Sovereignty: God’s our king. Not our puppet master.

SOVEREIGN 'sɑv.(ə)r(.ə)n noun. A supreme ruler.
[Sovereignty 'sɑv.(ə)r(.ə)n.ti noun.]

Usually people talk about a nation’s sovereignty—their right to do as they please, with no one telling them otherwise. Like in the face of international treaties: If the United States signed an agreement to cut pollution, but our President doesn’t believe in climate change so he felt like breaking it, hey, we’re a sovereign nation; more carbon for everyone! Or in the face of state laws which contradict federal laws: If Colorado wants to legalize marijuana, yet the FBI wants to jail me for growing a field of weed, which government takes priority?

But the Christian discussion about sovereignty is a little different. There, we’re talking about God’s sovereignty: His right and authority to rule the universe. He has a kingdom, and he the king. (If you wanna get picky, Christ means “king.” so Jesus is king—but Jesus is God, so there.)

God didn’t create the universe, then leave it to function on its own, without his input or interaction. Kinda obvious by the fact he issues commands, either to nature 2Ch 7.13 or to us humans. 2Ch 7.17 He’s almighty, so he can enforce his commands: Make us obey, or penalize us when we won’t. And he has every right to command us, for he made us to do certain things—namely good deeds. Ep 2.10 If we don’t do as designed, he has every right to correct us. Even unmake us.

Yeah, there are Christians who believe God has no such rights. They won’t say it in those particular words; they know how rebellious and heretic it sounds. So they fudge around it and claim it’s God’s idea to not reign over his universe: God gave us free will, and he loves our free will so much, he’d never interfere with humanity. At all. “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman,” they insist, “and will never interfere with your life unless you grant him permission.”

Okay yes, God gave us free will. (Duh.) God gave your kids free will too. Does that mean if they get the brilliant idea to paint the cat, you’re gonna let ’em? Not unless you really hate that cat. (Often not even then.) Free will means we can make choices, but God has free will too. Freer than ours; we’re limited and he’s not. God can almightily clamp down on our bad choices. Just ’cause he doesn’t always, doesn’t mean he doesn’t at all.

Tell “God would never interfere with your free will” to those people who are dying, don’t wanna, but God’s not intervening, for he’s decided their time’s up. Tell it to women who want to become mothers, but God says no. Or men who want to pursue one vocation, but God redirects ’em to one he prefers. Or people who wanna move in various directions, but God both shuts the door and closes the window. Ac 16.6-7

See, either God’s in charge, or we’re in denial: We’ve decided he’s not really, and make no attempt to submit to his will or approval. Jm 4.15-16 Not the smartest plan. But indicative of Christians who believe God’s kingdom hasn’t arrived yet, and won’t be here till Jesus returns. Till then, they intend to enjoy life and do as they will. They imagine once Jesus transforms us in his return, 1Co 15.51-52 he’ll vaporize our sinful nature—so there’s no point in currently fighting it. Go ahead and sin; we’ve got grace. Until the King comes, sin gets to be king. (Scriptures to the contrary. Ro 6.1-2, 14)

The sovereign of the future.

What’s these lawless folks’ justification for saying God isn’t currently our sovereign?

Well, most of it comes from typical human messed-up ideas about how sovereignty works. See, when we get hold of that degree of power, we turn evil. Won’t even realize it’s happening. We’ll imagine we’re benevolent dictators; we only want what’s best for our subjects. And the only way to give ’em what’s best is to take absolute, micromanagerial control over every little thing in their lives. Give ’em no freedom at all; give ’em terrible consequences for even thinking of going against us. It’s the only way to keep everyone happy and peaceful. And that makes the tyrants happy and peaceful too. Everything is awesome.

So since God hasn’t utterly taken away our free will and turned us into mindless robots, or since God doesn’t immediately strike people with lightning whenever we break a command, God must therefore be putting off his reign till Jesus returns. Then Jesus will judge the world; then he’ll be the tyrannical dictator who reprograms all the resurrected Christians into automatons who never even think of sinning, and all the non-Christians get tossed into hell. No millennium for anyone.

What about the present? Who rules the universe right now?

Ah. There, many Christians assume after sin and death entered the world, God abandoned his throne like a king fleeing a coup d’etat; like King David fleeing Absalom. 2Sa 15.14 God retreated to the territory he fully controls, i.e. heaven. From there he’s amassing a giant invasion army to take his world back at the End. So when God offers us strength and support nowadays, it’s like a king in exile smuggling supplies to his loyalists in the resistance. It’s kinda covert, ’cause God supposedly doesn’t want to tip his hand. But just wait till he invades. Oh, just you wait.

