Podcast: What You Believe about God's Sovereignty Matters for Real Life (Paul Tripp)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Understanding the Sovereignty of God

In today's episode, Paul Tripp discusses the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, what the Bible actually teaches about the extent of God’s sovereignty, the purpose of evil and suffering, and the idea of free will.

Do You Believe?

Paul David Tripp

In his latest book, Do You Believe?, pastor and best-selling author Paul David Tripp unpacks 12 core doctrines and how they engage and transform the human heart and mind.

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00:43 - What Is the Doctrine of God’s Sovereignty?

Matt Tully
Paul, thank you so much for joining me again today. I think this is our fifth interview together for The Crossway Podcast.

Paul Tripp
I love doing these with you. It’s like a reunion now.

Matt Tully
It is! One of these days, we’ll get to have an interview in person. I think our first one was, but since then it’s all been remote. Over the last couple of years we’ve talked about a few really important topics for the Christian life. We’ve talked about parenting in light of the gospel, the church’s leadership crisis, and marriage and how God designed it to reflect something really significant for us. Today I’m really excited to talk about yet another really foundational topic for our lives as believers, and that’s the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. It’s one of those doctrines that probably most Christians have thought about at least a little bit. It’s obviously a doctrine that is pretty controversial for some Christians. Get us started with how you would explain the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to a new believer.

Paul Tripp
Scripture teaches that sitting on the throne of the universe is One of incalculable wisdom, power, love, and grace. His rule is so utterly complete that in Jonah we are actually told that God commands a single worm to do what he wants it to do. Think of that. Think of how God’s rule is that extensive. That passage always makes me smile because I think, How many billions of worms are there? That’s the way that the Bible presents the world that we live in. That just scratches against the grain of our scientific, mechanical way of thinking about life. The Bible doesn’t say that life just runs mechanically by a set of natural laws, but that there’s a person who is directing and controlling the world. What makes that wonderful is that this person is holy in every way, good in every way, loving in every way, the definition of wisdom, and has unlimited and infinite power. Rather than that doctrine making us afraid or being the source of great debate, it ought to first just give us rest of heart. Think of how small your sovereignty and my sovereignty is. I lack so much sovereignty that I lose my keys. I can’t even control a little set of inanimate objects, let alone control my life or my relationships or the circumstances around me. I think that’s very important. I want to say something else here. The way that sovereignty is presented in Scripture, again, is counter-intuitive. It’s just such a beautiful thing to consider.

Matt Tully
I want to explore some of those implications for how we live our lives and the ways that we think about the things that happen to us and in front of us as we live, but looking a little bit more at those passages, I think one response could be to—take that Jonah example—to say that in the case of that small, little worm, God was sovereign over that one and that was a special case. That was God using that one worm in a very unique way to do something there, but we shouldn’t necessarily generalize that. Generally speaking, God’s not that involved down to the details. Are there other passages of Scripture that would speak to that kind of thought?

Paul Tripp
It’s just everywhere. It’s God controlling storms, God controlling the move of history. He rules over the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of earth and no one can stop his hand or say, “What have you done?” There’s everything from the grand, historical sweep of history to big things that happen in physical nature, to my life, to little creatures. The Bible says the birds don’t die without the Lord knowing. In North America alone, three billion birds die a day. Think of what we’re talking about here. Scripture covers the range of God’s involvement with the world that he made from huge, big cataclysmic things to things that, for us, would be almost unnoticeable. You can’t read Scripture—this is so important to say—and avoid the sovereignty of God. Can I give you a personal experience? When my brother, Ted, first presented to me the sovereignty of God, it made me so angry I took off my shoe and threw it at him. He said, Okay, Paul. I want to challenge you to do something. Get a cheap, paperback Bible and a yellow marker, and over the next several months read your Bible all the way through and mark every time there’s something about God’s authority, God’s sovereignty, God’s control. By the end of the summer, my Bible was yellow. It changed my life.

Matt Tully
Many sincere Christians would probably be, even today, where you were at when you first started talking to Ted. They would be uncomfortable. They might even be angry with the thought of God’s sovereignty being described the way that you just described it. Maybe it doesn’t fit with their understanding of who God is and how he works in the world. What did that process of your mind changing look like? Was there an intellectual change that happened in your mind as you read Scripture? Did that precede an emotional change or a more intuitive sense?

Paul Tripp
I think it was hard, but I was already at the place in my life where I determined that I wanted to let Scripture interpret my identity, the way I thought about life, and who I think God is. So I was willing to be persuaded by the theology that was exposed there as I read through my Bible.

