Sovereignty of God in Christianity
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Sovereignty of God is the Christian teaching that God is the supreme authority and all things are under His control. God is the "sovereign Lord of all by an incontestable right [as the] creator . . . owner and possessor of heaven and earth." Sovereignty is an Attribute of God based upon the premise that God as the creator of heaven and earth has absolute right and full authority to do or allow whatever He desires.
The protestant 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.". The Catholic position is similar, "And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech”, but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world."
Easton's Bible Dictionary defines God's Sovereignty as His "absolute right to do all things according to his own good pleasure."
Nave's Topical Bible lists well over 100 verses in the Christian Bible under the entry "Sovereign".
Natural and self-imposed limitations to the Sovereignty of God have been a source of debate. God may have the power to act, but choose not to act. "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." "God has created a world in which freedom is a real possibility. His permissive will provides for human freedom and the laws of nature." "However, even though God is all powerful, He sovereignly chose to self-limit His power by delegating authority to mankind in the Garden of Eden. 'Then God said, Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion . . .'"
Sovereignty and Free Will
The question whether God's sovereignty is consistent with meaningful meaningful human decisions which are free from compulsion is a signficant theological question in Christianity. The debate was first clearly expressed by Augustine in the 4th century. The debate continues today. "We know that humans have a free will, but we also know that God is sovereign. How those two truths relate to each other is hard for us to understand." "The doctrine of divine sovereignty raises the problem of the relation of God’s sovereign action to human activity. If God is in complete control, how can we be truly free in the decisions we make? In other words, for free will to be meaningful, there must be some things that lie outside of God’s sovereign control—e.g., the contingency of human choice."
The relationship between free will and the Sovereignty of God is relevant not only in the Calvinist-Arminian debate (see below #Implications_on_Calvinist-Arminian_Debate) but also in the philosophical Theodicy. If God is perfect and good, how could He create beings that are evil? If God did not embed free will into humanity, it is difficult to reconcile God’s omnipotence and God's omnibenevolence with a seemingly imperfect creation that includes evil. As stated by Alvin Plantinga, Theodicy is the "answer to the question of why God permits evil". 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.”Augustinian theology 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,Isaiah 14:12 the sin of Adam Genesis 3:6 and the sin of David 2 Samuel 11 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. (See general discussion of Theodicy). 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. Genesis 3:17
The division stems from the question whether free will is compatible with an omniscient God who knows everything, past, present and future? If God knows the future, does that foreknowledge preclude human free will because it would be impossible to freely make a choice contrary to the future God foreknows? One position is that "Those who argue in this manner make the mistake of thinking that because God possesses knowledge about a specific matter, then he has influenced it. That does not follow at all. Just because God can foresee which choice you will make, it does not mean you couldn’t still freely choose the other option."
Sovereignty and Salvation
This difficulty which arises when considering a sovereign God's knowledge of future events has been most divisive when considering the source of human salvation. Did God make a decision before creation to save individuals based upon His knowledge of their future actions or decision? If God in the distant past Elected some to salvation, did He do so based upon His knowledge of their future actions or decisions? Or did He decide to Elect individuals based upon partial knowledge, ignoring His knowledge of their future actions and decisions? Matthew Henry writes in reference to 1 Peter 2:19, which states that election was made "according to the foreknowledge of God", that "[t]his sort of foreknowledge is in God, who at one commanding view sees all things that ever were, or are, or ever will be". And if God did elect persons for eternal life according to this foreknowledge, the question which arises is what foreknowledge of the future was of primary significance to God? Was it His knowledge of how a person would respond to the gospel of His son? Calvinism answers these questions with the doctrine of Unconditional election, which contends that God did not consider His knowledge of future events when He decided who would or would not be given eternal life because doing so would compromise His sovereignty. Arminianism answers these questions differently, believing it foolish to conclude that God ignored what He knew and decided who to Elect for eternal life based upon only partial knowledge, rather than His full knowledge of past, present and future. In the manner that Jesus was ordained as the savior "before the foundation of the world"1 Peter 1:20 in response to God's knowledge of future sin, Arminianism contends that God Elected those for eternal life whom God knew would repent, believe and endure.
Sovereignty and Via Negativa
Moses ben Maimon, a Jewish philosopher of the 12th Century, demonstrates the problem of describing God with positive attributes, which would include the attribute of omnipotence or the statement that "God is sovereign." Rather, "the negative attributes of God are the true attributes". Maimonides argues that any statement of a positive attribute implies polytheism and is inadequate. But negative attributes do not create any incorrect notion or deficiency. "If Maimonides is right, there can be no plurality of faculties, moral dispositions, or essential attributes in God. Even to say that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good is to introduce plurality, if one means thereby that these qualities are separate attributes whatever in reference to God. . . [but to] say that God does not lack power or possess it in a way comparable to other things is to say that God’s power is beyond our comprehension."
Relationship to Prayer
If God is sovereign, and if sovereignty requires that God has determined all events, can prayer be effective and result in any change?
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." 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. This view is sometimes referred to as "Double Predestination", which John Calvin embraced, believing that God actively chosen some people for damnation. "Those therefore whom God passes by [does not elect] He reprobates, and that for no other cause than He is pleased to exclude them."
Contrary to the view embraced by John Calvin and A.W. Pink, the more common view is that prayer includes petitions to God for favor and Supplication, expecting that God will hear and grant the petitions presented through prayer.John 16:23-24 Such prayers include petitions for salvation. 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.”
Implications in Protestant debate
In the Protestant tradition, the Five Points of Calvinism, which are the focal point of the Calvinist-Arminian debate have their foundation in the Sovereignty of God and its perceived incompatibility with free will. The existence or scope of human free will has a profound impact in this debate. "Calvinists say that humans never have that ability in spiritual matters (and possibly in any matters) . . . To the Arminian [such a limited] free will is no free will at all. To the Calvinist . . . [Arminian] free will is a myth; it simply cannot exist."
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.” “Only God has free will in the sense of ultimate self-determination.” The sovereignty of God was "Calvin’s most central doctrine. It means that nothing is left to chance or human free will." "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."
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."
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." Similarly, Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli concludes that God is the "author, mover and instigator" of human sin.
The term “permissive free will” is sometimes used to distinguish between the direct actions of God and the free actions of humans who are granted by a sovereign God some degree of free will. Calvinism teaches that permissive free will can extend to certain decision, but not to salvation. As explained below, Arminianism rejects this limitation or any notion that God is limited in the free will which He can offer to humanity.
Arminianism teaches Prevenient Grace as grace that "enables sinful man to believe." Prevenient Grace Such God-given grace explains the ability of humans to respond to God's calls to repent and believe. As stated in 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.2 Peter 3:9 To Arminianism this verse and many similar verses evidence that the power to repent is within human free will as ordained by the sovereign God. Rather than accepting that "all" may repent, Calvinism teaches Limited Atonement to explain that 2 Peter 3:9 and similar salvation oriented verses, such as John 3:16John 3:16, do not apply to "all" but only to those who God elected for salvation who must repent due to the Irresistibility of God's grace as directed to the elect. To Calvinists, the decision to believe and repent is a decision which must be determined by God if God is sovereign. To Arminians, the decision to believe and repent is a decision which a sovereign God granted to humanityJohn 12:32 so that “all” is not limited to a limited group (as Limited Atonement teaches). The Arminian view finds its supported by the simple interpretation of many verses including the following:
- Jesus promises that whosoever believes in him has everlasting life. John 3:16
- Peter proclaims that everyone who calls upon Jesus will be saved. Acts 2:21
- God calls all people everywhere to repent. Acts 17:30, 2 Peter 3:9
- God desires all people to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4
- These verses are often cited in opposition to Calvinism in support of the Arminianism belief that the sovereign God gave humanity the free will to believe and repent.
The Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement is a logical necessity for those that believe permissive free will excludes the power of humanity to believe in Jesus and repent. Calvinist teachings deny that this power to believe is available to all, considering it inconsistent with the sovereignty of God. Rather than believing God can provide a person with grace that "enables sinful man to believe", Calvinism concludes that only those who God has first Regenerated may believe, and such must believe because it is God's Unconditional election rested solely in God's sovereign will which causes them to believe in response to God's Irresistible Grace. Each of these Calvinist doctrines are premised upon the rejection of Prevenient Grace and the conclusion that Prevenient Grace is inconsistent with the sovereignty of God.
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