Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Sovereignty of God

Among those who see the Bible as a reliable and authoritative source of truth (as I do), there are few doctrines as polarizing as that which affirms God's minute, providential control over – and absolute responsibility for - everything that takes place in the universe. Some denounce this belief as “fatalistic” and as promoting apathy and passivity in the lives of those who believe it. Others claim that a God whose purpose requires the existence of evil and sin (even their temporary existence) must himself be sinful and evil. However, my understanding of what Scripture reveals simply does not permit me to believe that anything has occurred or can occur in the universe -whether good or evil, whether seemingly trivial and mundane or of obvious importance and significance – apart from God's intention, or outside of his sovereign purpose.

God is Operating All in Accord With the Counsel of His Will

Ephesians 1:11 is one of the clearest and most concise affirmations of God's absolute responsibility for what takes place in the universe found in Scripture. There, the apostle Paul declares that the predestination (or “pre-designation”) of believers to their eonian allotment among the celestials is “... according to the purpose of the One Who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will ...”

What Paul is affirming here is not merely that God accomplishes the salvation of believers according to the counsel of his own will, but that he “is operating ALL (or everything) in accord with the counsel of his will.” The salvation of those in the body of Christ is grounded in the more basic and fundamental truth that God alone is in control of what happens in his universe. Believers may thus be assured of their eonian allotment among the celestials because our being designated beforehand to this allotment is simply part of the "all" that God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will. The words “counsel of His will” emphasizes the fact that God does what he does apart from human counsel or advice. He is “operating all” - everything that has or will take place in his universe - without consulting his creatures or conforming to their fallible and often mistaken views on what is wise and good.

The scope of God's plan and responsibility over what takes place is universal rather than being confined to a limited number of things or events. Absolutely speaking, God is not passively “allowing” anything in the universe to take place; rather, he is the one actively causing it to take place, in accord with the counsel of his will. He is, as Paul says in the above translation, “operating all.” Nothing that one could possibly think of as being excluded from that which God is “operating” is, in fact, excluded. There are no exceptions. 

Yet, because God's operative power in bringing things about is rarely obvious (nor is it necessarily direct), it is typical for many who profess to believe that “God is sovereign” and “in control” to deny (whether explicitly or implicitly) that his operative power is truly universal and all-pervasive. However, the popular doctrine of human (and angelic) “free will” cannot be consistently affirmed without denying the truth of Ephesians 1:11. If what Paul says is true, there is simply no such thing as absolute “chance” or “coincidence” in the universe (which, as I've argued in another article, the doctrine of “free will” ultimately affirms; see http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-critical-look-at-christian-doctrine.html). “Randomness” and “chance” are only relative – i.e., they exist only from the perspective of the creature (who is limited in knowledge), rather than the Creator (whose knowledge has no limits, embracing everything that exists and takes place). If what Paul says is true, then everything that occurs must ultimately be attributed to the divine influence. It is ultimately irrelevant whether we like this fact - or are able to “wrap our minds around” it – or not.

All Things Are Out Of, Through and For God

In Romans 11:33-36, Paul ends his doxology (which was evidently inspired by his reflection on God's sovereign dealings with Israel and the nations) with the following simple but startling words: “...out of Him and through Him and for Him is all.” What does Paul mean by this? It would be a mistake to limit the application of these words to God's dealings with Israel and the nations. Is it really reasonable to believe that when Paul spoke of God's riches, wisdom and knowledge he had in view  only , and  exclusively , God's dealings with Israel and the nations? Was Paul, in his doxology, only praising God for the untraceable and inscrutable nature of God's judgments and ways with regards to his dealings with Israel and the nations, and nothing else ? Or did Paul instead have in mind God's wisdom, knowledge, judgments and ways  in general ? I think the latter is more likely the case. God's sovereign dealings with Israel and the nations is just ONE notable example of the depths of his riches, wisdom and knowledge, and just ONE notable example of how God's judgments are inscrutable and his ways are untraceable.

The truth that “out of Him and through Him and for Him is all” is a basic principle. Rather than having to do exclusively with God's dealings with Israel and the nations, the fact that all is “out of Him and through Him and for Him” is the very foundation of God's dealings with Israel and the nations. To attempt to limit the "all" that is out, through and for God merely to God's dealings with Israel and the nations is no more legitimate than limiting the "all" that Christ is over merely to all Israelites (Rom 9:5), or limiting the "all" of 1 Cor. 8:6 to those believers who had knowledge that an idol is “nothing in the world.” Trying to limit the “all” of v. 36 is just a misguided attempt to escape and deny the truth that God is, in fact, in control of – and ultimately responsible for - everything. One's own personal misgivings (or rather, unbelief)regarding God's ultimate responsibility for all the evil that takes place in the world, or his control over the “trivial” and “mundane” details of life, is no justification for attempting to limit the “all” that is out of, through and for God.

Concerning Paul's words in verse 36, Martin Zender rightly observes:

"The all that is out of God is related (“seeing that”) to the nothing that anyone can give Him first. If the “noth­ing” could become “something,” only then would the “all” not be everything. Why? Because the phrase “seeing that” vitally relates these clauses. Likewise, if the “nothing” of the former clause is absolute (and it is), then so is the “all” of the subsequent clause. This brief passage of Romans 11:33-36 proves logically (to the sound mind) that everything that exists and every­thing that happens is, indeed, out of God. Otherwise, some­one has given something to Him first. If it can be proven that someone has given something to God that He didn’t already possess (impossible), only then can it be proven, from this passage, that all is not out of God (impossible)." (http://martinzender.com/ZWTF/ZWTF3.38.pdf)

Some may object that everything being “out of” God only refers to the fact that God is the original source of everything, without necessarily being responsible for, and in control of, what happened to his creation after he brought it into existence. According to this view, much of what has taken place subsequent to God's originally bringing the universe into existence has – to some extent or another - been contrary to his original intention and plan. In response to this, it need only be pointed out that Paul also declares that everything is “through God.” Even if everything's being “out of God” doesn't necessarily imply that the present state of affairs (which would include the evil actions of many of his creatures) is in accord with God's plan and intention, the fact that everything is also “through God” surely does.

In addition to what Paul writes in Romans 11, we read a similar affirmation of God's sovereignty in 1 Corinthians 8:5-7: "For even if so be that there are those being termed gods, whether in heaven or on earth, even as there are many gods and many lords, nevertheless for us there is one God, the Father, out of Whom all is, and we for Him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through Whom all is, and we through Him. But not in all is there this knowledge."

As is the case with what Paul says in Romans 11, there is nothing which limits the “all” that is out of God and through Christ. Paul is evidently expressing the same foundational truth-principle as that expressed in Romans 11 (and the same can be said for what Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:12, 2 Cor. 5:18 and Heb. 2:10). It should be noted that what Paul said was “through” God in Romans 11:36 is said to be “through” the Lord Jesus Christ in 1 Cor. 8:7. Is this a contradiction? Not at all. Everything is still through God, absolutely speaking. However, we must keep in mind that “all authority in heaven and on the earth” was given to Christ after his resurrection (Matt. 27:19), and that Christ is consequently “carrying on all by His powerful declaration” (Heb. 1:3). 

In other words, the authority that God gave Christ when he made him “Lord of all” after rousing him from among the dead means that nothing in the universe can take place, or is taking place, apart from Christ's declaration that it be so; it is all “through him.” But the fact that Christ's will is in perfect harmony with that of his Father's means that what God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will (which, as we've seen, is “all” or everything) is exactly what Christ is declaring should be. Thus, when the time comes for Christ to subject all to himself so that God may be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28), we know that the “operation” which will enable Christ to accomplish this (Phil. 3:21) will be the same divine “operation” to which Paul refers in Eph. 1:11.As Christ himself declared in John 5:30, “I can not do anything of Myself,” and “I am not seeking My will, but the will of Him Who sends Me.”

God: Giver of Life, Breath and All

Paul again affirms the fact that God is ultimately responsible for what his creatures have and undergo in life in his message given in Athens, as recorded in Acts 17:25-28. There, Paul declared that God “gives to all life and breath and all,” and that “in Him we are living and moving and are...” These simple but profound words spoken to the Athenians are perfectly consistent with Paul's written declarations that God is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will, and that all is out of, through and for God. No human being – whether believer or unbeliever - can take a single breath or step apart from God, whose plan involves exactly how long each person will live on this earth and (consequently) all that takes place between the time of their conception and the time of their death. No human being lives one moment longer or shorter on this earth than what God has ordained. And since this is the case, it follows that God planned and is intimately involved with even the smallest details of each person's life and the decisions that they make.

Now, when Paul includes the little word “all” after the words “life and breath,” he is including anything else that one could think of as being had or experienced by human beings. There is nothing we have in this life – including our very thoughts, desires, values and affections - that is not ultimately given to us by God. He is the source of all. Does this fact mean that we are not really “persons,” or that we don't really make choices or have a will? Does it mean that our personal relationship with God is an illusion? Not at all. It simply means that our “personhood” has nothing to do with having “personal autonomy,” our power to choose has nothing to do with our being the absolute cause (and ultimate explanation) of anything that happens in this universe, and our relationship with God is not like our relationship with created, finite beings.

It should be noted that the inspired truth Paul was making known to the Athenians was not anew revelation made known to Paul after Christ appeared to him. Long before Paul spoke these words in Athens, it had been declared by Job, “In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). Job went on to say that “man's days are determined, and the number of his months is with you [God], and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5-6). 

