In our previous article, we looked at Romans 8-10 and considered the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over salvation. We saw that God ordains all of salvation from predestination and election to final glorification, that He has the right to show mercy to whom He wills and that He also ordains the means by which people come to saving faith - the proclamation of the Gospel. In previous articles we examined the Libertarian concept of Free Will and the Biblical doctrine of Compatibilism. In this article, we will consider two other important considerations from the exposition of the Biblical texts - God’s sovereignty over who comes to Him in salvation, and God’s sovereignty over evil.
John 6 – The Sovereignty of God Over Who Comes
If anyone thinks that this doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation is an invention only of Paul, let them see that Jesus himself taught the same. In fact, it is from Jesus himself that we have some of the clearest statements about God’s sovereignty over who can even come to Him in salvation! Those who deny this doctrine cannot walk through the text of John 6 consistently and follow its clear argument. Here we will do just that. Feel free to follow along in your Bibles to make sure that it says what it says.
In John 6:37, in reference to salvation, Jesus clearly states that:
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
Note the certainty of that statement: All that the Father gives Jesus (here in reference to the elect), WILL come to him. And whoever comes to him will not be cast out. But who are the ones who come to Him? They are the ones the Father gives to Jesus.
Jesus continues to explain that:
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:39-40)
All those who are given to the Son by the Father will come to the Son, and the Soon will lose none of them, but will raise them up on the last day. Here we see the same certainty we saw in the Golden Chain of Redemption in Romans 8. Those who are foreknown, predestined and elected will come to the Son for salvation and will be raised up (glorified). Notice the assurance - "everyone who looks on the Son" in true saving faith HAS eternal life and will be raised up on the Last Day. The Son loses none of them – this is the assurance of our salvation: that Christ’s grip is secure.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)
Here we have an affirmation of the inability of man to come to Christ for salvation, unless the Father draws him. If there is no drawing by the Father, then NO ONE can come to Christ. The verb used here implies ability - thus, without the Father's drawing, no one is able to come to Christ. As we saw previously, it is God who is active in salvation.
But what does it mean for the Father to "draw" people to the Son?
What does it mean to “draw”?
This verb used here for draw, some have argued means “woo” or “entice” – as if God woos the sinner and he/she freely chooses whether or not to accept the offer of salvation. However, we cannot just assume a definition on a word in the Bible. We must also look at how it is used throughout the Bible and in the common usage of the time to see what is its range of meanings. If we look at other places where this same verb (ἑλκύω) is used, we see that this cannot be the meaning.
Here are all the NT uses of this same Greek verb (ἑλκύω):
John 12:32 – Jesus says that when he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all men. A similar use to 6:44. Let’s look at the other uses to clarify what is meant.
John 18:10 – when Peter ‘draws’ out his sword to strike the ear of the high priest’s slave. Did Peter woo his sword out?
John 21:6 – when the disciples were ‘drawing’ or hauling in the net. Were they wooing the net into the boat?
Acts 16:19 & 21:30 use the verb for when the disciples are dragged into the market place and out of the temple. Was the text really meaning that they were being wooed?
James 2:6 – about the rich dragging people into court. Certainly, they weren’t wooing them to court!
Therefore, what Jesus is saying is not that the Father woos or entices people to come to the Son, but actually brings them to Him. The standard Greek lexicons all have entries for this verb of meaning "to move an object from one area to another in a pulling" (BDAG), "to pull, to haul, to drag, to carry", etc. What is implied is that the Father is the active agent in bringing people to saving faith in Christ.
Later in chapter 6 Jesus tells his disciples that it is the Spirit who gives life and the flesh is no help at all (6:63), and:
But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:64-65)
If John 6:44 was unclear, here in verse 65 we have a very clear statement that needs no explanation. No one can come to Christ unless it is granted to them by the Father. This is a clear and unavoidable statement from the Biblical text that Christians must honestly wrestle with and not try to get around it.
