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The Sovereignty of God and Christian Ethics:
How Far Will We Be Allowed to Go?
By Chris Temple
In the discussion of Christian ethics, it is inevitable that a dialogue concerning the sovereignty of God come into play at some point. Aside from open theists, it is safe to say that all evangelicals believe in the sovereignty of God. But what does it mean for God to be sovereign? Very often in ethical issues, not the least being abortion and euthanasia, God’s sovereignty is called upon as a standard proof against the taking of human life, or against laboratory creation of life. It is correctly stated that God is the Lord of life, and since God is Lord and not man, then any taking/creating of human life is a superceding of the will of God. But this presents a problem. In calling forth God’s sovereignty as a proof against the evil actions of men, evangelicals become unintentionally guilty of watering down and limiting God’s sovereignty at least as much as the open theist, and by doing so put forth a model of God’s sovereignty that seemingly can be grasped from him, (or at least temporarily diverted).
Implicit in this model is the notion that since man is in fact doing the killing/creating, man and not God is sovereign over life and death. This is an unacceptable conundrum. While an exhaustive case for the total sovereignty of God cannot be put forth in a short paper like this, the author will attempt to show that God is sovereign over both good and evil actions, and his will is never superceded by evil men. Instead of God’s sovereignty being a proof against evil actions like abortion and euthanasia, it is instead the Great Equalizing Factor, setting limits upon men in which they then are held accountable for their actions.
Hal Ostrander has written an article in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology called Technological Futures and God’s Sovereignty: How Far Will We (Be Allowed to) Go? In it, he raises the issue of an ever-growing, rapidly expanding biotechnological explosion that brings us nearer and nearer to a “biotech/futurist world [ready] to emerge so horrifically sinful and so distant from God relationally…that every last vestige of biblical truth seems to vanish.” Ostrander covers such disturbing topics as advanced reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, cloning, and transgenic hybrids: The disturbing theory of producing cross-special monsters such as twelve-foot long pigs and “geeps”—an animal that is a goat sheep combination.
In his article Ostrander argues within three basic ethical principles: the Postmodernism Principle, the Demytho/Detechno-sensitization Principle, and the Babel Principle. Space does not allow a discussion of the first two principles, but the Babel principle is identified by Ostrander as being derived from the account in Genesis 11:1-9. It is within this principle that Ostrander touches upon the sovereignty of God, a bit too late in the article, and in this author’s estimation, too superficially.
In the situation of Babel, Ostrander points out that the people were “capable of performing remarkable feats, a case in point being the city and its tower.” He says God confused their language as a preventative act to keep them from advancing in ultimate knowledge. He also states that God intervenes in history with actions that are both punitive and protective over his creation, and “It can still be said that God still cares for his people and his world.”
In asking the question, “Where is God in all this and how far will he allow us to go?” the Babel principle gives a partial answer: “God will allow us to go only as far as his providential measures in history and sovereign decrees from on high prescribe”. It took Ostrander nine pages and three ethical principles to come to this declaration: God is in control. He says at last “God will encapsulate, if not outright negate, immoral human efforts outside the range of his providential intentions.” In closing he states that it is a mystery as to “how God cradles our technological futures.”
In an article which speaks of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men, one would hope for a greater expanse and explanation of God’s control, not only over the final outcome of ethical and technological matters, but also of his sovereign design, implementation and control over evil as well. Without that, the discussion becomes the usual evangelical foray into the “God is sovereign, but man can thwart his will” scenario.
Scripture is enormously clear that God is the Absolute Sovereign over all things. Nothing sits outside of his complete divine sovereignty. He is the Lord of all life, and the Lord of all death. Job 12:10 tells us that in God’s hand is the breath of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. I Chronicle 29:11 tells us that God is sovereign over everything that is in the heavens and the earth, and he exalts himself as head over all, with might in his hand to make great and to strengthen everyone. Isaiah 45:7 says God is “The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” Likewise, Isaiah 31:2 tells us he is wise and brings disaster, and does not retract his words. Isaiah 47:11 says that God brings evil and disaster upon the unrepentant, and Amos 3:6 declares that when calamity occurs in a city, the Lord has done it.
In addition, God is sovereign over men and nations. Psalm 33:10,11 tell us that “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples.” He has ordained beforehand the actions of men. He gave authority to Pilate to judge the Son (John 19:11); he raises up adversaries against his chosen ones (Exodus 4:21; I Kings 11:14-23) and ordained the actions of evil men by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God that they would nail Christ to the cross (Acts 2:23). Yet in all this God is not the author of sin, but rather he has ordained evil through secondary causes so that his divine purposes may prevail and glorify his name (Genesis 50:20).
Piper has addressed the issue of God’s sovereignty over evil very well:
One of the burdens of this [Jonathan Edwards Institute] Conference, and certainly one of the burdens of my life, is the recovery of a "God-entranced world-view." "Evangelicals Seeking the Glory of God," in my understanding, means "evangelicals seeking a God-entranced world view." But what I have seen …is that people who waver with uncertainty over the problem of God’s sovereignty in the matter of evil usually do not have a God-entranced worldview. For them, now God is sovereign, and now he is not. Now he is in control, and now he is not. Now he is good and reliable when things are going well, and when they go bad, well, maybe he’s not. Now he’s the supreme authority of the universe, and now he is in the dock with human prosecutors peppering him with demands that he give an account of himself.
But when a person settles it Biblically, intellectually, and emotionally that God has ultimate control of all things, including evil, and that this is gracious and precious beyond words, then a marvelous stability and depth come into that person’s life and they develop a "God-entranced world view." When a person believes, with the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 27), that "The almighty and everywhere present power of God . . . upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things, come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand"—when a person believes and cherishes that truth, they have the key to a God-entranced world view.
So my aim … is to commend to you this absolute sovereign control of God over all things, including evil, because it is Biblical, and because it will help you become stable and deep and God-entranced and God-glorifying in all you think and feel and do.”
So the sovereignty of God encompasses equally the righteousness that men do, as well as their sin. In a way that we cannot fully understand, God has ordained that evil be for the glory of his name, and he has full dominion over the actions of evil men. This does not alleviate them of their moral responsibility, but rather further condemns them, as they are willing actors in their evil plans. No baby dies apart from the ordained plan of God, and no technological advances are made apart from God’s will that it occur.
Since all things fall under the perfect sovereignty of God, Evangelicals should not be arguing from God’s sovereignty against the evil that men do, but rather argue that men are responsible for their evil actions and desires under God’s sovereignty. Fully knowing and believing that God is sovereign should cause believers peace and confidence, even in the face of horrors like abortion, knowing that men mean it for evil, but God means it for good, and that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
There is an ever-present biblical tension that exists between God’s decretive will and his permissive will, but in all situations we as believers can affirm God has not left his throne, nor given his sovereignty over to evil men.
The book Scripture Workbook: For Personal Bible Study and Teaching the Bible by Gary F. Zeolla, the director of Darkness to Light, has three chapter's dealing with God's sovereignty and Calvinism vs. Arminianism and three chapters dealing with various ethical issues.
The New American Standard Bible Copyright (c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved.
NAS Electronic Bible Library, copyright ã 1999, Lockman Foundation. La Habra CA.
Ostrander, Hal. Technological Futures and God’s Sovereignty: How Far Will We (Be Allowed to) Go? The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Ethics in a New Millennium, Vol. 4, No. 1. Pages 44-59.
Piper, John. Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be?
The above article was posted on this Web site March 18, 2001.
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