Friday, January 18, 2008

The Sovereignty of God Over Evil - Part 3

by Matt Perman

God cannot be blamed for sin.
Because of these things, it should be clear that God cannot be blamed for our sins. They are our own fault because we are the ones who do them, God is not forcing us to do them but simply making use of the evil that we are by nature, and because God is behind good and evil in different ways. He is the ultimate cause of sin, but not the morally guilty cause of it.

Another thing is that if God, as Sovereign King of the universe, has the power to control all things, surely we must also ascribe to Him the wisdom to control things in such a way that the guilt falls upon the creatures for their sins and as Moral Governor of the universe He can justly hold them accountable for their sins. In other words, God's creative, sovereign power is not simply something that brings about your choices, but is also able to establish it as your choice in such a way that responsibility lies with you and not Him.

These things, together with one more thing that we are going to examine in Part II of this article, are very helpful to my mind in showing how it is consistent that God controls sin, yet is never guilty of sin. But even if they don't fully appeal to your mind, it would still be wrong to blame God for sin. This is because Scripture rejects such a terrible conclusion. According to Scripture, it is our own fault when we sin and we are justly held responsible for them. We must accept what Scripture teaches even if we cannot fully understand how it fits together. The long and the short of it is this: we are accountable for our actions because God says we are. Since God always speaks the truth, this then it is just for Him to hold us accountable for all that we do.

God does not approve of sin. He hates it and justly punishes it.
The fourth thing it means for God to not be the author of sin is that God does not approve of sin. In other words, we should not conclude from God's sovereignty that He is pleased with sin or that it is not wrong. Habakkuk 1:13 says "Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor." Luke 22:22 says "For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!" But why does God ordain sin if He does not approve of it? This brings us to our last point.

God does not ordain sin for its own sake
When God ordains a sinful action, it is not for the sake of the sin itself. Rather, it is for the sake of bringing about a greater good. This is important for a proper understanding of God's sovereignty: when God ordains evil it is always for the sake of bringing about a greater good.

When humans sin, we do it because we delight in the sin. Our intentions are for evil. But God does not ordain sin because He delights in it. Rather, His intentions are for good. He ordains evil because He delights in the good that He plans to bring out of it. We see this, for example, in the life of Joseph. His brothers, out of hatred, had beat him up and sold him into slavery. But many years later, when Joseph saw his brothers again, he said "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20).

Let me give an example. If somebody were to, out of the blue, take a knife and cut open your stomach, they would be doing wrong. But if you are in the hospital and a doctor takes a knife and cuts you open, he has done nothing wrong. In both cases, the person is doing the same thing--cutting open your stomach. And in both cases, they are doing something that causes pain. But the first person is sinning and the doctor is not. The reason for this lies in their intentions. The first person is committing sin because He doesn't have good reason for what he is doing--he has evil intentions. But the doctor is doing good because his intentions are to save your life by removing a cancerous tumor from your stomach. It is the same way with God's control of evil. Since His purposes are for good, He is not doing anything wrong.

To expand upon the illustration, imagine that the knife the surgeon uses is "alive." The knife knows what it is doing, and has evil intentions. It takes pleasure in cutting upon your stomach, not because it wants you to be made well, but simply because it delights in causing pain. The knife's involvement in this situation would be evil. But that would not make the surgeon's involvement evil, because his intentions are still good. We would not blame the surgeon for the evil intentions of its knife. In the same way, God often uses evil people to accomplish His good purposes. But God cannot be blamed for their sin anymore than the surgeon could be blamed for the sinfulness of its knife.

This brings us to the distinction between God's moral will and His sovereign will. God's moral will is what He wants in and of itself. It is what is agreeable to His nature, and thus pleases Him. It is recorded in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, and we are required to obey it. Do not kill, do not lie, do not steal, etc., are all expressions of God's moral will.

God's sovereign will, on the other hand, is what He brings to pass in history. It is what He wants to occur, all things considered. God's moral will only involves good things, whereas God's sovereign will includes evil as part of His plan. While God often allows His moral will to be resisted, His sovereign will cannot be resisted. It is always accomplished.

Perhaps the best example is the crucifixion of Christ. God's moral will says "Do not kill." Yet, the crucifixion could not occur without sinful people violating this command and murdering the innocent Son of God. As we saw earlier, the crucifixion had been ordained by God from all eternity. Thus, God's moral will was "do not kill," but his sovereign will was that they would crucify Christ.

John Piper gives a helpful illustration here. God has the capacity to look at any event through two lenses, a wide angle lens and a narrow angle lens. When God looks at an evil act through the narrow lens, He sees it for what it is in itself and abhors it. This is His moral will. But when God steps back and looks at that event in the wide angle lens, He sees it in relation to all the events flowing up to it and flowing out from it. He sees it in relation to the good that He plans to bring out of it and its overall place in His wise plan. This is His sovereign will. It is in this sense that He wants it to occur and thus ordains it.