08:35 - A Counterintuitive Doctrine

Matt Tully
Why do you think it is that this doctrine in particular, and what Scripture teaches about God’s sovereignty, can often be so counterintuitive for many sincere believers? Or maybe it strikes them, at least initially, as quite distasteful even.

Paul Tripp
I think that’s really a wonderful question, and I think there are two reasons. I think the first is our instincts are not to surrender or trust the control of another. Paul argues in 2 Corinthians 5:15 that Jesus came so those who live would no longer live for themselves. The DNA of sin is selfishness—that’s me in the center of my world. My wants, my needs, my feelings, my plan, my will. That’s the inertia of sin in all of our hearts. If you’re a parent, you’ve never had one of your children come to you and say, Mom and dad, if you could just take more control over my life I would be so happy. Just give me more commands. You exercise more authority and give me less choice and that would just be wonderful. No child has ever said that. But a child will fight your control because that instinct is built into him. It’s called sin. I think that this doctrine is counter-intuitive. It takes us places we would never naturally go. I think that’s the first thing. I think the other thing is a misunderstanding of God’s sovereignty. People say, If God is absolutely sovereign, then I’m just a robot. I lose choice and I lose responsibility. That’s not actually true at all because—I’m going to make a statement and then explain it—God accomplishes his sovereign plan through the true validity of the secondary agent.

Matt Tully
That’s a mouth full right there.

Paul Tripp
Yes. In other words, the way he accomplishes his sovereign plan is through the vehicle of my decisions and my choices. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. There’s this place in Acts where Paul is preaching and it says, The Gentiles heard the word of the Lord and they were glad, and as many as were ordained for eternal life believed. Isn’t that interesting? There are all kinds of human activity there. Paul had to preach. People had to be willing to listen. They had to open their hearts. They had to be glad at the end. But all of that was God working his plan. I never wake up in the morning and my arm goes to a shirt I don’t want to wear and I’m trying to pull back my arm, but oh no! My arm is going to the wrong shirt! It never happens that way. Nobody actually has the experience of robotics in their life because that’s not the way God runs his world. The question is never, Is God sovereign, or am I responsible? It’s that the means by which God has decided to rule his world is to give you a will and give you valid choices and critical moments of decision. Those are all part of God’s expediting of his sovereignty. That’s just a radically different way than most people think of God’s sovereignty.

Matt Tully
So you’re kind of saying that we have the freedom to choose—we are choosing things—and yet God is exercising his sovereignty through those choices that we are making. I wonder if someone might come back and say, I still don’t understand how we can be responsible for that choice and how we can be held morally responsible, or ethically responsible, for the choices that we make when ultimately they are still under God’s control.

Paul Tripp
Because the mystery of God’ sovereignty is you have never in your life—let’s say this as an adult; it may not be true of children—been forced into choices. They’re your choices. You made them. If you’re honest about your choices—as a grown up human being—they’re the result of your desires. They’re a result of your thinking. They’re followed by planning. They’re followed by actual action. You can’t look at any of that and rationally argue, I had no choice because you don’t ever have that experience of being pulled in directions you don’t actually want to go in.

13:41 - Is God the Author of Sin?

Matt Tully
Related to this is a concern that many Christians wrestle with, and it relates to how God’s sovereignty makes him potentially the author of sin. That’s a concern that people have, and it’s a charge that many people would levy against someone who would hold to God’s absolute sovereignty over all things. What do you think about that type of charge?

Paul Tripp
I think the first thing you have to do—and I attempt to do this in Do You Believe?, the book where I talk about these doctrines—is you can’t ever hold one doctrine by itself. If you do that, then you’re left with these questions that you can’t answer. If the doctrine of God’s holiness is not one his separate characteristics but is a sum definition of all his characteristics—he’s holy in his sovereignty, he’s holy in mercy, he’s holy as a righteous judge—then it’s impossible for God, being perfectly holy, to participate (in his sovereignty) in whatever would be evil. It can’t happen. It’s apart from his nature. You are never going to function as an aquatic animal. You don’t have the capability of doing that. I have to take all that the Bible tells me that God is and put that together in order to understand anything that the Bible says God is. Can I say that again? I have to take all that the Bible says about what God is to help me understand any one thing the Bible says about who God is. Does that make sense? All those other things define for me this one. So the Bible would say God would never tempt me to do evil. It’s impossible for that to happen because it’s impossible for God to do evil.

