God’s Providence and Sin
We concluded our preceding article with the remark that man, although never sovereignly free, is morally free. Indeed, he does not possess the true freedom of the service of Jehovah. Only Adam, in the state of perfection, was able to choose the good and the evil. The natural man is unable to choose the good, can choose only the evil. The regenerated child of God, in heavenly perfection and immortality, cannot choose the evil, will never again be able to choose the evil. Man, however, although never sovereignly free, is morally free. Although he is controlled and directed, wholly and sovereignly, by the living God in all his activity, in all his thinking and willing and doing, by the alone living God, we can speak of his freedom in a moral sense. This demands some elucidation.
Man is a rational-moral being and therefore a responsible being. The animal is not God-conscious. It never acts in conscious relation to the Lord. But whatever man does he does as in relation to God. He is God-conscious because he has been created as adapted to the living God. He understands intellectually the speech of the Lord in creation and in the Scriptures. In this speech of the Lord, in creation and in the Scriptures, the Lord speaks of Himself, that He is God, and that it is mandatory for all men, exactly because they are creatures, to serve and love Him. And man understands this speech of God in the intellectual sense of the word. Whatever he does he performs most emphatically in relation to God. He hates the Lord or He loves Him. He walks from the principle of sin and enmity or of love. He seeks the glory of the Lord or he opposes that God. This is because of his rational-moral nature. Always he walks in conscious relation to his Creator. And it is exactly this that constitutes his responsibility, and that he is held accountable for his action. We must understand this correctly. We must not be confused in our conception of man’s responsibility. Of course, the natural man is never free in the true, spiritual sense of the word, as God is free and His people are free through the grace of the Lord. Neither is he ever free in the absolute, sovereign sense of the word, as if he for one moment were independent of the Lord. In this sense he will ever remain the instrument of Jehovah, His agent. And his responsibility surely does not consist in this, that he is able to choose both, the good and the evil. If this were his responsibility, then there would be no responsibility of man, and this for the simple reason that no man, apart from the regenerating grace of God, is able to choose the good. This is clearly established in the Scriptures, as when the apostle Paul declares in Romans 8 that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither can be. But, he is, relatively, morally free, always as in subjection to the Lord. For, in the final analysis, we may not speak of man merely as an instrument, because an instrument is wholly passive, whereas man is an active, moral creature. Man is spiritually, morally free in his sin. He sins consciously, not because he is forced to sin, but because he wills it. He sins out of himself spontaneously, is never forced to commit iniquity, never forced to act contrary to himself; he is always the conscious author of his own evil. He is never “driven” to anything he does. This is man’s moral freedom, the moral freedom of his will, that he sins, rejoices in it, choosing the evil always as the object of his own will.
Herein lies the distinction between origin and author. An origin is the willing, determining cause of anything. That man sins surely has its determining origin in the Lord. From where else would sin come, in this determining, causal sense of the word, 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 in his sin. So, we reject all determinism, as if man were ever a mere stock and block, but we maintain him as a responsible, free moral agent. In this sense God is never the author of sin, but He hates all sin with all that is in Him, although He is its origin and cause. Sovereignly and eternally the Lord willed what he hates. For sin is the active operation of our nature against the living God and in this sin man rejoices. The operation of the Lord in connection with sin, also as far as His sovereign counsel is concerned, is always such that man is its author, doing it not because he is forced to commit iniquity, but as the desire of his own heart and mind.
This places us before an unexplainable mystery. We readily confess this. Man is a free-responsible being. He performs iniquity because he loves to do so. He is unmolested in his sinning, never wills or desires anything else, is surely a slave of iniquity, but always a very willing slave. This is man’s free will, provided we understand this in this sense of the word. On the other hand, God is God. He performs all His good pleasure. Also this truth we must maintain, proclaim, confess unceasingly. He is the sovereign, willing Origin and Worker of all things, also of all the spiritual deeds of man. It is He alone Who turneth 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 unto minutest details. How all these things take place we do not know. How a holy God at all times causes sin to be and man remains responsible we confess to be a mystery. Even man’s responsibility is surely called into existence by the Lord. That Jehovah hates sin and therefore causes all sin to occur in such a way that man is morally free, loving iniquity, committing evil unhindered and always as the object of his own choice, without ever being able to choose the good, we acknowledge to be the mystery. This is not the mystery that man is morally free; this is plain, and it is also every man’s personal experience. But what we cannot understand, and undoubtedly never will understand, is how God works the reality of sin, Himself hating all evil. This is surely Scriptural and taught us in the Word of God. Unfathomably deep are all the thoughts of the Lord; His ways are ever higher than our ways; He transcends whatever we shall know.