Daniel understood the truth of God's absolute sovereignty over the entirety of man's life (including everything he does) as well, for we read that he told King Belshazzar, “But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and your waysyou have not glorified” (Dan. 5:23). Not only the life and breath but the very “ways” of this pagan, ungodly king were in the hand of God! Consider also Psalm 139:16, where David used the imagery of a book to demonstrate that the details of our lives have been ordained by God and embraced by his sovereign plan: "In your book were written all the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” There are innumerable variables that go into making the substance of each and every one of our days. The only way this verse could be true is if God has absolute control over all of these variables, and is thus in sovereign command of all the contingencies and future choices that will happen in regard to our lives.

Is Everything "God's Will?"  

For some, the difficulty with believing that Scripture teaches the absolute sovereignty of God seems to stem from a lack of understanding that there is more than one sense in which God's “will” is spoken of in Scripture. As an illustration of the two different ways in which I believe God's “will” is referred to in Scripture, let's consider Exodus 4:18-23. In this passage, we find that Moses, on God's behalf, was to give Pharaoh the following command: "Let my people go!" Now, let's consider the following question: Was Pharaoh disobeying the will of God when he refused to let God's people go, or was he actually doing the will of God by refusing to let God's people go?

I submit that there is a scriptural sense in which both can be said to be true. It just depends on what we mean by “the will of God.” There are, I submit, two different senses in which God's "will" is spoken of in Scripture. I will refer to one sense as God's “preceptive will” and the other as God's “providential will.” For those who may object to my use of these terms on the basis that the expressions “preceptive will” and “providential will” do not appear in Scripture, I must emphasize that, in using these expressions, I am simply applying descriptive labels to distinguish and help clarify two concepts that I think are very much present in Scripture in the verses where God's “will” is referred to (in this regard, my use of these expressions is no different than when someone uses words such as “contrast principle,” “preexistence,” “finite,” “universal,” “person,” “agent,” “sentient,” “unconscious,” “sensation” or “millennial kingdom” when referring to ideas or concepts that are believed to be present in Scripture, even if not explicitly referred to as such).

God's “Preceptive Will”

By God's “preceptive will” I simply mean God's instructions, commandments, or precepts. Some have referred to this “will” of God as his “moral will” or his “will of command.” However, to speak of God's “moral will” (in contrast with another sense in which God's “will” is spoken of) would seem to imply that God's other “will” is immoral (or at best, amoral) in nature. Yet I believe that whatever God wills is always consistent with the best interests and ultimate happiness of his creatures. For this reason (and because I find the expression “will of command” somewhat awkward), I prefer to use the term “preceptive will” to convey the idea that I believe is being expressed in certain contexts when God's “will” is referred to.

A “precept” is defined as, "a rule that says how people should behave," or "a commandment or direction given as a rule of action or conduct." This "will" of God refers to the standard of righteousness by which people ought to live in relationship with God and others, whether this standard is revealed by God through an angel or prophet, engraved in stone (as with the “Ten Commandments”), or is a law that God has “written” on the human heart (Rom. 2:15). We've already seen one example of God's “preceptive will” - i.e., the command given to Pharaoh (through Moses) to let the people of Israel go free. Here are some other examples where I believe God's “preceptive will” is in view:

Matthew 7:21:  "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

Matthew 12:50:  “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:35:  "Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."

John 7:17:  “If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”

John 9:31:  “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”

1 Corinthians 1:1  “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God...” (cf.1 Timothy 1:1)

Romans 12:2:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Ephesians 5:15-17 : “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

1 Thessalonians 4:3-5:  “For this is the will of God, your sanctification...”

1 Thessalonians 5:18 : "In everything be giving thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

In these examples, the “will of God” that is in view refers to the precepts or standard of righteousness by which human beings ought to live within a given administration. To do the will of God in these verses is to obey God's command(s), or keep his precepts. Now, something important to keep in mind is that this particular “will of God” refers to something that can be spoken of as being obeyed or disobeyed. People act contrary to God's precepts and commandments all the time. That, of course, is what sin is (1 John 3:4).

But what if one's failure to keep God's precepts/commands is ultimately due to circumstances outside of one's control (and which were ultimately brought about by God himself)? Does a failure to keep the precepts God gives us cease to be sin just because God is the ultimate explanation for why one is failing to do this? No. Regardless of the ultimate explanation for why one is disobeying God by failing to keep his precepts, the fact is that the failure of any moral being to keep God's law makes them a sinner. So it's simply not true that a person cannot be considered a sinner simply because God is ultimately responsible (and the ultimate explanation) for what they do and why they do it. 

Again, sin essentially consists in a violation of God's precepts (all of which are summed up in the precepts to love him supremely and to love one's associate as oneself). A failure to love God supremely and to love one's associate as oneself doesn't cease to be sin/lawlessness just because God is the ultimate explanation for why one is failing to do so. Thus, contrary to the view of many who oppose the Biblical position that all is according to God's plan, sin is sin regardless of whether it is a part of God's plan for a being to sin, or not. Sin (the violation of God's precepts) doesn't cease to be sin merely because the sinner is acting in accord with the plan of God (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2015/03/sin-is-still-sin-and-god-is-still-good.html).

