The Sovereignty of God in Missions

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Editorial Comment: This post is the fourth of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.


We believe God is sovereign in salvation; we rely on the Holy Spirit to convict and regenerate all whom the Father has chosen, graciously bringing them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

At Reaching and Teaching, we gladly affirm God’s sovereignty—his absolute power and authority over all things. More specifically, we believe God planned, before the creation of the world, to redeem from among fallen humanity, a multitude of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation for his glory (Rev. 5:9). 

The purpose of this article is to define God’s sovereignty in salvation and to consider how that truth relates to the work of missions.   

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

Scripture teaches God is sovereign. He rules over and controls all that happens. The Bible is replete with examples of God’s universal lordship, yet few verses state this absolute authority more succinctly than Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Both the extent (he does all) and nature (that he pleases) of God’s sovereignty are highlighted in this passage. 

There is no greater power or authority than God. No other being can thwart his plans: “None can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35). Thus, God is absolutely sovereign over all his creation. As Abraham Kuyper famously proclaimed, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[1] There are no rogue molecules in God’s universe.[2]

Scripture also teaches God’s sovereignty extends over the salvation of sinners. This truth is most clearly seen in the Bible’s teaching about the election and predestination of sinners for salvation. In Romans 9:15 the Apostle Paul quotes God’s words to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (cf. Ex. 33:19). Paul then concludes, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” God saves sinners by his free, sovereign grace. With the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1853), we affirm “that election is the eternal purpose of God, according to which he graciously regenerates, sanctifies, and saves sinners.” [3] This election, the confession says, “is a most glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, being infinitely free, wise, holy, and unchangeable.”[4] 

New Life to Dead Sinners

Why is God’s sovereign initiative necessary for salvation? The Bible’s answer is that, in our fallen state, mankind has been corrupted by sin in every respect. Every person has turned from God in mind, will, and affections. Romans 3:10–11 teaches that all are sinners and that no one is righteous or seeks after God. The human heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9).  Jesus says we “love the darkness rather than the light because [our] deeds are evil” (John 3:19). All humanity is under God’s judgment because we suppress the truth that God has revealed about himself and we seek after idols (Rom. 1:18–22). In fact, Paul teaches that everyone, by nature, is opposed to God and unable to submit to him: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law, indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:7–8).

According to Scripture, those outside of Christ are unable to contribute to their salvation. This means they are not merely in need of a little help or spiritually sick with hopes of getting better. Rather, they are by nature “dead in trespasses and sins . . . sons of disobedience . . . by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1–3). The only solution to this spiritual death is spiritual resurrection—which is exactly what the amazing grace of God provides! “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him” (Eph. 2:4).

The spiritual resurrection necessary for salvation is described in the Bible as a “new birth” (John 3:3). This new birth, or regeneration, is a mighty work of God’s Spirit. Jesus illustrates God’s sovereign work of giving new life to dead sinners using the metaphor of the wind and its effects: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7–8).[5] 

Although no one sees the brisk wind of an autumn day, one can see the effects of the wind causing fall leaves to dance across the ground. In the same way, no one is able to predict where and when the Spirit of God is going to work to save sinners. What early Christian would have ever predicted that God would choose to transform the heart of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road? But as Saul’s story illustrates, when God sovereignly works, the results are evident. This work of the Spirit is also illustrated in the conversion of Lydia when “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). 

Gospel Proclamation and God’s Effectual Call

If God is the sovereign author of salvation from beginning to end, what role does the proclamation of the gospel play in salvation? Historically, some have thought that to affirm God’s sovereign election is to deny the necessity of preaching the gospel. But Scripture teaches that God has chosen to use the means of gospel proclamation to accomplish his sovereign purpose to save a people for himself from every nation. The gospel alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). This means that apart from the preaching of the gospel, no one can be saved. Romans 10:14 makes the connection between gospel preaching and saving faith clear: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” The faithful proclamation of the gospel leads to the miraculous salvation of sinners.

When God chooses to save a sinner, the Holy Spirit works through the gospel message to supernaturally open blind eyes. Often called the effectual call, this internal work simultaneously imparts saving faith (Eph. 2:8) and repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25), gives new life and powerfully transforms the sinner into a new creation (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). Just as Jesus’ mighty voice raised up Lazarus from the dead (John 11:43), so the effectual call of the gospel inevitably brings dead sinners to life (John 5:25–26).

