Last week we looked at the subject, "Pain is Providential." We talked about the sovereignty of God over every area of our lives, including our pain and suffering. We talked about God's sovereignty over everything that happens. God not only created the universe, He controls it, all of it. And He controls it all in accordance with what He has ordained. Do you realize that whatever takes place in time is what God planned from eternity past? The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass (chapter 3, section 1).
The Bible puts it this way:
Ephesians 1:11 (NKJV) In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
All that comes to pass in our lives is according to the eternal plan of the all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving great God and our father.
The sovereignty of God is absolute, irresistible, and infinite. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases; whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed in eternity. Is this too strong for you? If it is, you do not understand the God of the Bible.
Psalms 115:3 (NKJV) But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.
Nothing happens outside the sovereign will of God. How many of you believe that God is sovereign?
Now, let me ask this question, "How many of you did something this past week to prepare for hurricane Floyd?" How many of you prayed with reference to Floyd? Why? If you believe that God is sovereign and that whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed in eternity, why take precautions for the hurricane, and why pray? Nothing that we could have possibly done could have changed God's plan, so why do anything?
If you found yourself asking those questions this past week, you are off balance in your theology. The doctrine of God's sovereignty, properly understood, won't paralyze us from taking action. The doctrine of God's sovereignty is a comfort to us, it assures us that He is able to do what He has promised us. If God wasn't sovereign, He would make promises like we do - maybe with all good intentions, but without the power to carry them out. But because He is sovereign, He can, in fact, carry out every promise that he has made. But the bare fact of God's sovereignty raises one big question; "If God is in control of all things, including our actions, how can we be responsible to do anything?"
These two doctrines have been the subject of much debate and controversy over the years. On one side of the spectrum, to the far right, you have the hyper-Calvinists who say, "If God wants it done, he'll do it without the help of you or me." Hyper-Calvinist don't need to witness or work at their sanctification, God does it all. On the far left of the spectrum, you have the Arminians, who say, "If we don't do it, it won't get done." In the middle of these, you have Biblical Calvinism that says, "God is sovereign, but we are responsible." They understand God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.
This morning, I want to issue you a warning or caution in reference to the sovereignty of God. Because we, as fallen human beings, are so prone to twist or misuse the truth we find in Scripture, I think we need to discuss the danger of misusing the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. It is the tendency of some individuals to see the doctrine of sovereignty as fatalism.
For example, in the past week we have been watching hurricane "Floyd" slowly move toward our area. The fatalist would say, "God is going to do what he wants to do so I'm not going to concern myself about it." They would make no preparations; they wouldn't run to the store for supplies, or make sure they had batteries or water. They wouldn't bring in or tie down the things in their yard. They would say, "If God has determined this thing to blow through my window, it will." Because they know that God is sovereign over the weather, they would make no preparations, and they wouldn't even bother to pray about the situation. You can see how this could become an excuse for all kinds of irresponsible behavior.
On the other hand, the person who rightly understands God's sovereignty would make all the preparations that wisdom dictates while the whole time praying for wisdom and protection.
This past week as I was running around my yard in the rain bringing things in and moving anything that could blow away, I asked my self this question, "God has planned from eternity what will happen during this storm, so why bother?" Then I answered myself by saying, "God has called me to act responsibly in all of life's circumstances."
I am absolutely committed to the sovereignty of God over every event that happens. I believe that whatever happens in time is the outworking of what he planned from eternity, but I spent time in prayer asking for protection from hurricane Floyd.
You might ask, "How do prayer and the sovereignty of God fit?" Or, "If God is sovereign, why pray?" That is a good question, I'm glad you asked it. Let's think about this for a minute. If God wasn't sovereign, what would be the use of praying? Why pray to a god who couldn't answer your prayers? The sovereignty of God, when properly understood, is an encouragement to pray, not an excuse to fall into fatalism.
Let's look at how the New Testament saints dealt with situations in light of the sovereignty of God. In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, Peter and John are threatened by the Jewish Sanhedrin and commanded not to speak any more of Jesus. When they shared this with the other believers, the response was, "Well, God is sovereign, I guess He'll do what He wants to do." NO! This was not their response. Their response was prayer!
Acts 4:24 (NKJV) So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them,
Acts 4:27-29 (NKJV) "For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28 "to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. 29 "Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word,
We can clearly see from verse 28 that they believed in the sovereignty of God. It didn't cause them to fall into fatalism but was an encouragement to pray. Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God.
Paul, more than any other New Testament writer, taught the church about the sovereignty of God, and he lived trusting in that sovereignty. But notice that he still encouraged believers to pray:
Philemon 1:22 (NKJV) But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
Prayer was the expression of his confidence in the sovereignty of God. God's sovereignty does not negate our responsibility to pray, but, rather, makes it possible to pray with confidence.
Just as God's sovereignty does not set aside our responsibility to pray, it also does not negate our responsibility to act wisely. Acting wisely, in this context, means that we use all legitimate, biblical means at our disposal to avoid harm to ourselves or others, and to bring about what we believe to be the right course of events.
David gives us a good illustration of acting wisely as he fled from Saul. Saul was determined to kill David. So David did every thing he could to avoid Saul. David acted wisely. David knew that he was to be king some day.
1 Samuel 16:13 (NKJV) Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel arose and went to Ramah.
He had already been anointed to succeed Saul. And David knew that the Sovereign God would carry out His purpose.
Psalms 57:2 (NKJV) I will cry out to God Most High, To God who performs all things for me.
David knew that God would fulfill His purpose for him. Yet, David didn't just sit down and say, "Saul can't hurt me because God had ordained that I be king, and I can't be king if I'm dead." David fled from Saul and took every precaution so that Saul could not kill him. David didn't presume upon the sovereignty of God but acted wisely in dependence upon God to bless his efforts. He ran from Saul, and he prayed to God.
We see this same wisdom in Paul's life. Paul was a prisoner of Rome on his way to Rome when the ship was caught in the midst of a severe storm. Let's pick up the narrative at verse 19:
Acts 27:19-26 (NKJV) On the third day we threw the ship's tackle overboard with our own hands. 20 Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest beat on us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up. 21 But after long abstinence from food, then Paul stood in the midst of them and said, "Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. 22 "And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.
How could Paul say this? How did he know that no one would die? God told Him:
23 "For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, 24 "saying, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.' 25 "Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. 26 "However, we must run aground on a certain island."
Paul and the men on the ship had a promise from God that there would be no loss of life. At this point, did they all just sit back and enjoy the ride? No! They still used wisdom and did all they could to save the ship and themselves. When some of them tried to leave the ship in lifeboats, Paul said:
Acts 27:31 (NKJV) Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, "Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved."
Why did Paul say this? Even though he had a promise from God that none of them would die, he still acted wisely - he used all legitimate, biblical means at his disposal to avoid harm to himself and others, and to bring about what he believed to be the right course of events. Paul did not see a conflict between God's sovereignty and his responsibility to act wisely.
Paul knew God's sovereign will on the matter and yet he still worked hard to bring it about. We don't know God's sovereign will in specific situations. So, we, too, should use wisdom and act responsibly, praying the whole time. What if God had told us that no harm would come to us during hurricane Floyd? Would you still have acted wisely to prepare? You should have because God usually works through means. We see this in the story of Hezekiah.
2 Kings 20:1-6 (NKJV) In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, "Thus says the LORD: 'Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.'" 2 Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying, 3 "Remember now, O LORD, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 5 "Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you.
Hezekiah had been told by God that he was going to die, and yet he still prayed. He didn't say, "Well, God you're sovereign, so do what you will." He cried out to God in prayer, and God added fifteen years to his life.
2 Kings 20:5b-6 (NKJV) .... On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD. 6 "And I will add to your days fifteen years. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for the sake of My servant David."' "
Great story! Hezekiah prays, and God grants him fifteen years. God told him, (6) "And I will add to your days fifteen years." That is a promise from God, and Hezekiah could depend upon it. But notice the next verse:
2 Kings 20:7 (NKJV) Then Isaiah said, "Take a lump of figs." So they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.
What if Hezekiah had said, "God is sovereign and He said I am to live for fifteen more years, I don't need the figs." I believe he would have died because God used the means of the figs to preserve Hezekiah's life.
We also see how God uses means to carry out his sovereign will in the book of Nehemiah. When Nehemiah was rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, he and the people faced the threat of attack from their enemies.
Nehemiah 4:7-8 (NKJV) Now it happened, when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the walls of Jerusalem were being restored and the gaps were beginning to be closed, that they became very angry, 8 and all of them conspired together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion.
Notice, carefully, Nehemiah's response:
Nehemiah 4:9 (NKJV) Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God, and because of them we set a watch against them day and night.
They turned to God in prayer and they posted a guard. They prayed to God, and they also acted in wisdom.
Nehemiah 4:16-18 (NKJV) So it was, from that time on, that half of my servants worked at construction, while the other half held the spears, the shields, the bows, and wore armor; and the leaders were behind all the house of Judah. 17 Those who built on the wall, and those who carried burdens, loaded themselves so that with one hand they worked at construction, and with the other held a weapon. 18 Every one of the builders had his sword girded at his side as he built. And the one who sounded the trumpet was beside me.
Did they have their weapons because they did not trust in God? NO! They trusted God.
Nehemiah 4:20 (NKJV) "Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us."
They knew that God would fight for them, but they also knew that God uses means, so they were ready to be used of God in the fighting. Nehemiah 4:9 really gives us a good picture of what it means to trust God.
Nehemiah 4:9 (NKJV) Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God, and because of them we set a watch against them day and night.
Prayer is the acknowledgment of God's sovereignty, and of our dependence upon Him to act on our behalf. Wisdom is the acknowledgment of our responsibility to use all legitimate means. We dare not separate these two. We also see this truth illustrated in:
1 Chronicles 5:18-20 (NKJV) The sons of Reuben, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh had forty-four thousand seven hundred and sixty valiant men, men able to bear shield and sword, to shoot with the bow, and skillful in war, who went to war. 19 They made war with the Hagrites, Jetur, Naphish, and Nodab. 20 And they were helped against them, and the Hagrites were delivered into their hand, and all who were with them, for they cried out to God in the battle. He heeded their prayer, because they put their trust in Him.
Here we have a bunch of well trained, well armed warriors. They had wisely prepared for battle, but they did not trust in their training or their ability. They used wisdom and prepared for battle, and they trusted in God when the battle came. They "cried out to God in the battle" - this is prayer. They prayed because they trusted God and not their own ability. Please notice, carefully, why God answered their prayers - "because thy put their trust in Him."
I hope that you can see from this that trust in God does not negate acting wisely on our part. We do all we can do to prepare for a certain situation, and while doing it, we trust completely in God and not our own wisdom. All of our wisdom in planning is useless unless the Lord intervenes:
Psalms 127:1 (NKJV) Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain.
This verse sums up our responsibility - building and watching. In all areas of life, physical and spiritual, we should be building and watching. But according to this verse, none of our efforts will be prosperous unless God intervenes. This verse speaks of God himself doing the building and watching, but that doesn't mean that we are not involved. It means that we are totally dependent upon Him if our efforts are to be successful. This is dependent discipline. We are totally dependent upon God, and yet we discipline ourselves to do what we know is wise.
We need to trust God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. There are times and circumstances in life when we can do nothing but trust in God's sovereignty. An example of this is seen in:
Deuteronomy 8:3 (NKJV) "So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
The Israelites didn't need to work for their food, all they needed to do was trust God to provide it. God was teaching them to trust in Him.
We must also trust Him to enable us to do what we can do for ourselves. The farmer must work very hard to produce a crop; he plows, plants, waters and harvests. But he is completely dependent on God to make the crop grow. God controls the forces of nature which he depends upon to bring forth the harvest. We all know that a farmer must depend upon God for the harvest. But what we might overlook is that the farmer is also dependent on God for the ability to plow, plant and harvest. Every ability he has, every ounce of strength he has, every bit of knowledge and skill he has comes from God also.
1 Corinthians 4:7 (NKJV) For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
Deuteronomy 8:18 (NKJV) "And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
Everything we are and have comes from the hand of God. We are dependent on Him for every breath we take and for every beat of our heart. There are times when we can do nothing, and there are times when we must work. In both circumstances we are equally to trust in God.
We are never to use the doctrine of God's sovereignty as an excuse for our laziness or our lack of wisdom. Because God is sovereign, should we just sit back and count on Him to feed us? If He has planned for us to eat, we will-- right? Wrong! God uses means to accomplish his ends, and the way he feeds us is through our labor.
Proverbs 20:4 (NKJV) The lazy man will not plow because of winter; He will beg during harvest and have nothing.
Ecclesiastes 10:18 (NKJV) Because of laziness the building decays, And through idleness of hands the house leaks.
The house is not said to decay because of God's sovereign plan, but because of man's laziness. If a student fails an exam because he did not study, he can't blame it on God's sovereign will, but on his own lack of diligence. God is sovereign over every thing that happens in life, but we are still responsible. Don't ever use God's sovereignty as an excuse for your failure to use wisdom.
Alexander Carson put it this way, "Let us learn... that as God has promised to protect us and provide for us, it is through the means of his appointment, vigilance, prudence, and industry, that we are to look for these blessings."
The Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign, he rules the universe, he controls everything that happens. The Bible also teaches just as clearly that we are responsible to act wisely. Let's hold equally to both, doing our duty as it is revealed to us in the Scriptures, and trusting God to sovereignly work out His purpose in us and through us. Our responsibility is to pray and act wisely while trusting in our sovereign God.
I pray that the teaching on God's sovereignty will not be misused by us to neglect our responsibility, but that it will encourage us to pray and act wisely as we trust in our sovereign God.