Many times, when I am having a discussion with someone about things like healing, trials, blessings, etc, the phrase “God is sovereign” will come up.  While I agree with this phrase wholeheartedly, it seems to me that people have different ideas about what this phrase actually means.  The purpose of this post is to examine what sovereignty means in general, and then look at how that applies to God.

According to the Dictionary

According to English dictionaries, the word sovereign means things like:

  • possessing supreme authority
  • possessing supreme political power
  • an acknowledged leader

Some of the various synonyms include:

  • independent
  • unmitigated
  • supreme
  • exalted
  • paramount

All of these speak to the qualities of a person, group, nation, or kingdom that is considered sovereign.  If we think about a country like the USA, the nation is supposed to be considered a sovereign nation.  That means that nobody should rightfully be able to give the USA orders concerning its own citizens and its own land.

If we think back to ancient kingdoms of the world, the kings of those kingdoms were considered to be sovereign.  That means that the king did not have to check with anyone for permission before making decisions concerning his kingdom.  The sovereign king, by definition, was able to make any decision and take any action that seemed good to him.

If a sovereign king wanted to make a law or a decree, then he could do so without going to a congress or a parliament or a committee to get approval.  He would just make the decree and it would be so.

Eat a Healthy Breakfast

Let’s say, just to use a silly example, that a king decided to make a law requiring all citizens to eat a healthy breakfast every day.  He would make the decree, and make it known to all the citizens of the land.   This was his sovereign right.

Once this decree was made, the citizens would hear about it.  The citizens did not vote on it, or get asked for their opinion.  They were presented with a law from the king and no further explanation is required.  The king is sovereign, and his word would stand.

Then, each citizen, in the privacy of his own home, would decide each day whether or not to obey the rule.  This point is where the definition of sovereignty is often misused.  Sovereignty does not mean that the king controlled every person and by some mysterious force would cause people to eat a healthy breakfast whether or not they wanted to.  If a person chose to reject this law of the king, then that person would probably face consequences, but it was up to each individual whether or not to obey the law.

Sovereignty means that the king can make choices without consulting anyone or getting votes or permission.  But sovereignty does not mean that the king controlled every minute detail of every choice made by every person.  The king was still sovereign, even when individuals chose to disobey and face consequences.

God’s Sovereignty

This analogy applies very well to help us understand the sovereignty of God.  When we talk about God’s sovereignty, we are talking about God’s “right” to do whatever He pleases, without getting approval from anyone.  He can choose to do things unilaterally if He wants, or He can choose to involve the opinions or desires of His creatures if He wants.  But either way, He is the one who decides, because He is absolutely sovereign.

Here is an example of God’s sovereignty:  God, the real King, made a sovereign decree that every “citizen” should love his neighbor as he loves himself.  But God did not make the citizens do it by force, and many of the citizens choose to disobey this every single day.  Each person has a choice.  They can ignore this decree of God.  Or they can choose to observe it and attempt to keep it wholeheartedly by their own willpower.  Or they can agree the decree is good, and invite the Holy Spirit to help them as they work it out.  But regardless, they have a choice in the matter.  And God is still sovereign no matter what choice they make.  Let me explain:

If God wanted to make a world where every creature always obeyed Him and never rebelled, then God has every right to do that because He is sovereign.  He is absolutely sovereign, and he would not have to ask permission before making this decision.  Nobody could tell Him that He was wrong, or say “hey!  you can’t do that!”  He is sovereign.  He can do whatever He wants.


If God wanted to make a world where His creatures are given the ability to make choices that have a real effect on the world, then He could do that instead.  Since He is sovereign, He can make the world function in this way, and He does not need to ask permission or get approval from anyone.  God has the “right” to give people free will if He wants to.  That is His sovereign choice as the sovereign King of all creation.

And if God chose to make creatures in this way…giving them the ability to make choices…then God (by His own sovereign choice) would be intentionally limiting His control over those creatures and over their environment, to whatever degree He chose to give them freedom of choice.

This would not affect His sovereignty in any way, but it would affect His control, by definition.  If He gives a creature the ability to make free choices, then He is intentionally limiting His control over that creature’s choices.  And again, if He wants to do this, then He can do it because He is sovereign.  It doesn’t mean He is weak or less powerful.  It means that He is big enough, wise enough, and strong enough to execute His eternal purpose no matter what free choices everyone individual makes throughout the centuries.

And this is exactly what we see in the Bible concerning God.  God gave His creatures the ability to make choices that have a real effect on things.  This was His sovereign choice.  And in doing so, He intentionally, sovereign-ly, limited His control over those creatures and their environment to some degree.

It is God who decided the earth would be round, that the earth would rotate around the sun, that water would be wet, that gravity would operate the way it does, that we would need to breathe air, eat food, and so on.  God has definitely put limits and boundaries that we operate inside of.  But inside of those boundaries, God, in His sovereignty, has given us the ability to choose to agree and cooperate with Him, or to choose otherwise.  If we choose otherwise, this does not affect God’s sovereignty in any way, even though our choices can result in outcomes that He does not want.

