Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Having begun our study of God’s providence, and having taken the position that God’s providence embraces all things without exception, we stand now before the question: What is the relationship between God’s providence and sin?
The subject before us is one that causes us to hesitate, lest we do wrong to the God whom we love. We know that Scripture throughout maintains the absolute sovereignty of God. At the same time, we realize that God is Holy. “There is no iniquity with the Lord our God” (II Chron. 19:7). For “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut. 32:4). It was surely with that truth in mind, that Elihu would say (Job 34:10,12), “…far be it from God, that he should do wickedness; and from the Almighty, that he should commit iniquity…. Yea, surely God will not do wickedly.”
How do we possibly maintain God’s sovereignty also over sin, and yet not attribute sin to Him as the author of it?
The Reformed father Guido de Brés, in writing that document which has become known as The Belgic Confession, understood well that in insisting upon the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, he would have to answer the charge that he then would also make God the author of sin.
Insisting that “nothing happens in this world without his (i.e., God’s) appointment,” a statement based on no fewer than 25 passages of Scripture, de Brés continued: “Nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
We find a solid biblical foundation for maintaining both truths: 1) that God’s providence also encompasses the moral acts of sinful men; and 2) that God remains pure and holy, without iniquity, and cannot be charged with being the author of sin. Let us look at each truth, and then give answer to the obvious mystery of this Bible truth.
When we speak of God’s providence encompassing even man’s sin, we must remember that God works all things for a purpose. We wrote of that truth in a previous article.1 The Lord works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 2:11). He will accomplish the highest purpose of His own good pleasure, namely, to bring all things to final perfection in Christ Jesus. That is how God would glorify Himself.
From the very beginning to the end of the world, God governs and guides all things toward the achievement of that end. This truth must be clear to us. It is fundamental.
Even through sin and death God upholds and governs all things to that end.
That God governs even the sinful actions of men is taught clearly in Scripture. In fact, the language of Scripture is far more explicit than you and I would ever dare to be in setting forth this truth. I would not dare to speak of God’s sovereign government of sin, as does Scripture.
An astounding example of this is found in II Samuel 12. In the context, the prophet Nathan comes to David, who had been walking in impenitence. David had fallen deeply into sin, committing adultery with his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba; murdering her husband, Uriah; and subsequently living a life of deceit and hypocrisy. God in mercy sent Nathan the prophet who confronted David with a parable, the conclusion of which was, “Thou art the man!”
That Word of God, being worked in David’s heart by the Holy Spirit, brought David to repentance, as he publicly confesses in Psalm 51. But David must also experience God’s chastening hand for his sin.
In words we find absolutely stunning, Nathan proclaims, “Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun” (II Sam. 12:11). The Lord Himself speaks, saying that He Himself will do this. Astounding! How bold is the language of Scripture!
The fulfillment of these words is found in II Samuel 16:21,22. God, who forbids and abhors all adultery and fornication, punishes David’s sin by Absalom’s public raping of David’s wives.
To say that God merely permits the acts of moral creatures, therefore, simply does not harmonize with Scripture’s explicit language. God governs. The examples from Scripture can be multiplied.
Isaiah points to Assyria as the axe in God’s hand and the rod of God’s anger in exercising His wrath against the wayward children of Israel (Is. 10).
And in Acts, chapter 2, you have that remarkable passage that speaks at the same time of the responsibility of man and the sovereignty of God, as Peter proclaims concerning Christ: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).
We have the testimony of the Bible that the crucifixion of Jesus was a willful act of disobedience and rebellion against God. But we read in Acts 4:26-28: “The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.”
Notice, they were gathered together. In other words, God gathered them together. He gathered them together, so that by their terrible act of wicked rebellion they crucified Jesus, thus fulfilling God’s eternal counsel. What an amazing testimony of the absolute government of Almighty God! God reaches His purpose, even our salvation, through the schemes and actions of wicked men.
Yet God cannot be charged with evil. “There is no iniquity with the Lord our God.” Even though Scripture speaks so boldly about God’s absolute sovereignty, Scripture is careful to uphold God’s holiness. God is not the author of sin. “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” (James 1:13).