Matt Tully
It seems like that is often at the core of some of our struggles with this doctrine and maybe other doctrines is we kind of hold them detached; we think of them detached from the other things Scripture reveals about God and don’t let those things inform how we understand this doctrine.

Paul Tripp
Yes. So, you take God’s position as the judge of all things. Well, you can’t hold that without the theology of his boundless love—his mercy and his grace. These things are all held together. I’m not any one thing; I’m a collection of things. When you get to know the interweaving of all those things, you actually get to know Paul Tripp. In the same way, you don’t know God from a single viewpoint of who God is. You have to hold this theology together.

17:11 - God’s Revealed Will and His Secret Will

Matt Tully
You mentioned the word mystery a minute ago, saying that there is a level of mystery here in understanding how some of these things can hold together. Speak to how we strike a balance. It seems on one hand there are some Christians who might be tempted towards jumping right to mystery immediately and saying, This is all a mystery. We can’t understand it. Maybe the end result is they actually say less about God’s sovereignty than Scripture itself even says. On the other hand, there might be Christians who never want to acknowledge any mystery here, and their temptation is they actually try to over-define it, overly systematize it in a way that leads them to say more than what Scripture actually says. How do you hold that in tension and walk that line of not doing either of those two things?

Paul Tripp
There is a dividing line between God’s revealed will—what he’s told me in his word—and God’s secret will—the way that he’s ruling his world that he hasn’t revealed to me. I say kind of humorously over and over again that God’s secret will is called a secret will because it’s secret. I am not held responsible for figuring out that secret will. In fact, it’s dangerous to try to do that because God has chosen, in his infinite wisdom, not to reveal those things to me. But I’m responsible to understand, receive with an open, submissive heart his revealed will. So if there are things on the page that God has revealed about himself and I don’t know it, that’s my responsibility. I’ve been lazy, I’ve been unhearing, I’ve been uncaring, or I’ve been rebellious, but my responsibility is to know what God has revealed to me. He revealed it to me out of generosity of love. I wouldn’t know who I am and how to live apart from it. Think about when Israel is redeemed out of slavery. What’s the very first thing God does? He drops them at Mount Sinai because these people don’t know who they are, they don’t know what life is about, and they don’t know how to live. That giving of the law is just wonderful, father-like love: I want you to thrive, and here’s the way to thrive. That gift of God’s word is a beautiful thing and I want to get to know it, but rest is not found in me trying to figure out God’s secret will. Rest is found in trusting the One who holds all those things in his hand and has told me, I’m loving. I’m good. I’m faithful. I’m patient. I’m slow to anger. I abound in mercy.

Matt Tully
In your book you explain what you call “a life tool” that you developed to help people to keep that in mind, that we have a focus on the revealed will of God and need to, in some way, not worry as much about this secret will. Can you walk us through what that tool is that you developed and how that can be helpful?

Paul Tripp
I developed two circles. The inner circle I call “The Circle of Responsibility.” The outer larger circle is called “The Circle of Concern.” The Circle of Responsibility are things that God has given to me to do. These are things that are revealed in Scripture that are my job description as a child of God, and the only proper choice is to submit and obey the One of wisdom and love who’s told me best how to live.

Matt Tully
So that circle would correspond to God’s revealed will?

Paul Tripp
Yes. There’s an outer circle of all kinds of things that are of concern to me. The weather is a concern to me. Global government is a concern to me. The health of my children is a concern to me. But none of those things live under my control. I’ve had parents who say to me, If this is the last thing I do, I’ll get my children to believe. Well, you can be a good and faithful parent and you can act righteously towards your children, but if they don’t transact with God, they won’t believe. You can’t do that for them. I focus on that inner Circle of Responsibility—that’s what shapes my everyday living. I have this Circle of Concern and I will always carry these burdens, but I entrust them to God because the Bible tells me he rules that outer circle with unstoppable authority, infinite power, and glorious wisdom. I don’t have to live out there in worry and fear and anxiety because I believe that outer circle is in good hands. I obey and I entrust, and that really is a summary of the Christian life.

23:09 - A Matter of Control

Matt Tully
You have this amazing quote in your book that really stuck out to me: “Much of our regular anxiety, worry, fear, and discouragement is the result of thinking that when things are out of our control, then they are out of control.” I wonder if you could unpack that a little bit more for us. How does our understanding of God’s sovereignty—or our misunderstanding of his sovereignty—impact how we feel about our world?

Paul Tripp
Isn’t it healthy to wake up every morning with these two thoughts: First, the humility that I would say, There are many things that touch me that are not under my control; they’re out of my control. You would not want to live with a person who thought that they could control everything. That’s a spiritually healthy thing to confess, but balanced with, But that does not mean that my life or my world is out of control. For many people, if they would say the first thing, what would follow would be massive anxiety. Oh no! There’s X, Y, and Z that are out of my control! What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do? The Bible says, No, no, no. Remember that what is out of your control is under the control of One who loves you. I love in Ephesians where it says of Christ that he rules over all things for the sake of his church. How beautiful is that? It’s not only that the Lord rules, but he rules for the sake of his children. It’s actually a theology there—I don’t think I use this term in the book—of benevolent sovereignty. So, I can own the massive, scary limits of my control without freaking out because the Bible reminds me that my world is under wise and careful control.

Matt Tully
You used that beautiful phrase “benevolent sovereignty” and that’s encouraging, but I think for many of us, if we’re being honest, there are times in our lives when it doesn’t feel that benevolent. We would intellectually acknowledge that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over this, and yet we look around at all the suffering we’re experiencing and we think, I don’t understand how this is loving, I don’t understand how this is good. It’s maybe tempting in those moments to say, Maybe it’s easier just to say that God isn’t controlling this at all. I think of the COVID pandemic that we’ve all been living through and that we still continue to have to deal with and all the suffering and the pain that has caused—whether physical pain or emotional or social or economic hardship. How does believing in God’s total sovereignty over these things—even our suffering—help us to get through that?

Paul Tripp
I want to make a statement and then I want to give you an illustration. Sovereignty is a description of what is. This is your world. It’s not an explanation of everything that happens. If we got that explanation, our minds would melt. God knows the limits of what I’m able to take in and what I’m able to carry. I always think of this as a parent. I had this moment with my son when he was a very little boy, and I had to say no to him for something that really upset him but he was not old enough to understand. I knelt down and said, Look me in the face. Does your daddy love you? Yes, daddy loves me. Is he a bad man? No, daddy is not a bad man. Does he want bad things for you? No, he doesn’t want bad things for me. Well, daddy has said no. I wish I could explain to you why, but if I did you wouldn’t understand it. You can walk down the hallway and you can say, ’My daddy is a bad daddy. He does bad things. I don’t like my daddy.’ Or, you can walk down the hallway and say, ’I don’t understand why my daddy said no, but my daddy loves me. My daddy is a good man.’ I think we’re in that position again and again as God’s children. We are confronted with the fact that rest is never going to be found in our ability to understand everything. It will never be found there. In fact, the requirement that I have to understand everything will only ever end in anxiety and fear, and I think for many of us, ultimately the rejection of God. So, rest is really found in believing that God is who he described he is and that there’s a creature/creator line that I’ll just never be able to cross. If I demand an explanation for everything that happens, I’ll never end up resting in his sovereignty. Rest is not found in understanding; rest is a relationship. It’s found in entrusting yourself to the One who understands it all.

Matt Tully
That’s such a helpful distinction there. It’s so helpful to be reminded that believing that God is in control is not the same thing as knowing the why of whatever it is that we’re experiencing.

Paul Tripp
In counseling I had moment after moment where someone would say, Why is this happening? I would say, My best theological answer is I don’t have a clue. But can I talk to you about the One who knows why it’s happening and who’s in control of what’s happening? He’s worthy of your trust. That’s what I wanted for my children because the more they allowed themselves to demand understanding, the less willing they were to trust me and the greater danger that placed them in. Trust in God is the safest way to live. You could argue that the foremost important words of the whole Bible are the first four words: In the beginning God . . . . If God is on sight, and if this revelation describes accurately who he is, he is infinitely worthy of my trust. He’ll confuse me because he’s God and I’m not. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where someone says, He’s dangerous, but he’s good.

Matt Tully
I think Lucy asked Mr. Beaver, Is he safe? and Mr. Beaver answers, No, he’s not safe. But he’s good.

Paul Tripp
Yes, that’s right. That’s eloquent. I’m going to say something else. This does not mean stoicism in suffering. The Bible welcomes us to carry our burdens to the Lord. The Bible presents suffering as an evil thing, that someday this lord will end forever. The Bible never presents grin and bear it Christianity. It surely doesn’t endorse masochism where I would say, Bring it on! Bring more pain. It’s right to pray for suffering to life, for hardship to be gone*. The Bible says you pray to a sympathetic, understanding high priest who’s walked in our shoes. Again, what am I doing? I’m taking all the other things the Bible teaches and I’m trying to hold them together with our discussion of sovereignty.

32:39 - Confessional Theology vs. Functional Theology

Matt Tully
This touches on a really broad theme that you are getting at in this new book that you’ve written—that covers a whole host of doctrines, not just God’s sovereignty—and that is that so often for us as Christians, we can have things that we believe—the intellectual understanding and even acceptance of these doctrines like God’s sovereignty—and yet, there is sometimes a gap between what we believe and how we’re living. That would include how we’re feeling, how we’re responding to things that happen in our lives. I want to read a quote from the book that I think captures this really well. You say that your main goal with the book is to help Christians to “close the gap between your confessional theology and your functional theology.” Why do you think it is that we often have so much trouble taking what we think we believe and actually letting that affect our lives?

Paul Tripp
My quick answer is because confessional spirituality is five hundred times easier than actual sacrificial spirituality. It’s so easy to name intellectual Christianity as spiritual maturity. In fact, I think it’s actually one of the tools of the enemy. I am deeply persuaded that the enemy of our souls will give us our confessional theology if he can control our hearts. Because what controls your heart is actually what has you. I think it’s tempting to equate theological knowledge and biblical literacy with spiritual maturity. They are actually two different things. I’m going to say this as lovingly as I can: I was a seminary professor for twenty years. Many of my students were in their third year of seminary. These were, by then, theological experts. I counseled ungodly students; harsh, controlling people. Guys with broken marriages. They’re in the top 97 percentile of theological knowledge. I’m going to say this to people who will hear this conversation we’re having: that gap still exists in my life too. Sanctification is in a lot of ways a process by which God closes the gap between what you say you believe and how you actually live. What confronts us with that process is the truths I actually live are the ones I actually believe. If you want to understand my true theology, watch the video of my life.

Matt Tully
That’s so sobering. We’re all thinking of what that video would look like right now. It strikes me that one of the most sobering things about that statement is that it’s so easy for us to be self-deceived. We think that we believe this thing and we don’t even see the gap perhaps. It’s not like there’s always an intentional cultivating of that gap. Have you seen that to be true in your own life? Do you think that’s a part of the challenge that we’re facing with this?

Paul Tripp
Being deceived to think what?

Matt Tully
Being self-deceived and not even knowing that there’s a gap.

Paul Tripp
Absolutely. I’ll give you an example in my own life. It’s a Sunday morning and my four children are there with me. We’re worshiping, and I am caught up in that moment with the theology of God’s grace. I get in the car and my kids start fighting in the back seat. I’m immediately a screaming person of ungrace. Not only am I not believing that that God of grace can meet me in that moment and help me to control myself and parent my children in a better way, but I’m also not accepting his call for me to be a tool of that grace. We’re talking less than an hour between those two Paul Tripps. There it is. I would walk out after that service and say, Man, that’s who I am. I’m a believer in God’s grace. I just celebrated God’s grace! And yet on the way home, I’m a complete contradiction of that grace. I would challenge people to get up every morning and cry out for help, that you would live that day what you have confessed you believe.

38:40 - Doctrine Leads Us to the Cross

Matt Tully
Returning to that topic of God’s sovereignty, I want to close with one more quote from the book. You write, “The theology of God’s sovereignty always leads you to Jesus.” What do you mean by that?

Paul Tripp
We could probably talk about that for forty-five minutes, but one of the things that impresses me is every doctrine—like the doctrine of sovereignty—exposes the darkness of my heart. I’m going to speak for myself. I struggle with God’s control because I want to be in control. I want to rule my life. I don’t want anybody to disagree with me. I don’t want the lady with one hundred fifty items in her grocery cart in the line in front of me. I don’t want to wait for traffic. I don’t ever want to be sick. I want my schedule to work everyday like I planned it. So I fight against the authority of God, and I can run from a location but I can’t run from that darkness in my heart. I need a savior who will rescue me and who will begin to empower me to love God’s authority more than I love my own. There’s a way in which, at the deepest level of my spiritual struggle, God’s sovereignty makes me weep and say, Father, I wish I didn’t want to be king. I wish I celebrated you as king, but today I tried again to be king. Please forgive me. Tomorrow morning when I get up, help me to worship you as king and not try to be king. If you track every doctrine, every one exposes your heart and every one leads you to the cross.


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