Is God In Control Or Not?

John Piper

Edit:  As I was preparing to publish this post last night, the Aurora shootings at the Movie Theater had just begun.  This blog was written just before that event.  So, while I did not address the shooting directly below, it is exactly the kind of event that leads to the question “Is God really in control?”  It is also why I think John Piper’s view that all death is the will of God is particularly inadequate in the wake of such events.  Please read below.  

John Piper sure seems to be object of a lot of criticism these days.  He got hammered on this blog http://theamericanjesus.net/?p=7388 for simply being linked to The Gospel Coalition via his neo-reformed theology.  And he was more directly attacked for his own comments here, http://ow.ly/cmMDq where he argued it is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.

Piper is a serious scholar and I usually get the impression that he is more gracious to his opponents than they are to him.  This post is not so much about Piper, but rather his neo-reformed theology that leads him to unapologetically say things that make a whole lot of people upset.

Piper and others like him believe that God is in control of this world no matter what.  If a hurricane destroys a city, if a warlord launches a genocide campaign, if your child overdoses, then it is a matter under the sovereignty of God and completely subject to his will.  To concede anything different is to acquiesce to a lesser god.  So for Piper, death, no matter how seemingly tragic, is always the will of God.  As Piper says, “Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”

To many grieving people such statements surely paint a harsh and death-thirsty God.  Certainly, those holding to this view of the sovereignty of God are not incapable of compassion and pastoral sensitivity in the wake of tragedy, but ultimately this view of God drives a wedge between the sufferer and God.

On the other side of the spectrum,  is a view that wants to excuse God from every bad thing that happens in this world.  I received a letter from a minister friend who argued we shouldn’t say God is in control.  There are too many examples of evidence to the contrary.  If God was in control, then really awful disasters wouldn’t happen.  In this view, God is seen as compassionate and hurting alongside the griever.  Yet, can a god not really in control be much help to us when our life is spinning out of control?

Must we really choose between a colder, death-willing, sovereign god and a compassionate but less than capable god?   In reading the Bible, I never get the impression that any situation is beyond God’s grasp.  He is the creator of all things.  He is one who tells the future.  Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create the darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, Yahweh, do all these things.”  Later in the same chapter, Yahweh challenges the idols to tell what will happen.  “Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past?  Was it not I, Yahweh” (21).  

One cannot foretell the future who is not also in control of the present.  Our words may fall short of adequately describing God, but it is not possible for us to exaggerate God.  We are completely within the scope of the biblical witness to proclaim our God is sovereign; he is in control.

Not everyone is a fan of “God is in Control” theology!

On the other hand, to affirm God’s control is not the same thing as saying everything that happens is God’s will, a distinction seemingly missing in Piper’s and similar thinkers’ articulations.  Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).  This clearly implies a gap between God’s perfect will in heaven and the manifestation of his will on earth.  If this wasn’t the case, then we can be assured this world would a very different place!  We might say it would be like a “new heaven and a new earth.”  

We are told in 2 Pet. 3:9 that God does not desire for any to perish.  So, we can say without any equivocation that the teenager we know who committed suicide was not God’s will.  This does not lessen the view of God’s sovereignty one iota.  For it is also God’s sovereignty to allow authentic choice, free-will to exist in our world and this necessarily means not all that happens is God’s perfect will.  We might say it this way; God is in control, but he is not controlling.

Calvinist types like Piper seem to not only under-sale freewill, but they forget that God is not the only controlling force in this world.  1 John 5:19 says, “…the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” Now certainly Satan is subject to the sovereignty of God, but God allows Satan a lot of free reign in this world still.  There are probably many reasons why this is so, but that is a matter for another day.

I do not believe that everyone who dies does so because of the will of God.  Actually, there is only one death I believe God has ever willed and that was in order to give us life!  Death was never God’s will for us and he sent his Son to break its hold on us.  Death has never been God’s ally, but his enemy and ours.

So, no we do not have to choose between a sovereign death-desiring god and a impotent sympathetic god.  The God of the Bible is the one who, out of his compassion, sovereignly defeated death!

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About dgkeheflin

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6 Responses to Is God In Control Or Not?

  1. Andy says:

    Nice! I think you pretty much nailed it, Mr. Heflin. 🙂

    We often forget that Satan is “the god of this world” and that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

    God’s primary purpose isn’t saving lives anymore than he attempted to save himself by coming down from the cross. He’s obviously about sacrifice. He even told Adam and Eve “you will surely die.” His purpose is to give us NEW life.

  2. dgkeheflin says:

    I appreciate it Andy. Thanks for adding to the discussion. Come back and visit again!

  3. AndrewF says:

    I don’t understand how we can say ‘God is in control’ if things happen that are, as you seem to say, outside of his control? Is he in 80% control?

    Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). This clearly implies a gap between God’s perfect will in heaven and the manifestation of his will on earth. If this wasn’t the case, then we can be assured this world would a very different place! We might say it would be like a “new heaven and a new earth.”

    I always understood that to be a prayer for us to get on board with God’s will, just as our prayer for daily bread is recognition that it is God who provides for our needs.

    We are told in 2 Pet. 3:9 that God does not desire for any to perish. So, we can say without any equivocation that the teenager we know who committed suicide was not God’s will. This does not lessen the view of God’s sovereignty one iota. For it is also God’s sovereignty to allow authentic choice, free-will to exist in our world and this necessarily means not all that happens is God’s perfect will.

    I agree that God’s sovereignty, his will includes allowing things to happen which he does not ‘like’ (I understand Piper to teach that, actually). If by free-will, we mean free agency I agree (the idea of a will free from influence, however, is not in the bible as far as I can see – we do, however, make our choices willingly). And I think this discrepency between what God might desire (as in 2 Pet 3:9) and what he wills (decrees) is best seen in Jesus, and a distinction I think we need to make when reading about God’s desire for none to perish.
    It was arguably the greatest sin in history to kill the messiah – in that sense, God did not ‘desire’ it, yet at the same time, he willed, ‘decreed’ that Jesus would die. He willed something he hated. So there’s a tension there we ought to recognise.

    For both the calvinist and the arminian, 2 Pet 3:9 poses a ‘problem’. If God desires that none perish, why do some still perish? Clearly he is putting something above his desire here. For the arminian, it seems to be human free will, which seems rather problematic: God submitting to us? The calvinist view that God’s ‘desire’ here is subject to God’s own sovereign will seems more scriptural to my mind.

    So I think what you’ve perhaps failed to recognise here is that in the reformed view, God allowing things falls under the category of his sovereign will. You seem to paint calvinists with a view of sovereignty where God ‘desires’ everything he wills, and where everything he wills is something he is active in, but I think this would be a false description.

  4. dgkeheflin says:

    Andrew, I appreciate your comments. They are very well thought out. A few follow-up comments…

    When I say “God is in control,” I am not equating that with his will. I simply mean he is ultimately in control. He is not surprised by anything and yes he does permit or tolerate many things to happen that are not his will. Thus he is in control or sovereign, but does not will everything to happen that happens.

    But even when bad things really happen God is able to work them into his overall purpose as suggested in the oft quoted Rom. 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

    Of course, I know Calvinists can distinguish between God’s active will and passive will, but I feel that Piper fails to do so in this case. Maybe he would if he were in on this conversation, but his language sound like active will to me. He says, “Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.” Semantics or not, I am not okay with that articulation of God’s sovereignty. It implies that God is in the death business and as I argue in the post, I believe God is in the life business.

    I do not think that God giving us freewill submits him to us. For he is still sovereign (in control). But he has chosen to allow us to choose our own destiny in relation to him. He allowed this in the Garden and allows it today.

    This issue is one of the most complicated in Christian theology and there is a certain tension between sovereignty and freewill in Scripture. Yet, some language (like Piper’s) betrays theological bias, but not accurately the language of Scripture. On the other end of the spectrum is “open theism.” Ultimately, open theism views God as not being in control. My own view falls in between these two extremes, not because I’m playing it safe, but because I am trying to live within the tension of Scripture. Hope that makes sense.

    • AndrewF says:

      Thanks for your reply..

      He is not surprised by anything and yes he does permit or tolerate many things to happen that are not his will. Thus he is in control or sovereign, but does not will everything to happen that happens.

      Perhaps it’s a semantic thing then, because I would say that God allowing something to happen which he does not take pleasure in, such as death, is still his will; that is, his will is to allow something to happen. And I agree, that he is not surprised, so permitting things to happen is a part of his will, but that does not make him the author of sin, for example.

      So when someone dies, it is God’s will to allow that to happen, or else God, who is in control, would not let it happen; and if God did not permit it (and thus be a part of his will) and it happened, then he’s not a sovereign God. I understand ‘will’ not to be about desires, but decrees – and decreeing to permit falls under that.
      And scripture seems to say that God has ‘the number of our days’ under his control (Job 14:5, Psalm, 139:16, Matthew 10:28-31). If God has allotted our days, and will not even let a sparrow fall unless he lets it, then I think we have to acknowledge that ourlifespan is subject to his will – if he permits us to be killed as a teenager, or if he takes us home in old age, it’s only by his say so. I don’t think this means God is ‘in the death business’ though; and after all, every day we’re alive is grace we don’t deserve. God doesn’t do anything wrong by taking someone’s life – it is his to give and take away. (Job 1:21)

      there is a certain tension between sovereignty and freewill in Scripture.

      I would agree that we have to hold certain things in tension, such as God’s sovereignty in election, and our responsibility in free agency (I really don’t like the term free will.. as I don’t think it’s biblical. Our will isn’t free, it’s enslaved to sin, but we sin willingly!). I don’t think those are contradictory, but there is a certain tension. Sometimes it’s truer to say two true things than pit one against the other.

      And we all have theological biases, btw.. Piper, me, and you – sometimes they’re only evident to others though 😉

      Now, I probably shouldn’t be getting into such discussions before I go away on holiday!

  5. dgkeheflin says:

    Andrew, good points. I do appreciate the reminder about how our will becomes enslaved to sin. I understand your objection about that term (freewill).

    I think, our disagreement, if we have one, is only about whether or not the word “will” implies desire. I guess it just has to do with how one is using it.

    I believe God knows all of our days, but I hesitate to speak of death being God’s will when it can involve some child dying of AIDS in Africa or a teenager overdosing in America. If I have a bias in this it is that I recoil at associating God’s will with those type of events. But I have no problem saying God is sovereign over those events.

    I am still working this tension out in my own theology. I intend to read Norman Geisler’s “Chosen But Free” very soon. Have you read that?

    Anyway, thanks for “stopping by” and have a pleasant holiday!

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