A massive distinctive in a reformed church is divine sovereignty. What does this mean?
In its simplest form, divine sovereignty means just that – God is sovereign.
God is sovereign (1 Timothy 6:15-16), nothing can stay His hand (Job 42:2), He is completely supreme in and over all things (Colossians 1:15-20), He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3), and governs all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11b). God is sovereign in His creation, for He created all things and all things are sustained in Him (Genesis 1, Colossians 1:17).
After reading the creation account in Genesis 1 most people liken God to an artist who creates majestic works of wonder. This is true but not far enough. In order for an artist to make something they need materials to begin with: paint, charcoal, canvas, brushes, tools, drop cloths, lighting, instruments, pen, paper, steel, computers, etc. the list could go on forever couldn’t it? This is not so with God, for He created everything (visible and invisible) “ex nihilo” or out of nothing. God is the true artist, whose voice is so powerful and sovereign, when He speaks, creation appears.
God is sovereign in His providence, for He not only created all things from nothing, but continues to rule over all things now. The story of Joseph clearly portrays this (Genesis 37-50). In Genesis 50:19-20 Joseph said to his brothers, who faked his death and sold him into slavery, “Don’t be afraid, for I am in God’s place. As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. To bring it about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” What? God was behind (“meant”) Joseph’s bad circumstances in his life? Yes. It may be mysterious, but the Bible is clear that God is the One behind the scenes of history, driving, allowing, ordaining, and bringing about all events everywhere for His own purposes. History is “His story” indeed, because if “all things work according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11b), then nothing works according to the counsel of our will.
Before moving on further into God’s sovereignty I have to pause to make sure you know something about the responsibility of man. It may be very easy to talk of God’s sovereignty in a manner that obliterates man’s responsibility, but the Bible does no such thing. In the Bible, God is sovereign and man is responsible, at the same time. The Bible does not lean toward one side more than the other, by saying that “God is sovereign therefore man is not responsible” or “Man is responsible therefore God is not sovereign.” The Bible simply holds them both up, at the same time, and says “yes.” One example of this is Acts 2:23, which says, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of lawless men.” Notice that Peter, in this sermon, ascribes the death of Jesus to God’s predetermined plan while calling out the men who killed Him, clearly holding them responsible.
This is what I mean when I say the Bible holds both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility up in agreement. The reformed tradition has always been quick to let the Bible hold these two up at the same time, without giving much explanation as to how they fit together. (For other places that show this see: Philippians 2:12-13, Psalm 2, Isaiah 10:5-19, Acts 4:27-28)
Charles Spurgeon once said, “I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes – that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens – that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses – the creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence – the fall of sere leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.”
Does Scripture really teach this? I believe the answer is yes. Here is just a tiny sampling: God Is Sovereign Over…
Seemingly random things: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” (Proverbs 16:33) The heart of the most powerful person in the land: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1)
Our daily lives and plans: “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can man understand his way?” (Proverbs 20:24) “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21) “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. . . . Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
Salvation: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:15-16) “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48) “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)
Life and death: “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.” (Deuteronomy 32:39) “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” (1 Samuel 12:6)
Disabilities: “Then the LORD said to [Moses], “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11)
The death of God’s Son: “Jesus, [who was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) “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 predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28) “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief…” (Isaiah 53:10)
Evil things: “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (Amos 3:6) “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong… “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 1:21-22; 2:10) “[God] sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. . . . 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.” (Psalm 105:17; Genesis 50:21)
All things: “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11b) “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3) “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and 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?” (Daniel 4:35)