Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 4): Answering More Objections

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In my first post about objections to God’s sovereignty, I addressed the objection that if God is sovereign, then he is the cause of sin.

In this post, I want to address the objection that goes something like this: If God decreed everything that would happen, this makes us puppets, and takes away any real choice that we would make. In my opinion, misunderstanding the nature of how God makes his decree leads people to this conclusion. In my former posts, here, here, and here, part of my argument included the fact that God is able to decree the free choices of humans. That God decreed those free choices by no means takes away free will — it simply means that God can be and is sovereign over even the free actions of man.

Louis Berkhof says,

This objection [that God’s sovereignty takes away our free choices]…ignores the logical relation, determined by God’s decree, between the means and the end to be obtained. The decree not only includes the various issues of human life, but also the free human actions which are logically prior to, and are destined to bring about, the results.

In short, God’s decrees include our free choices. And what this means is that although God has planned to include my actions and choices in his plan, my choices are still my choices. Many argue for instance, that within a world where everything is decreed, prayer and evangelism are meaningless. But in fact, this is again misrepresenting God’s sovereignty. When it comes to answered prayers, God decided before hand to accomplish his purposes in and through our freely offered prayers. God dwells outside of time; so although I make my prayers in the year 2014 (or whatever year), God can decree to answer my prayers before the world even existed, and even use them to accomplish his purposes. To me, this makes prayers all the more important. God has designated the means to his own end, and my freely offered prayers are included in it. As Berkhof says, we cannot ignore the logical relation between God’s ends, and the means to his end.

Wayne Grudem has some more helpful insight with this objection. He says,

In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on [subjective] experience and intuition, not on specific scripture texts. Scripture repeatedly indicates that God works through our will, our power to choose, and our personal volition, and it consistently affirms that our choices are genuine choices, that they have real results, and that those results last for eternity…

[However], the kind of freedom that is often assumed by those who deny God’s providential control of all things is a freedom to act outside of God’s sustaining and controlling activity, a freedom that includes being able to make decisions that are not caused by anything external to ourselves. Scripture nowhere says we are free in those senses. That kind of freedom would be impossible if Jesus Christ is indeed “continually carrying along things by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and if God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).

I think Grudem makes some good points here. First, just because we choose to do something doesn’t mean that God didn’t ordain to permit and use your free choices. Subjective experience alone cannot confirm or deny anything.

But also, Grudem makes a great point that no one is completely free, or outside of God’s providence. This would be impossible — even God’s permissive will is under his sovereign control. While we may say that we willfully and freely make choices in the sense that God in no way forces us to make the decisions we do, still God sovereignly decreed to permit and use those free choices, making them certain.

Grudem then critiques the theological idea that God simply foreknows everything, but does not decree anything. I found it immensely helpful. He says,

Others [who disagree with this idea of God’s sovereignty] say that God knows the future [simply] because he is able to see into the future, not because he has planned or caused what will happen…

[However, this] response fails to render our choices free in the way that [they] wish them to be free. If our future choices are known, then they are fixed and therefore predetermined by something (whether fate or the inevitable cause-and-effect mechanism of the universe). And if the are fixed, then they are not “free”…

I think that this is exactly right. Whether God decrees or not, if he foreknows the future, this means he foreknows a fixed future. And this means that the free will we may want doesn’t really exist, because the future God foreknows is fixed.

More than that, if the future is not certain because of God’s final decision, then what makes it certain? Fate? Nature? Random coincidence? Either way you slice it, something has to make the future fixed. While we do make free, non-coerced, unforced choices, these choices are either fixed by God’s decision, or by another force unknown to us.

With that said, I believe that God is able to render certain free-will actions, and that this by no means takes away man’s free choices. It simply means that God is the ultimate authority over all that has, is, and will happen. It certainly does not make us puppets.

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Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 3): Why did God permit sin?

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In my last two posts here and here, I have been arguing that God is both sovereign and separate from sin. God is sovereign in the sense that he decreed / planned / ordained (whatever you’d like to call it) all that would come to pass before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:11). I also argued that God’s decrees concerning sin were permissive. And although God decreed to permit the fall, and the free sinful choices of evil men, rendering them certain, he did not coerce or force men to sin. God interacts with sin and human actions sovereignly, yet without himself being coercive or sinful (boggles the mind a bit, right?).

