In an over-reaction to Calvinism’s extremes, many Christians have shied away from a study of God’s sovereignty. This is regrettable. The sovereignty of God is a thoroughly biblical subject. Even though the words “sovereign” or “sovereignty” are not found in the KJV, one or both of these words appear in the NKJV, ASV, NIV, and NRSV. Nevertheless, the idea of God’s sovereignty is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testaments. “Sovereignty,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means, “Supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign.” This idea is applied to God by such words as “dominion,” “rule,” “ruler,” “Lord,” “King,” and “Potentate.” As Jack Cottrell points out in his outstanding book, What The Bible Says About God The Ruler, “The sovereignty of God may be concisely summed up as absolute Lordship.” Sovereignty, then, is equal to lordship, lordship is equal to ownership, and ownership is equal to control. It is precisely at this point that Calvinism strays. I’ll have more to say about this further along; but before proceeding on, let’s make sure we understand the ramifications of Sovereignty.
The Ramifications Of Sovereignty
If God is truly the Sovereign of the universe, then whatever happens, we are told, is God’s will. A young baby dies of cancer, a young mother or father is seriously injured in an automobile accident and all these are said to be God’s will. We pray earnestly for a fellow Christian’s recovery from a serious illness and in closing our prayer we say, “Not our will, but Thine, be done.” But recovery does not take place and death occurs. Has God’s will truly been done? At funerals, if one listens to what is being said to the bereaved, one invariably will be heard saying, “It’s God’s will.” Are these things really God’s will, and if so, in what sense?
Repelled by the thought of a loving God being responsible for the death of the innocent and those we love, many Christians have concluded that God is not yet Sovereign Ruler of the universe. Unlike now, one day, they say, God’s will is to be done in all things. As sympathetic as I am to their reasons for coming to this conclusion, I’m convinced that those who hold such a position are badly mistaken.
From a biblical standpoint, the sovereignty of God is simply not open for debate. If God is not sovereign, He is not God! Therefore, when I answer “yes” to the question, “Is it true that whatever happens is the will of God?,” I must make sure that those who hear me understand that my answer is not an unqualified “yes,” as failing to do so would be both theologically misleading and personally devastating. Thus, my “yes” is qualified by the fact that there are at least three different senses in which the “will of God” is used in the Bible:
- God’s Decretive Will,
- God’s Preceptive Will, and
- God’s Permissive Will.
When we understand these, we are able to realize that God is not personally, nor directly, responsible for the many things people want to credit, or discredit, Him with, even though it continues to be true that everything that happens falls ultimately within His sovereignty.
God’s Decretive Will
There are things that God decrees to happen. He causes these things to happen by His omnipotence. These can be described as God’s decretive or decreed will. A biblical description of God’s decretive will is found in Psalm 33:11, which says: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation,” and again in Isaiah 14:27, which says: “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” It was God’s decretive will that was at work in His scheme to redeem mankind through His Son Jesus Christ (Acts 2:23; 4:28; Colossians 1:4). For the Bible believer, it is simply a given that whatever God purposes cannot be frustrated.
For example, in Romans 8:28-30, we learn that God has decreed He will justify, and one day glorify, certain foreknown individuals (viz., “whosoever will”) on the basis of a foreordained Christ (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:19-20), a foreordained gospel plan (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:19-20), and a foreordained life (Ephesians 2:10). With this firmly established, Paul joyously affirms, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31), to which I say, Amen and amen!
In like manner, the doctrine of the resurrection rests firmly on God’s decretive will. In John 6:40, Jesus said, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Again, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Indeed, whatever God proposes, and Himself carries out, will, in fact, happen. This is the reason why God can say He declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:10). This, then, is what is meant by God’s decretive will.
God’s Preceptive Will
But there is a second way in which the “will of God” is used in the Bible. This has to do not with what God purposed to do Himself, but with what He desires for man to do. This can be described as God’s preceptive will and is primarily concerned with man’s obedience to His word or precepts. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the “will of God” in this sense when he says, “For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36). It was in this sense that the Lord used the expression in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” When Jesus said “the will of My Father,” He was speaking of God’s precepts, statutes, or commandments. Consequently, it is in connection with God’s preceptive will, and not His decretive will, that man is commanded to “work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Moreover, it is in connection with God’s preceptive will that we understand the Lord is “longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Actually, God’s desire (i.e., His will) for the salvation of all men is reflected many places in His word (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4; Luke 7:30; Matthew 23:37), but such must be kept distinct from His decretive will. A failure to do so will cause one to land squarely in Calvinism’s camp.
