What does it mean that God is sovereign?

Last updated on February 26, 2024

In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

God is supreme, the owner and almighty ruler of all things. His creation is at His complete disposal. He is not obligated to anyone and has the power to carry out all His plans. In short, “He works all things according to the counsel of His will”. We call this attribute of God His “sovereignty”. God’s sovereignty is closely related to His omnipotence and omniscience. We will examine in this article how the Bible speaks about the Lord’s sovereignty.

Sovereignty in God’s creation

The actual word “sovereignty” does not appear in the Bible, but its characteristics are clear. In Genesis 1 for example, God’s sovereignty is evident in the creation of the world. Unlike in the creation stories of the ancient Near East, God did not have to fight against the forces of chaos to bring the world into being. No, He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm (Psalm 33:9). So God not only has the power to make the world, but He is not obligated to anyone how He does this. He has determined this forever: “The counsel of the LORD stands forever” (Psalm 33:11).

Sovereignty in God’s dealings with people

God’s sovereignty is clear in how He governs all human actions. For example, you are responsible for what you do and you have the freedom to read this article or not. However, the Bible teaches us that God also sovereignly directs the actions of humans in a way that is hidden and incomprehensible to us. He can redirect people’s wrong intentions to a good end, as was shown in the history of Joseph and his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20).

On the other hand, God can also decide to allow people to continue in their evil deeds, as was the case in the history of Israel in Egypt and Pharaoh: “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19). Pharaoh did not listen, but deliberately shut himself off from God’s voice and the plagues God sent as a warning. This happened in accordance with God’s plan. He sovereignly directed events in order to demonstrate His power and glory: “Then the LORD said to Moses, Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh, and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.” (Exodus 11:9-10).

Sovereignty or despotism?

God’s sovereignty can meet with much resistance. Is He not a tyrant or despot who just does whatever He wants? Isn’t it unfair for God to have mercy on some, and not on others? (Romans 9:13-15).

The apostle Paul was aware of people asking, “Why does God blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” (Romans 9:19). He replies: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, Why have you made me like this? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:20-21). In other words, just as a pot literally has nothing to say about how it is made, we too should have an attitude of reverence and humility toward God. Paul writes in the next verses that God is very patient with people who go against Him. God is not a despot, but a patient and merciful God, who, however, does not allow people to mock Him forever.

God’s sovereignty is a comfort to those who belong to Him. Christians confess with the church of all ages and places: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth”. So the omnipotence and sovereignty of God is not something that frightens us, but they are part of God’s fatherly care: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2). “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29).

Even when everything seems to go wrong and God’s promises do not seem to be fulfilled, all is still in accordance with the plan of God’s sovereign will (Isaiah 45:7-13). “For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28).

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