In this discussion I shall endeavor to show:
What is not intended by the term "sovereignty" when applied to God,
It is not intended, at least by me, that God, in any instance, wills or acts arbitrarily, or without good reasons; reasons so good and so weighty, that He could in no case act otherwise than He does, without violating the law of His own intelligence and conscience, and consequently without sin. Any view of divine sovereignty that implies arbitrariness on the part of the divine will, is not only contrary to scripture, but is revolting to reason, and blasphemous. God cannot act arbitrarily, in the sense of unreasonably, without infinite wickedness. For Him to be arbitrary, in the sense of unreasonable, would be wickedness as much greater than any creature is capable of committing, as His reason or knowledge is greater than theirs. This must be self-evident. God should therefore never be represented as a sovereign, in the sense that implies that He is actuated by self or arbitrary will, rather than by His infinite intelligence.
Many seem to me to represent the sovereignty of God as consisting in a perfectly arbitrary disposal of events. They seem to conceive of God as being wholly above and without any law or rule of action guiding His will by His infinite reason and conscience. They appear shocked at the idea of God Himself being the subject of moral law, and are ready to inquire, Who gives law to God? They seem never to have considered that God is, and must be, a law unto Himself; that He is necessarily omniscient, and that the divine reason must impose law on, or prescribe law to, the divine will. They seem to regard God as living wholly above law, and as disposed to have His own will at any rate, reasonable or unreasonable; to set up His own arbitrary pleasure as His only rule of action, and to impose this rule upon all His subjects. This sovereignty they seem to conceive of as controlling and disposing of all events, with an iron or adamantine fatality, inflexible, irresistible, omnipotent. "Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will" (Eph. 1:11). This text they dwell much upon, as teaching that God disposes all events absolutely, not according to His own infinite wisdom and discretion, but simply according to His own will; and, as their language would often seem to imply, without reference at all to the universal law of benevolence. I will not say, that such is the view as it lies in their own mind; but only that from the language they use, such would seem to be their idea of divine sovereignty. Such, however, is not the view of this subject which I shall state and defend on the present occasion.
What is intended by divine sovereignty.
The sovereignty of God consists in the independence of His will, in consulting His own intelligence and discretion, in the selection of His end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge. God consults no one in respect to what shall be done by Him. He asks no leave to do and require what His own wisdom dictates. He consults only Himself; that is, His own infinite intelligence. So far is He from being arbitrary in His sovereignty, in the sense of unreasonable, that He is invariably guided by infinite reason. He consults His own intelligence only, not from any arbitrary disposition, but because His knowledge is perfect and infinite and therefore it is safe and wise to take counsel nowhere else. It were infinitely unreasonable, and weak, and wicked in God to ask leave of any being to act in conformity with His own judgment. He must make His own reason His rule of action. God is a sovereign, not in the sense that He is not under law, or that He is above all law, but in the sense that He is a law to Himself; that He knows no law but what is given Him by His own reason. In other words still, the sovereignty of God consists in such a disposal of all things and events, as to meet the ideas of His own reason, or the demands of His own intelligence. "He works all things after the counsel of His own will" (Eph. 1:11), in the sense that He formed and executes His own designs independently; in the sense that He consults His own infinite discretion; that is, He acts according to His own views of propriety and fitness. This He does, be it distinctly understood, without at all setting aside the freedom of moral agents. His infinite knowledge enabled Him to select an end and means, that should consist with and include the perfect freedom of moral agents. The subjects of His moral government are free to obey or disobey, and take the consequences. But foreseeing precisely in all cases how they would act, He has lad His plan accordingly, so as to bring out the contemplated and desired results. In all His plans He consulted none but Himself. But this leads me to say:
That God is and ought to be an absolute and a universal sovereign.
By absolute, I mean, that His expressed will, in obedience to His reason, is law. It is not law because it proceeds from His arbitrary will, but because it is the revelation or declaration of the affirmations and demands of His infinite reason. His expressed will is law, because it is an infallible declaration of what is intrinsically fit, suitable, right. His will does not make the things that He commands, right, fit, proper, obligatory, in the sense, that should He require it, the opposite of what He now requires would be fit, proper, suitable, obligatory; but in the sense that we need no other evidence of what is in itself intrinsically proper, fit, obligatory, than the expression of His will. Our reason affirms, that what He wills must be right; not because He wills it, but that He wills it because it is right, or obligatory in the nature of things; that is, our reason affirms that He wills as He does, only upon condition, that His infinite intelligence affirms that such willing is intrinsically right, and therefore He ought to will or command just what He does.
He is a sovereign in the sense that His will is law, whether we are able to see the reason for His commands or not, because our reason affirms that He has and must have good and sufficient reasons for every command; so good and sufficient, that He could not do otherwise than require what He does, under the circumstances, without violating the law of His own intelligence. We therefore need no other reason for affirming our obligation to will and to do, than that God requires it; because we always and necessarily assume, that what God requires must be right, not because He arbitrarily wills it, but because He does not arbitrarily will it: on the contrary that He has, and must have in every instance, infinitely good and wise reasons for every requirement.
Some persons represent God as a sovereign, in the sense, that His arbitrary will is the foundation of obligation. But if this is so, He could in every instance render the directly opposite course from what He now requires, obligatory. But this is absurd. The persons just mentioned seem to think, that unless it be admitted that God's will is the foundation of obligation, it will follow that it does not impose obligation, unless He discloses the reasons for His requirements. But this is a great mistake. Our own reason affirms that God's expressed will is always law, in the sense that it invariably declares the law of nature, or discloses the decisions of His own reason.
God must and ought to be an absolute sovereign in the sense just defined. This will appear if we consider:
1. That His end was chosen and means decided upon, when no being but Himself existed, and of course, there was no one to consult but Himself.
2. Creation and providence are only the results, and the carrying out of His plans settled from eternity.
3. The law of benevolence, as it existed in the divine reason, must have eternally demanded of Him the very course He has taken.
4. His highest glory and the highest good of universal being demand that He should consult His own discretion, and exercise an absolute and a universal sovereignty, in the sense explained. Infinite wisdom and goodness ought of course to act independently in the promotion of their end. If infinite wisdom or knowledge is not to give law, what or who shall? If infinite benevolence shall not declare and enforce law, what or who shall? God's attributes and relations render it obligatory upon Him to exercise just that holy sovereignty we have ascribed to Him.
(1.) This sovereignty, and no other, He claims for Himself.
"But our God is in the heavens; He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased" (Psalms 115:3).
"Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places" (Psalms 135:6).
"For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater; So shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11).
"At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight" (Matt. 11:25-26).
"For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth" (Romans 9:15-18).
"In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will" (Eph. 1:11).
(2.) Again: God claims for Himself all the prerogatives of an absolute and a universal sovereign, in the sense already explained. For example, He claims to be the rightful and sole proprietor of the universe.
"Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou art exalted as head above all" (1 Chron. 29:11).
"For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills; I know all the fowls of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell Thee, for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof" (Psalms 1:10-12).
"The sea is His, and He made it, and His hands formed the dry land. O come, let us worship, and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand" (Psalms 95:5-7).
"Know ye that the Lord He is God, it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture" (Psalms 100:3).
"Behold, all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine; the soul that sinneth it shall die" (Ezek. 18:4).
"For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:8).
(3.) Again: God claims to have established the natural or physical laws of the universe.
"Thy faithfulness is unto all generations, Thou hast established the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinances, for all are Thy servants" (Psalms 119:90-91).
"The Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth, by understanding hath He established the heavens. By His knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew" (Prov. 3:19-20).
"Thus saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; the Lord of hosts is His name" (Jerem. 31:35).
"Thus saith the Lord, if My covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth; Then will I cast away the seed of Jacob, and David My servant, so that I will not take any of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for I will cause their captivity to return, and have mercy on them" (Jerem. 33:25-26).
(4.) God claims the right to exercise supreme authority.
"Thine, O Lord, is the greatness and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou art exalted as head above all" (1 Chron. 29:11).
"For God is the king of all the earth, sing ye praises with understanding" (Psalms 47:7).
"For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; He will save us" (Isaiah 33:22).
(5.) God claims the right to exercise His own discretion in using such means, and in exerting such an agency as will secure the regeneration of men, or not, as it appears wise to Him.
"Yet the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day" (Deut. 29:4).
"Wherefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Because ye speak this word, behold, I will make My words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them" (Jerem. 5:14).
"And the disciples came, and said unto Him, Why speakest Thou to them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given" (Matt. 13:10).
"What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction. And that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had before prepared unto glory" (Romans 9:22-23).
"In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25).
(6.) God claims the right to try His creatures by means of temptation. "If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, let us go after other Gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 13:1-3).
"And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. And the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also; go forth, and do so" (1 Kings 22:20-22).
"And the Lord said unto Satan, hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? And still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst Me against him, to destroy him without cause. So went Satan forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with sore boils, from the sole of his foot unto his crown" (Job 2:3, 7).
"Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil" (Matt. 4:1).
(7.) God also claims the right to use all creatures, and to dispose of all creatures and events, so as to fulfil His own designs.