God’s Permissive Will
There is yet a third sense in which the “will of God” is used in the Scriptures. It can be described as God’s permissive will. Perhaps it is with God’s permissive will that men have the most trouble. In this category are all those things which God neither purposes nor desires, but which He allows man, in his freedom, to bring about. (There is a sense in which this third category is related to the second (viz., God’s preceptive will. With a strict use of the word “permissive,” it can be seen that man’s response to God’s desire or preceptive will is not decreed or purposed (i.e., forced) by Him, and is, therefore, something He permits. (In other words, God does not make someone obey His laws; but, in the strictest sense, He simply permits him to do so.) That which makes this third category different from the second is not the presence of God’s permission, but the absence of a stated desire on God’s part that these events or circumstances should happen. In this category there are events God neither purposed nor desired, but, nevertheless, permits, including some things that are clearly contrary to His stated desire (will), such as man’s sins. Therefore, when God said, “They have also built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or speak, nor did it come into my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5), He made it plain that it was not His will they were doing, whether decretive or preceptive—i.e., it was not the mind (will) of God that they should do such a thing. Even so, the Lord permitted His people to exercise their free wills and do those things clearly contrary to His counsel/will. Things like this are within the “will of God” only in the sense that He permits them to happen (cf. Acts 17:24-30; 14:16; Romans 1:18-32).
God’s permissive will permits both bad and good things to occur. It is used by Paul in this latter sense in 1 Corinthians 16:7, when he writes: “For I do not wish to see you now on the way; but I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits” (emp. mine). He uses it this way again when, in Acts 18:21, he writes: “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing” (emp. mine). In Hebrews 6:3, the writer put it this way: “And this we will do if God permits” (emp. mine).
But sometimes, of course, the Lord does not permit or will something to happen that His creatures desire to happen and, as Sovereign, it is His prerogative to do so. For example, in Acts 16:7, Luke writes: “After they had come to Mysia they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them” (emp. mine) And, according to James, the height of prideful arrogance is manifested by the one who does not take into consideration that his desires may be, and sometimes are, preempted and/or superseded by the Sovereign Ruler of the universe (cf. James 4:13-15).
In Conlusion, Control, Not Causation, Is The Key
Calvinists and other determinists have wrongly thought that the key to sovereignty is causation. Rather, the key to sovereignty is ultimate control. Through His absolute foreknowledge of every plan of man’s heart, and through His absolute ability (omnipotence) to either permit or prevent any particular plan man may have, God maintains complete control (sovereignty) over His creation. The power to prevent means that God has the final word in everything that happens. To deny this is to deny the sovereignty of God!
Whatever happens, then, is God’s will. Everything (i.e., every single thing) that occurs falls within the sovereign will of God in one sense or another. Even so, it is crucial to understand that there are three different senses in which this may be true:
- Sometimes a thing occurs because God decides it will happen, and then He makes it happen. This we have called God’s decretive will and it seems to be limited mostly to His working out the “scheme of redemption.”
- Sometimes a thing occurs because God desires it and man decides, of his own free will, to do what God desires. We have identified this as God’s preceptive will, which has to do with God’s commandments or precepts.
- Sometimes a thing occurs because of the agency of an individual or group of individuals, and God permits it to happen. We have called this God’s permissive will. Included in this category are sinful or careless acts like murder or the death of one caused by the actions of a drunk driver. Even tragedies that occur through the natural processes would fit in this category.
All three of these categories can be classified as “God’s will,” but only the first is God’s will in any causative sense. Even though God is Sovereign Ruler of the universe, categories two and three remind us that we must allow the Sovereign Ruler to respect the integrity of the freedom He has so graciously accorded His creation. As His creatures, we must learn to trust God’s wisdom in knowing what good can be drawn from the tragic episodes He permits to take place in category three.
Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15a).