God’s Sovereignty Over Sin

The following is an excerpt from John Frame’s book The Doctrine of GodChapter 9, “The Problem of Evil.” The headings are added by David Mathis; the paragraphs are Dr. Frame’s.

God Is Sovereign Over Sin

. . . God does harden hearts, and through his prophets he predicts sinful human actions long in advance, indicating that he is in control of human free decisions. Now theologians have found it difficult to formulate in general terms how God acts to bring about those sinful actions. . . . Do we want to say that God is the “cause” of evil? That language is certainly problematic, since we usually associate cause with blame. . . . [I]t seems that if God causes sin and evil, he must be to blame for it.

Words: The Theologian’s Tools

Therefore, there has been much discussion among theologians as to what verb should best describes God’s agency in regard to evil. Some initial possibilities: authors, brings about, causes, controls, creates, decrees, foreordains, incites, includes within his plan, makes happen, ordains, permits, plans, predestines, predetermines, produces, stands behind, wills. Many of these are extra-scriptural terms; none of them are perfectly easy to define in this context. So theologians need to give some careful thought about which of these terms, if any, should be affirmed, and in what sense. Words are the theologian’s tools. In a situation like this, none of the possibilities is fully adequate. There are various advantages and disadvantages among the different terms. Let us consider some of those that are most frequently discussed.

1) Does God Author Sin?

The term authors is almost universally condemned in the theological literature. It is rarely defined, but it seems to mean both that God is the efficient cause of evil and that by causing evil he actually does something wrong.1 So the [Westminster Confession] says that God “neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (5:4). Despite this denial in a major Reformed confession, Arminians regularly charge that Reformed theology makes God the author of sin. They assume that if God brings about evil in any sense, he must therefore approve it and deserve the blame. In their view, nothing less than libertarian freedom will serve to absolve God from the charge of authoring sin.

God Does Not Author Sin

But as we saw [in chapter 8] libertarian freedom is incoherent and unbiblical. And as we saw [in chapter 4] God does bring about sinful human actions. To deny this, or to charge God with wickedness on account of it, is not open to a Bible-believing Christian. Somehow, we must confess both that God has a role in bringing evil about, and that in doing so he is holy and blameless. . . . God does bring sins about, but always for his own good purposes. So in bringing sin to pass he does not himself commit sin. If that argument is sound, then a Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God does not imply that God is the author of sin.

2) Does God Cause Sin?

Causes is another term which has led to much wrestling by theologians. . . . Reformed writers have . . . denied that God is the cause of sin. Calvin teaches, “For the proper and genuine cause of sin is not God’s hidden counsel but the evident will of man,”2 though in context he also states that Adam’s Fall was “not without God’s knowledge and ordination.”Some other examples:

See that you make not God the author of sin, by charging his sacred decree with men’s miscarriages, as if that were the cause or occasion of them; which we are sure that it is not, nor can be, any more than the sun can be the cause of darkness.4

It is [God] who created, preserves, actuates and directs all things. But it by no means follows, from these premises, that God is therefore the cause of sin, for sin is nothing but anomia, illegality, want of conformity to the divine law (1 John iii. 4), a mere privation of rectitude; consequently, being itself a thing purely negative, it can have no positive or efficient cause, but only a negative or deficient one, as several learned men have observed.5

According to the Canons of Dort, “The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man” (1.5).

Cause and Ordain

In these quotations, cause seems to take on the connotations of the term author. For these writers, to say that God “causes” evil is to say, or perhaps imply, that he is to blame for it. Note the phrase “cause or blame” in the Canons of Dort, in which the terms seem to be treated as synonyms. But note above that although Calvin rejects cause he affirms ordination. God is not the “cause” of sin, but it is by his “ordination.” For the modern reader, the distinction is not evident. To ordain is to cause, and vice versa. If causality entails blame, then ordination would seem to entail it as well; if not, then neither entails it. But evidently in the vocabulary of Calvin and his successors there was a difference between the two terms.

