The subject of God’s Providence and Sin places us before an unfathomable mystery. This we readily concede and confess. And we have no intention of comprehending and understanding this mystery. On the one hand, man is a free responsible being. He performs iniquity because he loves it. He is unmolested in his sinning, is never forced or coerced. Besides, he never wills or desires anything else than sin, does not rest until and unless he commits evil, is a slave of iniquity, but always a very willing slave. He is always free, only however in this moral sense of the word. He is never sovereignly free. On the other hand, God is the living God. He alone is God. We cannot afford to lose this truth. If we lose this truth we lose God. And, losing God, we lose all.
This is a mystery. However, we must bear in mind that Pelagianism and Arminianism also confront us with an enigma. If man be essentially good, as the Pelagian would have us believe, if he is able to be what he wills to be, why is it then that sin and iniquity are so general? Why do not more men choose the good? And if the sinner, being essentially good, be able to choose for and accept Christ, why, then, are not more men saved? We must remember that, whatever view one may embrace, God remains the living God. Him we cannot change. We, then, may distort and corrupt His Word, may make a caricature of the living God, change Him to please our own carnal desires, but God remains the same. He remains God. And, although it is true that the Pelagian and Arminian may accuse the Reformed man of being influenced by logic in his thinking, and declare that we must take God at His Word, it is simply a fact that it is pure nonsense to believe that the Lord would have all men be saved, and must be satisfied with the salvation of but a few. And this nonsense is directly in conflict with the scriptures which teach us that the Lord performs all His good pleasure and that no man can resist His will. Indeed, no man can come to Christ except the Father draw him; and when the Father draws, the sinner must come. To have salvation depend upon the free will of a sinner is contrary to Holy Writ and it is a denial of the truth that God alone is the living God.
But, let us return to the mystery. A mystery, we must understand, is not a contradiction, as, for example, that black is white and white is black, and that we must believe both. It is claimed, then, that God loves and hates the same man at the same time, attempts to save him and at the same time causes His gospel to be a savor unto death, thereby making it impossible for him to be saved. This is not a mystery, but it is nonsense. And it is impossible to believe both, because the one is simply a denial of the other. A mystery, however, is something that transcends our human understanding. The question is, therefore, what is here the mystery? Now the mystery involved here is surely not the truth that God is the living God. He performs all His good pleasure. This we confess and must confess without any reservation. He is the sovereign, willing Origin and Cause of all things, also of all the spiritual deeds of man. It is He alone Who turns man’s heart whithersoever He wills, Who carries out in minutest details the counsel of His own will, Who is the divine Ruler, carrying out His eternal counsel, through Whom are all things which include every curse word, every evil thought, even into the minutest details. This, I repeat, is not as such the mystery. This does not mean that we are able to fathom the thought that God is the living God. The truth, however, that God is the living God is not in conflict with our natural understanding. Let us, for example, refer here to the resurrection of the dead. We cannot fathom this wonder-work of the Lord. We cannot understand how the dead rise whose bodies have returned to the dust. We cannot understand how each soul will be reunited with its own body. However, although we cannot comprehend this amazing work of God, yet it is not in conflict with my natural understanding that the almighty God is able to raise the dead. He is the almighty God, the living God Who controls life and death. And neither is it in conflict with our natural mind that the living God is in absolute control of all things. This is, therefore, not the mystery involved here. Neither is this the mystery that man is responsible. This is scriptural; the Word of God teaches very explicitly that we must give account of all we have done in the body whether it be good or bad. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, to receive the things done in our bodies, as we read in II Corinthians 5:10. Besides, this truth is also experienced by every man. He knows that the Lord is the Judge of all the earth. He knows that he is responsible, is held accountable for all his activity. He knows that he must serve and love the living God, and that he must answer for whatever he has done. He knows that he sins willingly and voluntarily. He knows that he is never forced or coerced to perform evil, that he commits evil because he loves that evil. He can, therefore, never charge the Lord with injustice when the Judge of all the earth holds him strictly accountable. Hence, the mystery here does not lie in the sovereignty of the Lord as such and/or in the responsibility of the sinner. Both truths are clearly set forth in the Word of God. And neither of these truths is in conflict with our natural understanding. We can accept and endorse both truths. We have no difficulty with them as such.
