God works sovereignly through means. This has become such an important idea to me, a crucial piece of the theological puzzle in my own mind. God controls all things, directs all things, but does so usually not directly and immediately, but through means, and especially the means which He has appointed. So He sanctifies the believer, but does not normally do so in some immediate mystical fashion. He works through the preaching of the word, through the sacraments, through prayer. He works through the exhortations of family members and other believers. He converts people to faith, but rarely does so through some vision or message in the sky. He does so through relationships, through sicknesses, through prosperity and poverty.
The idea of God working through means is so important because I believe it helps us steer away from errors on both sides. On the one hand, some deny the sovereign working of God, and look to the events of this life as determinative. On the other, some who believe in God’s sovereignty lapse into fatalism and seem to think it doesn’t matter what anyone does. Very often Christians would not explicitly express either of those errors, yet it is easy for this thinking to creep in- either that it’s all up to us, that our environments or backgrounds or blind chance are what determines what happens in this life; or that it doesn’t matter at all what we do one way or another. So for example one Christian looks at the warnings of Scripture against falling away (Hebrews 6 for example) and lives in terror of losing his salvation; another Christian looks at that same warning and ignores it since he believes that he is elect.
But if we can remember that God is sovereign, then we will know that God certainly is sovereign; God certainly preserves His elect, but that He does so through means. So the believer will look at those same warning passages and take them to heart, carefully considering those warnings, and will thus reveal himself to be elect. God has sovereignly preserved this believer in the faith, but has done so through the means of the word of God.
As believers therefore Scripture calls us to have full comfort and confidence in a sovereign God, and to know how that God has elected to work, through the means that He has appointed. Therefore we will look for God’s work through those means and diligently lay hold of them in our lives. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13)