by Matt Perman
The correct view seems to be that God is the ultimate cause of sin, but He is not the positive cause of sin. Therefore, He cannot be blamed for sin. In other words, God causes sin by withholding goodness, rather than by injecting evil. God does not produce the sin in people's hearts. Rather, it proceeds from their own hearts. God simply withholds the grace that would change the hearts, and thus is the ultimate cause but not the positive, or morally guilty, cause.
Let me give an example from Jonathan Edwards. The day occurs because the sun produces its light and bathes the earth in it. The light is directly produced and given by the sun. Thus, the sun is the positive cause of the day. Now imagine that for reasons of its own, the sun suddenly transferred to another solar system. Darkness would result on the earth. The sun would not be the positive cause of the darkness, but the negative cause, because the darkness is not something that was produced by the sun and imposed upon the earth, but was rather the result of the earth being left to its own nature. Thus, the sun could not be considered the morally guilty cause of the darkness. The sun would be, however, the ultimate cause of this darkness, because its actions determined whether the earth would be light or dark. The sun could have chosen to stay, and daylight would have remained. By choosing to leave, darkness resulted.
Likewise, God is the ultimate cause of evil, but not the morally guilty cause. Evil results by His withholding the grace that would have prevented it, not by His producing sin. Thus, God gets the credit for the good because He is the positive cause of it--He directly produces the goodness in a Christian's heart that causes him to do good actions. But he gets none of the blame for sin because He does not produce sin in people's hearts, but directs it by means of negative causation.
To further clarify this point, let us continue a little further. We must remember that we are all born sinful. Because of Adam's sin, we all come into the world with sinful hearts. Thus, God doesn't cause sin by taking righteous people and making them do what they don't want to. He does not inject sinful desires into people. Rather, we are already sinful. God simply leaves us to our own natures and makes use of the evil that is already there. Thus, we are responsible for our sinful actions because they proceed from our own heart. The source of sin is in the human heart, not God. What God does is divide, arrange, and direct the sin in the human heart, so that it manifests itself according to His purposes. God is sovereign over it because He arranges and shapes the form in which sin will express itself in. But we are accountable for it because it flows from our own hearts, not God. This helps us to understand the Scriptures which speak of God hardening someone's heart: God causes the heart to be hard not by injecting fresh evil into it, but by withdrawing His restraining grace so that the heart does what comes natural to it--become more rebellious.
As should be clear from this paragraph, when I speak of negative causation I am not saying that God simply leaves a person to their own sinful nature, and that is all there is to it. God also directs the degree of evil in a person's heart by hardening it by means of negative causation or, if He wants to restrain evil, He softens the heart by means of positive causation. It seems that He also directs circumstances in order to insure that the sinful nature will carry out the specific sins that He has planned. For example, we read in 1 Kings 22:19-23 of God sending a deceiving spirit to "entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead." God's action in letting Ahab be deceived was not simply a "hands off" (see also 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). But the truth of negative causation shows us that God is never the fountain, or producer, of sin. God was not the positive cause of Ahab's sin. However, negative causation, as I pointed out in the previous paragraph, does not deny that God makes use of the sin that is already there or that He orchestrates the circumstances in order to direct the expression of the sinful nature.
In other words, negative causation shows that sinfulness is not in a person's heart because God produced it, but because He withheld the grace that would have eliminated the sin. But God does direct the degree of sinfulness in the heart and arrange the form in which the sin of the heart manifests itself by means of negative causation (withdrawing His restraining grace even more and thus hardening the heart), and/or by orchestrating circumstances so that the sin that He has ordained will be carried out.
Finally, the instance in first Kings also shows us the truth of "secondary causation." Simply put, God Himself is not the one who enticed Ahab to sin. Rather, God brought this about through a secondary cause--namely, the lying spirit that was sent. The fact of secondary causes makes it easier to see how God can use circumstances to bring about a sin that He has ordained, and yet not be the positive cause of that sin.
To bring this all together in greater clarity, let me offer this summary: The sin in the human heart is not produced by God. Rather, He is the negative cause of it because He is permitting it to exist when He could change it. Further, it seems that God uses negative causation and secondary causation to specifically direct the course of human sin. But God does this in such a way that He is never the positive cause of sin--that is, he is never the producer of evil in a person's heart. If a person sins or if their heart becomes more evil, it is by means of negative causation and secondary causes. Keep in mind, however, that I am not claiming to be giving--or to know--the full explanation of the way God's sovereignty over evil works.
Someone may object that, since God ultimately allowed us to fall into sin in the first place, sin is not our fault. But this objection does not work. God originally created humans morally good and blameless in Adam. Adam then sinned of His own accord. Yes, it was God's plan and He could have prevented it. Yet God cannot be blamed because He did not force Adam to sin, but withheld the grace that would have prevented it. To be sure, it was not a case of God not doing enough to make it possible for Adam to obey or that God necessarily took away grace from Adam. Rather, it seems God probably withheld the further grace that would have necessarily kept Adam from sinning. Thus, we often say that God permitted Adam to sin.
What is meant when we speak of God permitting something? This distinction between positive and negative causes shows why we sometimes speak of God as "permitting" something. When we speak of divine permission, we are not saying that God gave control of the situation over to the human will to let it do whatever it would. Rather, we are referring to the means that God used to bring about the action he had ordained. We aren't denying that God caused it, but are trying to get across the fact that God is behind good in a different way than He is behind evil. Thus, we speak of God "permitting" something. We mean that He could have prevented it, but deliberately withheld the grace that would have prevented it.
While that last statement has proved very helpful in clarifying my understanding, it is incomplete by itself. As we saw earlier, God's permission doesn't mean that he ceases being involved in the situation. God is still controlling the situation. Permission refers to the means God uses to control the situation. Thus, we must understand that God's permission is a directive permission. This means that God, by means of negative causation, is able to so arrange the situation that the option that He has ordained will necessarily occur.
We saw a glimpse at how God does this in our discussion of negative causation and secondary causes. In the book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Lorainne Boettner, there is an insight that will perhaps shed more light on how God uses negative causation to direct the course of sin: "Our sinful natures will always go to the boundary set by the permission of God. Hence, God's bounding of sin renders certain what and how much will come to pass. Satan could go no farther with Job than God permitted; but it is certain that he would go as far as God allowed." God's permission is like a fence that He puts around sin. He can move the fence to give sin a large area, or a small area, and sin will always go to the boundary permitted by God. Thus, God can determine what sin will do by setting its boundaries at the spots that will bring about what He has ordained.