Sovereignty of God in Christianity

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Sovereignty of God in Christianity can be defined primarily as the right of God to exercise his ruling power over his creation, and secondarily, but not necessarily, as the exercise of this right. The way God exercises his ruling power is subject to divergences notably related to the concept of God's self-imposed limitations. The relationship between free will and the sovereignty of God has been relevant notably in the Calvinist-Arminian debate and in the philosophical theodicy.

Theological definition[edit]

The Beacon Dictionary of Theology defines God's sovereignty as a twofold concept: "First, it may be seen as the divine right to rule totally; second, it may be extended to include God's exercise of this right. As to the first aspect, there is no debate. Difference of opinion arises in re­spect to the second aspect."[1]

The Easton's Bible Dictionary defines God's sovereignty as His "absolute right to do all things according to his own good pleasure."[2]

The Holman Bible Dictionary defines God's sovereignty as the teaching "[...] that all things come from and depend upon God. [...] [It] does not mean[s] that everything which occurs in the world is God's will."[3]

According to these definitions, it comes that God's sovereignty in Christianity can be defined primarily as the right of God to exercise his ruling power over his creation, and secondarily, but not necessarily, as the exercise of this right. The way God exercises his ruling power is subject to divergence of opinion.

Here are some views on God's sovereignty expressed in confessions of faith or catechisms which illustrate the divergence of opinion among Christian denominations:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church position is that: "God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures' co-operation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God's greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, [...]".[4]

The Reformed position is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states, "God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass."[5]

Sovereignty and free will[edit]

The debate in Christianity[edit]

Bible scholar Charles Ryrie expressed the idea of the existence of God's self-imposed limitations.[6] Especially, the question whether God's sovereignty is consistent with meaningful human decisions which are free from compulsion is a significant theological question in Christianity.[7] The debate on this question was first clearly expressed by Augustine in the 4th century.[8] The debate has continued through various forms notably through the Calvinist-Arminian debate until today.[9] A Calvinist approach to this debate is expressed by Charles Ryrie by these words: "Ultimately God is in complete control of all things, though He may choose to let certain events happen according to natural laws which He has ordained."[10] A non-Calvinist, classical theist approach to the debate is expressed by Bible scholar William Leonard by the following: "God has created a world in which freedom is a real possibility. His permissive will provides for human freedom and the laws of nature."[3]

Calvinist view[edit]

Calvinism argues that God cannot provide humanity with free will; to do so is to compromise the sovereignty of God, at least in the exercise of faith or salvation. “We say that he [man] is free, but his freedom is within limits, and those limits are defined by the sovereignty of God.”[11] “Only God has free will in the sense of ultimate self-determination.”[12] The sovereignty of God was "Calvin’s most central doctrine. It means that nothing is left to chance or human free will."[13] "The heart of Calvinism is not the doctrine of predestination, or, for that matter, any one of the other Five Points of Calvinism. The central truth proclaimed by Calvinism, Calvinism that is faithful to its heritage, is the absolute sovereignty of God."[14]

Calvin expressly taught that it is God's sovereign decision to determine whether an individual is saved or damned. He writes "By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death."[15]

R.C. Sproul, an influential Calvinist, expresses God's sovereignty over salvation as follows: "If God has decided our destinies from all eternity, that strongly suggests that our free choices are but charades, empty exercises in predetermined playacting. It is as though God wrote the script for us in concrete and we are merely carrying out his scenario."[16] Similarly, Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli concludes that God is the "author, mover and instigator" of human sin.[17]

Arminian view[edit]

The majority Arminian view accepts classical theism, which states that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.[18] In that view, God's power, knowledge, and presence have no external limitations, that is, outside of his divine nature and character.[19]

Besides, Arminianism view on God's sovereignty is based on postulates stemming from God's character, especially as fully revealed in Jesus Christ.[20] On the first hand, divine election must be defined in such a way that God is not in any case, and even in a secondary way, the author of evil. On the other hand, man's responsibility for evil must be absolutely preserved. It would not correspond to the character of God.[21] Those two postulates require a specific way by which God chooses to manifest his sovereignty when interacting with his creatures:

