To understand this relation between God’s Providence and sin we must ask and attempt to answer the question: What is freedom? Man is certainly free, or, to express this thought in a better way, he is certainly a free being. The nature of his being and the character of his operation are such that he is never driven to do anything but remains free and unhindered in all his operation. This, we understand, applies to man only from the subjective viewpoint of his own activity. From the viewpoint of the living God Who works all things according to the counsel of His own will, man is clay (and what may be the difference between clay and a block of wood, except that in the one instance a person forms something whereas in the other instance that person carves something?). From man’s subjective viewpoint he, however, is not a stock and block, but a free, responsible being.
We must never confuse this freedom of man with sovereignty. This is the error of Pelagianism. The pelagian simply identifies the responsibility of man with his free will. That man has a free will he understands in the sense that he must be and is free to choose between good and evil in the sense that he is able to choose either of the two. Notice that we add: “in the sense that he is able to choose either of the two.” We must certainly maintain that man chooses between good and evil and also that he is free in that choice. In fact, as Protestant Reformed Churches we have been privileged by the Lord to lay emphasis upon the Scriptural truth of man’s responsibility and stress its true significance as set forth in holy writ. We have been careful during all these years to expose the fallacy of those who would maintain that we, because of our emphasis upon the sovereignty of the Lord, have failed in our presentation of the Scriptural truth of the responsibility of man. Today, in the church world about us, it is no longer understood that one can be responsible for his actions without being able to choose the good. However, this pelagian conception of things is surely impossible. It is impossible, first of all, in the light of Scripture. The fact remains that, according to the Word of God, not man determines his course of action but the Lord, This is a Scriptural truth so clearly stated as to tolerate no contradiction. We are born dead in sins and trespasses, and the flesh cannot desire the things that are of the Spirit. I do not determine the action of my life but my heart determines all my action. Throughout Scripture we have the complete refutation of all pelagians. Every thought and every desire, every emotion of the soul, every action of the will is controlled and directed by God so that there is no action within me independent of God. Particularly in the book of Proverbs do we have this truth clearly set forth. We read, e.g., in: “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the Lord.” The meaning of the inspired writer in these words is plain. The preparations of the heart in this text are the considerations of the human heart which lay in order over against each other and between which we must and do make a choice. This is surely the case in the life of every mortal. However, in that choice the Lord rules, inasmuch as the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. This answer of the tongue refers surely to our decisive answer, our choice, how we are to conduct ourselves; and the text informs us that this answer of the tongue is from the Lord. In the same vein we are told in verse 9: “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.” Or, we read it so clearly in : “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will.” We should keep before us the figure of an oriental monarch who had the power to determine the life or death of his subjects, upon whose word a person’s life or death depended. And we should also bear in mind that the heart, the foundation and deep source of man’s spiritual existence, is ruled by the Lord and governed to perform whatsoever the Lord wills. Then we can somewhat understand the thought of the man of God in this particular word of God when he writes that the heart of the king, the fount of man’s spiritual life and existence, is ruled and governed by the Lord, and that He turneth it whithersoever He wills. This thought is verified repeatedly in Holy Writ, as, e.g., in : “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.” Indeed, this truth is taught us everywhere in holy writ, as, e.g., in connection with Pharaoh whom God raised up to show His might. It must not escape our attention that the Lord raised up Pharaoh, not merely an Egyptian monarch, but Pharaoh, godless Pharaoh, the Old Testament type of the head of the antichristian power against God and against His Anointed. Hence, that the Lord raised up Pharaoh does not merely mean that He set the Egyptian monarch upon the throne.
Moreover, it is also wholly untrue that true freedom should consist in the being able to choose between the good and the evil, and that in the sense that we are able to choose both. In fact, it is wholly untrue that true freedom should necessarily consist in being able to choose the evil, that man is therefore really free when he is also able to choose that which is evil. We all understand, do we not, that the Lord is surely free in the absolute sense of the word. And we also understand that it is absolutely impossible for the Lord to choose and do the evil. Freedom and the being able to sin do not have necessarily therefore anything in common—in fact, the highest freedom surely excludes the possibility of sin. God is free and He cannot sin. The Church shall be eternally free in heavenly glory and perfection, and God’s people shall forever be unable to sin. Hence, to be free does not necessarily imply that we must be able to choose the evil. The freedom of the Lord is that virtue or perfection of the Lord whereby He, unhindered and unmolested, wills Himself, loves Himself, maintains and seeks Himself, without ever being molested or hindered in that divine loving, willing, and seeking of Himself. The Lord lives His own infinite and divine and perfect existence freely. This life of God, we understand, is a life of divine fellowship and communion, a life of covenant fellowship in which the Three divine persons know and love and seek each other in the sphere of divine perfection. And, in the living of this divine life the Lord is absolutely free. Besides, and this surely lies in the very nature of the case, that Lord God also determines for us what is true freedom. God determines everything. This, we say, lies in the very nature of the case. True freedom for man is and must be the freedom of the Lord. The question relative our freedom is inseparably connected with the relation in which we stand to the living God. Freedom for me does not imply that I be able to do what and as I please. It is surely not the desire and longing of the newborn child of God to be the master of himself and of all his thinking and willing and desiring, and also to be able to do the evil. It is surely not the longing of the bird to be in the water, or of a fish to move about in the air above us. Birds and fishes are not free when they are able to do either-or. But this is my desire, this is my life: to be able to serve the Lord alone and never be able to will or do anything contrary to the will of the God of my salvation; and I am free when I am able, unmolested, to serve that God in uprightness and perfection of heart and mind. In heaven the child of God will be really and truly free forevermore. Hence, the responsibility of man does not consist herein that I am able to choose and do both: the good and the evil, and that I sovereignly determine this choice. If this were the implication of responsibility, then we would declare without any reservation: there is no responsibility of man. And we declare this for the simple reason that such human sovereignty does not exist.
