17 November 2021

God is sovereign. (So, our king. Not our puppet master.)

SOVEREIGN 'sɑv.(ə)r(.ə)n noun. A supreme ruler.
2. adjective. Possess supreme or final power.
[Sovereignty 'sɑv.(ə)r(.ə)n.ti noun.]

Typically when people talk sovereignty, they’re speaking of the adjective. They’re talking about supreme or final power, and who has it. Like a nation. Our country claims the right to do as it pleases, despite what other countries are doing, or trying to get us to do. If other countries want to cut pollution, and want us to sign a treaty which agrees to do so, but our president doesn’t believe in climate change and sees no reason to make our businesses stop dumping their garbage into our air and drinking water: Hey, we’re a sovereign nation, and those other nations can go pound sand. More carbon for everyone!

More often lately, people talk about individual sovereignty: They claim they’re sovereign citizens, who can do as they please and no government can tell them otherwise. If they want to refuse vaccines or get an abortion, how dare any government force them to act against their will. True, our governments recognize no such claim, because our Constitution entrusted Congress with this sovereignty, but you try making “sovereign citizens” practice eighth-grade reading comprehension. They’re sticking with fourth grade, and they’re sovereign and you can’t make ’em.

Obviously the way Christian theologians define sovereignty is way different. There, we’re talking about God’s sovereignty: His power, and right and authority, to rule the universe.

Which he does. He created it; he has the unlimited power to do with it, and make it do, as he pleases. He knows it inside and out, and knows best how to run it, so we believe it’s best if we defer to his wisdom about how it works. He’s setting up a kingdom meant to rule the cosmos, and Christ Jesus is its king. All this stuff is in the bible; arguably it’s the primary thing the bible’s about.

We Christians largely agree God is sovereign over the universe. There are certain Christians who take the deist view, and think God created the universe to run on its own, like a really good and well-wound-up clock. But then he left it to fuction on its own, without his input or interaction. Certain cessationists believe God doesn’t do miracles anymore, and believe this is why: He left us a bible, and doesn’t need to talk to us anymore, nor offer any supernatural corrections to the way the universe is running. He left us and forsook us; we’re on our own.

The rest of us agree God is king of the universe. Where we disagree is how he does it.

The scriptures make clear God 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 obey these commands. They’re good works, Ep 2.10 and 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 these particular words; they know how rebellious and heretic it sounds. So they fudge around it and claim God gave us free will, and he loves our free will so much, he’d never ever interfere with it. 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 when they get the 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 have the ability to choose our own course of action… 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 and won’t.

Some people are dying, and are fighting off their deaths as best they can—but God’s decided their time’s up. No, he’s not passively letting them die; it’s his idea. He can decide that, y’know. Tell them God would never interfere with their free will: They don’t wanna die! Yet he isn’t granting their requests for longer life. Death is totally interfering with their free will.

Likewise people whom God has decided don’t get to become wealthy. Or women whom God decided don’t get to be mothers. Men who wanna pursue one vocation, but God reroutes them to one he prefers. 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 it’s 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 wish. They imagine once Jesus transforms us in his return, 1Co 15.51-52 he’ll vaporize our selfish nature—so there’s no point in currently fighting it. Go ahead and sin; we’ve got grace. Till 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?

Most of it comes from typical human messed-up ideas about how sovereignty works. See, when we get hold of too much power—the level varies from person to person—we turn evil. We won’t even realize it’s happening. We’ll imagine we’re benevolent dictators; we only want what’s best for our subjects. But we figure the only way to give ’em what’s best is to take control over more than we should. Give ’em no freedom at all; give ’em terrible consequences for even thinking of going against us. We imagine it’s the only way to keep everyone happy. In reality it only makes the tyrants happy.

Since God hasn’t utterly taken away our free will and turned us into mindless robots, and since God doesn’t immediately strike people with lightning whenever we break a command, lawless people presume God must not have taken his throne yet. ’Cause if they were in charge, heads would roll. God must therefore have put off his reign till Jesus returns. Then Jesus can 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. (What about the millennium? They don’t believe in it.)

