Q. I recently heard it said that the “sovereignty of God” means that nothing ever really happens by chance; rather, God is responsible for everything that happens. What do you think of that?
The notion of “sovereignty” has to do with freedom to act. We speak of a nation as being “sovereign” if it can conduct its own affairs without being restricted by outside powers.
Consequently in the Bible the “sovereignty of God” usually refers to God’s rule over all the kingdoms of the world, as expressed, for example, in the statement repeated several times in the book of Daniel, “The Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
In Christian theology, this idea is applied more broadly to God’s unrestricted freedom to act to accomplish His purposes. For example, in his book The Attributes of God, A.W. Pink explains, “Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases.”
Personally I have no problem with this. (In fact, I find it very reassuring!) I would be careful, however, of extending the idea, as you heard done, to claim that because God can do anything He wishes, then God is responsible for everything that happens.
One website I came across in writing this post claims, for example, that “the sovereignty of God is the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.” I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second, which I don’t feel follows necessarily from the first.
Why not? For one thing, there would be a serious moral problem with God being responsible for the many evil and tragic things that happen all around us. It would be very difficult to reconcile that with the Bible’s portrayal of God as good, loving, and just.
But there’s also a logical problem. Just because God is an agent with unlimited freedom and power to act, that doesn’t mean that God is the only free moral agent in existence. Humans and other spiritual beings, I believe, also have at least some freedom to act, so that what we encounter in our lives may be the result of their activity. I think that God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes—that’s one important way I see God exercising His sovereignty to bring about His desired ends. This gives us hope that even in the troubles and tragedies of this life, God can be at work for our good and for the ultimate advancement of His kingdom.
Beyond this, some of what we encounter in life may be simple chance. I think God has built enough freedom into the world that this can be the case. The Bible seems to talk about this at times. There’s this famous statement in Ecclesiastes:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
And Jesus himself invoked the concept of chance in his parable of the Good Samaritan: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road . . .”
However, the way to make the case that the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean that nothing happens by chance isn’t by collecting individual statements like this from throughout the Bible. Rather, as I said before, we may simply observe that just because God acts with unrestricted freedom, that doesn’t mean that God is the only moral actor in existence, and that God may have built so much freedom into the creation (as a reflection of His own attribute?) that things really can now happen “by chance.”
I picture God out there saying, “Let’s see what happens next. I’m sure I can do something great with it.”