We May Say That God Causes Sin

For us, the question arises as to whether God can be the efficient cause of sin, without being to blame for it. The older theologians denied that God was the efficient cause of sin . . . [in part] because they identified cause with authorship. But if . . . the connection between cause and blame in modern language is no stronger than the connection between ordination and blame, then it seems to me that it is not wrong to say that God causes evil and sin. Certainly we should employ such language cautiously, however, in view of the long history of its rejection in the tradition.

Remote and Proximate Causes

It is interesting that Calvin does use cause, referring to God’s agency in bringing evil about, when he distinguishes between God as the “remote cause” and human agency as the “proximate cause.” Arguing that God is not the “author of sin,” he says, “the proximate cause is one thing, the remote cause another.”6 Calvin points out that when wicked men steal Job’s goods, Job recognizes that “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” The thieves, proximate cause of the evil, are guilty; but Job doesn’t question the motives of the Lord, the remote cause. Calvin does not, however, believe that the proximate/ultimate distinction is sufficient to show us why God is guiltless:

But how it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author and approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance.7

He uses the proximate/remote distinction merely to distinguish between the causality of God and that of creatures, and therefore to state that the former is always righteous. But he does not believe the distinction solves the problem of evil. . . .

At least, the above discussion does indicate that Calvin is willing in some contexts to refer to God as a cause of sin and evil. Calvin also describes God as the sole cause of the hardening and reprobation of the wicked:

Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.8

3) Does God Permit Sin?

Consider now the term permits. This is the preferred term in Arminian theology, in which it amounts to a denial that God causes sin. For the Arminian, God does not cause sin; he only permits it. Reformed theologians, however, have also used the term, referring to God’s relation to sin. The Reformed, however, insist contrary to the Arminians that God’s “permission” of sin is no less efficacious than his ordination of good. Calvin denies that there is any “mere permission” in God:

From this it is easy to conclude how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be not by [God’s] will, but merely by his permission. Of course, so far as they are evils, which men perpetrate with their evil mind, as I shall show in greater detail shortly, I admit that they are not pleasing to God. But it is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely [= idly] permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing but the author of them.9

God’s “permission” is an efficacious permission. . . .

Yes, God Permits Sin—But Not “Mere Permission”

If God’s permission is efficacious, how does it differ from other exercises of his will? Evidently, the Reformed use permits mainly as a more delicate term than causes, and to indicate that God brings about sin with a kind of reluctance born of his holy hatred of evil.

This usage does reflect a biblical pattern: When Satan acts, he acts, in an obvious sense, by God’s permission.10 God allows him to take Job’s family, wealth, and health. But God will not allow Satan to take Job’s life (Job 2:6). So Satan is on a short leash, acting only within limits assigned by God. And in this respect all sinful acts are similar. The sinner can only go so far, before he meets the judgment of God.

What God Permits to Happen Will Happen

It is right, therefore, to use permission to apply to God’s ordination of sin. But we should not assume, as Arminians do, that divine permission is anything less than sovereign ordination. What God permits or allows to happen will happen. God could easily have prevented Satan’s attack on Job if he had intended to. That he did not prevent that attack implies that he intended it to happen. Permission, then, is a form of ordination, a form of causation.11 That it is sometimes taken otherwise is a good argument against using the term, but perhaps not a decisive argument.

I shall not discuss other terms on my list (except wills, which [is discussed in chapter 23 of The Doctrine of God]). The above should be sufficient to indicate the need of caution in our choice of vocabulary, and also the need to think carefully before condemning the vocabulary of others. It is not easy to find adequate terms to describe God’s ordination of evil. Our language must not compromise either God’s full sovereignty or his holiness and goodness.

None of these formulations solves the problem of evil. It is not a solution to say that God ordains evil, but doesn’t author or cause it (if we choose to say that). This language is not a solution to the problem, but only a way of raising it. For the problem of evil asks how God can ordain evil without authoring it. And, as Calvin pointed out, the distinction between remote and proximate cause is also inadequate to answer the questions before us, however useful it may be in stating who is to blame for evil. Nor is it a solution to say that God permits, rather than ordains, evil. As we have seen, God’s permission is as efficacious as his ordination. The difference between the terms brings nothing to light that will solve the problem.

The Author-Story Model

I should … say something more about the nature of God’s agency in regard to evil. Recall from [chapter 8 in The Doctrine of God] the model of the author and his story: God’s relationship to free agents is like the relationship of an author to his characters. Let us consider to what extent God’s relationship to human sin is like that of Shakespeare to Macbeth, the murderer of Duncan.

Did Shakespeare Kill Duncan?

I borrowed the Shakespeare/Macbeth illustration from Wayne Grudem’s excellent Systematic Theology.12 But I do disagree with Grudem on one point. He says that we could say that either Macbeth or Shakespeare “killed King Duncan.” I agree, of course, that both Macbeth and Shakespeare are responsible, at different levels of reality, for the death of Duncan. But as I analyze the language we typically use in such contexts, it seems clear to me that we would not normally say that Shakespeare killed Duncan. Shakespeare wrote the murder into his play. But the murder took place in the world of the play, not the real world of the author. Macbeth did it, not Shakespeare. We sense the rightness of the poetic justice brought against Macbeth for his crime. But we would certainly consider it very unjust if Shakespeare were tried and put to death for killing Duncan.13 And no one suggests that there is any problem in reconciling Shakespeare’s benevolence with his omnipotence over the world of the drama. Indeed, there is reason for us to praise Shakespeare for raising up this character, Macbeth, to show us the consequences of sin.14

God Brings About Sin Without Himself Sinning

The difference between levels, then, may have moral significance as well as metaphysical.15 It may illumine why the biblical writers, who do not hesitate to say that God brings about sin and evil, are not tempted to accuse him of wrongdoing. The relation between God and ourselves, of course, is different in some respects from that between an author and his characters. Most significantly: we are real; Macbeth is not. But between God and ourselves there is a vast difference in the kind of reality and in relative status. God is the absolute controller and authority, the most present fact of nature and history. He is the lawgiver, we the law receivers. He is the head of the covenant; we are the servants. He has devised the creation for his own glory; we seek his glory, rather than our own. He makes us as the potter makes pots, for his own purposes. Do these differences not put God in a different moral category as well?

God Is Not Required to Defend Himself

The very transcendence of God plays a significant role in biblical responses to the problem of evil. Because God is who he is, the covenant Lord, he is not required to defend himself against charges of injustice. He is the judge, not we. Very often in Scripture, when something happens that calls God’s goodness in question, God pointedly refrains from explaining. Indeed, he often rebukes those human beings who question him. Job demanded an interview with God, so that he could ask God the reasons for his sufferings (23:1-7, 31:35-37). But when he met God, God asked the questions: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (38:3). The questions mostly revealed Job’s ignorance about God’s creation: if Job doesn’t understand the ways of the animals, how can he presume to call God’s motives in question? He doesn’t even understand earthly things; how can he presume to debate heavenly things? God is not subject to the ignorant evaluations of his creatures.16

The Potter and the Clay

It is significant that the potter/clay image appears in the one place in Scripture where the problem of evil is explicitly addressed.17 In Rom. 9:19-21, Paul appeals specifically to the difference in metaphysical level and status between the creator and the creature:

One of you will say to me, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will? But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Rom. 9:19-21)

This answer to the problem of evil turns entirely on God’s sovereignty. It is as far as could be imagined from a free will defense. It brings to our attention the fact that his prerogatives are far greater than ours, as does the author/character model.

A Sense in Which God “Authors” Evil

One might object to this model that it makes God the “author” of evil. But that objection, I think, confuses two senses of “author.” As we have seen, the phrase “author of evil” connotes not only causality of evil, but also blame for it. To “author” evil is to do it. But in saying that God is related to the world as an author to a story, we actually provide a way of seeing that God is not to be blamed for the sin of his creatures.

