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Coming to Terms: Sovereignty and Providence

Terms in the Bible are specialized words of particular significance. In Coming to Terms we explore the significance of these terms to deepen our understanding of biblical truth through a question and answer and fill in the blank format.

Unpacking the term

Many people think that saying “God is sovereign” is the same as saying “God is in control.” It isn’t. The sovereignty of God refers to His position of supreme authority and power. He rules over and owns everything because He made everything. It’s true that He causes and controls all that happens but that is not sovereignty, it’s providence.

As the sovereign One, God has a predetermined plan and purpose for everything that happens in the universe. But He is not merely a detached observer of His creation. He is active in all history, time, and space carrying out His rule and kingship according to His plan and purpose. “…he makes everything work out according to his plan” (Ephesians 1:11). Not only did God create everything He upholds all things and all things owe their continued existence to Him (Hebrews 1:3).

In order to carry out His plan and purpose God guards, guides, and governs all things. This is called providence; “He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’” (Daniel 4:35).  

What are some things He controls? He controls the physical world including the weather (Job 37:10), plants, animals, birds (Psalm 104:14, 21; Matthew 10:29), and oceans (Psalm 135:6). In fact, His providential control is over the entire universe: “The Lord has made the heavens his throne; from there he rules over everything” (Psalm 103:19).

But what about humanity and the affairs of men? The Bible says God is operative in all that comes to pass in the world and directs all things to their appointed end: over the affairs of nations (Job 12:23; Psalm 22:28; 66:7; Acts 17:26), over man’s birth and lot in life (1 Samuel 16:1; Psalm 139:16; Isaiah 45:5; Galatians 1:15,16), over the outward successes and failures of men’s lives (Psalm 75:6,7; Luke 1:52), over things seemingly accidental or insignificant (Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:30), in the protection of the righteous (Psalm 4:8; 5:12; 63:8; 121:3; Romans 8:28), in supplying the wants of God’s people (Genesis 22:8,14; Deuteronomy 8:3; Philippians 4:19), in giving answers to prayer (1 Samuel 1:19; 2 Chronicles 33:13; Psalm 65:2; Matthew 7:7; Luke 18:7,8), and in the exposure and punishment of the wicked (Psalm 7:12–13; 11:6).

The sphere of God’s control also includes the exercise of a person’s will. God can interfere with people exercising their wills and cause their will to be thwarted (Proverbs 16:9; James 4:13–16). Or He can allow them to do what they will. All of that is still within the sphere of His control and plan. People exercise their wills in the context of influences but God is in control of all the factors that influence people to make the choices they do.

How does God direct and control all things and what does “control” mean? Although God is in control of all things, He may choose to let certain events happen according to natural laws and secondary means, which He has ordained to further His plan.

God in His power works together with subordinate powers and second causes according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act when and how they do. The powers of nature do not work by their own inherent power. God’s power upholds and operates in and through them (Hebrews 1:3). The laws of nature are the expression of His will. That someone should die of sickness is not outside God’s control because He can control disease and raise the dead.

Other times He Himself is the primary cause of something to further His plan. As Acts 17:28 says, “For in him we live and move and exist.” God in all His fullness and power is present everywhere at all time. He can suspend the laws of nature to accomplish His purposes—something the Bible calls a miracle—and raise the dead, or turn water into wine, or cause the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:13–14).

How should we respond to the sovereignty and providence of God? Humbly acknowledge that He is the Most High God and we are not. Yielding our will to His because He is in control only makes sense (James 4:13–16).

Give thanks that the One who is in control is infinitely good (Psalm 73:1), wise (Job 9:4), and loving (1 John 4:10).

Finally, do not worry about things because He has a plan for our good and His glory (Matthew 6:25–33; Romans 8:28). Entrust yourself to Him to experience peace.