Jerry Bridges and God’s Sovereignty

A chess board with a white king in the foreground and black pieces in the background

Jerry Bridges is fast becoming one of my favourite Christian authors. In recent weeks I have read two books by Bridges on Christian living, entitled The Pursuit of Holiness and The Practice of Godliness. These books are written in a simple, accessible style, and are full of quotations from Scripture, so advocates of sola scriptura will not be disappointed.

Bridges contributed a chapter to the book I’m currently reading. Entitled Still Sovereign, the book is a compilation of fourteen articles by different authors defending the sovereignty of God from a Calvinistic perspective. The chapter penned by Bridges is entitled “Does Divine Sovereignty Make a Difference in Everyday Life? and is my favourite chapter of the book so far (I still have a few chapters left to read).

What I like about Bridges’ chapter is that his thoughts about divine sovereignty line up with my own beliefs in many ways. Throughout the chapter, Bridges quotes from Scripture to demonstrate the plentiful evidence for God’s sovereignty in every aspect of life.

First off, we see from the Book of James that God’s will is active even in the mundane tasks we carry out in our everyday lives:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. (4:13-16)

Bridges then explains how many of us say the phrase ‘God willing’ in passing when we’re talking about our plans, even in secular society. But most people don’t realise that it really is true that nothing in our daily lives happens apart from the will of God. To not acknowledge this is described as ‘evil’ in James’ epistle.

Jesus himself also spoke about matters that touch on the issue of divine sovereignty. Here’s a quote that Bridges uses from the Book of Matthew:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (10:28-31)

I love what Jesus says here about the very hairs on our head being numbered, as it shows how God is present even in the tiniest detail of our lives. I often ponder how awesome it is that tiny insects behave in such complex ways (e.g. spiders who weave their webs and ants who build their tunnels and hills). In all the minutiae of life, as well as all the grand thunderstorms and earthquakes, God is in control.

Several pages later, Bridges makes an important confession: “It is of little comfort to me to know that God loves me if He is not in control of the events of my life.” This saying is a breath of fresh air! I get so much comfort myself knowing that God is in control of my life. But there is a flip-side to this knowledge, which Bridges doesn’t mention, which is that if all is under God’s control, there is no hiding place or escape route should God be angry with us and wish to punish us, as He did the Israelites on many occasions in Old Testament times.

Bridges goes on to discuss God’s sovereignty over people, and states “…the concept of divine sovereignty over people seems to destroy the free will of humans and make them no more than puppets on God’s stage.” This should bring a smile to the face of anyone who is familiar with my own writings and philosophy, as I believe this is precisely the truth of the matter and we shouldn’t shy away from it! It seems to me that so many theologians come desperately close to admitting we have no free will, but shy away from ever stating this explicitly, because of the implications in terms of the key Christian message about human responsibility for sin. It has been clear to me for many years that even those things we do which might be considered sinful are under God’s control. We are those puppets. I have never read a theologian brave enough to admit it, as it means we have to look at the fall of man and the atoning sacrifice of Christ in a wholly new light (more about this in my book, Ultimate Truth: God Beyond Religion).

More scriptural evidence that God controls our lives can be found in Proverbs 21:1, which states “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” This is true of kings and other world leaders and it is also true of all other human beings. As that famous Sunday School song goes, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”

If we are going to truly accept the sovereignty of God then we must be prepared to confess He is in control of both good and evil. I recently dedicated a blog post to discussing the evidence in Scripture that this is so, and it seems Bridges is in agreement as he quotes many of the same Scriptures as me to support this view. He also states “…as his children we can be sure that all evil intended against us by other people is either permitted or restrained as he chooses.” Bridges proceeds to explain:

God’s sovereignty over people does not mean we do not experience pain and suffering. It means that God is in control of our pain and suffering, and that he has in mind a beneficial purpose for it. There is no such thing as pain without a purpose for the child of God. (p 301)

In the human “dimension” of reality it still seems as though we do have free will, as we think our individual thoughts and make decisions to go to certain places and do certain things. But I believe that sense of free will is an illusion; it is a mode of mind that is completely under the sovereign control of God. Nevertheless, because we do feel that we are free, we should act responsibly. While he doesn’t completely deny free will, Bridges agrees with me on this point and states,

“…it must be emphasised that belief in divine sovereignty in the everyday affairs of our lives should never cause us to act imprudently or irresponsibly. The Scriptures repeatedly teach us our responsibility for prudent actions. The Book of Proverbs, for example, is filled with this type of teaching.” (p 303)

We should note the compatibilist paradox here – God is in control of all action and yet we are still encouraged in Scripture to make prudent decisions. The way I like to describe this is that whatever you do, God is doing through you.

