STUDY SIX: THE SOVEREIGN LORD – 1

© Rosemary Bardsley 2007, 2016

The God defined by the Bible is of necessity the sovereign Lord of all.

When we learn from the Bible that God is ‘holy’ – unique, one of a kind, the only God – this also includes the knowledge that he, and he alone, is the one who is in the position of ultimate authority and power. Isaiah, who frequently referred to him as the Holy One of Israel, also frequently referred to him as the Almighty God. The two go hand in hand. There is not another God alongside him vying for ascendency. His rivals, those who would usurp his throne, are all lesser beings, created things, not in any way similar to him.

When we learn from the Bible that God is the eternal One, the ‘I AM’, from this also we know that he is the transcendent One, for no one and nothing else is eternal, all else has a beginning.

When we learn from the Bible that God is the Creator, we learn that he is the Creator of all things. This ‘all things’ means exactly what is says.

Concerning God as Creator of all things we read:

John 1:3: ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.’

Romans 11:36: ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things’.

1Corinthians 8:6: ‘… there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came … and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came …’

Colossians 1:16: ‘For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him’.

Because God is the Creator of all that exists – both things visible and things invisible, because he is the eternal One, and because he is the only God, it is not possible that anyone or anything else can hold the position of absolute power and authority. God is of necessity the One who stands in the position of power and authority over everything else.

He is the Sovereign Lord. He, and he alone, is King.

His Old Testament names and titles reflect this.

 

A.    THE DIVINE NAMES AND TITLES

[Note: quotes marked ‘S’  are from Names of God, by Nathan J. Stone; quotes marked ‘L’ are from ‘All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible’ by Herbert Lockyer.]

Lord - Adonai: Indicates that God is the owner, master and ruler of all that exists.

God - Elohim: ‘Elohim’ is the word used in the creation narratives. It points to  ‘might, power, omnipotence, transcendence’ [S]; and to God as ‘majestic Ruler … the idea of omnipotence, or creative and governing power’ [L].

God - El: The strong one; indicative of ‘the great power of God.’ [L]

The most high God - El Elyon: Refers to the fact that God is exalted far above all that exists and in authority over all that exists, even over earthly rulers and kingdoms.

The everlasting God - El Olam: God’s authority transcends time and space reaching beyond the present time/space moment. A reference to the eternity of God.

Almighty God - El Shaddai; [Almighty – Shaddai]:    A reference to the all-sufficiency of God. ‘Almighty’ is not a direct reference to ‘power’, but to God’s ability to provide. [‘Shaddai’ means ‘breasts’ which are the sole and ever-ready source of an infant’s sustenance, as well as comfort in times of stress.] ‘In him all fullness dwells, and out of His constant fullness His own receive all things’ [L] Whatever our need the Almighty God has the resources and power to act and meet that need.

The LORD of hosts - Jehovah Sabaoth: God is ‘the controller of all created agencies and ruler of all’ [L]

The LORD God Almighty  - A combination name

Sovereign Lord [or LORD] - Indicates his authority

King - Indicates his authority

Lord of all the earth - Indicates his world wide power and authority

God of heaven - Indicates his authority

Similarly, when we read in the New Testament of the victory and headship of Jesus Christ, we realize that his authority is an authority that encompasses all things. Nothing is left out. Nothing is beyond or outside of his authority. The names and descriptions of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, teach us of this ultimate authority:

Matthew 28:18: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’.

Romans 8:38,39: ‘… neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Ephesians 1:20-22: ‘… he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church’.

Philippians 2:9: ‘Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

Colossians 2:10: ‘ … Christ, who is the head over every power and authority’.

And these descriptions and titles from Revelation:

‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’ [1:5]

‘what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open’ [3:7]

‘the ruler of God’s creation’ [3:14]

‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’ [11:15]

‘King of kings, and Lord of lords’ [19:16]

 

B. THE CONCEPT OF THE PROVIDENCE [SOVEREIGNTY] OF GOD

Historically, discussions of God have included extended reference to his providence. The term ‘providence’ is used interchangeably with the term ‘sovereignty’.

The concept of the providence/sovereignty of God is dependent upon the fact that he is the Creator, and is a biblical expression of the fact that God is the Creator.

Here we face the question: did God, having created the world and us, then leave it and us alone? Or did God, having created the world and us, remain intimately involved in, and in control of, the world and us?

Here we also face the question: if God is still involved in and in control of the world, what is the extent and nature of that control and that involvement?

Deism sees God as the ‘first cause’ of the world, who, having created and set the world in motion, then left it, and us, to our own devices. He is not interested in the world and us. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t interfere.

Fatalism, or determinism, sees God’s control as something that is locked in, something that neither human need nor human entreaty can move God to alter. Everything is planned. Everything has been predetermined. Nothing can be changed.

Both of these human perceptions of God leave us with a God who is far removed from the loving God revealed in the Bible who interferes in the world and in our lives, and loves us so much that he wants us to call him ‘Father’.

