John Polhill writes in his commentary on Acts, “That the mission of the church is under the direct control of God is perhaps the strongest single theme in the theology of Acts.” God’s sovereignty in salvation is a major theme that is traced throughout the book of Acts as the gospel is taken from Jerusalem to the end of the earth. The growth of the church and the expansion of the gospel are both dependent on the sovereignty of God in salvation. Where the gospel goes, so goes God’s sovereignty. In fact, without God’s sovereign purposes, it seems that there would be no salvation of sinners. Divine sovereignty is crucial to every movement of the apostles and the early church.
From the replacement of Judas to the explanation of the cross of Christ, Luke painstakingly drives the point of God’s sovereignty over all things, especially salvation, home. Every account in the book of Acts proclaims the truth that God is in control. No matter how hopeless the situation looks, how sinful a person is, or how severe the persecution of Christians becomes, God is always portrayed as being in control, because he is. God’s sovereignty is the rock bed foundation on which every account in Acts stands.
The sovereignty of God can be seen from the beginning of Acts all the way through to the end. It would be helpful at this point to take a look at the advance of the gospel under the sovereign control of God through various passages that highlight God’s sovereignty in the progress of the church and the salvation of sinners.
Fulfillment of Scripture in Acts
One way that the sovereignty of God is conveyed in the book of Acts is through Luke’s repeated reference to the fulfillment of Scripture. Much that Luke records in Acts had to happen in order for Scripture to be fulfilled. In other words, many aspects of the advance of the church and the gospel were predetermined by God. This is important because every time Luke mentions the fulfillment of Scripture, only God can receive glory for the event. Polhill suggests that this is the “primary way” in which the providence of God is set. Let’s examine a few examples.
Replacement of Judas (1:16-21)
After Judas betrayed the Lord Jesus and committed suicide, “the Twelve” was left with merely eleven apostles. In the days following Jesus’ ascension, the apostles gathered together to devote themselves to prayer (1:14). In this time, Peter stood up and declared, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry” (1:16-17). The replacement of Judas was a necessity because the Scripture had to be fulfilled. This speaks both to the inspiration of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. Since Scripture had to be fulfilled, there is a divine sense of authority involved. And since Scripture had to be fulfilled, it is God, the supreme author of Scripture, who was in control of not only Judas’ replacement, but also his betrayal.
This goes to the heart of the nature of divine sovereignty. God is sovereign over both all good and evil. In the words of Thomas Schreiner, “God’s sovereign rule over all things does not mean that everything that occurs is intrinsically good.” Nevertheless, the gospel ministry that began with Christ and his twelve disciples is progressing under the sovereign rule of God.
Basis for Pentecost (2:16-21)
The event of Pentecost in Acts 2 is totally God-centered in the sense that it is an act of God in sending the Holy Spirit. Without this commission of the Spirit, the church would not have been built, and in a real sense the gospel would not be complete. However, there is a deeper sense in which God is glorified in the coming of the Spirit. He is glorified in his sovereignty over and behind Pentecost. Onlookers at the coming of the Spirit assumed the apostles had had a little too much to drink. The basis given for the pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 2 is the fulfillment of Scripture. This means that Pentecost was not a random event, but rather it was a necessary fulfillment of God’s Word. He is in control of the coming of the Spirit, which is the seal of the gospel’s success and advance.
Necessity of Christ’s Death and Resurrection (2:25-28, 34-35)
Scripture is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. Jim Hamilton writes, “Peter then seeks to prove, by quoting and explaining Psalm 16:8-11, that the definite plan of God was for the messiah to suffer and then enter his glory.” The death of the Son of God, as evil an act as the murder was, was most definitely not outside the sovereignty of God. God is sovereign over both good and evil. The Son of God was killed and raised from the dead, and this was not a surprise to God, as it was a fulfillment of Scripture. The gospel is only the gospel because God is sovereign over the death and resurrection of his Son.
Gentile Witness and Inclusion (13:47; 15:16-18)
God’s sovereignty is also seen in the Scripture’s fulfillment of Gentile witness and inclusion. Paul and Barnabas asserted that since the Jews had rejected the gospel, they were turning their gospel proclamation to the Gentiles (13:46). This special gospel witness to the Gentiles was not an invention or progressive ministry program of Paul and Barnabas, but rather is a fulfillment of Scripture. Gentile inclusion into the family of God was not a method developed in light of Jewish rejection, but rather a fulfillment of the plan of God initially declared in centuries past (15:16-18). God is in control of who receives the gospel, which no one deserves.
The advance of the gospel and even the gospel itself is a culmination of the unfolding of God’s eternal plan of salvation in which he demonstrates complete sovereignty. Paul sums this thought up quite clearly: “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (26:22-23). The theme of God’s sovereignty is conveyed in the repeated fulfillment of Scripture.
 John Polhill. Acts, vol. 26 in The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, ed. David S. Dockery. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992. p. 63
 Ibid. 63
 Thomas Schreiner. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. p. 141
 James M. Hamilton Jr. God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010. p. 425
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.