Well this morning we resume our series on the Nicene Creed, which begins, ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty.’ So far, we’ve looked at ‘one God’ and ‘the Father.’ Today we come to the truth that God is almighty – or sovereign, to use another Bible word for the same truth.
And last time I spoke on God’s sovereignty, I said it means that nothing ‘just happens’ or is luck or chance; everything happens only because God has planned it to. And I gave the example of when I was driving on a motorway one day. I was in the outside lane overtaking, but for no conscious reason, I moved back into the middle lane. And as I did, I saw in my mirror that the car behind me in the outside lane was skidding on smoking tyres. It had been doing a crazy speed and was now trying, and failing, to brake. It shot past me, hit the car that had been in front of me and that’s all I saw as the crash was suddenly behind me. And I said in that sermon: the unbeliever would call that luck; whereas I would say that God, in his sovereignty, kept me from being in that accident. And a visitor said to me on the door afterwards, ‘I agreed with most of what you said about God’s sovereignty. But you did spoil it with that story about the accident – he doesn’t have anything to do with flukes like that, does he?’ And that showed she didn’t really believe in God’s sovereignty at all. She’d have said he was mighty – but not all-mighty; in control of some things – maybe even most things – but not all things. But as we’ll see, the Bible says: no, God is in control of all things – and whether or not we believe that makes a world of difference to how we live and trust him and see what’s happening in our lives.
So first of all, let me give a definition of God’s sovereignty. My definition is that, ‘God’s sovereignty is his total and continuous control of every thing and every being, so that what he has planned will happen.’ And to see where I get that from, would you turn in the Bible to Ephesians chapter 1, v11, where the apostle Paul writes:
11In him [Jesus] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything [the word ‘out’ isn’t in the original Greek – ‘God works everything...’] in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1.11-12)
So the apostle Paul is explaining how he and some of his contemporaries (the ‘we’ in those verses) came to be the first to trust in Christ. And he says, v11, it was, ‘predestined according to the plan of him who works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.’
So that’s where my definition comes from. And I’ve got three main points to make about God’s sovereignty:
Firstly, GOD IS SOVEREIGN OVER EVERYTHING IN HIS CREATION
The Nicene Creed begins, ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.’ And God is sovereign because he’s Creator (‘Maker’) – because being Creator doesn’t just mean he kicked the universe off and then had no further involvement in it. Look at these two pictures:
In the pictures, the crown stands for God; the box underneath stands for the universe. And the left hand picture is the wrong view of how things are. It’s the view that God kicked off the universe in the beginning (with that dotted line arrow) – but that, since then, there’s been a chain of cause and effect (those arrows inside the box) that he’s had no involvement in at all. This is the view that sees the universe as like a clock which God wound up – but since then it’s ticked on with no further involvement from him.
But that’s the wrong view. The right hand picture is the Bible view – which is, as Ephesians 1, v11 says, that God ‘works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.’ So, from one point of view, things do happen because of that chain of cause and effect. Eg, a cloud of water vapour meets a cold air front and that causes rain to drop. That’s true – as far as it goes. But in a universe created by God, it’s not the whole truth. So look at this next verse – Matthew 5, v45, where the Lord Jesus says:
your Father in heaven... causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.45)
So, yes, from one point of view, a cloud of water vapour meets a cold air front and that causes rain to drop. But from another point of view, God sends the rain – because God created and therefore controls, moment by moment, everything in the atmosphere.
So this is why we should thank God for everything good we have – eg, food may come penultimately from Tesco; but it comes ultimately through the sun and rain God sends. And this is why we should also pray to him for everything we still need, since he’s the ultimate giver of whatever it is – restored health, income through a job, and so on.
Then this is also why science is possible. Scientists basically observe what happens regularly, describe it in what they like to call ‘laws’ – eg, ‘the law of gravity’ – and then they use those laws to predict what will happen. Eg, let this apple go, and it will fall to earth because of the law of gravity. But as someone put it, ‘In reality there are no ‘laws of nature’, only customs of God.’ Eg, God is working, moment by moment, to sustain the force of gravity, and he does that so consistently that you can write a law to describe it. But gravity isn’t governed by the law we wrote. It’s governed by God.
And then this is also why miracles are perfectly believable. Take, eg, Jesus calming the storm. People say, ‘That couldn’t have happened because the laws of nature say: wind and waves can’t die down instantly.’ But remember: in reality, ‘There are no ‘laws of nature’, only customs of God.’ So wind and waves do what they normally do because God is working, moment by moment, to make them behave that way. But it’s perfectly possible for him to make them behave differently – in order to reveal himself, in order to leave the disciples asking of Jesus, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ (Mark 4.41). So as someone else put it, ‘The calming of the storm wasn’t God doing something for a change. It was God doing what he’s always doing – but to a different time-scale.’