Sovereignty and the Work of Missions

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty has a significant impact on our missions work. To begin with, it gives us boldness and confidence because we have been commissioned by the King of the universe to proclaim an unstoppable message that can transform even the most resistant hearts. As we have seen, not even the hardened Saul of Tarsus was impervious to the power of that message. God opened his heart just as he did Lydia’s. So we enter difficult fields boldly and hopefully because we know that all who are “appointed to eternal life” will believe (Acts 13:48). When facing opposition, we can speak the word without fear knowing that God will save his people in that place (Acts 18:9–10).

The truth of God’s sovereignty likewise sustains us through periods of unfruitfulness and discouragement. God’s word will not return to him empty but will accomplish his sovereign purpose (Isa. 55:10–11). His mission will not fail. In times of dryness, we are reminded that Jesus has “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16); he has a people for his name among all nations (Acts 15:14). John’s vision of a vast multitude of redeemed men and women from every “tribe and language and people and nation” worshiping before the heavenly throne (Rev. 5:9) is the inevitable end toward which world history is moving. This conviction fosters perseverance.

Furthermore, belief in God’s sovereign election and the power of his effectual call fosters prayerfulness in missions. Why do we pray for the salvation of our hearers? Because we realize missionaries are powerless to save. Only God’s Spirit can open blind eyes and give new life. As missionaries, our sufficiency comes from God alone (2 Cor. 3:5). Without him we can do nothing. So we preach the gospel in humble dependence on his power to bring life out of death and light out of darkness. Our proclamation is infused with the prayer that the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” in the original creation will do a work of new creation to shine “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” in human hearts (2 Cor. 4:6). Belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation protects us from depending on ourselves.

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation also protects us from the temptation to pragmatically manipulate our message. This often happens when the missionary feels pressure to engineer certain results (2 Cor. 4:2).

For example, the missionary may manipulate his message by trying to remove the offense of the gospel. People don’t like to be told that they’re sinners deserving judgment; nor do they like to be confronted with the exclusivity of Christ. So gospel heralds can easily succumb to trying to make the gospel more palatable or to minimizing Jesus’ claims to be the only way (John 14:6). The gospel is also often manipulated when the missionary is tempted to minimize the response demanded by the gospel. This can happen through an “easy-believism” that under-defines true saving faith or downplays the Gospel’s call to repentance. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty, however, protects us from this temptation because, as we have seen, both repentance and faith are gifts of God’s grace, not something our hearers themselves can produce.

Belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation removes from the messenger the burden of having to engineer fruit through any means of manipulation. The results can be left up to God. Jesus likens gospel proclamation to the work of a farmer who scatters seed in his field and then is able to sleep, knowing that what he has sown will sprout and grow apart from any further efforts of his own (Mark 4:26–29). At the end of the day the missionary can rest on God’s sovereign work through the Holy Spirit to bear spiritual fruit.

Ultimately, we believe that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation is important for missions because it gives glory to God alone for success in missions. Paul makes this point eloquently in Ephesians 1:3–14. Because God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world and because he predestined us for adoption as sons according to the purpose of his will, he alone receives the glory for our salvation (vv. 4–5). This sovereign election is grounded, Paul says, in the eternal, immutable “purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (v. 11). All of this leads to “the praise of God’s glorious grace” (vv. 5, 12, 14)! With the Reformers, we believe that missions that is fueled by confidence in God’s sovereignty and ultimately brings glory to him alone. Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] Quote from Kuyper’s inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University. Found in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Eerdmans, 1998), 488).

[2] R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale, 1986), chap. 2, Kindle.


[4] Ibid.

[5] The Greek word, pneuma, is translated both “wind” and “Spirit” in the New Testament.

Jimmy Winfrey

Jimmy has served with Reaching and Teaching since 2015, including several years on the mission field in Ecuador. While continuing to travel overseas to train pastors, Jimmy now also works in mobilization, partnering with churches to send healthy, prepared workers into the harvest. Additionally, Jimmy is the Practicum Coordinator in which he collaborates with RTIM missionaries on the field to host students interested in cultivating a heart for missions. Jimmy is a 4 time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (B.A., MDiv, ThM, and PhD).  He is married to his wife Heather and together they have 6 children.

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