God created us in such a way that you and I are always responsible for our actions. He created us free. We are free to act in accordance with our nature. You understand, of course, that our nature is now corrupt. Ever since the fall, and apart from the wonder work of regeneration, man’s nature is corrupt. And because man’s nature is totally corrupt, his freedom is limited to the bounds of that corruption.2 But we are free to act in harmony with our nature. We can think our own thoughts. We make our choices from day to day, from moment to moment. No man is ever compelled by God to sin. And therefore we are responsible for our actions.
You are responsible for all that you do. Every man will give account for his own actions. You know that. You can’t escape that either, except you stand in Christ Jesus who bears the responsibility for your sin.
That is the importance of being one with Christ by faith. When we belong to Christ, then He stands before God and gives account and answers to our obligation. He does so in perfect righteousness, having satisfied God’s demand for us.
But when, as children of God, we stand before the revelation of God recorded in the Scriptures, we also know that behind our freedom stands God. God is so sovereign in all things, that even through our freedom He is executing and realizing His counsel for us and for all who stand in relation to us. That is an amazing thing. That ought to fill us with awe — especially when we look back and see that in certain actions which were exceedingly foolish, God wrought those actions for our salvation. That is a work of grace. We do not deserve that He use our sin for our salvation. For there are many who stand condemned in their unrighteousness, and who go to hell responsible for their lives of wickedness before God.
The life of Pharaoh is an example of this. The account begins in Exodus 4. We read in different places in that account of Pharaoh’s life that Pharaoh hardened his heart before God. That was an act of his will — an act freely determined by him, and an act for which God held him accountable. But at the same time we read within the same context that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. That is emphasized by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:17. “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.”
So God governs all the actions of sinful men. But He exercises His providential handiwork in such a way that He Himself is free from all sin, and man is responsible for his own actions.
We readily confess that what is revealed in Scripture concerning this truth leaves us very conscious of the fact that we are mere creatures. There are aspects to this question of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s sin that we simply are unable to answer. We see through a glass darkly.
We see indeed. Scripture is clear.
We absolutely refuse to minimize the all-encompassing nature of God’s sovereignty, or to admit that man in any way is able to frustrate God’s purposes. To allow for such a conception would mean the death-blow to our Reformed, biblical faith. God is and remains the absolute sovereign, who governs all things, including the sinful actions of men.
At the same time we repudiate the charge of determinism that is sometimes brought against our Reformed confession. God does not treat a man like a block of stone. Man is a freely acting agent. He does what he does voluntarily and willingly, and therefore remains responsible for all his actions.
But we see through a glass darkly. God’s ways are too high for us to comprehend.
In a mysterious way, too deep for us to fathom, God works with man in such a way that man can never act against that eternal counsel of the Almighty. But God works in such a way that He Himself never becomes the subject of man’s actions. Neither is He in any way guilty of man’s sin. All God’s works are righteousness and truth.
God works with man in such a way that man does exactly what God purposes. But man does so willingly, freely. The sinner sins because he chooses to sin. The devil hates and seeks to destroy because he wills to hate God. And so man also assumes the responsibility for his own acts. When God executes His judgment in the last day, the sinner will freely acknowledge that God is righteous in condemning him. God convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.
So God works.
That is Scripture.
But the manner of this divine work is an inscrutable mystery not to be penetrated by human reason. It remains an object of faith.3 And so we say with Calvin, “As for us, we will adore with all reverence those mysteries which so far surpass our comprehension, until the brightness of their full knowledge shall shine forth upon us in that day when He, who is now seen ‘through a glass darkly,’ shall be seen by us ‘face to face.’ Then (saith Augustine) shall He be seen in the brightest light of understanding, that which the godly now hold fast in faith.”4
1 See “Providence,” the Standard Bearer, January 15, 1996
2 If the Lord wills, we shall have more to say at some future date concerning man’s freedom, and the effects of the fall upon man’s will.
3 John Calvin addresses at length the objections to this truth in his Defense of the Secret Providence of God, found in the book Calvin’s Calvinism, available from the Reformed Free Publishing Association.
4 Calvin’s Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), p. 289.