God’s Sovereignty: One Evangelical’s Perspective

In this next section of the series, The Evangelical Debate, I thought it would be helpful to get to the point and share my conclusions before trying to interact with my previous writings on the subject. Those writings are not systematic, and sometimes they address relatively small issues in the debate instead of addressing the most important distinctions concisely. So, in this section of The Evangelical Debate I will share my perspective on the main points of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians.

During this section of the series I will try to be brief. I will not defend against every possible argument opposing my position in the posts themselves, though I am willing to interact in the comments section for those who object to my view. Nor will I try not to give a long list of verses supporting my position, but just a few that I believe stand by themselves without much explanation necessary.

I Believe: Before the creation of the world God determined what He would do, and what He would allow free creatures to do, during the course of human history

Or as one of the saints of the past put it:

“What God does, he always meant to do. What he permits, he always meant to permit.”
– Albert Barnes (Commentary on Ephesians 1:5)

The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole outcome is of the Lord.

Proverbs 16:33

I do not believe in accidents or chance, but I believe God controls everything that happens in the universe He created. The smallest details of the universe are under His direct providence. This does not imply that things do not occur in a “natural order,” instead it claims that God upholds the “natural order” when He wishes, and He overrides that order when He wishes (i.e. He does miracles).

A man’s heart devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps.

Proverbs 16:9

I believe a man is free to choose his way in life, but that God limits man to what he can accomplish. So, mankind is free, but God puts limits around him that ensures nothing happens except what God directly allows. For example, God limited Joseph’s brothers from killing him even though it was their plan to kill him (Genesis 37:20).

The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water; He turns it to any place He will.

Proverbs 21:1

God does not merely limit men from things they determine to do, but He also influences the desires of men when He sees fit. God influences history, he does not merely observe it. As humans and demons influence men, so God influences them. For example, God was likely directly influencing Reuben to save Joseph’s life(Genesis 37:21).

God is Sovereign Over the Present

I believe that both Arminians and Calvinists believe that nothing in history can happen without the permission of God. For example, if a thief desires to rob a bank, and accomplishes it, I believe both would say that God was the one that allowed it. They might use different terminology (permissible will, ordained, etc.), but I think they both accept the concept that nothing happens in the present without the permission of God. Everything that happened today was either something God directly influenced to happen or something He allowed to happen. God could stop all of history in one moment, so of course He could stop any event in history from happening. I think that should be obvious to every Bible believer.

He Was Sovereign Before History

Unless I am thoroughly misunderstanding something (wouldn’t be the first time), both Calvinists and Arminians believe God is in absolute control of the present, either by direct action or by permitting others to act. So, the question I cannot get away from is, when did God determine (decide) what He would do and what he would allow free creatures to do in human history? As far as I understand the classical Arminian and the Calvinist, I believe that both would affirm that God determined what He would do, and what He would allow others to do, before the creation of the world.

God has ordained from before the world was created all things that should come to pass in history. Some things He permits, some things He directly influences, but all things happen by His sovereign decision as Creator. When God created the world, He determined what every detail of human history would be, nothing is left to chance. This doesn’t mean human beings are not free to make choices, it just means that God determines what they will be allowed to do.

Fate?!

So, should we just remain passive and let whatever God has ordained take place? God is influencing truly free creatures today, He is permitting truly free creatures to act, and He is also limiting what free creatures can accomplish. Why would such knowledge tempt us to be passive? In the same way, why would the fact that God decided a long time ago what He would do and what He would allow free creatures to do cause us to be passive? Both concepts are in harmony.

If a person prays for His lost relative to be saved, God promises to hear that prayer. If we evangelize, the lost will hear the Gospel, if we do not, they will not hear it. If a believer refuses to practice basic Christian disciplines like praying, fellowship and Bible reading, God has warned that He will fall into sin. Our choices and actions have consequences; therefore, we are responsible for our choices and actions. Just because God decided a long time ago what He was going to do and what He would allow us to do doesn’t mean we can just sit and wait for it to take place; we are involved.

Just because God knew from eternity what He would do, and what He would allow free creatures to do, that does not mean it has already taken place. To say God ordained all things that takes place in history before the world began is just to say that He is presently ruling over the affairs of men by influencing free creatures and permitting/not permitting certain things which free creatures intend. His decision in eternity does not make the present any less real. To fail to do what you know is right (i.e. pray, evangelize, etc.) and say that God ordained that it would not happen, is only to say that God permitted you to ignore good and choose sin; He will hold you accountable for your lack of action, because you chose not to do it.

Another Look at Scripture

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with powerful works and wonders and signs, which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know. You have taken Him, who was handed over to you by the ordained counsel and foreknowledge of God, and by lawless hands have crucified and killed Him…

Acts 2:22-23

Indeed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were assembled together against Your holy Son Jesus whom You have anointed, to do what Your hand and Your counsel had foreordained to be done.

Acts 4:27-28

Jesus Christ was crucified. This was a great act of God’s grace and a terrible act of man’s rebellion. But I want us to note three concepts here, the foreknowledge of God, the foreordained counsel of God and the hand of God. In this context it seems that the foreknowledge of God refers to God’s perfect knowledge of what those wicked men would do when Christ was handed over to them. The phrase, “your hand,” seems to imply that God was involved in what was happening on that day. He was not absent, just observing what men would do, but He was present both to influence for good and limit what evil men could do. And the third concept raised here is that God by His own wise counsel, determined beforehand exactly what would take place. Before the creation of the world God ordained what He would do (“your hand”) and what He would allow free creatures to do (“the foreknowledge of God”). God predetermined the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but lawless men performed it. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.

On this issue of God’s sovereignty and human free will I agree with the Calvinist position as I understand it. And I honestly do not understand why a classical Arminian would disagree with it. I can understand why Arminians would disagree with some statements made about God’s sovereignty by Calvinists who use outdated and ambiguous philosophical language, but I cannot understand why they deny that God determined before the world what He would do and what He would allow free creatures to do.

Questions for Discussion

Are you Arminian, Calvinist or do you fall into a different camp altogether? Is what I have written above the Calvinist or Arminian position from your perspective? Do you agree or disagree with the concepts I have presented above?

Please share your answer in the comments section

3 Responses to “God’s Sovereignty: One Evangelical’s Perspective”

  1. James Su

    Hi, Chris. Thank you for the clear teaching above. I totally agree with your points. Those biblical truths set me free from anxieties of life, as well as encourage me to actively seek and walk in the revealed will of God, knowing that God is sovereign over every detail of the universe and I will have to give account of myself to God before His Judgment Seat.

    Reply

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