Does God ‘Cause’ Sin?

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on how to talk about God's sovereignty over sin.

Read Part 1, "Does God Author Sin? "

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The following is from The Doctrine of God, Chapter 9, “The Problem of Evil,” by John Frame. The headings are added; the paragraphs are Dr. Frame’s.

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,”1 though in context he also states that Adam’s Fall was “not without God’s knowledge and ordination.”2 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.3

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.4

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.”5 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.6

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.7

1 Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: James Clarke and Co., 1961), 122.

2 Ibid., 121.

3 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.

4 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.

5 Calvin, op. cit., 181.

6 Ibid., 124.

7 Calvin, ICR 3.22.11. Compare 3.23.1.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.