Those who believe in the sovereignty of God may not use the sovereignty of God as an excuse for their sin, but they can sometimes get close to doing so by acting confused. So if God ordains and works all things, that must include sin. If God ordains sin, how can He hold us accountable for it? This is a question that comes up in Romans 9, but one way to get help by looking at the law.
If God did not ordain sin, then Israel and his family would have died. Joseph’s brothers barely avoided murdering him, they sold him into slavery, and what they meant for evil God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).
Even more, nothing happened to Jesus that was not according to the predestined plan of God.
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23 ESV)
The most heinous, wicked sin of all time will be rejoiced in for eternity, even as it was by the believers in Jerusalem who lifted their voices to God who did “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:24-28, see also Isaiah 53:10). The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes:
WSC 7: What are the decrees of God? A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
This is God’s sovereign will; He is the one “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11 ESV).
But as we exalt His power and authority, how do we also exalt His righteousness? God’s law is God’s revealed will.
WSC 39: What is the duty which God requireth of man? A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.
In His law, we learn what He wants (Romans 7:7). The law does have a few other purposes, but its clarifying work here keeps us from rationalizing our sin in theological terms. He has told you, o man, what is good and what He requires. Submit to His sovereignty, repent from your sin.
What makes a church a church? How is a church formed? There’s a choice. A church could be seen as a group of people who choose to come together, or a church could be seen as a group of people whom God chose to come together. Implications abound downstream of what we see.
Abraham Kuyper published his address arguing that the church should not be supported or controlled by the State. A free church has different roots, and the freedom comes from God’s sovereign choice.
There are only two principles that carry within themselves a characteristic world, an entirely distinctive world: eternal election and humanism.
—Rooted and Grounded, location 234
At root of all kinds of relationships and responsibilities is the concern: who is being worshipped as God? If God is God, then God chooses what happens. If man plays at God’s role, he believes that he chooses what happens. This isn’t a discussion about primary and secondary causes or about God’s use of our affections and wills in accomplishing what He wants. At the moment I’m simply trying to point out that things are different when we receive, and rejoice in, the truth of God’s election.
We believe that God elects some to salvation. We believe that all those who have been elected to a common salvation God also elects some to specific spiritual gift. And we believe that the saved and gifted are elected to union with other parts of the body and elected to work for the benefit of the whole body.
You could be urged to find the motivation to serve within, or urged to find the motivation around, as you see those in need. But the first motivation is above, submitting to the Sovereign. He chose you for Himself, and for such a body as this.
The sovereignty of God and the suffering of men is not an academic exercise. Theodicy—a good God’s control over man’s evil (and nature’s destructive force that hurts men)—confronts us every day. If we say He can stop it, why doesn’t He? If we say He can not stop it, where can we go for help?
I’ve always found it helpful to remember that the most evil thing that has ever happened in the world was planned by God before He created the world. No torture has ever been more unjust than what the soldiers did to Jesus, and by those wounds we are healed. No State sanctioned capital punishment has ever been more malicious or murderous in intent, and by Christ’s death we know God’s loving intent. God used the most heinous sin of man to purchase the salvation of man.
The apostles recognized God’s hand in the crucifixion. Peter preached on Pentecost:
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)
The believers prayed in light of predestination:
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27–28)
God not only can use the evil of men, He meant to. He invites us to remember the glory of the cross–where He designed the ultimate display of glory–as we eat the bread and drink the wine together.
There are hard things that happen in the world. Though the gospel has had a great affect on many peoples, many other peoples haven’t heard the gospel or received the gospel. Sinful men, left to themselves, destroy themselves, destroy one another, and destroy society.
God sent a flood to destroy the destroyers and, to David, this was a reason to sing about God’s sovereignty. It was also a reason to sing about how the same God gives strength and peace to His people.
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:10–11)
The sinfulness of man was hard, so was God’s punishment. The LORD was in charge before, during, and after the global flood; the flood sat at His feet, so to speak. This heightens our fear of the Lord and, even more, deepens our faith in Him.
The apostles preached about the crucifixion with the same affirmation of the Lord’s control.
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)
The unjust torture and murder of Jesus was hard. But the Lord was in charge before, during, and after Good Friday. It was carried out according to His plan. And it is hard but good news for our faith. We could sing today:
The Lord sits enthroned over the cross; The Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to His people! May the Lord bless His people with peace!
Not one hair of your head, one sparrow in the sky, one drop of rain, one drop of Jesus’ blood, falls apart from your Father (Matthew 10:29-31). He has purchased your strength, not a story that doesn’t require it. He has purchased your peace, not a life without enemies or hard things. Eat and drink in remembrance of His authority and His gifts to you.
