Life Theology

Monday Miscellanies: Sovereignty of God

A guest post by Jonathan Edwards

414. Sovereignty of God. Affliction of the Godly.

‘Tis part of God’s sovereignty, that he may if he pleases bring afflictions upon an innocent creature if he compensates it with equal good; for affliction with equal good to balance it is just equivalent to an indifference. And if God is not obliged to bestow good upon the creature, but may leave it in the state of indifference, why mayn’t he order that for the creature that is perfectly equivalent to it? God may therefore bring many and great afflictions upon the godly, as he intends to bestow upon them an infinitely greater good, and designs [the afflictions] as a means of a far greater good, though all their sins are satisfied for.


What Happened to Pharaoh’s Heart?

I love the Bible because it does not argue in theological categories. When it comes to God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, it is black and white. The truth is, the Bible makes it clear that man is free and has the ability to choose. At the same time, the Bible is unmistakably clear God is sovereign. If he were not, he would not be “God.”

In this wrestling match, somebody’s freedom has to be contingent on another. Do you want to be the one to say that God’s freedom is contingent upon yours? I don’t think so.

One example of how this plays out is in the life of Pharaoh during the plagues in Egypt. The first mention of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened is in Exodus 4:21. There it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart before Pharaoh did it to himself.

It is sinful and wrong for Pharaoh to harden his heart against God. Furthermore, it would wrong for him (if it were even possible) to harden another human’s heart. Yet, here is God, doing what would be sinful for Pharaoh to do on his own. In fact, Exodus says Pharaoh’s heart was hardened 18 times. Nine of those times, it was Yahweh’s doing (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). Six times it is simply stated as a fact that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, not attributing the hardening to anyone in particular (7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). Only three times is Pharaoh credited with hardening his own heart (8:15, 32; 9:34).

This episode clearly shows that God is free in the absolute sense, and Pharaoh is free because he, in fact, did what he wanted to do. In his Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards argues we should think of freedom this way: we are free because we do what we want. In the final analysis, we do what is sinful. Before salvation sin is all we really want to do anyway.

So it is clear that Pharaoh’s freedom was contingent upon the freedom of another, namely God. Lest we shout, “Not fair!” we must remember that God is not a man and we cannot project what we think is appropriate for man upon the all-wise, all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient Creator God. For his ways are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33). As Edward writes, God is far above “the influence of law or command, promises or threatening, rewards or punishments, counsels or warnings.”[1]

This shouldn’t leave us feeling hopeless or like programmed robots or predetermined cyborgs. It should cause us to cast ourselves upon the grace of God in the cross of Christ, acknowledging our complete lack of ability to do any good. Only then will we really be free to do what God commands, for it was for freedom that Christ set us free to actually pursue holiness (Gal. 5:1).

The one who hardens hearts is also the one who softens hearts so that we might live a soft-heart kind of life. Therefore, let us pray pray as St. Augustine prayed: “Command us to do as you will, O Lord, and will us to do what you command.”


[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Notion of Liberty, and of Moral Agency,” Freedom of the Will, (accessed February 29, 2012), paragraph 9.


The Story of Rehoboam and the Story of God

The story of Rehoboam is a sad tale. You can read about his seventeen year reign in a handful of chapters (see 1 Kings 12:1-24 [parallel 2 Chron. 10:1-19; 11:1-4]; 14:21-31 [parallel 2 Chron. 12:1-16]; 2 Chronicles 11:5-23).

If you were to read his story as the average, American evangelical pastor would preach it, you would leave telling yourself to be more virtuous, more committed to God, and more respectful of your elders. Basically you would say, “Don’t be like Rehoboam.”

But that is a deadly trap. Why? Because you will wake up in three days having forgot about the moral cues and motivation will be lost.  How then should we read the story of Rehoboam?

Remember that there are three levels of Old Testament narrative. The bottom level is the individual narrative; the middle level is the narrative of God’s covenant with Israel; the the top level is the metanarrative of God’s redemptive plan. This top level must always be on our minds. If we only stay at the bottom level, we will equate what Rehoboam didn’t do to what we should do; thus we will become moralistic.

