Is Sovereignty an Eternal Attribute of God that Non-Calvinists Deny?

CLICK HERE to listen to my response to JD Hall as he confronts this perspective.

The attribute of God’s Sovereignty is not an eternal attribute. Sovereignty means complete rule or dominion over others (some prefer the term “providence” but the point is the same because a distinction has to be drawn between the endless power of God and how He chooses to use that power). For God to be in control over others there has to be others in which to control.  He can’t display His power over creatures unless the creatures exist.  Therefore, before creation the concept of sovereignty (or providence) was not an attribute that could be used to describe God. An eternal attribute is something God possesses that is not contingent upon something else.

The eternal attribute of God is His omnipotence, which refers to His eternally limitless power. Sovereignty is a temporal characteristic, not an eternal one, thus we can say God is all powerful, not because He is sovereign, but He is sovereign because He is all powerful, or at least He is as sovereign as He so chooses to be in relation to this temporal world.  As someone put it, “Sovereignty is the expression of God’s power, not the source of it.” 

If the all powerful One chooses to refrain from meticulously ruling over every aspect of that which He creates, that in no way denies His eternal attribute of omnipotence, but indeed affirms it. It is the Calvinist who denies the eternal attribute of omnipotence, by presuming the all powerful One cannot refrain from meticulous deterministic rule over His creation. In short, the Calvinist denies God’s eternal attribute in his effort to protect the temporal one.  Additionally, an argument could be made that the eternal attributes of God’s love and His holiness are likewise compromised by the well meaning efforts of our Calvinistic brethren to protect their concept of deterministic sovereignty over the temporal world.

No one is denying that sovereignty is a current attribute of God, but only in part given that He has not yet taken full sovereign control over everything on earth as it is in heaven. Passages throughout the Bible teach that there are “authorities” and “powers” which are yet to be destroyed, and that have been given dominion over God’s creation.

Isaiah 24:21On-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven
A time is coming when the Lord will punish the powers above and the rulers of the earth.

Ephesians 6:12 
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Colossians 2:20
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world.

1 Corinthians 15:24
Then the end will come; Christ will overcome all spiritual rulers, authorities, and powers, and will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father.

Don’t misunderstand my point. I affirm that God is greater than these powers and authorities. He created them after all.

Colossians 1:16
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

And one day God will strip them of that authority:

Colossians 2:15 
God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless.

But, if God has chosen to allow created beings to have dominion and power over something, even for a time, how is His “sovereignty” (as defined by some being “complete and total control/determination over every single thing” eternally) not compromised?

God is certainly more powerful than any evil.  He could stifle it at any moment with a word. I don’t think anyone is denying that. And I think we all agree that there’s a sense in which it is proper even to say that “evil is part of His eternal decree.” (Permissively)

He planned for it, obviously. It did not take Him by surprise. He declared the end from the beginning, and He is still working all things for His good pleasure (Isaiah 46:9-10), but isn’t there a difference in working evil out for good and unchangeably determining evil yourself? It’s one thing to help my child grow from being bullied, its another for me to hire the bully so as to make my child grow.

Most say that God’s role with regard to evil is never as its “author,” but few define the distinction between “predetermining,” “ordaining,” “decreeing,” as contrasted with the concept of “authoring.”  Ask the next Calvinist you speak with to give example of God authoring evil and then an example of God decreeing evil and see if you can find a distinction with an actual difference. Only if he affirms the concept of bare permission (God allowing men to be free and make their own choices) can any real distinction be drawn between those terms.

1 Tim 6:15, Isa 48:11, Isa 42:8. Isa 44:24, Heb 1:3, Rev 19:6, 1 Cor 8:5

34 thoughts on “Is Sovereignty an Eternal Attribute of God that Non-Calvinists Deny?