Three Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil

This is, of course, not the only biblical response to the problem of evil. Sometimes God does not respond by silencing us, as above, but by showing us in some measure what evil contributes to his plan, what I have called the “greater good defense.” The greater good defense refers particularly to God’s Lordship attribute of control, that he is sovereign over evil and uses it for good. The Rom. 9 response refers particularly to God’s Lordship attribute of authority. And his attribute of covenant presence addresses the emotional problem of evil, comforting us with the promises of God and the love of Jesus from which no evil can separate us (Rom. 8:35-39).

1 Lest there be confusion over language: the “author/story” model of God’s relation to creatures, which I [will advocate later], does not make God the “author of sin” in this sense. Nothing about that model implies that God commits or approves of sin. In fact I shall argue later that it provides us a reason to deny that.
2 Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: James Clarke and Co., 1961), 122.
3 Ibid., 121.
4 Elisha Coles, A Practical Discourse on God’s Sovereignty (Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1968), 15. Reprint of a seventeenth-century work.
5 Jerome Zanchius, Observations On the Divine Attributes, in Absolute Predestination(Marshallton, DE: National Foundation for Christian Education, nd), 33. Compare the formulations of post-reformation dogmaticians Polan and Wolleb in RD, 143, and of Mastricht on 277. All of these base their arguments on the premise that evil is a mere privation.
6 Calvin, op. cit., 181.
7 Ibid., 124.
8 Calvin, ICR 3.22.11. Compare 3.23.1.
9 Calvin, Eternal Predestination, 176. The term author raises questions. I take it, in Calvin’s usual line of thinking, to mean that God authors the evil happenings without authoring their evil character. But the use of author here indicates something of the flexibility of language in his formulations, in contrast with its relative rigidity in his successors.
10 In this use, and in the Reformed theological use, “permission” has no connotation of moral approval, as it sometimes has in contemporary use of the term
11 Traditional Arminians agree that God is omnipotent and can prevent sinful actions. So we wonder how they can object to this argument. If God could prevent sin, but chose not to, must we not say that he has ordained it to happen? Some more recent Arminians claim that God created the world without even knowing that evil would come to pass. But doesn’t this representation make God, in the words of one of my correspondents, like a kind of “mad scientist,” who “throws together a potentially dangerous combination of chemicals, not knowing if it will result in a hazardous and uncontrollable reaction?” Does this view not make God guilty of reckless endangerment?
12 Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, 321-22.
13 Think how many writers of TV programs would be taken from us if such a legal basis were valid. No further comment.
14 As my friend Steve Hays points out in correspondence, the dark aspects of Shakespeare’s dramas also add to his stature as an artist. Our admiration of Shakespeare is partly based on his understanding of the sin of the human soul and his ability to expose and deal with that sin, not trivially, but in ways that surprise us and deepen our understanding.
15 The metaphysical difference between the creator God and the world of which evil is a part may indicate the true connection between the ethical and metaphysical, as opposed to the false connection of the “chain of being” thinkers mentioned earlier in this chapter. It may also indicate a grain of truth in the privation theory: there is a metaphysical difference between good and evil, but it is not the difference between being and nonbeing, but rather the difference between uncreated being and created being.
16 To say this is not to adopt the view of Gordon H. Clark that God is ex lex, or outside of, not subject to, the moral law. See Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), where he argues that because God is above the moral law he is not subject to it. Certainly God has some prerogatives that he forbids to us, such as the freedom to take human life. But for the most part, the moral laws God imposes upon us are grounded in his own character. See Ex. 20:11Lev. 11:44-45,Matt. 5:451 Pet. 1:15-16. God will not violate his own character. What Scripture denies is that man has sufficient understanding of God’s character and his eternal plan (not to mention sufficient authority) to bring accusations against him.
17 The problem is raised, of course, in the Book of Job and many other places in Scripture. But to my knowledge, Rom. 9 is the only passage in which a biblical writer gives an explicit answer to it. Job, of course, never learns why he has suffered.


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