Sovereignty and Government

From the very opening pages of Scripture we see God’s sovereign rule over mankind in an authoritative and governmental way. He gives his law to Adam that he is not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And when Adam and Eve do eat of that tree they are depicted as being in rebellion.[1] This is political language through and through. And this rebellion isn’t limited to a vertical warfare, man solely against God; it becomes horizontal – man against man. An unnatural law of sorts has commenced: hating God and hating your neighbor as other than yourself. This is exactly what we see in Genesis 4 with the killing of Abel by Cain and the emergence of depraved societies and power-hungry Cities of Man, Lamech being its most infamous tyrant.[2]

It is out of this dark setting wherein we see God graciously institute government – human government – to mitigate against this hellish proclivity in men to kill fellow image bearers. In Genesis 9 God gave Noah, and hence humanity, the power of the sword, but not a sword grounded in the unnatural law of rebellion and murder but a sword grounded in the God given natural law of life and protection. It is, as Paul will later expound in Romans 13, a ministerial power of coercion to keep men from killing men, a sword handed down from heaven to protect against the swords of fallen men.[3]

“From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:5-7)[4]

The obvious must still be stated: That throughout this history, no matter the evil, no matter the depravity, and no matter the unnatural lawlessness, God is still sovereign, bringing good out of evil. Indeed, that is arguably the “melodic line” of the book of Genesis: What God made good, man corrupted with evil and yet God promised to not only bring good out of evil (Gen 3:15) but ultimately does (Gen 50:20; Rev. 12:13-13:4).[5]

It was from a similar dark setting and scenario that led Augustine to also write his famous City of God. In fact, as Greg Forster rightly argues, “the overarching purpose of The City of God is to vindicate the Christian conception of the good by showing that the world is superintended by God, who is good and is guiding everything that happens in history for good purposes; thus any concept of "the good" is empty if it does not ultimately point to God. The introduction to one modern edition comments that "the great lesson of The City of God is that out of all things comes good." This echoes Paul's comment to the Romans that "for those who love God all things work together for good" (Rom 8:28).”[6]

The intended telos of government, of course, is not mankind’s final submission to its power and sword, no matter the good it brings about. Although government is good, the government was never meant to be an eternal Messiah, but only a minister. Isaiah is clear, a Day is coming when all swords will be beaten into ploughshares – all human governments will end. Earthly kings will give up their crowns when the Heavenly King establishes his final sovereign authority, for the “and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6).

As Augustine argues, when the Heavenly peace of the City of God finally reigns over all, there will be no more need for the City of Man to continue pursuing earthly justice; human government will end and, as the Apostle John puts the matter, “the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”[7]

And yet, even now before the final culmination of what all human governments lead to, their own dissolution before the final rule of Christ on earth, even now there is a sovereign authority which Christ maintains over every earthly government. Oliver O’Donavan beautifully makes this point when he says that there will be a “persistence of secular authority until the full appearing of the Kingdom. The bene esse cannot undo the esse. The subjection of all authorities to Christ's authority does not mean the dissolution of authority… The state exists in order to give judgment; but under the authority of Christ’s rule it gives judgment under law, never as its own law.”[8]

God is not only sovereign over every nation, determining their boundaries and histories (Acts 17:26) but he is also sovereign over their particular governments and ruling authorities, establishing them in his common grace as promotion for public good and deterrence from evil (Romans 13:1-7). As David reminds us in Psalm 22, "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations." (Ps. 22:27-28)

But even now, since the ascension and session of Christ, there is a particular Christocentric sovereignty over every government. Yes, when he returns, it will be made abundantly clear since "on his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:16). On that day every knee will bow in submission. But the future consummation of his sovereign rule does not undo his current rule. In an inaugurated way, he is sovereign now, he is “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). The apostle John places this truth in the present tense, not future.

How should we then live? In a day and age where it seems that the governments of this world are increasingly out of step with their true Sovereign, redefining justice to mean something very different than true justice, redefining the good to mean something very different than true goodness, how then shall we live? Books can be and have been written on this question, and we should be diligent to read them well. But let me suggest just one simple application: joyful anticipation.

Joyful because, even though the nations rage and plot in vain and the kings and rulers of the earth set themselves against the King of kings, even still “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). Our King is laughing at all the geo-political hubbub emerging from our current zeitgeist. As citizens of Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom, let’s laugh with him.

And let’s laugh with anticipation because we know he is coming back. Our Prince of Peace will return and when he does, he will rule in sovereign goodness and sovereign wisdom over the entire cosmos, bringing final justice and everlasting peace.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] See David C. Innes, Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life (P&R Publishing Company, 2019), xiii.

[2] Hence, Andrew Willard Jones, “After the Fall, mankind was accordingly trapped in a bind. The human laws that mankind needed in order to climb out of vice became harder and harder to make, precisely to the extent that he needed them more. The worse mankind got, the more it needed good government and so good law, and to the exact same extent, the less it was inclined to make it. Mankind became, rather, more and more inclined toward bad governance and toward making corrupt law, toward building a disordered social architecture, leading in turn to ever-deeper vice. It was a downward spiral, a decent into ignorance and malice. As man fell deeper into ignorance, his reason was clouded by his passions. His animality came to increasingly dominate his rationality. He lived less and less by reason, less and less by the natural law, and more and more by a perversion of that law. His human law, then, rather than creatively expressing the true natural law, came increasingly to express his ever-growing irrational desires. Human law increasingly worked not toward the common good but toward the fulfillment of the selfish desires of whomever happened to control it. The social hierarchy is inverted, with that which is lower serving the power of that which is higher. Law became tyranny.” Andrew Willard Jones, The Two Cities: A History of Christian Politics (Emaus Road Publishing, 2021), 13. See also Augustine, City of God, 4.4 “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?” City of God (Penguin Books, 2003), 139.

[3] There’s an interesting connection here to how Edmund Burke saw society before the establishment of governments versus that Rousseau. “When he [Edmund Burke] refers to natural 'right', therefore, he means a liberty or power that is morally justified outside of civil society. Nevertheless, it is clear that Burke regards with horror any actual state of nature as a condition where the power of natural law to restrain wicked human behaviour is negligible, and which therefore amounts in practice to violent anarchy. His searing experience of the Gordon Riots of 1780 had impressed deeply upon him the irrationality of mob violence and the fragility of civilised life. Accordingly, he viewed the vision of a state of nature unburdened by social institutions such as law and property, which was propagated by Rousseau (1712-78), as a dangerous fantasy.” Nigel Biggar, What’s Wrong With Rights? (Oxford University Press, 2020), 13.

[4] Just as God is immutably generative, being infinite and eternal Life himself, so his finite image bearers are to be generative and produce life in an ever growing and ever-changing reflection of His triune glory. Murder is therefore the very antithesis of mankind’s telos and an attack on God’s glory.

[5] I am indebted to Chris Spano, pastor of Trinity Community Church, for this excllent “melodic line”.

[6] Greg Forster, The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics (InterVarsity Press, 2008), 75.

[7] Augustine, The City of God, 19.17

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 233.


Stephen Unthank