So, God is sovereign over everything in his creation.
Second, GOD IS SOVEREIGN (IN PARTICULAR) OVER US AND OUR DECISIONS
Have a look at this next verse – Proverbs 16, v9:
9In his heart a man plans his course,
but the LORD determines his steps. (Proverbs 16.9)
To which you might say, ‘Hold on. Take my job, for example. I thought I applied for it because I wanted it, and that they said ‘Yes’ because they wanted me.’ To which the Bible says, That’s true – as far as it goes.’ But in a universe created by God, it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that your heart – the centre of your personality where you make decisions – plus the decision-making hearts of others, plus circumstances are all in the Lord’s hand. Look at the next verse, Proverbs 21, v1:
1The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD;
he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.
And that’s true even if you’re not the king. So God is sovereign over the fact that, in your heart, you preferred the look of this job to that job, and that they preferred you to the other applicants (or preferred another candidate instead of you). If you’re married, God is sovereign over the fact that you fell for the person who’s now your husband or wife – as opposed to someone else. That’s why you’ve got God, and not just yourself, to thank for your job or marriage (or whatever). And a great, recent example of Proverbs 21, v1, was that night when the Incitement To Religious Hatred Bill – which would have damaged our freedom to share the gospel – was defeated by just one vote. And Tony Blair didn’t stay to vote because he’d been told it would be safely won, so he decided to go home. ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD.’ And that’s why we’re told in the Bible to pray ‘for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’ (1 Timothy 2.1f) – because even if they’re not consciously acknowledging God, he can still direct their decisions.
But this raises the question, ‘How can our decisions be real – genuine and free – if God is sovereign over them?’ Well, the starting point here must be to say that the Bible clearly teaches two truths that we must therefore hold together:
• Truth no.1: God is sovereign, but not in a way that removes genuine responsibility from us
• Truth no.2: We are genuinely responsible (and accountable) for our decisions – but they can never ‘de-rail’ God’s plan
The Bible simply says that both those statements are true – even though we can’t fully understand how they fit together. And one well-used example is the story of Joseph in Genesis (Genesis 37-50). Through sinful jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. By an extraordinary sequence of events, Joseph then rises to become Prime Minister of Egypt. And he organises famine relief through which his family – the fledgling people of God – are saved. And this is what Joseph says to his brothers at the end of the story:
20‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ (Genesis 50.20)
So, was God in control of that whole sequence of events – the downs and ups of Joseph’s life? Yes – he’d planned it. So were Joseph’s brothers just puppets, whom God forced to do what they did? No. They genuinely, freely, did what they wanted: they wanted rid of Joseph; they chose to do evil – and the fact that God used their evil to further his plan doesn’t for a moment excuse it.
Now let me just say something about that word ‘freedom’ – because people often say, ‘If God is sovereign, do we really have free will?’ Well, freedom is a slippery word. You can use it in at least two ways. On the one hand, you can use it to talk about being able to do things. Eg, am I free to give you a wave right now? Yes. But am I free to jump over this building? No – in the sense that I’m not able to. But you can also use the word ‘freedom’ to talk about doing things willingly – because I want to, not because I’m forced to.
So how does the Bible see us? Do we have ‘free will’? Well, have a look at my next picture, which is really the Bible in cartoon strip:
The crown in each box stands for God; the stickperson for men and women. And box 1 shows how God created the first human pair, Adam and Eve. So they were free – in the sense of able – to trust and obey and love God. But then, box 2, they rebelled against God – they basically said to him, ‘We don’t want you ruling our lives, we want to rule them ourselves.’ So, the big crown is crossed out (although of course God is still there) and the little crown is now on the stickperson’s head. And the Bible says: that step changed human nature – human nature became rebellious, so that you and I were not born like Adam and Eve were created in box 1. We were born like Adam and Eve became in box 2: we were born by nature rebellious, not wanting God to rule over us, and not free to ‘un-rebel’ under our own steam. That, eg, is why parents don’t have to teach their children to lie or be selfish – they’re born liars, born selfish. So human beings do not now have free will in the sense of being able to turn back to God and start trusting and obeying him again under our own steam. By nature, we just don’t want to do that. And it only happens, box 3, as we hear the gospel and God’s Spirit works in us to change what we want – to make us want to give God his rightful place in our lives.
So look back in the Bible to Ephesians 1 and v11, where we began. Paul says:
11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1.11-12)
Ie, the reason Paul and contemporaries came to be the first to trust in Christ is that God first chose to work in them to make them want to.
