What does it mean to say that God is sovereign? The refrain has become so common, almost clichéd, in Reformed writing and preaching that it sometimes slips away from the reader or listener without lodging meaning in the mind. Worse, we typically hear the phrase to mean something it doesn't. When Christians affirm that “God is sovereign,” they often mean “God is in control.” Paul Tripp, for example, wrote in his excellent book Lost in the Middle that “God truly is sovereign . . . there is no situation, relationship, or circumstance that is not controlled by our heavenly Father.”
The problem is that the English word sovereignty does not mean control. The U. S. government is sovereign within American territory, but that doesn't mean the government controls everything within American borders or causes all that happens. If you look up sovereignty in the dictionary you'll not find control in the definition—nor even as a synonym in a thesaurus.
Sovereignty means “rightful authority.” A dictionary gives “supreme rank” as one definition, and a thesaurus lists jurisdiction and dominion as synonyms. The doctrine of God's sovereignty tells us God is the rightful ruler of the universe. He has legitimate claim to lordship. His government is just. In fact, justice is defined as his rule. God's sovereignty doesn't tell us whether God does in fact rule—just that he ought to, and that we should acknowledge his rule and obey it.
English Bible translations don't often employ the word sovereign to describe God. The most frequent place is in the NIV rendering of Ezekiel, which uses the phrase “the Sovereign LORD” more than 200 times. But the Hebrew for that phrase is more accurately translated “LORD Yahweh” or “King Yahweh.” Most English Bibles oddly follow the tradition of translating the personal name of God as “LORD” in all capital letters, which means they have to find another word to translate what would normally be “Lord,” lest they translate it “Lord LORD.” Thus, we get “the Sovereign LORD,” an accurate paraphrase but not an exact translation. (Notably, the ESV renders the phrase “the Lord GOD.”)
The Bible describes God as King and Lord. Though it is accurate to describe God as sovereign, I wonder if using that word rather than King tends to depersonalize his rule. A sovereign can be an institution, like the government. A king is a person. We relate to our contemporary secular sovereign governments as a citizen subject to an impersonal array of bureaucracies. But in premodern times subjects related to their Lord and King in a deeply personal way: with love, fear, reverence, and awe.
I speculate that theologians began describing God as sovereign rather than King or Lord after the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution when monarchy began to fall out of favor and notions of popular sovereignty began to take root. Telling good republicans and social contractarians to worship a divine King might have been unpopular in 18th- and 19th-century Britain and America. I have no research to back that up that assertion except for the observation that the King James and Geneva Bibles don't use the word at all, and the Wycliffe Bible only sparingly, while 2oth-century versions like the NIV, Good News, and New Living Translations use it hundreds of times.
Once again, it is true God is sovereign. It's also true he's in control of everything that happens and he causes all that happens. But that is the doctrine of God's providence, not his sovereignty. The doctrine of divine sovereignty tells us he should rule. The doctrine of divine providence tells us that he does, in fact, rule. The Lord governs and guides all of creation for his people and for his glory. “All things work for the good of those who love God,” Paul writes (Rom. 8:28). God's providence, then, is a function of his omnipotence: he is able to rule all things because he is all-powerful.
We may be splitting hairs, but the Bible splits these same hairs. Scripture gives us specific words to describe God's character, and we should be careful to use those words correctly. We may be losing a small nuance when we opt for the impersonal word sovereignty over the more literal and personal words Lord or King. And in either case, we shouldn't confuse God's sovereignty (or lordship) with his providence. The two characteristics complement one another, as do all of God's attributes. God's providence is just because he is the rightful King, and God's reign is enacted through his providence.