Sovereignty of God

SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. The word “sovereign,” although it does not occur in any form in the English Bible, conveys the oft-repeated scriptural thought of the supreme authority of God. He is called Pantokratōr “Almighty” (2Cor.6.18 and nine times in Revelation); “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1Tim.6.15). He “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph.1.11). His sovereignty follows logically from the doctrine that he is God, Creator, and Ruler of the universe.

The sovereignty of God is sometimes presented in the Bible as an unanalyzed ultimate. “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Rom.9.20-Rom.9.21; see Isa.45.9; cf. Ps.115.3; Dan.4.35; and many similar passages). God is not subject to any power or any abstract rule or law that could be conceived as superior to or other than himself.

Yet the Scripture is equally emphatic that God’s character is immutably holy and just and good. “He cannot disown himself” (2Tim.2.13). “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb.6.18; cf. Titus.1.2). A man of faith may rightly stand before the Lord and plead, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen.18.25). “His love endures forever” is an oft-recurring phrase (Ps.136.1-Ps.136.26). He assures his people of his eternal self-consistency: “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Mal.3.6).

The inscrutable sovereignty of God is manifested, not so much in the punishment of the reprobate as in the salvation of his people. In his holy character he must logically punish moral evil (see Sin). But his sovereignty is most marvelously revealed in that he has graciously elected to save a people from their sin and from its consequences.——JOB

SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. The term “sovereignty” connotes a situation in which a person, from his innate dignity, exercises supreme power, with no areas of his province outside his jurisdiction. A “sovereign” is one who enjoys full autonomy, allowing no rival immunities.

As applied to God, the term “sovereignty” indicates His complete power over all of creation, so that He exercises His will absolutely, without any necessary conditioning by a finite will or wills. The term does not occur in Scripture, although the idea is abundantly implied. The major metaphor employed is that of “ruler and subject.” The doxologies and prophetic exclamations bear much of the weight of Biblical statement of the divine sovereignty. To be noted are the following: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever” (1 Tim 1:17); the words of Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, “...till you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will” (Dan 4:25); and “But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation” (Jer 10:10).

God’s sovereignty is His omnipotence expressing itself in relation to the created world, with its inanimate structures and its empirical selves. He is declared to possess absolute authority, illustrated by the power held by the potter over the clay (Rom 9:19ff.). Nor is His intrinsic ability diminished by the qualities of holiness and righteousness which are integral to His nature (cf. Rom 11:22).

As sovereign, He is the everlasting God. Within time, He commands the forces of nature (Matt 5:45; 6:30). The exercise of sovereignty does not, of course, lead to the performance of the logically or the metaphysically absurd, nor of the morally contradictory.

The doctrine of divine sovereignty raises the problem of the relation of God’s sovereign action to man’s activity. Genesis 2:15 indicates that the first man received a conferred sovereignty over nature. Kings of the earth also rule by His mandate (1 Sam 15:11; 2 Chron 1:9). Human sovereignties are delegated and revokable. At the same time, the capability of men for the exercise of choices, whether affirmative or negative, suggests that while the divine sovereignty is itself not limited, God may for wise reasons restrain its exercise.

There has been, historically, theological perplexity at this point. In refuting the error of Pelagius, Augustine seemed at times to deny any valid human freedom. In conflict with Erasmus, Luther seemed to do the same. Calvin articulated a logical system of theology upon the basis of the doctrine of divine sovereignty; some Reformed writers feel that, with the best of intentions, Calvin carried the teaching to a point which seemed to do less than justice to human choice and human stewardship. In similar vein, Abraham Kuyper suggests, “Deze Souvereiniteit bestaat niet bij de menschen. Geen enkel mensch heeft eenig souvereiniteit: die heeft God de Heere alleen als de Almachtige” (Dictaten Dogmatiek, I, 417). Others, including Jacobus Arminius, sought to make place for the role of human choice within the context of the divine sovereignty, contending that God could foreknow genuinely contingent events, thus giving larger place to human free will than was implied by Reformed theologians.

(Translation of quotation from Abraham Kuyper, Dictaten Dogmatiek, I, 417, quoted in article noted above: [This sovereignty is not a property of mankind. No mere man possesses any sovereignty; this belongs to God alone as the Almighty One.]) See God.


C. Hodge, Systematic Theology (1872), 440, 441, 535-549; J. Miley, Systematic Theology I (1892), 211-213; L. Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine (1933), 70-74; H. O. Wiley, Christian Theology, I (1940), 329-343, 357-360; C. F. H. Henry, ed., Basic Christian Doctrines (1962), 21-34; J. O. Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, II (1963), 134-148; C. F. H. Henry, ed., Christian Faith and Modern Theology (1964), 69-93.