Russ on the Sovereignty of God

In my last several posts, we began the process of looking at each of the components of TULIPS in order to see how well this model of salvation aligns with Scripture. In looking at Total Depravity, we agreed with much of the traditional position though we found no Scriptural evidence for: regeneration prior to faith; an understanding that death means spiritual inability to act; and that the non-believer is unable to exercise faith. Thus, we stated that a person will never seek God in their sinfulness. However, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, God seeks each individual making them aware of their standing before Him. It is at this point that a person does or does not exercise their faith in Jesus. Once they believe, they are given life which is the presence of God through the Holy Spirit living in them. All the benefits of salvation are immediately bestowed upon them (though final fulfillment awaits our resurrection).

In our overview of Unconditional Election, we found little in the Calvinist position that aligns with Scripture. There is only one individual in Scripture identified as elect – Jesus (all other identifications are of a group of people). {{Ephesians 1}} tells us that we are elect in Him (i.e. our election is by association not by decree) and that God foreknew this in {{1 Peter 1}} and {{Romans 8}}.

We completely disagreed with the position of Limited Atonement. Since Calvinists cannot supply Scriptural proof that Christ died only for the elect, we believe there is a universal redemption that has been paid for all mankind ({{1 Timothy 2:6}}, {{2 Peter 2:1}}). This redemption is applied to the unregenerate the moment that they place their faith in Jesus ({{Galatians 4:5}}).

We also completely disagreed with the position of Irresistible Grace primarily on the grounds already defended in Total Depravity. Since Scripture clearly states in several places that faith is prior to regeneration and because there are passages that would contradict the idea of saving faith being a direct gift of God, we cannot support this point in Calvinism.

We agreed with the Calvinist position on Preservation of the Saints – that a person who has placed their faith in Jesus cannot lose their salvation. We cannot lose our salvation because once we have placed our faith in Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit – God in us ({{1 Corinthians 3:16}}) – as a promise that one day our life will be completely defined by God with us ({{Revelation 21:3}}). This regenerating of our lives sustains our faith such that although it may ebb and flow, it is never extinguished ({{1 John 5:1}}). All of this is because of God’s grace which is greater than any of our sin ({{Romans 5:20}}).

In this article, we will look at the sixth component of TULIPS – Sovereignty of God. It should be duly noted that most models (actually, I’ve never seen any models) do not have this sixth component. However, this concept of God is so interwoven throughout the components of TULIP that I’m actually surprised that someone hasn’t added it long ago. Without an understanding of the Calvinist understanding of sovereignty, it is hard to completely understand the system.

Sovereignty of God From a Calvinist Perspective

Most of the material that I will use comes from A.W. Pink’s Sovereignty of God (read online). I realize that not everyone in the Calvinist camps agree completely with Pink (though I’ve found it’s hard to find any one authoritative person on any one component of Calvinism), but I think that he pretty much represents a historical Calvinist position on sovereignty.

What do Calvinists mean when they speak of the Sovereignty of God? For the Calvinists, to speak of the sovereignty of God is to declare the very nature of who God is. The Sovereignty of God in Scripture is complete, cannot be opposed, and is unlimited. God, in His sovereignty may act however He pleases (which is always within His perfect nature). The Sovereignty of God is the defining character of not only God but of all His attributes. God is sovereign in His power which means all that He wills occurs when and where He has willed it. God is sovereign in the bestowing of His power on others. When God is merciful it is because of His sovereignty in choosing whom to be merciful to. Even in the employment of His love, His sovereignty is working in that He may choose whom He will love and whom He will not.

Any suggestion that mankind is ‘involved’ in being saved (i.e. through the exercise of faith rather than through a gift of faith from God) suggests synergism (the working of both God and man) in salvation which breaks down the whole concept of a God that is in control of all things (since, for a person to exercise faith, the individual must be in control of their faith). Every aspect of salvation must include only the action and work of God.

Where I Think Calvinists Lack Scriptural Support

I have often wondered why Calvinists react so adversely to changes where TULIP does not seem to align with all of Scripture. When I recently learned of some Calvinists who believe that TULIP = the Gospel, I thought I had my answer. But in speaking with other Calvinist friends who strongly denied that TULIP=the Gospel (though it is a system of thought to define salvation), I realized that I had not hit the core issue.

