Here is a teaching I gave to students on the question of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom:
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 notice, God’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).**