The clear teaching from Jesus Christ himself is that God is the one who is sovereign over who comes to Him in salvation. This means that none of us can boast in our own salvation (Eph. 2:8-9)!
The Sovereignty of God Over Evil
The question of evil and God’s sovereignty is often another difficult discussion to have. It can bring up some uncomfortable tensions that make us uneasy. In answering this question, we are searching for what's called a "theodicy" - the justification of God. That is, how is it right that God is sovereign yet there is evil and suffering in the world? It seems like a conundrum. However, Scripture is clear that God’s sovereignty extends even over evil - and this is good news!
Although we are sometimes shy to say that God is sovereign over evil, God himself is not so shy. He says, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7) If you want further passages to consider, see also Lam. 3:37-38; Gen. 38:7; Deut. 32:39; Psa. 90:3; 139:16; Jer. 15:2; Ezek. 24:16, 18; Luke 2:29; 12:4-5; Rom. 4:17; Heb. 9:27; Jam. 4:14-15 and Rev. 1:18.
We also see in Scripture that:
God sends natural catastrophes (see Amos 3:6; 2 Sam. 24:15; 1 Kgs 17:14; Job 38:8-11; Psa. 135:6-7; 147:15-18; Isa. 29:6; Jer. 10:13; 31:35; Nah. 1:5-6; Mk. 4:38-41; Luke 8:24; Rev. 11:13; 16:18).
God uses calamity to execute His judgment (see Psa. 78:44-48; Jer. 18:11; 19:3, 15)
God appoints evil rulers and armies to judge others (see Deut. 28:28; 2 Kgs 15:37; 24:2-4; 1 Chron. 5:26; 6:15; 2 Chron. 21:16; 24:24; 28:9; Psa. 78:60-62; Isa. 10:5-8; Jer. 43:10-13)
The Most Evil Act
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is incontestably the most evil act in history. Only Jesus was sinless and totally undeserving of any ill-treatment or judgment, yet he was betrayed, given a mock trial, and murdered at the hands of jealous hypocrites and pagan rulers. If there was ever an evil act, the mocking and murder of the Creator by His creation has to be the worst.
We read in Acts 2:23, in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost to the Jews gathered there that,
“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
We see here a plain affirmation that the Cross was not an accident or God’s plan B. Instead, it was according to God’s definite plan and foreknowledge. Yet Peter doesn’t hold the human agents who perpetrated it innocent. He says “YOU crucified and killed” him and calls them “lawless men.” The Cross was according to God’s sovereign decree, yet the people who enacted it were still responsible.
Again, we read in Acts 4:27-28, the disciples praying to the Sovereign God:
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
They did what God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. Yet the scripture still holds them accountable. This is the tension that we see in scripture. God is totally sovereign over all that takes place, yet people are morally responsible for their actions. Loraine Boettner comments that,
“The crucifixion of Christ, which is admittedly the worst crime in all human history, had, we are expressly told, its exact and necessary place in the plan (Acts 2:23; 4:28). This particular manner of redemption is not an expedient to which God was driven after being defeated and disappointed by the fall of man. Rather it is "according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord," Ephesians 3:11. Peter tells us that Christ as a sacrifice for sin was "foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world," 1 Peter 1:20. Believers were "chosen in Him before the foundation of the world" (or from eternity), Ephesians 1:4. We are saved not by our own temporary works, "but according to His purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal," 2 Timothy 1:9. And if the crucifixion of Christ, or His offering up Himself as a sacrifice for sin, was in the eternal plan, then plainly the fall of Adam and all other sins which made that sacrifice necessary were in the plan, no matter how undesirable a part of that plan they may have been.”
Further OT Examples
We see God’s sovereignty in the Old Testament texts in Isaiah that describe His use of Assyria as the “rod of His anger” (Isa. 10:5) to punish His apostate people. Yet, even though God used Assyria to discipline His people, He still holds them accountable for their evil acts because of the intention of their hearts (see Isa. 10:7). The king of Assyria thinks he is a powerful dictator sweeping up anyone in his way like some sort of super-villain, not knowing that he is actually just a tool in the hands of the only true Sovereign. Look at how God rebukes him in Isaiah 10:15:
“Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should life him who is not wood!”
Scott Christensen comments here, “Only a fool thinks he is the wielder when in fact he is the wielded.” God is sovereign even over the pagan nation He uses to judge His apostate people, and then later He judges Assyria for their own evil intentions!
In Genesis 45:5-8, we read of the story of Joseph that it was God who sent Joseph to Egypt to preserve life. Yet we read in the narrative that it was his brothers who sold him into slavery. Joseph himself acknowledges the dual agency at work in Genesis 50:20 saying, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” His brothers’ acts were really evil because they meant evil in their hearts. But behind and above it all were God’s plans which He meant for good. The text does not explain exactly how these fit together, but just that they are simultaneously true.
“Joseph’s brothers acted with an evil intention… Yet God brought about the same result, but with a different intention. His motive was good—“God meant it for good.” Culpability can be attributed to Joseph’s brothers because they intentionally purposed evil. God sovereignly purposed the same event, but his intention was good, and therefore he has no culpability for the evil that occurred.” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p. 46)
Just because in our finite wisdom we cannot think of a good purpose for which God has allowed some evil does not mean that there cannot be one for an infinite and eternal God who is infinitely more wise than us.
Evil and a Holy God
God’s stance behind good and evil are asymmetrical (as with election and reprobation). God stands directly behind what is good in such a way that it directly flows from Him (cf. Jam. 1:17). However, He stands behind evil only in a distant and secondary way—evil comes about through other primary causes such as the Devil, demons and people—so that it cannot be directly attributed to Him and only happens by Divine permission. This is to say that God is never the direct cause of evil. Thus, God cannot be said to be the Author of evil, but at the same time, evil is not something which is out of His control.
Scott Christensen comments,
“Evil does not reside in a mysterious realm somehow untouched by God’s plan, purpose and power. If it did, we would have reason to fear, for then God would not in fact be sovereign.” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p. 62)
The fact that God is ultimately sovereign over evil is good news for us - because it means there is no such thing as unrestrained or even purposeless evil in God’s grand scheme. Christensen continues that,
“Even the fall of Adam, and through him the fall of the race, was not by chance or accident, but was so ordained in the secret counsels of God… Paul speaks of "the eternal purpose" which was purposed in Jesus Christ our Lord, Eph. 3:11. The writer of Hebrews refers to "the blood of an eternal covenant," 13:20. And since the plan of redemption is thus traced back into eternity, the plan to permit man to fall into the sin from which he was thus to be redeemed must also extend back into eternity; otherwise there would have been no occasion for redemption. In fact the plan for the whole course of the world's events, including the fall, redemption, and all other events, was before God in its completeness before He ever brought the creation into existence; and He deliberately ordered it that this series of events, and not some other series, should become actual.”
The Bible is explicitly clear about God’s sovereign control over evil. Boettner comments that,
"The reason for the fall is assigned in that 'God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that He might have mercy on all,' Rom. 11:32; and again, 'We ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raiseth the dead,' II Cor. 1:9; and it would be difficult to find language which would assert the Divine control and Divine initiative more explicitly than this.”
Indeed, the Scriptures are explicit on this point. For the Christian, we can take comfort in the fact that God’s meticulous ordering of history and all things that come to pass guarantee that it is His good pleasure and will that is at the helm of the ship - guiding us to His good destination. It is because we know that God is totally sovereign, good and holy that we can be reassured that evil will not prevail and will ultimately serve His good purposes in history - even when we cannot see or fully understand it from our limited perspective.
In our last article in this series, we will look at some of the implications and objections to this doctrine of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.
Read the other articles in this series:
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY | Over Who Comes to Faith and Over Evil
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