Some of you will remember the Australian evangelist John Chapman visiting us here. Well, before becoming a full-time evangelist, he was a school teacher, and used to take some RE lessons. And he tells the story of how he was given one class of really hard 16-year-old lads who spent the year trying to pick holes in the Christian message. And Chappo (as he’s known) said they were studying John’s Gospel and got to the bit where Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6.44). And one of these lads said, ‘What does that mean? And Chappo said, ‘It means you can’t become a Christian whenever you want. You can only become a Christian when God wants.’ And this lad said, ‘That’s rubbish – I could become a Christian any time I wanted.’ So Chappo said. ‘OK. All this year you’ve been trying to make me look a fool. Here’s your golden opportunity to prove me wrong. Go on. Do it now.’ And this lad said, ‘Do what?’ And Chappo said, ‘Become a Christian.’ And he said, ‘But I don’t want to.’ And Chappo said, ‘Well, want to want to.’
And he shouted back, ‘I DON’T WANT TO!’ And Chappo said, ‘And nor will you unless and until God does something in you first.’
So God is sovereign even over our decision to turn to him. So if you’ve made that decision – if you’re trusting in Jesus today – thank God for that – because you’d never have done it without his Spirit’s work in you; and you wouldn’t keep going as a believer without his Spirit’s ongoing work, sustaining your faith and your desire to live for him. And if you’ve not yet come to trust in Jesus but you’d like to – you’d like to have the faith you see in others – well, pray to God to bring you to that point.
Third, GOD IS SOVEREIGN EVEN OVER EVIL
Now it’s fairly easy to see how God is sovereign over good things. Eg, when Tess was pregnant and we went to the RVI for her second scan, we were told they’d missed one the first time round and that we were expecting twins. (And they could really do with some training on how to break that kind of news more gently.) But the point is: God was sovereign over that. It was his will that we have twins in the sense that he positively desired and delighted to give us Beth and Ellie. So when people come up to us in the street (as they often do) and say, ‘Double trouble!’ we always say, ‘No – double blessing.’
Now the Bible teaches that God is also sovereign over evil. We’ve seen that already in the story of Joseph – when God used his brothers’ evil to bring about his good plan. But God doesn’t stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way. With good things – like giving you twins – it’s his will in the sense that he positively desires and delights to make them happen. Whereas with evil – like Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery – it’s his will in the sense that he allows it as part of his plan, but he doesn’t desire or delight in evil and he can’t be blamed for the evil. And the greatest example of God’s sovereignty over evil is the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross. That’s spelt out in Acts 4 where those first believers are reflecting on what the Lord Jesus went through for them. And in Acts 4, v27, they say to God in prayer:
27‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.’ (Acts 4.27)
And they crucified the Son of God – the most evil act the world will ever see. But look what the next verse says:
28‘They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’ (Acts 4.28)
So were Judas and the Jewish leaders and Herod and Pontius Pilate fully responsible for their actions? Yes, they were doing exactly what they wanted. But unwittingly, they were simultaneously doing exactly what God had planned so that his Son would be sacrificed for our forgiveness.
So, every time we say the Nicene Creed – ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty,’ we’re saying:
• God is sovereign over everything in his creation
• God is sovereign (in particular) over us and our decisions
• God is sovereign even over evil
Let me say one last thing on how this applies to us. This truth of God’s sovereignty is meant to be a friend, rather than an intellectual problem. But I realise, especially if it’s new to you, that it can seem more like a problem, and can take a lot of processing. But it’s meant to be a comfort to know that nothing is out of God’s control, nothing ‘just happens’ or happens because God couldn’t help it. So that believers can say:
28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8.28)
Now at the time, when we’re going through something, we may not understand at all how God is working in it for our good – but we are called to trust that he is. And even afterwards, looking back, we still may not understand much or even any of the how. But we have the comfort of knowing that it was in his control and of trusting that one day – maybe only in heaven – we’ll begin to understand the good that it brought about.
But maybe this has left you asking, ‘But is God really good? If in some way he really does stand behind everything I’ve been through, can he really be good?’ I remember my former boss and vicar, Mark Ashton, preaching on this verse in Romans 8 soon after I’d been through a broken engagement. And he said to the congregation in that particular sermon, ‘God could not have been more good to you this year.’ And inwardly I shouted silent disagreement. But I began to see he was right as I made the link between Romans 8, v28 and v29:
29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son... (Romans 8.29)
And that’s what’s ultimately good for me. My definition of what’s good for me was that nothing hard would happen to me. But God’s definition of what’s good for me is that I become more ‘conformed to the likeness of his Son’ – more like Jesus; trusting more in my heavenly Father (as Jesus did even in the face of the cross), finding my identity and joy and contentment more in him; reflecting him more in my character, and so on.
And in God’s sovereignty, it’s often only as he takes us through the hard things that he works those things more deeply in us.