Dr. Rolland McCune has greatly influenced the lives of hundreds of men who passed through the halls of both Central Baptist Theo-logical Seminary (1967 to 1981) and Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary (1981 to the present). I count it a great blessing from the Lord to have received my seminary training under Dr. McCune’s instruction here at DBTS. Likewise, it has been a tremendous privilege to serve alongside of him in the administration of this seminary. He has been uniquely used of the Lord in my life and in this seminary. His devotion to Christ, diligent service, and unbending dedication to the truth of the Word have been a powerful influence on my life and ministry.
Over the years, one particular element of Dr. McCune’s teaching has served both to ignite the hearts of his students and to trigger opposition from those who disagree with it (and have usually never heard it firsthand!). It would be impossible to come away from Dr. McCune’s courses on systematic theology, dispensationalism, apologetics, or new evangelicalism without a greater sense of God’s glory and a greater recognition of the need for God-centeredness in all things. A critical component of this God-centeredness is a thorough commitment to God’s sovereignty. It was under Dr. McCune’s teaching that I came to embrace gladly the majestic vision of God presented in Romans 11:36, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”2
Yet there seem to be many who fear the concept of God’s sovereignty over all things. Contemporary evangelicalism finds itself deeply divided over this issue and how to respond to those who react to the historic conception of God’s sovereignty by radically redefining His attributes. While fundamentalism has so far been preserved from this theological aberration, there does appear to be growing tension about this subject.3 At the bare minimum, the popularity and influence of books such as Dave Hunt’s What Love Is This?4 indicate that strong feelings abound within evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
The relationship between God’s sovereignty and the tasks of evangelism and missions is often the central point of tension. Although there is ample evidence from church history that belief in God’s sovereign control, even over the bestowal of salvation, provided the kindling for the Great Awakening and the modern missionary movement,5 the argument is often made that:
1. Believing that God is sovereign in salvation makes evangelism and missions unnecessary—if the elect will all be saved, then we don’t need to worry about telling them or sending missionaries to them.
2. Believing that God is sovereign in salvation makes evangelism and missions illegitimate and unethical—how can you tell a group of peo-ple that God will save them when it is possible that they are non-elect?
Obviously, these are serious charges. The second argument focuses on the free offer of the gospel and is not the direct focus of this article. The focus in this article will be on the first objection—does belief in God’s sovereign bestowal of the gift of salvation deaden the evangelistic and missionary impulse?
Before we tackle this question, it might be appropriate to lay down a caution about this whole approach to the discussion, namely, that it is a mistake to make evangelistic zeal or missionary motivation the test of biblical truth. In principle, our first commitment must be to the matter of “accurately handling the word of truth,” and then we need to think through the ramifications of that truth. This is obviously diffi-cult (perhaps impossible to do completely), but it is the goal toward which we ought to strive. In other words, the approach should be to ask, “What does the Bible teach about salvation?” before we ask, “How does this relate to our commission to proclaim the gospel and engage in missions?” And the answers to both of these questions must be derived from the Scriptures!
In any event, the question to be considered is, “Does believing in God’s sovereignty deaden evangelistic zeal and missionary motivation?” Before this question can be answered, it will be necessary to define more precisely what is meant by God’s sovereignty. Most believers agree that God is sovereign, but their understanding of that is often radically divergent. Following this clarification, the primary question will be approached from two angles—defensive and offensive. In other words, I want to defend belief in sovereign grace against this accusation and then set forth a case for how these doctrines actually provide positive incentive for both evangelism and missions.
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY OVER ALL THINGS INCLUDING SALVATION
Although most believers agree that God is sovereign, there is considerably less agreement about what that means. Additionally, not all views of God’s sovereignty are charged with the criticism of being detrimental to evangelism and missions. Some take God’s sovereignty to mean simply that He rules over all things, but not that He has planned or controls all things. Bruce Reichenbach embraces such a view of sovereignty:
God is a sovereign, not a novelist. He does not purpose or dispose everything that happens; his purposes are both general and specific, but they do not include every detail of human existence. Not only does he work through his created natural law, but just as importantly he has (in part) entrusted his program to the hands and feet of people. This means, of course, that at times his plans and purposes are thwarted.6
There are two assertions here that need to be addressed: (1) that God’s purpose or plan does not include everything that happens; and (2) that God’s purposes may at times be thwarted. Both of these represent a novel approach to God’s sovereignty that departs from the one presented in the Scriptures. Logically, it seems that the question of whether God’s purposes can be thwarted takes precedence over whether He has a purpose for all things, so the assertions will be considered in that order.
Claiming that God’s purposes may be thwarted allows maximum latitude for man’s freedom, but it contradicts the conclusion Job reached when confronted with God’s sovereignty. His assessment was, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). In fact, the ability to carry out all that He has planned is what distinguishes the true and living God from all pre-tender gods. Consider God’s own claim, “Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa 46:9–10). Contrary to the claims of those who trim the concept of God’s sovereignty in order to argue for a larger view of man’s freedom, the Bible leaves no room for the purposes of God to go unfulfilled or be left unaccomplished.
If none of God’s purposes can be thwarted, then efforts to argue for a general kind of sovereignty tend to follow the line of Reichenbach’s first assertion, namely, that God does not have a purpose for all things. Boyd recognizes this: “To confess that God can control what-ever he wants to control leaves open the question of how much God actually does want to control.”7 The crucial question, then, is whether God has a plan which encompasses all things.
GOD IS SOVEREIGN OVER ALL THINGS
Ephesians 1:11 plainly states that God “works all things after the counsel of His will.” This is a profound declaration of the fact that “whatever [God] has planned and decided to do will certainly come to pass.”8 God’s sovereign freedom is a point of praise in the Psalms: “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (115:3); “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (135:6). The biblical evidence reveals that all the events of life are under God’s sovereign control:
Birth and death—The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up (1 Sam 2:6).
The rise and fall of rulers—Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God (Rom 13:1); But God is the Judge; He puts down one and exalts another (Ps 75:7).
The direction a king pursues is in His hand—The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes (Prov 21:1).
Both bounty and calamity come from His hand—Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth? (Lam 3:38); In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity con-sider—God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him (Eccl 7:14).
Even the casting of a lot comes under God’s control—The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD (Prov 16:33).
The Scriptures also teach that even the sinful acts of the devil and men are under His control so that He accomplishes His purposes. The biblical record regarding Satan’s attacks against Job proves this. Satan had to have permission from God: “Then the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.’ So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD” (Job 1:12); “So the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life’” (Job 2:6). This is confirmed by Job’s response recorded in Job 1:20–21: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.’”
Clearly Job recognized that this could not have happened apart from the sovereign control of God. And if Job’s conclusion is not sufficient proof, consider the words of the Lord Himself to Satan regarding Job, “he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause” (Job 2:3b).9 There is no room in that text for escaping the conclusion that Satan’s attacks on Job were very much under God’s sovereign control.
The biblical account of Joseph also confirms this exhaustive view of God’s sovereign control. Consider Joseph’s response to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to pre-serve many people alive.” In terms of our subject, D. A. Carson effectively draws out the ramifications of Joseph’s statement:
He does not picture the event as wicked human machination into which God intervened to bring forth good. Nor does he imagine God’s intention had been to send him down there with a fine escort and a modern chariot but that unfortunately the brothers mucked up the plan, and so poor old Joseph had to go down there as a slave—sorry about that. Rather, in one and the same event, God was operating, and his intentions were good, and the brothers were operating, and their intentions were evil.10
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ likewise demonstrates that even the sinful acts of men fall within the eternal plan of God. Peter makes this point clearly in his sermon on Pentecost: “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). That Peter was not alone in this belief is evidenced by the prayer of the believers recorded in Acts 4:27–28: “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 purpose pre-destined to occur.” It is clear that God’s plan, established prior to them, included these sinful actions (without ever violating God’s holiness).
The point of tension focuses on how God’s sovereignty relates to human responsibility. Historically, both Calvinists and Arminians have agreed that God does indeed have an eternal plan which controls all things.11 Their point of disagreement focused on the relationship of God’s foreknowledge to His eternal plan. The Arminian position argued that God’s knowledge of what men would do was the basis for the determination of His will. It is important to recognize, however, that both of these historic positions view present choices as certain be-cause of God’s eternal plan.12 Returning to the Acts texts, to acknowledge that God’s plan encompasses even the sinful acts of humans is, then, something common to all historic, orthodox Christianity, not merely the Calvinistic understanding of it.13
God’s sovereignty over all things, including an all-inclusive plan which makes all future events certain, has been the historic belief of God’s people. The major views have attempted to simultaneously maintain the biblical teaching about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Although each view believes that the other fails to do so adequately, neither has openly denied either God’s sovereignty or human responsibility.
3E.g., John R. Van Gelderen, “Fatalism versus Faith,” available at (http://www.ptwm.org/fatalism_ezine/fatalism_article_1.html); Arlin Horton, “From the President” PCC Update (Summer 2004) and Ron Comfort, “The Fruit of Calvin-ism,” available at (http://www.ambassadors.edu/HTML%20pages/School%20Info/ calvinism.htm).
4Dave Hunt, What Love Is This? (Sisters, OR: Loyal, 2002). For a critique of this book, see David M. Doran, “What Love Is This? A Review Article” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 8 (Fall 2003): 101–30.
5E.g., Timothy George’s biography of William Carey, Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey (Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1991), pp. 47–66.
6“God Limits His Power,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, ed. David Basinger and Randall Basinger (Wheaton, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), p. 117.7Greg Boyd, The God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), p. 51.
8Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 117.
9I am grateful to Dr. Robert Bell for bringing this text to my attention.
10D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), p. 52.
11Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2002), pp. 35, 44.
12Ibid., p. 36. Greg Boyd acknowledges this agreement and argues that both, therefore, result in a “future that is eternally settled and that God eternally knows it as such.” Against this, Boyd argues for an open future (The God of the Possible, p. 23).
13For persuasive arguments that Open Theism represents a departure from his-toric, orthodox Christianity, see Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000) or John M. Frame, No Other God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2001).