In this post I intend to give my readers three safeguards to bear in mind when thinking of and/or discussing the sovereignty of God.
As we begin, let me lay my cards on the table....
I am not a Calvinist because my parents were Calvinists (they weren’t).
I am not a Calvinist because I was raised in a Calvinistic church (I wasn’t).
I am not a Calvinist because my theological training took place in exclusively Calvinistic institutions (some were wildly Arminian.)
I am not a Calvinist because “John Calvin is my homeboy” as a popular t-shirt once inopportunely put it.
Truth be told I don’t even like the title “Calvinist,” preferring instead the less bellicose designation of “Reformed Christian.”
All of this to say, I am not a Calvinist because I was force-fed it, conned into it, didn’t know any better, and/or wanted to jump on the bandwagon.
I am a Calvinist because I believe Calvinism best expresses and explains the teachings of the Bible.
So who was Calvin anyway and what does all this have to do with the discussion of God's sovereignty?
John Calvin (1509-1564), was a French theologian, pastor, and protestant reformer who today is perhaps best known for the emphasis he placed on the absolute sovereignty of God, a doctrine that is (lamentably) considered controversial in many quarters of our post-enlightenment, egalitarian, democratic society.
Incidentally, it is important to remember that the sovereignty of God is not a doctrine unique Calvin. In fact, it is not even a doctrine unique to Christianity. The absolute sovereignty of God is an essential component of theism itself. In other words for any god to truly be God, He must, out of necessity be sovereign. I mean to say, if things catch him off guard, knocking him over and disrupting his plans and thereby leaving him wringing his hands in a bewildered stupor, he could hardly be called “God.”
“Oliver Hardy,” perhaps.... but not “God.”
Now the question of whether Calvin should be best remembered for his teachings on the sovereignty of God is one of some serious doubt to my mind as Calvin wrote extensively on many biblical and theological themes, all the while writing comparatively little on the sovereignty of God and even then only with great caution and care. To illustrate the point one only need examine Calvin’s theological magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559). In these magnificent volumes Calvin never broaches the subject of God’s Sovereignty in election and predestination until book 3, chapter 21, closing his treatment of the subject with the cautious statement: “After all that has been adduced on this side and on that, let it be our conclusion to feel overawed at the great depth” of the mystery of God’s Sovereignty.
Indeed, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) which was drawn up by Calvin’s English-speaking theological offspring calls God’s sovereignty a “high mystery,” that needs to “be handled with special prudence and care.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 3, paragraph 8). Included in their explanation of God’s sovereignty, the men of Westminster offered the following affirmation and hastened to add a number of qualifiers that we will touch on later: “God did unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”
Clearly Calvin and his followers at Westminster understood what many Calvinists (not to mention their Arminian counterparts) do not seem to understand today. Namely that there is great mystery in God’s sovereignty and therefore, there is great danger in discussing the matter carelessly.
Some Calvinists have rightly been criticized for speaking of this mystery in dangerous and glib terms, acting as if the only real mystery was why other Christians can’t seem to wrap their heads around the sovereignty of God. The Arminian opponents of Calvinism, on the other hand, have sometimes been criticized (and quite rightly in my view) for challenging the very notion of God’s sovereignty altogether (particularly in the matter of salvation) and thereby undermining God’s deity altogether. For certain Arminians the sovereignty of God is not a mystery because the sovereignty of God does not exist.
Both treatments of the subject are dangerous. The former because it is snobby and pretentious (a besetting sin common to we Calvinists) and the latter because it is strips God of one of His essential attributes – the sovereignty that makes God, God. But make no mistake, both errors are rooted in a denial of the mystery that surrounds God’s sovereignty.
So the question becomes – how can we avoid both of these errors? How can we discuss the important doctrine of God’s sovereignty and avoid the dangers?
Let me offer three safeguards, all of which are rooted in the clear teaching of Scripture and enumerated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 3. Think of these three safeguards as fences to keep us from wandering off the path and into dangerous directions.
When the men of Westminster summed up the sovereignty of God by saying “God did unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass,” they hastened to add these three safeguards:
- That though God is sovereign, He is not the author of sin.
- That though God is sovereign, He does not offer violence to the will of human beings.
- That though God is sovereign He still employs secondary causes in the fulfillment of His purposes.
Admittedly, none of these “fences” are without their own share of mystery. But all of them will keep us from stumbling into danger when thinking about and talking about the sovereignty of God.