The Sovereignty of God

by John Murray

 

Table of Contents

The Presuppositions of God’s Sovereignty

The Nature of God's Sovereignty

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

God’s Sovereignty in Human Responsibility

 

 Introduction

The church and the world have never stood in greater need than today of the message of the sovereignty of God. The world is faced with impious proud claims that contradict the sovereignty of God, claims to the supremacy of race and people. Here is a godless philosophy that has brought upon us the awful cataclysm of bloodshed and tyranny witnessed in Europe and Asia. Before this avalanche many professing Christians have surrendered, and with fanatical zeal multitudes of men have joined in the onslaught on justice and truth and liberty. It is an unholy crusade, and knowingly or unknowingly they have taken “counsel together against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their banks asunder, and cast away their cords from us” (Ps. 2:2, 3).

In such a situation the message of the divine sovereignty must be thrust into the foreground, principally for two reasons. First, we must be reminded that in this universe God’s sovereign government is the only totalitarian government and men must assume in it the place of humble submission and obedience. “The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubims; let the earth be moved. The Lord is great in Sion; and he is high above all the people” (Ps. 99:1, 2). “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps. 46:10). God’s supremacy demands subjection to His law and guarantees for every transgression judgment sure and inexorable. All history is under His control and is moving towards His final judgment where every infraction of truth and deviation from justice will receive its final adjustment and adjudication. “He cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity” (Ps. 98:9).

Secondly, we must be reminded that all events, great and small, are embraced in God’s sovereign providence. He has not resigned the reins of government. Present history is not moving towards chaos. It is moving in the grand drama of God’s plan to the accomplishment of His holy designs and to the vindication of His glory. “Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty. The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:10, 11). The people of God must “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” and recognise, in the words of the great reformer, Calvin, “that while the turbulent state of the world deprives us of our judgment, God, by the pure light of his own righteousness and wisdom, regulates all these commotions in the most exact order, and directs them to their proper end” (Institutes, I, xvii. 1).

The Presuppositions of God’s Sovereignty

The sovereignty of God is the absolute authority, rule, and government of God in the whole of that reality that exists distinct from Himself. It respects His relation to other beings and to all other being and existence. The possession and exercise of this absolute authority, rule, and government are founded upon certain basic truths.

1. Sovereignty is founded upon the oneness or Unity of God. This truth underlies and determines the whole fabric of divine revelation, and it is a truth to which Scripture bears witness in a great variety of ways. The oneness of God does not mean mere uniqueness or supremacy in the realm of deity. It is not as if there were a host of lesser gods over whom God is supreme. It is not as if He demanded of us the highest worship in contrast with the lower worship that may be given to others. It is rather that He alone is God and that there is none else besides Him. “The Lord he is God; there is none else besides him.” “The Lord he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else” (Deut. 4:35, 39). “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me” (Deut. 32:39). “Thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth” (II Kings 19:15).

Our responsibility to God is based on His oneness. When our Lord was asked the question, “What commandment is first of all?”, He answered, “The first is, Hear O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord”. And so the consequence for us is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:28-30). “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10).

Our salvation also is based on the fact that God is one and that there is none else besides Him. This is shown, for example, by the way in which the Apostle Paul supports the doctrine of justification by appeal to the oneness of God. “Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also: if so be that God is one, who will justify the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith” (Rom. 3:29, 30).

The logic is simple and irresistible. God is sovereign in the realms of nature and grace and this sovereignty belongs to Him because He is one, without peer or rival.

2. The sovereignty of God is also founded upon the self-existence of God. Since God is one and there is none else besides Him, He does not owe His existence to any other. Indeed, origin cannot be applied to Him. His existence is without beginning and eternal. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Psalm 90:2). Our finite minds stagger when we try to bring such a truth within our comprehension. We cannot comprehend it; it is too high and we cannot attain unto it. But we must humbly and even joyfully receive it. God is without origin, and He is not dependent upon any for his eternal and immutable being.