In conclusion, then, there is ample evidence in Scripture that God is in control of every aspect of our lives. I believe that we can come to know this through intuition, contemplation, and reflection. I have written extensively on the subject of free will on this blog and in my books, and it is wonderful and refreshing to read the perspective of Jerry Bridges, whose views on the subject are not a million miles away from my own.

14 Comments on “Jerry Bridges and God’s Sovereignty

  1. Hi Steven,

    Great post!

    This being the case, do you believe God forced /was behind Hitler’s (and his numerous henchmen) vile, merciless, unjustified murder of the Holocaust Jews…even the thousands of innocent babies and children? Do you believe Hitler; as any other human being, was just randomly picked to carry out those atrocities on God’s behalf?

    The Bible tells us satan’s demons ‘got together with’ humans and produced his own bloodline. They do not have free will because they are satan’s from their conception, so they are already programmed to do ‘his’ bidding, not God’s. But knowing this, as The Good Shepherd, God still tries to bring them into His fold…hence God’s Disciples who are willing to lose their own lives in saving all of the living. And why it tells us in the Bible that all the Angels in Heaven rejoice when even one lost lamb is saved.

    I agree that God puts Kings and Queens on the throne and priministers and leading MP’s in their positions of power because, God is already aware of their traits; their self-serving dispositions…and why they would therefore suit His purpose in bringing about His Almighty plan.

    I’m inclined to venture that: since God knows us even in the womb, He chooses those of the evil seed, inately evil, those already disposed to evil and never likely to repent, to carry out evil works.

    Because if we have no choice /no free will, why will there be Judgement…of / for what could we possibly be judged? God says of the truly evil that (I’m paraphrasing here) the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. And that, in their torment they will wish for death that will never come.

    So, in believing we have no free will, as good as renders God totally self-serving, merciless, unjust and loveless…Godless, in fact!
    It’s a tricky one to be sure!

    Best
    Jan

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    • Hi Jan!

      Well, there’s quite a lot to cover here, and even more because I told Gregg I would respond to his questions (sent by text) in my reply to you. Gregg asked me a similar question about Hitler, and was also asking if I believe in sin and whether we never have to feel bad about anything because we can just blame God.

      Believing as I do that God is in control of all things, I would have to say yes, God was in control of Hitler and is in control of all other people that act in ways we might consider to be ‘evil’. As the above article argues, God is sovereign. So the important question for me is not if God is doing these things but why is God do these things?

      Romans 8:18 comes to mind: “For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (NKJV) 1 Peter 5:10 also: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (ESV)

      The above scriptures are both about hope in suffering, and that is the main point I wish to make here. It seems to me that God causes suffering, but ultimately brings good out of the hard times. The perspective we have on Earth is so limited, and I believe God is so incredibly vast in His wisdom and His abilities, that He is able to bring good out of any situation which may seem ‘evil’. Perhaps those who suffer a lot on Earth receive abundant blessing in the afterlife?

      I believe that although suffering can seem unfair and harsh, God is ultimately merciful, and releases people either by a change of circumstances or into death, which is of course a great mystery. I have a hope (and it must be a hope because I don’t know for sure) that God never lets suffering become too much for any individual (imagine, if you will, how much our infinitely powerful God could make people suffer if He wanted to). I also believe that suffering is a way of God expressing aspects of His nature that He wants to express. The whole of existence is part of God’s ‘play’ and is the way He chooses use the infinite power and authority that is at His disposal. In this post I speculated that perhaps God Himself suffers, and therefore human suffering is a way in which God helps us to understand what ultimate reality is like for Him.

