God’s Providence and Sin (5)

We concluded our last article by calling attention to the Scriptural truth that God is free. We noted that Pelagianism would maintain a freedom for the sinner in the sense that he is free, able to choose both the good and the evil. Otherwise, so he claims, we lose man’s responsibility. The Arminian, we understand, is guilty of the same heresy. Man, he asserts, must be free to accept the general, well-meaning offer of the gospel. To him, the preaching is such a general, well-meaning offer of a salvation which the Lord would bestow upon all that hear it. How, he objects, can God hold a sinner responsible unless that sinner be able to accept or reject an offered salvation; But, as we noted in our preceding article, God is free, and He is free in the eternal and absolute sense of the word. That God is free means that He, unhindered and unmolested, wills and maintains Himself. And this freedom of the Lord surely determines our freedom. This is not freedom that I can do as I please. Freedom, perfect freedom for me means that I will be able to serve Jehovah as unmolested by sin, in purity of heart and life. Understanding this, we may conclude that man’s responsibility does not consist herein, that I am able to do the good as well as the evil; if that were the case, we would never be able to speak of man’s responsibility, of man as a moral, responsible being. Fact is, he cannot be subject to the law of God. Hence, if man’s responsibility consists in his ability to do good and that, refusing to choose the good, he is therefore responsible, then there is simply no responsibility of the sinner. But Scripture surely teaches man’s responsibility. 

Speaking of the freedom of a sinner, we may observe that only Adam ever had a free will. Adam was created good. There was no imperfection in him. He could choose the good, the service of the living God Who had created him But he could also, by an act of the will, choose to ally himself with the devil, to disobey the command of his Maker which was not to eat of the forbidden fruit. This freedom of the will was Adam’s alone. The sinner, as apart from Christ, cannot possibly choose the good. He is not, cannot be, subject to the law of God. And the elect sinner, called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light, cannot choose the evil. It is true that he is holy only in principle and that therefore much evil cleaves to him and that the movements of sin continue in his members. But the Word of God teaches us, as especially in the epistles of the apostle John, that that which is born of God cannot sin. 

Speaking of man’s responsibility, the responsibility of the sinner is never to be identified or confused with sovereignty. Responsibility is a compound word, consisting of two parts: response and ability, meaning therefore the ability to respond. The Lord has revealed Himself in all the works of His hands and also in the infallible Scriptures. In all this revelation of Himself the Lord speaks only one language: I alone am God and therefore must be served and loved with all one’s heart and mind and soul and strength. And the sinner is able to respond to this divine revelation by God of Himself. An animal cannot respond to it. But the sinner can. Of course, he can give only one response. He is not subject to the law of God and neither indeed can he be. He can therefore never give the response: Yes, Lord, I love Thee. The sinner can only say No to God’s revelation of Himself. He can only say: Lord, I hate Thee and I refuse to serve and love Thee. But this response he is able to give. He can do this because he is a moral-rational being. This is man’s responsibility. And this has nothing to do with sovereignty, as if the sinner determines and controls his lot and destiny. 

Nevertheless, God’s providence and sin are so related to one another that sin is always a deed of man, remains a deed of man and never of God. Man sins, the Lord never sins. God is sovereign, performs all His good pleasure, and this good pleasure is all-comprehensive in the absolute sense of the word, including sin. Man, although never sovereignly free, is always morally free. He never sins because he is forced to sin. We are reminded, in this connection, of the Word of God in Acts 2:23: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Notice how both truths are maintained in this word of Peter: God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. The Lord Jesus Christ was delivered, we read, by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. How this is emphasized throughout the Word of God! Does not the Savior declare that the Son of Man goes as it is written of Him? Is not the entire program of His suffering set forth in all the Old Testament Scriptures, especially in the prophecy of Isaiah, called the Old Testament evangelist? Indeed, He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of the Most High. The crucifixion of the Man of Sorrows is attributed here directly to the will of God, to His foreknowledge. And this word, we must understand, does not simply mean that the Lord had prior knowledge of it, knew of it in advance, but it means that this knowledge is foreknowledge because it determined His crucifixion! God’s knowledge does not follow upon the existence of things. It precedes the existence of things, determines them. This is what we have in Acts 2:23. But we have more in this Word of God. We also read here: “ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” This is man’s sin. And, mind you, we have taken Him, by wicked hands have crucified and slain Him. Man is a moral-rational, responsible being. They crucified and slew Him bywicked hands. They acted wickedly. They were not forced or compelled to do this, contrary to their own desires. Wicked hands took Him and crucified Him. We performed this heinous crime because we willed to do it. We were morally free. And, yet, it occurred by God’s determinate counsel and foreknowledge. Fact is, the crucifixion of our Lord was surely divinely willed. But let us understand, it was divinely willed, sovereignly, as an act of the sinner. Christ was slain by wicked hands. 

This should enable us to understand somewhat the relation between the providence of God and sin. Sin is always a deed of man, never of the Lord. Man, although never sovereignly free, remains morally free. The sinner, of course, never possesses the true freedom of the service of Jehovah, yet he is consciously, morally free. Man is a rational-moral being, is therefore a responsible creature. An animal is not God-conscious and therefore it never acts in a conscious relation to the Lord. Whatever man does, however, he does as in relation to God. He is God-conscious because he has been created as adapted to God. He is, by virtue of His creation, image-bearer of the Lord. Hence, he understands intellectually the speech of God in creation and in the Scriptures. Whatever he does he performs most decidedly in relation to God. He hates the Lord or he loves Him. He walks either from the principle of enmity or of love. He seeks the glory of the alone living God or he opposes that God. He is never neutral. This is his rational-moral nature, always walking in a conscious relation to his Creator. And this consciousness of the Lord determines and establishes his responsibility. We must understand this correctly. He is not free in the true, spiritual sense of the word, as if he for one moment would be independent of the Lord. In this sense he will ever remain the instrument of the Lord, His agent, absolutely controlled and directed by Him Who does all things according to His sovereign will and purpose. But the sinner is relatively, morally free, always in complete subjection to the Lord. For in the final analysis we may not speak of man as a mere instrument, inasmuch as an instrument is wholly passive. Man, however, is an active, moral creature. He is spiritually, morally free in his sin. He sins consciously, not because he must and is compelled to do so, but because he wills evil. He sins out of himself, spontaneously and voluntarily, is never forced to commit, but always remains the conscious author of his own evil. This is the sinner’s moral freedom, his morally free will, that he sins as rejoicing therein, choosing the evil always as the object of his own desire and will. This truth is surely Scriptural. 

Herein lies the distinction between origin and author. We do well to bear this in mind, also when we read the Canons of Dordt, when our Reformed fathers emphasize that the cause of iniquity lies in man. An origin is the willing, determining cause, the source of everything. That man sins surely has its sovereign origin in the Lord. Do not the Scriptures declare in Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things”? From where else would sin come, sovereignly, if not from Jehovah? But wholly different is the conception of author. An author is the conscious, active perpetrator, doer of a deed, himself spiritually in accord with the same. An author, therefore, of sin is he who loves iniquity, does iniquity because he desires it, and who is consciously free, unmolested in his sin. We therefore reject all determinism, as if man would be a mere stock or block, but we maintain him as a responsible free-moral agent. In this :sense of the word the Lord is never the author of sin, but He hates sin with all that is in Him, although He is its sovereign origin and cause. The Lord is indeed a light and there is no darkness in Him at all. He never tempts the sinner, we read in James 1, and He is never tempted with evil. Never does sin ever have any effect upon Him. Sin is always the active operation of our nature against the living God; man always rejoices in it. So, the operation of the Lord, in connection with evil, is always so that man is its author, doing it not because he is forced to do so, but as the desire of his own heart and mind. Hence, when the Lord sovereignly and eternally wills sin, in His eternal good pleasure, He wills it as being committed by a sinner, the author of all his evil and iniquity. This relation between God (and evil we must always bear in mind. The Lord is too pure of eyes to behold sin and iniquity. The eternal love by God of Himself and His hatred of and. aversion to sin and evil can never be stressed too emphatically. Sin is always far from the Lord. And this also applies to the sinner. Any fellowship between the holy and righteous God is therefore inconceivable with the sinner; this conception violates the very essence of the alone living God. 

This surely places us before an unfathomable mystery. This we readily concede and confess. Man is a free-responsible being. He performs iniquity because he loves it. He is unmolested in his sinning, is never coerced. And he never wills or desires anything else than sin, is a slave of iniquity, but always a very willing slave. He is free, but only in this moral sense of the word. And God is the living God! He alone is God. We cannot afford to lose this truth. If we lose this truth, then we surely lose God. And then we lose all. However, we will continue with this in our following article.