Thus, while evil is bad, it is a good thing that God ordains it to occur. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, "Evil is an evil thing, and yet it may be a good thing that evil should be in the for instance, it might be an evil thing to crucify Christ, but yet it was a good thing that the crucifying of Christ came to pass. As men's act, it was evil, but as God ordered it, it was good."[10]

Having seen what is meant by the phrases "ordain" and "author of sin," we should now have a more accurate understanding of God's sovereignty. Further, our examination of this truth has also shown that it is logically consistent to affirm that God sovereignly controls all things, yet is not the author of sin. I do not claim to have said everything that could be said, nor do I deny that many things that would help us understand the issue more are not in our grasp while we are on earth. But I propose these insights for the sake of promoting greater understanding, consistency, and thought on this issue. Finally, we must remember that the goal of this article is not to cause an unbalanced focus on this issue, but to clear away obstacles and possible misunderstandings so that people who have problems accepting the sovereignty of God over evil will come to accept it, and that people who do believe it can have a more accurate understanding. The end of this all is that God be glorified as we apply the great truths of His sovereignty.[11]

God controls all things without being the author of sin.

1. Westminister Confession of Faith, 3.1. Reproduced in full in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Intervarsity Press and Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), pp. 1179-1196).

2. John Feinberg, "God, Freedom, and Evil in Calvinist Thinking," in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), p. 465.

3. I wish to make a quick comment here about the position which affirms that God is control, yet also affirms that He does not determine everything that happens. This view tries to say that God is in control, yet many things happen that He does not ultimately want, all things considered (I say all things considered because I am speaking of God's sovereign will, not His moral will. This is an important distinction, which I deal with under the heading "God does not ordain sin for its own sake," above). This position is not only contrary to the Scriptures we have just seen, it is also inconsistent with itself. To say that A is in control of B is to say that Adecides what B will do and causes it to do those things. To the extent B does things that A does not want it to do, A's control is frustrated. Thus, if B does things that A does not want it to it, to that extent it is not in control. Applying this to the sovereignty of God, we see this: to the extent that creation does what God does not, all things considered, want it to do, to that extent His control is frustrated. Thus, if God does not determine everything that happens, we cannot speak of Him as being in control because His control would very often be frustrated. We can only affirm that He is completely in control if we affirm that He ordains everything that will happen.

The Scriptures we have seen above very clearly show that God determines all things. An especially relevant text which shows that God has in no way limited His control is Psalm 135:6, which says "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps." If God wants to do something, He does it. "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does." Thus, for anything that happens, if God had not wanted it to occur, all things considered, He would have prevented it. We see this also in Isaiah 46:10, where God says that "I will accomplish all My good pleasure." There is therefore nothing that God wants to happen, all things considered, that will be left undone.

4. This is only a small sampling of the Scriptures that teach God's control over evil. For a collection of many others, see the list I have made, The Sovereignty of God, or my article The Amazing Providence of God.

5. Gordon Clark, God and Evil: The Problem Solved, (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1996), p. 53.

6. D.A. Carson, Reflections About Suffering and Evil: How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), p. 213.

6. Here is a relevant quote by Edwards: "It would be strange arguing, indeed, because men never commit sin, but only when God leaves them to themselves, and necessarily sin when he does so, that therefore their sin is not from themselves, but from God; and so, that God must be a sinful being: as strange as it would be to argue, because it is always dark when the sun is gone, and never dark when the sun is present, that therefore all darkness is from the sun, and that his disk and beams must needs be black" (from On the Freedom of the Will, part IV section IX).

8. The gist of this section is that the potentiality and source of sin lies in the human heart, but the determination of how this source manifests itself in actuality is by God. A closer look at the means in which God shapes the way the human heart exereses itself will be covered in part II of this article. That article will also cover God's sovereignty over our good choices more in-depth. At this point one may wonder about why Christians sin, for they have had their hearts changed to become good. However, while our hearts have been made new, they are not yet perfectly new. We still have remnants of sin left in us. God continually is working in our lives to cause us to overcome the sin that is left in us and make us more holy. But we will not have perfectly holy hearts until we die and God removes the final remnants of original sin.

9. While not directly related to our task of trying to show the consistency between God's sovereignty and human responsibility, it is important to understand the difference between general permission and specific permission in order to have a more accurate view of God's sovereignty. Specific permission means that God could have prevented the particular thing that happened, but He willingly chose to let it happen in order to fulfill a greater purpose. Thus, each and every thing that God permits is permitted because it is part of His plan--because He wants that specific event to happen. Specific permission, in other words, means that if God permits something, it is because He wants it to occur, all things considered. God only permits what He has purposed, and everything that God permits in this sense happens.

General permission, on the other hand, would mean that disobedient actions are not specifically permitted because God planned them to occur; instead, He permits disobedience in the sense that He gave us the free choice and made it possible for us to disobey. But, on this view, no specific disobedient actions were part of God's plan. Rather, they are simply the unfortunate consequence of free will, and not a part of a plan that God is enacting to bring the greatest glory to Himself. Obviously, the Scriptures teach specific permission. When God permits something, it is a specific--directive--permission.

10. Jonathan Edwards, "Concerning the Divine Decrees in General and Election in Particular," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, volume II, (Banner of Truth, 1995 reprint), pp. 525-543.

11. See my article The Importance of Providence.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.

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