      I agree that if we don’t have free will, the idea of judgment seems strange. This is one of the biggest problems I have with the Christian faith. It only makes sense to me in the context that we are like puppets on God’s stage, and judgment is part of the “play” that God is unfolding. As someone said to me recently, we have ‘dependent responsibility’, so God is in control of our sin but there is still a sense in which we are responsible. We feel as though we are free, making decisions and choices, but ultimately these choices are under God’s control. I agree that the idea of God judging humans for what is essentially His own action seems a little crazy, but who says God isn’t a little crazy? (Lord, forgive me!)

      I find it difficult to believe that God is damning the billions of people who aren’t Christians to hell to endure agony for all eternity, though I know that God is all-powerful so I can’t deny this is possible. I don’t think it can be justified from my own narrow human perspective, but as the scripture says “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3 ESV) I suggest that we all pray fervently for God to be merciful to all His created creatures, as the idea of hell is utterly horrific and truly frightening.

      Gregg asked if the fact that God is in control means that we can do as we please? Well, the first point to make is that because God is sovereign, only things that are willed by Him can happen. So we can only do as God pleases. But in my own experience I have a sense of morality (much of this comes from what I have read in the Bible) and I feel it’s important for me to try to live in accord with God’s commandments. So once again, there are two dimensions here. God is in control but we have the illusion of free will, so we can make moral decisions or we can sin, but whatever we do is essentially guided by God.

      I hope I have covered most of the points here that you and Gregg brought up.

      I will close with a quote that I love which really encapsulates the essence of how I feel about God and suffering. The following can be found on a tombstone at Elgin Cathedral:

      Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde,
      Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord God,
      As I would do were I Lord God,
      And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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  2. I think God needs humans to take responsibility for their divinity. The failure of humans to do this is the failure of God to manifest Himself fully on earth. It seems that by humans engagement with spiritual practices, humans commit to the effort of invoking the Supreme Will on earth. We have dominion and sovereignty over the earth. This is God’s gift to us. But only through doing our best to exercise our will in the name of God, through our commitment and our effort in spiritual practice, do we assist in bringing our human desire into resonance with divine vibration. We must make effort. It is dangerous to assume God does everything without understanding the role of human effort in the evolution of consciousness. All too easily could people misuse that kind of understanding to justify all sorts of evil. God is always pouring out His Grace, but we humans must render ourselves available to it through right action and our commitment to wisdom. It is our commitment to wisdom that turns suffering into something meaningful. We continue to fail and return again to our addictions, but we continue to try and try and keep practicing our love of God and sticking to our spiritual practices. In this way we have hope of overcoming our innate tendencies toward destruction. Nevertheless, it would appear that God intended trauma to certainly be at least a stage in the evolution of human consciousness. Consider our birth into this world. Perhaps trauma is needed as a kind of strengthening process, so that the human nervous system could ground God’s divinity in form. Humans need free will so they can choose God as the result of suffering. Otherwise if they stayed comfortable in luxury they would not turn to God and recognise the mystery of divine love and suffering and that their free will is really a gift God gave in service of His relationship with all life.

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    • Hi Gregg, Steven, Dinos and all,

      I look forward to Steven’s posts despite we differ on the ‘free will’ aspect of God’s gifts to us…because Steven always offers much in the way of justifying his assertion that we do not have free will. Clearly, Gregg, you do believe we have free will on the same basis as I in that, we are free to choose whether or not to follow God’s calling.

      I do not dispute that God is in control of His universal plan for the saving of mankind in putting chosen kings and queens on the throne, putting politicians in their places of power, judges on their benches etc because they are the adversaries … Ephesians 6: 12 ”For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” … whose dubious behaviour physically shows us the presence of the truly evil element (satan and his demons) then points us in the direction of, the saving Grace of God, our escape and our eventual salvation if we endure till the end.

      Those who are ‘of the world’ are not guided by God’s Holy Spirit so happily live their earthly lives within/ benefitting from worldly evil. And therein lys our choice…beat ’em or, join ’em. I for one would never join them despite the hard road I’ve been forced to travel over the past eight years.