So who’s that put in charge of the world? The devil. Jesus referred to “the ruler of this world” more than once, Jn 12.31, 14.30, 16.11 and in Jesus’s tests in the wilderness Satan claimed it itself is that very ruler. Lk 4.6 It’s not God; Jesus said “the ruler of this world” has been judged. Jn 16.11

And that’s why Christian mythology has it that God originally set a vice-regent in charge of the earth, named Lucifer; that the power went to this archangel’s head, and it rebelled, so God fired it and had security throw it out. But like any deposed sovereign in serious denial, the devil still calls itself by its old titles, and demands obeisance as if it still deserves honor. These myths became the basis of a lot of medieval theology and poetry, and of course present-day novels, and sermons about hellfire. None of it’s biblical though. I suspect it’s Satan padding its résumé: It wasn’t that important or powerful in heaven, and rebelled ’cause it coveted more.

The rest of Christendom tends to skip the myths and focus on the kingdom. Which exists in a paradox of both being here already… and yet Jesus has yet to bring the kingdom with him when he returns. So God is sovereign, but not everyone recognizes his sovereignty yet. They will, Ro 14.11 but not yet.

Conditional sovereignty.

In the Old Testament, God’s the sovereign of Israel. They don’t have a king; don’t need one. God’s their king. Jg 8.23 He identified them to a Pharaoh as “my people,” Ex 7.16 the God of their ancestors, their God too, they his subjects. Lv 26.12 Okay yeah, later they wanted a human king, despite God being their king; 1Sa 12.12 they thought it’d be more stable a form of government, ’cause self-control wasn’t working for them. God was okay with the idea, but he considered these kings his vice-regents: They answered to the real sovereign of Israel, who really reigned: The LORD. True, a lot of ’em did as they pleased, and paid the LORD lip service… and when they did, got in deep trouble with their boss.

This concept continued into the New Testament, but God’s kingdom expanded beyond the Israelis and now includes everyone who comes to worship and follow the LORD and his anointed king Jesus. God’s still sovereign—the king over every Christian.

What about the rest of the world? Well, the bible kinda waffles back and forth between God’s reign over the whole earth… and the idea the pagans aren’t his people, and he has no relationship with them at all.

God reigns over all the nations. 1Ch 20.6 Those who disregard God, aren’t his people. Ho 1.9
God judges all the nations. Jl 3.1-3 Conversely, those who weren’t God’s people, now are. Ho 2.23, 1Pe 2.10
God’s kingdom is over all. Ps 103.19 Those who are now God’s children, formerly weren’t. Jn 1.11-13
  Legitimately, sovereignty only belongs to God. Ps 22.28
  In certain cities, God has those who are his—and those who aren’t. Ac 18.10
  Don’t yoke yourself with unbelievers, for Jesus has no relationship with them. 2Co 6.14-16
  If Jesus’s Kingdom were of this world, it’d act a whole lot different. But it’s not. So it doesn’t. Jn 18.36

You’ll notice a lot of the proof-texts differ between Old and New Testaments. In the OT, God was sovereign over Israel, but its authors claimed his sovereignty over the world; in the NT, God is sovereign over Christendom, and its authors claim he’ll take sovereignty over the world—eventually. Not yet. When Jesus returns.

The way I phrase it is God has a valid claim to the world, ’cause he created it; but he has no relationship with those who reject him. That’s why he hasn’t saved them, hasn’t blessed them, hasn’t filled them with his Holy Spirit. Nor does he hold them to his laws: He lets them go their own way. (To destruction, but still.) He lets ’em have their evil hearts’ desires, Ro 1.24-25 and the obvious end result is their current awful behavior.

Romans 1.28-32 KWL
28 Since they never tried to learn from God,
God handed them off to their untried minds, to do the unthinkable.
29 To fill themselves with every sort of wrong-headedness, dishonesty, evil gain.
Full of envy. Murder. Fighting. Deceit. Maliciousness. Gossip. 30 Slanderers. God-haters.
Full of themselves. Arrogant. Boastful. Inventors of new evils. Dismissive of their parents.
31 Don’t think. Don’t keep their promises. Void of compassion. Void of mercy.
32 Knowing God’s command—that people who do such things deserve death—
yet not only do they do them, but approve of their doing.

To coin a phrase, God’s sovereignty is a conditional sovereignty: He’s Lord when we make him Lord. He’s still Lord when we have nothing to do with him—but his current priority is to win those people over, not rule them. If they won’t be ruled, they gotta suffer the natural consequences of poor choices.

But this time will come to an end. Always does. For many, it’s at death. For many whose evil is so destructive, God simply has to intervene, sooner. And once Jesus returns, that’s it for everyone.

Meanwhile, those who don’t follow God still get his grace. No, not his saving grace; that’s for those who trust him to save them. It’s what theologians call prevenient grace, the grace that’s always been around, pointing us to God. It’s the grace where the sun rises on the evil and good, where the rain falls on the just and unjust. Mt 5.45 It’s those situations where pagans get the fringe benefits of living among Christians who show them compassion (we are showing them compassion, right?) and love their neighbors. And it’s the grace which gives them plenty of opportunities to quit a life which isn’t working for them, and finally turn to God.

Calvinist sovereignty.

