by Matt Perman
The Biblical teaching on the sovereignty of God is summed up well by the Westminister Confession of faith: "God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." The issue I wish to wrestle with in this article is the fact that God has, from all eternity, ordained all things that will happen (which would include evil), and yet is not the author of sin. How is this consistent? I believe that by examining what is meant by the terms "ordain" and "author of sin," we can come a long way in furthering our understanding.
As you read, keep in mind that I do not claim to be saying all that can be said, to know all about the way that God works, or to remove all difficulty and mystery in God's sovereignty. But I do wish to at least help people come to a greater understanding, in their own minds, of the sovereignty of God over moral evil.
What is meant by "ordain"?As we will see in the Scriptures below, God has not given control of history over to human beings or anyone else. He is in control, and this means that He has from all eternity ordained everything that will happen. But what does it mean to say that God has ordained everything that will happen?
First, it means that from all eternity, God decided what would happen in His creation. Without consulting anybody else and without being limited by anything outside of himself, God has decided what will happen--from the big things down to the smallest details. This plan that God has made is, taken as a whole, exactly the way that He wants it. The second thing that is mean by the phrase "ordain" is that God acts to bring about His plan. He does not just sit back and watch his plan be fulfilled by chance. God takes action to bring about what He has planned. In sum, the truth that God has ordained whatever comes to pass means that He (1) decides what will happen and then (2) makes it happen.
The testimony of ScriptureWe see this in many Scriptures. Ephesians 1:11 says "we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will..." First, notice that God works, or in other words "brings about," all things. Everything is brought about by God. Second, notice that God does this according to His own plan, "the counsel of His will." This plan was not governed by anything external to his own will. It is "the counsel of His will." Thus, "God both chooses what will happen and also works it out according to his plan."
In Romans 11:36 we read "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen." Thus, all things have their source in God's eternal decrees, all things are brought to pass by God's almighty power, and all things have as their ultimate goal God's glory. In Proverbs 21:1 we read "The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes." Daniel 4:35 says "And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, `What hast Thou done?'"
Since God controls all things, this means that evil is also under the control of God. We see this explicitly in many verses. Psalm 105:25, speaking of the Egyptians in the time period of the Exodus, says that God "turned their heart to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants."
In Isaiah 10:5-15 we read of how God used the wicked nation of Assyria to carry out his judgements upon Israel. In Deuteronomy 2:30 we read "But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today." The crucifixion of Christ, which was the most sinful human act in all of history, was said to have been according to "the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God" even though it was "by the hands of godless men" that Christ was put to death (Acts 2:23; see also 4:28).
The sovereignty of God over all things, including evil, is important for many reasons. This truth gives us peace of mind and security in a hostile world, for we know that our good God is sovereign over it all and is working for good. When bad things come to us through the sins of others, we can take comfort that God is working it all for our good. This truth also gives us wonder and awe as we marvel at how God can even use His enemies to accomplish His plans.
Understandably, however, for many people it is hard to be comfortable with this truth because of a pressing question: If God brings about all things, good and evil, why is he not the author of sin? As we saw in the Westminister confession of faith, and as we know from the Bible, a proper view of God's sovereignty believes both that God brings about all things, yet He is not the author of sin. How can this be?
What is meant by "author of sin"?We will come a long way to solving this difficulty if we understand what is meant by saying that God is not the "author of sin." It means at least five things:
1. God never commits sin. 2. God is not the positive cause of sin.3. God cannot be blamed for sin.4. God does not approve of sin. He hates it and justly punishes it.5. God does not ordain sin for its own sake.
God never sinsThe first thing we mean when we say "God is not the author of sin" is that God never commits sin. "I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (Deuteronomy 32:3-4, NIV). "There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!" (Romans 9:14).
Thus, an important distinction that we must make is that ordaining sin is not the same as doing sin. It would be entirely false, when speaking of God, to equate ordaining sin with committing sin. God ordains sin without committing sin Himself. Gordon Clark gives some helpful illustrations at this point: "....it should be evident that God no more commits sin than he is writing these words. Although the betrayal of Christ was foreordained from eternity as a means of effecting the atonement, it was Judas, not God, who betrayed Christ. The secondary causes in history are not eliminated by divine causality, but rather they are made certain."
God is not the positive cause of sinGod is behind good and evil in different ways. From the verses we saw above, it is clear that God is the cause of all things. However, we must understand that God is behind evil in a different way than He is behind good. He is behind good in a way that renders Him fully deserving of all of the credit for it, but He is behind evil in such a way that He deserves none of the blame for it. D.A. Carson explains it like this: "To put it bluntly, God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to him: it is always chargeable to the secondary agents, to secondary causes [i.e., those who actually do it]. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to him, and only derivatively to secondary agents...If this sound just a bit too convenient for God, my initial response (though there is more to be said) is that according to the Bible this is the only God there is."
Different kinds of causes. If we understand the differences between the ultimate cause, positive cause, and negative cause, it will help us to see why God deserves all of the credit for good, but none of the blame for evil. The ultimate cause is what brings about the event. Without this cause, the event won't happen. With this cause, the event will happen. Thus, the ultimate cause determines the outcome. But the ultimate cause can bring about the effect in different ways. It can act by means of a positive influence, which means directly influencing the object to make it act. In this case it functions as the positive cause, and would deserve credit for the action brought about. On the other hand, the ultimate cause can act by means of a negative influence, which means withholding certain influences to the extent that the desired result is brought about. In this case the ultimate cause functions as the negative cause.
With this in mind, there are two extremes to avoid. The first would be to deny that God is the ultimate cause of all things. This view would say that sin occurs apart from the plan of God, that God is not the sovereign controller of sin. This error would have to ignore many of the verses we saw above. The other extreme would be to affirm that God is the positive cause of sin. This error would be saying that sin proceeds from God and that he injects fresh evil into people's hearts to make them sin. This error would seem to say that God is the morally guilty cause of sin and would have to ignore verses such as James 1:13 "Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone."