Knowing and Doing the Will of God

BibleKnowing and doing the will of God starts with God. Biblically, there is only one God (Deut 32:39; Isa 45:5-7; 46:9), and He created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them (Gen 1:1; Ex 20:11; Neh 9:6; Acts 17:24). Furthermore, God is not silent. He has provided general revelation about Himself through nature (Psa 19:1-2; Rom 1:20) and special revelation through His Word (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21),[1] and through His Son, Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-3; cf. John 1:1, 14, 18). Today, we have the written Word of God which provides the clearest revelation of His will. Apart from His Word, we have no clear understanding of who God is, what He is doing, or what He expects of us.

God’s will is mentioned several times in the Old Testament (Deut 10:10; 23:5; 2 Ch 21:7) which uses the Hebrew word אָבָה abah, which means “to will, [or] be willing.”[2] Also, in other passages (Psa 40:8; 143:10), the Hebrew word רָצוֹן ratson is used, which refers to “what pleases the Lord.”[3] Some passages in the New Testament specifically mention God’s will, where the Greek term θέλημα thelema is employed (i.e., Rom 12:2; Eph 6:5-6, Col 4:12; 1 Th 4:3; 5:16-18; Heb 10:36; 1 Pet 2:15; 4:19). God’s will in each of these passages refers to “what one wishes to happen.”[4] This speaks of what God desires from people. Other passages employ the Greek word βούλομαι boulomai (Matt 11:27; Jam 1:18; 2 Pet 3:9), which denotes a “desire to have or experience something, with implication of planning accordingly.”[5] The latter term sometimes refers to what God brings to pass, such as when James writes, “In the exercise of His will [βούλομαι boulomai] He brought us forth by the word of truth” (Jam 1:18a). But sometimes it refers to what God wants, but makes contingent upon a human response of faith, such as when Peter writes that the Lord “is patient toward you, not wishing [βούλομαι boulomai] for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Context always determines the meaning of a word.

Those who are positive to God desire to know Him, His Word, and to pursue His will.[6] Jesus said to fellow Jews, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17). Jesus explained that knowing God’s Word is predicated on a desire to do (ποιέω poieo) His will. But some hearts are negative to God. And when the heart is negative, no amount of divine revelation will prove persuasive.[7] Jesus spoke to the hard-hearted Pharisees and said, “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:43). Jesus then gave the answer, saying, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (John 8:44).  They could not hear His words because they were unsaved and negative to God. These were men who “loved the darkness rather than the Light” (John 3:19). Paul described them as ones “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). Paul also spoke about the unsaved person, saying, “But an unbeliever does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor 2:14).

bible-scrollOf the one with positive volition it is said, “his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). The benefit of such a lifelong meditation is that “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers” (Psa 1:3). The godly person is positive to the Lord and welcomes His Word. David said, “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart” (Psa 40:8). The word delight (חָפֵץ chaphets) means, “to take pleasure in, desire…to delight in…to be willing…to feel inclined.”[8] This speaks of positive volition. God’s will (רָצוֹן ratson) refers to what pleases Him. And the word Law (תּוֹרָה torah) means teaching, direction, or instruction. Jeremiah said, “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by Your name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jer 15:16). To eat God’s Word is a picture of positive volition, as Jeremiah welcomed the divine revelation into himself. Once received, it delighted (שִׂמְחָה simchahdelight, joy, gladness, mirth) his heart (לֵבָב lebabinner person, mind, will). When the human heart is receptive to God’s Word, it transforms that person from the inside out, and this is both cognitive and experiential. David and Jeremiah wanted to know and walk with God, and His divine revelation, properly understood and applied, was the means to know and do it.

God will open His Word to the believer who dedicates his/her life to Him. Paul wrote, “I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2). A surrendered life to God makes the Christian sensitive to the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit, who aids the believer to know God’s will. Concerning this passage, Arnold Fruchtenbaum states:

It is hard to understand what the will of God is without this act of dedication because the believer does not have the Spirit’s illumination, which is needed to determine God’s will from His Word. Dedication brings knowledge of the will of God. Having the knowledge, the logical outworking of the dedicated life is that the believer now does the will of God.[9]

God’s Word is powerful and accomplishes what He desires (Isa 55:10-11; Heb 4:12), and it lights a fire in the heart of those who welcome it. For example, Jesus, after his resurrection, walked for several miles with two disciples and gave them a Bible lesson which lasted for several hours as they traveled “to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:13). Luke records what Jesus taught them, saying, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). After His Bible lesson, the two disciples said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). The heart that is positive to God receives His Word and is excited by what is learned.

Theological Categories of God’s Will

The will of God can be divided between His secret will and revealed will. Moses wrote, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). What God has revealed in Scripture is what He deems important for us to know. But there are secret things that belong to the Lord and He remains silent. To spend our days pursuing that which God has decreed to keep secret will result in unending frustration. If we have prayed and have studied God’s Word thoroughly and received no answer to prayer, then it’s either because God does not want us to know, or to know at this time. We may, through our daily experiences, seek to determine God’s will for us; however, such providential understanding must always be subordinate to God’s written revelation. Though we don’t know many particulars about what God is doing, we know He is in control and directing history to the return of Christ and the eternal state, and we are part of that grand plan. Concerning God’s revealed will, the following classifications are noted in Scripture.

First, God’s sovereign will, which refers to His free and independent choices to do whatever He pleases. God declares, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isa 46:10b; cf. Psa 33:11), and “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4:35). “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psa 135:6), and He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11b).

God remains in constant sovereign control, guiding His creation through history. He meddles in the affairs of mankind, and His unseen hand works behind all their activities, controlling and directing history as He wills. We know from Scripture that God possesses certain immutable attributes and that He never acts inconsistently with His nature. For example, because God is righteous, all His actions and commands are just. Because God is immutable, His moral perfections never change. Because God is eternal, He is righteous forever. Because God is omniscient, His righteous acts are always predicated on perfect knowledge. Because God is omnipotent, He is always able to execute His righteous will. Because God is love, His judgments can be merciful toward the undeserving and humble.

God controls who sits in positions of power, whether they hold that position by birth or democratic vote. Ultimately, it is God “who changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan 2:21a), for “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17). When Israel turned negative to God, He judged them by placing weak leaders over them, saying, “I will make mere lads their princes, and capricious children will rule over them (Isa 3:4). The result was, “Those who guide you lead you astray and confuse the direction of your paths” (Isa 3:12b).