If you recall what I wrote about typical messed-up human ideas about how sovereignty works: People imagine sovereignty as absolute power over everyone and everything in their domain. They can do whatever they like with their subjects. In fact they’re not really sovereign unless they wield that control. Their will is supreme.

This was the way kings worked in the Middle Ages, and this was the way John Calvin imagined God as king. He’s almighty, so he already has the level of absolute power we humans can only salivate over. Nothing and no one can stop him. Ergo nothing does: This universe is precisely the one God wants.

This universe? Have you seen this universe? It’s crap.

True, Calvinists admit. It’s crap. For now. God’s in the process of reforming it, and everything’s going according to his plan. Nothing can frustrate the plan, for God’s pulling every string. Everything we see, everything which happens, every action, every electron—it’s all precisely where God wants it. For if he didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be there. But he does, so it is.

Um, what about evil? Oh, our Calvinist strawman would say, evil’s not a problem. God’s still in control. He’ll do away with it eventually, but for right now, evil is precisely where he wants it. Again, if he didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be there. But he does, so it is.

Wait, God wants it there? Again, if he didn’t want it… yada yada yada.

Well why the [vile saying] does God want it there? Doesn’t he hate evil? Hasn’t he denounced it like crazy? Doesn’t he claim to be holy, i.e. utterly separate from evil? What in the ten heavens is the Lord Jehovah doing suborning evil?

Here our Calvinist strawman usually comes up with some convoluted argument about how God can micromanage the universe, including the micromanagement of all the evil in the universe, yet semi-explicably keep his hands clean. There’s a bit in there about the difference between God’s revealed will in the scriptures, and his secret will which he keeps only to himself—and the evildoing is part of the secret will. ’Cause God hasn’t explained to us why evil’s here, why he needs it, why he included it in his creation—remember, the insist this universe is precisely the one he wants, so evil’s here on purpose—and why it’s not hypocrisy to condemn the very same evil he put in the plan.

And it’s okay if he doesn’t explain it, ’cause who are we to play backseat driver with God? Ro 9.20 We just gotta trust him: He’s good. He’s able to have two entirely different, contradictory wills, yet not be an almighty hypocrite.

After their intellectual jiggery-pokery is over, they’re gonna come away very satisfied with their explanation. Not so much us.

’Cause that’s the problem with a micromanagerial God: If he really does control everything in the universe to the degree Calvinists claim, he’s included way too much evil for us to ever call him good. He’s only good if we redefine “good” to mean “whatever God does.” And y’know, a lot of Calvinists do redefine “good” this way. Good and evil aren’t based on the Law and sin; it’s based on whatever God feels like doing from one day to the next. It’s relative.

Micromanagement violates love, which doesn’t demand its own way. 1Co 13.5 It violates self-control, a fruit of the Spirit Ge 5.23 and one of God’s character traits. God must limit himself and the control he wields: He wants us to follow him of our own free will. That’s why evil exists: Not because it’s part of God’s inscrutable plan, but precisely because it’s not. God wants us to be good, but we seldom use our free will for good. Nor does evil’s existence mean God’s not almighty: He can, and often does, step in and stop it. At the End, he’ll get the outcome he wants and expects, not because he has to control every little thing in the cosmos, but because he’s even mightier than that. Real power doesn’t need to pull strings.

Micromanagement is how humans would behave if we were sovereign. Not how God behaves. We humans covet power so much, we’ve simply projected our personal, selfish wish-fulfillment upon God. Calvinists claim it even honors God: Their concept of sovereignty describes him as almighty, majestic, all-benevolent, and wise. Which he is. But the reason Calvinists talk up all those traits, and spend so much time on God’s greatness and mightiness and goodness, is ’cause they’re trying to distract us away from all the evil they think God sovereignly ordains. Make a lot of noise about might and power, and maybe you won’t notice the foul stench. You’ll rarely find ’em talking about why a good God allows evil and suffering in the world… ’cause when they confess what they really believe, it tends to horrify people. Pagans especially: “This is the ‘good’ God you claim to believe in? Good God.”

In short it turns God into a monster. Which is why I’m absolutely not a Calvinist.

The king is coming.

But rather than end this piece on a bummer, I’m gonna remind you Jesus is coming someday to rule his kingdom.

How do you imagine Jesus will rule? Like the Calvinists, a lot of us project our own flawed ideas about leadership upon him: We imagine a benevolent dictator, or a micromanager, or a kindly grandpa who’s too busy napping to notice we’ve raided the liquor cabinet. You wanna understand God’s sovereignty properly, you gotta read the gospels. What does Jesus say God’s kingdom looks like? ’Cause that’s exactly what God’s sovereignty looks like.

Till the kingdom fully arrives, God’s outposts of the kingdom—his churches—are likewise meant to look that way. They don’t yet. Not everyone is truly following our king. Once Jesus takes personal, direct control, things’ll change in a hurry. Meanwhile we must continue to pray for this to happen—as Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.” Lk 11.2 KJV Pray for God’s sovereignty to be less limited, for him to have his way—because we recognize, and contribute to, his kingdom.