Scripture on God’s Government and Sin (concluded)
To one more item of proof I must call your attention. This is the opening of the book with its seven seals,Revelation 5, by the Lamb. This book is nothing less than the living decree of God; and the opening of the book is the realization of that decree, which is committed unto the Lamb, the exalted Christ, to Whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth. As He opens the seals of that book one by one, the counsel of the Lord with respect to all the events of this dispensation is realized. And included in all those events of this dispensation, “the things which must be hereafter,” (Rev. 4:1), are all the ragings of the heathen and of the antichristian world-power against the cause of Christ in the midst of the world as they must serve the purpose of the realization of the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, as we have it in Revelation 6, not only the white horse, but the red and the black and the pale all come forth when the Lamb opens the seals of that book. All the events of this dispensation are but the realization of God’s counsel as it is realized by God’s own government of the world that has been committed to Him who sitteth at the right hand of God.
Knowing this, we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.
Conclusions Within “These Limits”
There is none who will not freely concede that in this entire matter of God’s government and sin we are confronted by the mystery. That mystery is really the mystery that is always present when we speak of God and of God’s works. He is the incomprehensible God, Who is really God. We cannot fathom Him; nor can we fathom His wonderful works. Our Confession calls special attention to this, cautioning us not to inquire curiously into what God does which surpasses human understanding. Our human understanding is of far too limited capacity to fathom the incomprehensible God and His works. Our attitude, therefore, must be that of humility and adoration of the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us. And in this attitude we are bound, objectively, to that which Christ Himself has revealed to us in His Word.
What, therefore, may we say concerning God’s government and sin within these prescribed limits?
Let us attempt to answer this question negatively, first of all.
In the first place, it is evident from all the Scripture passages cited that every dualistic conception of the relation between God’s government of the world and sinful beings and their actions is to be rejected. There is no power of sin and darkness that has independent existence and the ability to will and move and accomplish anything independently of the will and operation of God the Lord. This error of dualism, pagan in its origin, was already rejected in Article XII of our Confession.
In the second place, however, the Confession emphasizes that God is neither the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. The guilt, the blame, of sin, whether we speak of the origin of sin at the time of the fall or whether we speak of any other sinful deeds of devils or men, is in no wise to be laid to God’s charge. We may well remember, by the way, that the accusation of this heresy is and can be made only against those who reject the dualistic conception. All dualism gets rid of this problem, if such it may be called, by destroying the problem, by getting rid of God’s sovereignty, by placing sinful creatures and their actions outside the scope of God’s sovereign government.
In the third place, to be rejected are those conceptions which, out of a wholesome fear of in any wise presenting God as the author of sin, nevertheless fall unintentionally into a degree of dualism.
In this connection we come face to face with the difficulties involved in this entire subject; and we are forcibly reminded of what our Confession says concerning what surpasses human understanding. Try as we may, we nevertheless cannot “get to the bottom” of this subject. It is this fact which probably accounts for various formulations, or attempts at formulation, of the relation between God’s government and sin which, though they are well-meaning and though to a greater or lesser degree approximate the truth, nevertheless are not wholly adequate and satisfactory.
Such a formulation is implied in the term “permission,” at least the moment that this permission is conceived of as wholly passive and as consisting in a wholly negative refusal to intervene. In this sense our confessions never use the term. Another such term, in my estimation, is the term “cooperation.” This is a term that was devised to express something of the implications of God’s government of His moral creatures. The trouble is, as a simple analysis of the term reveals immediately, that such language fails to express anything of the Sovereign-creature relationship, and tends rather to deny that relation. Can it indeed be said, as the term “cooperate” implies, that God and the moral creature “work together?” And is this an adequate formulation especially of the respective parts of God and the moral creature in regard to sinful deeds? True enough, an explanation can be made of the use of such a term in a Reformed sense; but the very necessity of the explanation points. up the inadequacy of the term. Personally, I always feel the same way about the formulation “First Cause . . . . second cause.” I will not enter into a lengthy discussion of this formulation, however, at this time.
