Of all of the theological issues that have arisen in the last couple of decades, the matter of what God is like has to be one of the most crucial. As A. W. Tozer has written, “[T]he most portentous fact about any man is…what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 7).
Of course, all orthodox Christians agree that God is a Trinity, three persons in one essence. But just how powerful is this God? Does He control all things, even the details of life? Does He even know all things past, present, and future? Some evangelicals seem to be unsure.
Other evangelical theologians are passionately arguing the negative: God is neither in full control of the world, nor does He even know the details of the future. According to these Open Theists,
God knows a great deal about what will happen….he knows everything that could happen and what he can do in response to each eventuality. And he knows the ultimate outcome to which he is guiding the course of history. All that God does not know is the content of future free decisions, and this is because decisions are not there to know until they occur. (Richard Rice, The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock, 134)
“The content of future free decisions” is vast, however. Every person in the entire world makes probably thousands of decisions every day. But to Open Theists, God does not know for sure what these decisions will be. This is a tremendous amount of information for God not to know. And if God does not know what will happen, as Open Theists assert, He certainly is not in sovereign control of the universe. As one Open Theist argues, “God, for whatever reasons, designed the cosmos such that he does not necessarily always get his way” (Gregory Boyd, God at War, 20).
At Shepherds Theological Seminary, we believe and teach that God knows everything and is in sovereign control of the universe, down to the details of our own lives. The Bible tells us about God’s sovereignty in a number of ways.
First, God decreed all of the aspects and events of the universe. God’s decree is His sovereign plan and purpose whereby on the basis of the counsel of His own will He foreordained whatever happens. This is what Paul writes in Ephesians 1:11: God, “according to His purpose … works all things after the counsel of His will.” God’s decree is a single, all-inclusive plan, freely made, eternal, and certain, made for God’s own glory.
Second, God preserves the universe. Preservation is the work of the Triune God, accomplished particularly through the Son, whereby He upholds the entire universe. The writer of the book of Hebrews proclaims that Christ “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). The Apostle Paul writes that Christ “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). The stability of the universe, the processes of nature, animals’ and mankind’s existence are all preserved through this continuous work of God.
God is also providentially in control of the universe. Providence is that continuous action of God by which He makes all of the events of the universe fulfill His original design. God exercises providential control over the universe at large (Ps. 103:19), the realm of nature (Job 37:1-3), animals and birds (Matt. 10:29), the affairs of the nations (Ps. 22:28), the birth and career of men and women (Isa. 45:1-5), the successes and failures of human beings (Ps. 75:6), supplying the needs of the righteous (Phil. 4:19), answers to prayer (Matt. 6:32), the punishment of the wicked (Ps. 11:6), common grace on the good and wicked alike (Matt. 5:44-45), even trivial things (Matt. 10:30; Prov. 16:33).
The events in the book of Esther are a stunning example of God’s providence in operation. The name “God” is not event mentioned in the book, but behind the scenes God is working all things after the counsel of His own will. King Ahasuerus “just happened” to be wakeful (Esther 6), “just happened” to read the book of records, and “just happened” to understand how Mordecai the Jew had saved his life and that Mordecai hadn’t yet been rewarded. Haman, the enemy of the Jews, “just happened” to be in the outer court when the king sought someone to honor Mordecai. God providentially brought His will to pass without anything that we would call a miracle, but the story worked out just right for the benefit of the godly Jews and the glory of God.
And thus God sovereignly controls the universe. Perhaps even more extraordinary for us is the biblical truth that God sovereignly knows and controls the details of each of our lives. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The sovereignty of God is thus a precious biblical doctrine all Christians should uphold and honor.
Dr. Larry Pettegrew served on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary then Central Baptist Theological Seminary for 14 years. After 12 years on the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, he served as executive vice president and academic dean of Shepherds Theological Seminary where he now serves as research professor of theology.