A couple of weeks ago I read a story about Tesla. The reporter had written a long piece about the company’s declining share prices and what it might mean for its future. He had written about its eccentric founder and some of his perplexing public comments. At the end of the article he included a little note explaining that, though he had reached out to the company to request a comment, he had received none. He had received none because Tesla has no public relations or media relations department. There was no comment because there was no one to provide one. I thought this made a funny little ending to an otherwise serious story.
I have spent a good bit of time over the past few years thinking and writing about grief and that has led to me read and converse a lot about the subject. And one theme I have come across time and again is Christians who are committed to doing a bit of PR work on behalf of the Lord. Though God has no media relations department, these people feel inclined to volunteer for the position and to explain—or explain away—some of what God says or does. Like any PR representative, they stand between the “boss” and the world to explain what he really meant, what he really intended to communicate in his Word.
Most often they intend to remove any connection between the suffering or death of a human being and the sovereignty of God. “God did not wish for this to happen,” they might say. “This could never be God’s will.” Maybe they’ll even say something like, “Satan won this round.” They want to protect God from his own sovereignty, as if it does not extend to matters as consequential as sorrow, suffering, and death.
Yet the consistent testimony of the Bible and the consistent testimony of the historic Christian faith is that God is, indeed, sovereign over all things. He is sovereign over birth, he is sovereign over death, and he is sovereign over everything in between. This means he is sovereign over the means of death and even over any suffering that accompanies death. Yet, of course, never in such a way as to sin or to be morally responsible for sin.
This relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is difficult to understand. In fact, it may well be impossible to fully understand, at least on this side of eternity. And so we take it by faith as the clear testimony of God’s Word.
And as we take it by faith, it brings meaning and purpose to our times of difficulty, for how could meaning and purpose fail to follow when we submit ourselves to the providence of God? He stands behind our sorrows, not as the one who is necessarily morally responsible for their causes—he compels no man to fire a gun and no woman to drive in a drunken state—but as the one who ultimately has power over all the circumstances of life and death.
There are many places you can go to see how this can be proven in the Bible (see here for example) but my interest today is in showing how other Christians have understood and explained the extent of God’s sovereignty. I do this because I have often felt the need to verify my understanding of Scripture and what I take to be its expansive explanation of God’s sovereignty against better theologians than myself. And, as I have consulted them, here is what I have found.
- Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.” (Note: all creatures … all things.)
- Westminster Shorter Catechism: “God’s works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.” (Note: all his creatures and all their actions.)
- John Piper. “God, in his absolute ownership and sovereignty over all life, appoints the time and the kind of every death of every person on this planet.” (Note: God appoints the time and he appoints the kind.)
- Erwin Lutzer. “Our death is just as meticulously planned as the death of Christ. There is no combination of evil men, disease, or accident that can kill us as long as God still has work for us to do. To those who walk with faith in God’s providence, they die according to God’s timetable… The immediate cause of death might be any number of things, but the ultimate cause is God.” (Note: distinction between immediate cause and ultimate cause.)
- Loraine Boettner: “Nations, as well as individuals, are thus in the hands of God, who appoints the bounds of their habitation, and controls their destiny. He controls them as absolutely as a man controls a rod or a staff. They are in His hands, and He employs them to accomplish His purposes. He breaks them in pieces as a potter’s vessel, or He exalts them to greatness, according to His good pleasure. He gives peace and fruitful seasons, property and happiness, or He sends the desolations of war, famine, drought and pestilence. All of these things are of His disposing, and are designed for intelligent ends under His universal providence. God is no mere spectator of the universe He has made, but is everywhere present and active, the all-sustaining ground, and all-governing power of all that is.” (Note: the full expanse of God’s sovereignty.)
- William Mason. “Christian! Death cannot hurt you! Death is your best friend – who is commissioned by Christ to summon you from the world of vanity and woe, and from a body of sin and death – to the blissful regions of glory and immortality, to meet your Lord, and to be forever with Him.” (Note: death is commissioned by God and summoned by God.)
- Randy Alcorn. “Our sovereign God weaves millions of details into our lives. He may have one big reason, or a thousand little ones, for bringing a certain person or success or failure or disease or accident into our lives. His reasons often fall outside our present lines of sight. If God uses cancer or a car accident to conform us to Himself, then regardless of the human, demonic, or natural forces involved, He will be glorified.” (Note: Even difficult and grievous circumstances are used by God to do his will.)
- A.W. Pink. “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. His government is exercised over inanimate matter, over the brute beasts, over the children of men, over angels good and evil, and over Satan Himself. No revolving of a world, no shining of a star, no storm, no movement of a creature, no actions of men, no errands of angels, no deeds of the Devil—nothing in all the vast universe can come to pass otherwise than God has eternally purposed. Here is a foundation for faith. Here is a resting place for the intellect. Here is an anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast. It is not blind fate, unbridled evil, man or Devil, but the Lord Almighty who is ruling the world, ruling it according to His own good pleasure and for His own eternal glory.” (Note: the totality of God’s sovereignty.)
- John Owen. “We cannot enjoy peace in this world unless we are ready to yield to the will of God in respect of death. Our times are in His hand, at His sovereign disposal. We must accept that as best.” (Note: peace is related to accepting God’s sovereignty.)
- J.I. Packer. “To know that nothing happens in God’s world apart from God’s will may frighten the godless, but it stabilizes the saints.” (Note: God’s sovereignty over all things, including sorrow, suffering, and death is meant to give us confidence and stability.)
And so, as far as I am concerned, the truth is as clear as clear can be.