What Does it Mean for God to be Sovereign?

What Does it Mean for God to be Sovereign?

Christians disagree on the implications of God’s sovereignty, because they differ on their understanding of the meaning of the word.

According to dictionary.com[1], the word sovereign means:

  1. a monarch; a king, queen, or other supreme ruler.
  2. a person who has supreme power or authority.
  3. a group or body of persons or a state having sovereign authority.
  4. a gold coin of the United Kingdom, equal to one pound sterling: went out of circulation after 1914.

and sovereignty, the adjective, refers to:

  1. belonging to or characteristic of a sovereign or sovereign authority; royal.
  2. having supreme rank, power, or authority.
  3. supreme; preeminent; indisputable: a sovereign right.
  4. greatest in degree; utmost or extreme.
  5. being above all others in character, importance, excellence, etc.
  6. efficacious; potent: a sovereign remedy.

We see that, in the context of people or groups, the word refers to an entity in greatest authority, which is above all others in its class or jurisdiction. Nothing in either definition states or even suggests that the sovereign party has total control over its subjects or exercises full control of every circumstance or action involved in the jurisdiction of the sovereign. Not even an human sovereign seeks to control every thought and action of every other person in their kingdom; it is abusing the meaning of the word and any sense it has had through history, to suggest that when we apply the word “sovereign” in reference to God, that it necessarily requires for everything that ever happens in God’s jurisdiction be both desired and caused by God. In fact, anyone who insists on this ‘necessity’ is themselves guilty of placing conditions on God’s sovereignty, effectively annulling it or rebelling against it.

A sovereign may attach whatever obligations to his or her subjects as that regent sees fit. A king may require subjects to serve in the national defence for two years, beginning on the subject’s eighteenth birthday. A sovereign may require that all able-bodied adults work for a living, that driving licenses are limited to people over 21 years of age, that the official language of their state is some particular tongue, that the currency shall be dollars and cents, that buildings may only be built to 5 floors in height. But that same sovereign has the authority to allow his or her subjects the prerogative to choose between any number of alternative options within a set of choices, about virtually any matter the sovereign wishes to extend this permission. The authority of the sovereign is not limited in any way by giving permission to subjects to decide about anything; in fact, to suggest that the sovereign cannot or may not afford such permission is to place a restriction on the sovereign themselves. Anyone with the authority to restrict another person is, by definition, superior to the person whom they restrict, and is therefore sovereign over the restricted person. Anyone who can be restricted by someone else is also, by definition, not sovereign. To be sovereign means to be the highest authority; if you are subject to someone else’s permissions, you are their subject; you are not sovereign.

YHWH God is alone as Creator of the universe, and is alone as universal sovereign. There is no one who can or may apply any restriction, limitation, or obligation upon God, because God is all-powerful and cannot be made subject to any lesser than Himself, which all others are because all others than God are created by Him. God is therefore the highest authority in every jurisdiction, and is answerable to no one. None has the privilege of obligating Him, questioning or demanding of Him, second-guessing His word, or limiting Him in any way. Whereas an human “sovereign’ is only highest over a limited jurisdiction – a single country, a single people, or a single situation – God is absolute sovereign over the whole universe; every country, every people, every situation is under God’s authority, and none exists with the prerogative to hold Him to account.

That means that God in His sovereignty may establish any obligation of His creation, may set any requirement, make any decision, set any limits that God sees fit, on all subjects, which includes all humans and other creatures in the universe. It also means that God in His sovereignty may establish any privilege, freedom, or prerogative to His subjects that He sees fit, including the freedom to make decisions contrary to God’s perfect nature, purpose for His creation, or expressed instructions concerning any conduct. God’s sovereignty does not limit God from allowing this freedom, and whenever a person presumes to insist that God may not, he has placed himself above God rather than submitted to God’s sovereignty, and puts himself on dangerous ground. Anyone who says that God cannot allow this freedom has a poor understanding of God, not recognizing that God Which spoke the universe into existence ex nihilo, Which put life into mankind, and raises the dead, is quite capable of permitting sentient beings to make their own decisions – even bad or wrong decisions, including openly rebelling against God – because God is capable of doing what is just, and permission is just.

Human free-will is not in conflict with God’s sovereignty, if God created humanity with the ability to will and the ability to exercise it; rather, it is consistent with God’s sovereign decision to create man with the ability and to permit him to exercise it, including in contradiction of God’s will for men to be good. The Scripture is full of references to God’s will being rejected, rebelled against, and resisted by sinful men[2], and God’s will that all men repent and come to faith in Christ to be forgiven from those rebellions in order to restore the damaged relationship and create a righteous people, “in the image of God”.

Among those who know Christ as Lord and Saviour, no one would deny that the living and true God is the absolute and supreme authority over all creation. None who are indwelt of the Holy Spirit have any misconception that God is answerable to anyone, but we know that God is the highest above all. Yet we recognize, who understand that sovereignty is not master-puppetry, that the supreme Sovereign over all creation has chosen to create human beings in God’s own image, possessing will and the ability to consider and decide. We are able to examine actions to determine whether they are right or wrong, and we are capable of exercising the free will to take either course – right or wrong, good or bad. We may believe God or choose to question or reject God, on our own initiative; God does not compel us, but reveals Himself through many means, and calls us to believe and receive Him. If we do not, we receive the appropriate recompense in ourselves for rebelling against the universal sovereign – to be cast from His presence forever without remedy. If we choose to believe Him, He receives us to Himself, and forgiving our sin and declaring us righteous on the basis of our faith. He neither forces us to believe Him nor prevents us from being able, but graciously provides us the means and the reason, and permits us to respond as we will.

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sovereign?s=t

[2] Is 1:2; Lk 7:30; Romans 10:21; Jer 44:4-8; Mat 18:14; 2 Pet 3:9; Act 7:51; Zech 8:8-12; Mt 23:37’ 1 Tim 2:4; Rev 2:21