When John Piper preached at our church two weeks ago, he talked about the very high view Muslims have of the sovereignty of God. They believe in a God who ordains whatsoever comes to pass. They believe in a God who knows the hairs on our heads. They believe in a God who can do as he pleases.

So is there any difference between a sovereign Allah and the sovereign God of the Bible? Piper argued that in Islam the sovereignty of God operates independently of his other attributes, such that Allah can be capricious and arbitrary in his exercise of divine power. This is, no doubt, how some Christians see the Reformed view of God and why they reject it so strenuously.

But when Calvin and other early Reformed thinkers exulted in God’s design and decrees, they typically did so with a different word besides “sovereignty.” They much preferred to talk about providence. Obviously, the two are related. There is nothing wrong about celebrating divine sovereignty, so long as we understand that God’s inscrutable power is not exercised on a whim, but always as an expression of love for his people. His sovereignty is pro-us, which is why the Reformers talked about providence more than raw sovereignty.

Typically, the doctrine of providence has been placed alongside the doctrine of creation, the former being an extension of the same power and purpose we see in the latter. Calvin’s most “extreme” statements about divine sovereignty are stated in his chapters on the doctrine of providence (Institutes, Book 1, Chapters 16-18). Calvin thrilled in divine providence, not because it was some cold esoteric principle, let alone an example of God’s cruel caprice, but because it reminded Calvin that in all of life’s surprises and suffering that God has a “special care toward us.” Because God is powerful and because he is for us as his children, we can be grateful when things go well, patient when things go poorly, and enjoy “an incredible freedom from worry about the future.”

The Heidelberg Catechism picks up this same language in Lord’s Day 10 when it explains what we understand by the providence of God and how this knowledge helps us: “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love. All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither ore nor be moved.” Likewise, the Belgic Confession teaches that this doctrine of providence “gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only be the arrangement of our heavenly Father” (Article 13).

Most of the readers of this blog love “Big God” theology. We love to sing and savor the sovereignty. And rightly so. But let us always remember–and make explicit before our children and our churches–that this big God is our God. More than that, through Christ, he is our heavenly Father. And by the firm and gentle hand of providence, our Father works all things no only for his glory, but also for our good.

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20 thoughts on “Something Better than Sovereignty”

  1. Joan Hartley says:

    Very touched by this doctrine so well put into words here. Double “shared” and tweeted. :)

  2. Andy Thaxton says:

    Kevin,

    I love the doctrine of God’s providence. You specifically, through your preaching and writing, have influenced me to think and speak more in terms of providence than “raw sovereignty,” as you put it. This article is a great summary of the thinking that leads my heart to soar time and time again in knowing it is “by the firm and gentle hand of providence” that God governs his creation. Thank you.

  3. Ash Giri says:

    A kind correction: There is a typo in the last sentence. “No” should be “not.”

    That aside, thank you for this article! I generally think of God’s sovereignty on a macro-scale: He has his hand in every event in the universe, no matter how big or small.

    But it’s refreshing to hear of His providence. What a merciful God we have, that he would work all things together for our good.

    Praise the father!

  4. Phillip says:

    Bursting one’s bubble; Islam does not worship the “god above all gods,” The Holy Almighty Creator God in heaven.

  5. anaquaduck says:

    Also differing greatly from the gods of Ancient Greece & Rome.
    Gen 50:20

  6. Melody says:

    Thanks for this post. When my church first started talking heavily about the glory and sovereignty of God, I got very depressed.

    Not because I didn’t believe God was glorious. Not because I didn’t believe God was sovereign. Before this I’d often found those attributes hugely comforting.

    It was because, for a little bit, the message I was hearing felt and sounded very much like, “God doesn’t love you, this is just for His plan to bring glory to Himself and you should just be glad to be a part of that.”

    The Bible was comforting at that point because I could read in the Bible that God loves us, that Jesus was moved with compassion for suffering people. And eventually my church starting talking about God’s love for us again. But it still makes me happy to see people making it clear.

  7. Michael Snow says:

    While we savor the sovereignty, let us, like Spurgeon, trust in it and obey. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

  8. jdg says:

    This study is ironic, for the more we study the divine majesty of God and realize that the grand plan of the universe is not first and foremost about our glory, the more we are blessed by it. The more we lose our life the more we gain it!

  9. Great article!

    Timely article as I have been fascinated about Allahs sovereignty specifically in death. Even in death he does what he pleases and there is no confidence for the “believer” …..Insha’Allah……if God wills he will let me into heaven.

    Striking contrast to the theology of some chrisitians who point to a hope and confidence in Christ leading to security knowing that Christ has paid the price and through him we have been reconciled.

    I am not wondering if I can fall in and out of Gods hands. If I trust Him Im locked in rather than some arbitrary decision he makes on a whim when I see him face to face. Great article.

  10. Tom says:

    You say God’s sovereignty is “pro-us”. And you repeatedly refer to “we” and “us”. Are you assuming that everyone who reads this blog is born again? Surely this is unwise?
    Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. It’s not about us anyway.

  11. Danny M. says:

    Typo in the last sentence.

    Great post! What is the distinction between providence and sovereignty, if any? Or are they interchangeable?

  12. jdg says:

    Sovereignty and Providence in many ways interchangeable. Sovereignty speaks more to power and authority,where the concept of providence points more to purpose.

  13. mariep says:

    My pastor often reminds us that Peter’s reason in 1 Peter 5:7 for why we should cast all our cares upon the Lord is not “because He’s sovereign” but because “He cares for you.”

  14. Rowland says:

    Great post. I was so refreshed by the repeated “God is good” making God’s Sovereign nature bright to our minds and hearts. Not pro-us as some suggest here (Tom ++) but simply the necessary emphasis that, the Sovereign God is good.

  15. Randy Buist says:

    What if perhaps ‘providence’ was a more useful idea/term 400 years ago rather than sovereignty? Today ‘providence’ has little space in the public square of life. It’s simply not a term that is used nor really useful if we are speaking to a hurting word. It really only works within the context of those who study and live in the world of theology speak.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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