In this post, I want to consider why God would permit sin to come into the world. Epicurus once said,

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

I believe this quotes sums up most atheists and many agnostics. Most believe that the existence of evil itself proves that a good God cannot exist. Of course, I don’t believe this. My first response to this would be, “if an ultimate good does not exist, then what makes evil, evil?” If a good God does not exist, neither can any type of evil — everything would then be by definition amoral. This is why I must believe in the God of the Bible.

But why did God ordain to permit such evil from entering into this world?

Before I begin, I want to make a few points first: On one level it is absolutely valid to say that the fall happened because we are volitional creatures who make our own decisions with their own consequences. This is true; Adam willfully chose to disobey God, and this is the mess it created. But I don’t think this argument is argument enough. Because again, both Arminians and Calvinists alike are still left with the issue of God’s transcendence. He dwells outside of time and knows all things; and nothing happens unless he permits. And even if you deny God’s decrees, you have to acknowledge that God created the world knowing Adam would choose to sin. So, while he did choose sin, and while the fall happened because of it, still, none of it happened apart from God’s permission. So, there still has to be a deeper reason for sin.

With those points covered, I want to again quote Louis Berkohf. He has great wisdom when it comes to God’s decrees. Berkhof says,

[God’s decrees are founded] in divine wisdom. The word “counsel” (Eph 1:11), which is one of the terms by which the decree is designated, suggests careful deliberation and consultation. It may contain a suggestion of an intercommunication between the three persons of the Godhead. In speaking of God’s revelation of the mystery that was formerly hid in Him, Paul says that this was “to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Eph 3:10, 11. The wisdom of the decree… follows from the wisdom displayed in the realization of the eternal purpose of God…There may be a great deal in the decree that passes human understanding and is inexplicable to the finite mind, but it contains nothing that is irrational or arbitrary. God formed his determination with wise insight and knowledge.

First, I like that Berkhof concentrates on the fact that God does nothing arbitrarily. It his counsel, his plan, which precludes thought and wisdom.

But also, Berkhof alludes to a text in Ephesians 3:10-11, which speaks of God’s plan as being purposed, set forth, and realized, in Christ. Paul also says in Ephesians 1:10 that God purposed before the foundation of the world to “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth”. Paul also declares in Colossians that God planned to make Christ preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). Lastly, Paul speaks of God’s plan set forth in Christ with a purpose to make Himself all in all, that from Him through Him and to Him would be everything (Rom 11:33, 1 Cor 15:28). If you notice, God had a pre-creation plan that was Christo-centric, centered around Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross. And, it was God-directed, meaning that all of God’s work brings him glory and honor.

I think from these texts, it is clear that God had a pre-temporal plan to permit our own willful acts of sin, so that in response to our willful rebellion, he might redeem all things in Christ. And, he purposed to rectify the world in Christ, that all things might be from, through, and for God and his glory. God, in his infinite wisdom, and in response to the sinful will of man, saw an infinitely more glorious outcome as accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And so, though God could have stopped Adam’s rebellion outright, he permitted our sin that he might accomplish this outcome of summing up all thing in Christ (Eph 1:10).

This is why Paul speaks so magnificently in Colossians 1 of Christ being “the first born from the dead (speaking of his resurrection), that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18). In God’s wisdom, he purposed to redeem this fallen world and fallen sinners in and through Christ. I believe this is what the Bible portrays as God’s eternal purpose, being set forth in Jesus, fulfilled by him, coming from him, and being all for him. This is God’s wise decree.

And if you noticeGod’s eternal purpose involves the salvation of willful sinners. God’s plan includes the free justification of sinners worthy of death (again, while God is sovereign over free acts, he doesn’t force anyone to sin as they do). This has always boggled my mind. God, in his own right as God, could have destroyed his own creation for their rebellion. Or, he could have simply chosen not to create volitional beings he knew would sin — yet God, allowing and permitting free acts of sin, chose before the creation of the world to save mankind through the sin-atoning suffering of Jesus. And he chose to do this freely, through faith.

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that in salvation, Christ becomes the center, being our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor 1:30-31). In all things, God’s purposed to rectify in and through Jesus; and in salvation, Christ became the source of all and any good.

God has and is accomplishing his purpose through Christ, and sinners get to benefit.

*For more great insight on this, you can read this great post by Michael Horton on the same topic here.*

**I believe that this answer can be given by both Calvinists and Arminians. Even if you don’t believe in a pre-creation decree (Roger Olson et al), you have to agree that God foreknew the fall, and allowed it to happen for a greater purpose. I believe this is it (I do realize however that many Arminians may be reluctant to agree with this post).**

Sin and the Sovereignty of God (part 1)

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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