Sovereignty of God vs. Providence of God: Part 1 

  • Jeff Crotts
Old throne

Some years ago, I found myself in a meeting with another pastor and a few leaders of a women’s Bible study. Together, we were evaluating their next Bible study for the coming year. During the discussion, one of the women asked what on the face, seemed to have no relevant bearing on selecting a Bible study topic or book of the Bible. She asked me to define the meaning of the providence of God. Specifically, she wanted to know the difference between the sovereignty of God and the providence of God. Looking back, I think I understand what was driving her question. She was wrestling out loud with what should be the foundation for every Bible study; someone’s view of God. Your view of God dictates how big or small you believe God truly is.  

You might say, this is futile work because God is incomprehensible. Certainly, he is, but this does not mean we should not ask the question and consider an answer. I will paraphrase A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.”  

I did not drum up a technical definition then and am not going to make one up now. My goal for this post is to tease this out a bit in two parts showing how these dynamic doctrines both differ and work together. This is to help you hang on in life as you live it in view of God who is sovereignly working through his providence. God is everything to every believer and this women’s question told me she was less concerned about their next Bible study and more concerned about her life. Incidentally, the choice for the next women’s study would practically and rightfully flow from having a correct vision of God. 

With this in view, I took a stab at this women’s question summarizing both doctrines by explaining that sovereignty speaks to God ruling over everything and providence speaks to God’s provision.  

Today, I will focus on the sovereignty of God. Sovereignty simply means God is in control of everything. He is transcendent, meaning he rules from above or outside of time and space. God is King, so picture him on his throne over the entire universe. Consider the Great White Throne judgment described in Revelation.  

Rev 20:11 “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.”   

God’s rule comes in broad measures and minute measures. God exacts big judgments like raising and bringing down dynasties (i.e., cultures, kings, and presidents; wartime and peacetime). He also works within fine detail, holding everything together even on the atomic level. 

Col 1:17 “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together”  

Heb 1:3 “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he  sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”   

The Gospels tell of God’s meticulous involvement within creation. 

Matt 10: 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father?   

Paul brings this to a more personal and physical level when he said to the crowd on Mars Hill: 

Acts 17:28 for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own  poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”   

It is undeniable that the Lord is in control of every detail of life’s unfolding circumstances. Here are a few verses just to put the icing on top.  

Proverbs 16:9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.  

Proverbs 21:1 The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.   

Psalm 103:19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom  [sovereignty] rules overall.   

Job 42:2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  

These twin realities: sovereignty and providence, though not synonymous, are still very much related, working in tandem in day-to-day life events. I want to be quick to insert that I do not believe in fatalism, the philosophy that says that we are non-participants in daily decisions; that we have nothing to do with our outcomes in life. Determinism means we are robots or pawns with no free will. So, how do you harmonize God’s sovereignty with man’s free will? Simple, God’s Word teaches both are active at the same time. Consequently, we know while God is ruling both over us, we at the same time are making actual choices (good and bad) that are a functional cause and effect in what happens to us.  

That said, I also want to be quick to insert that though man has free will, God’s Word never teaches that man has an autonomous will. Nowhere does the Bible teach that man operates independently from God’s sovereign will. Paraphrasing R.C. Sproul, “If there is one rogue molecule in all of the universe, God would cease to be God.”   

I’m closing this post to save more for Part 2 on God’s providence, there I will attempt to expound on the providence of God and harmonize it with the sovereignty of God and provide some applications!