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Sovereign: The God of Infinite Rule

The best storytellers of my childhood knew how to save the revelation of a rightful ruler until the final scenes. I’m thinking of Aslan, of course. And Aragorn. And Princess Leia, hair piled high, bestowing medals on Han, Luke, and Chewbacca.

Such stories acknowledge the heroes’ claims to the throne from the beginning but wait to fully comprehend their majesty and authority until the closing pages, when we see them crowned and ruling at last. By the time they ascend a throne, we celebrate their presence there because they’ve won our trust in their character in the earlier chapters of their storyline.

So also God’s sovereignty—his right and ability to exercise authority—is best understood in the context of his multiple perfections. Not only can his sovereignty be difficult to grasp, but it can be difficult to trust unless we’ve first spent time considering other aspects of his nature. It’d be out of order to present to you a God of infinite authority without first pointing to his other attributes. His omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternality, immutability, holiness, goodness, love, and faithfulness single him out as not just capable of ruling but as eminently qualified to rule.

The collective portrait of God’s attributes moves us toward an inevitable conclusion: the most right and logical place for God to inhabit is a throne.

No wonder the Bible portrays him there so often. His throne is described as a place of worship and celebration but also as a place of trembling and awe. A place of right reverence. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The wise see and celebrate God not just as their father to whom they owe adoration but as their King to whom they owe total allegiance.

They pray, as Jesus taught them to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Out of the Mouths of Babes

When my son Matt was small, we taught him the Lord’s Prayer, that beautiful model prayer of submission to divine authority. But the King James language proved a tongue twister for Matt’s 3-year-old verbal skills. So each night he’d bow his head and earnestly pray,

Odder Fodder who art in Heaben,
Hallowed be My name.
My kingdom come, My will be done
on Earf as it is in Heaben.

It was either the most comically mispronounced prayer of all time or the most transparently honest one. Matt uttered aloud the desire most of us only repeat silently in our hearts: My kingdom come, my will be done.

We want our rule. We want our kingdom, our power, our glory. We want the very throne of God.

But we’re wholly unqualified for it. Only God is. And we have no right to it. Only God does. But where does his right come from? Earthly sovereigns rule by right of birth, but what about God? What gives him the right to expect and demand our allegiance?

We owe God our allegiance for one simple reason. Not because we sinned against him and feel guilty, not because he saved us and we feel grateful—we owe him our obedience because he made us. He holds authority over us because he’s our Author. It’s his natural right as our Creator. The potter forms the clay, and the clay doesn’t question its design or purpose.

He holds authority over us because he’s our Author.

But it has no need to. He’s a good potter, and he knows what he’s doing.

Not necessarily so with our earthly authorities. One of the reasons we’re uncomfortable with God’s sovereign rule is the way humans mishandle authority on the regular. We hold virtually no experience of virtuous rule. Abuse of authority runs rampant in families, in nonprofits, in boardrooms, in government, in the church. Someone is always vying for control. Someone is always looking to ascend the throne, to seek the highest place, to wield power with authority for personal gain. It’s no wonder we hesitate at the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.

Americans in particular chafe at the idea of unquestioning submission to a ruler. So steeped in democracy are we that we feel we should get to register our vote on all life’s decisions, both individual and collective. The most cursory glance at human history affirms that unquestioning submission to an earthly authority isn’t a universally safe posture. It’s a posture that invites abuse. In the hands of sinful humans, authority can be (perhaps is almost certain to be) misused. Humans with absolute authority command submission to what brings them glory, regardless of the harm it inflicts on those they govern.

But in the case of an infinitely benevolent Sovereign, our unquestioning submission isn’t only desirable; it’s the only rational course to follow. God never requires submission to a harmful command. None of his commands is harmful. In commanding what brings him glory, he commands what brings us good. Unlike humans, he can only use his authority for good.

How Much Control?

Human authority—that of governments and leaders—is delegated, granted to us temporarily by the God who holds all authority. In the Old Testament, God grants authority to both Israel and Israel’s enemies as suits his purposes. In the New Testament, Jesus points out to Pontius Pilate during his trial, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Romans 13:1 tells us to submit to earthly authorities, giving this reason: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Whether earthly rulers exercise their authority for good or for evil, ultimately God is in control. Control lies at the heart of what we must understand when we speak of the sovereignty of God. The question we must resolve is this: How much does God control?

The Bible makes the bold and repeated claim that God controls not just many things or most things but all things. As R. C. Sproul notes, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”

There are no limits on what God controls. Thus, whatever he wills he does. He’s completely free to act according to what he decrees. He requires permission from no one. Because he needs nothing from anyone, knows all things, is everywhere present, and holds all power, no one exists who could possibly challenge or overrule his plans. His limitlessness in every area points to his sovereignty over all things. As A. W. Tozer states, “Nothing can hinder him or compel him or stop him. He is able to do as he pleases always, everywhere, forever.”

Or, as Job put it, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

Acknowledge Paradox; Act Practically

Because he controls all things, God can ultimately work all things for our good, even those that others mean for evil. Theologians speak of his active will and his passive will. He works actively through our obedience, but he can also work passively through disobedience, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers. Joseph recognized that God had used what they intended for evil to bring about his good purposes (Gen. 50:20).

Because God needs nothing from anyone, knows all things, is everywhere present, and holds all power, no one exists who could possibly challenge or overrule his plans.

Though God controls all things, those who do evil are still accountable for their sinful choices. How can this be? How can we be responsible for our choices if God is sovereign?

Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are parallel truths we must hold simultaneously. The Bible consistently affirms both God’s total sovereignty and man’s free will. The same Jesus who said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). God draws us to salvation. We respond to his call from our own free will. If we humans don’t have free will, then God is unjust to punish sin. Indeed, he’s responsible for it.

How our free will and God’s sovereignty can coexist is a mystery. Any time the human and the divine intersect, paradox will appear and our human limits will obscure how two seemingly contradicting points can both be true. It’s good for us to wrestle with paradox, but if we allow that wrestle to draw our eyes away from a question of more pressing concern, we miss the point. That question is this: How committed are you to the myth of your own sovereignty?

Toppling the Myth of Human Sovereignty

When we reach for control we aren’t built to exercise, we announce our belief that we, rather than an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, infinitely good God, should govern the universe. Typically, we strive to exercise rule over a circumstance or a relationship.

Our control issues stem largely from fear of the unknown, resulting in anxiety about the likelihood that our kingdom shall come and our will shall be done. My husband always soothes my anxiety by pointing me back to an important question: What’s your worst-case scenario? Speaking aloud my fears about a circumstance or relationship helps me lay them to rest. Or more precisely, it helps me lay them at the feet of my King in heaven. It’s a form of confession, letting my mouth speak out of the overflow of my heart, giving voice to my nagging fears and relinquishing my need for control. It’s an acknowledgment that his is the kingdom:

Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. (1 Chron. 29:11–12)

So said King David to the King of heaven. So say all who pry their hands from their idols of control.

How committed are you to the myth of your own sovereignty?How committed are you to the myth of your own sovereignty?

Over what do I have control? A few important things. My thoughts, which I can take captive by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if I can control my thoughts, it follows I can control my attitude toward my circumstances and relationships. If my thoughts and attitude are under control, my words will be as well, and my actions. The redeemed obediently submit thought, word, and deed to their Heavenly Ruler, trusting uncertainty to him who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). They step away from the throne, acknowledging they’re utterly unqualified to fill it.

The best storytellers of my childhood were on to a winning formula. Every truly good story echoes the best story of all.

The Bible recounts the story of a King whose claim to a throne is recognized from the beginning but whose majesty and authority are only fully apprehended in its closing pages, when we see him crowned and ruling at last. His faithful utterance from the throne is this: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Blessed are those who live with the end in mind. Blessed are those who don’t wait for that final day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess but who humble themselves in the sight of the Lord while it’s still called today. Until all is made new, we look to our King’s faithfulness to all generations to shape our trust in him in this one.

Our God is in the heavens; he does all he pleases. And all he pleases is for our good.


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