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R.C. Sproul will be remembered for many things, but perhaps foremost among them all will be his high view of God. In his lifetime, R.C. helped to initiate something of a modern-day reformation that beckoned the church to embrace what might best be called the “Godness of God.” His ministry—which is continued in and through the work of Tabletalk and Ligonier Ministries—was largely built on the central idea that if God is not sovereign, then He cannot be God. R.C. regularly reminded us that common sense proves this idea must be true. For, if there were anyone or anything in the universe more powerful or more authoritative than God, then that anyone or anything would, by definition, be God.
But common sense is not the only thing pointing in this direction; the overwhelming teaching of Scripture certainly does this as well. And R.C. regularly reminded us about that, too. Thus, we read in 1 Timothy 6:15–16 that God is called the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, [and] who dwells in unapproachable light.” In Psalm 95:3, we are told that nothing is more powerful or more authoritative than God. He is “a great King above all gods.” No one can resist His will (Rom. 9:19), no one can stay His hand (Dan. 4:35), He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:28), and the kings of the earth are all subject to Him (Ps. 2).
But, what is more, passages such as Ephesians 1:11 and Psalm 115:3 helpfully demonstrate that sovereignty is not just about what God is but also about what God does. He is sovereign, and He acts sovereignly. He “sits enthroned forever” (Ps. 9:7), and He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) and always does “all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).
Such a view of God—while tremendously encouraging—should never lead us to a fatalistic approach to life that refuses to take responsibility for our actions and decisions. The Bible says clearly that human beings are genuinely responsible. Romans 14:12, for instance, tells us plainly that every person “will give an account of himself to God.” And Scripture consistently commands us to repent (Acts 17:30), to believe (16:31), to obey (Matt. 28:20), to work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12), to do good (Gal. 6:9), to set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2), to pray at all times (1 Thess. 5:17), and to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18). These things indicate that our thoughts, words, and deeds actually do matter.
But how do we put these two things together? How is it that God can be sovereign to such a degree that everything that happens takes place “according to the counsel of his will,” and human beings can still be genuinely responsible for their actions and decisions? In order to answer this question, theologians have relied upon two main distinctions. On the one hand, they have distinguished between the hidden will and the revealed will of God, and on the other, they have distinguished between primary and secondary causation. We will look at each in turn.
When we speak of God’s hidden will, we are highlighting the fact that God knows many things that you and I do not. We are referring to what some have called His decretive will, that will by which—in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith—God “ordain[s] whatsoever comes to pass.” You and I cannot know this will; it is hidden from us. But, thankfully, God has not hidden everything from us. He has revealed many things to us in and through His Word, and these things constitute His revealed will for our lives. We may not know what will happen to us tomorrow or next month or next year, but we do know that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29–31). We know that we are to have no other gods before Him (Ex. 20:3). And we know that we are to obey everything that God has commanded us (Matt. 28:20). These things are revealed to us plainly. As Deuteronomy 29:29 says, the hidden or “secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.”
Therefore, God’s sovereignty is in one sense, “none of our business,” as R.C. used to say so candidly. We need to let God be God. We need to let Him worry about what will or will not come to pass. Our business is not to give our attention to the hidden or secret things of God but to those things that are revealed. Our actions and decisions, as they are governed by the Word of God, are what “belong to us and to our children forever.”
Acts 27:13–44 presents an interesting test case about the hidden will and the revealed will of God and how divine sovereignty works together with human responsibility. In this passage, God reveals to Paul something that would ordinarily be a part of His hidden will. In the midst of a fierce storm on the sea in which “all hope of . . . being saved was . . . abandoned” (v. 20), God tells Paul that he will not perish in the storm and that both he and everyone else on board the ship will be saved alive. But, even with this knowledge of God’s hidden will, Paul still commands the soldiers on board to prevent the sailors from leaving the ship when they try to escape in the lifeboat (vv. 30–31), he still urges “them all” to eat some food to preserve their lives (vv. 33–34), and the centurion still preempts the soldiers’ plans to kill Paul and the rest of the prisoners by releasing the captives early (vv. 42–44).
The interesting thing in this case is that Paul and the centurion both know God’s hidden will. They both know that God has decreed the survival of everyone on the ship (v. 21). Paul, at least, is confident that God’s decree will in fact come to pass in their lives and that they will all be saved (v. 25). And yet, in spite of this confidence, Paul and the centurion still behave as though their actions and decisions really matter. The most likely explanation for this is that Paul, at least, must have understood that God’s decretive will would be accomplished in and through his and the centurion’s actions and decisions. Rather than rendering their actions and decisions unnecessary, God’s sovereignty employs those actions and decisions and uses them in accomplishing exactly what God intends to happen.
And that leads us to the second distinction we want to make, the one between primary and secondary causation. When we refer to God as the primary or ultimate cause of all things, we are simply acknowledging that God is sovereign and that He acts sovereignly. We are saying that nothing catches Him by surprise, that nothing happens by accident, that there is no “maverick molecule” or maverick force in the universe that is outside of God’s power and control, and that everything that happens is part of God’s decretive will.
But although God is the primary or ultimate cause of everything that happens, He is not the only cause. In Acts 27, for instance, we see several subsidiary causes by which Paul and the others are saved. We see Paul warning the centurion and the soldiers to keep the sailors on board, we see the centurion and the soldiers cutting the rope to the lifeboat, we see Paul exhorting the people to eat, and we see the centurion thwarting the plan of the soldiers to kill the prisoners. None of these causes is ultimate, because God alone is the ultimate cause of all things. But they are all secondary causes; they are means through which God brings about His purposes. And they are real causes, too, as we know from Paul’s warning to the soldiers: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (v. 31, emphasis added).
R.C. Sproul spent his life calling us to embrace the “Godness” of God—along with the many benefits that accompany it—while at the same time challenging us to live according to God’s revealed will. R.C. knew that our actions and decisions really do matter. He knew that the gloriously sovereign God of the universe really does accomplish His perfect purposes in and through our imperfect actions and decisions. And, because of that, he knew that right now really does count forever.