God even controls hostile unbelievers to accomplish His purposes (Prov 16:4). When Jesus was on trial, Pilate falsely thought he had control over Him, saying, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” (John 19:10). Operating from divine viewpoint, Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). While praying to God, Peter and John acknowledged God’s sovereignty over the Gentile rulers, saying, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28).

Second, God’s directive will, which refers to His actively guiding His people to do what He expects. For example, God directed Adam and Eve to be “fruitful and multiply” and to “rule” as theocratic administrators over His creation (Gen 1:28). After creating the garden of Eden, He directed them to “cultivate it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). He also gave them freedom, saying, “from any tree of the garden you may eat freely” (Gen 2:16), but also gave one prohibition, saying, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Other examples include God directing Noah to build an ark (Gen 6:13-14), directing Abraham to leave his country and go to the place where God wanted (Gen 12:1), directing Moses to go to Egypt to liberate His people (Ex 3:10), and later to give them the Law so they could walk in His will (Ex 34:27-28).[10] It should be remembered that the four Gospels reveal that Jesus was born and lived under the Mosaic Law code (Gal 4:4), and during His time of ministry, He directed others to obey that code (i.e., Matt 8:1-4; 23:1-3). However, that covenant and law code has been fulfilled by Christ and rendered obsolete (Matt 5:17-18; Heb 8:13). And now, God has given commands to Christians which are found in the New Testament. The book of Acts covers the first thirty years of the Church and is generally historical information, being descriptive but not prescriptive. Specific commands for the Christian living in the dispensation of the Church age generally start in Romans 1 and extend to Revelation 3. However, Jesus’ discourse in the Upper Room (John chapters 13-17), the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19-20), and the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-2) belong to the Church.

These biblical distinctions are important, for though all Scripture is written for us, only some portions of it speak specifically to us and command our walk with the Lord. Just as Christians would not try to obey the commands God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-2, or the commands God gave to Noah in Genesis 6-9, so we should not try to obey the commands God gave to Israel in Exodus through Deuteronomy. Christians are not under the Mosaic Law (Rom 6:14), but operate under the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). Charles Ryrie states:

Adam lived under laws, the sum of which may be called the code of Adam or the code of Eden. Noah was expected to obey the laws of God, so there was a Noahic code. We know that God revealed many commands and laws to Abraham (Gen 26:5). They may be called the Abrahamic code. The Mosaic code contained all the laws of the Law. And today we live under the law of Christ (Gal 6:2) or the law of the Spirit of life in Christ (Rom 8:2). This code contains the hundreds of specific commandments recorded in the New Testament.[11]

Because God is the Author of both law-codes (i.e., the Law of Moses as well as the Law of Christ), it is not surprising that He chose to incorporate some of the laws He gave to Israel into the law-code which He has given to the Church. Nine of the 10 commandments are restated in the New Testament (the Sabbath is excluded because it was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant; Ex 31:13-17).[12]

1Bible-study (1)When reading through the New Testament, God provides both general and specific directives to Christians. Examples of general directives include learning God’s Word (Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:16; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2), applying God’s Word (Jam 1:22), loving others as Christ has loved us (John 13:34), being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), and walking by means of the Spirit (Gal 5:16), submitting to governing authorities (Rom 13:1), paying taxes (Rom 13:6), stimulating one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), and not forsaking our assembling together (Heb 10:25). Other examples include living by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6), seeking godly wisdom (Jam 1:5), pursuing peace with others (Rom 12:18), being forgiving (Col 3:13), using gracious words (Col 4:6), being kind (Eph 4:32; cf. Prov 3:3-4), edifying others (Rom 14:19; 1 Th 5:11), serving (Gal 5:13), seeking the best interests of others (Phil 2:3-4), rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks (1 Th 5:16-18), and acting for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). Some specific commands include sharing the Gospel with others (Mark 16:15), and making disciples by teaching them Scripture (Matt 28:19-20). Pastors are to preach God’s Word (2 Tim 4:2), equip the saints for God’s work (Eph 4:11-12), and help lead them to spiritual maturity (Eph 4:13-16). The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25; cf. Mark 10:45), and the wife is to submit to her husband’s loving spiritual leadership (Eph 5:22). Christian children are to obey and honor their parents (Eph 6:1-4). Christian employees are to obey their supervisor (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:23-24), and Christian supervisors are to treat their workers well (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1; Jam 5:4).

Third, God’s permissive will, which refers to what He permits us to do, either for or against His directive will. All sin falls under this category, for He permits us to resist His directives in some instances. This is also true for fallen angels who are granted a measure of freedom to sin. The fall of Adam and Eve provides a good example of God’s permissive will, for after He’d directed them not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-19), He permitted them to disobey and to follow Satan’s leading (Gen 3:1-7). Laney writes, “God’s permissive will refers to what the Lord permits even when it is not in conformity with His revealed or prescribed will. God may permit sin, though it is not in keeping with what He prefers.”[13]

Concerning the permission of divorce, Jesus said the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matt 19:8). God’s permissive will can be observed on a national level, as Paul said, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways” (Acts 14:16). This explains much of the poor behavior we see among the nations as we study world history. God is always righteous and directs people to righteous living. However, God is no bully, as He does not force people to obey Him. When people turn negative to God, He permits them to pursue their sinful ways, though they are not free to choose the consequences of their actions. One who plays with fire will eventually get burned. Concerning those who “suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18), three times it is written that He “gave them over” to “the lusts of their hearts” (Rom 1:24), and “to degrading passions” (Rom 1:26), and “to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Once God permits a person to operate by his/her sinful passions, they are given a measure of freedom to live as they want. These are described as “being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful” (Rom 1:29-31).

Fourth, God’s overruling will, which refers to those occasions when He hinders His creatures from acting contrary to His sovereign purposes. Throughout Scripture we observe God intervening in the actions of fallen angels and people. After God permitted Adam and Eve to disobey Him, He then drove them from the Garden of Eden and overruled their ability to go back in and eat from the tree of life (Gen 3:22-24). After Abraham lied to Abimelech and told him that Sarah was his sister, Abimelech took her as his wife. However, in order to protect Sarah, God intervened and told Abimelech, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married” (Gen 20:3). Abimelech pleaded with God and claimed his innocence (Gen 20:4-5). God, being just, told Abimelech, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore, I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6). Jacob served his uncle Laban for twenty years, but during that time his uncle had mistreated him, and by the end, he saw his uncle “was not friendly toward him as formerly” (Gen 31:2). Realizing it was time for Jacob to leave his uncle, he told his two wives, Rachel and Leah, “your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times; however, God did not allow him to hurt me” (Gen 31:7). During the tribulation, there will be hostile unbelievers who will try to flee from God’s wrath by seeking death. But God prevents them from this escape, as John writes, “in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them” (Rev 9:6).

When Satan wanted to attack Job, God granted him permission, saying, “Behold, all that he has is in your power” (Job 1:12a). But then God restrained Satan, saying, “do not put forth your hand on him” (Job 1:12b). When Satan came back a second time, God granted him permission to attack Job’s body, saying, “he is in your power” (Job 2:6a), but then told him to “spare his life” (Job 2:6b). When Job’s wife advised him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), he responded, saying, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). During the seven-year tribulation, demons are released from an angelic prison and “power was given them” to hurt unbelievers (Rev 9:3). However, they were restrained, as God told them, “not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months” (Rev 9:4-5a). Satan is currently active in the world (1 Pet 5:8; 1 John 5:19) and will be during the tribulation. However, God intervenes at the end of the tribulation and has Satan arrested and “bound for a thousand years” (Rev 20:2). God’s arresting angel “threw Satan into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time” (Rev 20:3).

Fifth, God’s providential will, which refers to the outworking of His sovereign will in such a way that He creates circumstances that direct our lives and destiny. Believers who understand this will make their human plans contingent on God’s sovereign plans (1 Ch 13:2; Acts 18:21; Jam 4:15). As God’s people, we know the Lord and His will for our lives because His written Word informs and guides us. The Bible is our divine pedagogical guide. In addition to Scripture, God directs us providentially as He controls the circumstances of our lives to His desired end. However, only the believer with a thorough knowledge of God’s Word can properly interpret his/her circumstances and know what God is doing. Interpreting circumstances, or divine impressions on the heart, is never as clear as knowing God’s Word. Charles Clough states:

There is a mystical element to Christianity in how the Lord leads you; and He impresses upon you different things. But you can never elevate that mystical part of your Christian life and make it equal to the revelation of Scripture, because the revelation of Scripture is the measuring stick so you can tell the difference between Christ in the heart and heart burn. How you do that is whether it fits the Scripture.[14]

God’s providence is His continual care over the creation He brought into existence. God continues to create and control circumstances in order to direct history according to His predetermined plan, all for His glory and the benefit of His people. People live in the flow of history, and are moved by the circumstances God controls. J. I. Packer states:

Providence is normally defined in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill (Psa 145:9 cf. Mt 5:45–48), he upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psa 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Gen 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Eph 1:9–12).[15]

JosephGod is holy and never creates evil, however, He can and does control those who do. Satan, and those who follow him, are ultimately under God’s sovereign control, and even their evil plans and actions are used for His good purposes. For example, Joseph was mistreated by his brothers and sold into slavery and taken to Egypt where he suffered greatly. Yet, later in his life, Joseph interpreted their behavior from the divine perspective, telling his brothers, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). And Joseph repeated himself a second time, saying, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:7-8a). And later, he told them a third time, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20). It was God’s providence that drove Saul to chase after his father’s donkeys, and then be led to the prophet Samuel and anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 9-10). It was God’s providence that directed Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, so the baby Jesus would be born at the appointed time and place (Mic 5:2; Luke 2:4-6; Gal 4:4). Later, Joseph and Mary were compelled to go to Egypt, in order to preserve the baby Savior (Matt 2:13-15). It was God’s providence that forced Aquila and Priscilla out of Rome by the emperor Claudius’ decree, only to meet the apostle Paul in Corinth and join him in Christian ministry (Acts 18:1-3; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19). It was God’s providence that put the Lord Jesus on the cross to be crucified by the hands of godless men. Peter, charging Israelites in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’s death, said, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). And after being persecuted by the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter and John, along with others, said to God, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). In these verses we see people behaving sinfully, whether Joseph’s brothers, or human rulers who abuse their power; yet God used their sinful choices to bring about a greater good. Because God is righteous, all His actions are just (Psa 119:137). Because He is loving (1 John 4:8), He directs all things for the benefit of His people. Because He is good (Psa 34:8; 100:5), He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Concerning Christian ministry, God providentially opens and closes doors of service. Throughout the New Testament, an “open door” refers to a divinely orchestrated opportunity for sharing the gospel and engaging in Christian ministry (Acts 14:25-27). On one occasion the Lord closed an opportunity for ministry (Acts 16:6-7), but then opened another (Acts 16:9-10). An “open door” for ministry can have opposition (1 Cor 16:7-9), does not remove everyday concerns about life (2 Cor 2:12-13), should be sought with prayer (Col 4:2-3), and once opened cannot be shut by people (Rev 3:8). As God’s people, we do not create occasions for Christian ministry; we simply accept those provided for us by the Lord (Eph 2:10).

In summary, knowing and doing God’s will is largely a matter of knowing His Word and walking in it. Those who are positive to God will desire His Word in order to obey it. From Scripture we know about the Lord Himself, His sovereign control over His creation, what He desires of us, His permission of sin, as well as His directing history providentially to the return and reign of Christ. Where Scripture is silent, we may try to ascertain His will through the circumstances of our life, but such understanding must always be subordinate to the clear revelation of Scripture.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] God, on several occasions, commanded His prophets to record what He had revealed to them. He told Moses, “Write this in a book” (Ex 17:14), and “Write down these words” (Ex 34:27). To Isaiah He said, “Now go, write it on a tablet before them and inscribe it on a scroll” (Isa 30:8), and to Jeremiah He commanded, “Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book” (Jer 30:2).

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 788.

[3] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1282.

[4] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 447.

[5] Ibid., 182.

[6] For the Christian, this does not mean our sin nature is removed, nor that we are free from the sinful pressures of living in a fallen world. Paul said, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21-23). This struggle with sin continues until we leave this world and enter into heaven. Until then, it is God’s will that we remain in this world (John 17:15) as His ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20).

[7] For example, Noah preached to his generation for one hundred and twenty years, but they refused to listen (Gen 6:3; 2 Pet 2:5). Jeremiah spoke to the leaders of Israel, saying, “these twenty-three years the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened” (Jer 25:3). Preachers are responsible for the accurate output of the message, not the outcome of response.

[8] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 340.

[9] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Faith Alone: The Condition of Our Salvation: An Exposition of the Book of Galatians and Other Relevant Topics, ed. Christiane Jurik, Second Edition. (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2016), 120.

[10] God had revealed His will for Israel through the Law of Moses, and this gave them clear guidelines for how to live as God desired. Because God cares for His people, He provided them rules for living in relationship with Himself and others. If His people walked in the ways of the Lord, He promised them blessing (Deut 28:1-14). But if they turned away from His revealed will, He promised them cursing (Deut 28:15-68). The blessed life or the cursed life was always before them (Deut 11:26-28). God’s directives were communicated through Moses to God’s people (Deut 6:1-2), who were to receive them and adhere to them (Deut 6:3-6), and communicate them to their children (Deut 6:7).

[11] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 351.

[12] Additional biblical distinctions reveal that Israel is a nation (Ex 19:6), but the church is not a nation (Rom 10:19). God’s program for Israel focused on the land promised to Abraham (Gen 12:1; 15:18; 17:8), whereas the church is called to go out to many lands (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Israel was mentioned throughout the Old Testament and recognized by other nations (Num 14:15; Josh 5:1), but the church was a mystery not known in the Old Testament (Eph 3:1-6; Col 1:26-27; cf. Rom 16:25-26). Israel had a priesthood that was specific to the tribe of Levi (Num 3:6-7), whereas all Christians are priests to God (Rev 1:6). Israel worshipped first at the Tabernacle and later the Temple (Ex 40:18-38; 2 Ch 8:14-16), but for Christians, their body is the temple of the Lord and they gather locally where they want (1 Cor 6:19-20; cf. 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15). Israel offered animal sacrifices to God (Lev 4:1-35), but Christians offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5; cf. Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15). Israel was required to tithe from the produce of their land (Deut 14:22-23; 28-29; Num 18:21), but there is no tithe required from Christians, only a joyful attitude when giving, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

[13] J. Carl Laney, eds. Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck, “God’s Decree and Individual Free Will” in Understanding Christian Theology (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 215.

[14] Charles Clough, Lesson 21 – Moral Relativism; Justification & Procedures for Holy War, (2010, 17th minute). https://www.bibleframeworkapplied.org/multi-lesson-series/deuteronomy

[15] J. I. Packer, “Providence” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 979-80.

Why God Judges Nations

sovereign-1140x760The Bible reveals “God is the King of all the earth…He reigns over the nations; He sits on His holy throne” (Psa 47:7-8). It is God “who changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan 2:21), and “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan 4:17). The Bible reveals “The LORD is King forever and ever” (Psa 10:16a), and the “LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psa 103:19), and He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11b). God is supreme over all His creation, for “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psa 135:6), and “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4:35). As sovereign God, He judges His world in righteousness.

Fallen angel No serious student of the Bible ever questions God’s sovereign rule. But neither does the student of Scripture deny that Satan—a fallen angel—has been opposing God for millennia and has created a kingdom of darkness (Luke 4:6; Acts 26:18; Col 1:13), with subjects that consist of other fallen angels (Matt 25:41; Rev 12:7, 9), and unbelievers (Matt 13:36-38; John 8:44).[1] In a limited way God permits Satan to operate, just as He permits other fallen angels and people to resist His will in certain matters. Satan is a globalist who desires world control, and to a large degree he has it. Three times Jesus referred to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Other passages of Scripture call Satan “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), and inform us “that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Because Satan cannot force people to do his will, he operates by means of deception and temptation—like he did in the Garden of Eden—and when individuals, groups, cities, or nations follow him rather than God, they place themselves under God’s judgment. Satan’s strategies are effective on a global scale, and he “deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9; 20:3). Because of his deceptions and temptations, Satan has “weakened the nations” (Isa 14:12). He has certainly been effective at weakening America.

When individuals, groups, cities and nations turn away from God, He will judge them according to His righteous character and moral laws. We know from Scripture that “the LORD is righteous, [and] He loves righteousness” (Psa 11:7), and “Righteous are You, O LORD, and upright are Your judgments” (Psa 119:137). For God, righteousness is an attribute, an inherent quality, not the adherence to laws beyond Himself (of which there are none). The righteousness of God may be defined as the intrinsic, immutable, moral perfection of God, from which He commands all things, in heaven and earth, and declares as good that which conforms to His righteousness and as evil that which deviates. Righteousness and justice are related words. The former speaks of God’s moral character, whereas the latter speaks of the actions that flow out of His character. Whatever God’s righteousness requires, His justice executes; either to approve or reject, to bless or condemn. God is “the Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25), and He “is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day” (Psa 7:11). It’s unimaginable to serve a God who cannot or will not judge sin.[2]

Merciful GodThough God judges, He is not One to judge quickly. It is written, “You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Psa 86:15), and “the LORD is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Psa 145:8). Peter reveals that God “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). In this way, God is quick to warn and slow to judge. But God is not patient forever, and there are multiple accounts of judgment throughout Scripture. Biblically, we observe where God judged Adam and Eve (Gen 3:16-24), the antediluvian world (Gen 6:1-7, 11-13; 7:21-24), the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24-25), the Egyptians (Deut 26:6-8; cf. Gen 15:13-14), Canaanites (Lev 18:25; Deut 9:5)[3], and Babylonians (Jer 25:11-12). The book of Obadiah was written against the Edomites (Oba 1:1), and Nahum was written as a judgment against the Ninevites (Nah 1:1). When Jesus was on the earth at the time of His first coming, He judged the religious leaders of his day (Matt 23:1-36), and pronounced judgment upon nation of Israel for having rejected Him as their Messiah (Matt 23:37-39).[4] In the future, God will judge Gentiles based on how they treat persecuted Jewish believers during the Tribulation (Matt 25:31-46). And God will judge all unbelievers at the Great White Throne judgment and will cast them into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:11-15). God has also judged Satan (John 16:11), and will punish him in the future (Matt 25:41; Rev 20:10).

On What Basis Does God Judge?

