William Swan Plumer on the Sovereignty of God

William Swan Plumer was a 19th century Southern Presbyterian theologian, pastor and preacher. He wrote commentaries on Romans, Hebrews and the Psalms (for more of his life and work, see this site). In preparation for my upcoming sermon on the sovereignty of God, here’s a slice of his comments on Romans 9:11.

God is sovereign and his sovereignty is perfect, Romans 9:11. He is a King, the great King; a Judge, the Judge of all the earth; a Governor, the Governor among the nations. Chrysostom: “All the Israelites worshipped the calf; yet some had mercy shown them, and others had not.” God is so perfect and supreme a Judge that he is fit to decide in his own cause. He has always exercised his own sovereignty. Did not Jesse make all his sons pass before Samuel, and did not Samuel say, The Lord hath not chosen then, until the youngest, David, appeared? I Sam. 16:6-13. God asserts such sovereignty in its most absolute form in several parts of Romans 9, particularly vss. 15 and 18.

Calvin: “In his gratuitous election the Lord is free and exempt from the necessity of imparting equally the same grace to all; but, on the contrary, he passes by whom he wills, and whom he wills he chooses.” How independently God acts of human plans, desires and efforts is well stated by Clarke: “Abraham judged that the blessing ought, and he willed, desired, that it might be given to Ishmael; and Isaac also willed, designed it for his first-born, Esau; and Esau wishing and hoping that it might be his readily went, ran a hunting for venison, that he might have it regularly conveyed to him: but they were all disappointed: Abraham and Isaac who willed and Esau who ran.”

Every day we see God’s sovereignty displayed a thousand ways. He not only does his will in the armies of heaven, but also among the inhabitants of the earth. He kills and he makes alive. He exalts one and abases another.

As some worthy and pious people have real difficulties on this subject, it may be well to state that in the scriptural doctrine of God’s sovereignty there is nothing impairing or impugning the following clear principles:

  1. The Lord is no seducer. He tempts no man, James 1:13.
  2. The Lord is sincere in all his calls, offers, warnings and expostulations. He mocks no one with delusory proposals, Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11.
  3. Though God sees nothing in man’s will, worth, or endeavors to decide his choice of one rather than another, and though he has not revealed to us and may never reveal to us why he does some things, yet he acts not capriciously, but in all cases has good cause for whatever he purposes, says and does. In a future world we shall understand much that is dark to us here; but neither our happiness nor our duty will require us to know all that is now mysterious. In heaven they adore on account of mysteries, Revelation 15:3.
  4. To understand God’s treatment of men aright, we must never forget that they are sinners by nature; that his wrath is kindled against them as transgressors, not as men; that his sovereign choice of any of them to eternal life is wholly of mere love, grace and pity. Beza: “Mercy presupposes misery and sin, or the voluntary corruption of the human race; and this corruption presupposes a creation in purity and uprightness.”
  5. Some ask, Is God’s sovereignty arbitrary? The word arbitrary is used in two senses very different. Originally it meant voluntary. In this sense God’s whole government is of course according to the counsel of his own will, or his good pleasure. So say the scriptures, Ephesians 1:5, 11; Philippians 2:13. But in popular use the word arbitrary has come to be equivalent to harsh, unjust or cruel. God’s sovereignty is at the greatest possible remove from any such attribute.
  6. Like remarks may be made concerning the word absolute. If by it is meant free, certain, complete, positive, without any other restriction or limitation; then God’s sovereignty is beyond doubt free, certain, complete, positive, and without any other restriction or limitation than that which arises from the infinite perfection and glory of his nature, such as this, he cannot lie, he cannot deceive, he cannot do any wrong.
  7. God’s sovereignty is universal, extending over all causes, all creatures, all effects, all agents, all results, all worlds, Psalm 103:19. Chalmers: “It seems hard to deny him either a prescience over all the futurities, or a sovereignty over all the events of that universe which himself did create; or that, sitting as we conceive him to do on a throne of omnipotence, there should be so much as one department of his vast empire, where his power does not fix all, and his intelligence does not foresee all. It greatly enhances this argument when the department in question happens to be far the highest and noblest in creation.” If mind cannot be governed, it matters little whether matter is controlled or not.
  8. It is but a decent modesty to admit that in God’s sovereignty are many things inscrutable. The unwillingness to admit much to be unknowable has led to many painful thoughts, and fruitless exertions. This difficulty is not confined to the simple plebian. It has vastly exercised those, who thought themselves wise and great. To Erasmus Luther said: “Mere human reason can never comprehend how God is good and merciful, and, therefore, you make to yourself a god of your own fancy, who hardens nobody, condemns nobody, pities everybody. You cannot comprehend how a just God can condemn those who are born in sin, and cannot help themselves, but must, by a necessity of their natural constitution, continue in sin, and remain children of wrath. The answer is, God is incomprehensible throughout, and, therefore, his justice, as well as his other attributes, must be incomprehensible.”
  9. There is nothing in the scriptural doctrine of the divine sovereignty to weaken the strength of motives to exertion. The essential freedom of the will, without which there is no moral agency, is unimpaired by it, yea is established by it. For if God is not sovereign, man cannot be free, but must be the subject of a blind fortuity, or of the sway of devils, or of some cause or causes not understood, perhaps not even named among men. Chalmers: “Although God is the primary, the overruling cause of every one event, whether in the world of mind or of matter, this does not supersede the proximate and the instrumental causes which come immediately before it. Although he worketh all in all, yet if it be by means that he worketh, the application of these means is still indispensable.” Therefore the whole doctrine and matter of second causes is left precisely where scripture and reason have left them, whether we accept or reject the sovereignty of God.
  10. Nor does ever so firm a belief in the scriptural doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the slightest degree modify the awards of conscience respecting the moral acts of ourselves or of our fellow-men. Remorse for personal sins and displacency for turpitude in others cannot be stronger in any case than they are in those who believe that God’s kingdom ruleth over all. Witness the convictions of the converts on the day of Pentecost. Peter demonstrated to them that they had fulfilled the divine purposes in the death of Christ, and that in so doing they were heinously guilty, Acts 2:23. They admitted the fairness of his argument, and cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” As long as one is free from constraint and violence, his moral sense gives him prompt and infallible evidence of his responsibility (unless his conscience is seared) and this no less when he is persuaded that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, than when his views are quite erratic on this point.
  11. In all the examples of known and terrible judgments on individuals or communities, fully stated in scripture, it is clear that God long displayed forbearance and patience – even the patience of a God. Neither man nor angel would have so long forborne to strike the stroke, when insult was so perversely and heinously multiplied. With a breath or a nod God could ease himself of his adversaries, and cut short their power in a moment; but see how he bore with Pharaoh, with the old world, with Sodom and Gomorrah. See how he bears with the wicked in our day. Some of them have heard the gospel for thirty, forty or fifty years, yet how hardened they still are, how they forget God, reject his Son and grieve his Spirit.
  12. But this longsuffering is not connivance at sin. O no! Some persuade themselves that God’s sovereignty is controlled by an easy good nature, which differs not materially from indifference to moral character. But the scripture makes a very different impression. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord,” Romans 12:19. Men may say that they have too good an opinion of God to suppose that he will damn them for anything, but if they die without repentance they will find that “he that made them will not have mercy on them, and he that formed them will shew them no favor,” Isaiah 27:11. Such will find the truth of what God here [in Romans 9] declares, “that he has endured sin in the world for the very purpose of glorifying himself in its punishment.”
  13. Nor is there anything in the divine sovereignty, nor in the scriptural doctrine thereof that should cause one moment’s delay or hesitation in any man in accepting the gracious offers of mercy. That is a prime and pressing duty. It is obvious and indispensable. If men would begin here at a plain and known duty, many difficulties would give way before them. The offers made are from heaven, and in heaven’s kindest and most urgent tones they are pressed on men’s acceptance. Blessed is he, who has wisdom to give them a cordial welcome.
  14. We should be very careful lest in making but a feeble adherence to the doctrine of God’s glorious sovereignty, we but feebly adhere to the other doctrines of scripture, especially such as have commonly been regarded as intimately connected therewith, especially depravity, the work of Christ, and the work of the Spirit. History sounds notes of alarm on that subject.
  15. Nor is it possible for us to adhere too closely to the word of God in the statement and defense of this and kindred doctrines. If they cannot be defended on solid grounds, let them be given up altogether. Mere abstract reasoning on such matters will lead no one safely, if God’s word give not the clue and the gist of thought. Let us humbly implore divine guidance, and submit our understandings as we do our hearts and lives to the all-wise and all-good control of him, who never errs.

 

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