Ask any professing Christian if he believes God is sovereign, and it is inevitable that he will answer yes. Indeed, to be a Christian is to believe in the sovereignty of God, to confess that He rules over all. From the beginning of the church, believers have trusted in the One who is the “Sovereign Lord” (Acts 4:24).
But if we were to ask a group of professing believers what it means that God is sovereign, we would likely get many different answers. Some might say, “God’s sovereignty means nothing happens unless He allows it to happen.” Others may reply, “God’s sovereignty means He knows what will happen before it happens.” Still others would perhaps answer, “God’s sovereignty means He will finally defeat His enemies.”
Those answers are true enough and reflect key aspects of the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty. None of them, however, quite captures the doctrine of divine sovereignty that the Reformers understood from Scripture. The biblical doctrine of our Lord’s sovereignty tells us, to put it simply, that God actively controls all that occurs in His creation.
Ephesians 1:11 and many other biblical texts teach this view of God’s sovereignty. The text says that God “works,” using a present active participle of the verb meaning “to work” or “to expend effort.” The Lord actively exercises His reign, working out His purposes in “all things.” In using that terminology, Paul leaves nothing outside of the purview of God’s active control. Good and evil, our choice to believe in or reject Christ, the rising and setting of the sun—there is nothing that the Lord does not determine and control.
Of course, we will have to say more about this, for the Bible offers some important qualifications with respect to what it means for God to be sovereign over sin, human choices, and other topics. The basic principle we begin with is that the Lord is not passively sovereign. He does not simply stand back and look on as things occur; rather, things—all things—occur because He wills them to occur. John Calvin comments on the biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty that His reign “is not one by which the Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world, but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and overrules all events” (Institutes 1.16.4).
Finally, God’s active control of all things is governed by “the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). He does not exercise sovereignty haphazardly but according to His eternal wisdom. He acts according to His plan for creation, which is also known as His decree.