The Sovereignty of God
The sovereignty of God is the same as the lordship of God, for God is the sovereign over all of creation. The major components of God’s lordship are his control, authority, and covenantal presence.
The sovereignty of God is the fact that he is the Lord over creation; as sovereign, he exercises his rule. This rule is exercised through God’s authority as king, his control over all things, and his presence with his covenantal people and throughout his creation. The divine name, Yahweh, expresses this sovereign rule over against the claims of human kings, such as Pharaoh (Exod. 3:14). Because God is tri-personal, however, his sovereign control is not impersonal or mechanical, but is the loving and gracious oversight of the king of creation and redemption.
The term sovereignty is rarely found in recent translations of Scripture, but it represents an important biblical concept. A sovereign is a ruler, a king, a lord, and Scripture often refers to God as the one who rules over all. His most common proper name, Yahweh (see Ex. 3:14) is regularly translated Lord in the English Bible. And Lord, in turn, is found there over 7,000 times as a name of God and specifically as a name of Jesus Christ. So, to discuss the sovereignty of God is to discuss the lordship of God—that is, to discuss the Godness of God, the qualities that make him to be God. The major components of the biblical concept of divine sovereignty or lordship are God’s control, authority, and presence (see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 21–115).
God’s Sovereign Control
His control means that everything happens according to his plan and intention. Authority means that all his commands ought to be obeyed. Presence means that we encounter God’s control and authority in all our experience, so that we cannot escape from his justice or from his love. When theologians talk about “divine sovereignty,” they usually have the first of these in mind, his control. Indeed, the Bible teaches that God controls all things. He has an eternal plan for all of nature and history (Eph. 1:9–11). When God meets with Moses in Exodus 3 and reveals his name Yahweh, that name, God’s Lordship, reveals to Moses that God, not Pharaoh, rules over the affairs of Egypt and Israel:
But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. (Exod. 3:19–20)
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” (Exod. 6:7–8)
Note the last four words of this promise: because God is Lord, the sovereign, he will certainly deliver Israel from Egypt and bring his people into the promised land. Nothing can stop the Lord from fulfilling his promise.
God’s control is always efficacious; nothing can prevent him from accomplishing his purpose (see Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Isa. 14:24–27; 43:13; 55:11; Dan. 4:34–35; Rev. 3:7). It is also universal; that is, it covers all the events of nature and history. This includes the natural world (Ps. 65:9–11; 135:6-7), human history (Acts 17:26), and individual human life (1 Sam. 2:6–7; James 4:13–16). God even governs the free decisions of human beings (Prov. 16:9), including our attitudes toward others (Dan. 1:9; Ezra 6:22). More problematically, God even foreordains people’s sins (Exod. 4:21; Deut. 2:30; 1 Kings 22:23; Rom. 9:17–18). But, as sovereign Lord, he also ordains that some will come to faith and salvation (Eph. 2:4–10). So, salvation is God’s work from beginning to end, doing for us what we could never dream of doing for ourselves. We should always remember that God’s saving grace in Christ is part of his control over creation as the Lord. (Several passages summarize the doctrine of the efficacy and universality of God’s sovereign control: Lam. 3:7; Rom. 8:28; 11:33; Eph. 1:11.)
God’s Sovereign Authority
But God’s sovereign lordship is more than control. It also embodies his authority: what the Lord commands, his creatures must do. In the Decalogue, the covenant which Moses delivers to Israel after God sovereignly redeemed them from Egypt, God begins by identifying himself as Lord (Exod. 20:1–2) and on the basis of that identification, goes on to utter his ten commandments. It is because God is the sovereign Lord that we must obey him (Deut. 6:4–6; John 14:21; Matt. 7:21–22; Luke 6:46). Because he is Lord, his authority is absolute. That means (1) we should not waver in our obedience to him (Rom. 4:16–22), (2) his lordship transcends all our other loyalties (Matt. 10:34–38), and (3) that his authority over us exists in all areas of human life, not just in the areas that we arbitrarily call religious or sacred (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Col. 3:17, 24; 2 Cor. 10:5).
God’s Sovereign Presence
The third attribute that defines God’s sovereign lordship is his covenant solidarity with his creatures, which I often abbreviate by the term presence. In Scripture, the covenant Lord is one who takes people to be his own (Exod. 6:7; 2 Cor. 6:16). He declares this intention often in Scripture (Gen. 17:7; Ex. 29:45; Heb. 11:16; Rev. 21:3). When God takes us to be his people, he fights our battles, blesses us, loves us, and sometimes (as a loving Father should) gives us special punishments for our sins (Amos 3:2). He summarizes all this by saying that he is with us. He places his name upon us (Num. 6:27) so that he dwells with us and we with him. In the OT, he fulfills his presence with Israel in the tabernacle and the temple. In the NT, he dwells with us particularly in Jesus, “God with us,” Immanuel (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). He “tabernacles” with us (John 1:14). And after his ascension, he sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in us as his temple (1 Cor. 3:16).
But God’s presence is not only with his chosen human beings. For God’s whole creation is also in covenant with him: he is the Lord of all creation. His presence is everywhere, or as theologians say, he is omnipresent (Ps. 139; Acts 17:28).
So even though Scripture teaches that God controls everything, we should not think of his sovereignty as an impersonal, mechanical determinism. God’s sovereign lordship is deeply personal. As Lord, God not only controls everything (efficaciously, universally), but also utters commands, words of life, that graciously govern the ongoing life of his creatures. And as Lord he has made a sovereign commitment to be “with” those who are his. Indeed, God’s sovereignty is a broad concept, including all that God is and all that he does, even embracing his love.
- A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God
- Desiring God, The Sovereignty of God: a Topical Survey
- Elijah Coles, A Practical Discourse of God’s Sovereignty
- J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God here.
- John Frame, The Doctrine of God
- Thomas Boston, The Crook in the Lot: God’s Sovereignty in Afflictions
- Vern Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God: a God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events
- Vern Poythress, The Lordship of Christ: Serving Our Savior All of the Time, in All of Life, with All of Our Heart