As noted earlier, Pharaoh disobeyed the divine command given him through Moses ten times before he finally relented and let Israel go. In Exodus 9 we read that, during the 7th plague, Pharaoh told Moses that he would let Israel go if only he would put an end to the plague. When the plague ended, we read that "he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants...and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as Yahweh had spoken through Moses." In other words, Moses disobeyed God's “will,” in the sense of doing contrary to the command he was given. But what's fascinating here is that, in the very next two verses, we read the following: "Then Yahweh said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh, for have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am Yahweh."

In these verses we read that Pharaoh sinned against God by hardening his heart and disobeying God's will for him - i.e., he disobeyed the command God gave him through Moses. But notice that Moses gives us two different perspectives on the same event here. That which in chapter 9 is spoken of as being something for which Pharaoh was responsible is, in chapter 10, spoken of as being something for which God was ultimately responsible. In other words, it was part of God's plan that Pharaoh disobey God. And this brings us to the second sense in which God's "will" is spoken of in Scripture.

God's “Providential Will”

In addition to referring to the precepts or commands given to human beings, I believe that God's “will” can, in certain contexts, also refer to his intention, plan and purpose, as manifested in his providential control over the circumstances of life. As an example of this “will of God,” consider the following verses:

1 Cor. 4:9:  “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills...”

Gal 1:4:  Christ “gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present wicked eon, according to the will of our God and Father.”

Rom. 1:  Paul prayed “that somehow, by God's will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you.”

Rom 8:27:  “The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

1 Tim. 2:4  "...our Saviour, God, Who wills that all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth."

Eph. 1:9-10  "...making known to us the secret of His will (in accord with His delight, which He purposed in Him) to have an administration of the complement of the eras, to head up all in the Christ -- both that in the heavens and that on the earth..."

James 1:18 : “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth...”

James 4:15:  “Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'”

1 Pet. 3:17:  “For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God's will, than for doing wrong.” 

Rev. 4:11  "Worthy art Thou, O Lord, our Lord and God, to get glory and honor and power; For Thou does create all, and because of Thy will they were, and are created."

In contrast with the first set of verses (where it's clear that God's “will” refers to something which people can choose to either do or not), the “will” of God referred to above is not something that can be disobeyed or thwarted; it's in a different category altogether. For example, the "will" of God that James has in view in chapter four verse fifteen involves whether or not man's plans will find fulfillment. This “will” of God comes to pass regardless of whether those making plans are taking God's purpose and providential control into consideration when making plans, or not. It comes to pass regardless of whether we're living in obedience to God's revealed commands/instruction, or not. This “will of God” is not something that can be thwarted or resisted in any way. Either man's plans will find fulfillment, or they won't. Either way, it's due to God's plan, as manifested in his providential control over the circumstances of life.

Similarly, Peter speaks of people suffering for doing right “IF that should be God's will.” When (and how) a righteous person suffers for doing good - or whether they will suffer at all - is completely up to God's will, in the sense of his plan or intention. Unlike God's commands/injunctions, this “will” of God is not something that can be thwarted or resisted. The circumstances that result in one person's suffering for doing right and another person's not suffering for doing right is entirely up to God, who, in his wisdom, exercises providential control over the circumstances of life.

When we recognize the distinction between the two senses in which God's “will” is spoken of, we can understand how the Bible can talk about God's will being resisted or thwarted in some verses, and its being irresistible and unable to be thwarted in others.

Three Characteristics of God's “Providential Will”

There are at least three characteristics of the “providential will” of God (his intention, plan or purpose) which distinguish it from the other sense in which God's “will” (his commands/precepts) is referred to in Scripture:

1. God's intention and purpose is hidden, except when prophetically revealed by God.

Whenever God's “will” refers to his precepts and commands, it is, without exception, something that has been revealed to, or is known by, one or more people. In contrast, when God's “will” refers to that which finds expression in God's providential control over the circumstances of life (his purpose and intention), it involves what God has determined in advance, and which is unfolding each and every moment. With the exception of when God makes it known through prophecy, the only thing that reveals God's “providential will” is the unfolding of circumstances and events in time. If one wants to know what God's “preceptive will” is for the body of Christ, all one needs to do is read Paul's letters. But if one wants to know what God's “providential will” (his plan and intention) is for next Sunday, one will have to wait until next Monday.

2. It is certain and will be fulfilled.

Unlike God's “preceptive will” or “will of command,” no one can withstand, thwart or resist God's intention, plan and purpose:

Psalm 33:10-11: "Yahweh brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of Yahweh stands for the eon, the plans of his heart to all generations.”

