What We Mean by God’s Sovereignty

What We Mean by God’s Sovereignty

People come and people go. It’s a fact of church life. They come and go for a plethora of reasons. Some of those reasons are good, right, healthy; others, not so much. As a pastor it’s difficult seeing anyone “go” because it means a change in relationship. It’s likely you’re not going to see them as much as you used to.

But the difficult departures are often due to a change in viewpoint. Some of the hardest departures I’ve endured were due to young men who decided the theology of Calvinism was correct and they could no longer attend a church that didn’t promote it.

I can’t promote Calvinism or what’s often called “Reformed” theology because the more I’ve studied, the more convinced I am it is in grievous error.

What follows is not intended to be a definitive statement on the errors of Calvinism; not even close. Such a work would require a thick tome of scholarly erudition.

I want to pause here and say that minds far greater than mine have wrestled both sides of this issue. And to that point—Calvinists frequently use a lack of intellectual acuity on the part of their opponents as a reason why those opponents fail to understand the “doctrines of grace” as they refer to their distinctive beliefs. It’s a common debate ploy. They say, “You only disagree because you don’t understand. If you understood Calvinism, you’d agree with us.” The implication being, they are smarter; that’s why they DO believe it. This is not to say there aren’t humble Calvinists who eschew such sophistry. But I’ve heard it enough to know it’s an all too common debate tactic.

So let me be clear, what follows are simply some thoughts (among many) on the error of Calvinism. I’m not the sharpest tool in God’s drawer. But if even a dullard such as I can recognize the problems, it ought not take a genius to imbibe the theological Kool aid of Reformed doctrine.

In Romans 10:13-14, the Apostle Paul wrote,

For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?

Note the order Paul describes here.

1) The saved are those who call on the name of the Lord.

2) They call because they believe.

3) They believe because they heard.

4) They heard because a preacher shared the Gospel.

Working backwards, Gospel à Hearing à Believing à Calling à Salvation.

Please take careful note of the logical order the Apostle delineates here. It all begins with God Who both gives substance to the Gospel in the atoning work of Christ, then packages it in a message. That message pointing to the objective offering of salvation is declared. An ear hears it and faith is birthed in a soul, that moves a person to call on God, which results in salvation.

The Calvinistic system omits the calling phase and reverses the salvation and believing elements. Reformed theology says God sovereignly causes those He’s elected to salvation before the foundation of the Earth to be regenerated, then and ONLY THEN, can they believe. The only call Calvinists recognize is God’s call to the elect to be born again. What Paul says in Romans 10:13-14 upends their system.

What Paul says here is clear. The Gospel is preached, people hear it, believe it, call on God and are saved. Sorry if that doesn’t fit into the Reformed-Calvinist scenario.

My next point may appear harsh, so I begin by saying, what we’re about to look at is deeply troubling. Among other things it’s referred to as “Hard determinism.” And it’s scandalized not a few one-time Calvinists. Once they discovered what Calvin and his supporters really believe about God, not a few have bailed because it turns God into a monster.

Hard determinism is a natural result of the Calvinistic emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Let me be clear: Every orthodox believer believes God is sovereign. But the classic, Reformed view of God’s sovereignty is a distortion of Scripture. I’m weary of Calvinists who accuse me of denying God’s sovereignty because I reject their views. God IS sovereign. And the Libertarian Freewill view that I hold to exalts God’s sovereignty significantly more than Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty.

Augustine, Calvin and modern Calvinists such as John Piper believe God’s Will is absolute and that He ordains EVERYTHING. Nothing happens that isn’t God’s Will. They even go so far as to say what we evaluate as evil, God authors.

. . . how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission…It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them…Who does not tremble at these judgments with which God works in the hearts of even the wicked whatever He will, rewarding them nonetheless according to desert? Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as he will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake, or to evil according to their merits.[1]

God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child . . . [2]

John Calvin himself taught in his landmark work, Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Creatures are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed. (Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 3)

. . . thieves and murderers, and other evildoers, are instruments of divine providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute judgments which he has resolved to inflict. (Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 5)

We hold that God is the disposer and ruler of all things, –that from the remotest eternity, according to his own wisdom, He decreed what he was to do, and now by his power executes what he decreed.  Hence we maintain, that by His providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined. (Book 1, Chapter 16, Paragraph 8)

The devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how muchsoever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay unless in so far as he commands, that they are not only bound by his fetters but are even forced to do him service. (Book 1, Chapter 17, Paragraph 11)

