Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who Is Sovereign over Sovereignty?

What is sovereignty? I'm going to show you the verses in the Bible that have the word "sovereignty" in them. Get your pen and paper. I'm going to type them between two parenthesis. OK, here they are:


Did you get them down?

OK, the term "sovereignty" isn't found in Scripture. Of course, that doesn't mean that God isn't sovereign. He is. I don't deny that. I proclaim that, support that, and love that. However, God is also sovereign in His sovereignty. We don't determine what His sovereignty is. He does. If we make His sovereignty different than how He has revealed it in Scripture, then in fact we are sovereign in His sovereignty. That would be kind of odd for someone who says he supports God's sovereignty, wouldn't it?

Sovereignty is one of those theological terms. It isn't in the Bible, like "trinity" and "rapture" aren't. All theological terms should represent some theological reality from scripture. We don't make up a theological term based on our own thoughts, our own reasoning, and our own predisposition, and then force that understanding on scripture. God wrote the Bible. Through the Bible He revealed to us Who He was. We don't do better by revising what God wrote to make it fit what we want it to mean.

The sovereignty that God presents in scripture is as sovereign as it can get. We can't get more sovereign than the sovereignty that God describes in the Bible. We haven't glorified God more than others because we make his sovereignty "more" sovereign than He actually has. In other words, we need to limit our understanding of sovereignty to what the Bible says about sovereignty. Adding to the Bible on the topic of sovereignty doesn't honor God. It does say that God somehow hasn't been up to the task of presenting His own sovereignty clearly enough in His Word, so that the Bible isn't really sufficient in its presentation of sovereignty.

Let me give you an example of an overweening portrayal of sovereignty. Judas Iscariot willfully betrayed Jesus. In the forty passages that refer to Judas' betrayal of Jesus, in every instance he is portrayed as someone who did it of his own accord, and in certain instances, he did it against the warning and wooing of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet God also prophesied that Judas would betray the Lord. God used Judas as one means by which Jesus would go to the cross to die. It was part of God's plan for Judas to betray the Lord Jesus Christ. But how could Judas have willfully rebelled against Christ if it was the sovereign will of God for him to do so? Well, since God is sovereign, Judas could not have had any will in making that choice. That would take away from the sovereignty of God. You can't believe that Judas betrayed Jesus on his own. No, Judas was made to do that. He couldn't help but do that. His will wasn't involved.

Do you see what has happened in this all-too-typical illustration? Someone doesn't like sovereignty as it is fleshed out of scripture, so he reads in his own position on it. If Judas had a choice, then Judas was sovereign. Really? If I must have a sovereignty that is separate from or beyond what the Bible actually teaches, then I don't want that sovereignty. If sovereignty is the one presented in scripture, I'll take that sovereignty.

The two concepts, Judas' will and God's sovereignty, are compatible in the Bible. Judas' will doesn't erase God's sovereignty. Because Judas' made a choice of his own volition, that doesn't mean that God isn't in charge. Although we may feel a tension, God doesn't. It is a moment to test our faith. Will we not just take God at His Word? Or must we show off a false humility in order to alter the meaning of scripture in compatibility with our own logic or reasoning?

Man can choose and God remain sovereign. God will use the choice for His divine purposes. Just because man chooses doesn't mean that God's sovereignty has been lowered one or two notches. God is sovereign on giving a choice. He's sovereign on taking that choice and using it for His purposes. If He can't give a choice, even though the Bible says He can and does, because our logic says that He can't, then we have become sovereign instead of Him. We haven't elevated His sovereignty, but diminished it.

The Bible defines and describes God's sovereignty with perfection. It is God's Word. It is what God wants us to know about everything. We don't do better by going outside of it. What we do is become sovereign over sovereignty.

(Here's another example of someone being sovereign over sovereignty.)


Anonymous said...

Would first Samuel 23 be an

example of foreknowledge without


Damien said...

Who's sovereign over sovereignty? That's simple: Barack Obama.

Gary Webb said...

Great article Pastor Brandenburg. Why do those who speak so much of sovereignty also think that they can neatly lay out the "counsels of God" in a system of theology like TULIP? Ultimately, we should agree with Paul who, after discussing election and free will in Romans 9-11, finishes by saying, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen." [Romans 11:33-36].

Anonymous said...

Would it be safe to say that Judas did not have the ability to do otherwise?

Judas did it of his own "free-will", but he could not have done otherwise in this situation.

Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus said...

One of the errors of Calvinism is to suppose that because God can do something, that He does do something. Because God could treat us like marionettes and control our every action down to the minutest respiration and remove any option for free will, then God MUST do so, seems to be the reasoning of many historic and not-so-historic Calvinists. Calvinism has always been in danger of going over the cliff into occasionalism.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks for the comments. Very funny, DT.