  1. Thanks; is there a distinction between “predetermining,” “ordaining,” and “decreeing,”? Or, are they synonomous?

    1. Depends on who you are talking to. Many Calvinist seem to equate “decree/ordain” with “predetermine.” I do not.

      I think most would use the terms “ordain” and “decree” as synonymous, but I would point out a clear distinction between “predetermine” and “ordain/decree.”

      I, as a non-Calvinist, affirm that God has permissively decreed the origin of evil. By this I mean, as Edwards states, that “God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his ‘positive agency.'”

      This means there are two separate and distinct decrees of God.

      1. Permissive Decrees: those things which come to pass apart from God’s positive agency or direct involvement (such as the sin of man). These are things He “foreknows” will certainly come to pass, but is not the one who brings them to pass by His effort, involvement, intervention or agency. He may not find pleasure in these things, but, nonetheless, allows them for a greater purpose. (The concept of divine infinite omniscience is mysterious indeed and thus should not be the foundation for unfounded philosophical or logical conclusions about God and his nature.)

      2. Decretive Decrees: those things which come to pass as a direct result of God’s positive agency or direct involvement (such as the incarnation of Jesus). These are things He foreknows will certainly come to pass, but not simply because he KNOWS of it beforehand, but instead because He has determined to bring it to pass by His effort, intervention and direct involvement.

      Nothing can thwart a decree of God, whether permissive or decretive, because both are based in the certainty of God’s omniscience. Thus, the affirmation of God decreeing all things to come to pass mustn’t be understood as meaning that evil exists “because of God’s decree.” Instead, we must understand which decree is meant. This is why CLARITY on this subject is so vitally important. (Some Calvinists agree on this, BTW)

      Too often on this debate clarity is sacrificed for the sake of winning a point or sticking it to the opponent, but to what end? Is impugning the holiness of God, even unintentionally, in the effort to win a debate justified? Can we simply be clear with our use of terms when discussing such serious matters as God’s holiness? Can we all agree to refrain from saying anything that could possibly be misinterpreted as blaming God for the sin and evil in this world?

      Is that really too much to ask? Is that even a dividing point between Calvinistic and non-Calvinistis Baptists? I don’t think so. I think is should be something on which we all agree, if we put down our axes and reason together as brethren.

      I know you agree with this, but I wish others did as well!

  2. It’s true that many misunderstand the meaning of sovereignty. If God is sovereign over his own sovereignty then surely he can choose how he uses his sovereignty? And if he can do that, then he can give his creatures sovereignty over their choices in a limited sense (there’s obviously many, many things we don’t have ‘free will’ over, like even existing in the first place, or having physical limitations placed on us or God’s own actions towards us). There is definitely a confusion there.

    An insistence on God’s sovereignty on the part of Calvinists also leads to them inevitably having to admit (though they don’t usually) that God is a sinner:

    – Man sins (by God’s choice)
    – He cannot save himself (by God’s choice)
    – God saves some people from their sin.
    – He leaves others in their sin forever, unable to save themselves (by his choice)
    – He could save them from their sin and put a permanent stop to sin.
    – But he chooses not to.
    – So God, who is infinitely just and hates and opposes injustice and sin, has, through setting up the whole situation, actively made certain that sin and injustice will continue forever, even though he could put a stop to it if he wanted

    That’s why most Calvinists end up pretending to be Arminian in saying that sin is down to man’s actions not God’s. But then, if it’s not down to God then he wouldn’t be the one making sure that some will be trapped in their sin forever (and thereby making certain that sin continues forever) and therefore he wouldn’t be supposedly predestining some to be saved and some not to.

    They don’t usually let such technicalities bother them though

    1. Excellent!
      Thanks for this write up. You’ve put the similar thoughts that I have, in a clear and concise way!!

  3. Brother Leighton, I am grateful for your bringing to light the meaning of an important theological word – sovereignty – based on Scripture revelation as opposed to philosophy.

