DO CALVINISTS HAVE THE CORNERSTONE ON SOVEREIGNTY?
If you’ve read any of my blog posts for any amount of time, you’ve probably come to a very obvious conclusion: I like theology. I like church history. I like the study of denominations and what they believe, why they believe it, and how it influences the way they believe it.
A flippant observation of perhaps pastors, or lay-students of theology, is, “Calvinists are strong on the sovereignty of God.” This amuses me. I want to meet the Christian who says, “Well, that church over there doesn’t believe God is sovereign.” And in a jr. high school type fashion, is a Calvinist going to respond, “Well, we really believe it!”
Okay Mister, here’s your blue ribbon.
Okay, to be fair, there are folks out there who might call themselves Christian, but really aren’t Christian, who propose that God isn’t sovereign? I think? I don’t know.
WHAT’S STRONG SOVEREIGNTY?
So what do Calvinists or Reformed-types have that others don’t? Perhaps many folks refer to meticulous providence, or sovereignty, that indeed, God is not only overseeing the universe as – perhaps a ruler oversees a nation. Rather, “not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground without your Father,” (Matthew 10:29), and “If there is disaster against a city, is it not the Lord who has done it?” (Amos 3:6b), and “A man’s heart devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps,” (Proverbs 16:9), “but our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases,” (Psalm 115:3). I can go on, but the idea is that Calvinists at times profess belief in a meticulously sovereign God.
In other words, God has foreordained every finger tap I do, and every finger tap-backspace-error, and God has foreordained the exact millisecond your eyes read these words. God put into motion the fact that I stuck a McCafe Decaf K-Cup in my Keurig, and poured it into my black Boston Bruins coffee mug (because God picked that out too, and just used me to execute that said plan). He wanted, for better or worse, the stevia sweetner and Lucerne half-and-half I put in there for me to have this moment as I wrote this blog, espousing theology, good or bad. God has meticulously planned everything, down to the movement of atoms, for every time, all of time. So says some Calvinists.
PROS AND CONS OF THIS BELIEF
First off, any good Bible-believing Christian ought to start, study, and end with the Bible. Because if the Bible says it, the debate is over. Theologians have been tossing around the kind of Sovereignty God has for centuries. (No serious Bible-believing Christian doubts God is sovereign. They just want to know what kind of Sovereign ruler He is, ie. His character, the extent of His Sovereignty is not debated).
Type in “meticulous providence,” or “sovereignty passages,” on Google and you will find a fair share of verses that sound rather meticulous and sovereign on behalf of God.
When I was Calvinist (I was Calvinist kind of the way drunkards reject being called an alcoholic. While I never came out of any Calvinist closet, I was for all intents and purposes, Calvinist) I took hope, comfort and confidence in this doctrine.
I want to be clear before I say more: my thoughts or feelings in relation to the validity or invalidity of this doctrine has no bearing. In other words, our feelings have no weight when it comes to truth. Donald J. Trump is the President of the USA, some rejoice, others mourn. Whatever the emotional response, he’s still President.
If this doctrine as Calvinists paint it is true, “so, what?” when it comes to how it makes me feel? My feelings have no bearing, weight, or voice in absolute truth. Even so, let me, for the sake of enlightening some people who may find this doctrine very offensive, give a reason why it may bring hope.
If God meticulously planned and executed everything as I laid out above, it brings hope in many ways. For the elect, they’re saved, and no sin can separate us from God. In fact, it [belief in this doctrine] caused me to wonder at times in my vicious cycles of sins that though I feel guilty, if I truly believe that God meticulously planned, foreordained and executed my sin (though illogically / miraculously for reasons unknown to us God bears no moral blame for the matter, that’s all my fault) – He must be teaching me something. So hope comes from the fact that, “Hey, it’s a done deal. I’m saved. No matter what sins I do, if I’m truly sorry, and truly repentant, I should look to the reasons as to what God is teaching me in His fore-ordination and execution of my sins, and in doing so, my guilt will be swallowed up by God’s plan.” In a long, round-about way, this was also blame shifting if I’m honest (Does James 1:13 speak to this matter?). That is, God’s ultimately to blame for any and everything. That’s Meticulous Providence / Sovereignty stated negatively.