Here we find an example of Hebrew parallelism (where, for emphasis, the same basic idea is conveyed in two different ways). In v. 10, the “counsel of the nations” and the “plans of the peoples” conveys the same idea. Similarly, in v. 11, the “counsel of Yahweh” and the “plans of his heart” also conveys the same idea.

Job 23:13-14:  “But He is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does. For He performs what is appointed for me, and many such decrees are with Him.”

Job 42:2 : “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted."

Isaiah 14:24-27  “Yahweh of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand, that I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my mountains trample him underfoot; and his yoke shall depart from them, and his burden from their shoulder.” This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For Yahweh of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”

Isaiah 46:9-10 : "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'."

We know that this “declaring” or “telling” by God is not merely passive prediction on God's part of what's going to happen; it involves God's “counsel” and “purpose” (we find here another example of parallelism, with two words being used to convey the same basic idea).

Isaiah 55:10-11  “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Ezekiel 12:25  “For I the Lord shall speak, and whatever word I speak will be performed.”

Daniel 4:35  "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

Note the phrase, "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth."

There is a contrast being made here, and we need to understand it in order to properly interpret what it means for all the inhabitants of the earth to be accounted as nothing. Does this mean that God doesn't value or care for his human creatures? Not at all. The contrast explains what is meant: all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing with respect to their ability to thwart or frustrate God's will. And what's even more remarkable is that what's true on earth is true also in the heavenly realm. And who's in heaven right now? According to Scripture, Satan and his messengers.

Romans 9:19-20  You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his intention?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

Here, God's “intention” has to do with God's deciding to show mercy to (and save) some for the eons, and his deciding to harden (and destroy) others. This will or “intention” of God finds expression in God's providential control over the circumstances of people's lives, which leads to some becoming “vessels of honor” and to others becoming “vessels of dishonor.” Unlike God's will as expressed in his precepts/commands, this “intention” of God is not something that can be either obeyed or disobeyed by human beings. Notice that Paul does not say that the hypothetical protestor of v. 19 is mistaken in his belief that God's intention cannot be withstood. This is taken for granted. What Paul objects to is the idea that people have any good and justified reason to complain against the fact that God, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen different roles for different people (in accord with his “purpose of the eons”).


Whenever we find prophecies in Scripture, we're reading what God's intention or purpose is for the future. And that which is prophesied is certain to come to pass. Here are a few well-known examples:

In Genesis 3:15 the promise of a Savior was made shortly after the “forbidden fruit” was eaten by Adam and Eve.

In Psalm 22 we find that the Messiah would die by crucifixion.

In Isaiah 53 it's foretold that the Messiah would die as a sin-offering.

Daniel 9:26  reveals the time when the Messiah would come.

Occasionally we read words like, "These things happened in order that the scripture may be fulfilled." In other words, prophesied events are not a coincidence that God merely foresaw. No; prophesied events are events which God has purposed to bring about. In Luke 24:44, we read, "Then he said to them, 'These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.''' As an example of what had to be fulfilled concerning Christ, we read in John 19:36: "For these things took place so that the Scripture may be fulfilled: 'Not one of his bones will be broken.'"

In Ezra 1:1 we read, "In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, Yahweh stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing" (compare with v. 5).

As is evident from this and many other verses, prophecy in Scripture is not merely prediction by God. It is promised performance by God. History is not unfolding randomly, as a result of chance events that God merely foresees in advance (as if God were simply an infallible psychic, or as if God “stood outside of time,” passively observing events as they take place within time). History is and always has been unfolding according to God's sovereign purpose and intention.

3. God's intention, plan and purpose is detailed and comprehensive.

We've already considered some key statements by Paul and others in which this is being taught; the following verses can be understood as further confirmation of this truth. According to Scripture, God is responsible for:

Good and evil (Job 2:10; Isaiah 45:7; Lamentations 3:37-38).

Whether a person is born mute, deaf, or blind (Exodus 4:11; John 9:1-3).

The death of human beings through the instrumentality of other human beings (2 Chronicles 22:7-9; Isaiah 10:5-15).

When disaster comes to a city (Amos 3:6).

When a sparrow dies (Mt. 10:29, 30).

The losing or gaining of wealth (Deut. 8:18).

Every step we take (Job 31:4; Proverbs 20:24; Jeremiah 10:23).

The result of a lot cast into the lap (Prov. 16:33).

Whether one sins or not (Gen. 20:6; 1 Samuel 2:25).

Whether or not our plans find fulfillment (James 4:13-15; cf. Prov. 16:1).

A person's being wounded, healed, killed and made alive (Deut. 32:39).

The last verse referenced above is an example of what can be called a "spectrum text," since it affirms that both ends of the spectrum - and by implication everything in between - fall within God's sovereign will: "See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand." The point of mentioning life and death and wounding and healing is to establish the extremes of life over which God has complete control. And notice that God's very claim of uniqueness ("I am He, and there is no god besides Me") rests on this assertion. 