At all times, therefore, we must maintain that the responsibility of man is never to be identified with freedom in the sense of sovereignty (vrijmacht), that we determine our course of action. It is true that we shall never declare that the child of God is a slave of grace, inasmuch as freedom consists in the service of God, to whom I am adapted, and the service of the Lord is eternal life. We are therefore not slaves of grace, although it is true that this power of the Lord takes complete charge of all our life and being. Man is a slave of sin as he is by nature, does not possess the freedom of eternal life, is in the absolute sense of the word a slave who must do the evil, cannot desire the good, is wholly darkness in all his thinking and deliberations. This we must clearly understand, also as according to the sovereign counsel of the Lord Who performs all His good pleasure.
However, the providence of the Lord and sin are related in such a way that sin is and remains an act of man, is not an act of God, and man is spiritually rationally free, unmolested in all his activity. Although it is true that the sinner does not possess the freedom of everlasting life, to live spontaneously with the Lord in the fellowship of His everlasting covenant, he is nevertheless consciously, morally rationally free. And I do not believe that this is too difficult to understand as such. Man is a moral rational being, and therefore a responsible being. The animal, as we all know, is not conscious of God, does not understand the language of the Lord revealed in the world about it, and never conducts itself in relation to the Lord. Of the animal it cannot be said that it is either for or against God. It cannot be charged with sin. It simply does not possess the consciousness of God and is never prompted by any attitude toward the living God. How different is man! Whatever man does he does in relation to the Lord. He is conscious of God, is essentially adapted to the service of Him who alone is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, can never escape Him. He therefore understands the speech of the Lord in all the works of God’s hands and in the Holy Scriptures. And in all his activity he conducts himself in relation to the living God. He loves the Lord or hates Him. He is prompted by love or hatred. He seeks the honor of the Lord or sets himself against the glory of Him who alone is worthy of all adoration. This is his moral rational nature; and because he is conscious of the Lord, knows that he must serve the Lord, has knowledge of the living God and knows how he must conduct himself in the midst of the world, man is a responsible being and is held accountable for all his activity. It is well that we understand this. Man is never free in the true, spiritual, Scriptural sense of the freedom of life, eternal life. This freedom consists of the blessed and unmolested service of the living God. Neither is man free in the absolute sense of the word, free in the sense that he determines his own lot, is the captain and master of his own soul and “fate,” is independent of the living God. In this sense he is never free but remains clay even forever. It is surely true that man is always more than a mere instrument. A mere instrument is dead, completely without feeling. Man is and remains a moral rational being, moral rational clay. The freedom of man, always subject to the Lord and governed by God, consists herein that he sins consciously, not because he must, but because he wills to sin and desires that which is evil and corrupt. He sins of himself, is never driven to commit evil, never forced to do that which is wrong. He is always the active agent of his own deeds, rejoicing in the iniquity he commits. Sin always remains the object and choice of man’s will. This is his ethical freedom and it must always be maintained. This alone establishes man’s responsibility and accountability.
This also enables us to understand the distinction between author and origin or source. An origin or source is the willing, decisive cause or source of something—that man sins comes, in this sense, assuredly from the Lord—therefore we confess without a moment’s hesitation that the Lord has willed sin and darkness and this entire valley of the shadow of sin and death. Whence came all the host of darkness if not alone from the living God; did He not create the light and the darkness, form the day and the night? How much more comforting it is for the child and the church of the living God that the Lord and not the devil is in supreme command from moment unto moment! And not only is the Lord the sole sovereignly determining Cause of all sin and unrighteousness, but He also realizes His eternal counsel, also as far as the coming of sin into the world is concerned, and operates in the life of every mortal from moment unto moment. Indeed, nothing occurs by chance, and this also refers to all the movements and activities of the powers of darkness. This, however, does not mean that the Lord is also the author of sin. How different is the idea of author! An author is the conscious, active perpetrator of an act, spiritually completely in harmony with that act. An author of sin is therefore one who loves sin and evil, who commits sin and unrighteousness as the fruit and product of his own existence, and who, when committing that evil, is completely free and unmolested. Therefore we reject all determinism which reduces man to an irresponsible stock and block, without a will and mind, but we maintain with all the powers at our command that man is a responsible, free ethical being. In this sense, we understand, the Lord is never the author of sin. The very thought is and should be repulsive to us. For sin is never anything else than the wholly corrupt and evil direction of our moral rational nature and in which man delights with all that he is and possesses. Man is darkness. To say this of the Lord would be blasphemy. The Lord God loathes sin with all that is in Him. He is too pure of eyes to behold sin and iniquity. The Lord God loves Himself, hates all sin and unrighteousness, and loves only that which is good and pure and holy. Even when He willed sin in His eternally sovereign counsel He willed it as the holy God, not because He delights in sin but because He loves Himself and would glorify Himself, antithetically, unto the greatest glory of His own adorable Name. The Lord willed darkness not for the sake of darkness but to serve as background for the marvelous revelation of the light.
