Is God sovereign?

The key issue in Bible translation and church growth

Issue: "Pensacola," Dec. 20, 1997

Grace, grace, amazing grace. It surrounds us and we ignore it. John Newton's hymn itself has become at times almost like elevator music, part of the background noise. Pro-abortion groups sing "Amazing Grace" and sway. Last year the University of Texas band played the hymn at halftime of its game with Texas A&M. But we rarely think about the words-"saved a wretch like me"-and the full awesomeness of God's sovereign grace.

Earlier this year, when Arkansas lawmakers pushed a bill concerning insurance claims following tornadoes or other "acts of God," Republican Governor Mike Huckabee, a good guy and a Baptist minister, said he could not approve the bill unless that phrase was changed to "natural disasters." Mr. Huckabee said he could not "attribute in law a destructive and deadly force as being an 'act of God.'"

Gov. Huckabee's observations provided an opening to Democrat Jim Luker, who noted, "To say God didn't create tornadoes is just like saying he didn't create spring rains. If God didn't create this universe and all the forces in it, then I don't know who did." Mr. Luker's point was good: If disasters are outside of God's power, could not happy events be also? And if so, could not amazing grace be a natural occurrence and therefore not so amazing?

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WORLD has reported this year on controversies involving both Bible translation and the "church-growth" movement. Some who push for gender-neutral translations are doing so because they have fallen captive to feminist ideologies-but many others believe that a translation that plays to contemporary biases will get more people reading the Bible.

A desire to reach out is similarly evident among those "church growth" folks who try to ease people into the gospel, rather than confronting them directly with the claims of Christ. Words like sin and repent may turn off both baby boomers and generation Xers, so ministers must baby their congregations and grab their sermons from the X-files in their drawers.

I am not arguing against winsomeness. Translations should be readable. But we also need to remember how all of us as sinners come to Christ: through God's amazing grace, not our own graciousness. So, in a sense, these church debates are really part of that wider debate about God's sovereignty that briefly took over Arkansas politics. Are we ready to say what Job told his wife: "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" Are we ready to accept what Joseph taught his brothers, that all of man's plottings become part of God's perfect plot? ("You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.")

Unwilling to live with the idea of God's complete sovereignty, some Christians ask: How can a person who loses a child (or 10 children, as Job did) live with the thought that God was behind it? But turn the question around; were God not sovereign over such events, think of the torment: If only I hadn't delayed him by offering that piece of pie, he would not have been in the intersection when that truck ran a red light. If only ... if only ... Or, thinking of the shootings at a Kentucky high school early this month: If only she hadn't come to school early for prayer ...

The concept of God's sovereignty is true because the Bible is true. But think of the psychological disadvantages of having it any other way. Say a woman who receives counseling at a crisis pregnancy center decides to have an abortion. A counselor who does not believe in God's sovereignty could readily start thinking that the never-to-be-born baby's blood is on her hands: If only I had used this argument ... if only ... if only ...

Certainly, we should do our best in counseling, in preaching, in translating, because we never know when God will use that last ounce of effort from us to accomplish his will. But among all Christ's words, perhaps three should be imprinted on the foreheads of every Christian: "It is finished." If it were up to us to find peace with God, there would be no peace. If it were up to us to make believers by finding exactly the right words, there would be no believers.

At just the right time, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is the key to amazing grace. Remembering that "it is finished" is the key to resting secure with faithful translations and sermons that might offend some, but will reach all those whom God calls according to his sovereign purpose.

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