Many religious people in the world believe God is absolutely sovereign over all things — that he controls the course of history and governs the lives of individuals. Most Muslims believe this, and many Christians.
And many Christians believe that people without faith in Jesus Christ are without salvation, and they feel compassion for them.
But it is not so common to find people who hold this conviction about God’s sovereignty and this compassion for the lost together, profoundly and authentically, in one human soul. But the apostle Paul did hold them together. Paul embraced and expressed the sovereignty of God over all historical events and in people’s lives. And he embraced the lost world with compassion and longing.
From Him, Through Him, to Him
In Romans 9:15–18, Paul lays out the absolute sovereignty of God over all human willing:
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” [quoting Exodus 33:19].
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” [quoting Exodus 9:16].
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. Paul puts God’s sovereignty in a phrase in Ephesians 1:11: God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
And he gives the most sweeping statement of all in Romans 11:36: “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.”
Paul knew that all of us are spiritually dead and blind in our sin, and that our only hope is that an all-powerful God would create in us new light and life (2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 2:5). Human agents are crucial in the process of our conversion. But God’s sovereign grace is decisive: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). The sovereignty of God, for Paul, did not make the pursuit of sinners pointless. It made it hopeful.
Great Sorrow and Unceasing Anguish
For some, this news of God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation seems to numb their compassion for the lost. Something is deeply wrong when that happens. And we know it is wrong, because for Paul the opposite happened. His confidence in the sovereign grace of God to save the worst of sinners intensified alongside his passionate concern for perishing sinners:
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)
And not only was there great sorrow and anguish in Paul’s heart, but there were prayers overflowing from his lips. The sovereignty of God, for Paul, did not make the pursuit of sinners pointless — it made it hopeful. Nothing in man can stop this sovereign God from saving the worst of sinners: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). The compassion of his heart overflowed in prayer because he knew the sovereign power of God could overcome every obstacle that sinful man raised up against his own salvation.
Fabric of Justice and Mercy
I love the sovereignty of God. I love to join the psalmists when they exult in God’s unparalleled power: “Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power” (Psalm 21:13). I love to join them in God’s house as they say, “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory” (Psalm 63:2). And the older I get, the more I love to embrace for my own legacy their words: “Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (Psalm 71:18).
And I love the compassion of God. I would be utterly lost without it. I love the refrain that runs through the whole Bible: in the midst of judgment God remembers mercy (Habakkuk 3:2). What keeps the Bible from being the bleakest of books, in its utter realism about the rebellion of the human heart, is the unfathomable patience of God: “Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often” (Psalm 78:38).
Psalm 103 is one of my favorite psalms because there is so much hope in it. And that hope is rooted in God’s compassion: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). Over and over we hear the joyful sound: “The Lord will . . . have compassion on his servants” (Psalm 135:14). “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Isaiah 54:7).
But the greatest thrill comes from seeing the sovereignty and the compassion of God interwoven in one glorious fabric of justice and mercy. One of the most beautiful and painful statements of this interweaving comes in Lamentations 3:31–33. God had brought horrific judgment on his own city, Jerusalem. No one doubted that this grievous event had come from the sovereign hand of God. But Jeremiah weaves God’s sovereignty and compassion together in these amazing words:
The Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
He caused the grief. He will have the compassion. He Lived the Mystery
It is not essential in this life that we explain the way God’s sovereignty and our responsibility fit together.
The apostle Paul was steeped in this kind of Old Testament teaching. This was the strong flavor of God that he savored. God is sovereign and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). And God is merciful and compassionate. And we sinners — we are all guilty and helpless and responsible for our sin. If God were not compassionate, he would not want to save us. If God were not sovereign, he would not be able to save us. But he is both. And because of Jesus, we are saved.
It is not essential in this life that we know how to explain the way God’s sovereignty and our responsibility fit together. It is enough to know that they do. Paul cherished God’s sovereignty to save, and he wept over those who refused to come. He saw and he lived this mystery. His mind was not so small or brittle that it broke while contemplating complex greatness. And for this I love him.