    What would be wrong, biblically, in your opinion with seeing God’s “permissive decrees” as those things God foreknows will possibly come to pass, instead of certainly will come to pass? Couldn’t His omniscience in this regard be biblically defined that He knows fully all the possibilities, for that is all that true exists for Him to know by making permissive decrees? Of course, as you stated, His decretive decrees would be foreknown as certain because that is what they truly are. Doesn’t foreknowledge have to be a part of HIs nature, and if, therefore, something is known ahead of time by Him as certain, it would have to have been decided by Him to be certain? Couldn’t His foreknowledge or omniscience be biblically defined as including full knowledge of only the certainties He has decreed plus all possibilities that still truly exist? In my view the meaning of knowing all things in the Scripture appears naturally to be just that.

    I also would like to hear you discuss further why you feel (I think I have picked up correctly that this is your current view, though not dogmatically) that the philosophical idea of a-temporality or “ever-in-the-present” based on the title “I AM” is a stronger biblical understanding of God’s eternal nature than a linear, successive, reality of “from everlasting to everlasting” with continual befores and afters and the future of humanity not yet in existence in His eternal reality.

  4. No, I don’t think I am arguing for Molinism, because if I understand that position correctly there are no true possibilities known by God after creation begins. And I think of Molinism just as deterministic as Calvinism.

      1. My understanding of Molinism is that God understood all possibilities for human history, including all man’s (and other creatures) free-will actions and reactions to His free-will actions and reactions and God then determined the combination all those free-will choices that would display His glory the most. That determination became settled before creation. Therefore in my mind everything was authored and unchangeable before creation. Is that your understanding of Molinism? I could get some quotes from Craig if that would help, but maybe I am misunderstanding their idea of middle knowledge. My understanding is that middle knowledge no longer exists.

  5. Pastor Flowers writes, “If the all powerful One chooses to refrain from meticulously ruling over every aspect of that which He creates, that in no way denies His eternal attribute of omnipotence, but indeed affirms it. It is the Calvinist who denies the eternal attribute of omnipotence, by presuming the all powerful One cannot refrain from meticulous deterministic rule over His creation.”

    The key word above is “chooses.” God chooses – makes a conscious decision – but not to “refrain from meticulously ruling over every aspect of that which He creates.” God decides every aspect of His creation down to the movement of every atom (or smaller particle). As sovereign, God cannot refrain from meticulous rule. However, as part of His meticulous rule, God can decide/choose/decree that His creation proceed toward it’s natural conclusion without interference from Him – rain falls; earthquakes rumble, rivers flow according to natural laws that God instituted to govern His creation (of course as corrupted by Adam’s sin).

  6. The Calvinist is logically inconsistent, saying, “God decides every aspect of this creation down to the movement of every atom (or smaller particle)…” …but in a logically contradictory way says, “God can decide/choose/decree that His creation proceed toward its natural conclusion without interference from Him.” How can “decides every … movement” still be true along side of “without interference from Him”?

    Those who believe in transubstantiation use the same logic – “It’s still manmade bread in its accidents, but it is God in its substance.” Word games like that have corrupted Christianity for centuries and have made people believe that the Bible does not clearly reveal who God is without the dogmatic definitions of philosophy behind it!

    1. brianwagner writes, “How can “decides every … movement” still be true along side of “without interference from Him”?”

      Among those decisions God makes are those that involve His not interfering. For example, God was present when Satan tempted Adam/Eve to eat the fruit. God heard every word spoken and saw every action. God had earlier decided that he would not interfere to stop Adam/Eve eating the fruit – knowing that they would eat the fruit (as He had already planned for Christ to die) – and only God had the ability to intervene to prevent the sin. Because God has the final say on everything that happens, and every sin, then He necessarily decides everything that happens – some things happen because God does intervene (e.g., the flood of Noah; the impregnation of Mary; the conversion of Paul) and others because God does not intervene (e.g., Adam/Eve eating the fruit, the crucifixion of Christ, the stoning of Stephan).

      1. I hope Roger you see the inconsistency of saying – “God had earlier decided that he would not interfere… and only God had the ability to intervene to prevent the sin. Because God has the final say on everything that happens, and every sin, then He necessarily decides everything that happens ” You switch from decided…had, to has…decides. Once decided when He had the ability makes still having the ability and still deciding impossible and illogical. But the Scripture does say He has the ability and is deciding, and it nowhere says all things were decided and He only had the ability to decide before creation.

      2. This goes back to the issue of omniscience on which we disagree. If you will grant that God is omniscient for purposes of argument, then from God’s infinite understanding of all things, His perfect wisdom and Paul’s statement that “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” it is certain that all things were known to God before He created the word. Thus, we can speak in the past tense of God knowing all things that happen in the course of time.

        So, why speak in the present tense of God intervening to prevent sin. As an example, I know that I will file tax forms next year. When that time comes, I physically perform that act. God knew that He would destroy the world with a flood in the time of Noah. When the time came, we speak in the present tense of God flooding the world.

        God has said that he responds to the prayer requests of His people. In fact, we have confidence in the certainty of this because God decided how He would respond before He created the world. God says a person who lacks wisdom should ask Him for wisdom. How certain is that? Absolutely certain (noting the exception}. It is certain because God has already given wisdom to those who ask for it. The believer can be confident that he will receive wisdom when He asks for wisdom and he will not receive wisdom if he does not ask for it.

        As you do do hold that God is omniscient – which I maintain casts doubt on His infinite understanding and perfect wisdom – you have problems with my describing how omniscience works. If I were God, I could explain it so even you could understand – unfortunately, I am not, so it will take some back and forth between us to sort it out.

      3. Hi Roger… I am going back over ole conversations left hanging! 🙂 The contradiction between a Calvinist saying God decided everything before creation and God saying He “is deciding” some things now is obvious. Both cannot be true statements at the same time, for either everything is already decided or there are still opportunities left to decide some things. The Calvinist has to resort to saying God is speaking in “human” terms or from “man’s” perspective when He says in Scripture that He is making decisions now. But from this “man’s” perspective, I call that “lying” since all His decisions have already been made, if Calvinism is true!

        If I told you that I decided to do something at a certain point in the future, and then I said later to you, I will make my decision some time in the future to do that same thing, you would think me contradictory, I’m sure!

      4. I think we need to deal with individual Scriptures to see what is happening and whether God is reacting to decisions made by people where such decisions were not known to Him before being made (He only knew that such a decision was possible among other options).

      5. Best verses that show God makes choices, decisions of His will, and plans after creation. He could have easily revealed that all these choices had already been made before creation, if that were the case. But revealing them as He has shows that was not the case, else He is being deceptive.

        Deut. 12:5 But you shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses…
        2 Chr. 6:5 ‘Since the day that I brought My people out of the land of Egypt, I have chosen no city … nor did I choose any man …. Yet I have chosen Jerusalem… and I have chosen David
        Psa. 25:12 Who is the man that fears the LORD? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.
        Psa. 47:4 He will choose our inheritance for us…
        Psa. 65:4 Blessed is the man You choose, And cause to approach You, That he may dwell in Your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, Of Your holy temple.
        Psa. 75:2 When I choose the proper time, I will judge uprightly.
        Isa. 14:1 For the LORD … will still choose Israel
        Ezek. 20:5 Thus says the Lord GOD: “On the day when I chose Israel
        Dan. 5:21 …the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses.
        Jer. 18:11 …‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you.”
        1 Cor. 12:11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.

      6. Hi

        I just wanted to ask a question based on this statement and scripture
        “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,”

        Does this working out only apply specifically to the purpose and intent of Redemption?

        Romans 8:28And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose

        9: 11(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;

        Eph1:11In 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

        9Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,
        10But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel:
        11Whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles

        From the context of these verse… it seems to me that God working all things out, is working all things out to ensure that His eternal purpose is achieved

        His Eternal Purpose defined as:

        1. To have MORE SONS (than Jesus), and for Jesus to have siblings ‘brethren/brothers’ ) IE LET US MAKE MAN IN OUR IMAGE

        2. His Eternal purpose of corporate (Jews and Gentiles)election ie REDEMPTION and sonship opportunity for all (not just Jews)..