Insights into the bottom two levels are probably easy enough for anyone with a working knowledge of the Bible to discover. The top level, however, is where we see Jesus and it gives us a framework to view the Bible as a unified story.  To get to the top level, we ask questions like, “Why is this story in the Bible?” “How does this point to Jesus?” “How does this story help the progress of God’s redemption in creation?”

After some hard thinking, Lord willing, you will come to something like this:

  • Rehoboam falls short of what Israel was longing for in a king (cf. 1 Sam. 8). Thus his failures urge Israel to yearn for a true King who will not place heavy burdens on them as an overbearing dictator (cf. Matt. 11:28-29), but will rather be a servant who is willing to suffer, even unjustly, for his people (cf. Isa. 52:13-53:12; 1 Pet. 3:18).
  • Rehoboam’s apparent humility leaves Israel longing for a King who is truly humble and meek and will not dishonor God by forsaking the glory of his name (cf. John 17:4-5).
  • The priests in the story who fail to honor God for longer than three years leave the people Israel hungry for a true Priest who is able to faithfully go before God on their behalf (cf. Heb. 4:14-5:10).
  • Rehoboam (and Jeroboam, together) leave Israel desiring a true and better kingdom that will not be divided and cannot be shaken, and is ruled by one great king who is faithful and true and will always act in the best interest of the people (cf. Heb. 12:28; Rev. 19:11-16).

This is “Christ-centered hermeneutics.”  Christ is the focus and goal of every passage. I hope this helps you avoid simply “reading” the Bible, trying to find a command to obey, but rather challenges you to seriously engage God in the great story he is writing in history and see Christ as the hero.

When that happens, you will worship Christ and then (and only then) will you by grace be empowered by the Holy Spirit to love God and obey his commands as you ought.


Trust in God, Get to Sleep

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)

We must always live in faith that God is the one working in and through us (Phil. 2:13). He is the one who makes things tick. We are not ultimate. He is ultimate. We still must build and stay awake and work hard and plan and prepare. But we must not do it anxiously.  We must learn to rest in the LORD, and trust his sovereign work in our lives, for “our God is in the heavens, he does whatever he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

Even though we must work hard, Psalm 127:2 is a reminder that anxious toiling (i.e. trying to get everything done–and more–because “it won’t get done otherwise”) can be fatal.  It can keep us from getting proper rest and retreat.  A hard day’s work is good, but a good night sleep is better.  God wants to give his people rest so that they might work hard tomorrow, but a day of anxious toiling might not only prevent someone from crawling into bed, worrying about your work might keep someone up at night thinking, “Did I do enough today?”

This way of thinking is rooted in the sovereignty of God.  If God is sovereign to you (as he should be!), you will work hard in faith, and rest knowing that the results lie in God’s hand. If God is semi-sovereign or not at all, you will work hard, and you will either refuse rest or not get it because you’ll constantly wonder what you can do better or differently next time.


Colin Smith on “The Adjustment Bureau”

I saw The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon a couple months ago with my wife. We both liked it, but we both realized it made God look unpleasant, rigid, and frustrated by the way man responded to the “plan” he has for us. 

Over at The Gospel Coalition blog, Colin Smith writes a tremendous analysis of the film. Here’s the crutch:

The Adjustment Bureau suggests that you need to make choices that will deliver you from a dark and sinister God. But the real story is about how you need the sovereign God to deliver you from the dark and sinister power that inhabits your choices. The film suggests that your will is supremely good and that God cannot be trusted. But the real story is that God is supremely good and that you dare not trust your own will. The Adjustment Bureau suggests that the best plan for your life is the one that originates with you. The real story is that pleasures beyond anything you can imagine are at God’s right hand, and he is able to deliver you from the self indulgent choices that would keep you from them.

The Adjustment Bureau is a good film worth seeing, but it puts God in the place of man and man in the place of God. Its message needs not so much an adjustment as an inversion.