Another example of a "spectrum passage" is 1 Samuel 2:6-8, which reads, “Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. Yahweh makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

In Proverbs 21:1, we read, "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of Yahweh; he turns it wherever he will."

The word "heart" in Scripture, when used figuratively, refers to the center of volitional, reasoning and moral activity. Solomon singles out kings in this verse to make a point: even the most powerful people on earth are only acting in accordance with God's purpose. God runs the universe, and he directs the flow of world affairs as simply and easily as a farmer directs water around his fields. We've already looked at how God controlled the heart of Pharaoh to accomplish his purpose. The following are some more examples that illustrate the complete control God has over the hearts of human beings:

Deuteronomy 2:30  But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.

Deuteronomy 30:6  “Moreover Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.”

Jeremiah 24:7  “And I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.”

Joshua 11:19-20  "There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was Yahweh's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel is battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as Yahweh commanded Moses."

Ezra 6:22  "And they [the returned exiles of Israel] kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for Yahweh had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel."

Ezra 7:27  "Blessed be Yahweh, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of Yahweh that is in Jerusalem.

Psalm 105:23-25 “Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And Yahweh made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.”

Psalm 33:14-15 “From the heavens Yahweh looks down; He sees all the sons of humanity. From His established dwelling− He peers upon all those dwelling on the earth, He Who is forming their hearts individually, Who is understanding all their doings.”

Ezekiel 36:22-27, 31-32  “Therefore, say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says Yahweh God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went...Then the nations will know that I am Yahweh, declares Yahweh God, when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances....Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. I am not doing this for your sake," declares Yahweh God, "let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!"

A good example in the Greek scriptures demonstrating God's control over the hearts of human beings can be found in Revelation 17:16-17. There, we read, "And the ten horns that you saw, they and the wild beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God imparts to their hearts to form His opinion, and to form one opinion, and to give their kingdom to the wild beast, until the words of God shall be accomplished.

The “wild beast” here is obviously an evil person (he's the coming “man of lawlessness” referred to by Paul in 2 Thess. 2:3). And the ten horns are ten evil kings who are said to "make war on the Lamb." So at this future time it will be God's “providential will” (his plan/intention) to cause these kings to align themselves with the wild beast and to destroy a city and its inhabitants (which the “prostitute” or represents). Notice we're also told that their destroying the city will accomplish the words of God. As noted earlier, this means that God's prophecies are not mere predictions which God knows will happen, but rather are divine intentions to make sure certain events come to pass.

In Proverbs 16:4 we read, "Yahweh has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble." Peter reaffirms this remarkable truth when he describes the unbelieving Jews of his day as “...stumbling also at the word, being stubborn, to which they were appointed also" (1 Pet 2:8).

According to Christ, no one knows God except those to whom Christ has chosen to reveal him (Mt. 11:25-27), no one knows the "mysteries of the kingdom" or can receive Christ's teaching except those to whom it has been granted (Matthew 13:11), and no one can come to him unless they have been drawn by the Father (John 6:44). We cannot receive even one thing unless it has been given to us from heaven (John 3:27). God alone is ultimately responsible for whether one receives the truth or not.

According to Paul, a person becomes a believer rather than an unbeliever because God chose them before the disruption of the world and predestined them for adoption as sons through Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:5). Those who believe were chosen beforehand as the "firstfruits" to be saved (Rom 8:28-30; 2 Thess. 2:13). It was granted to them by God that they should believe (Phil 1:29), and thus God graciously assigned to them a measure of faith (Rom 12:3). In order for one to come to a knowledge of the truth and escape the snare of the devil, God must grant them repentance (2 Tim. 2:25-26; cf. Acts 11:18). Paul understood that it was God's grace - not his own innate goodness or willingness - that was the source of his faith and love (1 Tim 1:13-14). When a person believes and becomes a "new creation in Christ," this is no less the sovereign work of God than the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is all God's doing (2 Cor. 5:17-18). 

Although God certainly works through the instrumentality of human beings in reconciling people to himself, it is God alone who “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:5-9). There is nothing that we contribute to our salvation that does not ultimately have its source in God. Apart from God's Spirit at work in one's mind and heart, one would have no interest in spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). Our hearts must be opened by God just so that we will pay attention to what is being said when the gospel is proclaimed to us (Acts 16:14), and those who hear and believe the truth do so only because they were appointed or set by God for this (Acts 13:48). No one becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever apart from the divinely-controlled circumstances that God is using to accomplish his redemptive purpose in the world. God also determines who goes on to spiritual maturity, and who doesn't (Heb. 6:1-3).

I will close this section with the beautiful and inspired words of Job (who, as noted earlier, clearly understood and believed in the absolute and universal sovereignty of God over his creation):

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. Does not the ear test words as the palate tastes food? Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.

