The Sovereignty of God and Pastoral Ministry

Founders Journal · Winter 2003 · pp. 13-17

The Sovereignty of God and Pastoral Ministry

Roger Ellsworth

Every pastor knows the difficulty of his work. We, the feeblest of men, have been called to do the greatest of tasks. We have been called to preach the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners “fast-bound in sin and nature’s night.” We have been called to shepherd souls. As we think about our work, we find ourselves crying with the apostle Paul: “…who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). The work often seems to be too difficult for us. We often find ourselves discouraged and weary.

  • The nature of the work is such that we are almost always doomed to feel a sense of insufficiency–the standards are so high and our efforts so poor.
  • The workload is crushing.
  • The expectations of our people are often unrealistic. Every sermon is to be more interesting–more entertaining!–than the last. The church is to march from victory to victory, reclaiming inactive church members and winning the lost.
  • The outward results are often few and far between.

It is not surprising that so many pastors so often feel that they have come to their wits’ end. I am so very thankful that I can offer all my fellow-pastors this word of encouragement: the God we serve is sovereign.

What is the sovereignty of God? John Benton says it is “God’s supreme and detailed control over all that comes to pass in heaven and on earth.” Donald MacLeod says that God’s sovereignty includes ownership, authority and control. God owns every atom. God has the right to control every atom. And God exercises that right. Augustine put it this way: “Nothing, therefore happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either permits it to happen, or He brings it about Himself.” Jerry Bridges writes: “The spider building its web in the corner and Napoleon marching his army across Europe are both under God’s control.”

God’s sovereignty means He does what He wants to do, when He wants to do it and without having to give an explanation for why He did it. Most of our church members give verbal assent to the sovereignty of God, even agreeing with this definition. It is when we begin to work out the details that we find our members falling off the wagon. Here is one of the details that they find most disconcerting: the salvation of sinners is included in God’s sovereignty. To say otherwise is to deny sovereignty. If there is anything beyond the pale of God’s sovereignty, He is not truly sovereign.

God’s sovereignty in salvation means that He saves whom He will, and those whom He saves owe nothing at all to themselves. They are saved because God graciously chose them in eternity and regenerated and called them in history. They cannot even take credit for their faith because it is the gift that He Himself sovereignly bestows.

Knowing that so very many in our congregations find such truths to be terribly disconcerting, we pastors find it very easy to equivocate on the issue. We tell ourselves that we are truly preaching the Bible, but the sad fact is many of us have elevated man to the status of God’s co-sovereign. We then lament the fact that so many in our churches give no evidence at all of wanting to live for the Lord. Why should they? A little God does not inspire great service.

On the other hand, let one see that he came into this world with condemnation written all over him, that he was deservedly hell-bound because he was, by nature, a God-hater and that he was both helpless and hopeless but that God, in grace, saved him–and that individual will want to worship and serve the Lord.

But what about the sovereignty of God as it relates to pastoral ministry? Several things can be said in response to this question.

The Sovereignty of God Focuses Our Worship on God Instead of on Ourselves.

Since God is the Sovereign of the universe, every worship service should be radically centered on Him and firmly devoted to exalting Him. But how much of what we call worship is truly this way? How much of it is God-centered and how much man-centered? How many of our sermons are about ourselves, our experiences, our desires, our felt needs? How many of our songs are about the same things?

Our defense for modern worship is that we have to give people what they want or they will not come to church at all. Those who hold this view will find very strange John Piper’s opening sentence in The Supremacy of God in Preaching: “People are starving for the greatness of God.”

And well they should! There is so little of the greatness of God in our services and in our preaching. Instead of the mighty God of the Scriptures, who graciously plucks sinners from eternal wrath, we have the little god who does favors for us.

Instead of responding to the cry for the greatness of God, the church seems set on trivializing God. Donald W. McCullough writes,

…reverence and awe have been replaced by a yarn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but no heat, no blinding light, no power for purification. When the true story gets told, whether in the partial light of historical perspective or in the perfect light of eternity, it may well be revealed that the worst sin of the Church at the end of the twentieth century has been the trivialization of God.

The Sovereignty of God Makes Our Preaching God-Centered Instead of Man-Centered.

God is to be the focus of our preaching. We are to preach the sovereign God who sovereignly gave His Word and sovereignly saves through that Word. The fact is that God is the hero of every Bible passage, But, what strange days these are! God is conspicuously absent from much of our preaching. Jesus feeding the 5000 has become more about the little boy than about the Lord. David slaying Goliath has become how to kill the giants in your life. Bishop John R. Moore has rightly said: “We’ve humanized God, deified man, and minimized sin.”

