The Sovereignty of God
What could be a more helpful and reassuring doctrine to the Christian other than the doctrine of the sovereignty of God? Chapter 3 of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states this doctrine perfectly,
“God has decreed in Himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass.”
Perhaps the only thing more helpful and reassuring than this doctrine is when we combine it with a biblical understanding of grace. Yet, there is also perhaps no doctrine more often abused than this high biblical view of the sovereignty of God. While in the Bible there is no contradiction or tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, yet this understanding of God’s sovereignty oftentimes leads many Reformed Evangelicals to neglect their role in human responsibility. It is this abuse which I would like to draw our attention to.
Dead Faith in a Living God
First, let’s look at the book of James where we get a very practical view of Christianity. In James 2:14-17 we read,
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
It is true that the subject matter here is primarily about the nature of saving faith. However, there is something a bit disturbing about Jame’s teaching on the nature of saving faith when we look at it in the context of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
It’s as if a wealthy Christian said to the poor suffering Christian, “Trust in the Lord and his sovereign ability to provide for you,” while totally over looking his responsibility to help. Rather than doing something practical to help, he eloquently pronounces his theological blessing on the other man. There is almost a presumption that, “This poor soul would not be so poor if only he had attained to my understanding of God and his sovereign ability to provide food and clothing.” The rich man thinks this poor man needs his theological counsel.
James has zero interest in rebuking the poor man for not trusting in the sovereignty of God. James does not see this poor man as one in need of a theological diatribe on the sovereign God who is able to provide for him. Rather, he looks to the unworthy rich man who has received all of his wealth by the sovereign grace of God, (See 1 Timothy 6:17-19) and sees that it is in fact this man’s faith which is dead because it is not accompanied by works.
James is looking inwardly at the heart, while the rich man only looks outwardly on prosperity. So often we tend to judge things wrongly and superficially. We see a man hard pressed by his circumstances, and rather than doing something in the name of love to actually help him, we simply give good theological advice. This is the way of the Pharisee. Jesus says,
“For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:3-4)
This unfortunately describes far too many men in the Reformed camp who can argue the sovereignty of God all day long, and who would rightly point men to it as an object of their faith, but they themselves are not willing to lift any of those burdens from another man’s shoulders with their own hands. So yes, we should “so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.” (Matthew 23:3)
This would be just one example in Scripture where we can see that it is our primary duty as Christians to act according to our responsibility, and not simply to write everything off as “faith in the sovereignty of God.”
The House of God Forsaken
Second, let’s look back at when the exiles had returned to Jerusalem in the book of Nehemiah. Here we have a great example of why we must practice Semper Reformanda, which means: “The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” (Van Lodenstein)
As things appear to be coming along nicely in Nehemiah’s reformation, we read in Nehemiah 13:10,
“I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had fled each to his field.”
The priests had not received their portions, and so each had fled to his own field to provide for themselves and their families. You can almost hear the grumbling congregation say, “They are priests, is the Lord not their Shepherd? How dare they breach faith and leave their posts. Should they not be trusting in God to sovereignly provide for them and exemplify for us the faithfulness of God?” In other words, we would expect them to give us a great display of faith even though they had not been given their portions, even though they were simply doing their duty before God as we read in 1 Timothy 5:8,
“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
So, Nehemiah does not charge the priests with a sinful distrust in the sovereignty of God to provide for their needs. They are being obedient to the command of God to put their hand to the plow and provide for their families. Who does Nehemiah rebuke? We read in Nehemiah 13:11,
“So I confronted the officials and said, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’”
He looks to the officials, and through them the reset of the congregation, and confronts them on their neglect to the house of God. When the people had neglected their responsibility to give appropriate portions to the priests, it was the priests responsibility to provide for their families. Under the given circumstances, the people were guilty and the priests were innocent, even though at first glance we might be tempted to assumed sinful neglect or a breach of faith on the part of the priests.
I am tempted to linger on this point. I have only tried to raise money for an overseas missions trip to Scotland once. People encouraged me to start a fundraiser, but then no one gave. When I shut down the fundraiser I heard these words, “Trust in the sovereignty of God. He is faithful.” That is a theologically correct statement, and indeed, it sounds very pious and admirable. In one sense it would be impossible to refute, hence Jesus words in Matthew 23:3-4. However, like the priests in Nehemiah, I am aware that it’s my duty before God to first provide for my own wife and children, and that it would be wrong for me to put my family in bondage to a $2,500 financial debt just so that I could go on a missions trip for a week.
I also have several other pastor and evangelist friends who were once in full time ministry who now have to work a full time job. Like myself, they still labor and do whatever they can for the Lord. They are by no means worldly or unfruitful. However, they cannot be obedient to the call God has placed on their lives as pastors or evangelists because the church has not been obedient to the command of Christ, “that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14) So these men too must now, at least to some degree, flee to their own fields.
Just to linger on this point a little longer, what I’m saying is, the church needs to repent! It’s not a matter of everyone in the church financially struggling to provide food and shelter for their families. Many Christians are sitting on large amounts of wealth, and are squandering it away on excessive luxuries. Would not the condemnation of the prophet Haggai apply to them? In Haggai 1:3-4 we read,
“Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins’”
The charge of God against this Old Testament church was that, “my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.” (Haggai 1:9) Could we not say precisely the same thing in our own day? The visible church is in ruins, and it literally appears to be getting worse day-by-day. Yet, so many Christians seem to be prospering quite well when it comes to their own homes. There is no shortage of food, drink, leisure, entertainment, and vacation trips to Disney. May God have mercy on us and grant us repentance that the house which is called by his name may no longer remain in ruins!
The Cross and Repentance
Third, we see this whole principal of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility supremely at the cross. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached these profound words in his sermon which lead to the conversion of three thousand souls,
“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:23-24)
There the sovereignty of God and human responsibility is made perfectly clear. If you do not understand how these two things can exist simultaneously then you do not understand the cross. Yet, as Peter is bringing his sermon to a close, he does not comfort his hears by the fact that God was sovereign over the death of the Son of God. No, he points sharply to their responsibility saying,
“‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:36-38)
He once again points them to God’s sovereignty and their responsibility. They knew their responsibility, despite God’s sovereignty over it all, and the result was “they were cut to heart.” Peter’s response to this was not, “Brothers, don’t be too hard on yourselves. Trust in the Lord, for he was sovereign over this whole affair of the death of Jesus.” No, it was “Repent!”
Repentance in Book of Revelation
Finally, let’s look at the book of Revelation. You can only understand the book of Revelation properly when you read it in light of the sovereignty of God and the supremacy of Christ. Revelation 1:1 says that this is, “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” That is the main point of the book. The supremacy of Christ is what the divine author intended to make known throughout this great book.
So, throughout the book of Revelation you see tests, trials, fires, afflictions, and unspeakable suffering—and you see it all taking place under the sovereign rule of Christ who reigns supreme over all. Here the sovereignty of God and supremacy of Christ is no doubt meant to be a comfort to God’s people. Yet, even here it is no excuse for neglect or passivity. In Revelation 2-3 we read of Jesus’ words to the seven churches, and an astounding five out of seven of these churches were called to repent with serious threats and grave consequences if they failed to do so. These are Jesus’ own words:
To the church in Ephesus,
“I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:4-5)
To the church in Pergamum,
“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:14-16)
To the church in Thyatira,
“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” (Revelation 2:20-23)
To the church in Sardis,
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Revelation 3:1-3)
To the church in Laodicea,
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:15-19)
These are extremely stern and sobering words from our Savior. Yes, on the one hand he comforts his people with his sovereignty and supremacy, but on the other hand that grace is only extended to those who walk in repentance. Those churches which fail to repent cease to exist. They come under the sovereign judgement of Christ himself as he snuffs out their lampstand and spits them out of his mouth! This ought to cause all of us to fear and tremble, especially as we watch the church decline in the western world. By all visible accounts, he appears to be doing just that.
Yet, here is what concerns me: I think it may be the Reformed guys who would most likely look at the current state of the world and simply write it off—calmly, cooly, and with a hint of pious snobbery—as part of the eternal decree of a sovereign God. And I think it may be the Reformed guys who would most likely assume that these threats in the book of Revelation could not possibly apply to them. We always tend to assume it’s those people; those egalitarians, those LGBT affirming people, those liberals, those “woke” people, those seeker friendly church growth guys, etc. We often fail to realize that we are equally guilty, albeit, in different ways.
I love the sovereignty of God, and I thank God that in his sovereignty we have a wealth of rich church history of men who defended such vitally important doctrines. However, the men we admire most, men such as the Reformers and the Puritans, were not men who merely pontificated about God’s sovereignty. They were men of action. They were men who saw the absolute sovereignty of God, especially his sovereign grace, and that lead them to lead a pious life of devotion to God. In other words, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty did not hinder their human responsibility, it is what fueled their responsibility. That is why these men are worth remembering. It is not for their doctrine only, but also the way they lived their lives. So we read in Hebrews 13:7,
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Just because we hold to the same doctrine of God’s sovereignty does not automatically mean we are imitating their faith. Better still, just because we believe what the Bible says about the absolute sovereignty of God does not automatically mean that we are imitating the faith of those godly men recorded for us in Scripture. All of our Reformed Theology may be absolutely worthless if it does not lead us to a life of repentance, both as individuals and as local churches. While we write everything off to the sovereignty of God without repenting in areas of neglect, we might just find our lampstand snuffed out as we are spit out of the mouth of a sovereign God.