Often, however, we slip unthinkingly into some kind of dualistic presentation and conception of God’s government. This is certainly the case when we think of God as accomplishing His purpose in spite of the contrary attempt and operation of the devil or of sinful men. It is certainly correct to say that the Lord works in spite of the intention of the devil and of wicked men. Always, of course, it is the purpose of the devil to defeat God’s purpose and to prevent its realization. In fact, it is. precisely at this point of purpose and intent that the sharp difference between the work of God’s government as being a perfectly holy work of Him in Whom there is no darkness at all and the work of devils and wicked men comes into the clearest focus: God is not the author of sin, but devils and wicked men are the authors of their own sin. Let us understand this clearly. When Herod and Pontius Pilate and the chief priests and scribes, together with the bloodthirsty multitude, conspire to bring our Lord Jesus Christ to the bitter and shameful death of the cross, it certainly is not their intention to execute God’s counsel and to carry out His purpose of reconciling the world unto Himself through the blood of atonement. On their part, they intend to express their fierce hatred against the Lord and against His Anointed. And through them the devil himself wickedly intends to slay the Great Seed of the woman. But God’s counsel stands, and He performs all His good pleasure. And from this point of view, it may certainly be said that the Almighty executes His counsel and realizes His purpose in spite of all the wicked intentions of the powers of darkness.
The moment, however, that we maintain this same idea in the objective sense, and say that God accomplishes His work and purpose in spite of the attempt and operation of the devil and the ungodly to the contrary, we have fallen into dualistic channels of thought. While the subjective purpose and also the actions of all the powers of darkness stand diametrically opposed to God and His purpose and His work, according to objective reality there are no powers and no works that can and do oppose God in the sense that God must overcome them and accomplish His purpose and work in spite of them.
In the same sense we often speak not only of God ruling things, but of His overruling. Again, though such terminology is employed with every good intention, and though there is a certain approximation of the truth of God’s incomprehensible government in it, nevertheless we should keep in mind that it is not more than an approximation of the truth and that this “overruling” is never to be dualistically conceived. That which God “overrules” has actually no power to accomplish anything independently of and ultimately over against the Lord of heaven and earth. God is not merely greater and stronger and higher than the powers of darkness. He is God, the Lord. He does not and He does not have to compete against the devil and the ungodly. And in that sense it cannot be said that Heover-rules; He simply rules.
This brings us to the positive side of the question.
And then we may note the following:
1. Scripture itself very clearly posits the truth of God’s absolutely sovereign government of sin, the devil(s), and ungodly men and the truth of the creature’s moral responsibility for his own sinful deeds, never suggesting that there is the slightest inconsistency or contradiction involved, but also never hesitating to maintain both. Sometimes, in fact, the Scriptures present both truths, as it were, in one breath. Think of the well-known words of Acts 2: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Scripture hesitates not at all to maintain, on the one hand, that the most heinous sin of the ages took place according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God and that the Lord of heaven and earth “delivered” our Lord Jesus Christ to the death of the cross; and, on the other hand, it maintains the wickedness of the hands that crucified and slew our Lord. Moreover, Scripture never “bothers” to explain these things and is not concerned with the multitudinous problems that we can conjure up in connection with these truths. I am inclined to think that at least one reason for this is that our problems about these matters are not real, true-to-life problems. No one can escape the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty; and even the very vocal protestations against and denials of that sovereignty do not change the sovereign God and do not change the fact that we after all know that He is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. At the same time, no one can escape the awareness of his own moral responsibility for his sins, nor with intellectual honesty charge God with being the author of sin, all his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. That simply is not reality; it is not life! The objector against reprobation in Romans 9 is not suffering from an honest intellectual difficulty when he raises the question, “Why doth he yet find fault, for who hath resisted his will?” That objection is one of wicked rebellion. The same is true of the objection that the truth of God’s all-comprehensive government makes’ God the author of sin. The root of that objection, in so far as it is used as an objection, is not a true concern for God’s holiness, but a hatred of His sovereignty.