Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?

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.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?”

  1. God Is The Most Supreme Moral Agent of all moral beings and He controls chances to His Glory. My landlord gave me quit notice at the a time I have no money to pay even monthly rent of ten thousand naira. I prayed & God gave me one hundred & eighty thousand naira to pay for a virgin flat of 3 bedrooms. It is the Lord ‘s doing. Call it by chance or by the landlord, it is the LORD’S DOING.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong but here’s my take. Creation ex nihilo means that there’s nothing but God and stuff God makes. That means reality has its being in God rather than vice versa. Time is not God therefore time is part of creation and therefore God transcends time. You could say he creates all history at once, except that “at once” is a time expression. You could say this is the moment of creation except, again, for the time reference. We really don’t have a way to think or talk about being apart from time. What God actually says is “I am the beginning and the end.”

    God knows the future, not because he’s really good at predicting but because he’s there. Time is our natural habitat but not his. I think this means that things that are chance to us are anything but to him and that there is ultimately no such thing as chance.

    As for the problem of evil, a world without evil would be bad. There would never be occasion for God to demonstrate his wrath or his mercy, two of his favorite things. There would be no cross and the cross is the point of creation.

    Blessings!

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