The Beauty of the Sovereignty of God at Psalm 115

The Psalmist King David shames the idols of the foolish as he seeks to give glory, not to us but unto the true and living God, for the sake of His steadfast love and His faithfulness (Ps. 115:1). "Why should the nations [Gentiles] say, "Where is their God?'" (Ps. 115:2) This question is not merely locative: the idol worshipers want not only to see the alleged activity of the God of Israel but to see His form. For them to ask "Where is your God?" is to question His very existence -- to suggest that He is impotent at best. But David responds: "Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases." (Ps. 115:3; cf. Ps. 135:6) Can God, then, cause sin and evil?

First, we see that God is in the heavens and not on the earth as with the idols of the nations, "the work of human hands" (Ps. 115:4). Second, we see that God "does," עָשָֽׂה׃, acts. This Hebrew word refers to God accomplishing, acquiring, behaving, observing, or bringing about "whatever he pleases." (link) By contrast, the idols have crafted mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands and feet, yet cannot speak, see, hear, smell, touch or walk -- they cannot act. (Ps. 115:5, 6, 7) He concludes: "Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them." (Ps. 115:8) Thus idolaters who stubbornly cling to and trust in their idols cannot spiritually speak divine truths (Matt. 12:34); see the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3, 5); hear the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10:27); smell the fragrant aroma of the body of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15); touch and know the glory of God (Luke 24:39); nor walk the path of faith in Messiah (Rom. 4:12).

David then calls upon the people of the God of Israel to trust in the LORD, who is both their help, as well as their shield. (Ps. 115:9, 10, 11) The true and living God has been mindful of us, and He will bless us (Ps. 115:12, 13, 14, 15). He adds: "The heavens are the LORD's heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings." (Ps. 115:16) This reminds us of the words: "The one who comes from above [ἄνωθεν, in the heavens, from a high place] is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things." (John 3:31) Since "the dead" do not praise God (Ps. 115:17), the duty of the living is to worship the true and living God. "But we will bless the LORD from this time on and forevermore. Praise the LORD!" (Ps. 115:18) Indeed, God is looking for people to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Having examined this passage in its Jewish context, are we permitted to understand that God can perform whatever action imaginable, that this notion comprises God doing "whatever He pleases," no matter what happens on the earth? Can God "do" any or every action imaginable? For example, John Calvin (1509-1564) argues:
God is deemed omnipotent, not because he can act though he may cease or be idle, or because by a general instinct, he continues the order of nature previously appointed; but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel. For when it is said in the Psalms, "He hath done whatsoever he hath pleased" (Ps. 115:3), the thing meant is his sure and deliberate purpose . . . This rather is the solace of the faithful, in their adversity, that everything which they endure is by the ordination and command of God, that they are under his hand.1 (emphasis added)
Therefore, every act of rape, incest, bestiality; every perversion known and unknown; every deed performed via selfishness, greed, or pride finds its origins in the command and determinate foreordination of God. Those who follow Calvin's ideas do not attempt to nuance or soften this overtly deterministic view of God and His actions.

For instance, Dr. Wayne Grudem attempts to convince us that our choices or decisions matter, that we actually are causal agents, yet boldly argues: "God influences rulers in their decisions . . . But it is not just the heart of the king that God influences, for he looks down 'on all the inhabitants of the earth' and 'fashions the heart of them all' (Ps. 33:14-15) [yet cf. Ecclesiastes 8:2, 3; Hosea 8:4]."2 Try as he may to avoid concepts of hard determinism, he cannot avoid them, especially by insisting that "God especially guides the desires and inclinations of believers, working in us 'both to will and to work for his good pleasure' (Phil. 2:13)."3 (emphasis original)

Lest anyone misunderstand the extent of Grudem's view of God controlling all people, he genuinely means all people, without any qualification: "All of these passages, reporting both general statements about God's work in the lives of all people and specific examples of God's work in the lives of individuals, lead us to conclude that God's providential work of concurrence extends to all aspects of our lives. Our words, our steps, our movements, our hearts, and our abilities are all from the Lord."4 If his view is found appalling, remember that this view is merely consistent with Calvin and with Calvinism, which is inherently deterministic.

Arminius and Arminians are not without their own view of God's divine concurrence. Dr. Roger Olson comments: "Arminius's account of God's providence could hardly be higher or stronger without being identical with Calvinism's divine determinism. For him, God is intimately involved in everything that happens without being the author of sin and evil, or without infringing on the moral liberty of human beings."5 This, we believe, is a most significant and necessarily-biblical departure from a Calvinistic philosophical understanding of God's über-deterministic sovereignty.

Were God to be charged, as the Calvinist charges, that He has foreordained "our words, our steps, our movements, our hearts, and our abilities," especially where such intersect with sin, then God would, quite naturally and logically, be the Author (Designer, Orchestrator, Originator, Conscriptor, Director) of sin and evil. Though some Calvinists are becoming rather comfortable with that notion, R.C. Sproul, Jr.,6 for example, most Calvinists avoid conceding the point, arguing the contrary, that God cannot be the Author of sin, though He renders the same necessary.

Still, they maintain, God is exhaustively in control of all events, having even foreordained their occurrence by divine decree, before He created all that is, and this is the only viable option. We sharply disagree. Again, Dr. Olson writes:
Arminius was puzzled about the accusation that he held corrupt opinions respecting the providence of God, because he went out of his way to affirm it. He even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God's cooperation! This is simply part of divine concurrence, and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator. His only two exceptions to God's providential control were stated in his letter to Hippolytus A Collibus -- that God does not cause sin, and that human liberty (to commit sin freely [and not strictly by eternal divine fiat]) not be abridged.7 (emphases added)
While for Arminius and Arminians (quite to the surprise of some Calvinists) neither "the free will nor the actions of rational creatures are beyond divine providence,"8 we are careful not to attribute to God any act that is not commensurate with His divine character, integrity, holiness, and justice. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall remind us: "Arminius also includes the category of 'permission' within his account of God's providential governance, and this is especially important in his discussion of the problem of evil."9 Indeed, God's relationship to evil and our actions is the singular motivating force behind the Arminian understanding of God's sovereignty. Properly parsing the causal agents of evil (demons and fallen people) and of good (God) is imperative when framing one's beliefs about the sovereignty of God.

What the believer needs to ask when encountering a text like Psalm 115:3 (cf. Ps. 135:6), that God "does whatever he pleases," is "What pleases God?" If sin or evil pleases God, then, yes, He is pleased to have foreordained and to have been presently bringing about sin and evil throughout history. But God is not pleased with sin or evil (cf. Gen. 38:10; Num. 14:34; Deut. 12:31; 16:22; 1 Chron. 21:7; Ps. 11:5; Prov. 6:16; 24:18; Isa. 59:15). Are we, then, permitted to believe that God has foreordained, decreed, and rendered certain from eternity past for people to commit evil only for Him to then punish people when they commit the evil He decreed they commit? Such a concept is beneath our glorious God, who is just, holy, righteous, full of light, truth, integrity.

Yes, our God is in the heavens, and He does whatever He pleases! What pleases God is justice, righteousness, holiness: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Phil. 4:8) Is God the Governor of His own universe, able to intervene in human affairs, holding people accountable for their free will actions? Of course He is! Of course He can! But "doing whatever He pleases" need not indicate that He has foreordained the sin and evil so very rampant in our fallen world. Let us neither confuse nor conflate the sovereignty of God for the Calvinistic theological error of determinism.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 1.174.

2 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 321.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

6 R.C. Sproul, Jr., Almighty over All: Understanding the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 51-57.

7 Olson, 121.

8 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 96,

9 Ibid., 97.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.