Amazing Grace: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation

The following is part of a series of blogs written for the Covenant Reformed Church website.

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All Christians believe, or at least should believe, in the sovereignty of God. Listen to people pray and they confirm that belief. People pray for God to have his hand in everything from weather, to protection, to health and strength, to wisdom, to the changing of someones heart and mind, to the salvation of another persons soul. In the way we think about and pray about the stuff in our lives, from the simple to the complex, we all believe that God is in control and that he is able to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, however he likes. He is God after all.

But what do we actually mean by sovereignty, and how does Gods sovereignty operate when it comes to the salvation of people? These are things that most Christians, unfortunately, rarely pause to really think about. We need to. Before we can engage in understanding how a person is saved, and why one is saved and another is not, we need to think about the big picture of God’s sovereignty.

Sovereignty Defined

Jonathan Edwards defined God’s sovereignty thusly:

The sovereignty of God is his absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to his own pleasure.

This definition captures the heart of what sovereignty is as it relates to us, his human creation – God is under no external constraints of any kind as he relates to his creation. The only constraints he is under are his nature and will. The amount of biblical passages that speak to Gods sovereignty are too many to cite here; the pages of Scripture are overflowing with this simple fact of the Creator / creature relationship. In fact, Reformed theology as a whole can be summarized (assuming the above definition) by the simple epitaph – God is sovereign, and we are not.

Sovereignty of God in Salvation

So far so good, I think. Most people would not disagree with the above definition, for the most part. But apply it to the salvation of souls and some would begin to take issue. It’s as if people believe that God is sovereign in everything except the hearts and minds of people. The simple reality, however, is this – if God is absolutely, independent of all constraint other than his own pleasure (will) then he is free to do whatever he wants wherever he wants with whomever he wants. This includes deciding who will be saved and who will not.

Once again Edwards, as he answers the question – if God is sovereign, what does this mean for human salvation?,

In answer to this inquiry, I observe, it implies that God can either bestow salvation on any of the children of men, or refuse it, without any prejudice to the glory of any of his attributes, except where he has been pleased to declare, that he will or will not bestow it.

We need to get one thing out of the way, immediately – Election and predestination are not products of a theological system, nor are they formulations of a single theologian (usually John Calvin’s name is associated), nor are they implications of a particularly narrow view of God. They are biblical realities that conform to the equally biblical reality that God is sovereign as we described above. James White identifies three mainstay passages that articulate this reality – Ephesians 1, Romans 9 and John 6. There are considerably more passages that speak about God’s sovereignty and his sovereignty in salvation, but I will stick with only these three for now. I want to summarize each of these to show you that the Bible clearly and plainly witnesses to God’s sovereignty in salvation.

We do not have the space to interact with any of these texts adequately so I will focus on just a few verses and the overall flow of what is taught.

Ephesians 1

Verse 4 is central to Paul’s thoughts and it provides a bookend with v. 11 – “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” God the Father is in view, for he is the one who chooses “us”. This choice is exercised only in Christ (there is no salvation outside of him). We must recognize that election is not impersonal and arbitrary. We must recognize the immensely personal aspect of this choice on the part of God the Father. “The passage says that we were chosen by God the Father, not that a mere ‘plan’ was chosen, or a ‘process’ put in place to save people. The choice is personal both in its context (in the Son) and in its object (the elect). (White) Next, v. 4 instructs us as to the time of this choice by the Father – it was “before the creation of the world.” This is a choice that is timeless. It was made before we were created, and therefore cannot possibly be based upon anything that we ourselves do or ‘choose.’ This is sovereignty – absolute, independent and free.

Ephesians shows us that God does nothing without a purpose. He has chosen both the means and the ends of our salvation. God chooses the elect to the end that they should be “holy and blameless before Him.” God is redeeming for himself a people, and no power in heaven and earth can stop him from accomplishing his intention. (White)

The summary of this passage can be found in v. 11 – “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will”. This verse is a bookend to v. 4. It highlights three things that are central to the teaching of this passage (cf. White):

  1. The Father’s work of salvation takes place exclusively in the realm of the Son, “in Him.” It is in Christ that we have “been claimed as God’s own possession,” that is, have received the promised inheritance, though the emphasis is upon the God-ward side of this transaction, not the human side.
  2. Those who are God’s people are so because they were “predestined.” Again, no ambiguity exists in the meaning of the term, nor its use in the passage. God’s predestination is unquestionably personal in its object; grammatically there is no escape from the plain assertion that God the Father predestined us. He did not predestine a plan, he did not merely predestine a general conclusion to all things, but he chose us and predestined us. God predestined people, God’s people, the elect, who are here plainly seen to be the object of God’s act of predestination.
  3. The basis for God’s choice is again removed from the human realm and placed squarely and inalterably in the divine. God chooses on the basis of his own purpose (not on the basis of what we do). God works all things after the council of his will. Not some things, not most things, but all things.