As a nation, Israel was and is unique in human history, for it’s the only nation that was created by God to serve as a theocracy. Speaking to Israel, God said, “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King” (Isa 43:15; cf. Isa 43:1). Israel was a theocracy, and God was their King, Lawgiver, and Judge (Isa 33:22). As such, God gave Israel specific laws to direct their lives (Lev 27:34). The Mosaic Law was the standard by which Israel lived rightly before God and was the basis for blessing or cursing, depending on their obedience or disobedience (Lev 26, Deut 28). Moses said, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I am commanding you today, by following other gods which you have not known” (Deut 11:26-28). Reading through Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, First and Second Kings, and all the OT prophets, one can see a consistent pattern of God blessing or cursing His people depending on whether they obeyed or disobeyed His written laws. God was extremely patient with His people when they disobeyed, repeatedly warning them about His coming judgments, but the historical trend was that of rebellion (Jer 25:4-7). Because of rampant idolatry, human sacrifice, and other egregious sins, God eventually destroyed the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C. (2 Ki 17:7-23), and the two southern tribes of Judah in 586 B.C. (Jer 25:8-11).[5]

The Gentile nations did not possess the Mosaic Law as Israel did; however, a Gentile nation could be blessed or judged, and this depended on at least two factors. First, God would bless or curse a Gentile nation depending on how it treated Israel. God told Abraham, the progenitor of Israel, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). Allen Ross sates, “Those who blessed Abram would receive blessing from God; that is, those who supported and endorsed him in his faith would actually find enrichment. Conversely, if anyone treated Abram lightly, he must be cursed.”[6] God’s promise to bless or curse was based on an unconditional covenant that started with Abraham and extended to his descendants forever (Gen 17:7; Num 24:9).[7] Concerning the curse, Arnold Fruchtenbaum states:

The first word for curse is kalal, which means “to treat lightly,” “to hold in contempt,” or “to curse.” To merely treat Abram and the Jews lightly is to incur the curse of God. The second word for curse used in this phrase (him that curses you will I curse) is aor, from the Hebrew root arah, which means “to impose a barrier,” “to ban.” This is a much stronger word for curse than the first one in the phrase…Therefore, even a light curse against Abram or against the Jews will bring a heavier curse from God.[8]

Second, a Gentile nation could be blessed or cursed depending on whether they pursued godly virtues or wickedness. Biblically, there is a sense in which God’s laws are written on the hearts of all people. Paul wrote, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Rom 2:14-15).[9] God has placed within each person a moral sense of right and wrong. Everyone knows it’s right to be honest, kind, courteous, patient, helpful to the weak, honoring to parents, faithful to their spouse, etc. Alternatively, everyone knows it’s wrong to murder, steal, lie, commit adultery, etc.[10] Because each person possesses a moral sense of right and wrong and can choose how they behave, for this reason, “in every nation the man who fears God and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:35). And how people behave collectively has results upon their city or nation. The Lord told Jeremiah, “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer 18:7-8). This is what happened when Jonah preached that God was going to judge the Ninevites (Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-4), and when they repented (Jonah 3:5-9), He relented (Jonah 3:10). There is hope for any nation that has turned away from God, but only if the leadership and people turn to God and pursue righteousness in conformity with His character.

America is a Gentile nation, and as such, God will judge us like He has judged other nations. However, the principle is true that one to whom much is given, much is required. America has had a long and wonderful influence by Christians, and our nation has an abundance of Bibles and Christian literature. This means the light of divine revelation is greater in America than that of pagan nations that have not had such an influence. For this reason, God will judge us both for the light we have from conscience as well as the light of His special revelation found in Scripture. We have sinned against greater light; therefore, He will judge us more severely if we keep turning away from it. The ball is in our court. It’s up to us as individuals, groups, cities, and as a nation to turn to God and live morally as He expects. Satan will continue to entice and deceive people to sin (Gen 3:1-8; John 8:44; Acts 5:3; 2 Cor 11:3; 2 Tim 2:14), and he does this in order to weaken and subjugate that nation (Isa 14:12; 2 Tim 2:26; Rev 12:9; 20:8). If people follow Satan’s allurements and disobey the Lord, God will send judgment.

As Christians, God calls us to share the gospel of Christ (Mark 16:15; 1 Cor 15:3-4), and make disciples (Matt 28:19-20). We are never called to form a nation, and there is nothing in the NT that even hints at such a project. Rather, we are to learn God’s Word and live as He directs. In this way, God may use us to help shape a nation in godly ways, which will influence its educational, political, economic, and social views. We are, after all, to be a light to the world (Matt 5:14; Eph 5:8).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Though Christians belong to the kingdom of Christ (Acts 26:18; Col 1:13), it is possible for a believer to live carnally (1 Cor 3:1-3) and to help Satan advance his agenda by loving his world-system (2 Cor 11:3; Jam 4:4; 1 John 2:15-16).

[2] Sin occurs when we transgress God’s law and depart from His intended path. This was true of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:16-17; 3:1-7), and it is true of us as well. The apostle John states, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Sin is the expression of a creaturely will that is set against God. The sin we commit may be mental, verbal, or physical. It may be private or public, impacting one or many, with short or lasting results. God permits sin, but is never the author of it. One scholar writes: “The underlying idea of sin is that of law and of a lawgiver. The lawgiver is God. Hence sin is everything in the disposition and purpose and conduct of God’s moral creatures that is contrary to the expressed will of God (Rom 3:20; 4:15; 7:7; Jam 4:12, 17). The sinfulness of sin lies in the fact that it is against God, even when the wrong we do is to others or ourselves (Gen 39:9; Psa 51:4). (Merrill F. Unger, “Sin,”, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1988, 1198)

[3] The Canaanites were exceptionally bad people whom God had marked out for judgment (Lev 18:25; Deut 9:5) after giving them four hundred years of grace (Gen 15:16). Some of the specific sins mentioned among the Canaanites included gross sexual immorality, such as incest (Lev 18:1-20; 20:10-12, 14, 17, 19-21), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and sex with animals (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16). They also engaged in the occult (Lev 20:6), were hostile toward parents (Lev 20:9), and offered their children as sacrifices to Molech (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5; cf. Deut 12:31; 18:10). God told Israel not to do these wicked things, for the Canaanites “did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them” (Lev 20:23; cf. Lev 18:25).

[4] God’s judgment on Israel will be removed when they accept Jesus as Messiah at the end of the Tribulation (Matt 23:39; cf. Rom 11:25-27).

[5] When Jesus was on the earth at the time of His first coming, He judged the religious leaders of his day (Matt 23:1-36), and pronounced judgment upon Israel for having rejected Him as their Messiah (Matt 23:37-38). God’s judgment on Israel will be removed when they accept Jesus as Messiah at the end of the Tribulation (Matt 23:39; cf. Rom 11:25-27).

[6] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 263.