The core issue is the Sovereignty of God. For Calvinists, to make a change to TULIP is not just to change beliefs about salvation, nor even to change the Gospel. It is to impugn what in their eyes is the very core nature of God – His sovereignty. According to this premise, God’s sovereignty is THE attribute that all other attributes fall under. Though Pink tries to make this argument, it is with much deduction and little Biblical induction. As best as we can tell from Scripture, all of God’s attributes are equally at work whenever He acts. God is not sovereignly loving. God is not sovereignly just. God is not sovereignly powerful. God is not sovereignly merciful. When God acts, all His actions are sovereign-loving-just-powerful-merciful-et al actions. I know of no Biblical basis to think otherwise. Thus, the idea that God’s sovereignty is THE defining attribute has no Biblical basis.

Calvin and Beza (and certainly the Reformed traditions that developed from these men) both lived in a time where a new system of thought was being developed. Though it would not come to full fruition for another 50-100 years (with DesCartes), the seeds of this thought were there. This system of thought (foundationalism) sought to declare a single, unarguable truth and build a system of thought (presumably with all other connected truths) of contingent truths that is then unassailable (thus, I believe, how some have come to the conclusion that TULIP = the Gospel). But can we define God using this (or any) philosophy? What one statement can we make of God that defines God in a way that is conclusive and consistent with all of Scripture? God Himself, in His most direct pronouncement, only gives us ‘I Am,’ hardly enough for us to build a system of thought off of. Unfortunately, foundationalism is an insufficient system of thought to build any complex, multi-presuppositional system off of about God – He simply is too complex for the system. I do not mean to suggest that we cannot know God nor that there are no absolute Truths about Him – only that we cannot begin with one unassailable Truth about Him and build a system of thought off of it – His being is far too complex for this. Thus, I realize that what I am about to embark on hammers away at the very thing that Calvinists feel is unassailable.

As with many of the other areas that we discussed, it is difficult to go through this section without a word study of sovereign (there technically is no word for sovereign in Hebrew and the word in Greek for sovereign does not appear in the NT, though English translations will use the English word), kingdom, decrees, counsel, purpose and will. Unfortunately, such word studies are impossible on a blog without extending this another several weeks. As throughout this entire series, I strongly recommend C. Gordon Olson’s book Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism (which, as noted many times, much of my own material comes from) as an excellent study of each of these. You can do these studies yourself using the instructions here (PS – since this is my last post with Rey, I just want to add that in our day and age, there is NO REASON for the typical believer to not be able to do what only a few years ago were complex word and phrase studies – computers have changed our ability to study these things – be a Berean and look into these things!!).

A study of the OT words at best show that God, who is clearly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, intervenes in human affairs according to His wisdom as He implements His general rule over the nations and His plan of salvation. A study of NT words also leaves us without any hint that there is a purpose, plan or counsel of God that comprehensively includes every event in the universe. I’m sure those statements will have the proof texts flying – let them come :).

The question we will ask is this: is God sovereign enough to self-limit His authority while never losing control of His creation? I believe from Scripture that is exactly what God has done.

We see God self-limiting His sovereignty in the very act of creation. He created both angels and mankind with free will. If that means anything, they must have been able to act apart from God’s direct intervention (lest we believe that God authored sin in either/both Satan and Adam/Eve). In addition, God gives the role of naming the animals to Adam (a symbol of authority) and God delegates dominion of the earth to Adam and Eve. If this means anything, it must mean that Adam and Eve had control over some significant portions of Creation.

In addition, every promise and covenant of God limits His sovereign freedom. Under these promises and covenants, God has self-limited the free exercise of what He can and cannot do, lest He go against His word (e.g. God cannot use a worldwide flood ever again – not because He is unable, but because He has promised not to). Thus, if God declares that He is going to limit His ability to act, it does not in any way infringe upon His sovereignty…He can decide to act with, within and towards creation however He chooses. Thus, if God pre-determines that salvation is to be given to those who act in a non-meritorious way (through faith), this is not an infringement of His sovereignty since He decided it.

Please understand that by stating that salvation is through faith exercised by the individual, I am not saying that God is not sovereign over all creation. He can do anything He desires in harmony with His attributes and His word. Calvinists have typically relied on a decree (Westminister Confession) or decrees (most American Calvinists – lapsarianism outlined here ) prior to creation that dictate every event, thought and action throughout all of eternity (i.e. from the beginning of time and forever).

Since there is no Biblical evidence of end-to-end decree(s) of God in eternity past (again, if you disagree with me on this, please provide Scriptural proof), we must take these examples of God self-limiting His actions seriously. Extrapolating the information about God’s sovereignty is a dangerous thing to do since it goes beyond what Scripture tells us. This idea of decree(s) in eternity past also creates several problems.

First, and probably the worst, is that if God directly decrees and causes all things, then He is the author of sin. If not, what Biblical evidence is there that God decreed everything but sin…how can He decree all things but sin given the stain of sin on all of humanity? What does a decree of all things mean if it does not include sin? Some speak of God being the ‘uncaused cause’ to try and separate Him from being the cause of sin. Quite honestly, I don’t understand this self-contradicting statement (so any input from others would help). It is not sufficient to say that God allows certain things but does not actually cause them. If that is the position of Calvinists, then they ought to appreciate my posts since that is exactly what we have argued from the beginning – that mankind is able to act either in sin or in faith in reaction to God’s revelation and that He has allowed this to occur without losing any control over His creation.

Second and corollary to the first, mankind, at the very least, in the Garden of Eden clearly had free will. But if everything has been decreed, then that free will is removed. In what sense then are Adam and Eve responsible for their sin?

Third, a God who is sovereign in the way that Calvinists describe could never respond to mankind relationally or conditionally. Does God really answer prayer? Are some of His blessings conditioned upon obedience? Does He really spare people from temporal judgment when they repent? Is salvation really conditioned upon faith? But if all these things are predetermined and not an actual response to human contingency, then we are unable to have any real relationship with God, for what is a relationship with a person who has predetermined everything that we will do/say/think and how He will respond? Is not a true relationship with God the very core of what Scripture talks about from end to end?

Fourth, such decree(s) must include the reprobate. What this simply means is that not only will such a person never believe, but that their very existence of sinfulness towards God, and the eternal punishment for that sinfulness was exactly what God had intended for them when the thought of them entered His mind – not only did He intend for them to be that way, He causes them to be that way.

So How Do We Understand the Sovereignty of God Based on Scripture

The points below are what I believe can be clearly shown throughout Scripture to be true statements. Any who feel that more need to be added, will need to include Scripture to back up your claims since I find such little evidence for the typical Calvinistic approach to the Sovereignty of God. I think they are self-evident, so if you need Scriptural support of any of them, let me know.

  • God can rule His universe however He pleases. If part of that ruling involves giving spheres of authority and freedom to His creatures, He can do so without limiting His ultimate sovereignty over all creation.
  • We recognize that there are natural laws that govern the universe. God upholds His creation and, at His desire and in accordance with His nature, can supersede or suspend those laws at any time.
  • We also recognize that there are moral laws which govern our universe. Again, God, at His desire and in accordance with His nature, can supersede or suspend those laws at any time.
  • Being ruler over His creation, God can exercise punishment for disobedience in whatever way and at whatever time His wisdom dictates.
  • God continues to delegate authority to all levels of humanity (government, church leaders, family, etc.). This delegated authority implies a limited freedom to act. In addition, as God makes promises, binds Himself with covenants, and proclaims the future, He is voluntarily limiting the free exercise of His actions. None of these suggest that He becomes the inferior party in either the delegation of responsibility or in His pledges and thus never compromises His complete control over His universe.
  • Since God knows all things, He is aware of all future events, how His intervening in history will affect His creatures and their actions both present and future, and He can do this without acting on the moral agent involved in an irresistible manner.
  • There is no biblical basis for the notion that God has exhaustively decreed every last event, action, and/or thought which transpires in His universe, though He is fully aware of every event, action and thought that has, is and will happen.

Almost a Final Word

Some might wonder why I have issues with the Calvinist positions taken up in TULIPS (some, I’m sure, are convinced that it is either a lack of spiritual maturity or the heretical ranting of an unregenerate…). So, I’ll try to explain where I think the system falls apart and what presuppositions are in my own position.

I believe strongly in a theology that states exactly what Scripture states. Let me use the Trinity as an example. When the early church was confronted by the idea that God is one ({{Deut. 6:4}}) and that the Father was deity ({{John 5:18}}), the Son was deity ({{Colossians 2:9}}), and the Holy Spirit was deity ({{Acts 5:3-4}}), they needed to explain this seeming contradiction. By recognizing the passages that dealt with Father, Son and/or Holy Spirit as dealing with persons and the passages that speak of God as dealing with His being, they were able to come up with the phrase, three persons-one being. What I appreciate so much about this process is that they have specific, explicit Scriptural evidence for each of the components of the doctrine of the Trinity. There are no extrapolations, deductions, or inferences made. There has been so little disagreement over this doctrine within orthodox Christianity, I believe, primarily because it states exactly what Scripture states. The only statement of the entire doctrine that does not have explicit Scriptural testimony is the final explanatory phrase – three persons-one being – but every component of the doctrine has explicit Scriptural support.