This truth must be maintained. Upon this rests the continual admonitory tone of the gospel. We must understand that the Word of God is never proclaimed but that the wicked are always commanded of God to repent of his evil way and to turn unto the Lord. Besides, it is not the will of the Lord that His gospel must be brought exclusively to the elect. How could the church ever proclaim the gospel exclusively to the elect? This does not mean that the gospel is a well-meaning offer of salvation, that the Lord desires to save all men; but it does mean that God demands, as God of His creatures that they serve and love Him with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. Because I am a moral-rational creature, conversion, faith, hope, love, although worked by God, are deeds of men. The godless surely have no right to walk upon the way of sin, and it remains his calling, how impossible it may be for him to fulfill it, to love the Lord and to praise His Name. But also from this viewpoint the gospel is at all times particular. Only God’s people believe, turn from their evil way unto the Lord. Hence, the gospel is primarily the proclamation of the promise, is the light of God’s mercy and love in the midst of our sin and darkness. Continually we are admonished, as the people of God, unto faith and repentance, because the truth stands sure that God does all things, but He causes us to stand in His grace. Is it God Who works in us the willing and the doing, then we, as the result of that work of God must will and do. And as far as the wicked are concerned, who refuse to walk in the way of the Lord, who reject the living Christ because Christ saves from sin, and they love sin, they will be held accountable for the fact that they loved darkness rather than the light and walked in ways of iniquity because they hated the living God.
How tremendously comforting is this truth! First, this truth is comforting from the viewpoint of God’s Church in the midst of the world. This subjective viewpoint of the comfort of the child of God is primarily the viewpoint of our confessions. This comfort is very apparent. If all things are controlled by Jehovah then the Church is surely perfectly safe in the midst of the world. Then no harm can befall us, no devil can really do us any harm, because all things are in the hands of our heavenly Father. However, this is not the only comfort which we may derive from the truth of God’s providence and sin, particularly as they are related to each other in the light of the sovereignty of God. Indeed, the Lord causes all things to work together unto the good of His people. But, of what benefit is it to us to know that God has willed sin? Would it not have been far better for us to enter into heavenly glory without the way of sin and grace?
We must also understand that the eternal glory of the alone living God is my comfort. First of all, this conception maintains God as God. We must face the reality of iniquity, its awful reality, especially in our present day. To view sin as having its origin in the devil gives us no comfort. Then we lose God. To know God, the only true and living God, is eternal life. It must be and is the desire and longing of every child of God that God remain God. There is none other god beside Him. That He is God, Whom we love, that He works all things, that He holds the reins of all history in His hands, is of supreme importance and comfort to the child of God. We may never support or entertain any conception which would detract in any sense from the glory of that living God.
This, however, is not all. God did not simply will sin without anything more said. God must be God, but He must also be God as the holy and omniscient Lord. Hence, I know that man loves sin, but to the Lord it is an abomination. And I do not hesitate to say that we rejoice in the fact, in connection with the presence of all this evil in the midst of the world, that the good and holy God has willed this night of sin and death. If the devil held the reins of history in his hand I would not have a moment of peace and rest. If an accident had taken place in Paradise, or if sin had entered this world even through God’s permission, then all things now would be “repair work.” But if the Lord willed sin, then all is well. Then it must serve the highest glory of His everlasting Name. For, this means that God would realize the glory of His Name also in the way of sin and iniquity. All things shall unite in the glory of Jehovah, positively in heaven, but also in hell as the eternal manifestation of His adorable holiness and righteousness. Well may we say, how truly we may abhor all evil: O Lord, if this sin, all this darkness must serve the light, what shall then the light be, the everlasting glory of Thy Name! What depth of the wisdom of the Lord! Who, Lord, hath been Thy counselor? None, and none could be! All things shall glorify His Name. Let us, therefore, praise Him, as the people of the Lord, also in connection with sin, not because of iniquity itself, but as God’s means through which His glory is alone possible. Then our position in the midst of the world is never in doubt; then our glory is sure; then nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord.