The Language of Our Confession
In connection with the subject of God’s government of all things, our Belgic Confession gives special consideration to the subject of God’s government and sin.
This is to be expected. In the first place, in all the history of the world the one dominant factor,—speaking from the point of view of men and nations,—is that of sin. How then could there be any treatment of the truth of divine government which would completely ignore the fact of sin and the subject of the relation between sin and God’s government? Besides, if it is true,—and it is true,—that in all history, ever since the fall, there is no one factor that is more dominant and that influences history at every turn as well as in its over-all direction, must not God’s government and must not any dogmatical or confessional conception of God’s government take that factor into account? In the second place, as is well known, the Reformed and Scriptural conception of God’s government as being all comprehensive and as therefore including sin and the sinner, devils and wicked men in their unjust actions, has always been under attack as a doctrine that is morally unworthy of God and as a doctrine that cancels out the responsibility of man. It is therefore incumbent upon the Reformed faith to give account of its true position on this subject. In the third place, this whole matter is intrinsically connected with the comfort which God’s people derive from the truth of God’s providence. It is in a very real sense a matter of their faith and of their life. This is above all the case at times of stress and persecution, times when the enemy rages violently against God’s people and sometimes appears to be uncontrolled in his rage and victorious in his wicked plots. Such were the times in which our Belgic Confession was born. And what are God’s people to think at such times? What are they to believe and what are they to say,—not merely of their own cause, but of the cause of God,—when appearances seem to belie the truth that “our God is in the heavens” and “hath done whatsoever he hath pleased?” Then this truth of God’s government becomes much more than a nice subject for academic discussion and debate. Then it becomes a very crucial, life-and-death matter whether you indeed maintain the all-comprehensive scope of God’s government, so that it includes also the fact of sin and the evil forces and acts of devils and wicked men, or whether you exclude the latter from God’s sovereign control and purpose. Then it becomes a matter of solid comfort or hopeless despair. Then it becomes a matter of living,—and dying, if need be,—victoriously, or of going down to ignominious defeat.
Hence, before paying attention to some of the implications of this truth and to the Scriptural basis of it, let us first simply take note of what our Confession has to say on the subject. We may note the following:
1) After maintaining that God rules and governs all things, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment, the Confession immediately adds: “nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.”
2) Proceeding from the assumption of God’s greatness and incomprehensibility, applied in this instance to His power and goodness, the Confession maintains “that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
3) The Confession emphasizes the proper Christian attitude in approaching this subject: “And, as to what he doth surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into, farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us.” In this connection the article points to the deepest motive of this attitude, namely, obedience to Christ: “. . . contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.” This statement at the same time sets the objective limits beyond which we may not go in our inquiry into this subject.
4) Finally, though in another connection, the article once more emphasizes that the forces of evil, that is, the devil and all our enemies are absolutely governed by God: “. . . being persuaded, that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies, that without his will and permission, they cannot hurt us.”
It is evident, therefore, that while our Confession does not enter into any detailed explanation of the relation between God’s government and sin, we nevertheless have in these statements the essentials of the Reformed view on this matter. And in our further discussion of this subject we do well, first of all, to follow the method of our Confession, namely, to learn, as disciples of Christ, those things which he has revealed to us in His Word, and that too, without transgressing these limits.
Scripture on God’s Government and Sin
In this connection we are not so much interested in citing Scriptural proof for the fact that God is not the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. This very idea any Christian and any Reformed Christian will reject out of hand. The very thought of this is blasphemous, as Canons I, 15 asserts in connection with the truth of sovereign reprobation. And the attempt nevertheless to saddle those who repeatedly deny this charge with this thoroughly unChristian and blasphemous idea is itself a very wicked and unchristian attempt, let me add. Anyone who maintains that God is the author of sin, either directly or by implication, is a priori non-Christian. Nor has any Reformed man ever so much as suggested that this could be true, even though he were the strongest of supralapsarians. The Scriptures so abound with the current teaching of God’s perfect righteousness and absolute holiness and His hatred of all that is of darkness that it is all but unnecessary to point out that He cannot possibly be the author of sin. He is the Light, in whom is no darkness at all!
Nor should it be necessary to prove from Scripture that men are responsible beings,—another truth that is used as an argument over against the truth of God’s sovereign government with respect to sin and sinful beings and their actions. To deny that man is account able, that he can be and is held guilty on account of his sins, that he can be judged and condemned because of his sins, that he is the moral, rational author of his own sinful deeds,—the denial of all these is so utterly contrary to all of Scripture that the very mention of them at once reminds us of that fact. Indeed, it is well known that Scripture asserts this responsibility at the same time and in the same context that it asserts God’s sovereign control of the very actions for which He holds men responsible. The difficulty in respect to both of these truths that are so often used as arguments against the truth of God’s all-comprehensive government does not arise from the fact that Reformed Christians have a tendency to deny them, but from the fact that opponents of the Reformed faith have always attached to these truths a false interpretation, have placed these truths over against the truth of God’s government, and have attempted to put words in the mouth of Reformed believers which these believers themselves disown.
But we are interested in the plain teaching of Scripture on the specific question: what is the relation between God’s government and the actions of His moral, rational creatures, especially the sinful actions?
On this subject Scripture has a good deal to say, and it speaks language that is clear to anyone who can read.
There are, first of all, various passages which do not directly refer to or mention sin and the sinful acts of men or devils, but which are all-comprehensive in their mention of the work of God and do not exclude from this all-comprehensive sweep sin and evil. There are such passages which refer not only to God’s counsel and purpose, but also to the actual work of God, to theexecution of His counsel. Thus, for example, we read in Romans 11:36: “For of him, and through him, and to him are all things: to whom be glory for ever.” Note the scope here: all things! Again, in Ephesians 1:11 the God of our salvation, the predestinating God, is called the one “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Notice two elements here. In the first place, the reference of the text is not only to “the counsel of his own will” as the standard according to which God works, but to the actual work of God: He “worketh” all things. In the second place, take note of the all-inclusiveness of this statement: God worketh all things! And there is nothing in the text or context which limits this whatsoever. Nothing is excluded from this “all things.” There is also the well-known word of Romans 8:28, a word which cannot possibly be understood on the basis that anything is excluded from God’s sovereign power and control: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Here again we find that unlimited, all-inclusive “all things.”
All Scripture speaks the same language. In everyday speech mention is sometimes made of “luck,” of “chance,” of things “happening,” of a “fortunate circumstance,” etc. Reality is, of course, that there is absolutely nothing arbitrary, and that even those things which appear to be utterly arbitrary are nevertheless sovereignly controlled in the minutest detail. “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” Proverbs 16:33.
(to be continued)