The Necessity of Divine Sovereignty

Justin Feland | July 20, 2016

Within church history, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty represents a continental divide between denominations and theologians. Indeed, few Christians have gone untouched by this discussion in one way or another.

Jonathan Edwards was no exception. As a boy, Edwards struggled with questions regarding God’s sovereignty in salvation. He later remarked that he was “full of objections against the doctrine…. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.” (Cited in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 40.) Put bluntly, the young Edwards hated Calvinistic doctrine.

And so, he exercised the full weight of his brilliant mind against it, reading far and wide to discredit it. Yet the thought that he was rebelling against his sovereign Creator weighed heavily on his conscience.

God would convince him yet. Though Edwards undertook to confound God’s absolute sovereignty, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes through Scripture. Reading 1 Timothy 1:17, the truth of this great doctrine suddenly dawned on him.

As he put it:

I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him. (Ibid., 41)

As he continued to study his Bible, Edwards became convinced that God was sovereign, and delightfully so. From that point on, the sovereign glory of God composed the zenith of Jonathan Edwards’ thought. Consequently, Edwards dedicated much thought to an articulation and defense of God’s sovereignty, such as in his great treatise, Freedom of the Will.

In time, Edwards would fill the pulpit of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. There, Edwards refined his understanding in the fires of the pulpit. One sermon, entitled God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men, brilliantly demonstrates the change that God, through Scripture, had wrought in Edwards’ thinking.

In that sermon, Edwards explains that God exercises sovereignty in salvation because “it was His original design to make a manifestation of His glory, as it is” (Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, 58.) That is to say, the purpose for which God created the world, and the purpose for which He saves sinners, is that He might exhibit a full display of His glory.

But this implies a critical necessity: In order for God to display the fullness of His glory, He must manifest the full display of His attributes.

If God did not display all of His attributes, His glory would be subsequently diminished. As Edwards explains:

If God’s wisdom be manifested, and not his holiness, the glory of his wisdom would not be manifested as it is; for one part of the glory of the attribute of divine wisdom is, that it is a holy wisdom. So if his holiness were manifested, and not his wisdom, the glory of his holiness would not be manifested as it is; for one thing which belongs to the glory of God’s holiness is, that it is a wise holiness. So it is with respect to the attributes of mercy and justice…. The glory of one attribute cannot be manifested, as it is, without the manifestation of another. (Ibid.)

That is to say, if God showed only His wisdom and not His holiness, the glory of His wisdom would be diminished; or, if He exhibited only His mercy and not His justice, the glory of His mercy would be diminished. As Edwards notes in that same context, God’s attributes “reflect glory on one another.” And, because God is unified in His attributes, all of His attributes would be diminished by the absence of any one of them.

The necessary conclusion, then, is that God must exhibit His sovereignty (like His wisdom, holiness, mercy, and justice) in order to fully display the unified glory of His attributes.

There are two implications that might be drawn from how Edwards demonstrates his thinking here:

First, Edwards has an utterly God-centered understanding of the universe. Be it salvation, creation, the Scriptures, or the Christian life, all things point back to the character and work of God. How great a contrast to our day where the obsession is not with God but with man, not with heaven but with earth.

Second, Edwards grounds his theology in arguments from Scripture. He endeavors to his thesis with such clarity and biblical support, that the only response is one of worship and obedience.

Such is the only appropriate reaction to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. As Edwards himself explains:

Let us therefore give God the glory of his sovereignty, as adoring him, whose sovereign will orders things, beholding ourselves as nothing in comparison with him. Dominion and sovereignty require humble reverence and honor in the subject. The absolute, universal, and unlimited sovereignty of God requires, that we should adore him with all possible humility and reverence. It is impossible that we should go to excess in lowliness and reverence of that Being, who may dispose of us to all eternity, as he pleases. (Ibid., 60)

Justin Feland avatar
Justin Feland is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity degree at The Master's Seminary.

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