A confessing community: The sovereign God

Greg Boyd is a prominent proponent of open theism. In his book, God of the Possible, he tells the story of a young woman named Suzanne. One Sunday, Suzanne approached him, very angry at God. After he had worked through some of her initial rage, she told him her story.

Suzanne had been raised in a wonderful Christian home in which she had developed missionary zeal for Taiwan. She was convinced that Taiwan was God’s will for her life, and so knew that her future husband must have similar passion. In college, she met a man who shared her vision for Taiwan. For three-and-a-half years, they dated, worshipped together, and prepared themselves for the mission field. When he proposed, she did not immediately accept. Instead, they prayed and fasted to seek God’s will. They sought counsel from parents, pastors, and friends, who all confirmed that this was indeed God’s will for their life.

After they married, they went to missionary school to start preparing for the field. Two years into training, Suzanne discovered that her husband was involved in an adulterous affair. He repented, but several months later returned to the affair. The cycle of repentance and sin continued for the next three years, during which time her husband lost his Christian conviction and his zeal for Taiwan. He grew angrier and became verbally and eventually physically abusive, at one point fracturing her cheekbone in a fit of rage. He filed for divorce and moved in with his lover. Two weeks later, Suzanne discovered she was pregnant.

The relationship had seriously damaged Suzanne’s faith. She could not understand how a sovereign God could allow all of this to unfold, particularly after deliberate prayer and fasting and after the confirmation he had given through her parents, pastor, and friends that the marriage was God’s will. She felt that the ordeal had taught her nothing and left her bitter. Boyd then describes his counsel to her:

I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Saul king of Israel (1 Sam. 15: 11, 35; see also Gen. 6:5–6). Not that it was a bad decision—at the time, her ex-husband was a good man with a godly character. The prospects that he and Suzanne would have a happy marriage and fruitful ministry were, at the time, very good. Indeed, I strongly suspect that he had influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband toward this college with their marriage in mind. Because her ex-husband was a free agent, however, even the best decisions can have sad results. Over time, and through a series of choices, Suzanne’s ex-husband had opened himself up to the enemy’s influence and became involved in an immoral relationship. Initially, all was not lost, and God and others tried to restore him, but he chose to resist the prompting of the Spirit, and consequently his heart grew darker. Suzanne’s ex-husband had become a very different person from the man God had confirmed to Suzanne to be a good candidate for marriage. This, I assured Suzanne, grieved God’s heart at least as deeply as it grieved hers.

The Confession we are studying stands in stark contrast to Boyd’s open theism:

God is sovereign and works all things according to his own righteous will, for his own glory (Romans 11:33–36). From all eternity God decreed everything that would ever happen in time (Proverbs 16:4; Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11b; Romans 11:33–34; Revelation 15:3–4); he did this in perfect wisdom and holiness (Revelation 15:3–4). Furthermore, God sustains and governs all his creatures by his supremely wise and holy providence. In so doing he fulfils the purpose for which they were created, in order that his own attributes and glory may be praised (Psalm 104; Matthew 10:29–32; Acts 17:25–28; Psalm 145:7; Isaiah 63:14; Romans 9:17; Ephesians 3:10). (Sola 5 Confession 1.3)

The Confession tells us that “God is sovereign and works all things according to his own righteous will, for his own glory,” that “from all eternity God decreed everything that would ever happen in time,” and that “he did this in perfect wisdom and holiness.”

It is important to stress at this point that, strictly speaking, open theism does not challenge God’s perfect knowledge. Open theists affirm that God knows perfectly, but perfect knowledge is limited to what there is to know. When it comes to the future, God can only know to the degree that there is a future to know. Since God has chosen to leave the future open—or at least partially open—he knows everything that he has decreed (and that is therefore settled), and every possibility about what he has not decreed, but he has not decreed everything that takes place. God therefore saw the possibility that Suzanne’s husband would apostatise as he did, but because the future was not settled, he was not certain that he would do so.

This concept of a (partially) open future seems to struggle against the full weight of Scripture. Solomon wrote that “the LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4). God has a specific “purpose” for “everything.” He “declar[es] the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:10). He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

Someone has said that, if God is not sovereign of all, he is not sovereign at all. This truth is taught throughout Scripture. “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it. Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37–38). This is just one text of many.

Of course, we don’t always understand God’s ways, for they are often inscrutable (Romans 11:33–34). Nevertheless, he is a God whose acts are great and amazing and just and true (Revelation 15:3–4).

While God’s ways are sometimes inscrutable, it does not mean that they are arbitrary. Spiros Zodhiates is correct: “God’s sovereignty is not arbitrariness, as some misunderstand it, for God has his reasons, based on his infinite wisdom, which he does not always choose to reveal to us.” We must be careful of assigning motives to God that he does not himself reveal, but we must not assume that he is purposeless in anything he does.

If the above is true, then even the “bad things” that happen to “good people” must be consistent with his holy purposes. This is a difficult concept with which to wrestle. We don’t always know what God is achieving. We know that all things—including our suffering—ultimately make us more like Christ and thereby work for our good (Romans 8:28–30). But that doesn’t mean that he always reveals specific purposes for what he allows in our lives. More often than not, he wants us to trust him and affirm his goodness even when we don’t understand what he is doing.

Of course, God is not the author of sin, and we must avoid assigning to him things that he does not claim. Humanity is responsible for sin. The Bible does, however, unashamedly assign to God responsibility for the calamity that rocks our world (Isaiah 45:7). We don’t always know why God allows terrible things to happen, but we must confess that he does indeed allow them.

The Confession affirms that “God sustains and governs all his creatures by his supremely wise and holy providence. In so doing he fulfils the purpose for which they were created, in order that his own attributes and glory may be praised.” This means that nothing can frustrate, escape, or condition God’s decree.

Nothing frustrates God’s decree. God’s will, even if it is not always understood, cannot be resisted, and he always accomplishes his purposes. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). Isaiah rhetorically asked, “The LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:24–27; cf. 46:10–11).

Nothing escapes God’s decree, for everything that happens is included in it. “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (see Daniel 4:34–35). He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). The Bible explicitly shows that all things are included in his decree: good and evil events (Isaiah 45:7); sinful acts (Genesis 50:20); free acts of men (Proverbs 16:1); chance occurrences (1 Kings 22:28–34); details of our lives (Job 14:5); affairs of nations (2 Kings 5:1); and the final destruction of the wicked (1 Samuel 2:25).

Nothing conditions God’s decree. God alone does so. The Bible explicitly asserts that no one has offered counselled to him for what he has done (Isaiah 40:13–14; Romans 11:34; 1 Corinthians 2:16).

We confess that God “governs all his creatures by his supremely wise … providence.” Recognising God’s wisdom in all he does is essential, for, as the Heidelberg Catechism cautions, we dare not think that we are wiser than God. We trust that he is good and therefore submit to his wisdom.

God orchestrates everything that happens in order that his own attributes and glory may be praised (Colossians 1:16). If this seems, as some suggest, to be arrogance, let us remember that it is never arrogant for God to desire or insist on what he alone deserves.

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