James White’s conclusion is surely correct,

But I hasten to emphasize: His glory is only praised when His complete sovereignty in salvation is plainly seen and proclaimed. Even saving faith in Christ is a gift of God given to the elect. Men dare not intrude upon God’s sole glory: and that is exactly what we see in those systems that attempt to place man in control of God, and make God dependent upon man and the puny creature’s will in the matter of redemption.

Romans 9

I have written a series of extensive exegetical blogs on this passage elsewhere, and I invite you to read those if you desire a longer interaction with this passage. For now, I will keep my comments brief.

The passage speaks clearly and unequivocally about God’s sovereignty in choosing some to salvation and leaving others in their sin. This is seen throughout this passage in verses such as:

vv. 9-13 – And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

vv. 16-18 – So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

vv. 21-23 – Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…

The import of this chapter, and of all of Romans 9-11 is simple – It would have been impossible for Paul to be more clear, or direct in his presentation of the absolute sovereignty of God in election.

John 6

We will focus specifically on vv. 35-40 and vv. 44-45 and v. 65. In these verse Jesus clearly teaches that God is sovereign in salvation, without violating human responsibility; in fact, the latter is dependent on the former.

James White explains the meaning and implications of this text,

Every word the Lord Jesus speaks is filled with meaning. He introduces Himself as the bread of life, the only true source of spiritual nourishment. Yet, the Jews do not believe. Why? The very incarnate Son of God was standing right in front of them! Why would they not believe? Because, as Jesus explained in John 10:26, they were not of His “sheep.” They were not given to Him by the Father, for all that the Father gives to the Son will, without question, without failure, come to Him [This means that no one has the ability to come to Him unless something else happens: the drawing of the Father.]. Note that for the Father to be able to give men to the Son we must be talking about the same Father of Ephesians 1 and Romans 9: the sovereign God who is maker and creator of men, not merely an exalted man. He has the sovereign right to give certain men to Christ, but not others. Those who are given come: those who are not do not. The divine order is clear: God’s giving of men to the Son precedes and determines their coming to Christ. First comes the action of God, and then the action of men. God acts, man responds, never the other way around, in the matter of salvation.

Conclusion

There is no other conclusion warranted from Scripture – God is absolutely, independently and freely sovereign over all things that he has created. He is thus free to save some and leave others in their sin. We may not like this, but our likes and dislikes are not important. We are obligated to believe that which Scripture teaches. Since election and predestination are clearly taught therein, we must believe it.

But rather than a stubborn belief in a doctrine we don’t like – a sort of grin and bear it approach to God – we should see its beauty, and be in awe of our God. Let Jonathan Edwards show you how we should think and feel about the sovereignty of God in salvation. He is worth quoting at length.

  1. Hence we learn how absolutely we are dependent on God in this great matter of the eternal salvation of our souls. We are dependent not only on his wisdom to contrive a way to accomplish it, and on his power to bring it to pass, but we are dependent on his mere will and pleasure in the affair. We depend on the sovereign will of God for every thing belonging to it, from the foundation to the top-stone. It was of the sovereign pleasure of God, that he contrived a way to save any of mankind, and gave us Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, to be our Redeemer. Why did he look on us, and send us a Saviour, and not the fallen angels? It was from the sovereign pleasure of God. It was of his sovereign pleasure what means to appoint. His giving us the Bible, and the ordinances of religion, is of his sovereign grace. His giving those means to us rather than to others, his giving the awakening influences of his Spirit, and his bestowing saving grace, are all of his sovereign pleasure. When he says, ‘Let there be light in the soul of such an one,’ it is a word of infinite power and sovereign grace.

  2. Let us with the greatest humility adore the awful and absolute sovereignty of God. As we have just shown, it is an eminent attribute of the Divine Being, that he is sovereign over such excellent beings as the souls of men, and that in every respect, even in that of their eternal salvation. The infinite greatness of God, and his exaltation above us, appears in nothing more, than in his sovereignty. Let us therefore give God the glory of his sovereignty, as adoring him, whose sovereign will orders all things, beholding ourselves as nothing in comparison with him. Dominion and sovereignty require humble reverence and honour in the subject. The absolute, universal, and unlimited sovereignty of God requires, that we should adore him with all possible humility and reverence. It is impossible that we should go to excess in lowliness and reverence of that Being, who may dispose of us to all eternity, as he pleases.

  3. Those who are in a state of salvation are to attribute it to sovereign grace alone, and to give all the praise to him, who maketh them to differ from others. Godliness is no cause for glorying, except it be in God. 1 Cor. 1:29,30,31. ‘That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.’ Such are not, by any means, in any degree to attribute their godliness, their safe and happy state and condition, to any natural difference between them and other men, or to any strength or righteousness of their own. They have no reason to exalt themselves in the least degree; but God is the being whom they should exalt. They should exalt God the Father, who chose them in Christ, who set his love upon them, and gave them salvation, before they were born, and even before the world was. If they inquire, why God set his love on them, and chose them rather than others, if they think they can see any cause out of God, they are greatly mistaken. They should exalt God the Son, who bore their names on his heart, when he came into the world, and hung on the cross, and in whom alone they have righteousness and strength. They should exalt God the Holy Ghost, who of sovereign grace has called them out of darkness into marvellous light; who has by his own immediate and free operation, led them into an understanding of the evil and danger of sin, and brought them off from their own righteousness, and opened their eyes to discover the glory of God, and the wonderful riches of God in Jesus Christ, and has sanctified them, and made them new creatures. When they hear of the wickedness of others, or look upon vicious persons, they should think how wicked they once were, and how much they provoked God, and how they deserved for ever to be left by him to perish in sin, and that it is only sovereign grace which has made the difference. The people of God have the greater cause of thankfulness, more reason to love God, who hath bestowed such great and unspeakable mercy upon them of his mere sovereign pleasure.

  4. Hence we learn what cause we have to admire the grace of God, that he should condescend to become bound to us by covenant; that he, who is naturally supreme in his dominion over us, who is our absolute proprietor, and may do with us as he pleases, and is under no obligation to us; that he should, as it were, relinquish his absolute freedom, and should cease to be merely sovereign in his dispensations towards believers, when once they have believed in Christ, and should, for their more abundant consolation, become bound. So that they can challenge salvation of this Sovereign; they can demand it through Christ, as a debt. And it would be prejudicial to the glory of God’s attributes, to deny it to them; it would be contrary to his justice and faithfulness. What wonderful condescension is it in such a Being, thus to become bound to us, worms of the dust, for our consolation! He bound himself by his word, his promise. But he was not satisfied with that; but that we might have stronger consolation still, he hath bound himself by his oath. Heb. 6:13, etc. ‘For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself; saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men verily swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath; that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us. Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.’

  5. And lastly. We may make use of this doctrine to guard those who seek salvation from two opposite extremes – presumption and discouragement. Do not presume upon the mercy of God, and so encourage yourself in sin. Many hear that God’s mercy is infinite, and therefore think, that if they delay seeking salvation for the present, and seek it hereafter, that God will bestow his grace upon them. But consider, that though God’s grace is sufficient, yet he is sovereign, and will use his own pleasure whether he will save you or not. If you put off salvation till hereafter, salvation will not be in your power. It will be as a sovereign God pleases, whether you shall obtain it or not. Seeing, therefore, that in this affair you are so absolutely dependent on God, it is best to follow his direction in seeking it, which is to hear his voice to-day: ‘To-day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart.’ Beware also of discouragement. Take heed of despairing thoughts, because you are a great sinner, because you have persevered so long in sin, have backslidden, and resisted the Holy Ghost. Remember that, let your case be what it may, and you ever so great a sinner, if you have not committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, God can bestow mercy upon you without the least prejudice to the honour of his holiness, which you have offended, or to the honour of his majesty, which you have insulted, or of his justice, which you have made your enemy, or of his truth, or of any of his attributes. Let you be what sinner you may, God can, if he pleases, greatly glorify himself in your salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

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