Furthermore though, it brought great comfort, because it meant every evil no matter how tragic and painful, had God’s good plan behind it. Because if God had planned it and executed it, why would I ever question it? Why would I think that something evil would somehow be victorious, if God had wanted it to happen anyways, and I never doubted His reasons…?
However, there is an obvious flip-side to all this, and perhaps if you’ve never thought deeply about these things, you have begun to reason them out yourself. It really revolves around the character of God. What kind of God would put vicious-cycle sinners like me through such sins? Wouldn’t this be tantamount to me teaching and prodding my son to rob a bank? But then, somehow absolve myself of any blame? “I only gave him the blueprints, the get-away driver, the guns, and I strenuously trained him for this event, but don’t tell me I’m guilty! He carried it out!”
Sometimes Calvinists might retreat to Deuteronomy 29:29 or Isaiah 55:9 when it comes to hard-hitting questions like this. The secret things belong to God, and His ways are above our ways, and until we come up with good sounding arguments to explain what seems contradictory to God’s good-nature, we’ll call the things we can’t understand secret or transcendent. So we sacrifice the Spirit-empowered and God-given understandings of justice, goodness, and wisdom at the altar of idolizing a theology. I’ll admit, that last sentence was too harsh, and I write it with checked-motives, and not out of 100% sincere conviction. But it makes you think.
ALTERNATIVES TO METICULOUS PROVIDENCE / SOVEREIGNTY?
Some would suggest that anything less than meticulous Providence or Sovereignty takes a bite out of God’s power. Why? if evil happens that God didn’t plan, then is He really God? If we believe God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere but if somebody, somewhere goes rogue outside of His power, then God’s just been blindsided! You have a small God if you believe that He can be blindsided!
At the same time, we don’t know why God would be interested in me having chosen my Boston Bruins coffee mug, with the decaf coffee, as a friend of mine says, “What’s the point of that? Decaf coffee?” But we have to believe in a meticulously sovereign God if we believe in God’s sovereign, unquestionable power.
We see a pattern in Genesis 1 that is broken. In Genesis 1, God makes things, calls them good, and that’s it. The first thing that is made in Genesis 1 that breaks the pattern? Humanity, for multiple reasons. Yet for the sake of this article, what stands out, is that God gives humanity a rule.
Wait? How come we get the rule? Could it be that God (a) doesn’t expect rebellion from his soulless creations, and (b) part of the image of God put into us is a conscience and propensity to do right or wrong. So (c) God, in His goodness, wants to warn us to not open that can of worms (which we inevitably open)?
In fact, the Bible would state at times that God often says to His people, “You’re the only creature in all creation that rebels against me!” (See Isaiah 1:2-3 or Jeremiah 8:4-7). For God to level this charge must mean that (1) God has a purpose and order for people and (2) they rebel against God.
DOES REDEMPTION SPEAK TO GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY?
One might argue that for the very Gospel to exist must mean that God’s meticulous providence as high Calvinists would paint it does not exist. Would you agree that the story of the Bible is in some sense, a rescue mission? If so, why are rescue missions put into plan in the first place? Something’s gone awry.
Suppose a kidnap takes place, and the perpetrator and victim are in an abandoned warehouse. Eventually it comes down to a SWAT team going in to rescue the victim. Everything is not okay. The perpetrator is doing unchecked evil that hopefully is about to be checked, but too late for the victim. The victim is – well – a victim to the sin caused by the perpetrator. It’s not just another righteous, planned-for, good day, but rather a rescue is taking place! Hopefully the evil will be redeemed! Hopefully the SWAT team will be successful! Hopefully the day that was unplanned for and tragic, will be saved in the end.
God’s desire in creation was perfect fellowship with humanity. Humanity messed that up. God has promised redemption and He can bring it. We know that the end, to use our illustration, the end will be the SWAT team will rescue the kid, and the perpetrator will be put behind bars.
