Some Essential Tenets of the Reformed faith, as Expressed in the Confessions

The Sovereignty of God

The idea that God is the sovereign governor of all creation is a central tenet of Reformed theology. It is emphasized in nearly every confession and catechism in our Book of Confessions and is consistent with the character of God as it is borne witness in Scripture. The psalmist testifies again and again that God has oversight over everything that happens in the cosmos, marveling at God’s beauty, majesty, goodness, and grandeur. The Westminster Confession celebrates God’s sovereignty and describes our appropriate response to it:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. … (Book of Confessions [BOC], The Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.112)

The point of confessing that God is sovereign is not to warn us that God gets to do whatever God wants, so we’d better watch our step—although people often get this wrong idea about the divine sovereignty. As Lynn Japinga notes, “the Reformed tradition has been stereotyped as particularly fearful through much of its history.”[1]

There is a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larsen that depicts God looking at a computer screen, where a man is standing underneath a piano that is hoisted above his head. God’s finger hovers over a button on the computer keyboard labeled “smite.”[2] Reformed theology holds, by contrast to this way of thinking, that the sovereign God always acts consistently with who God is. Karl Barth called this “the divine freedom,” arguing that God never exercises God’s power in ways that contradict the truth that God is love.[3]

The sovereign God is triune—not a monolith, but a community (see BOC, Confession of Belhar, 10.1). Reveling in the mystery of the Trinity, the Reformed tradition celebrates and contemplates the implications of the truth that the one who is incomprehensibly one is at the same time “distinct in three persons” (BOC, Scots Confession, 3.01), with each person being “of the same substance and equal in power and glory” (BOC, The Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.051, 6.183). A Brief Statement of Faith testifies, for example, that we know we “belong to God” “in life and in death” by way of God’s particular acts in each of the three particular trinitarian persons (see BOC, A Brief Statement of Faith, 11.2–11.4).

Reflection on the sovereignty of God naturally gives way to consideration of God’s power and its relationship to the power of the creature. We commonly confess that God is omnipotent, or all powerful, but Reformed traditions remind us that this does not mean God has all the power and we have none. God, then, is not a God of “sheer power” but a God who shares power with us.[4] God does this by entering into powerlessness with us in the person of Jesus Christ (see Philippians 2) and exalting us, with him, to the life of the triune God. In Question 32, the Heidelberg Catechism recognizes that God’s sharing of power with us shapes Christian life:

Q: But why are you called a Christian?

A: Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for eternity (BOC, The Heidelberg Catechism, 4.032).

For Reflection and Discussion:

How have your beliefs about the sovereignty of God evolved over time?

How might you explain God’s sovereignty to a new Christian or someone new to the Reformed faith?

[1] Lynn Japinga, “Fear in the Reformed Tradition,” Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and Serene Jones. Nashville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

[2] This comic strip can be viewed at (Last Accessed 7.29.19).

[3] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, §28.

[4] See Daniel L. Migliore, The Power of God and the gods of Power. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.