"I will be his father, and he shall be my son; if he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men" (2 Samuel 7:14).
"Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honorable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria; he was also a mighty man in valor, but he was a leper" (2 Kings 5:1).
"And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I am escaped alone to tell thee. While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The Chaldeans made out three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have carried them away; yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped to tell thee. And Job said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither; the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:15, 17, 21).
"O Assyrian, the rod of Mine anger, and the staff in their hand is Mine indignation: I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of My wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few. Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the Lord hath performed His whole work upon Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood" (Isaiah 10:5-7, 12, 15).
"And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom by the hand of My people Israel; and they shall do in Edom according to Mine anger, and according to My fury; and they shall know My vengeance, saith the Lord God" (Ezek. 24:14).
"For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs. Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord, my God, mine Holy One? We shall not die, O Lord, Thou hast ordained them for judgment; and O mighty God, Thou hast established them for correction" (Hab. 1:6, 12).
(8.) God claims the right to take the life of His sinful subjects at His own discretion.
"And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Gen. 22:2).
"But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their Gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God" (Deut. 20:16-18).
"Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Sam. 15:3).
(9.) God declares that He will maintain His own sovereignty.
"I am the Lord; that is My name: and My glory will I not give to another, neither My praise to graven images" (Isaiah 42:8).
"For Mine own sake, even for Mine own sake, will I do it: for how should My name be polluted? and I will not give My glory unto another" (Isaiah 48:11).
These passages will disclose the general tenor of scripture upon this subject.
1. The Sovereignty of God is an infinitely amiable, sweet, holy, and desirable sovereignty. Some seem to conceive of it as if it were revolting and tyrannical. But it is the infinite opposite of this, and is the perfection of all that is reasonable, kind and good.
"For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before Me, and the souls which I have made. For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid Me, and was wroth, and he went on forwardly in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways, and will heal him; I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him, and to his mourners. I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord; and I will heal him" (Isaiah 57:15-19).
2. Many seem afraid to think or speak of God's sovereignty, and even pass over, with a very slight reading, those passages of scripture that so fully declare it. They think it unwise and dangerous to preach upon the subject, especially unless it be to deny or explain away the sovereignty of God. This fear in pious minds has no doubt originated in a misconception of the nature of this sovereignty. They have been led either by false teaching, or in some way, to conceive of the divine sovereignty as an iron and unreasonable despotism. That is, they have understood the doctrine of divine sovereignty to so represent God. They therefore fear and reject it. But let it be remembered and for ever understood, to the eternal joy and unspeakable consolation of all holy beings, that God's sovereignty is nothing else than infinite love directed by infinite knowledge, in such a disposal of events as to secure the highest well-being of the universe; that, in the whole details of creation, providence and grace, there is not a solitary measure of His that is not infinitely wise and good. 3. A proper understanding of God's universal agency and sovereignty, of the perfect wisdom and benevolence of every measure of His government, providential and moral, is essential to the best improvement of all His dispensations toward us, and to those around us. When it is understood, that God's hand is directly or indirectly in everything that occurs, and that He is infinitely wise and good, and equally wise and good in every single dispensation that He has one end steadily and always, in view that He does all for one and the same ultimate end and that this end is the highest good of Himself and of universal being; I say, when these things are understood and considered, there is a divine sweetness in all His dispensations. There is then a divine reasonableness, and amiableness, and kindness, thrown like a broad mantle of infinite love over all His character, works and ways. The soul, in contemplating such a sacred, universal, holy sovereignty, takes on a sweet smile of delightful complacency, and feels secure, and reposes in perfect peace, surrounded and supported by the everlasting arms.
4. Many entertain most ruinous conceptions of divine sovereignty. They manifestly conceive of it as proceeding wholly independent of law, and of second causes, or means. They often are heard to use language that implies this. They say, "if it is God's will, you cannot hinder it. If God has begun the work, He will accomplish it." In fact, their language means nothing, unless they assume that in the dispensation of grace all is miracle. They often represent a thing as manifestly from God, or as providential, because it was, or appeared to be, so disconnected with appropriate means and instrumentalities. In other words it was quite miraculous.
Now, I suppose, that God's sovereignty manifests itself through and by means, or second causes, and appropriate instrumentalities. God is as much a sovereign in the kingdom of nature as of grace. Suppose farmers, mechanics, and shopkeepers should adopt, in practice, this absurd view of divine sovereignty of which I am speaking? Why, they would succeed about as well in raising crops and in transacting business, as those Christians and ministers who apply their views of sovereignty to spiritual matters, do in saving souls.