      My personal experience in fighting the evil system for so long, proves Gregg’s words. But I would also admit in honesty that, although I know 100% that God exists, I often doubt Him as a God of mercy and loving kindness.

      Best

      Jan

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  3. Steven, just to say I forgot to click the 2 notification boxes on my last comment which means I won’t be notified of any answers…when in fact, I do wish to be notified.

    Many thanks

    Jan

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    • Hi Jan!

      Thanks for your comments and sorry to hear you forgot to click the notification boxes. Unfortunately, that’s not something I’m able to change.

      Best wishes,

      Steven

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  4. Hello readers!

    Jan, it’s easy to forget to tick the notification box after composing your thought, so I always do it first – does that help?

    We as Christians should remember Christ’s inclusivity during His earthly existence. Would Jesus want to exclude from a heavenly after-life, those who lead their lives in a Godly manner, but are denied access to The Word because they live in a non-Christian Theocracy, or, because they are illiterate?

    If we are addicted to gambling, alcohol, smoking, or some illegal drug, but otherwise do our best to lead Godly lives, should we be excluded from heaven? Do those of us without addictions truly understand how difficult it is for those who are addicted? How far can our empathy and understanding stretch?

    Why do we think God wants us to suffer? What do we learn from it? Children who have been abused are much more likely to become abusive parents than those who were not abused – how does that work? Where is the benefit?

    I was in dialogue with a woman called Pan on another website where she revealed that her biological father abused her when she was a very young child. He died of alcohol-related disease, and, subsequently, her mother joined a church, and took her and her brother to it to every Sunday. For a while she enjoyed a peaceful life until her mother met an old flame from her past. Below is a pasted copy of what happened to her, in her own words –

    Pan says:
    June 21, 2016 at 2:11 PM
    As I have said I do not mean to offend, I myself have had a very hard live, my father was a soldier and did some horrible things in the name of his country because of this he drank a lot, he abused my brother, my mother and myself. On one of these nights where he became so drunk he hung my mother by her feet from the 10th story from the flats balcony where we lived. I was 4 my brother was 6, both me and my brother tried to stop him, he knocked my brother unconscious and he kicked me away. I started crying and he pulled my mother back up and started apologising. There where some days that we thought that we would die, but we never did. He was not a bad man but the horrible things that he had done warped his mind ultimately. He passed away when I was 6, he never amended his will, my grandparents took everything from us, we where left with nothing. My mothers parents wrote her off when she married my father and she had no family that we could turn to. My fathers parents never wanted my father to marry my mother either and never saw us as part of the family. We had no one to go to.People from a Christian church helped us, my mother worked hard to provide for us and we started going to church, none of it was ever easy, there where nights when she would not eat so that we could. But every time we where faced with the most difficult of situations my mother would pray and ask for help. We received our help, a car was donated to my mother through the church so that she could get to work. Things where going well and we where happy. My mother then ran into someone that she knew from her past. We stopped going to church, my mother spend less time with God and more time with this man, after two years they got married. This man abused me and my brother yet again, we where sent off to boarding school and eventually, my mother caught this man in be with another man, she was heart broken. She was trying to divorce this man, but he would not have it. We where stuck in a very bad situation again, things where going horribly, my mother tried to commit suicide. She was saved by one of her friends. The man that she married tried to use this against her to take me and my brother away from her. Once again the people who had helped us in the binning helped us. My mom was granted her divorce, we started going to church again, things where slowly getting better again. My mother never wanted another man in her life after that, but then she met a man that loved God with all his heart, this man adopted me and my brother, he never wanted any other children because we where enough. He is the best father that I could ever have asked for. Even if I look back now I have no hate for any of the people in my past. Every time that we truly needed help God was there.

    If all this had not happened, we would have never met my dad, it made my faith stronger, not weaker. I was one of those children who suffered, I had cracked bones and black an blue bruises every week. I have ever right to question God but I don’t need to. I know that if I did not have the life I had then I would never be where I am now,that also does not mean that because my mom turned away from God that she was punished. She made the wrong decisions and ignored warnings from people who had her best interests at heart. We all suffered the consequences of that.