The God of the deists is obviously not loving. The God of the fatalists is obviously not loving.

Having disposed of the concept of God as love, these two opinions give an easy explanation for the existence of suffering in the world. For them, there is no tension between the concept of a God who is both powerful and loving and the sadness and suffering in the world. On the one hand, the deistic God is not immediately to blame, for he is a hands-off God, who, although he did create us, has nothing to do with what we do with our lives, having left us to our own devices. If we got ourselves in a mess, that’s our fault, not his. It doesn’t contradict his love, for he never was thought of as loving us. On the other hand, while the God of the fatalists is very much to blame, being a hands-on God, he makes no claim to be loving, so the tension does not exist. We have no sense of incongruence between the deist’s God and suffering, and the fatalist’s God and suffering.

It is only the biblical revelation of a God who claims to be powerful and good and loving that creates this tension and this incongruence.

Because unbelief repeatedly raises this tension between the Bible’s claim that God is love, and the obvious suffering evident all around us, and uses this apparent contradiction as an excuse to continue in unbelief, it is essential for us to have biblical responses to this recurrent question. We need to know what the concept ‘providence’ of ‘sovereignty’ of God means. We need to know in what way God exercises this sovereignty. We need to know how the presence of suffering in the world does not undermine and disprove the biblical affirmation of both the power and the love of God.

 

C. ASPECTS OF SOVEREIGNTY

The sovereignty of God assumes that he is the only God. If we had to deal with two equally powerful ‘gods’, one good, one evil, suffering would be easily explained. We could attribute ultimate blame to the powerful evil ‘god’. But there is no ‘god’ equally powerful with the biblical God. The one we know as ‘the evil one’ is not a ‘god’. He is a rebellious, proud, created being, whose power cannot be compared with the ultimate, absolute power of the biblical God. Satan is not the one who calls the shots. Satan is not the one who decides what will and what will not happen. We cannot over-rule the problems by escaping into dualism.

The sovereignty of God assumes that he is a God of infinite power. If we had to deal with a god of limited, relative power, again suffering would be easily explained. We could blame it on God’s weakness and lack of authority; we could assume that he is not able to do anything, that he is unable to put his will or purpose into action. But that is not the kind of God the Bible presents to us. He is in authority over all things. He can do whatever he pleases. Nothing can thwart his purposes. It is precisely his claim to infinite and absolute and ultimate power that forces the question: ‘Why then does he not stop the suffering? Why did he not stop the first sin? … and so on.

The very attributes of God that make him the sovereign Lord of all are the things that generate the difficult questions, and generate the human denial or doubt of those other attributes – goodness and love – which the Bible repeatedly affirms of God.

 

D. INCARNATION AND SOVEREIGNTY

At a fundamental level the incarnation is the simple and deep answer to the questions generated by the tension between the Bible’s affirmation of the power, love and goodness of God on the one hand and the presence of suffering in the world on the other hand.

The incarnate God, this God who took on human flesh and lived among us, demonstrated in this incarnation ultimate power and authority, and absolute goodness, and infinite love, without reduction of any of them, without compromise of any.

Who is this incarnate One? By looking at Jesus Christ we learn, firstly, that:

It was not the uncaring, uninvolved god of the deists who came down to this earth and lived among us

It was not the unapproachable, immoveable god of the fatalists who came down to this earth and lived among us.

It was not a god who lives in constant tension and conflict and suspense in the presence of a second equally powerful god.

It was not a god who is loving and good, but impotent and lacking in authority.

From this incarnate One we learn

That God is a God of goodness and love who grieves [with both sadness and anger] in the presence of human suffering.

That God is a God of compassion and power who interferes and intervenes in the lives of men, overthrowing the status quo, undoing what is to bring about what is not.

That the action of God in which his love is most clearly evident is also the greatest demonstration of his power.

That the action of God in which his greatest power is exerted is also the action which is the greatest demonstration of his love.

That this action in which both the power and the love of God are affirmed to the fullest measure is also that action in which the depth of human suffering is demonstrated.

That this action in which both the power and the love of God are affirmed to the fullest measure is the action in which God takes hold of this ultimate suffering and turns it to ultimate good.

To know Jesus Christ, the eternal I AM, who took our flesh and lived among us, then died for our sins and rose again to life, is to know that those who deny or question either the sovereignty or the compassionate love of God, or hold them in a state of constant tension, are sadly and terribly wrong.

Here in this Christ we see the great patience and humility of God: that he is content to be misrepresented, he is content to be reviled, while all the time moving this world, and us, to its ultimate consummation. During this time between Genesis 3 and Revelation 19, in which God hides his glory and restrains his power, this time in which men criticize and condemn him as unloving, uncaring, weak, is the time in which he calls us to himself, the era in which, in unfathomable love, he gives us time to repent, time to call on his name, a time to receive his grace.  