We believe that God is God meaning that He does whatever He pleases (see Psalm 135:6). We believe that He controls everything, from ants in driveway cracks to the color of lights on the White House. We also believe that God writes all things into existence for His glory, and in light of His unmatched wisdom and power, we would be right to conclude that what we see around us is ultimately the best way for Him to be seen as great.
One practical sanctification question for those with straight theology about God’s sovereignty is this: If God is in control, and if He gets glory whether I obey or not, then why should I pursue obedience or be concerned when I sin?
Most Christians who are savvy enough to ask this already know that God commands righteousness. He explicitly said, “Don’t sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) even though more grace would seem to bring Him more glory. Yet sometimes this simple order doesn’t satisfy all the way down. We still might question if the sovereign God isn’t at least a little disingenuous.
God does desire His glory. He also desires our obedience. He also gets glory when we don’t obey. But when we don’t obey, we don’t have joy.
God told Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). God was and still is honored through Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness but this didn’t make Pharaoh feel better. God wrote Judas’ part in the gospel story (Matthew 26:24) and must be praised for it, but Judas did not get joy. God gets glory, in some way, even when we sin, but we do not get joy.
This is yet another evidence that we are not robots, that God desires more from us than a warm body to play a part. If you are holding onto sin, especially if you are trying justify it theologically, confess and repent motivated by a desire for joy. We pray like David, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Everything brings God glory, but not everything brings us joy. He offers us both.
A: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yeah, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth to live unto him.
I watched the Nightline Face-Off: Does Satan Exist? debate with great interest last week. Not only has Pastor Mark been a topic of conversation in the paths I’m walking, I had finished preaching Genesis 3:1-7 the previous Sunday. Satan was on my mind. The condensed version aired on ABC was almost useless, overhyped and overedited. As long as you can stomach multiple BlackBerry commercials, watching online is the way to go.
For the record, I think Driscoll spoke graciously, boldly, and biblically on the issue at hand, especially while sharing a stage with the “super-spiritual.” Deepak has no problem loving himself, and his love cup appears to be full as ever. Most importantly, Driscoll proclaimed Jesus as the only way of salvation and the ultimate Conqueror of Satan (Genesis 3:15; Romans 16:20). His unaired closing statement, in which he read 1 John 5:19-20, could not have been better chosen.
But one particular part of the night keeps percolating in my head. After the opening statements from all four participants, the moderator pursued the Why? questions with Driscoll. I don’t know if he wanted to jab Driscoll with the apparent lunacy of believing in a good God who allows Satan to run amuck, or if he was giving Driscoll a bona fide head start. Either way, he volleyed the question back multiple times. I haven’t found a transcript of the debate anywhere, so I (unofficially) typed out the interchange of interest, the beginning of Part 3 titled: Fairytale Versus Faith. I’ll be right back after these messages.
Moderator: Pastor Mark, if God is a loving God, why would he create Satan?
Driscoll: I think he created angels and people, and He gave us the capacity to have free will. For there to be virtue, there must be the possibility of vice. And that’s what distinguishes those of us, people and angels, from other forms of creation: trees, animals and the like. We have volitional will, we have consciousness, we have moral decision-making. And so God didn’t create evil, God didn’t create injustice or tyranny or oppression. He created free will in angels and people. And Satan and the demons and humans beings have chosen to disobey, to rebel, and that’s the source of the trouble.
Moderator: And so He can create us, and He could create the devil, and we can engage in evil, but He didn’t create that, the results?
Driscoll: No, initially, according to the teaching of the Bible, Satan was an angel. Angels are perfectly good. Those that didn’t rebel, the Bible says that they honor God and they help us and they are spirit beings that assist in God’s purposes on the earth. So Satan started as one of those, and then went astray. And so he walked away from God’s intention for him, he’s a rebel.
Moderator: So why would God allow somebody who’s an avowed enemy of God, to continue to exist? Why doesn’t God just stop it?
Driscoll: Yeah, and the point of the cross of Jesus, according to Colossians 2, is that, on the cross, in dying for our sins, Jesus canceled the right that Satan had to rule over us, to influence our thoughts, to have an effect on our eternity. And that ultimately Jesus is coming back to put a final end to Satan and his work. So we’re in the middle of history, and the Bible says that God works out all things for good, and so ultimately Satan will be ultimately, finally, defeated. Sin and all of its effects will be lifted, and the earth and humanity will be returned back to the state God intended, which was very good.
Moderator: So even though God loves us, He does allow Satan to exist in our lives, tempt us, and make us miserable?
Driscoll: And He also sends Jesus to die for our sins, sends God the Holy Spirit to tell us the truth so we don’t believe [Satan’s] lies, to give us the strength to say no to his temptations. And He allows and enables us to win in the battle we are in spiritually.