“With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open. If he withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land. With him are strength and sound wisdom; the deceived and the deceiver are his. He leads counselors away stripped, and judges he makes fools. He looses the bonds of kings and binds a waistcloth on their hips. He leads priests away stripped and overthrows the mighty. He deprives of speech those who are trusted and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes and loosens the belt of the strong. He uncovers the deeps out of darkness and brings deep darkness to light. He makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away. He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a trackless waste. They grope in the dark without light, and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.” Job 12:7-25

Both obedience and disobedience to God's “preceptive will” is in accord with God's “providential will”

One of the verses I provided earlier as an example of God's “preceptive will” was 1 Corinthians 1:1, where Paul speaks of having been called an apostle “through the will of God.” The reason I included this verse as an example of God's preceptive will (rather than his “providential will”) is because of what Paul says in 1 Tim. 1:1 (where he speaks of his apostleship as being “according to the commandment [or “injunction”] of God”). It's also clear that Paul considered the heavenly vision through which he was called an apostle as being something to which he was obedient rather than disobedient (Acts 26:19). At the same time, I think it's equally clear that Paul's apostolic calling was also in accord with God's “providential will” (his intention or purpose) for Paul's life.

In Acts 26:15-16, when recounting his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul quotes Christ as declaring, "Rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you..." This “purpose” was, ultimately, the purpose of God (which Christ was carrying out when he appeared to Paul). And since Christ knew that God is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will, we have no reason to think that, when Christ left heaven to appear to Paul on the road to Damascus, he was unsure of whether he would be successful or not, or that he had a “plan B” in case Paul wasn't obedient to his commission.

That Paul understood his apostolic injunction from God as being inseparable from God's sovereign purpose for his life seems clear from the fact that he spoke of himself as having been severed by God from his mother's womb, and called by his grace (Gal. 1:15; compare with God's words concerning the prophet Jeremiah in chapter 1, v. 5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”). The fact that Paul connects his apostolic calling with his being severed by God from his mother's womb implies that Paul understood his calling as being in accord with God's providential control over the entire duration of his life. Similarly, Paul's mention of God's grace in this verse indicates that Paul understood his apostolic calling as being something that he couldn't have been disobedient to. 

For Paul, God's grace was not something that merely “invited” or attempted to “persuade” people to act a certain way, or to follow a certain path. Rather, Paul considered God's grace as being an irresistible force or power that overwhelms us (1 Tim. 1:14). It was God's grace - not he himself – that Paul understood as being the explanation for why he'd become an apostle, as well as the reason for his toiling “more exceedingly” than the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:8-10). In other words, Paul attributed his initial obedience to the “heavenly vision” through which he was made an apostle (as well as his continued obedience and effort) to God's grace, rather than to himself.

In contrast with Paul's apostolic calling, it's equally clear from Scripture that God's “providential will” for people sometimes involves his “preceptive will” not being done (in fact, during this present wicked eon, at least, it seems to the exception rather than the rule when God's “preceptive will” is actually done). Consider the following examples:

1. The Crucifixion of Christ

In Exodus 23:7 we find that it's God's preceptive will that innocent people not be put to death. Yet it was according to God's sovereign plan and intention that wicked men put Christ (the most innocent man who has ever lived) to death.

In Acts 2:23 we read that “Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” This “delivering up” of Jesus involved the sinful actions of many people, including the chief priests and scribes. But it first involved Jesus' betrayal by Judas. This was, of course, a morally evil act, and is said to have been inspired directly by Satan (Luke 22:3). But Judas' betrayal of Christ had been prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures. It had to happen, and was thus in accord with God's purpose and intention (see John 13:18; Psalm 41:9). So here we find that God "willed" something in one sense that he obviously did not "will" in another sense. That is, God purposed/intended that a sinful act take place, but he did not approve of or delight in the sinful act in itself (as is evident from his precept/command against it). 

As with (I believe) every occurrence of evil, the evil that God purposed to take place in this passage of scripture was a means to a greater good. As we read in Isaiah 53:10, it was "the will (or desire) of Yahweh to crush" his Son, and it was God who caused him to be wounded (in the LXX, the Greek word translated "will" or "desire" in this verse is boulomai, which means "to will deliberately"). But this great evil that was in accord with God's purpose and intention - and which necessarily involved the sinful actions of human (as well as celestial) beings - was all for a greater good (as the verses in Isaiah 53 that follow make clear). 

In Acts 4:27-28, Peter declared: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had designated beforehand to take place.” What's interesting is that the word translated "plan" or "counsel" in both of these verses (boule) refers to God's sovereign will and purpose, since it's something that could not be thwarted by human beings. But this same word also appears in Luke 7:30, where we're told that "the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose (or counsel) for themselves, not having been baptized by John." In this verse, the same word refers to God's preceptive will for certain people at that time. So we have here yet another example in which the same word in Scripture can be used to refer to both God's sovereign purpose/intention (which can't be withstood) and his precepts/commands for people (which can be either obeyed or disobeyed).