3. The sovereignty of God is founded upon the self-sufficiency of God. Not only is He self-existent but He is to Himself sufficient. He does not need any created existence to complete His perfection and blessedness. Created reality is not a necessity arising from His being but an effect resultant upon His sovereign will.

4. The sovereignty of God is also founded upon the fact of creation. Creation means simply the origination of all other existence by the command of God. The moment we admit the existence of anything apart from God’s will as the principle of its origin, in that moment we have denied the absoluteness of the divine authority and rule.

The witness of Scripture to the originative action of God in creation is very abundant. Perhaps no word expresses it more pointedly than that of the psalm, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6). The import of this text is that the word or breath of God — breath being the symbol of His almighty creative will — is the first cause of all that is. “For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast” (vs. 9). This mode of statement reminds us of the first chapter of Genesis where on repeated occasions we have the formula, “And God said”.

God made heaven and earth; by His Spirit the heavens were garnished; He laid the foundations of the earth; by wisdom He founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; His hands stretched out the heavens and all their host He commanded; heaven and earth His hand made, and so all those things came to be; He is the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega; He is the beginning of creation; by His will heaven and earth were and were created. (See II Kings 19:15; Job 26:13; 38:4; Prov. 3:19; Isa. 42:5; 44:6; 45:12; 66:2; Jonah 1:9; Rev. 1:8; 3:14; 4:11.) Such expressions provide us with examples of the way in which the Scripture abounds in the teaching that God’s hand and will and word are the first cause of all things.

The piety on which Scripture places its seal as true piety rests upon the recognition of God as Creator. Man’s address to God in adoration, prayer, and praise begins with it; God’s address to men in law and gospel rests upon it. The faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, the faith through which the catalogue of saints had witness borne to them that they were righteous, is the faith through which “we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb. 11:3). And when Paul makes his appeal to the idolatrous Athenians that God now commands men that they should all everywhere repent, he begins his address by saying, “God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24).

The Nature of God’s Sovereignty

We have just found that the sovereignty of God rests upon God’s oneness, God’s self-existence, God’s self-sufficiency, and God’s creatorhood. In what does His sovereignty consist?

(1) God’s sovereignty consists in the fact that God is the possessor of all. In the formula of Melchizedek and of Abraham He is “the possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14: 19, 22), and the psalmist sounds this note when he says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

(2) God’s sovereignty consists in the right of dominion and rule over all. His kingdom is over all, He is the God of the whole earth, He is the Most High who rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomsoever He will (Isa. 54:5; Dan. 4:17, 25).

(3) God’s sovereignty consists in the all-pervasive and efficient exercise of government. It is not simply that God is the owner of all. Nor is it simply that He has the right of dominion and rule over all. But it is that he also exercises government over all in accordance with His perfections and in accordance with the prerogatives that are His because of His ownership of all and the right of dominion over all. This sovereignty He exercises with omnipotent and irresistible efficiency. The mighty hand of God is the executor of His will. He is the great, the mighty, the terrible. He rideth upon the heavens and in His excellency on the skies. There is none that can deliver out of His hand for He frustrateth the devices of the crafty and the counsel of the cunning is carried headlong. He breaketh down and it cannot be built up again. There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against Him. None can stay His hand, nor say unto Him, what doest Thou? For human might is of one sort with the Egyptians, and they are men and not God, and their horses flesh and not spirit. (Deut. 10:17; 33:26; Job 5:12, 13; 12:14; Prov. 21:30; Dan. 4:35; Isa. 31:3).

We may illustrate this all-pervasive and efficient sovereignty by some of the ways in which Scripture applies it.

(a) It respects the events of ordinary providence. It is God who gives rain upon the earth, and sends water upon the fields. He makes His sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He clothes the grass of the field, causing the grass to grow for cattle and herb for the service of man. He feeds the birds of heaven. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge and will. He gives us our daily bread. He gives wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil that makes his face to shine, and bread that strengthens man’s heart. He crowns the year with goodness and the paths drop fatness. He even gives that which is abused and used in the service of another god. He gave grain and new wine and the oil and multiplied silver and gold which they used for Baal. He makes the wind His messengers and flames of fire His ministers. The whole earth is filled with His glory. So that the pious contemplation of His working brings forth the exclamation of adoration, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches” (Job 5:10; Matt. 5:45; Ps. 104:4; 14:24; 65:11; Hos. 2:8).