Moderator: Why create that choice? Why not just let everything be peaceful?
Driscoll: Well, I think if you don’t allow choice, the theologians will say you don’t have love. That love requires volition, and that God does not want automatons, He wants persons. And so the argument is made that if God were not allowing choice, then you wouldn’t have evil, but you would also not have love.
I understand that on a stage like this, quick-fire answers are the norm and must be addressed to a general audience. And again, the emphasis on the final defeat of Satan by Lord Jesus is unmistakable and commendable. But I think his answers at this crucial point are weak. Driscoll serves the conservative bread-and-butter explanation behind the Why? “For there to be virtue, there must be the possibility of vice.” Men must be able to choose. True “love requires volition.” “[I]f God were not allowing choice, then you wouldn’t have evil, but you would also not have love.” After that last statement, much of the crowd erupted with clapping and cheering. We are not automatons, and “theologians” suggest this gives God greater glory.
I think there are two severe, biblical problems with that answer: man showed no virtue with his choosing ability, and also, man’s love for God, even at its best, is no great demonstration of love.
Man Showed No Virtue with His Choice
Driscoll–and I’m really only picking on him because the Face-Off was recent and seen by so many, as well as because I think his answer does represent the majority position–put forward that there can be no virtue where there is no, at least possibility of, vice.
Let’s grant that proposition for the sake of argument. God created the first man, Adam, placed him in a paradisiacal garden, and prohibited him from only one thing: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:17). As the story goes, Satan lures Eve through a serpent, she bites, and gave to her husband and he ate. With his “choice,” man disobeyed. It’s worse than that, actually.
Man rebelled. Adam intentionally defied the only prohibition given to him.
Man ran. When the LORD God came to fellowship with man, Adam took his wife and hid. He attempted to conceal himself from God. (Genesis 3:8-10)
Man rationalized. Not only did Adam fail to answer God’s questions directly, he blamed the woman and God who gave him the woman. (Genesis 3:12)
Man didn’t even repent. After disobeying and beginning to experience the negative effects, you’d think Adam would have anxiously confessed and pleaded for God’s mercy and forgiveness. He did nothing of the sort.
So my question is, where is this great virtue that man displays with his choosing ability? God showed patience with Adam and pursued him rather than push him away. Though He does punish the man, God also makes preparations to redeem him. God does not wait for us to cry out to Him, because we won’t. Even Adam, pre-fall and pre-sin nature, failed to show any virtuous choosing.
The answer to “Why [did God] create that choice?” cannot be to show something noble about man.
Man’s Love for God is No Great Demonstration of Love
Driscoll states that “if God were not allowing choice, then you wouldn’t have evil, but you would not have love.” I think I agree with what he said, but not with what he meant. What he meant was that robots, if they could “love,” would love because they were programmed to do so, not because they wanted to. If love is going to mean something, it has to mean something to the one loving. Robots carry out a task; they do not care. Who wants affection-less, android love?
But let’s say that Adam didn’t eat from the fruit of the tree, that he recognized his sweet deal: a gorgeous, God-given, perfect partner, the opportunity to steward and rule the planet, a fantastic home, daily, face-to-face fellowship with his Maker, and only one restriction. What degree of love would Adam demonstrate by loving the One who gave him all that? Isn’t that the gist of Satan’s accusations toward Job? “Of course he’ll love You! You’ve given him everything he could ever want!” (Job 1:9-11) It is no surprise when men love those who love them (Matthew 5:43-48), nor is it a wonder that much love comes from those forgiven from many sins (Luke 7:41-47). Besides, why wouldn’t Adam–or we–love the infinitely lovely anyway? I agree that the Genesis 3 story is about love. God writes Satan and evil into the script for the sake of love. But it is not love from man, it is love for man that is the climax. The fall is all about love. However, here’s the point:
That’s what Paul wrote in Romans.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Read the whole chapter and see how Paul parallels Adam and Christ. Full demonstration of God’s holy love and the riches of His glorious grace are the reason He endures vessels of wrath. His love is the infinitely eminent love, proven by His initiating sacrifice.
Greater love has no man than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. (John 15:13-14)
If Satan and evil and vice exist so that man has choice, and then can choose virtue and love, then that plan failed miserably. Man chose–and we by nature keep choosing–sin. And even if we had chosen obedience, our love for the most worthy-to-be-loved Being in the universe would be no awe-inspiring thing. Again, the answer to “Why [did God] create that choice?” cannot be to show off something about man’s love. What is amazing and glorious and worth singing about for eternity is that amazing love that bled for Adam’s helpless, unlovely, rebellious race. Rather than trying to defend God by asserting man’s ability for virtue and love, we should settle our feet in the stirrups of a God-centered worldview that enables us to ride through life hating sin and Satan, yet never wavering in confidence (and even celebration) that God is in control over the rough terrain.
