This question has been asked, perhaps, since sin came into the world. The question is this: If God is sovereign, and sin includes the realm of his sovereignty, is God then the author of sin?
For the Christian, the knee jerk reaction should be “no!”. James 1:13 tells us that God tempts no one to sin. God says to Israel in Jeremiah 19:5, that he hated their sins, and that it didn’t even enter his mind for them to commit the evil they did. So this must mean that God doesn’t cause people to sin, nor does his tempt them in any way.
But, Christians also must affirm God’s good and sovereign rule over all things that have and will happen. Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God works all things according to the counsel of his will. And, Paul tells us that God’s ultimate plan was to “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). This means that God’s will to complete everything in Christ encompasses all of history; all things happen necessarily toward this plan. And of course, Paul tells us that this plan was made from before the foundations of the world; i.e., before any sinful acts were made (Eph 1:3-4). Logically then, this plan includes the sinful choices and decisions of evil men (Gen 50:20, Acts 2:23).
The question is then, how does God ordain / decree sinful things without himself being the author of sin? How can he use sinful acts without himself cooperating, even condoning those sinful acts? I have found that some Reformed theologians go too far in trying to answer this question. For instance, RC Sproul Jr, in his worrisome book, Almighty Over All, says that God caused the fall by forcing Adam to sin. Speaking of how God did this, he argues that God gave Adam an inclination toward evil. Sproul then concludes, “We ought to jump up and down praising God for his strength, that he alone has the power and authority to change the inclinations of moral agents”. In my mind, when we think of God’s sovereignty, this should never be our conclusion. Why should we jump up and down that God coerces us to commit evil? How does this even fit with James 1:13, that God tempts no one to sin?
How are we then to answer this puzzling question of sin and God’s sovereignty without attributing evil to God?
While I think there will always be mystery to this, and while we must uphold both God’s separation from free sinful acts, and his sovereignty over those free acts, Louis Berkohf gives us some great insight to this conundrum (Berkohf calls God’s sovereign will His “decree”, which encompasses all free acts and events):
It is customary to speak of the decree of God respecting moral evil as permissive. By his decree God rendered the sinful actions of man infallibly certain without deciding to effectuate them by acting immediately upon and in the finite will. This means that God does not positively work in man “both to will and to do”, when man goes contrary to his [desired] will. It should be carefully noted, however, that this permissive decree does not imply a passive permission of something which is not under the control of the divine will. It is a decree which renders the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result of this sinful self-determination…
…God cannot be the author of sin. This follows equally from scripture…, from the law of God which prohibits sin, and from the holiness of God… [Rather, God’s decree] merely makes God the author of free moral beings, who are themselves the authors of sin. God decrees to sustain their free agency, to regulate the circumstances of their life, and to permit that free agency to exert itself in a multitude of acts, of which some are sinful. For good and holy reasons he renders these sinful acts certain, but he does not decree to work evil desires or choices efficiently in man. The decree respecting sin is not an efficient but permissive decree, or a decree to permit, in distinction from a decree to produce (ala RC Sproul Jr), sin by divine efficiency…
The problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery for us, which we are not able to solve. It may be said, however, that his decree to permit sin, while it renders the entrance of sin into the world certain, does not mean that he takes delight in it; but only that he deemed it wise, for the purpose of his self-revelation, to permit moral evil, however abhorrent it may be to his nature
It must be said that Adam freely chose to sin (we will never know exactly what made him make the choice he did — the Bible never addresses this). It also must be said that God, in his infinite foreknowledge and sovereign will, could have decreed beforehand to stop Adam from sinning. But, although God could have decided to stop Adam’s sin, and although he didn’t do that, this does not follow that God made or coerced Adam to sin. Though God’s decree to permit the fall rendered it certain, it by no means makes him a sinner. And this can be said of all sin. Though God knew it would happen, planned beforehand to permit it, and even used it for his plan, it doesn’t mean he committed the sin, or forced anyone to sin.
And I think more importantly, God permitted evil events to happen in order that something better may come of them. We cannot forget this. God does not permit evil things which are purposeless, or which have no rhyme or reason. He allows them to happen that good might come out of them. And though we may never know the good until we are with Jesus, we can trust that God does.
I wrote a second part to this post, which you can read here