        3. This external purpose of sonship to be accomplished BY Grace only , through Faith alone. In all ages, unto all.

        4. The eternal purpose that the sonship opportunity for Gentiles would be hidden though ordained before the foundation of the world, (a mystery to be revealed at the sovereignly appointed time BY GOD.)

        So God in His Omniscience and through His Sovereignty works all things, ie is unstoppable, because of being the Great I AM.

        So He isn’t determining every man’s decision…. but working all of it out to achieve His purpose…. not a random purpose… but only to ensure that REDEMPTION for all is made possible.
        So even when free will in humanity produces evil, and specially seeks or intends to thwart His eternal purpose (eternal purpose as I defined in earlier points)…. God works that evil plan or uses or includes that evil plan to end up (to the horror! of the evil one) ensuring that God’s eternal purpose still gets done!!!

        His other eternal purpose was that we would be conformed in to the image of HIS SON (JESUS)….so again He works all things out in that context too.. the process is the same… (if evil comes God is able to use it, without being the author of it, or ordaining it..) work it out according to His purpose… in this cases sons into Christ images, bringing many sons to glory.



        I think because God lives outside of time, knows all the possibilities of man’s actions… (knows the beginning from the end) HE IS INDEED ABLE TO ALWAYS ENSURE VICTORY.
        That’s how powerful He is.. and so we can HAVE GREAT CONFIDENCE, AND TRUST IN HIM.

        There is NO SHADOW or TURNING with HIM, for GOD IS LIGHT.

        He is not the author of evil, nor does He put it in the heart of man. But in His Sovereignty of allowing man free will (produces sin) He is always one step ahead.

        Going back to my first statement of “children”… God wanted to have a big family out of LOVE, and though He knew, that might mean sin/evil coming to pass… He still went ahead with His Plan…

        I say “might” from a human perspective… But He KNEW…. because He is omnipresent and all powerful, which makes him all Smartable :), and so no plan or way of man/devil …His originally created good, for the purpose of good creatures, but fell, CAN NOT OUTSMART HIM.

        Even the GLORY that HE IS ABLE TO LOVE SUCH SINFUL CREATURES… is another Glory.

        And Being able to (at the appointed time) when the period of waiting for repentance by all has ended, and all have made their choice….
        The vessels of wrath… who are so by their chosen…. and still used to glorify God …. to reveal the other side of HIS POWER.

      7. Clare writes, “So God in His Omniscience and through His Sovereignty works all things, ie is unstoppable, because of being the Great I AM.”

        By His omniscience, God knows the future perfectly. That future includes actions that God takes, so in His sovereignty, God executes His plan (e.g., creating Adam/Eve, bringing the flood of Noah, calling Abraham, destroying the cities on the plain,….impregnating Mary, calling Saul of Tarsus, etc.). God’s plan incorporates people acting in a self-determining manner according to their desires (e.g., Adam ate the fruit, Cain murdered Abel, David took Bathsheba to his bed, Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Christ, the Jews stoned Stephen, etc.) In all this, man’s will is subordinate to God’s will, so that God’s purpose and plan prevails in everything.

        Then, “So He isn’t determining every man’s decision….”

        No, but God does determine the environment in which man makes decisions. God created the garden and gave Adam rules to follow and then removed His protection so that Satan could enter the garden. God imposed the corruption of Adam onto his posterity. God placed Daniel, Jeremiah, the disciples and followers of Jesus into situations where choosing to follow Jesus meant death. The challenging environment in which we live today was determined by God. Peter tells us “Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” This can only happen by God’s decree as when God said that Satan could test Job – otherwise Satan could do nothing.

        Overall, good comments if somewhat lengthy.

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  8. RHUTCHIN writes, “Peter tells us “Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” This can only happen by God’s decree as when God said that Satan could test Job – otherwise Satan could do nothing.”

    This is not possible. I would more clearly state that it can only happen by God’s ‘permission’ ‘allowance’. God gave Satan permission – He didn’t decree it. I think that is reading a bit into the text, my friend, don’t you? Just a thought… 🙂

  9. Perhaps one of the most interesting responses by a Calvinist I have ever witnessed was during a men’s bible study about 10 years ago. It used a book by Dutch Sheets on prayer*. Sheets asks a very important question at the outset: does God always get His way? If so, then why did Jesus teach us to pray that God’s will be done on earth AS it is in heaven? If God always gets His way, then isn’t prayer ultimately meaningless in terms of effecting change? Like digging holes and filling them again merely to engage us in an activity?

    The study basically imploded after the very first session because there were such profound differences in the group between the leader – a Calvinist who defined sovereignty as “God always gets his way” – and many others that believe man has been given limited, delegated authorities that God does not overrule (such as the freedom to choose or reject salvation). This delegation also included ruling over creation, which has been abused and misused due to sin, resulting in much suffering and dysfunction for which God is blamed but is ultimately due to Satan and man — not God.

    It was the first time I had encountered such a definition of sovereignty. It felt as though it had been hijacked from the dictionary and repurposed to fit the Calvinist’s very extreme (to me, at least) understanding of the word.

    I have unfortunately found that the word “grace” has been similarly hijacked. I am now, unfortunately, inherently suspicious of any church or ministry that employs the word “grace” in its name. Although not 100% reliable, I would estimate it signifies underlying Calvinist theology about 85% of the time. The word “works” is another one that has been hijacked: faith / belief / repentance necessary for salvation is considered a “work” as opposed to simply a response. Since when does grabbing the life ring thrown from a passing Coast Guard boat mean that I “saved myself”? Since when does accepting a free car mean that I earned it in some fashion because I reached out and took the keys? It is a standard we apply to no other facet of life or discourse.

    * I was surprised that the leader had chosen to lead a study from a book with which he was in such fundamental disagreement. It is no surprise that the study ultimately failed to launch and just devolved into a debate after the very first session.

    1. Hello mrteebs and welcome

      BTW: Very insightful that you discovered what Calvinism does with language.
      Sociologists have a name for this practice
      Its called: INSIDER LANGUAGE.

      A religious group has doctrines which they know OUTSIDERS are going to find unethical or distasteful.
      In order to obfuscate those doctrines – certain terms, such as “Grace”, “Freewill”, “Permit”, and “Sovereignty” are given INSIDER meanings.
      These INSIDER meanings make the doctrine appear less unethical and distasteful by strategically misleading OUTSIDERS who are not aware of the hidden meanings.

  10. Because I was not raised in, nor have ever attended, a Calvinist / Reformed church, I do not know to what extent “the doctrines of grace” are taught directly from the pulpit versus being reserved for smaller groups like Bible Studies, Sunday School, etc. I have anecdotally been told that it is reserved more for the latter because they know that many of these teachings will be like castor oil and must be administered in a different setting where the frog can be slowly conditioned to embrace the boiling water without jumping out.

    I recall listening to R.C. Sproul (our local Christian radio station is heavily reformed; so much so that they do will not broadcast any teachers that are not reformed). He entered bible school a non-Calvinist, and left a Calvinist. His words were basically, “I could not refute what I was being taught, and became convinced.” There is nothing wrong with this, but it does support a comment I made earlier that Calvinism is almost never “caught” from just a plain, unaided reading of scripture. It is injected with a large hypodermic by those who tell you the serum is for your own good, as only they truly understand grace. It is also why I tend to avoid any church, TV program, website, podcast, or radio program that uses the word “grace.” It is usually code for “reformed.” “Sovereign” is another one to look out for. It saddens me, in the same way that the rainbow has been hijacked for purposes never intended.

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