[7] To love Israel is not a blanket endorsement of all their beliefs and behaviors. God, who loves Israel and chose them to be His people (Deut 7:6-8), also called them to be holy (Ex 19:5-6; Lev 11:45), and promised blessing or cursing, based on their obedience to Him (Deut 28:1-68). Israel can and does fail, often rejecting God’s love for them and walking in the ways of the world (see 2 Ch 36:15-16; Jer 7:25-26; 25:4-7; Ezek 16; Matt 23:1-39; Acts 7:51-53; 1 Th 2:14-16). The national rejection and crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:22-23; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28), Israel’s promised Messiah (Deut 18:15; Isa 7:14; 9:6-7;53; 61:1; Matt 1:1, 17; Luke 1:31-33), is their greatest failure. Did Israel act alone in crucifying Jesus, their Messiah? No! God foretold Israel’s Messiah would suffer and die (Psa 22:11-18; Isa 53); and, according to His sovereignty, He used wicked men, both Jews and Gentiles, to accomplish His will (Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28).

[8] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Book of Genesis, 1st ed. (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2008), 242.

[9] The human conscience, when working properly, serves as a moral compass. But because of willful and persistent sin, the conscience can become weak (1 Cor 8:7), callous (1 Tim 4:2), defiled (Tit 1:15), or evil (Heb 10:22). Persistent sin can damage the conscience so that it fails to operate properly.

[10] The unbeliever can live morally according to the dictates of a healthy conscience, and though not saved, can receive some blessings in this life. Conversely, a Christian can turn away from the faith and pursue wickedness, and this results in divine discipline and the forfeiture of eternal rewards.

The Sovereignty and Providence of God

As humans, we instinctively develop a mental model of the world that helps us make sense of how and why it operates the way it does (socially, culturally, politically, economically, etc.). This starts in the earliest years of childhood and, for most people, continues well into adulthood. As we grow, we’re confronted with new and complex experiences that challenge us to modify our mental framework to accommodate life’s many nuances. This constant adaptation is necessary in order to adjust and move forward. Though there is much in our understanding that needs to be developed, we also need certain unchanging absolutes to provide an anchor; otherwise, we’re constantly adrift in a sea of opinion. God and His Word provide those unchanging absolutes. Furthermore, as we study God’s Word and live by faith, we develop godly character, live productive lives, and develop a personal sense of destiny derived from our relationship with the One who has called us into Christian service. For the Christian, there is no greater honor, no higher calling, no greater purpose one can attain, than that lived by God’s children who walk daily with their Father, the King. Being part of His royal family instills in us a noble mind which demands we live by the biblical virtues expected of those who are brothers and sisters to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Much of this starts when we understand that our God is the sovereign Ruler of His universe, and that we are blessed to know and walk with Him, trusting the affairs of this life are under His control. In this article, I’ll focus specifically on what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty and how He governs providentially. My hope is that this knowledge will provide mental stability in a world that can, at times, seem chaotic.

Sovereignty of God     The Bible teaches God is sovereign over His creation. He made it and He’s managing it; even though it’s not operating according to His original design. Obviously, God permits sin; and here one must distinguish between His directive-will, permissive-will, and overruling-will.[1] Though God grants His creatures a modicum of freedom to resist His will, it should always be kept in mind that the sinfulness of fallen angels or people never threatens His sovereignty. Furthermore, God is never surprised, baffled, or frustrated by sin. According to God’s directive-will, He calls and empowers His people to live holy lives, separate from sin. In this way we are to partner with Him and help promote His solutions to this fallen world. Concerning God’s sovereignty, Louis Berkhof writes, “He is clothed with absolute authority over the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. He upholds all things with His almighty power, and determines the ends which they are destined to serve. He rules as King in the most absolute sense of the word, and all things are dependent on Him and subservient to Him.”[2]

Though God is sovereign, He does not rule arbitrarily, but in accordance with His other attributes such as righteousness, holiness, love, mercy, and grace. As believers, we are encouraged that God is in sovereign control, for even though we experience sin, chaos, and evil (sometimes our own), we know He is directing history toward the return of Christ and His millennial kingdom, which is followed by the glorious eternal state.

The Bible reveals “The LORD is King forever and ever” (Psa 10:16a). The “LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psa 103:19), and He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11b). God is supreme over all His creation, for “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psa 135:6), and “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4:35). But God is no tyrant, rather, He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7a). He is also holy and righteous, and “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exo 34:7b).[3] For “those who turn aside to their crooked ways, the LORD will lead them away with the doers of iniquity” (Psa 125:5).

God is under no external restraint whatsoever. He is the Supreme Dispenser of all events. All forms of existence are within the scope of His dominion. And yet this is not to be viewed in any such way as to abridge the reality of the moral freedom of God’s responsible creatures or to make men anything else than the arbiters of their own eternal destinies. God has seen fit to create beings with the power of choice between good and evil. He rules over them in justice and wisdom and grace.[4]

From Genesis to Revelation, God governs the lives of people and nations. Human rulers exist because of His plan, for “It is He who changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding” (Dan 2:21). And people live and die as God decides, for “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6; cf. Acts 17:28). God has power over wealth and poverty, for “The LORD makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts” (1 Sam 2:7). And He controls when and where people live in history, for “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). In addition to this, Scripture reveals God controls nature (Jon 1:4; Mark 4:39-41), plagues (Ex 11:1; Rev 16:10-11), famines (Gen 41:25-32), the roll of dice (Pro 16:33), blessing and adversity (Job 2:10; Isa 45:7), suffering (Job 1:1-21), divine calling (Jer 1:4-5; Gal 1:15) and the development of Christian character (Rom 5:2-5; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Jam 1:2-4).

Lastly, God allows fallen angels and humans to produce sin and evil, but they never act beyond or against His sovereign will (Job 1:1-21; Psa 105:12-15; 1 Ki 22:19-23; 2 Cor 12:7-10). God gives freedom to his creatures, both angelic and human, and this to varying degrees. We are free to act, but only within the spheres of opportunity He creates and controls. For example, when Jesus was on trial, Pilate told Him, “I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You” (John 19:10). But Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Pilate had opportunity and authority to crucify Jesus, but only because heaven granted it to him. Ultimately, Pilate’s actions served the Father’s greater purpose of bringing His Son to the cross.

