The Lord’s sovereign government and control over all things a “bone of contention” throughout the ages.
The pelagian and determinist do not face the problem but evade it. The pelagian would “solve” the problem simply by denying the absolute sovereignty of the Lord and maintaining the will of man as wholly independent of the living God. He prides himself in the fact that he gives due place to the responsibility of man and accuses the man of reformed persuasion that he neglects to stress the importance of the truth of man’s responsibility. It is well that we bear this in mind, also in our present day. However, the pelagian confuses man’s freedom with sovereignty. According to the pelagian conception of things, the will of man is inherently good, is good as far as its root is concerned. He is able to do the good. Moreover, all things are dependent upon this will of man, and it is man, not God, who determines his salvation. Of course, maintaining this conception of things we simply lose God as the Sovereign Ruler over all things, and have no eye for the stern reality that all men sin, are all alike as far as their spiritual condition is concerned, but only few are saved. Why is it, if all men are inherently good, that all become corrupt and that only a few are saved?! The pelagian is surely at a complete loss to explain this phenomenon. He cannot account for the universal corruption of the human race. The pelagian, we understand, denies original pollution, that the corruption of Adam is transmitted to the entire human race, and teaches that all men are born inherently good. One might conceivably understand, upon the basis of pelagianism, that some of the children of men would choose the way of sin and corruption but that the vast majority of men would walk in the way of the Lord’s commandments. But, how can the pelagian possibly explain the tremendous phenomenon that all are conceived and born in sin, change the glory of the incorruptible God, and seek, without a single exception, the things that are below? Indeed, the pelagian has no explanation for the universal phenomenon of sin.
The deterministic conception of matters goes to the other extreme and “explains” this problem by the simple expedient of denying man’s responsibility. According to this view man is merely a machine. He is moved by the hand of the Lord without any action on his part. He is merely a pawn upon the chess board of the Lord. This operation of the Lord simply takes place through the will and mind of man. Man is wholly passive, is simply “pushed about” by the Lord. Such is the deterministic conception of things. Also this presentation we must and do wholly reject, although it is true that our churches have been falsely accused of this heresy by the enemies of God’s sovereignty. This deterministic conception has no place for the truth that man is a moral rational, responsible being.
In Reformed circles we are confronted, in connection with this problem of the Lord’s providence and sin, first of all with the weak infralapsarian conception of sin. The word, “infralapsarian,” derived from the word, “infra-lapsis,” means literally: under the fall. The exponents of this conception place election and reprobation, in God’s counsel, as following upon the fall of man, prefer to speak of sin as taking place with the Lord’s permission, and therefore believe that God has elected and reprobated out of a fallen humanity. It is well to bear in mind that the infralapsarian-supralapsarian controversy is applicable and refers only to the counsel of God. Reprobation, according to the infralapsarian, is therefore merely the Lord’s decree to leave people in their sin and death. The motive and purpose prompting this conception is to refrain from making God the author of sin. Recoiling from making the Lord the author of sin (incidentally, the supralapsarian also recoils from presenting God as the author of sin), infralapsarianism would rather proceed, in the counsel of God, from mankind as fallen and makes no effort to explain the phenomenon of sin in the counsel of the Lord. This infralapsarian view of sin and grace, however, is surely quite unsatisfactory. First of all, it does not explain the strong expressions which occur in holy writ which touch upon this matter. We will have more to say about this presently. However, we may safely remark at this time that this objection of the supralapsarian against the infralapsarian conception of sin and grace is readily granted by the exponents of the latter view who readily admit that they fail to do justice to these strong Scriptural expressions. Secondly, it fails to answer to its purpose. The infralapsarian purposes to avoid making the Lord the author of sin. But, I pray, what is more cruel: a God Who causes man to fall, or a God who can prevent the fall but nevertheless permits it to happen and then leaves the sinner in his sin and death whom he is able to save? Do not misunderstand me. Neither the infralapsarian nor the supralapsarian ascribes cruelty to the Lord. God is never cruel, not even when He plunges the wicked into hell. This may never be confused with divine cruelty. But, the question is whether the infralapsarian succeeds in avoiding the error of making the Lord the author of sin by the simple expedient of declaring that the Lord permitted sin and then leaves men in their common misery. And the answer is an unmistakable No. Thirdly, infralapsarianism, according to our conviction, is fundamentally dualistic. Dualism, as well as the antithetical conception of things, speaks of light and darkness, life and death, as contrasted with one another. But the antithetical conception of things explains this contrast as originating in the one source, the only true God, whereas Dualism presents them as having a two-fold origin, always opposing one another and with the outcome in doubt. When we say that infralapsarianism is fundamentally dualistic we realize that the infralapsarian does not ascribe sin to another source. He simply does not explain its origin, proceeds from the reality of sin in the counsel of God. However, infralapsarianism is dualistic in the sense that it places sin in God’s counsel without explaining its origin and therefore as independently of the Lord. Far better, to be sure, is the supralapsarian conception of sin and grace. This view places, in God’s counsel, the decree of election and reprobation as prior to the fall of man. Creation and the fall of man are but God’s sovereign means to realize His sovereign decree with respect to the eternal salvation and perdition of men. The Lord has sovereignly willed to reveal His amazing love and grace antithetically, in the eternal condemnation of the sinner (whom He has willed eternally) and in the salvation of His own through sin and death into heavenly and everlasting glory.
