God is Sovereign -
What Does That Mean?
God is sovereign and is usually regarded as the ultimate sovereign but what exactly does that mean and, especially, what does it mean in regard to our individual freedom and power of choice?
Sovereignty is defined as:
- the absolute and independent authority of a community, nation, etc.; the right to autonomy or self-government.
- supremacy with respect to power and rank; supreme authority
Sovereign is defined as:
- The recognized supreme ruler of a people or country under monarchical government; a monarch
- a person or body of people that has supremacy or authority over another or others
The sovereign monarch of a country does not have to answer to or be subject to anyone else in that country and, assuming the country is independent of all others, does not have to answer to any other person in the world. However, whether or not he knows or acknowledges it, he is subject to God.
God is Sovereign
God Himself is really the only being who has true sovereignty. God is sovereign in the most absolute sense. He can make His own decisions without having to answer to anyone. He does not have to take advice from anyone, listen to anyone else's wants or wishes. He is free to do whatever He wants.
Within that freedom, God has obviously chosen to act in certain ways and follow certain principles. He always acts within His character of love but His actions, while consistent with that character, may vary according to the circumstances. God has chosen to allow man and angels to have free will. Rebellion against His rule could have been prevented by Him designing beings that were pre-programmed to only follow His will. But God wanted to give love and receive it in return. This could only happen where there is free will. If God was ever to force the will His actions would not be consistent with the principle of love. So God could do many things that He does not do because He has chosen to act in a particular way. Thus, in a sense, He limits Himself.
The Buck Stops Here
Since God is sovereign, there is a sense in which He has responsibility for everything that happens because, while He may not be the cause in every case, He could prevent any event from happening. Thus, it is often said in scripture that God did something that He merely allowed. God ultimately accepts responsibility even for events occurring as a result of the free-will choices of others. Here are some examples:
The death of King Saul is described in one account as an act of God:
"So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the LORD, even against the word of the LORD, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to enquire of it; And enquired not of the LORD: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse." (1Chr 10:13,14)
In another account, quite a different version of His death is reported:
"And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him, and he was wounded of the archers. Then said Saul to his Armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. So Saul took a sword, and fell upon it." (1Chr 10:3,4)
The effect of God removing His protection from King Saul was His death. God did not kill him, rather He honored Saul's free will to be independent of God and even consult a medium instead. God, being the ultimate gentleman, does not impose His will or presence where or upon those who do not desire it. God, being the ultimate sovereign, accepts responsibility. His actions in such a case are consistent within His sovereign choice to allow man to have free will.
Pharaoh's decision to harden his heart against the request to let Israel go is described as an act of God:
"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. . . . And He hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had said." (Exo 7:3, 13)
Yet, a chapter later, Pharaoh's decision is described as his own:
"And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go." (Exo 8:32)
The effect of the request God put before Pharaoh by Moses was to cause Pharaoh to make a choice but it was His choice. And Pharaoh, in reaction to the options before him, made the choice to harden his heart and not grant the request. God brought about the circumstances that resulted in Pharaoh hardening his heart but it happened without God controlling free will.
God in Control?
To be sovereign is to always be able to do your own will. While God is sovereign, this is often not well understood. Many people think that everything that happens is God's will and He therefore gets blamed for many events that are not His fault - some are called "acts of God"
Many people will say of any event, good or bad: "it must have been God's will." A person dies in an accident and they say "It was God's will." In the vast majority of these cases the outcome has nothing to do with God's will. Accidents, illness, strife etc. are usually the result of people's poor choices. God allows us to experience the results of those choices - it He didn't He would be restricting free will.
Why did God tell His disciples to pray, in the Lord's Prayer, "thy will be done" if it is already happening all the time on earth? In the vast majority of people's lives it is not happening.
God has made the sovereign decision to allow man to have free will. He often presents us with choices and even warns of the consequences of making a poor choice (smoke and you may get lung cancer) but He then leaves us free to make our own choices. Ultimately, He wants us to learn that His ways are the best. God is sovereign and, knowing that He is the all-wise and all-loving God, we should be thankful and follow His will which is the best for us anyway.
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