The sovereignty of God is a vitally important truth Wesleyans badly need to recover. This is not only because it is crucial for understanding the biblical drama, but also because many Wesleyans have tended to neglect it because Calvinists often give the impression that it is one of their distinctive doctrines. But the sovereignty of God is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine, and no one who wants to be faithful to Scripture can afford to ignore or downplay this great truth.
So what is the sovereignty of God? Simply put, it is the truth that God is in control, that he has supreme power. It is the truth that he is the Lord of the Universe and of everyone and everything it contains. The sovereignty of God is not always appealing because it is sharply at odds with the popular illusion that we are in control. It is a common human conceit to think that our lives are our own, that human beings are running the show and answer to no one higher than themselves.
There is a great story in the Old Testament book of Daniel that illustrates this human conceit and shows how the sovereignty of God shattered the illusion. King Nebuchadnezzar was a good king who had achieved stunning power and success. One night, however, he had a troubling dream, and asked Daniel to interpret it. When he did, Daniel predicted that God would punish the king for his pride in order to teach him who is truly in control. In the course of the interpretation, Daniel described the king as follows: “You have grown great and strong. Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven, and your sovereignty to the ends of the earth.”
Notice that last line: Nebuchadnezzar’s sovereignty reached to the end of the earth. If any man had reason to think he was in control, it was Nebuchadnezzar. But Daniel warned him that his pride would lead to his fall, and urged him to repent and atone for his sins. Apparently he listened in the short term, but his memory was short, for a year later, we are told that Nebuchadnezzar was out walking on the roof of his palace, admiring his kingdom, and he became a little too impressed with himself. “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal citadel by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?”
At this point in the story, God acted in a rather dramatic fashion to bring the truth home to Nebuchadnezzar. While his boastful words were still in his mouth, a voice came from heaven pronouncing the judgment that he would lose his kingdom and be reduced to acting like an animal. He would eat grass with the oxen, his hair would grow as long as eagle feathers and his nails as long as bird claws. Why did this happen? So Nebuchadnezzar would learn who is really in control.
And learn he did. After a period of “seven times” Nebuchadnezzar’s reason returned to him, and he emerged from the experience with a far better grip on reality. Here are his words from Daniel 4:34-35.
I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?”
Notice what Nebuchadnezzar learned from his time eating grass. First, God is the Most High who lives forever. Man, by contrast, is a finite being whose length of life is not up to him or in his power. To vary the classic syllogism that all basic logic students learn: All men are mortal. Nebuchadnezzar is a man. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar is mortal. But God lives forever, and we owe our very existence to him.
Second, Nebuchadnezzar’s “sovereignty,” even if it extends to the ends of the earth, is only a temporary thing. Indeed, in the next chapter of Daniel, we see that Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar failed to learn from his father’s example, and his kingdom was lost and given to the Medes and Persians. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, and the kingdom of the Medes and Persians would also fall, to be followed by another, and so on.
By contrast, the sovereignty of God is everlasting, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Whatever “sovereignty” kings like Nebuchadnezzar have is circumscribed by the sovereignty of God, who is the Lord of all history and is working out his eternal purposes for his creation. God has supreme power, and nothing and no one can “stay his hand” when he decides to act.
Now here is a good place to highlight the difference between the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and the Wesleyan view. According to classic Calvinism, God’s sovereignty means that he determines literally everything that happens in the sense that he specifically causes everything to happen exactly as it does.
This can sound like a very pious thing to say, and at first it might seem to glorify God. But on closer inspection, it has very troubling implications. On this view, God caused Nebuchadnezzar to be proud, caused him to boast, and then caused his downfall, as well as his subsequent repentance. This is a troubling view because it means God actually caused his sin as well as his punishment.
The Wesleyan strongly disagrees. In the Wesleyan view, God did not cause or will Nebuchadnezzar to be proud. Rather, he became that way by his own free choices, by taking undue pride in his accomplishments. God then punished him to bring the truth home to him in order to move him to repentance. When he acknowledged the truth about God, he was restored to his kingdom.
So again, Wesleyan theology affirms a strong view of God’s sovereignty. God is in control, and our free choices are circumscribed by his sovereign will. That does not mean that God causes our choices, but that he sets the limits within which our free choices are made. And God is always free to demonstrate his sovereign control if we forget that he is God and we are not.