God decided how to define what is sinful, and what is good.  God does not want us to sin.  He wants us to choose good…to choose love, kindness, faithfulness, etc.  Any time someone sins, then that is not God’s will.  Sin is bad.  God does not want murder, abuse, idolatry, immorality, etc.  But even though those things happen in the world, against His will, He is still sovereign because He defined all the parameters, and He chose to give free will to the beings He created.

Sovereignty Does Not Equal Control

Sovereign does not mean control.  Those are two separate concepts.  God is not controlling.  Being controlling is not godly behavior because God is not like that.  People that are controlling are rarely viewed positively, even when their motives seem good.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…not control. (2 Cor 3:17)

God gives people choices and invites them to participate and agree with Him on things, but He also allows them to choose otherwise.  This is seen throughout the Bible, on every page, from beginning to end.  Every day people are choosing to disobey God, to reject His standards, to behave in ways contrary to His character, and this causes many problems in the world that God never wanted us to experience.  It is therefore unwise to ascribe all events in the world around us to God’s sovereignty or to God’s will or purpose.  And it is wrong to try to explain sinful atrocities and horrific tragedies by implying that God somehow must have caused it “because He is sovereign.”  Rather, God exercised His sovereignty when He chose to allow us to make choices, even when those choices result in outcomes that God does not want in any way.  (Please see my post titled “Does God’s Will Always Happen” for more on this.)

God is all-powerful, infinite, and limitless.  He defined the parameters of our universe.  He created all of the laws of physics that rule the physical realm.  He created the spiritual realm, and all of its inhabitants.  God made all living creatures and designed the way they would function.  God chose to give His created beings the ability to make choices that will affect the future to some degree, and in doing so, He chose to limit His control over those beings to that same degree.  God chose to communicate His will to mankind in a way that we can understand.  And He chose to allow us to decide whether or not we would agree with and walk in His will.  Our free will does not contradict His sovereignty.  He gave us our free will as an act of His sovereignty.  And in His sovereignty, He chooses to allow us to continue to make choices, good or bad, that affect our environment and our future to some degree.

2 Responses

  1. Neal, we talked about this post some the other day at the church social event, but I’m finding I’m getting some push back from people on the idea that God doesn’t do some element of control over human wills. The two things that keep coming up are Proverbs 21:1 which says “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” and where it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, like Exodus 7:3-4 which says “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my people the Israelites.”

    What do you make of those passages?

    1. Hi Jeremy. This is one big area where it doesn’t surprise me when you get pushback.

      In my opinion, some parts of this kind of discussion will boil down to semantics. I do believe that God intervenes in human affairs, and I am very thankful that He does this. However, to me it seems more consistent to look at it as a function of influence rather than control. I will demonstrate this with the passages in question.

      If the passage from Proverbs 21:1 means that God *controls* the decisions of kings, then we have some very difficult problems that arise regarding God’s character. Here are a few examples from the Bible:

      In 1 Samuel 13:13, Samuel, a prophet who is speaking on behalf of God, rebukes Saul and tells him that if Saul would have made a different decision, then it would have been Saul’s kindom that was established over Israel forever. But because of Saul’s poor choices, the Lord picked out someone else…David. If The Lord was controlling Saul, then the Lord is the one who caused Saul to disobey the Lord’s command, and then the Lord rebukes Saul for disobeying that very command that the Lord forced him to disobey. If God is indeed controlling all of these things, then it paints a very strange picture of God’s character.

      If God controls all the “kings” of history, then that makes God responsible for all their actions. And there have been some horribly sinful atrocities done that the hands of different word rulers over the years. There are many many examples in scripture of God working to change the minds of different rulers…this should be seen as influence. Some of them obeyed (see Abimilech in Gen 20), and some of them didn’t (see Zedekiah in Jer 38-39). If God is truly controlling the hearts of these kings, then what are we to make of the ones that disobeyed?

      As far as Pharaoh goes, this also is an issue of semantics in my opinion, and it becomes an issue of God’s wisdom rather than control. In the story, it looks like Pharaoh was already defiant by his own choice. The Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart seven times before the Lord started to intervene. But God wanted to rescue His people. God, in His wisdom, knows how Pharaoh is likely to react, but God is going to get His people out of there even if it causes Pharaoh’s heart to harden. God does not let the fact that Pharaoh is going to dig his heels in even more stop Him from moving forward with His plan. Basically, the more God acts, the more Pharaoh gets solidified in his initial choice, and this occurs as a result of his own unwillingness to change his mind. I don’t see this as a function of God “zapping” Pharaoh’s mind and making him antagonistic against his own will. I see it that God is allowing Pharaoh to experience the consequences of his wrong attitude.

      For more on this topic, I highly recommend a teacher named Greg Boyd. Note that I do not endorse all of Greg’s beliefs in every area, but he is one of the best I have ever heard when it comes to examining these doctrines in the light of God’s revealed character.

Leave a Reply