In the midst of the questions and criticisms, he says to believers ‘wait’. Wait in hope. A day is coming when his power will no longer be subdued, when his glory will no longer be hidden, when his sovereignty and authority will be so evident that men will rush to hide from him. There will be no doubts about his sovereignty then, only regrets that his love had been denied and rejected.

 

E. THE PROVIDENCE [SOVEREIGNTY] OF GOD EXPRESSED IN THE CHRISTIAN CONFESSIONS

This providence of God has been defined in the creeds and confessions of the Christian church.

As you read these confessions look for statements that outlaw either deism or fatalism. Underline every such statement,

The Roman Catechism [The Catechism of Trent – 1566]

God Preserves, Rules And Moves All Created Things
‘We are not, however, to understand that God is in such wise the Creator and Maker of all things that His works, when once created and finished, could thereafter continue to exist unsupported by His omnipotence. For as all things derive existence from the Creator's supreme power, wisdom, and goodness, so unless preserved continually by His Providence, and by the same power which produced them, they would instantly return into their nothingness. This the Scriptures declare when they say: How could anything endure if thou wouldst not? or be preserved, if not called by thee?

Not only does God protect and govern all things by His Providence, but He also by an internal power impels to motion and action whatever moves and acts, and this in such a manner that, although He excludes not, He yet precedes the agency of secondary causes. For His invisible influence extends to all things, and, as the Wise Man says, reaches from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly. This is the reason why the Apostle, announcing to the Athenians the God whom, not knowing, they adored, said: He is not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and are.’
    [Source: http://www.cin.org/users/james/ebooks/master/trent/tcreed01.htm]


The Belgic Confession [1618]

Article 13: The doctrine of God’s providence
‘We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.

Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.

We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ's disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.

This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.

In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.

For that reason we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God involves himself in nothing and leaves everything to chance.’
            [Source: http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html]

The Baptist Confession of Faith [1689]

Chapter 5: Of God’s providence

‘Paragraph 1. God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, [Heb. 1:3; Job 38:11; Isa. 46:10,11; Ps. 135:6] from the greatest even to the least, [Matt. 10:29-31] by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will; to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy. [Eph. 1:11]
 
Paragraph 2. Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; [Acts 2:23] so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without His providence; [Prov. 16:33] yet by the same providence He ordered them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. [Gen. 8:22]
 
Paragraph 3. God, in his ordinary providence makes use of means, [Acts 27:31, 44; Isa. 55:10, 11] yet is free to work without, [Hosea 1:7] above, [Rom. 4:19-21] and against them [Dan. 3:27] at His pleasure.
 
Paragraph 4. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in His providence, that His determinate counsel extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; [Rom. 11:32-34; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1] and that not by a bare permission, which also He most wisely and powerfully binds, and otherwise orders and governs, [2 Kings 19:28; Ps. 76:10] in a manifold dispensation to His most holy ends; [Gen. 1:20; Isa. 10:6,7,12] yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceeds only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. [Ps. 1; 21; 1 John 2:16]

Paragraph 5. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does often times leave for a season His own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for other just and holy ends.  [2 Chron. 32:25,26,31; 2 Cor. 12:7-9] So that whatsoever befalls any of His elect is by His appointment, for His glory, and their good. [Rom. 8:28]

Paragraph 6. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as the righteous judge, for former sin does blind and harden; [Rom. 1:24-26,28, 11:7,8] from them He not only withholds His grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts; [Deut. 29:4] but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, [Matt. 13:12] and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; [Deut. 2:30; 2 Kings 8:12,13] and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, [Ps. 81:11,12; 2 Thess. 2:10-12] whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God uses for the softening of others. [Exod. 8:15,32; Isa. 6:9,10; 1 Pet. 2:7,8]
 
Paragraph 7. As the providence of God does in general reach to all creatures, so after a more special manner it takes care of His church, and disposes of all things to the good thereof. [1 Tim. 4:10; Amos 9:8,9; Isa. 43:3-5].

[Source: http://www.reformed.org/documents/baptist_1689.html ]

 

F. THE CHALLENGE FOR CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANS

As we have already seen, the presence of suffering causes a rejection of the concept of divine providence or sovereignty. For many, the heavy traumas and tragedies of the twentieth century justified this rejection and denial.

G.C. Berkouwer confronted his readers with this challenge:

‘These are times in which the Church of Christ must ask herself whether she still has the courage, in profound and unshakable faith, in boundless confidence, to proclaim the Providence of God. Or is she possessed of secret doubts fed by daily events? Can she still speak of God’s rule over all things, of His holy presence in this world? Can she yet proclaim confidently His unlimited control over the world and life, war and peace, East and West, pagans . . .  and Jews? Dare she still, with eyes open to the facts of life – no less than those who from the facts conclude an imperative atheism – still confess her old confession?’ [p10, The Providence of God]

This challenge was written in 1952. It is even more urgent now, after a further half century of deepening world tragedy and despair.