Herein, however, lies the mystery: how a holy God causes sin to be and man remains responsible. This is the mystery: how can the holy God work all things and not be the author of sin. The mystery is not that God realizes His counsel, also as far as sin is concerned, but how He realizes this counsel. That Jehovah hates sin and, therefore, can never be the author of evil, Himself in agreement with it, but nevertheless causes sin to occur in such a way that man is morally free, loving iniquity and committing evil unhindered but always as the object of his own choice, without ever being able to choose the good, we acknowledge to be the mystery. This is held before us in a passage we have quoted before in these articles, 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.” Indeed, they took Him and by wicked hands slew Him. Thus it is also eternally in the inscrutable counsel of the Lord. Those wicked hands belong to the sinner. That the sinner is responsible for his sins, committing them freely and willfully, is plain. This is also his personal experience. But how the Lord works this fact, Himself far from all sin, is something we do not understand and cannot explain. And we do not and must not attempt to fathom this mystery. But, and this, too, is according to Scripture: unfathomably deep are all the thoughts of the Lord; His ways are ever higher than our ways; He transcends whatever we will ever know and can know.
This truth must be maintained. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of the sinner are not in conflict with each other. And the same applies to the sovereignty of God and the general preaching of the gospel. The one demands the other. Indeed, we are not hyper-Calvinists. Hyper-Calvinism is that presentation of the truth which stresses certain aspects of Calvinism, such as double predestination, election and reprobation, utter and complete depravity of the sinner, the particular character of the cross of Calvary, the irresistible power of the grace of God. However, it ignores and negates the general preaching of the gospel to others besides the elect, the general command of God to the sinner that he must repent and believe. This view is hyper-calvinistic, super-calvinistic, stressing and emphasizing the sovereignty and the work of the Lord while ignoring and negating the activity of man. Our churches have been accused of being hyper-calvinistic. Indeed, also in 1953 this accusation was directed at us. We were accused during the split of 1953 that we are not doing justice to the truth of man’s responsibility. Of course, this charge has always been hurled at those who would maintain the Reformed conception of the truth. This simply means that, being accused of this, we find ourselves in good company. However, we are not hyper-calvinistic. Indeed, the gospel is never proclaimed but the wicked are always commanded of God to repent of their sin and turn themselves unto the Lord. It is not the will of God that His gospel must be proclaimed exclusively to the elect—besides, how utterly impossible this would be! That God is the living God and absolutely sovereign surely implies the divine command to repent and believe. That God is the living God means that He loves Himself and is wholly dedicated to Himself. The Lord, we read in Ezekiel 33:11, has no delight in the death of the wicked. He has no delight in this death, the way of death, which is the way of sin. This refers to the Lord’s ethical delight, that wherein He delights. The Lord hates sin, does not delight in the way of sin. His wrath abides upon sin and iniquity. Herein is His delight that the sinner confesses his sin, turns from evil, seeks salvation in the shadow of the cross. Hence, the gospel always comes to the sinner with the divine command to repent and believe. This does not mean that the gospel is a well-meaning offer of salvation, that the Lord desires to save all men, head for head. But it does mean that God, the alone sovereign and living God, demands of man, His creature, to serve and love Him. Because I am a responsible creature, a moral-rational being, conversion, faith, hope and love, although worked by God, are deeds of man. The wicked surely have no right to walk in ways of sin, and it remains their calling, how impossible it may be for him to fulfill it, to love the Lord and to praise His Name. This calling of the sinner is not rooted in his ability to choose the evil and the good, but it is founded in the fact that man is creature, creature created by the living God, and that, therefore, it is his calling to forsake his evil way and to turn unto the Lord. Indeed, we are not hyper-calvinistic. We do not negate or ignore our calling to preach the gospel to elect and reprobate alike. We surely believe in the general proclamation of a particular gospel. Indeed, the gospel is always particular in its content; it is never general. It is surely not true that every sinner who hears the proclamation of the gospel can say that the Lord loves him. Only God’s people believe and turn from their evil way unto the Lord. The gospel is, therefore, good news; it is primarily the proclamation of the promise in the light of God’s love and faithfulness in the midst of our sin and death. God’s providence and sin means that the Lord is absolutely sovereign, hates all sin and evil, and, although having willed sin and always executing His counsel sovereignly, does this in such a way that the sinner is the author of his own sin and evil. But everything is strictly under God’s divine and absolute control.
Indeed, what a wonderful and comforting truth this is! How comfortless is any presentation of the gospel which in any way denies or attacks the absolute sovereignty of our God! To this, however, we call your attention in our following and concluding article.