We are confronted here with a difficult problem. The difficulty of this problem, as we see it, does not lie in the proposition as such: God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Both propositions are clearly set forth and emphasized in the Word of God. God is sovereign and man is a responsible being. We must not confuse these propositions or in any sense of the word detract from them. We must never explain them at the cost of one another and may therefore never explain them as parallel to each other. This surely implies that we must never explain the responsibility of man at the cost of the sovereignty of the Lord. Man’s responsibility must be viewed in the light of God’s sovereignty and may therefore never be identified or confused with sovereign, determining freedom. The difficulty, however, lies here: how can the holy God direct the actions of men, of evil men, so that we do no injustice to man’s responsibility and still maintain that God is holy and righteous. Sin may be sovereignly of the Lord, but man does the sin. We now purpose to call attention to this problem in connection with our present series of articles on the providence of God.
A statement of the issue as such.
First, we need not call attention at this time to the concept: Providence of God. We have already called attention to the truth that God’s providence is His almighty and omnipresent power whereby He sustains and governs all things so that everything must work together unto the realization of that eternal goal and purpose which God has sovereignly willed from before the foundation of the world.
Secondly, we are confronted with the reality of sin. This fact as such we surely cannot deny. Even the most optimistic of human beings must acknowledge the fact of sin. One may refuse to glorify God and have no consciousness of sin in the spiritual and Scriptural sense of the word. But who would have the courage, the brazen effrontery today to lay claim to perfection? Such an one might conceivably be considered beside himself. The daily murders, the ever increasing rumors of war, the constant violations and misdemeanors speak only too emphatically of the jealousy and hatred which governs the children of men. Besides, anyone who is somewhat acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, yea, who has learned by the power of the grace of God what it means to be a sinner surely understands the fact of sin and iniquity. Hence, what tremendous phenomenon is this reality of evil. At the dawn of creation, when all the handiwork of the Lord united in singing praises unto the living God, when not a single defect marred the whole creation, sin entered this world and caused all things to become subject to the curse of the almighty and fearful God. Death and destruction it left in its wake. Sickness and misery, care and sorrows are our lot. Moreover, there is the fact of sin itself. We are all conceived and born in sin. What an iniquity abounds upon the face of the earth! Scripture and also our own experience impress upon us the reality that the powers of hell and darkness are ever attempting to subject this earth unto themselves. And, what is more, it seems that they are permitted to continue unmolested, mocking at God and His Christ, making of His Church the plaything of the ages. Indeed, whoever understands the terrible Scriptural truth that there is none that doeth good, no not one, that all have departed from the living God, that all men, without a single exception, are dead in sin and trespasses, understands very clearly, in all its horror, the fearful phenomenon of sin and its accompanying curse of the living God. Is it not a fearful thing that, following upon the sin of Adam and Eve in paradise, every person entering this vale of tears has been conceived and born in sin and death without a single exception? And is it not an equally fearful thing that the entire creation lies underneath the curse of God and that all things have been subjected to the power of death and corruption?
Having now the providence of the Lord and the reality of sin with all its accompanying results clearly before us, we face the question: What is the connection as such between them, according to holy writ, without as yet discussing the question how they are actually related to one another. In due time we will attempt to offer an interpretation, an explanation of this relation. Now we are merely concerned with the issue as such. What does Scripture tell us concerning the relation of sin to the providence of the Lord?
