Note: All bible references noted in this post are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
You're probably familiar with Psalm 115:3? It reads, But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.
That's a good description of God's sovereignty. He does whatever pleases Him. We could say that God has the power and authority to do whatever He pleases - but that is implied in, "He does whatever He pleases." So that'll be our working definition: God's sovereignty means that He has the power and authority to do whatever He pleases.
In Genesis 2:19 we read:
Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.
Adam was obeying God in naming the animals - his obedience, and presumably his creativity - were both pleasing God. Adam was given the authority to name the animals, but it was God who gave him that authority. God did not become less sovereign for delegating his authority to Adam.
I really can't imagine anyone having an honest nit to pick with anything I have said so far.
The point is that God's sovereignty doesn't lose anything when He delegates a task to someone (or something) that obeys Him.
I say, "or something" in that last sentence because I think of natural laws, such as gravity as obeying the function for which God created them. That is, when an apple falls to the ground, it is obeying the law of gravity - it follows that God intends for apples to fall to the ground (how else will their seeds find purchase in the earth?). I don't believe that God needs to personally intervene in creation to cause each apple that falls from a tree to fall.
I am not saying that God is unaware of a falling apple. I am saying that when an apple falls, it falls in accord with God's created order. As the season continues the apple grows, and eventually the stem is no longer able to bear the weight of the apple, and it falls, where it eventually breaks down so that its fruit can nurture the soil in the very spot where the seeds have fallen. Gravity is part of that design, and we who look at creation and see its design, see in that design the will of the Creator.
That is, incidentally why we are all without an excuse before God - anyone who sees a tree knows that the seed that formed that tree would not have formed that tree unless the natural laws at work in the world were in place. These laws are what keep the earth producing fruit.
What about where it says that God ...causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous...? (c.f. Matthew 5:45) Doesn't that imply that God is especially making the sun to shine and the rain to fall on everyone?
Yeah - it means that, but not in the "Divine Intevention" kind of way. It just means that God does not have one set of natural laws for saints, and another for sinners.
In Luke 13, our Lord addresses some of the bad theology that was present in the crowd who were questioning Him. From the context we conclude that they believed that people became righteous by obeying the law, and that some people were righteous, and others were not - based (presumably) on their level of obedience - either to the word of God, or to the oral traditions of the Pharisees (or both). But righteousness is not produced by keeping the law, much less by observing traditions that God did not ordain.
The scriptures tell us plainly that the law does not make anyone righteous, it just teaches us that we are not righteous - and thus that we need a savior.
James, the brother of our Lord, writes an answer for anyone who imagines that in "keeping the law" you became "righteous". Because even if you do manage to keep some portion of the law - it counts for nothing ( cf. James 2:10, For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all). So even if you manage to do some of the law, it doesn't count for anything, unless you keep it all.
Paul likewise (quoting from ) Psalm 53), writes in Romans 3:10 that ...there is none righteous, not even one. There really isn't anyone who is righteous, which is why we need the righteousness of Christ as our own if we are to pass through the judgment unscathed.
With this theology in place, we find the crowd in the opening verses of Luke 13 asking the Lord questions about those Galileans that Pilate had put to death. From the context we imagine that these Galileans were involved in offering sacrifices to God at the time they were slaughtered by some Roman soldiers who were under Pilate's command.
It seems (given our Lord's replay) that the crowd was trying to figure why God allowed this to happen. What did they do to deserve this?
Our Lord's answers them as follows in Luke 13:2-5:
And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
When our Lord rhetorically asks, "Do you suppose that those 18 were worse sinners?" the implied answer is, that no - these 18 were no worse sinners than anyone else.
Sin is in the world, and death through sin (c.f. Romans 5:12) - it all goes back to Adam's sin. He brought death into this world, and people die because death is with us. Creation itself was cursed, mankind in particular was cursed. I will one day die of some malady or other, unless violence finds me sooner, be it accidental or otherwise. So will you. God has put those laws in effect, and so we suffer the curse, and God is the one who put it there.
Let me say that another way - it is God's will that everyone who dies, ... dies. If it wasn't God's will, it wouldn't happen that way.