(b) It respects the disposition of all earthy authority. He alone is God of all the kingdoms of the earth. He removes kings and sets up kings, for as the Most High He rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomsoever He wills. He sets up over them even the lowest of men. It is He who gives even to ungodly men the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory. He overthrows the throne and strength of kingdoms (Deut. 4:35, 39; II Kings 5:15; 19:15; Isa. 37:16; Dan. 4:17; 5:18, 21; Hag. 2:22).

The very division of the kingdom of Israel, fraught with dire consequences for the true worship of Jehovah, was yet a thing brought about of the Lord that He might establish His word (I Kings 12:15). “Thus saith the Lord, Ye shall not go up, nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel: return every man to his house; for this thing is of me” (I Kings 12:24). For He ordains kings for judgment and establishes them for correction, so that Assyria is the rod of his anger and the staff in his hand the divine indignation to perform the divine judgment upon Mount Zion and on Jerusalem (Hab. 1:12; Isa. 10:5, 12).

It is not simply, then, that the powers of civil government are ordained by God to be the ministers of equity and good and peace for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well (Rom. 13:3; I Pet. 2:14). But it is also true that corrupt government which violates the very principles of government itself is still within the government of God and fulfils His sovereign purpose. In the doing of iniquity the wicked fill up the cup of the divine indignation. “Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit, of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks” (Isa. 10:12).

(c) It respects good and evil. Even the sins of men come within the scope of His rule and providence. “What?” asks the oppressed and the afflicted Job, bereft of flocks and herds, and smitten with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto the crown, “shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). For with God he says again, “is wisdom and strength, he hath counsel and understanding. Behold, he breaketh down, and it cannot be built again; he shutteth up a man, and there can be no opening” (Job 12:13, 14). He forms the light and creates darkness; He makes peace and creates evil. He kills and He makes alive; He wounds and He heals (Isa. 45:7; Deut. 32:39). He “hath made every thing for its own end; Yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov. 16:4). “Shall evil befall a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6).

We should not be in the least forgetful of the very acute questions raised by such pronouncements of Scripture. Yet the teaching of Scripture requires us to recognise, as John Calvin so eloquently taught, that all events are governed by the secret counsel and directed by the present hand of God, and that God’s omnipotence is not the vain and idle possession of potency but power that is “vigilant, efficacious and operative”, “a power constantly exerted in every distinct and particular movement” (Institutes, I. xvi. 3). “Whence we assert”, he continues, “that not only the heaven and the earth, and inanimate creatures, but also the deliberations and volitions of men, are so governed by his providence, as to be directed to the end appointed by it” (Institutes, I. xvi. 8)

The questions raised come to their acutest expression in those instances where the providence of God is affirmed in connection with what is not only evil in the generic sense, but evil in the specific sense of sin and wrongdoing. It surely appears that Calvin again is right when he contends that “nothing can be desired more explicit than his frequent declarations, that he blinds the minds of men, strikes them with giddiness, inebriates them with the spirit of slumber, fills them with infatuation, and hardens their hearts. These passages also many persons refer to permission, as though, in abandoning the reprobate, God permitted them to be blinded by Satan. But that solution is too frivolous, since the Holy Spirit expressly declares that their blindness and infatuation are inflicted by the righteous judgment of God. He is said to have caused the obduracy of Pharaoh’s heart, and also to have aggravated and confirmed it. Some elude the force of these expressions with a foolish cavil — that, since Pharaoh himself is elsewhere said to have hardened his own heart, his own will is stated as the cause of his obduracy; as though these two things were at all incompatible with each other, that man should be actuated by God, and yet at the same time be active himself. But I retort on them their own objection; for if hardening denotes a bare permission, Pharaoh cannot properly be charged with being the cause of his own obstinacy. Now, how weak and insipid would be such an interpretation, as though Pharaoh only permitted himself to be hardened! Besides, the Scripture cuts off all occasion for such cavils. God says, `I will harden his heart’ " (Institutes, I. xviii. 2).

In this connection it is noteworthy to observe that the prophet was commanded to go and tell the people, “Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed’ (Isa. 6:9, 10). In the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles we have allusion to this part of Isaiah’s prophecy (See Matt. 13:14, 15; John 12:40; Acts 28:26, 27). In Matthew and Acts the blinding of the eyes is represented as the blinding on the part of the people of their own eyes; in John it is represented as blinding on the part of God. This variation should serve to remind us that the positive infliction on the part of God must not be abstracted from the sinful condition of the heart, the moral perversity and responsible action of those who are the subjects of the divine retribution. Paul tells us that, because men will not receive the love of the truth that they might be saved, “for this cause God sends them strong delusion (working of error) that they should believe a lie, that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but took pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thess. 2:11, 12; cf. I Kings 22: 19-23). But while we may not isolate the divine infliction from the moral situation in which those concerned find themselves, we must frankly acknowledge the reality of the divine action and the sovereignty of His agency. “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will, and whom he will be hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18).

Perhaps most familiar to us in the matter of God’s sovereignty as it respects evil are Acts 2:23; 4:28, where the arch-crime of human history, the crucifixion of Christ, is referred to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, and the treatment meted out to Jesus in the conspiracy devised against Him by Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and the people of Israel is referred to as that which the hand and counsel of God foreordained to come to pass.

We are now attempting, only very briefly, to show some of the ways in which the witness of Scripture establishes the all-pervasiveness of the sovereignty of God. When we find this sovereignty coming to expression in the most unequivocal way even in those acts of human agents in which moral responsibility is most intensely active in the perpetrating of wrong, we can hardly go any further in demonstrating the all-inclusiveness of it.

But just then we must ever remind ourselves that God contracts no defilement or criminality from such agency. He is just in all His ways, and holy in all His works. While everything that occurs in God’s universe finds its account, as B. B. Warfield says, “in His positive ordering and active concurrence”, yet “the moral quality of the deed, considered in itself, is rooted in the moral character of the subordinate agent, acting in the circumstances and under the motives operative in each instance” (Biblical Doctrines, p. 20). God is not the author of sin. Sin is embraced in His foreordination; it is accomplished in His providence. But it is embraced in His decree and effected in His providence in such a way as to insure that blame and guilt attach to the perpetrators of wrong and to them alone.

And again there comes to us with renewed force the significance of the precious truth that inscrutable mystery surrounds the divine working. “As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all” (Eccl. 11:5). We cannot rationalise it; we cannot lay it bare so as to comprehend it. We bow in humble and intelligent ignorance and reiterate, “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is high as heaven: what canst thou do? deeper than hell: what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9). His way is in the sea, and His path in the great waters. His footsteps are not known (Ps. 77:19). Clouds and darkness are round about Him. Yet, in accordance with His holiness, Scripture never permits us to forget that justice and judgment are the habitation of His throne (Ps. 89:14).

Part II


Author

Born in Sutherland, Scotland in 1898, John Murray was educated at Dornoch Academy and, after service in France in World War I, at the University of Glasgow. A decision to prepare for the Christian ministry took him to Princeton Theological Seminary for three years in 1924. Thereafter, while studying in Edinburgh, he was invited by Caspar Wistar Hodge, Professor of systematic Theology at Princeton, to join him as assistant in 1929. He thus entered directly into the succession of the Hodges and Warfield. On account of the struggle then taking place between historic Christianity and Liberalism in the Presbyterian church in the USA, Princeton Seminary was passing through the greatest upheaval in its history and the outcome was that in 1930 Murray followed Gresham Machen, O.T. Allis and R.D. Wilson to the newly-formed Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Here he was to teach systematic theology to successive generations of Students until his retirement in 1966.


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