God’s Providential Control

God’s providence refers to His continual care over the creation He brought into existence. God continues to create and control circumstances in order to direct history according to His predetermined plan, all for His glory and the benefit of His people. People live in the flow of history, and are moved by the circumstances God controls. J. I. Packer offers this understanding of God’s providence:

Providence is normally defined in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill (Psa 145:9 cf. Mt 5:45–48), he upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psa 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Gen 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Eph 1:9–12). This view of God’s relation to the world must be distinguished from: (a) pantheism, which absorbs the world into God; (b) deism, which cuts it off from him; (c) dualism, which divides control of it between God and another power; (d)indeterminism, which holds that it is under no control at all; (e) determinism, which posits a control of a kind that destroys man’s moral responsibility; (f) the doctrine of chance, which denies the controlling power to be rational; and (g) the doctrine of fate, which denies it to be benevolent.[5]

God is holy and He never creates evil, however, He can and does control those who do. Satan, and those who follow him (both fallen angels and people), are ultimately under God’s sovereign control, and even their evil plans and actions are used for His good purposes. For example, Joseph was mistreated by his brothers and sold into slavery and taken to Egypt where he suffered greatly. Yet, later in his life, Joseph interpreted their behavior from the divine perspective, telling his brothers, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45:5). And Joseph repeated himself a second time, saying, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:7-8a). And later, he told them a third time, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20). It was God’s providence that drove Saul to chase after his father’s donkeys, and then be led to the prophet Samuel and anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 9-10). It was God’s providence that directed Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, so the baby Jesus would be born at the appointed time and place (Mic 5:2; Luke 2:4-6; Gal 4:4). Later, Joseph and Mary were compelled to go to Egypt, in order to preserve the baby Savior (Matt 2:13-15). It was God’s providence that forced Aquila and Priscilla out of Rome by the emperor Claudius’ decree, only to meet the apostle Paul in Corinth and join him in Christian ministry (Acts 18:1-3; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19). It was God’s providence that put the Lord Jesus on the cross to be crucified by the hands of godless men. Peter, charging Israelites in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’s death, said, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). And after being persecuted by the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter and John, along with others, said to God, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). In these verses we see people behaving sinfully, whether Joseph’s brothers, or human rulers who abuse their power; yet God used their sinful choices to bring about a greater good. Because God is righteous, all His actions are just. Because He is loving and good, He directs all things for the benefit of His people. The wicked are also under God’s sovereign control, and He uses them for His own ends (Pro 16:4). Evil has entered God’s universe, but it never threatens His holy purposes.

In summary, Scripture reveals God’s sovereignty and how He governs His universe, creating and controlling circumstances, and directing the lives of His people, allowing them to partner with Him to accomplish His good in the world. By learning about God’s sovereignty and studying His past providential acts, believers can create a rational filter through which circumstances can be interpreted and classified within a mental framework. The growing believer takes great delight in knowing God is good, loving, wise, and in control of His creation and is directing all things according to His sovereign plan. Those who are positive to God and operate from the divine perspective know that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] God’s directive-will refers to His actively directing us to do what He expects. For the Christian, God’s directive-will is found in Scripture. His permissive-will refers to what He permits us to do, either for or against His directive-will. All sin falls under this category, for He permits us to resist His directive-will in some instances. This is also true for fallen angels who are granted a measure of freedom to sin. God’s overruling-will refers to those occasions when He hinders us from sinning, or from sinning further, because His greater purposes take priority. The fall of Adam and Eve provide a good example of these categories, for God directed them not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-19), permitted them to disobey (Gen 3:1-7), and then drove them from the Garden of Eden, overruling their ability to go back in and eat from the tree of life (Gen 3:22-24).

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 76.

[3] The judgment that God brings upon “the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” refers to those generations who follow in the path of their parents, who hate God and continue the pattern of sin handed down to them.

[4] E. McChesney, “Sovereignty of God,” ed. Merrill F. Unger and R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[5] J. I. Packer, “Providence” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 979-80.

The Person and Attributes of God


Genesis - Hebrew     Scripture opens with the statement, “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1a). The Bible does not seek to prove the existence of God, but simply acknowledges His being. The Bible teaches God has made Himself known through nature. David wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psa 19:1). And Paul stated, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Rom 1:20).

And God has revealed Himself within the heart of every person. Paul wrote, “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom 1:19). Within each human mind is an intuitive awareness of God. John Calvin called this awareness the sensus divinitatis (sense of divinity). Calvin wrote, “there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God…Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart.”[1] This awareness does not inform us as to the specifics of God, but merely informs us that He is. The Bible is that special revelation that informs us about the particulars of God.

The Bible reveals God exists as a Trinity (or Triunity). In the Bible we learn that there is one God (Deut 6:4), who exists as three Persons (Gen 1:26; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2). All three members of the Godhead are co-equal, co-infinite, and co-eternal, possessing the same nature and attributes (Deut 6:4; Isa 44:6-8; John 10:30; 14:9).[2] The Trinity consists of God the Father (Gal 1:1; Eph 6:23; Phil 2:11), God the Son (Isa 7:14; 9:6; John 1:1, 8:58; 20:28; Col 2:9; Heb 1:8), and God the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Cor 2:11-12; 2 Cor 13:14). An ancient Christian diagram illustrates the Trinity as follows:

Ancient Diagram of the Trinity

Furthermore, the Bible reveals God has specific attributes that describe who He is and explain why He thinks and acts in certain ways. What we know of God’s attributes comes to us only by divine revelation, and these attributes belong to all the members of the Trinity, who are worthy of all praise and service. Charles Ryrie states:

The various perfections of God are not component parts of God. Each describes His total being. Love, for example, is not a part of God’s nature; God in His total being is love. Although God may display one quality or another at a given time, no quality is independent of or preeminent over any of the others. Whenever God displays His wrath, He is still love. When He shows His love, He does not abandon His holiness. God is more than the sum total of His perfections. When we have listed all the attributes we can glean from revelation, we have not fully described God. This stems from His incomprehensibility. Even if we could say we had a complete list of all God’s perfections, we could not fathom their meaning, for finite man cannot comprehend the infinite God.[3]

When studying the attributes of God in Scripture, we should never seek to understand them separately from God, as though an attribute of God may exist apart from Him. More so, the attributes of God are as infinite as God Himself, and to try to understand them fully is not within the scope of our ability. A detailed understanding of God’s attributes prevents us from having an incomplete or faulty view of God, in which we see Him only in part. For example, a solitary view of God as righteous can lead to legalistic behavior, whereas a singular understanding of God as loving or gracious can lead to licentiousness. A thorough understanding of God will prove healthy for us who seek to reflect His character. The biblical revelation of God has practical application for growing Christians, for as we advance in spiritual maturity, we will take on the characteristics of God, though only a few of those characteristics may be visible to others at any given moment, depending on the situation. Below is a short paragraph listing God’s attributes with a basic meaning of each.[4]

