For more than a year, a dark cloud of fearful uncertainty has cast a pall over much of the world. News broadcasts are dominated by statistics about the coronavirus, outbreaks of civil unrest, an economic slump, a contentious presidential election and countless signs that the moral fabric of Western society is completely unraveling. Every major story in recent months has compounded the sense of disquiet.
Christians have not been exempt from the fearful mood. It doesn’t help, of course, that overzealous government officials in some states—purposely magnifying fears about the virus—have aggressively tried to stop Christians from gathering for public worship and face-to-face fellowship. Religious liberty in America was already slowly eroding. It now appears to be in imminent danger.
But let’s be honest: The most serious threats to the spiritual well-being of the church come from within, not from the world. Christians nowadays seem to lack confidence in the power and sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is not being proclaimed with boldness and explained with clarity. Recent generations of churchgoers have been poorly taught, and now Biblical illiteracy is rampant even in the church. Our churches have become weak and worldly, following the world’s fashions and imitating popular culture rather than fulfilling our role as the salt of the earth and light for a dark world. It’s no wonder so many evangelicals have imbibed so much of secular society’s angst.
Such anxiety reflects a failure of faith. We’re told repeatedly in Scripture not to fear; not to fret about the future—“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
This was one of the key points in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). In that same context Jesus reminded His disciples of the kindness and sovereignty of God. After all, God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26-30). He likewise knows precisely what we need, and He has promised never to forsake us.
Of all people, we as Christians have every reason to retain both our confidence and our convictions, no matter how far off track the rest of the world might seem to be going. We believe, after all, that God is sovereign, and He promises that He will make everything work for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
Scripture is filled with reminders of that truth. Joseph understood it, despite the ill treatment he suffered at the hands of his brothers. He told them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
That same truth is one of the key lessons in the story of Job. It must have seemed to Job as if Satan had so completely taken control of his life that things would never go well for him again. Certainly that’s what everyone around him thought. Yet behind the scenes it was clear that God was always in sovereign control. Satan could not have touched one hair on Job’s head without God’s express permission. And when the Lord gave permission, He had a good purpose in it.
Over and over, Scripture extols God’s sovereign control over every aspect of His creation. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). God is uniquely sovereign. Indeed, sovereignty is one of His incommunicable attributes (meaning He does not share it with His creatures). Hence, one of the proofs of Trinitarian doctrine is the fact that each Person in the Godhead is said to be sovereign: “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Proof of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty is seen in the fact that He apportions spiritual gifts “to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:8-11).
The point is unmistakably clear: God reigns as the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). He will not relinquish control of all that He has made, nor will He leave the future to chance.
There is no surer and more certain anchor in an era of earthly uncertainty than these Biblical truths. Nothing lies outside God’s control. No catastrophe can thwart His plan, and no evil can frustrate His purposes. Wherever there is evil, He will use it for a good purpose, and in the end, He will defeat all evil. He won’t be caught off guard by any sudden turn of events or misfortune. He not only knows the future; He has ordained it and controls how it unfolds.
God’s sovereignty is a doctrine with profound practical implications. Scripture says it is sinful not to stay mindful of the fact that the future is held securely in God’s sovereign hands. Doubt that truth, and you will of course be prone to the type of worry Jesus expressly forbids in the Sermon on the Mount. Neglect it, and you will tend to be arrogant.
The New Testament rebukes that kind of arrogance in James 4:13-16. James is writing to correct the thoughtless presumption of people who speak and act as if they themselves were sovereign. He reminds them that life is full of uncertainties. “You do not know what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:14). That is no reason to fret about the future, but it is a reminder that we are not the masters of our fate.
Note carefully that James does not suggest the future is unknown to God or beyond His control. The point he makes is precisely the opposite: “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). That is an implicit acknowledgment that God controls both the here and the hereafter.
James’ ultimate point is that we ought to acknowledge God’s sovereignty even in the way we speak about the future. He makes it as emphatic as possible, saying it is positively evil to talk about what we plan to do either today or tomorrow without acknowledging that every aspect of our future is in God’s hands.
James 4 closes with this familiar principle: “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17, NASB 1995). The word therefore ties that verse to what immediately precedes it. So the sin of omission James has in mind as he pens that verse is the sin of failing to recognize the sovereignty of divine providence.
To neglect—or worse, to deny—that God sovereignly controls the future is a serious theological error fraught with all kinds of doctrinal and practical heresy. Whether the result is arrogant boasting or needless fretting, the underlying transgression is a false sense of self-importance resulting in a failure to keep God in focus at the center of our thoughts and affections.
On the other hand, the greatest remedy for both hubris and worry is a humble acknowledgment that God is in control, no matter how chaotic or catastrophic things around us appear to be. More than that, He is both sovereign and good.
So regardless of what happens with any of the crises that currently dominate the daily news, we can rest with absolute assurance in the words of the Almighty, who declares: “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10, NASB 1995). ©2021 Grace to You
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. The quotations marked NASB 1995 are taken from New American Standard Bible®, ©1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.
John MacArthur is the longtime pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and chancellor of The Master’s University and Seminary. His preaching is heard worldwide through the media ministry of Grace to You (gty.org).
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