In connection with this question, we wish to state at the very outset that the child of God certainly demands a Scriptural explanation of God’s Providence and sin. I must have an explanation, first of all, because of the fact of the power of sin. We must indeed cope with this power of sin and the accompanying curse of the living God in our lives. Sin and sickness and death are realities in our lives and our hearts surely cry for an explanation. But, we must also deal with the power of sin in the world about us. That wicked world hates God and His Christ and His Church. Seemingly they may proceed unmolested in their wickedness. It is for the child of God of the greatest significance to know whether God is God or whether that world rages against the Lord and His Anointed as having power in itself, and that therefore the cause of God’s righteousness must suffer hurt and remain in doubt even until the end. Will the Church of the living God gain the triumph ultimately and at a tremendous cost? Will the cause of the living God be compelled to pay dearly for its victory? Will we be saved but never be able to forget the scars which were inflicted upon us? Secondly, however, and this is indeed far more important than what we have just mentioned, my soul cries for an explanation because of God. The Name of God and the glory of the Lord are surely at stake. This, we say, is of much greater importance. For He is my God, is He not? Him I love, that eternal, only true God. My soul must have an explanation of the fact of sin because of my God. Does the Lord actually delight in sin and iniquity? But, is He not good? Or, if you will, does sin exist independently of the eternal Jehovah? But, is not the Lord the living God and God alone? Or, if God be sovereign, the only Ruler of heaven and earth, how must we explain that the world may continue in its mad iniquity? The Lord loves His Church with an everlasting love, does He not? And He should simply permit the wicked world to fulfill all its wicked desires upon it? To answer that the Lord simply permits these things to happen does not satisfy. It does not satisfy for the simple reason that the Lord does not simply permit things to happen. He surely works all things according to His alone sovereign will and the counsel of His will. Or, to answer that the Lord does iniquity would be in conflict with His adorable holiness-and perfection. Can our hope be stayed upon Him Who delights in sin and evil? On the other hand, to give sin a place independent of the Lord would be a denial of His sovereignty. And because my soul thirsts after the living God, because I desire that God remain God, I must have an answer to the question concerning the reality of sin in connection with the truth of God’s providence.: “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen,” must surely also be applied to the reality of iniquity. In other words: also the fact of sin must impart comfort to the child, the Church of the living God.
In answer to this urgent question it must be maintained, first of all, that God is really and truly God in all the operation of His providence. We certainly cannot emphasize too strongly that this must be understood in the absolute sense of the word. The Lord does not merely support and sustain all things, but He is also absolute and sovereign in His government of all things. There is simply no exception to this rule. We may and must surely maintain that there is nothing more certain than the word which proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. When He speaks it is and when He commands it stands. All things take place through that almighty word of the Lord. Generally speaking, this truth is accepted by all. I mean that this truth is accepted by all in a general sense of the word. Do not the Scriptures declare it so plainly so as to tolerate no discussion, that even all the hairs of our heads are numbered and that a sparrow does not fall off the housetop without the will of our heavenly Father? We all understand, and this truth is disputed by very few, that the Lord clothes every lily of the field and grants unto every living creature its daily sustenance. Indeed, there is little disagreement on this point. However, in the second place, we must also understand that the reality of sin occurs by and through the providence of the Lord. And, also concerning this truth the divine Scriptures do not leave us in doubt. The Word of the Lord speaks very plainly to this effect. Do not we read in the Scriptures that God forms the light and creates the darkness, yea, that He makes peace and creates the evil? Joseph is brought into Egypt through the abominations of his brothers; but when these brothers finally appear before him in the land of Egypt he declares unto them very plainly that the Lord has turned all their evil thoughts unto good. Repeatedly we read in the holy Scriptures that the Lord hardens the hearts of men. He hardens Pharaoh’s heart and even proclaims unto Moses that He will work in the heart of the Egyptian monarch unto that end—in fact, the Word of the Lord uses a language here in this connection which we would otherwise not dare to take upon our lips. The king’s heart, we read in the book of Proverbs, is in the hand of the Lord as rivers of water; He turneth it withersoever He wills. Was it not of the Lord that caused Shimei to curse David when he fled from before the face of his son, Absalom? Does not David himself declare that this cursing by Shimei was of the Lord? Again, was it not of the (Lord that David counted the people? Moreover, the greatest Scriptural example of this truth occurs in connection with the appearance of the living God in our flesh and blood and at the time of His suffering and death upon the accursed cross. Godless hands nailed the Lord Jesus Christ upon the accursed tree; nevertheless He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of the Lord. Upon the question whether sin is independent of God, or whether this power of evil occurs alone through the providence of God, so that the living God is realizing His counsel from moment to moment, there can be but one answer without a single moment’s hesitation: There is no evil in the city which the Lord does not perform. He, He alone, also now, is the supreme and sovereign cause of the existence of all things. Every curse, every evil thought, every rebellion of a sinful man is of the Lord alone, not only from eternity, but He alone works it from moment unto moment.
However, confessing this truth of the Word of God, this connection between God’s providence and sin, we are engaged, thus it may seem, in an irreconcilable conflict with the holiness and righteousness of the Lord. We cannot escape the word of God in: “Therefore hearken unto me, ye men of understanding: far be it from God, that He should do wickedness; and from the Almighty, that He should commit iniquity.” Or, turning to , we read: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest Thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” And the apostle, John, writes so uncompromisingly in his epistle that God is a light in whom there is no darkness. Hence, the Lord God and sin must certainly be viewed as excluding one another. There is in God nothing that even faintly resembles iniquity. The Lord is truly a light: He is light, the overflowing fountain of all good. How now can it be harmonized with our God, who doth not behold iniquity, that nevertheless sin is not to be explained as independent of Jehovah, who has formed the wicked, note well, the wicked unto the day of evil? To this thought we will, the Lord willing, call attention in our following article.