    “There is no need to imagine that God may have a grand plan and that we mere mortals cannot see things from His perspective – this is putting ourselves in a box! If you believe that God has revealed Himself in the scriptures, then, as you’ve said, you will find Him showing that He is wrathful, vengeful and jealous, but these are human traits, not Godly ones.”
    You are mistaken to say that we would put ourselves in a box, on the contrary I am able to help more people and also understand their pain and relate. I have extreme companion for those in need and would not have that if I had lead an easy life. “but these are human traits,” We where created in Gods image, meaning they are also traits that describe God.

    “and they do not do good deeds to avoid eternal damnation,” see this is the key, you should do good because, it is good. Not because you fear what will happen if you don’t. You should want to be good for your own accord. So as to not inflict suffering on others that is what God wants.

    I don’t believe that Pan had to suffer abuse by the hands of both her biological father, and her mother’s second husband, for her to learn to be compassionate to others, and I think the influence from the church, and her mother’s third husband, did her much more good than the bad experiences she had to endure from the other two.

    I’m sure that the book you’re reading by Jerry Bridges is of great interest to you as it reinforces your views about God’s Sovereignty and the cosmic animator of all His creatures, but maybe you should also read from authors with an opposing view too? Otherwise, you are selecting literature that reinforces your prevailing views without due care and attention to a balance to keep your mind open to other views and possibilities. As Francis Bacon put it –

    “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

    Peace and love to all,

    Dinos

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  5. Hi All!

    Dinos, as you advised, I ticked the boxes first; thank you.

    With regards to those of us who feel we could be excluded from being saved due to our shortcomings, God doesn’t actually say that, not if you look at the chapters concerning, The White Throne judgement, when ALL will be resurected and given chance to ‘see the light’, come to know ‘The Truth’. Only those who reject God at that time will die the second death.

    I mean to say, how are we to know what God’s exact requirements of us are, save obeying every one of The Ten Commandments? But even then…the 4th Commandment requires that we rest and worship God and remember the Exodus (when God delivered us from slavery) on His sanctified ‘Holy’ 7th day weekly Sabbath…which is Saturday. (The Roman Catholic church openly admit to having changed it to a Sunday in A.D 70)

    Chapter 4 of, Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews appears to specifically highlight this Commandment; especially v’s 3 – 8: Basically in verse 8 Paul is saying: If God had wanted us to rest on any other day than His Holy appointed 7th day, He would have told us! Also Exodus 20 v 11: And for those who say that The Ten Comandments were abolished (nailed to the cross) in favour of the new Covenant, Deuteronomy 7 v. 9 also states otherwise: ‘…and keep His commandments to 1,000 generations.’ And Mathew 5 v’s 17, 18, 19

    Sages and committed students of Bible prophecy say that, those observing the sanctified, Holy Saturday Sabbath day is God’s chosen sign between Him and His True Church…so, what of all those who have always been brought up to attend church on Sundays? Will they be breaking God’s Commandments?

    And then, there is Zac Poonen who sermons in many different countries now, and is probably the most widely read, widely believed and well respected Bible teacher on the internet…I eagerly digest his ‘Word for the Week’ and sermons every week and yet, he says, The Ten Commandments were abolished at Christs death and the congregation he pastors in India meet on Sundays for weekly worship.

    Despite reading his sermons, which I will continue to do, I observe the Saturday Sabbath every week because, I firmly believe this is required of us(I am not Jewish) by studying my Bible from Friday Sundown to Saturday sundown (No, not all through the night) because there is no church group in my area who observes Saturday Sabbath rest and worship…there are a few in London but I have a medical condition that prevents me from travelling anywhere.

    Despite my devotion to God and His Word, I am a smoker. Since smokers are killing themselves surely I am breaking the Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
    Maybe that makes me a hypocrite; that my failure in kicking that disgusting habit …no matter how hard I have tried…renders me less devoted to God than I like to believe myself to be.

    And Dinos, those who are illiterate or do not have access to ‘The Word’ will not have rejected God because they will be ignorant of Him, and the Bible says that ONLY those who knowingly reject God will forfeit salvation.

    Best to all

    Jan

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