But that isn't the same as saying that God personally comes down and murders each one of us when it's our time to go.
God can be sovereign, without having to order everything in creation by an ongoing, all encompassing act of Divine Intervention.
So I don't view the sovereignty of God as God directing the path of every elementary particle in the universe - knowing where it is, and moving it to where it will go, so that every electron that orbits it's atom in my body is being micro-managed by God, and so that I, along with all of creation, am truly just a puppet in an ongoing play that God is directing.
It is clear from the scriptures that God does intervene. No one in this sinful world can be saved apart from God's direct intervention in their sinful lives. No, not even one.
If God did not intervene, none of us would be saved. None of us would seek after God, not even one of us! (so says the Holy Spirit who inspired Paul to write Romans 3).
So when we talk about "free will" vs. the "sovereignty of God" - I believe that we are only "free" to do those things we are actually capable of doing. Even as the leopard cannot change its spots, so those who have inherited death from Adam cannot produce any act of righteousness because there is no righteousness within them that would produce it.
Let me unwrap that a bit.
Jesus didn't "become" righteous by obeying the law. He was able to obey the law because he was already righteous. In fact the law served two purposes - it showed everyone but Christ that they were not righteous, and it showed Christ that He was righteous. He didn't start off neutral and become righteous - he was righteous, and his life testified to that - even as your life testifies to you that in you, just as in the Apostle Paul, no (morally) good thing dwells.
When Adam brought death into the world, he brought a separation from God, who is life. Being cut off from God, is to be cut off from life - and from God's righteousness. Make no mistake, we sin because there is no middle ground between righteousness and unrighteousness. We are either the one or the other - and whichever we are, that is the source of all that we do, and it saturates all that we do.
That is why no one can come to Christ, apart from God drawing them - because coming to Christ is something that only a righteous person can do, and no one is righteous. That is why salvation is an act of God from beginning to end. It begins while we are yet sinners, with God drawing us to Himself, and culminates in our salvation when we receive the life of Christ, and become able - through that life - to live righteously (genuinely so) insofar as we obey the life of Christ within us, rather than our old sinful life which continues to remain with us - though we are no longer slaves to its desires.
The point is, that this cursed world obeys a set of natural laws that we cannot escape. We all die, and that is something God has sovereignly ordained on account of the fall. The truth is we will not come to God unless God draws us, so that the only reason anyone is saved is because they were given the ability to call upon the name of the Lord in earnest - an ability that cannot spring from anyone who is born dead in their sin and trespasses. It is only through divine intervention that any of us come to know our Lord. It is only through divine intervention that any prayer is answered by God. It is only through divine intervention that any (saved) sinner is able to obey the Spirit of Christ within him. God is sovereign - but he isn't micromanaging the sinful world.
He still brings judgment against nations, and the like - and he, being the one who has cursed the earth, is the cause of any calamity that comes from it - since no calamity befalls us apart from the natural laws that God has set in place to govern us. But in the case of those whom God has chosen to redeem? These live lives sprinkled generously with moments of intervention.
By that I don't mean lives filled with miracles like walking on water, etc. I mean lives wherein God's children are chastised, for their greater good, where they are taught through the emptiness of their sinful choices to repent of what gives them no rest, and cling to the life of Christ that was put into them the moment God granted them the ability to repent and believe the gospel.
In summary: We live in a sinful world where no one is seeking the Lord or can seek him apart from Divine Intervention. We live in a world wherein God is sovereign without having to control the minutia of reality through an ongoing act of divine intervention. God rather has set in place laws that obey him, and contains creation within these laws, so that all of creation is subject to these laws. For the believer, God transcends these laws, first in saving them, then in keeping them, and eventually in bringing them to glory.
I reject the notion that God is controlling all things in a way that suggests that God causes one person to believe, while "causing" another to not believe. The fall and the curse "cause" people not to seek God, and make it impossible for anyone to be saved. But God will do all that he pleases, and it has pleased God to elect some of us sinners, to salvation - and it pleased God to draw those sinners to himself such that not a single one will be lost. And it pleased God to do this through the life of Christ, which is imparted when God grants one of his elect the ability to receive the gospel as true, and grants that believer the grace to repent and receive the life of Christ.