What does it mean that God is sovereign?
I frequently encounter folks in Wesleyan-Arminian circles who are uncomfortable with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. This is unfortunate, because the sovereignty of God is, I believe, a most soul-comforting truth.
The word sovereign means a ruler or king. Scripture teaches that God is King (Psa. 97:1). He is the everlasting King (Jer. 10:10), the Most High King (Dan. 4:17), the King of the nations (Rev. 15:3), the great King over all the earth (Psa. 47:2), the Lord of kings (Dan. 2:47), the King of kings, and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15). He rules over all (Psa. 103:19), and of his dominion there shall be no end (Dan. 4:34).
As King, God’s sovereign power is limitless (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:17). He commands the weather: clouds, rain, lightning, hail, snow, and wind all obey His will (Psa. 148:8; Amos 4:7). Animals obey Him (Lev. 26:6; Dan. 6:22). He controls who rules among the nations (Dan. 4:32). He puts up and puts down (Psa. 75:7). None can stay His hand (Dan. 4:35; Job 42:2) or reverse His actions (Isa. 43:13).
He does whatever He pleases in heaven and on earth (Psa. 115:3; 135:6). He plans and brings it to pass (Isa. 14:24). He sustains all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). He is accountable to no one, and no created being has the right to question Him or to call Him to account (Rom. 9:20-21). He works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11).
You may wonder, does Eph. 1:11 mean that God determines all things? The answer is No. For example, in Jer. 19:5 God says, “they have built the high places of Baal, to burn their children in the fire, burnt offerings to Baal, which I commanded not, and I ordered not, and it did not come to my mind.” If such horrible, sinful actions did not “come to God’s mind,” then He certainly did not plan them or decree them (cf. Jer. 7:31; 32:35).
Isaiah 10:5-19 also indicates God does not determine all things. God sent Assyria to judge Israel by taking spoil, seizing plunder, and treading them down like the mire of the streets (Isa. 10:6). However, Assyria determined “to destroy and to cut off many nations” (10:7). In others words, they determined to be harsher than God intended them to be. If God determined all things, then Assyria could not do something different than God had determined.
So then, to what degree does God’s sovereignty impinge upon the freedom He has given us? The “space” God gives us for the exercise of our will is limited in many ways. Our freedom did not include choosing our parents, our place of birth, our genetic makeup, our siblings; nor does it include the time of our death, the consequences of our actions, or the nature and extent of our eternal reward (cf. Psa. 139:15-16; Ezek. 18:20; John 3:18). God has sovereignly determined these aspects of our life for us.
In each of the decisions we make in life, we often find fewer options than we would have wished. God providentially widens and narrows the limits of our freedom as He chooses. We have no say in the degree of freedom God choose to give us at any point in time.
Sometimes God constrains men to do His will contrary to their own will (Isa. 37:29). At other times, God works within the hearts of men to stir them to want to do his will (Ezra 1:5). Yet again, God may leave us to see what is in our hearts (2 Chron. 32:31).
In the matter of salvation, none would seek God apart from his grace (Rom. 3:10-18). Yet, God has sovereignly chosen to enable all men to respond to the grace He gives them (Rom. 1:20) and holds them responsible for what they do with that choice (Rom. 2:11-12).
Because God is sovereign nothing can come into the life of a child of God without His permission. Satan and his forces are on a leash and can go no farther than God chooses (Job 1:10-12). What comfort! Praise the Lord!