The Sovereignty of God:
by John W. Ritenbaugh
Forerunner, "Personal," May 2000
The Bible shows beyond doubt that God is not calling all to repentance and salvation at this time. Instead, God has limited His calling for now to a small remnant, a little flock He has ordained to eternal life. The rest He has appointed to stumble. II Peter 3:17-18 shows that this places a major, spiritual responsibility on those blessed with His calling:
You therefore, beloved, since you know these things beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.
At first, that God is not calling many to salvation at this time seems unfair, but this in no way means they are consigned to the Lake of Fire and lost forever because God is not willing that any should perish (verse 9). This clearly expresses His desire. His withholding of the offer of salvation from them is only a matter of timing. God will call them in His time, and neither they nor we can control it. We should know from our knowledge of Him that He will work toward what He desires as no other being can.
Psalm 68:19-20 contains an important thought bearing on salvation. "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation! Selah. Our God is the God of salvation; and to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death." In a sense, this is a major issue for all to acknowledge; everything written in God's Word is intended ultimately to lead us to this point and this issue. Only God can save. He can save us now and others when their time comes to be called. Salvation, then, is not a matter of "Can He save?" but "When will He do it?" If He delays for some people, He has good reasons.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they introduced mankind's ultimate enemy into the lives of us all—death. We have been no more righteous than they, for "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Thus, the central issue of life is "How can we be delivered from sin and death?" God reveals that the solution depends upon whom we choose to be our God, Lord, and Master, and whose rules for living we choose to follow.
He confidently claims to be able to save us, and He presents Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection as His primary evidence that we can trust Him. To bolster us, He shows His sovereignty over His creation: No one or no thing can withstand, overcome and keep Him from accomplishing what He desires and wills to do. He is sovereign over all. The issue, then, is not whether God can do as He says but whether we will allow Him to lead us. To those He has called into His service, it is obvious that all mankind flounders in abysmal ignorance of Him and His way, and this ignorance afflicts cultures worldwide with massive moral degeneracy.
This is what God must lead us from. It may not be too vivid a metaphor to say He must forcibly drag us out of it because this world holds humanity in a powerful grip. Besides this, human nature has a fatal attraction for this world and is ever ready to turn a person's attention toward it. The uncalled have few defenses against this pull of human nature. In the meanwhile, we can take comfort and assurance from His Word that God is not yet finished with these people. For us, now is our day of salvation, our one opportunity to follow Him, and we must take advantage of it (I Peter 4:17).
Future Judgment Periods
Romans 11:11 introduces a long discourse showing that we should not consider as lost those not currently headed toward salvation: "I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles." The Bible provides ample evidence of two more periods of salvation ahead. This first of these times of judgment will occur during the Millennium. It will be primarily directed toward Israel and spread from there to other nations. The second period will include all who never had an opportunity for salvation when they first lived, when God simply passed over them, consigning or ordaining them to stumble. This will not commence until after the Millennium (Revelation 20:11-15).
Paul continues to expand this thought in verses 11-14, explaining that God's rejection of Israel is only temporary. He intends His rebuff of them to open the way to include Gentiles in all the promises given to Abraham. When Israel becomes aware of what has happened to them and the Gentiles because of their stumbling, it will work to remove their complacency and motivate them to obey God. In verses 15-16, Paul lays the groundwork for indicating a time in the future when all Israel will be reconciled to God: "For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches." In other words, those God has cast away at this time (Israelites, the natural branches) will be drawn to Him at some future time and regrafted into the tree. The firstfruit is the church. We are holy and already part of the holy tree, the Family of God. When God regrafts Israel into the tree, they, too, will be holy because we will all be connected to the same root, Christ (John 15:1-5).
The Bible affords those of us called now not even the slightest room for pride because only God knows the reasons for His mercy toward us. Such scriptures as I Corinthians 1:26-29 make it plain that it is certainly not because we are better than others are. God intends that we be humbled by understanding our privilege in having such an awesome gift fall into our laps, and be motivated to respond to Him in submission to His commandments. We do this by showing the same kindness, tenderness and mercy to others whether or not they have also received this gracious gift.
Romans 11:17-21 contains a strong warning intended primarily for the Gentiles in the church, but every church member should take heed:
And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.
This warning from Paul is the reason Peter ends his second epistle with the powerful exhortation not to let God's awesome gift slip from our grasp by falling into the attitudes and conduct of the world around us. Though it is a constant and sometimes wearying and stressful battle, God is not asking the impossible of us—only that we obediently keep plodding along.
God's purpose for Israel following Christ's return and the second resurrection are mysteries the world is blinded to at this time, but we need not be ignorant. Like Paul, we can be humbled and rejoice at God's mercy and wisdom toward all:
For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that hardening in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins." Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! (Romans 11:25-33)
The greater part of Israel and the world's time of salvation lies ahead, and God will use us to lead them to it!
Sovereignty and Prayer
Perhaps the hardest thing for us to do is to keep on track spiritually. Deviating from the path to God's Kingdom is not that difficult, making it a constant peril. God's experience with Israel demonstrates that an entire generation died in the wilderness (Hebrews 4:1-2), a stunning witness! A review of the Israelites' conduct shows that, though they initially promised to obey all God commanded, their faith wavered over time, and they chose not to go into the Promised Land.
What a powerful warning this is to us, who have our eyes open and take God's Word seriously! One can make a case from the New Testament that many of us will not enter God's Kingdom because, like Israel, we will fritter away our chance. Does not Jesus warn that only those who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13)? Does not Peter warn that even the righteous are scarcely saved (I Peter 4:18)? Does not Jesus also warn that the broad way leads to destruction and many take it (Matthew 7:13)?
Rather than frighten us, this should stir us to push on! God has not left us alone. He who releases us from our bondage and sets us on the path to His Kingdom also empowers us to make it. He gives us gifts (I Corinthians 12:1-11) and access to Him to receive help in time of need (Romans 5:1-2). This access, through prayer, is without doubt one of the greatest gifts that He can give a human being. He allows us into the very presence of the sovereign Creator and Lord of all, in whom is all wisdom, power and love. He can do far more for us than we can even think to ask. There are, however, some things regarding the relationship between God's sovereignty and our prayers we need to understand better.
The apostle John writes, "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him" (I John 5:14-15). A common—but only partly correct—idea about prayer is that its purpose is to get things from God and to change His mind regarding the course of events. As John says, if we ask according to His will, He hears, but it is in the other part where misunderstanding lies.
Answer this: Is our idea of God nothing more than that of a greater human parent? Perhaps few will admit to this, but it is nonetheless a reality. God the Father undoubtedly relates to us like a parent, and Jesus tells us to think of Him and address Him as our Father. So far, so good.
Now we must ask: What should a Father be like? We run into trouble here because all our examples of fathers are human, and every human father has been deficient in many ways. We are now dealing with a flawless Father, perfect in every way. He is eternal, perfect in wisdom, knows the end from the beginning, has unimaginable power, and does absolutely everything out of love. He does everything for the perfection and completion of His purpose, whether for us individually or for what He is working out universally.
We need to consider Isaiah 40:13-14 in relation to prayer:
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as His counselor has taught Him? With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him, and taught Him in the path of justice? Who taught Him knowledge, and showed Him the way of understanding?
Now we must add a few thoughts from Psalm 139:1-7:
O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O LORD, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
Considering these scriptures, is there anything—anything!—we can tell Him that He does not already know? Is there anything about our lives that He has not already thoroughly considered in light of what He wants to produce for our good? All too often our attitude in prayer about something emphasizes what we feel is our or somebody else's need rather than focusing on God's will. Which is more important: what this perfect, great God considers from His perspective or what we desire from our position of nearly blind ignorance of what is really needed?
Jesus says in Matthew 6:8: "Therefore do not be like [the hypocrites]. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him." This verse leads into the model prayer, indicating that we should not pray with the idea that we are bringing something new to God. It also introduces the thought that the purpose of prayer is not to overcome God's reluctance to answer and give but rather to lay hold of His willingness to help us toward His perspective, the fulfillment of His purpose and into His Kingdom. The overall emphasis in our requests, then, must be inclined toward His purpose and will.
Prayer Changes Things?
Religious people use a catchy statement to encourage people to pray: "Prayer changes things." While it is undoubtedly true that prayer plays a part in changing things, we need to modify our understanding of this because it is true only if our prayer agrees with God's will.
This quotation on prayer comes from an article, "Prayer or Fate?" that appeared in The Christian Worker:
God in His sovereignty has ordained that human destinies may be changed by the will of man. This is at the heart of the truth that prayer changes things, meaning that God changes things when men pray. Someone has strikingly expressed it this way: "There are certain things that will happen in a man's life whether he prays or not. There are other things that will happen if he prays, and will not happen if he does not pray."
Are these concepts biblical? James writes:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." (James 4:13-15)
Although this verse does not directly concern prayer, it does deal with an aspect of God's will, which is far more important than any prayer we might ask during an entire lifetime. The King James Study Bible comments: "This one is a fool, for he thinks he knows something that he doesn't. He presumes he has the resources to control his destiny." Does God just sit on His throne waiting for us to ask Him before He acts? Who is sovereign? Who controls our destiny? We cannot even be sure of our next breath!
Proverbs 27:1 weighs in on this issue, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth." Jesus also teaches on it in Luke 12:16-21:
Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?' So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry." But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
All three of these passages illustrate how limited man's judgment is on things in which God's will is involved. How do they fit into prayer? Can a prayer literally change a person's destiny? Yes, but only if we understand what prayer is for. The basic thought in these three passages is that a Christian is foolish to leave God out of his thinking and planning.
God declares in Isaiah 55:8-9, "‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD . ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'" We are so far below Him because of ignorance; we simply do not know God as we some day will. We are far enough from Him that our understanding of the reality of His power and intimate involvement in our lives is weak. We are unaware of the specific goals toward which He is actively creating each of us. We are, after all, His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10).
Sometimes presumption enters in because, in our ignorance and vanity, we think we already know what is best for us. However, He sees all things from His lofty position and knows the end from the beginning. Too often, we are much like teenagers who think their parents are old fuddy-duddies whose minds stopped working some time in the dim past. But we must live not merely knowing but practicing the truth that God is not a doddering, indulgent, human parent who lets his children just grow up in His house.
An indulgent parent is lenient, tolerant and pampering with no clear focus on what he wants to instill in his children. He is easily moved to gratify the whims and wishes of his children. A human parent may do this for many reasons, but behind it all is that the parent may be ignorant of his responsibility, unconcerned or has no real purpose in mind for the child's life. That parent is foolishly shortsighted, self-centered or uncaring. God, though, loves His children too much to let them get away with anything for very long that will lead them off the path He has designed for them. His desire to turn them into His image consumes His time and efforts. Our ignorance of the cause of what happens in our lives shows how far we are from God.
He is involved, having summoned us purposefully and specifically to be conformed to His image. This is His will; He has predestined us to this end. He is sovereign, having all power, wisdom and love. Who would even think he knows better than God what is good for him, then grow discouraged and bitter if he does not receive it? Who would not want to yield to Him so He can create what He desires? Who can resist His will? We can, but what sane person would even want to? Apparently, some think they know better than He what is right and good for them.
The purpose of prayer is not to "get" things from God, but to give us access to Him so that we can be in His presence and be conformed to His will. Of course, this involves a measure of getting from God. However, when the motivation for prayer is getting, the wrong intent greatly alters its outcome. When we make our request to God, we are expressing our will and maybe also His will. Those prayers that agree with His will are answered.
If our will and His match, we will receive what we ask for in due time, but if they do not match, our request has no chance of being granted. Granting such a request is outside the parameters of His love. He will never grant something He has determined conflicts with the purpose for which He is preparing us. Doing so would be an admission that His original intention for calling us was ill conceived and a repudiation of His own wisdom and purpose.
Thus, for men to say that the will of man can change and mold human destiny and that prayer changes things reflect only a vague scrap of truth. Does not John 3:3 say that "unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God"? This is man's destiny, and who determines that? The only truly correct answer is God—or He is not sovereign in His creation.
John 1:12-13 says, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." God foreknew us and called us, making our regeneration and eventual inheritance of His Kingdom possible. Thus, to say that the will of man can change human destiny is to make us supreme and dethrone God. Hannah's prayer in I Samuel 2:6-8 gives a true understanding:
The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.
In this poetic language, she clearly expresses that God is the sovereign Controller of earth's history as well as the destiny of individuals.
God has no need to change His designs or alter His purpose for us because He has framed them under the influence of perfect goodness and unerring wisdom. Men must change their designs and purposes because of shortsightedness. God, however, knows the end from the beginning, and saying that God changes His purposes is to impugn His goodness and deny His wisdom. Some may charge, "Doesn't God change His mind when we repent? Does not Romans 2:4 say ‘the goodness of God leads you to repentance?'" Yes, He leads us to repentance, so when we repent, we are finally agreeing with what His will is has been all along.
The apostle James writes: "Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:16-17). No one would want to pray to a God who is like a chameleon! We would have no desire to talk to a God who is of one mind one day and an entirely different one the next. The unchangeableness of God's purpose, character and will are the source of one of our greatest motivations to pray.
Why pray? What is its purpose? Prayer ranks with obedience and study as a means of fulfilling our part in God's purpose for us. Prayer gives us the opportunity to express ourselves to Him in His presence.
In God's Presence
There is a mystical quality in this that plays an important role in our relationship with Him. It is good to remember this in light of Jesus' sinless life, death, resurrection and ascension as our High Priest, giving us direct access to the very throne of God. These awesome deeds were not done and recorded in God's Word for no purpose at all.
David writes in Psalm 16:11, "You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore." Then he adds in Psalm 17:2, "Let my vindication come from Your presence; let Your eyes look on the things that are upright." Finally, he says in Psalm 68:2, 8:
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. . . .The earth shook; the heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
In God's presence—in an intimate relationship with Him—is the source of every good, righteous and positive attitude and act. Because the justifying work of Jesus Christ gives us access to God, prayer brings us near so He can give these things, and we can receive them.
This can be illustrated in a simple way. We have probably been in the close presence of a person of positive, uplifting attitudes, who radiates enthusiasm, zeal, confidence, gentle humor and determination. On the other hand, it is likely we have also been in the presence of someone who wears a sour countenance, seethes with anger, trembles in fear, wallows in lethargy, or whines about their "victimization" at the hands of unseen people or forces. What happens to our attitude in either situation? Unless we resist, we tend to respond to the strength of the other's attitudes. A literal, spiritual transference of attitude takes place.
What happens if we are some distance from either of these persons, or even if near, we are completely disinterested? It does not affect us in the least. Why? Because we are neither near enough nor interested enough to be affected.
It is the spirit of these people radiating out from them that influences and perhaps even changes our spirit. This also gives insight into why we carnally reflect Satan's spirit: It permeates our environment. Similarly, prayer to God through Jesus Christ brings us into the very presence of the most positive, righteous and unchanging attitudes that exist in the entire universe!
God greatly desires us to have the qualities of His Spirit, and being in His presence is one way He accomplishes this. This is why people can leave God's presence in prayer and feel peace, joy, or confidence—or humble and chastened because God has led them to remorse and repentance.
Without going into detail, further purposes of prayer include honoring Him, praising Him and thanking Him for His universal dominion over His creation. Herbert W. Armstrong once remarked that almost invariably the first thing he uttered in prayer was thanks to God that He is God and not somebody else.
Because He is without pride, God does not need praise. We are the ones who need conscious and thoughtful awareness of our nothingness and unworthiness in comparison to Him. Thanking and praising Him consciously acknowledges our dependency on Him and appreciation for His wisdom displayed in His acts. It can do wonderful things toward destroying pride and vanity and encouraging the growth of humility. In turn, it produces more intense and greater yieldedness.
Prayer exercises our faith, and the just are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Prayer teaches us the value of the things we have received. It forces us to meditate upon them in relation to what God has given us that others have not yet received.
Prayer is not intended to change God's purpose or move Him to come to fresh ideas. Some prayers seem to give the impression that people changed God's mind, but what they did pray before God was according to His will. When Elijah prayed for rain, he already knew it would rain because God told him. I Kings 18:1 says, "Now it came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, ‘Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.'" Elijah, a man close to God, knew God's will. When Daniel prayed the wonderful prayer of Daniel 9, he already knew by the words of the prophets that the 70 years of captivity were nearly over, yet he still prayed. Similar occurrences appear in Jeremiah 29 and Ezekiel 36-37.
Jesus prays in John 17:5, "And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was." Did Jesus not know whether He would be exalted and glorified by the Father after His death and resurrection? Absolutely, yet He asks for this very thing. In John 5:30, He declares: "I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me." Christ carried this principle into every aspect of life, including His prayer life, which is why God answered His prayers.
In contrast, when God's mind is set against His people, nothing will change it, as Jeremiah 15:1 reveals: "Then the LORD said to me, ‘Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me, yet My mind could not be favorable toward this people. Cast them out of My sight, and let them go forth.'" Before we pray, God already knows what is best, and that is what He will do regardless of our prayers.
A major purpose of our prayers, then, is not to change God's will but to urge Him to accomplish His will in His own time and manner. What does the model prayer instruct us? "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). This clear instruction has not changed since Jesus gave it. When we pray, we should present our need to God, and there is nothing wrong with going into detail and presenting it as we see it. Then leave it with Him to deal with in His good time and way because He already knows what He wants to accomplish and when. At best, we look through a glass darkly upon these matters.
In short, prayer is a primary means that God has set up to communicate the blessing of His goodness to His people. Even though He has purposed and promised His blessings, He has also commanded us to seek them, which is both a privilege and duty. He intensely desires that His thoughts become our thoughts because by this we reflect His image in our character and witness of Him before men. Much of the communication of His thoughts to ours takes place in prayer.
This article in no way exhausts the subject of prayer. Its main objective has been to focus on God's sovereignty in relation to prayer. In this light, the chief concept to understand is that prayer is not dictating to God in order to get but the heartfelt manifestation of the attitude of worshipful reverence, dependency and need. Because proper prayer is like this, the one who prays in this manner is submissive to God's will, and he is thus content with God supplying his needs according to the dictates of His sovereign pleasure. Such a one will not resort to demanding impatience, or to whining, morose or bitter self-pity. He will know that he has placed his request into the best hands possible, and everything is under control and proceeding exactly as it should.