No sooner do I announce an intermission and I get a very good question.
The doctrine of Divine Sovereignty includes several related theological controversies, most notably predestination. The problem is that most of what is out there rests on some false assumptions about God and His revelation. Once more: The God of the Bible is a covenant deity. If you are outside of the covenants, you cannot hope to understand or benefit from understanding. The fundamental issue is human submission to the Creator, and submission means an eastern feudal covenant. Every question rests on whether you have first knelt before Him in covenant loyalty.
For everyone else, God characterizes His authority over humanity as herding cattle. The symbolism is consistent in Hebrew literature. For example, King David uses this image several times in the Psalms (68:30 for one), in contrast to the image of herding the sheep of His pasture. Ask anyone with experience dealing with these animals; it’s two totally different worlds. Thus, we know that cattle can be individually relational with their herders, but once in the herd, everything changes. They are then moved around by pushing, and often act confused. Sheep are led by the voice of the shepherd, and each one responds rather individually, so long as there is no perceived threat.
His sheep are under His covenant; the cattle are not.
This whole question, then, operates on two levels. In terms of the Spirit Realm, everything is incomprehensible. The Lord has created a culture of Ancient Near Easter (ANE) mysticism that permits the heart to understand and lead, but the mind is supposed to serve and obey the heart. Parables are the language by which the mind is conditioned to obey the heart. I can explain some of the symbolism, but if your heart is not in the lead, your brain will struggle with the symbols. The critical element is submission; the heart of submission to God can understand God. The mind without the leadership of the heart is inherently rebellious and asks all kinds of impertinent questions, makes demands that God won’t even answer.
The teaching in the Bible that God is sovereign registers poorly with human reason, but is reassuring and joyous to the heart. The heart recognizes what this points to, while the intellect refuses to go there. Thus, the Bible says that those who will enter God’s household as adopted family members are Elect, chosen by God despite our rotten unworthiness. To the intellect, this is “unfair” because it obviously means some are not chosen. But it is utterly impossible to explain the basis for God’s election of some, so the Bible makes no effort to declare it. This is also unfair to the intellect. Human reason misses the point; logic cannot get it.
But the Bible also says that in the Fallen Realm, humans do have choices. There is an element of volition that justifies separating out sheep from cattle. Anyone can be a sheep under His covenants. Most of humanity sees no reason for it, and so end up herded like cattle. Why was the Pharaoh of Exodus herded like a bull? Because he refused to be a sheep. He thus left God no choice but to train him like a rodeo bull that would buck and twist and refuse to be led quietly to his own benefit. But did Pharaoh end up in Hell? That’s a separate question that only God can answer, and He’s not telling.
Part of this picture is that anyone who seeks human political authority is already morally degraded. His sheep know better than that. God’s people will accept authority from the hands of God and serve His will. Everyone else will seize power by any means they see useful, and they are fundamentally unfit to rule. So God’s prodding and herding of political rulers tends to be fairly harsh and painful, more so than His prodding of less ambitious cattle.
Often in the New Testament, the term “salvation” does not refer directly to being Spirit born. Spiritual birth is implied as the natural culmination of the self-death, but it’s never held forth as a direct offer. Scripture flatly states that God alone understands spiritual birth, and controls that process entirely. No one can choose spiritual birth; their fleshly nature excludes it (see Romans 8 and “carnal mind”). However, it is possible to be a good servant of God without being family. It’s a false dichotomy to assume all His sheep are born-again. The Bible says quite clearly that one can reasonably choose the noble path of obedience to the Law Covenants, that one can be heart-led without spiritual birth. The Scripture frequently demands that people submit to Jehovah as Lord from the heart, that this is a human choice He holds open for all humanity.
Lots of people camp in the shade of Eden without ever getting through the Flaming Sword gate. This is what the Old Testament Covenant of Moses was all about. It was to bring everyone close enough to see the Flaming Sword, the final requirement of self-death to become a member of God’s family. The fleshly nature had to taste execution by the hand of the one who had the fleshly nature. For those whom God has elected for eternity, the process is easy. They already have the power to choose self-death. Those who lack election won’t find that power. But an awful lot of shalom is available to folks who just can’t go through that. And this is why the New Testament refers to the kind of “salvation” that means heart-led obedience to Christ as Lord, the Living Law of God, but does not make it necessarily equivalent to spiritual birth.
This is where mainstream evangelicals fail: They do not make adequate allowance for the household of God to include willing servants who aren’t slaves. It’s easy to understand how most of the world is going to Hell and are thus unwitting slaves of God’s plans. And it’s not too hard to grasp how His Children are not slaves. But virtually no one among evangelical leaders understand the place of free servants in the household of God. And because they leave that out of the picture, they tend to develop a lot of theology that ignores this middle category, and they misunderstand the way the Bible talks about them. Their theology is built on a false dichotomy.
This is why we have these highly manipulative “invitations” after the sermon in evangelical churches. Meanwhile, liturgical churches tend to dismiss the whole idea of spiritual birth in the first place, and no one is thought of as anything more than a servant of God.
As a doctrine, the Sovereignty of God, along with Predestination, is falsely understood by most of those who profess Christian religion. Divine Election is quite real, but is not the end of every question. All the various attempts to nail it down with logic and reason are based on rejecting the heart-led understanding that the Bible takes for granted. The Bibles teaches us to work with everyone as if they were either slaves (cattle) or servants of God (sheep), and never mind the question of whether they are Elect or born-again. We can have limited discussions about the significance of spiritual birth and some of the implications, but it has nothing at all to do with a human choice. We want people closer to Eden’s Gate during this life on whatever terms God allows; He alone is the Master on who gets through that gate after death.
Our church activities should assume conversion is separate from spiritual birth. And we should be very careful to make conversion not a sales pitch, but a genuine choice for someone drawn to it on their own volition. The church is a converted body of people who cling to a shared covenant. Don’t assume everyone is born-again and so build policies and activities on that. We need a radical redefinition of church that aims at the heart-led way of serving Christ.
I can know that I am born-again. That is the power of conviction in my heart. You cannot know for sure that I am born-again, even if I tell you. What you can know is that I am heart-led and committed to Christ, if you use your heart as a sensory organ to discern my heart. That’s the basis for doing church. That’s the proper basis for building a theology about the sovereignty of God.