. . . it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are.”…”For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)

“Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an individual charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated. This they do ignorantly and childishly, since there could be no election without its opposite, reprobation. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)

. . . it is utterly inconsistent to transfer the preparation for destruction to anything but God’s secret plan… God’s secret plan is the cause of hardening. (Book 2, Chapter 23, Paragraph 1)

I admit that in this miserable condition wherein men are now bound, all of Adam’s children have fallen by God’s will. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 4)

With Augustine I say: the Lord has created those whom he unquestionably foreknew would go to destruction. This has happened because he has willed. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 5)

. . . individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)

. . . it is vain to debate about prescience, which it is clear that all events take place by his sovereign appointment. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)

But since he foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place, they vainly raise a quarrel over foreknowledge, when it is clear that all things take place rather by his determination and bidding. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6)

Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before he created him, and consequently foreknew because he so ordained by his decree. And it ought not to seem absurd for me to say that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 7)

The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 8)

Even though by God’s eternal providence man has been created to undergo that calamity to which he is subject, it still takes its occasion from man himself, not from God, since the only reason for his ruin is that he has degenerated from God’s pure creation into vicious and impure perversity. (Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 9)

Please note all I’ve done is quote these men. If you find their comments repugnant in what they do to the character of God, you begin to understand why I am opposed to Calvinism and Reformed Theology. Please excuse the length of this list of quotes from Calvin I gleaned from Dr. Leighton Flowers. I include it here only to make clear that I’m in no way misrepresenting the great reformer or drawing a quote out of context. Calvin was quite clear in his understanding of God’s sovereignty. EVERYTHING that happens is the result of God’s will. Sin is His will. The Fall was His will. The eternal damnation of the lost in hell for eternity is His will.

What complicates matters is when in discussion with non-Calvinists, Calvinists assume this is what their discussion partner means by God’s sovereignty. I categorically DON’T! I understand God’s sovereignty as dynamic, rather than static.

In other words, I understand God’s will as being able to allow for human freedom. God is so great, so wise and powerful that He’s able to allow the free-will choices of human beings without them thwarting His plan.

Think of it this way . . .

Picture two people playing chess. One is a novice, the other a grand master. The novice is free to move his pieces however he wants. But the master is so skilled, no matter what the novice does, it ultimately only plays into the master’s strategy and how the game plays out on the board. A momentary setback to the master isn’t of concern since he knows how to compensate for it and take it up into a new direction to accomplish his goal; winning the game.

God is the chess master. We’re the novice.

Consider Joseph’s declaration to his brothers. ”What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Calvin would have us believe God moved the brothers to sin by selling Joseph into slavery. But Joseph is clear. What they did was evil; it was morally wrong. But God is not limited by the willful choices of fallen human beings. As God, He’s able to turn evil to good. That doesn’t make evil any less evil. It simply reveals the supremacy of God when He turns the consequences of evil choices to effect something good.

It’s repugnant to suggest the Holocaust was God’s will. Yet the hard determinism of Augustine, Calvin, Piper et al. requires it. The higher view of God’s sovereignty Libertarian free-will affords is that God grieved over the Holocaust, but used the world’s collective grief when it came to light as the door though which to bring about the birth of the modern State of Israel and the impetus for Jews to move there.

As is to be expected, A.W. Tozer magnificently explains the libertarian idea of God sovereignty.

God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so. [3]

In conclusion on this point—In seeking to exalt the glory of God by elevating His sovereignty, Calvinists adopt Augustine’s error of merely sanctifying the ancient Greek concept of Fate, something even the gods were shackled to. It’s time for Christians to unhitch from Augustine’s error that Calvin merely elaborated on and reframe God’s sovereignty not as a static-laden fatalism, but to see it as dynamic and reflective of God’s awesome wisdom and power which is able to take up man’s sovereignty into His surpassing sovereignty.

God is NOT the author of evil. Man is. But God’s will isn’t hindered by man’s evil choices.

In a brief third point—If hard-determinists are right, then those of us who disagree with them do so because God wills it. And if God wills it, they ought not oppose us lest they be guilty of opposing God’s will.

The hard-determinism of Calvin and his fellow HDr’s proves to be a logical absurdity; a mark of an irrational position.

[1] John Calvin, “The Eternal Predestination of God,” 10:11

[2] John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), p 42

[3] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God