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

Ah. There, many Christians assume after sin and death entered the world, God fled like a king going into hiding during 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 back his world. When God offers us strength and support nowadays, it’s like a king in exile smuggling ammo 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.

Whom does this scenario place in charge of the world? Satan. 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 the devil claimed it itself is that very ruler. Lk 4.6 Jesus said “the ruler of this world” has been judged, Jn 16.11 so it can’t be God.

This is why Christian mythology claims God originally set a vice-regent in charge of the earth, named Lucifer. But power went to this archangel’s head, and it rebelled, so God fired it and had security throw it out. Like any deposed sovereign in serious denial, the devil is issuing statements from Mar-a-Lago, calling itself by its old titles, demanding obeisance as if it 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 was never that important or powerful in heaven, and rebelled ’cause it coveted power.

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 nothing more than 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 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 how God rules the world… and how pagans have no relationship with him.

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 notice a lot of the proof texts differ between Old and New Testaments. In the OT, God was definitely sovereign over Israel, yet its authors claimed his sovereignty over the world. In the NT, God is sovereign over Christendom, and its authors state 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 KJV
28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32 who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

Properly, God’s sovereignty is a conditional sovereignty: He’s Lord when we make him Lord. Yes, he’s still Lord when we have nothing to do with him—but his current priority is to win these people over, not rule them as unwilling subjects. It may feel sometimes like he’s punishing them for being unwilling subjects, but really they’re just suffering the natural consequences of following the wrong sovereign.

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, particularly France. Hence this was the way French subject Jean 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. And Calvin was a determinist, so he concluded nothing does stop God: This universe is precisely the one he 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. It looks like crap now, but everything’s going according to God’s wonderful plan, and nothing can frustrate it, for God pulls 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 no 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 in the cinnamon toast hell 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 YHWH 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 magically 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 apparently part of the secret will. ’Cause God hasn’t explained to us why he made evil part of his plan. Remember, they insist this universe is precisely the one he wants, so evil’s here on purpose. Yet somehow it’s not hypocrisy for him to regularly, loudly, even angrily condemn the very same evil he makes humanity do.

They have no good explanation… but their usual excuse is “Who are you to question God?” Ro 9.20 Yeah the plan sounds like it’s utterly f--ed up beyond reason, but you just gotta trust the plan. Trust that God’s good. Trust that he’s able to have two entirely different, contradictory wills, yet not be an almighty schizophrenic 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. More evil than good, y’notice. So much evil, we can’t actually call him good! He’d only be good once we redefine “good” to mean “whatever God does.” And y’know, a lot of Calvinists actually do redefine “good” like that. Good and evil aren’t based on the Law and sin, on selflessness and selfishness. They define it based on whatever God feels like doing from one day to the next. It’s relative. It’s foundationless.

As the apostles defined love, micromanagement actually violates it. Love doesn’t demand its own way! 1Co 13.5 It violates self-control, which is one of the Spirit’s fruits, 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. God is love, and love hopes all things; 1Co 13.7 it doesn’t force all things.

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 mightier than chaos. Real power doesn’t need to pull strings. It commands and is obeyed. Ge 1.3

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 themselves and us away from the problem of evil in a deterministic God’s universe.

Because people wanna know how a good, almighty God can permit evil. Because if they were almighty, they wouldn’t—and they’re not even good! So shouldn’t a good God do it? Calvinist answers to this question are so twisted and offensive, antichrists regularly use them to argue there can’t be a God… or if there is, he’s a dick, so don’t worship him.

’Cause if God’s a micromanager, he’s a monster. Which is why I’m absolutely not a Calvinist.

The king is coming.

But rather than end this piece on a giant 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 always look that way, and that’s our fault. Not everyone is truly following our king. Once Jesus takes personal, direct control, things’ll straighten up 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 recognized, and therefore followed. For him to have his way—because we his people recognize, and contribute to, his kingdom.