If we truly understand and appreciate the sovereignty of God, we will preach…

  • the Bible as the Word of the sovereign God.
  • man as the creation of the sovereign God.
  • sin as rebellion against the sovereign God.
  • eternal destruction as the just judgment of the sovereign God.
  • the incarnation as the sovereign God taking our humanity.
  • the life of Christ as the sovereign God providing the perfect righteousness that He Himself demands.
  • the cross as the atonement of the sovereign God.
  • the resurrection as the sovereign God declaring His satisfaction with Christ.
  • faith as the gift of the sovereign God.
  • sanctification as the ongoing, sure work of the sovereign God.
  • heaven as the victory of the sovereign God.

These words from Michael Horton serve as a much needed corrective for us:

I advocate the “redemptive-historical” approach to preaching, which treats the Bible as an unfolding drama of redemption rather than as a handbook of timeless principles… Instead of trying to make the Bible relevant for “today’s busy Christian,” I suggest that we allow the Bible to arrest us, condemn us, justify and free us. We need more preaching that focuses on God and what he has done, is doing, and will do in history, and less on ourselves and how we can be happier with God’s help.

The Sovereignty of God Makes the Cross of Christ Unspeakably Glorious to Us.

The cross of Christ is the means by which the sovereign God provided the salvation that He planned before the world began. To save His people, God had to take their sins out of the way. Are we clear on this? God could not just ignore sin. To do so would be tantamount to Him denying His holy character. God cannot deny Himself. The great, surging question of the ages, therefore, is this: How could a holy God at one and the same time judge sinners–as His holy character demands–and let those same sinners go free–as His grace demands?

The cross is the triumphant answer. It is the place where God honored both the demands of His justice and His grace. Justice was honored because God did indeed judge sin. Jesus Christ actually became sin for His people receiving in His own person the wrath of God against them. Justice looked upon that and was satisfied.

But the cross also honored the demands of God’s grace. Because Jesus suffered the wrath of God in the stead of His people and because God only demands that the penalty be paid once, there is no wrath left for those people. Both God’s justice and God’s grace looked upon the cross of Christ and clapped their hands.

Once we see the nature of the cross, we will find it impossible to preach without having it in view. We will, like Charles Spurgeon, find ourselves, no matter what text we take, making a beeline for the cross.

The Sovereignty of God Encourages Evangelism.

God’s elect will most certainly come to Christ. The Lord Jesus himself said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:44).

Do you remember Paul’s experience in Corinth? The apostle encountered fierce opposition there. But the Lord spoke to him and said, “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). It was so certain that these people would come to faith in the Lord that He could speak of them as if they had already come.

One of the primary objections to the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners is that it cuts the nerve of evangelism and missions. Untrue! It does exactly the opposite. Knowing that those whom God has chosen will definitely respond encourages us to spread the gospel.

Think of it in terms of a simple illustration. Suppose someone were to ask you to go to a corn field and look for diamonds. Would you be inclined to go? But suppose he told you that he had scattered a thousand diamonds in that same field on the previous night and you could have as many as you could find. Would that make a difference in your willingness to go?

The Sovereignty of God Sweetens Our Trials.

As we have noted, there is no shortage of trials and difficulties for the pastor. These are oftentimes so very severe that we wonder how we shall find the strength and peace to go on. That strength and peace comes only as we rest in the sovereignty of God. Nothing–absolutely nothing–comes to us except from the Father’s hand. Even those people who seem to go out of their way to make life miserable for us? Yes! Firm reliance on the sovereignty of God will teach us to say of these what Joseph said to his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good,…” (Genesis 50:20a).

Romans 8:28 teaches us that everything from the Father’s hand is for our good. Here is the rub–our view of what constitutes good is often a far cry from God’s. We think we know what good is. It is to have pleasant, happy circumstances. But the context of Romans 8:28 makes it clear that the good God is pursuing is far different. It is nothing less than conforming us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). This is God’s purpose for us. Do we understand that this purpose requires Him to take a far different approach with us than if His purpose were merely our comfort? We may look at our circumstances and wonder whether God truly has our best interests at heart. But we can never look at the cross of Christ without being assured that He does.

Let us resolve, then, not to focus so much on what God is doing in our circumstances but rather on doing what God has commanded. We might say God has two books–the book of His promises and the book of His providence. We are responsible to read the book of His promises, drawing from the strength we need to face our trials. God Himself will finally read to us the book of His providence. When He does, it will all make sense. And on that blessed day, we will finally be able to fully understand the words of Charles Tindley’s hymn:

Trials dark on every hand
And we cannot understand
All the ways that God will lead us to that blessed promised land;
But He’ll guide us with His eye,
And we’ll follow till we die;
We will understand it better by and by.