This truth places us before an unfathomable mystery. Man is a morally free responsible being. He is a being who performs iniquity and unrighteousness because he loves unrighteousness with all that is in him, be it consciously or subconsciously. (Incidentally, it is well to bear in mind that this truth concerning man’s responsibility also applies to the child who is therefore saved by the Lord as a moral rational being, through whom, and not apart from whom, the Lord glorifies Himself.) Moreover, man, in his sinning, is always free, unhindered. This implies that, although he is and remains a slave of darkness, unrighteousness is always the object of his will and desires. This is man’s free will, if only we understand this in this sense of the word. On the other hand, God is God Who performs all. His good pleasure. Also this truth must be maintained, without ceasing and uncompromisingly. God is God, who is also the willing source and sovereign cause of all things, also of all the iniquity of man and demon. He is Jehovah who inclines and turns the hearts of kings, who hardens every wicked heart, who performs all His good pleasure, who is the divine director of His eternal counsel, through whom all things are in the most unlimited sense of the word, realizing every curse—word, every evil thought, even into the minutest details. However, how the holy God thus realized His eternal counsel in the all-comprehensive sense of the word without in any way affecting the responsibility of man is an unfathomable mystery. Also our responsibility is of the Lord and of none other. That the Lord hates sin, is pure light and grace and life, and therefore never can be the author of iniquity, and yet causes all things to happen so that man, in a very real sense of the word, is morally free, unmolested, loving sin and committing it because he loves it, and at the same time rejecting, willfully and consciously, that which is good, is for us the mystery. The mystery does not consist herein that man is sovereignly free—this is dualism and also the experience of the child of God who confesses that he can perform the good only through the grace of the Lord. How God, however, realizes His counsel also with respect to sin, Himself hating all iniquity and unrighteousness, is unfathomable. But, and this we must, of course, maintain: unfathomably deep are the thoughts of the Lord; He surely exceeds all that we know; His ways are past finding out.
This truth we must maintain with all the power at our command. This truth, that man is a morally free, responsible being, constitutes the basis for the moral rational character of the gospel. The difference between the child and the adult is surely not that the Lord realizes His promise unconditionally in the former whereas He realizes His promise in the latter conditionally. The promise of the Lord is always realized unconditionally, and this for the simple reason that it is of the Lord alone. The adult is simply conscious of this unconditional operation of the Lord. Never do the children of the Lord experience the realization of God’s promise of salvation except unconditionally. This is the reason why we are saved by faith. How could the Lord, to bestow upon His people the sovereignly free gift of salvation and therein remain God, ever bestow this salvation upon us except through faith. For whosoever believeth comes to the Lord exactly in the consciousness that he is in himself a wholly lost sinner, conceived and born dead in sin and trespasses and the object of eternal wrath and underneath a mountain of guilt which he could never pay. However, he also comes to the Lord because the Lord, through His Spirit and Word, has revealed unto him the marvelous and unfathomable depths of His love revealed in Christ Jesus and upon the cross of Calvary, and whosoever learns to see the love of God to him as revealed to him upon the cross of Calvary, certainly must confess and adore the wholly unconditional character of that love of God in Christ Jesus. In other words, the Lord never bestows His salvation and promise upon His people except in such a way that they receive it as a purely sovereign and free gift of adorable mercy and grace. Hence, the difference between the child and the adult is not a difference in the operation of God. That operation of the Lord and of His grace is equally sovereign in both. The distinction between them lies simply in the fact that the adult of God is privileged to stand consciously in that wholly sovereign work of the Lord. Besides, how can there be a difference between the child and the adult? They are both elect, are they not? Moreover, the work of divine grace and regeneration has been begun in that adult, has it not, during his infancy? The Lord simply saves His people as moral rational creatures, does not merely save His people by injecting life into their veins, but enables them to eat and drink of the bread and the water of life freely which He has prepared for them in Christ Jesus. And, this moral rational nature of man is also the basis for the moral rational character of the gospel also as far as the wicked are concerned. However, the Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article.