Anonymous, I havn't thought through 1 Sam 23 enough to answer your question. I think what you're asking though is this: God said He David would be delivered to Saul (foreknowledge) and then he wasn't delivered unto Saul (no predestination). I think it is a neat look at the tension between some of these concepts. How it fits into the discussion, I'd have to think a little more.

Pastor Webb,

I see things that way.

And Titus,

Good point.

Anonymous 2,

Judas could not have done otherwise, at least in hindsight, which is what we're reading in scripture in these situations. That it is hindsight should be taken into consideration. Did Jesus know he would betray him or did Jesus make him betray him? If he made him, then where is the volition that all these passages say that had? Are these just word games that the Bible is playing? I don't think so. Sovereignty fits what scripture teaches on it. That's sovereign enough for me.

The Puritan said...

Calvinists of course recognize free agency (one's ability to choose to turn left or turn right as they're walking down the street). Lack of free will applies to inability to turn towards God without God giving them the ability to do so.

The Westminster Confession of Faith addresses this subject this way (I didn't write this but copied it off a Calvinist forum some time ago, don't recall the author):

"Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second[ary] causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently." - Westminster Confession of Faith

The three terms "necessarily, freely, or contingently" are describing how events relate to one another. As relates to God, all events are exhaustively determined.

If some act *necessarily* follows, then the secondary-causation is defined by a strict deterministic relation--it MUST come.

If some act *freely* follows, then the secondary-causation is defined by a not-necessary relation, entirely relying on the WILL.

If some act *contingently* follows, then the secondary-causation is defined according to a dependent relation, but not without other independent variables affecting the result.

The Puritan said...

Here is the same thing except I've added examples (in parentheses). Also, I forgot to mention, God is the *first cause.*


"The three terms "necessarily, freely, or contingently" are describing how events relate to one another. As relates to God, all events are exhaustively determined.

If some act *necessarily* follows, then the second-causation is defined by a strict deterministic relation--it MUST come. (I.e. if God sends the Holy Spirit into your heart you WILL be regenerated.)

If some act *freely* follows, then the second-causation is defined by a not-necessary relation, entirely relying on the WILL. (I.e. *somebody* will cause it to come about. That is why effort means something in God's plan.)

If some act *contingently* follows, then the second-causation is defined according to a dependent relation, but not without other independent variables affecting the result." (I.e. prayer is meaningful/effective.)

Anonymous said...


Can you re-phrase that in American English, please? I've noticed over the past several years that theological error, particularly in the cults, revolve around a dizzying intellect that is difficult to trace and understand.

markwgaither said...

I open my comments with an excerpt from Swindoll's soon-to-be-released "Insights on Romans." (View the sampler at

"For centuries, philosophers and scientists argued over the nature of light. Some claimed that light behaves like a wave traveling through space, much like sound. Others disagreed, stating that light is a stream of tiny particles emanating from its source. Unfortunately, experimentation didn’t help. When tested as a wave, light proves to be a wave. When tested as a particle, light proves to be a particle. And as people who understand such things explain it to me, one experiment should disprove the other. Yet, experiments don’t lie.

"The debate divided the world’s most brilliant minds into opposing camps, each experimenting, calculating, theorizing, and writing to prove the other wrong. Then, in 1905, a scholastic undesirable—a relative unknown who worked as a patent examiner during the day and spent his nights unraveling great mysteries—published an article in Germany’s leading physics journal that would change everything. Albert Einstein put forward the idea that light is both, a wave and a particle. His theory made no sense at all, yet his calculations satisfactorily answered every objection.

"As scientific laymen, we can barely appreciate the effect his idea had on the world. His theory, which eventually won him a Nobel Prize, defies the laws of physics as we understand them. This “dual nature of light” should not be possible. Yet, somehow, in a dimension beyond our intellectual capacity, the mystery of light is as simple as 2 + 2."

I would contend that the same is true of God's one-ness and three-ness as expressed in the orthodox teaching of the Trinity. I cannot explain how He is one, and three, yet indivisibly One; not without falling into one heresy or another.

Similarly, I cannot explain the paradox of God's sovereign choosing and man's responsibility of choice. I can only accept the evidence of Scripture that in a dimension beyond our intellectual capacity, the solution to this apparent paradox is as simple as 2 + 2.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

Excellent comment Mark Gaither. Man is responsible for his own choices and God is responsible for choosing man for salvation.

Without the intervention of the Holy Spirit unregenerate man would only choose according to his depraved nature. Until our wills are restored, and until we have been quickened by the Holy Spirit we can only choose that which is evil. Dead men have NO spiritual life in them and are incapable of choosing life.

Last I new dead meant dead.


markwgaither said...

Unfortunately, Mary's comment (with all due respect) illustrates our inability to leave the apparant paradox alone. Attempts to unveil the mystery inevitably devolve into lapsarian speculations (Supra, Ante, Infra, Sub, Post...). Her comment simply discarded my point and wedged it into the standard 5-pointer view. She should have stopped after the first paragraph.

I am content to leave it a mystery without having to resolve the apparent paradox in our dimension.