Can an Arminian, or can anyone who may not believe in meticulous providence still take hope that God will win in the end?
While I personally believe that the evidence for Scriptures for meticulous sovereignty can be extracted and perhaps read that way, and it’s possible/ I believe the evidence for God’s victory in the end is abundantly clear and really isn’t up for interpretation for any serious Bible-believing Christian.
IS THIS A POWERFUL ENOUGH SOVEREIGNTY FOR YOU?
I can go many places and explore many topics in this blog post, but for the sake of not taking up 5 as opposed to 4 hours of your time, I’ll end it this way. I think many well-meaning Calvinists argue for their view of sovereignty because it is a power that is quite intense, and well-imagined.
I remember I was on a walk last week listening to a sermon, and the thought came to my mind as two bugs flew by, “Wow, was that God’s handiwork? Though they be mindless bugs, who are here today and gone tomorrow, did God want at this time those two bugs to fly across my path on my walk? Were their very flight patterns laid out by God?”
That is a power to think about and take awe in. But I know other sort of power to think about and take awe in.
What if God can accomplish exactly what He wants through sinful people without coercing or foreordaining and executing their plans through them? Without having to take hold of them like a puppeteer? What if God can have His cake and eat it too, and eat it by us bringing it to Him voluntarily on our part? I like how Robert E. Picirilli puts it:
But Arminians believe that there is no threat to, or restriction of, God’s sovereign freedom, who runs everything (nothing omitted) as He pleases, by having another personal and free (although limited) being in the universe…
God is able to govern the truly free exercise of men’s wills in such a way that all goes according to His plan. A God who created a complex universe inhabited by beings pre-programmed to act out His will for them would be great. But one who can make men with wills of their own and set them free to act in ways He has not determined for them, and still govern the whole in perfect accord with His purpose is far greater. “If the divine Wisdom knows how to effect that which it has decreed, by employing causes according to their nature and motion—whether their nature and motion be contingent or free, the praise due to such wisdom is far greater than if it employ a power which no creature can possibly resist.”
Picirilli, Robert. Grace Faith Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (p. 43); last quote, Picirilli quotes Arminius himself.
His point is, would it not be more powerful, more awe-inspiring to imagine that not only does God have His way, but He does it utilizing the free wills and actions of men?! What if God didn’t predetermine or execute your sins that you hate (because you love God, and God hates those sins as well), but at the same time God can and will redeem all evil for His good! You can trust that He doesn’t want you in your vicious cycle of sin, and you don’t have to doubt God one bit that He didn’t want that daughter to be molested, He didn’t plan or in anyway desire for that boy to be mutilated, He didn’t want those kids to be shot up, He didn’t want any of that, but He will redeem all things for good for those who are called according to His purpose?
This I think is summed up in verses like what Jesus says, “The Son of Man indeed goes as it is written concerning Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born,” (Mark 14:21, MEV). In here, I believe
> Jesus affirms that His end is prophesied about.
> It will involve His betrayal by the hand of a friend.
> That friend though, will be morally responsible, and acting upon His own free will.
> God has made use of that freely-chosen sin because God knew about it, though He didn’t foreordain it, He just made His plans already to redeem it
Furthermore, Jesus, knowing Judas’s end – that he doesn’t repent but rather commits suicide in guilt – Jesus passes prophetic judgment saying it would have been better if He wasn’t born.
Picirilli gives a great closing to this idea as well, so as to show Calvinists and Arminians are not at opposing ends when it comes to God’s Sovereignty. Arminians aren’t sacrificing any power on God’s behalf to hold the views they do.
Like the Calvinist, the Arminian readily affirms that nothing is out of God’s control. All goes according to His plan. His will cannot be thwarted. And, even so, men freely choose between true contingencies. As Arminius expressed this, “I place in subjection to Divine Providence both the free-will and even the actions of a rational creature, so that nothing can be done without the will of God, not even any of those things which are done in opposition to it.”
Picirilli, Robert. Grace Faith Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (p. 43)