2. The Persecution of the Righteous by the Wicked

Peter wrote about God's involvement in the persecution of believing Israelites at the hands of their unbelieving antagonists. In his first letter he spoke of the "will of God" as something to be pursued and lived up to: "Live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men but for the will of God" (4:2). But in the same letter he spoke of the will of God as God's purpose and providential control over the circumstances in which believers found themselves: "For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God's will, than for doing wrong" (3:17). And in this latter context, the suffering which Peter had in mind is the suffering which comes from the persecution of unbelievers, and which therefore cannot come about without disobedience to God's “preceptive will.” 

Whether or not a person suffers for doing good rather than for doing evil is not up to them; it's up to the "will of God" - i.e., God's purpose and intention, which embraces all the circumstances of life. It is this "will" that Peter has in view here. In any given situation, whether a righteous person suffers for doing good or not is completely up to God, and (unlike God's commands/injunctions) is not something that can be thwarted or resisted.

3. The Activity of Satan

In the opening chapters of the book of Job, it is clear that the activity of Satan was in accord with the counsel of God's will. Had it not been a part of God's purpose and intention that Satan do what he did, God could have (and would have) prevented Satan from doing it. God was just as capable of taking away Satan's power and authority in Job's day as he will be in the future. But this God did not do. Instead, God gave Satan the full authority to do exactly what he (Satan) ended up doing. Satan's actions after he left the divine throne room did not take God by surprise. God had perfect knowledge of Satan's character and disposition, and knew exactly what he would do if given the opportunity. There was nothing that Satan did that God did not fully expect him to do, and which he did not give him the authority to do; consequently, everything that Satan did must be understood as being in accord with the counsel of God's will. And it should be noted that Job himself understood all the evil that he suffered as ultimately coming from God, and as being in accord with God's will: "Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh" (Job 1:21-22). "Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10).

Now, it is clear that the activity of Satan described in Job was not motivated by love for Job, and that his heart was just as full of malice toward humanity in Job's day as it was when he tempted Eve in the garden of Eden. When Satan took almost everything of value away from Job (including his children), it was not because he loved God. Nor was it because he loved Job as he loved himself. Satan's actions were motivated by a malicious desire to expose Job as one who didn't really love God. His desire was that Job would, in response to the adversity brought upon him, curse God to his face (Job 1:9-11; 2:5). In other words, what Satan did was sinful; he did not have Job's best interests at heart. And his actions did not cease to be sinful merely because they were in accord with the counsel of God's will. But does this make God evil? No. What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. God's motive in giving Satan the authority to do what he did to Job and his family was completely pure and good. God did what he did out of love for Job rather than hatred or indifference.

4. The Life of Joseph

God prophesied to Abraham that his descendants would spend many years as slaves in Egypt, and that they would ultimately be delivered. He even gives the exact number of years during which they would be afflicted (Genesis 15:13-14). But in order for Abraham's descendants to be delivered from Egypt, God first had to get them there. So how does he do it? 

In Psalm 105:16-17, we read, “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.”

Here we find that God was responsible for the famine that ultimately brought the people of Israel into Egypt (Gen. 45:6). It wasn't just a random event that God had to respond to or attempt to work into his plan. It was part of God's plan all along. Similarly, we find that God was responsible for the events that brought Joseph to Egypt. This is in agreement with what Joseph himself told his brothers. In Gen 45:5, 8, Joseph said, "And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life...It was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt." Joseph was essentially telling his brothers not to dwell on the relative (the fact that they had sold their brother into slavery) but to focus on the absolute (that God was ultimately responsible for what took place).

It is significant that the circumstances which brought Joseph to Egypt involved - and were dependent on - the hatred that Joseph's brothers had for their brother and their evil decision to betray their brother and sell him into chattel slavery (which was contrary to God's “preceptive will” for them, since they knew what they did was wrong). After hearing Joseph's dreams, Joseph's brothers' jealousy and hatred for Joseph grew to the point of leading them to conspire to kill him (Gen. 37:5, 8, 18-19). But who gave Joseph the dreams that so intensified his brothers' hatred and jealousy toward him? God, of course! 

Evidently, Joseph - like Paul - believed that God was operating all in accord with the counsel of his will, and that this included both the good and the evil that takes place. For Joseph later told his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Thus, we see that God's benevolent purpose involved the occurrence of hatred and deceit, jealousy, selfishness, kidnapping (etc.) - all of which are contrary to God's revealed "preceptive will" for human beings. This, then, is yet another example of how God's purpose to bless his creatures can and does involve the sinful intentions and actions of his creatures. There is nothing inconsistent about the purpose of a good and loving God involving sin and evil.