Here’s something- Has God always been sovereign? Most folks would immediately answer, “But of course!” When we stop to think about it, while not diminishing one glimmer from His greatness, we find a bit of hitch. It works like this:
God is God, which means He has always been. The Universe, regardless of which data we look at, has not. If Sovereign means greater, then there would have to be a lesser for which the “sovereign” to be greater. Just a word game? Maybe not. As His creation, in His image (even if we don’t recognise it), our understanding of ourselves, of “life, the Universe, and everything,” hinges back on how we understand Him. Here’s a small example that has made a huge difference in the course of churches and nations over the past few hundred years, and has a huge impact today.
If God is not, first of all, sovereign, then what, first of all, is He? We could say that holiness fits the bill, bur only if we see holiness as that which pertains to God alone. Before Creation, though, what was there to be distinct from? John, “the Beloved.” wrote that, “God is love.” If God always has been (or, always is) then the love of the Father, or the Word, or the Spirit, Each for the Other, is from eternity. We know from two thousand years of revelation, worship, and study that Each Person is eternal, so the fact of that relationship is the oldest known fact about the One Who has always been. Just academic? Let’s find out:
In the first picture we have a “sovereign” God and a sinful human race. In view of God’s absolute sovereignty our sinful race is totally rebellious, depraved, helpless, and blind to all that is good or helpful. In order to prove His sovereignty even over sin, God chooses (something only He can do) to send the Word as a man and decree death on Him to give Himself a means by which to save a few humans, and to give Himself a Standard by which to damn the rest. Only those, and all of those, whom He chooses to save will be saved, and the rest will burn eternally to show the power of His wrath on those He chose not to rescue from their congenital condition. So the “Elect” respond to His salvation by acknowledging it was His doing that they are saved as members of a sovereignly-chosen class of sinners. Nothing we could do could affect that decision, and nothing we can do will affect its outcome. God is above all, and beyond all, we are all pitiful sinners, only forgiven.
In the second picture, God’s sovereignty is more about how we see Him than the defining word for His attitude toward us, or His decision about how to deal with us. We recognise God, first of all, as love. To be specific we would have to say, holy love. The point is that it is the total, giving, love, above all that we can but dream of, from the heart of the One Who cannot be tempted with evil. He is only good. When we see God’s motive for creation, and for redemption, as holy love rather than sovereignty, we find a picture not of judicial force but of reconciliation. God sees us, unable to make ourselves “good” except to our own minds, and takes pity on us. To declare us “righteous” without making us righteous would be a charade, but He sees that we need to be really made righteous in order to be reconciled to Him Who is the standard. He has shown us what it means to love, and set His love upon us, but being reconciled to Him means that His love lives in us, and through us, to complete the work, so marred by sin, of His image in us.
How does this happen? In His love, His Spirit is at work in all the world to convince sinners of their need for God, and enables them to do so. It is not that people are “not that bad,” so that we are showing our goodness in turning to Him, but that we are admitting to what He has shown us: Our need for Him as our only hope! He draws us to himself, and works in us to grow us up to be like Jesus, from the inside, out. No one is saved without having a say in the matter, and no one is lost without any responsibility in the matter. To the contrary, to the saved He opens every door to grow in His grace and to be made holy, in Hi s own likeness, by the very power of God acting in and through our lives as He teaches us to obey and follow. The model here is not simply the great King and the lowly servant, but the great King is so many other things to us as He calls us to approach Him- to be near Him, to belong to Him, and to be like Him. The difference is that, in the first picture we have God as a boatman motoring through a shipwreck cherry- picking among the drowning for reasons known only to Him; and the other He is seeking to save each one, showing each the reaching to each, and somehow giving each one the strength to grab the oar outreached. Each one saved is not merely stashed in the hold but empowered and employed in the work of bringing others onboard as well, and at the same time becoming like the Boatman through time spent with Him, and listening to His voice.
So what’s the key difference? Just what do we think God’s “Primary attribute” might be? Whether or not we actually have a free will? Whether it’s possible to fall out of the boat? Or how dearly God really loves us? All these are good for a discussion, but maybe it’s about the image of God (Imago Dei) on each of us. The Bible tells us that He made us, male and female, in His image. Then came sin, and the image was marred. We are free to consider whether the ID is marred or destroyed, but the fact that we are free to consider suggests some part of the ID is still there, or else that the Spirit is present to restore it in this life, and that restoring work is what it’s really all about.