God’s Attributes

     God is living and is the ultimate source of life (Psa 42:2; 84:2; Jer 10:10; Matt 16:16). Paul states, “for in Him we live and move and exist” (Act 17:28). He is personal, thoughtful, emotive, volitional and active. This attribute takes priority, for if God is not living, none of the other attributes are possible. God is self-existent (aseity), and His existence depends on nothing outside of Himself (Ex 3:14; John 1:4; 5:26). He has life in Himself. There is no prior cause that brought God into existence, He will never cease to be, and He depends on nothing outside of Himself. God is holy (Lev 11:44; Psa 99:9; Isa 45:5-19). This means God is positively righteous and separate from all that is sinful. Holiness connotes moral purity. Being holy means God cannot be affixed to anything morally imperfect. God is Spirit (John 4:24; 2 Cor 3:17). This means the nature of God’s being is spirit, not material. God is sovereign (Psa 115:3; Isa 46:9-11; Dan 4:35; Acts 17:24-28). This means God acts freely as He pleases, always as He pleases, and only as He pleases. God is immutable (Psa 102:26-27; Mal 3:6). This means God’s essential nature does not change. God is eternal (Deut 33:27; 1 Tim 1:17). This means God has always existed, does exist, and forever will exist. God is infinite (1 Ki 8:27; Jer 23:24). Though God exists in space, He is also beyond space, infinite in being. God is omniscient (Psa 139:1-4; Matt 6:31-33). This means God knows all things, being infinite in knowledge. God is omnipresent (Psa 139:7-10; Jer 23:24). This means He is equally and fully everywhere present. God is omnipotent (Job 42:2; Isa 40:28). This means God is all-powerful and able to accomplish all He desires. God is righteous (Psa 11:7; 119:137). His righteousness is that intrinsic moral perfection, from which He commands all things in heaven and earth, and declares as good that which conforms to His righteousness and as evil that which deviates. God is just (Psa 9:7-8; 19:9). His justice is the outworking of His righteousness in which He justifies or condemns, blesses or curses, that which does or does not conform to His righteous character. God is true (Jer 10:10; John 17:3), which means He is genuine, in contrast to false idols. God is truthful (2 Sam 7:28; John 17:17). His knowledge and declarations define reality and help us make sense of what is. God is love (Jer 31:3; 1 John 4:7-8). Because God is love it means He is committed to us, desires our best, and gives for our benefit. God is good and He is the ultimate source of all that is good (Psa 100:5; 145:9; Nah 1:7; Jam 1:17). God is faithful (Deut 7:9; Lam 3:21-23); which means He is reliable in all He says and does, always keeping His word. God is merciful (Psa 86:15; Tit 3:5). Mercy is when God is kind toward us and does not judge us as we deserve. God is gracious (Psa 111:4; 116:5). Grace means God treats us better than we deserve.

Learning about God and His character helps us understand the fundamental nature of reality. Our complex universe is the result of a complex divine Being that chose to create. And what He created is magnificent and beautiful. In contrast to biblical theism is atheism, which is the belief that God does not exist.[5] Biblically, this is the view of the wicked and foolish, who say in their hearts, “There is no God” (Psa 10:4; 14:1). For the atheist, mankind is nothing more than a molecular accident in a material universe where everything is the product of matter, motion, time and chance. For the atheist, there is no reason for humans to exist; therefore, no given purpose for life. Our thoughts, feelings, morals and actions are simply electrochemical impulses that occur in the body and brain, and when we die, those impulses cease. Right and wrong as well as good and evil become arbitrary. Without God and Scripture to guide and give purpose, our uniqueness is lost in the universe, as we ultimately are of no greater value than what we paint on the canvass or study under the microscope. If there is no God and man is not unique (as the Bible teaches), then we are of no greater value than the tree, the rock, or the worm on a hook.  If there is no God, then we are a zero. When we die, our biological life is consumed by the material universe from which we came. Consider this view of death by the atheist John Updike:

Without warning, David was visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you were drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt in your face. There you will be forever, in an upright position, blind and silent, and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called by any angel. As strata of rock shift, your fingers elongate, and your teeth are distended sideways in a great underground grimace indistinguishable from a strip of chalk. And the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, an unaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars.[6]

Most who hold to atheism desire to operate independently of any authority outside of themselves, especially God’s authority set forth in Scripture. These assign no serious thought of God to their discussions, plans, or projects, but seek to use His resources independently of His wishes. But these same persons become trapped in their own system when their individual sense of good and evil, right and wrong, clashes with another person who holds to opposing moral standards. Having rejected God and moral absolutes, they have no objective final standard by which to measure values and behavior, to declare anything good or bad. These can go about their daily lives as long as the pressures of life are not too great; however, if they’re ever confronted with vicious evil that disrupts their lives, they’ll naturally seek a mechanism to control it, lest it destroy them (I’m speaking about the atheist who desires law and order rather than anarchy and chaos). If they continue to reject God, they’ll likely turn to a totalitarian government they hope is strong enough to deal with the depravity of reckless people; but in so doing, they’ll trade freedom and prosperity for slavery and the illusion of equality. In contrast, a society that acknowledges God and operates in accordance with His moral laws will tend to produce a virtuous people that can enjoy freedom and prosperity; but this must start with God and His Word.

Learning about God and applying the knowledge of who He is to our thinking results in a mental paradigm shift that changes how we see ourselves and the world around us. “In our spiritual lives, we cannot transcend the God we worship; we can rise no higher than what we believe to be the highest. Our concept of God will have a marked effect on our practical lives.”[7]

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.44

[2] The use of the Hebrew numeral אֶחָד echad reveals, in some contexts, the idea of a complex one (cf. Gen 2:24; Ezra 3:1; Ezek 37:17).

[3] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 39–40.

[4] Bible scholars are not entirely in agreement concerning the number of God’s attributes. I started with a basic understanding of God’s attributes back in the mid 90’s, but it has grown since then as I’ve learned more about God through His Word.

[5] There are pagan theistic views other than what is being set forth here; however, this article is written from a Christian perspective which does not recognize other claims to deity, whether Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, etc. Therefore, biblical theism is being contrasted with atheism, which seeks to deny the existence of God, and which is the dominant view among unbelievers in America.

[6] John Updike, Pigeon Feathers (New York, NY, Random House Publishers, 1975), 17.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 18.