March 22, 2014

If God Is Sovereign . . .

When someone begins a sentence with the phrase "If God is in control of everything, then why . . . " (or something similar), what follows will often betray a misunderstanding of the relationship between providence and God's decree.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of misunderstandings I have in mind:
  • "If you believe that God determines who will be saved, then why share the gospel?"
  • "If God has already determined what will happen, then why do you pray?"
  • "If you really trust that God is in control of this situation, then why act at all? Why not just let God handle it?"
Now, here are some thoughts on the relationship between providence and God's decree that might help clear things up:
  • God's decree relates to God's providential control of history the way that the blueprint of a building relates to the construction of said building. The existence of the blueprint in no way obviates the necessity of actually constructing the building.*
  • Now, let's build on the blueprint illustration. Does the fact that only God perfectly knows the blueprint mean that, unless God does all the building himself, the building will not be completed? Of course not. You and I participate in the "construction" of history even though we don't know all the details. We're like contractors who take on a small part of the job without necessarily knowing exactly how our part relates to the whole. Our actions are inevitably part of God's providential plan even though we don't know all of the details. To extend the metaphor, the construction project is in no danger of failing just because a few of the contractors haven't memorized the entire blueprint. God is the architect and he not only knows the blueprint perfectly but is also actively overseeing construction.
  • Does the existence of the blueprint eliminate the need for tools or building materials? No. Prayer, is one of God's "tools," and God's "building materials" include even our freely chosen actions. "Why did you do X, Y, or Z if you really believe in God's decree/providence?" is obviously a nonsense question because, if God's decree/providence includes all things, then it necessarily includes my doing X, Y, or Z.
  • The existence of the blueprint (God's comprehensive decree of all things) does not mean that the building (God's providential plan for history) will be constructed no matter what happens. It means that nothing happens apart from those things already laid out in the blueprint. (Stop and think about that one for a second.) The building will not be constructed no matter what happens. It will be constructed precisely because of what happens. God's providential plan is not merely an endgame that cannot be thwarted no matter what you or I do, it is a comprehensive plan that includes everything you and I do. Ask yourself, "How can something which is part of the plan (and was part of the plan from the beginning) actually go against the plan?" 
  • To use another metaphor, if history is a map, then God has not merely determined the destination, he has also determined the route that will be used to reach said destination. If God had determined the destination but not the route, that would be fatalism. You and I would be destined to reach a certain end no matter what we do. Yet, God has determined, not just the destination, but the route itself, which means that we will not be forced to arrive at the destination no matter what we do. Instead, the things that we (freely) do will (inevitably) result in our reaching the appointed destination.

*Credit where credit is due: I first heard this illustration when it was used by my systematic theology prof, Sam Waldron.

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