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God's Sovereignty and Man's Authority

Jul 01, 2009

The dispute surrounding the meaning and extent of God's sovereignty has been debated for thousands of years with no consensus in the end. Usually, this debate centers around the issue of free will vs. the sovereignty of God. In my view, this clouds the real underlying issue and prevents people from actually seeing the real issue.

First of all, the issue is NOT whether or not man has a will. Man does have a will, and he is called upon to make decisions based upon that will. For instance, Joshua 24:15 says, "choose for yourselves today whom you will serve." Furthermore, the very fact that God gave instructions to be obeyed, which men often disregarded, shows that man has a will capable of choosing.

The sovereignty of God has more to do with God's ability to hide certain things from man, so that he is unable to make proper choices by his own will. Hence, God blinds the people (Ex. 4:11), and Moses said that if God does not give people eyes to see and ears to hear, they will not have the will to be obedient (Deut. 29:4). In other words, God's sovereignty means that He has retained the ability and the right to coerce man's will by not enlightening him of all the facts. The human will acts upon what it knows or does not know, and it is also heavily manipulated by long-forgotten influences from earliest childhood. Hence, man's will cannot be said to be "free" in the absolute sense. The only one with absolute free will is God Himself.

Even so, God did create man's authority. Authority is not the same as free will, but it certainly has to do with man's will. In Gen. 1:26 we read, "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion. . ." God created authority, and Paul echoes this in Romans 13:1, saying, "There is no authority except from God."

One cannot deny the existence of authority without doing violence to the Scriptures. I was recently accused of denying the sovereignty of God on the grounds that authority and free will are the same thing. That, of course, is ridiculous. If authority and free will are the same thing, then one would be compelled to believe in free will. Why? Simply because authority exists, as clearly stated in Scripture. If authority exists, and if it is the same as free will, then obviously, free will would have to exist. But this is not the case at all, and this is why "free will" is not a biblical term. The Bible discusses the issue in different terms.

Authority, by its very nature, is authorized by a higher power. Authority is not sovereignty. The only true sovereign is God Himself, because His power is not authorized by any higher power. The fact that God gave man dominion (authority) on earth shows that man's authority is limited by God's sovereignty.

This is well illustrated in the land law of Lev. 25:23, where man has authority to sell his land inheritance, but he lacks the authority to sell it perpetually. His authority is limited by God's sovereignty. He may sell himself ("dust of the earth") for a season, but he lacks the authority to sell forever that which he does not own.

I may give my son authority over his own bedroom, but he lacks the authority to sell it to his friends, because he does not own the house. In a Father-son relationship, relatively speaking, I hold sovereignty over him, even though I have delegated to him a level of authority.

By looking at the question in the light of a Father-son relationship between God and man, we put life and breath into the entire issue. God is the Parent, and He is training us to be like Him through the exercise of man's will. It is only when we treat it like a Handler-robot relationship that it becomes adead issue. Robots have no breath, and their relationship is entirely impersonal. In my view, such a relationship falls short of a true description of our relationship with God.

If we maintain the Father-son context in our discussions of God's sovereignty and man's authority, we will go farther in coming to a consensus on this whole issue. Questions about God's right and ability to manipulate the will of man are secondary and probably will not be resolved in any discussion. So at that point, I find it more useful to take a practical approach.

I know that my little brain cannot comprehend God. I can and should increase my understanding of God, but I suspect that my understanding will continue to increase indefinitely without ever coming to a full understanding of His nature and being. That means I must retain some humility in my ability to understand His sovereignty and not be afraid to say "I don't know" or "I might be wrong." To think otherwise would be foolish.

It is enough to know that God is sovereign and that man has been given authority by which the human will functions. By experience and by numerous biblical examples, we see that God judges men according to the decisions of their human will. They are judged according to their level of authority. If they had no authority, there would be no judgment (correction) at all. Not only would it be unnecessary, but it would also be unjust. We are not judged as robots, but as sons (Heb. 12:7). Robots are to be mechanically fixed, not corrected and taught as are sons.

Since authority is limited, so also is the divine judgment. This is one reason why non-ending judgment is not biblically lawful, whether it be by torture in a fiery pit or simply eternal annihilation. The land laws and the law of Jubilee demand restoration by the higher law of God's sovereignty. Man is indeed held accountable and judged according to his level of authority, but God takes responsibility for His own sovereign acts. Hence, Jesus came to earth and died, not only to pay the sin of the world, but also to take responsibility for His own sovereignty. After all, He is the Creator and Owner of the whole world (Gen. 1:1). Being in that position, He held Himself liable for man's sin, because He could have easiliy prevented it from ever happening.

Men may argue the question of whether God causes man to sin or merely allowed it, but those questions are not legally relevant. The law says that if an ox gores a man, not only might the ox be judged, but certainly its owner is held liable (Ex. 21:35, 36). Hence, liability is incurred on both levels. If the ox could speak in his own defense, he would not be able to say, "My owner made me do it." Even the ox has a will and is held liable accordingly.

If we recognize man's authority along with God's sovereignty, and reconcile/balance these two factors, we will not give man sovereignty that is not his due, nor will we fall into the other extreme view--fatalism, where men think that they are not held accountable on any level.

Seeing this balance leads us to the conclusion that there is indeed divine judgment for sin, according to man's level of authority. At the same time, because God is the Creator and Owner of all mankind, He is responsible not only to administer judgment and correction, but also to use correction until all have come into a right relationship with Him.

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones