sovereignty help other things to fall into place? Well, let’s just think of some of the core activities that Jesus calls us to do as his people.
Prayer suddenly makes sense if we understand God’s sovereignty. There is simply no point praying to the God of the universe if he isn’t able to control all things and change them. God folds our prayers into his plans – indeed, he prompts our prayers himself so that he can work through them in order to bring about his plans as a result of them! But if God is not sovereign, prayer is pointless. Understanding his sovereignty gives us a reason to pray. But even when we don’t know what to pray, or our prayer life feels total rubbish, God is sovereign over that too. He can take even our useless, waffling prayers and turn them into something helpful and good.
Evangelism becomes worthwhile. If the salvation of souls in my community depends on me, I wouldn’t bother. I am not skilled enough, persuasive enough or able enough to save anybody. Thankfully, God is sovereign over these things. My job isn’t to convert anybody but to find the elect God has chosen to save. There simply isn’t much point pressing on if it depends largely upon us.
Preaching becomes worth doing when God is sovereign. Frankly, I think I am super boring. I am not the world’s greatest preacher. I could sit up all night worrying about that. But I don’t because God is sovereign and will work through his Word. Some people were getting pretty upset in the New Testament that there were people preaching with all sorts of sinful motives to show up the Apostle Paul. But Paul wasn’t bothered and seemed to believe the Lord could work even through those preaching out of sinful motive. If God can even talk through a donkey, suddenly getting overly hung up about how good I am at preaching seems misplaced. That is only true because God is sovereign over both the Words that come out of my mouth and the way they are heard by those in front of me.
Joining a church is worth doing if God is sovereign. All I know is that I have never found a perfect church that does everything exactly how I think it should. I never did as a member and I can assure you of it now I am a pastor. Now we could get worried about that. How will anybody come in if we seem a bit tinpot and rubbish? How will anybody grow? The answer is because God is sovereign. He isn’t impeded by our limitations or our low-grade efforts to do our best for him. Join a church and, in his sovereignty, God will grow you. It might not be everything you’d hope, but perhaps God is using exactly that as his means to make you grow in patience or maturity or whatever. Maybe you absolutely love your church, the Lord will no doubt use all the things you love about it to grow you too. If God isn’t sovereign, every church is a nightmare because none of them are able to help you too much. But that he is means that God will grow you through the church.
Decision-making becomes easier when we believe in God’s sovereignty. Think of this: whatever you decide is God’s will. If it happens, God has let it happen. And what this means is we simply cannot act outside of God’s will. We don’t need to handwring about whether we are walking in God’s will or not, if it’s happening then God has actively permitted it. Now that doesn’t mean every decision you dare to make is always godly – we determine that by reading our Bible and not disobeying what God clearly commands – but assuming we’re doing that, and what we’re choosing is not sinful, we are walking in God’s will.
But even sin is under God’s sovereign control. We only have to look at the cross of Christ, which God permitted as sin as part of his glorious plan of salvation, to see that it is so. But if even our sin is under God’s sovereign control – though he might expressly tell us not to sin – when we do sin, even this serves his plans and has been permitted by him. After all, if he didn’t want to allow it, he would have stopped it! Which leads us to say that we simply cannot walk outside of God’s ultimate will no matter how hard we might try. That might not end up so well for us if we are continually and deliberately ignoring his expressed will in the Bible, but we aren’t doing anything that God hasn’t ultimately ordained and that can or will thwart his will and purposes.
No doubt there are lots of other things we could think about but I think these illustrate the point. When we understand the absolute sovereignty of God, so much of our Christian walk helpfully falls into place. God’s sovereignty isn’t anything to kick against, but a key doctrine that we can rejoice in because it frees us from so much guilt and weight of work that we simply cannot bear.