 Even the customarily (constructively?) critical Steve Camp couldn’t keep from gushing about the whole thing.  Though Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, He was not capable of sin. In His case, impeccability does not diminish His virtue, it accentuates it.  I’m totally channeling Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World here. Please read that.  Though, Satan is fully culpable for his actions as God’s curse on him demonstrates (Genesis 3:14-15. The same principle applies to Pharoah (Romans 9:14-23) and Judas (Matthew 26:34).
What a strange calamity. A modern, seemingly well-engineered bridge in a major metropolitan area collapsed in a moment without any forewarning of danger.
Something similar could happen to any of us anytime. Similar things do happen to us or people just like us–innocent bystanders passing through life are suddenly blindsided by some weird tragedy.
So where is God when seemingly pointless calamity strikes?
The question is constructive, but only if we answer it from the Bible. For example, Job thought God was in control when he was suddenly blindsided by calamity (loss of all his livestock and property) and tragedy (all of his children killed by a windstorm). Not only did Job understand God’s sovereignty, he worshiped the LORD and criticized his wife for her unwillingness to receive evil from God, even when his own health was taken without warning. Although Job had no clue of the purpose of this calamity, his response was not to question God’s control or His character.
Yet Olson criticizes John Piper (without using his name) for stating that God was in control of the bridge collapse. According to Olson, if God is in control of bad things, God’s character must be bad. For God’s character to be good, every bad thing must be out of God’s control. So Olson asks and answers,
But what if God limits himself so that much of what happens in the world is due to human finitude and fallenness? What if God is in charge but not in control? What if God wishes that things could be otherwise and someday will make all things perfect?
In this world, because of our ignorance and sinfulness, really bad things sometimes happen and people do really evil and wicked things. Not because God secretly plans and prods them, but because God has said to fallen, sinful people, “OK, not my will then, but thine be done–for now.”
How about when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery? There is no doubt about the finitude and fallenness of his brothers. Their act was really evil and wicked. But God was not constrained by their sinfulness, and Joseph knew God was in control and trusted God’s character. The whole reason Joseph didn’t kill his brothers in retaliation (to their self-confessed transgression) was because he understood that what [they meant for evil against him, God meant for good. Joseph wasn’t waiting for God’s will to be done later; he recognized sovereignty at work all along.
Somehow Olson expects that what will make us feel better about the bridge collapse and other calamities is to consider that God can sometimes help and that He willingly spends time on the bench for sake of the team.
God says, “Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray; that’s one of my self-limitations. I don’t want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world.”
I can promise you that if “making this a better world” depends on me, we’re in trouble. I have neither the inherent wisdom, power, or care to improve anything on this planet. What’s worse is that Olson says God doesn’t either. And even though God reveals Himself as sovereign over every historical and redemptive event, Olson concludes,
The God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.
The God of Olson scares me for Olson’s sake because I’m not sure how to distinguish his position from disbelief and/or defiance. God is not out of control, Olson is.
When Phil Johnson taught on Spurgeon at the 07SR he referenced some of Spurgeon’s contentions regarding Calvinism. I thought it would be helpful for some of our youth staff and students to get a better grasp on what Calvinism really is, so I began a brief series entitled “God Saves Sinners” during our Sunday morning meetings (see the end of this post for links to that material). We are more than halfway through and I thought now would be as good a time as any to suggest some additional resources for those interested in studying Calvinism on their own.
Phil did a seminar at this year’s Shepherds’ Conference that he’s turned into a blog series titled, “Why I Am a Calvinist.” This particular post has links to a one message mp3 he preached on “The Story of Calvinism” and a 600+ page Word document on Calvinism that is near the top of his recommended reading list.
The Five Points of Calvinism, by Steele, Thomas, and Quinn. I’d recommend the newest version that has an updated typeface and some additional articles in the back. If you are going to buy just one book, this is the standard.
The Sovereignty of God, by A.W. Pink. You can also read this book online, or print it out for free, though it is worth having on your bookshelves–after you’ve read it, of course.
The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, by Loraine Boettner. Likewise, you can read this online.
If iPod listening is your thing, I wholeheartedly recommend:
UPDATED [August 20, 2009]: These are messages I preached at the 2009 Faith Bible Church Reformation Conference. In 2008 they asked me to preach on the five points of Calvinism. These are follow up messages. I titled the series: We Are Not Our Own: The Implications of Calvinism, driven by this quote from Calvin in his Institutes:
We are God’s: let us therefore live for Him and die for Him. We are God’s: let His wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward Him as our only lawful goal. (3.7.1)
The audio for each session is available if you’re interested.