I do not find this same process with most Calvinists I dialogue with. My plea to Calvinists is that if you really believe that your system of theology is fully consistent with Scripture, that you find verses that in context explicitly state exactly what you are saying. That has been my attempt. The response throughout this series from Calvinists has not been that I have misunderstood Scripture, but that I’ve misunderstood their theology. If I had the right theology, I’d understand the verse correctly. To me, this seems to suggest that we interpret Scripture through our theology. One of my presuppositions is that we must interpret theology through Scripture. Thus, if I do not have an explicit statement on the part of Scripture, I am not willing to include it in my theology. I can wholeheartedly agree with Spurgeon when he said, “I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God.” If I seem inconsistent in my presentation, it’s because it is what I understand Scripture to be explicitly stating. If I seem to be unhappy with components of Calvinism, it is because I do not see explicit teaching for various components. However, as the doctrine of the trinity shows, once we incorporate all the components of the Bible into our theology, I believe we can present a soteriology that will stand the test of time.

Another area of weakness that I see in the Calvinist approach is that it plays good offense but terrible defense. If one happens to be talking about the dozen or two verses that are primarily used to defend Calvinism, then the discussion will go on for days. But when one attempts to point to other Scripture passages which seem to place doubt on their position, these references are either out-right ignored or I am told that they “are no problem for Calvinism” yet without any explanation as to why. Calvinists need not only to defend their position but begin interacting in the dialogue of other verses that don’t seem to fully support their position. This will allow a broader understanding of what all of Scripture has to say regarding their position. Falling under this same heading is a penchant for labeling a person with some former misdirected theologian or an outright heretic. Even funnier is when I have been called a semi-heretic – though, for the life of me, I’m not sure how someone can be a semi-heretic. This is an easier defensive move then actually ascertaining whether the person actually believes what these theologians or heretics have stated because it allows a person to defend against a system of thought rather than the material that is being presented. At some point, it would be nice to speak to a person who believes in TULIP without having these labels thrown at me. I don’t believe in Arminianism – I utterly disagree with Pelagius – and I am much more of a semi-Augustinian than I am anything Pelagianist.

All that having been said, I have been as guilty of these mistakes as my Calvinist brethren (WOW….only six weeks on a Brethren blog and I’m already calling fellow believers brethren!!! :) ), and for that I am sincerely sorry. Let’s hold each other accountable on each of these points as I think it will allow a real dialogue to occur so that we might come to an understanding of God’s Truth in His Word together.

Finally, there are many ways that I have appreciated my Calvinist heritage and still have great respect for. I have yet to find any other branch of Christianity that has such a firm understanding of sin and its impact in our lives. I am grateful for the many books on sin that have been written by Calvinists since they have been invaluable to me. I also appreciate their deeply held conviction of educating the next generation. I think it’s safe to say that Calvinists long ago led the way in educating youth in a Christian environment where God’s Word could freely be integrated into every aspect of education. That education has been a precious gift to me from my parents. Of course, the typical answers of a deep understanding of vocation as ministry and the knowledge that God is overseeing all that happens in my life have had impact not only on my own spiritual walk but also on the lives of those that I have had the privilege of shepherding. For these things, I am grateful for my Calvinist upbringing.

The Final Word(s)

Thank you!!! Thanks to Rey for allowing me to do this series – he has been far more accommodating than I could ever imagine. Thanks to Herman for trying to make my English actually sound like I grew up in an English speaking environment :). Thanks to all those who responded since it helped challenge my thinking on all sorts of different levels. And thanks to all those who have read this. Its been humbling to see the number of hits and think that God may be using me to help encourage people to understand in a deeper way the wonder and majesty and power and glory that is our God’s as shown in His salvation for us! If you have found anything that is even remotely good in these writings, that all came from God – everything else was mine. To Him be the glory!!

-Pastor Russ-

  • T – Total Depravity
  • U – Unconditional Election
  • (F) – Faith
  • L – Limited Atonement
  • I – Irresistible Grace
  • P -Perseverance
  • S – Sovereignty
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