  • It requires, for God to operates according to a limited mode of providence. This means that God purposely exercises his sovereignty in ways that do not illustrate the full extent of his omnipotence.[22]
  • It requires for God's election to be a "predestination by foreknowledge".[23]

In that respect, God's foreknowledge reconciles with human free will in the following way: Human free will is limited by original sin, though God's prevenient grace restores to humanity the ability to accept God's call of salvation.[24] God's foreknowledge of the future is exhaustive and complete, and therefore the future is certain and not contingent on human action. God does not determine the future, but He does know it. God's certainty and human contingency are compatible.[25]

Arminianism teaches that God takes initiative in the salvation process and his grace comes to all people.[26] However, his prevenient grace is resistible: Picirilli states that "indeed this grace is so close to regeneration that it inevitably leads to regeneration unless finally resisted."[26]

To Arminians, then, the decision to believe and repent is a decision which a sovereign God granted to humanity. Thus, free will is granted and limited by God's sovereignty, but God's sovereignty allows all men the choice to accept the Gospel of Jesus through faith, simultaneously allowing all men to resist.[27]

Sovereignty and theodicy[edit]

The relationship between free will and the sovereignty of God is relevant in the philosophical theodicy. As stated by Alvin Plantinga, theodicy is the "answer to the question of why God permits evil".[28] Plantinga argues that human free will explains the existence of evil without threatening the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Plantinga's argument is consistent with Augustinian theology which teaches that “The entry of evil into the world is generally explained as punishment for sin and its continued presence due to humans' misuse of free will. God's goodness and benevolence, according to the Augustinian theodicy, remain perfect and without responsibility for evil or suffering.”[citation needed] Plantinga relies on the free will of humanity to take ultimate responsibility for evil rather than attributing all actions of all creatures, whether, good or evil, to God. The sin of Satan, the sin of Adam and the sin of David each represent a permissible consequence of God's sovereign decision to create humanity with free will, rather than the directive of a sovereign God for which the sovereign God is sovereignly and directly responsible. When Adam chose to disobey God, God did not excuse Adam, claiming that God was the source of the disobedience. Rather God held Adam responsible for Adam’s exercise of his will.[29]

Sovereignty and prayer[edit]

Calvinist view[edit]

Author A.W. Pink argued that prayer does not alter the course of events. "Prayer is not the requesting of God to alter His purpose or for Him to form a new one."[30] In this text Pink also argues that God did not love sinners and had deliberately created "unto damnation" those who would not accept Christ. According to this view, praying for the salvation of those God actively and deliberately chose for damnation will not change their destiny. This conclusion logically flows from the premise, if it is true, that God's sovereignty necessitates that God, rather than humans, determine salvation. Indeed, Pink directly states that "He [God] ordained that they should be damned.[31] This view is sometimes referred to as "double predestination", which John Calvin embraced, believing that God has actively chosen some people for damnation.[32] "Those therefore whom God passes by [does not elect] He reprobates, and that for no other cause than He is pleased to exclude them."[33]

Contrary to the view embraced by John Calvin and A.W. Pink, another view is that prayer includes petitions to God for favor and supplication, expecting that God will hear and grant the petitions presented through prayer. Such prayers include petitions for salvation.[34] As Charles Spurgeon stated: “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”[35]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Oke 1983, p. 171.
  2. ^ Easton 1897.
  3. ^ a b Leonard 1991.
  4. ^ John Paul II 1993, Section II, Ch. 1, Article 1, §4 Providence and secondary causes, item 306.
  5. ^ "Westminster Confession of Faith". The Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  6. ^ Ryrie 1986, p. 40. "Self imposed limitations include those things He has not chosen to include in His plan which he might have included as long as they were not contrary to His nature. He did not choose to spare His Son; He did not choose to save all people; He did not choose all nations in Old Testament times; He did not choose Esau; He did not choose to spare James (Acts 12:2). Though He could have done any of these things without being inconsistent with omnipotence, He did not choose to do so in His plan."
  7. ^ KÄRKKÄINEN, V. (2017). Human Action within the Sovereignty of God: Christian Perspectives. In MOSHER L. & MARSHALL D. (Eds.), God's Creativity and Human Action: Christian and Muslim Perspectives (pp. 139-148). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. Retrieved January 14, 2020, from
  8. ^ Warfield, Benjamin (1971). Calvin and Augustine. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co. pp. 320–323.
  9. ^ Encyclopedia of the Bible. Bible Gateway. Retrieved 15 August 2021.
  10. ^ Ryrie 1986, p. 43-44.
  11. ^ Sproul, R.C. (2011). The R.C. Sproul Collection Volume 2: Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Tindale House Publishers, Inc. p. 27.
  12. ^ Piper, John (2016-01-18). "Is God Sovereign Over My Free Will?". Desiring God. Retrieved 9 April 2017.
  13. ^ Christian History Institute. "Calvin on God's Sovereignty". Retrieved 6 June 2017.
  14. ^ Cammenga, Ronald; Hanko, Ronald (June 11, 2002). "Chapter 1". Saved by Grace - a Study of the Five Points of Calvinism. Reformed Free Publishing Assn. ISBN 0916206726.
  15. ^ Calvin, John (2008). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Hendrickson. p. 3.21.7.
  16. ^ Sproul, R.C. (2011). Chosen by God. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-8423-0282-1.
  17. ^ James, Frank. "Neglected Sources of the Reformation Doctrine of Predestination Ulrich Zwingli and Peter Martyr Vermigli". Monergism. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  18. ^ Olson 2009, pp. 90–91.
  19. ^ Flowers 2014.
  20. ^ Olson 2014, p. 11.
  21. ^ Olson 2010. "Classical Arminianism does NOT say God never interferes with free will. It says God NEVER foreordains or renders certain evil. [...] An Arminian COULD believe in divine dictation of Scripture and not do violence to his or her Arminian beliefs. [...] Arminianism is not in love with libertarian free will –as if that were central in and of itself. Classical Arminians have gone out of our way (beginning with Arminius himself) to make clear that our sole reasons for believe in free will AS ARMINIANS [...] are 1) to avoid making God the author of sin and evil, and 2) to make clear human responsibility for sin and evil."
  22. ^ Olson 2018, ‌.
  23. ^ Olson 2018. "What is Arminianism? A) Belief that God limits himself to give human beings free will to go against his perfect will so that God did not design or ordain sin and evil (or their consequences such as innocent suffering); B) Belief that, although sinners cannot achieve salvation on their own, without “prevenient grace” (enabling grace), God makes salvation possible for all through Jesus Christ and offers free salvation to all through the gospel. “A” is called “limited providence,” “B” is called “predestination by foreknowledge.”"
  24. ^ Picirilli 2002, pp. 42–43, 59-.
  25. ^ Picirilli 2002, p. 40.
  26. ^ a b Picirilli 2002, pp. 154-.
  27. ^ Olson 2009, p. 142.
  28. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (1974). God, Freedom, and Evil. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 10.,
  29. ^ Reeves, Michael; Madueme, Hans (2014). Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin. Baker Academic. p. 120. ISBN 978-1-4412-4641-7.
  30. ^ Pink, Arthur (1918). The Sovereignty of God. Sovereign Grace Publishers, Inc. p. 217. ISBN 1-58960-120-3.
  31. ^ Pink, Arthur (1918). The Sovereignty of God. Sovereign Grace Publishers, Inc. p. 101. ISBN 1-58960-120-3.
  32. ^ Calvin, John (2008). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Hendrickson. p. 3.21.5.
  33. ^ Calvin, John (2008). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Hendrickson. p. 3.23.1.
  34. ^ Packer, J.J. "Prayers for Salvation". Christianity Today. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  35. ^ C. H. Spurgeon: “The Wailing of Risca” (Sermon No. 349; Delivered on Sabbath Morning, December 9th, 1860, at Exeter Hall, Strand)