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Liberty In Sovereignty

It is entirely biblical and proper for us to think of God Almighty as sovereign. Almightiness is the sister of sovereignty. These two kindred virtues imply that God reigns supreme in his universe, and possesses the wherewithal to impose his will upon it. But sovereignty—if that concept is allowed to have its biblical range of meaning—implies that the God who is able to impose his will upon every facet of creation is also at liberty to withhold at will the imposition of his will without compromising his sovereignty. Theologians who refuse to grant God this liberty in sovereignty create for themselves a quagmire of contradiction, and will (in many cases) resort to demagoguery and insult toward those who do.

Perhaps the focal point for any discussion about the sovereignty of God should be the cross upon which Jesus died. In his infinite wisdom and power, God imposed his redemptive will upon this world without violating the will of any man. As Peter stated in his masterful message at Pentecost: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). In no way did (or does) God impose wickedness upon the hands of any man—including Judas Iscariot!

So, how do we reconcile the realities of a determinate counsel and wicked hands? Some argue that a sovereign God predetermined the wickedness of those murderous hands, but such an allegation clearly indicts God as the author of sin. It is enough to classify that mystery under “unsearchable judgments” and “ways past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). The cross is indeed the wonder of historical wonders. A sovereign God in human flesh yielded himself to the will of sinful men and simultaneously executed his own sovereign will in providing a way of redemption for those who crucified him—including us!

The cross of Christ resolved perhaps the greatest dilemma that sovereign God ever encountered, and that is how he could justify sinners (i.e., declare them righteous) and at the same time deal righteously with their sin. To put it in laypersons terms, there was no way God could get sinners off the hook without first putting someone else on the hook for their sins. Therefore the gospel entails the following declaration: “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Just and Justifier! What a truth! Nothing less than the death of God Incarnate could keep his righteousness in tact as he went about the business of justifying believers! So the Father made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21).

The righteousness of God that comes to the sinner by faith in Jesus Christ is “unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:22-23). The design of the prepositions unto and upon is clear. Jesus became a sin offering for all who have sinned, and offers the gift of righteousness unto all for whom he died. But his righteousness only abides upon those who believe the gospel. Thus sovereign God chose to make a distinction between his righteous provision for sin and the appropriation of righteousness by the sinner. That is, God, as an expression of his sovereignty, does withhold the imposition of his will in the matter of personal salvation. Do sinners have the ability to believe the gospel apart from the grace of God’s drawing? Absolutely not! Can sinners resist and ultimately reject God’s drawing grace? Yes, they can! God by sovereign choice has made it so!

In his discourse with Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus clearly distinguished between the provision for salvation and its appropriation (John 3:14-15). Moses lifted up a brass serpent as the remedy for every snake-bitten Israelite. The look of faith brought healing and life. But 23,000 died for lack of faith in spite of God’s provision. Likewise the death of Jesus provided a sin satisfaction for the whole world (1 John 2:2), but men for whom Christ died continue to perish for lack of appropriation. Our Lord taught that faith precedes regeneration in the order of salvation, just as looking upon the serpent brought life to snake-bitten Israelites. Jesus taught a look-and-live salvation. The live-and-look heresy of Calvinism (i.e., sovereign regeneration before faith) is one of the many symptoms of sovereignty gone awry.

Brethren, for centuries theologians have bandied about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. For many it has become a line drawn in the doctrinal sand. In affirming the sovereignty of God, however, we must abide by the context of scripture. In Genesis, the Lord proffered acceptance to Cain if he would “do well” in making the proper approach to God. A sovereign God reiterated his inflexible standard of acceptance while refusing to impose faith and obedience upon Cain. Thus by granting to God a liberty in sovereignty, as exhibited with Cain and elsewhere in scripture, we can steer clear of at least one theological ditch.


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