The word sovereign doesn’t technically mean “in control.”
It means “in charge.” It means that something is rightly under someone’s authority or within their dominion.
Some will read that and say I’m playing with words, but the difference is important. It’s important because it means that we can’t say all actions are “caused by God.” Things that God says he finds terrible or evil are related to God in more complex ways. As the One who chooses how to interact with the created world, he may prevent it, permit it, direct it, or limit it (for a helpful reading, see Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, pg. 372). As God works all things for the good of his own glory and name, as well as for our good, his rule still interacts with the amount of rebellious independence he allows to humans. This relationship is enormously complex, and I have never read a completely successful explanation of it.
The most powerful and clear revelation concerning the way God’s hidden sovereignty and expressed loving grace come together is in the crucifixion of Jesus. God’s loving, gracious revelation of himself in Jesus is a central and necessary part of his hidden sovereign will. It is also the means by which he will glorify himself in the redemption of humanity and the restoration of all things. The problem is that this isn’t an explanation; it’s an exclamation. Christ crucified is not an explanation of the dynamic between the hidden sovereignty of God and his revealed will and redemptive work. It is only a demonstration.
An answer about God’s choice and our freedom:
Most people who think about the philosophy of God’s rule and our choices come to some confusion about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our moral responsibility. If God is completely sovereign and rules all things, then how can we be held morally accountable for our actions? How is it possible that we have meaningful freedom? Not only are most answers to this question complicated, but very reasonable and sincere Christians still differ on the solution.
However, I think we can have a simple solution.
God can be trusted to hold us morally accountable relative to and in proportion to the amount of moral freedom we have in our decisions. That is, in order for us to be morally accountable to God, we can make as few as one single morally accountable choice. It is not necessary for us to be maximally free in an autonomous kind of way in order for us to be morally responsible for our choices.
All of us already understand this intuitively. We don’t hold people accountable when they can’t go to work because they are sick. We recognize that relative to their sickness, they couldn’t go to work. Yet, we would hold them accountable if they weren’t sick.
The point here is not to draw an analogy to how God holds us morally responsible. It is simply to say that we already agree that there are limitations to our freedom, and we hold people relatively and proportionally accountable in relationship to that freedom. Based on our knowledge, we make judgments about the appropriate amount of moral accountability that can be expected, and then we hold people accountable in relationship to that expectation.
There is no reason to believe that the interchange of God’s divine providence and our moral responsibility cannot have some God-appointed dynamic that does this on a significantly more complicated level. This would be a perfectly valid reason why the Bible says that only God can judge. He’s the only person with all the information needed to do the moral-responsibility calculus. Only he can accurately and competently judge.
If you accept that simple premise, then there are any number of possible solutions to the relationship of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.
Two things to look up if you want to study this further:
The Doctrine of Compatibilism
The Doctrine of Divine Concurrence – try this Google search.
- 3 Truths That Can Change Your Life, an article from the Gospel Coalition in which God’s sovereignty is described as one of the truths
- Articles on Sovereignty published by Desiring God
- The Suffering of Christ and the Sovereignty of God conference talk by John Piper
- Great insights into sovereignty by a wicked priest who got it.
- R.C. Sproul on “If God is sovereign, how can people be free?” Start at 48:50 for the “Doctrine of Concurrence.” God exercised his sovereignty through their free decisions.