This is part 1 of a 4-part series on how to talk about God's sovereignty over sin.
In his last three sermons, John Piper has made some provocative statements about God’s sovereignty over sin.
- August 12: “God created [Satan and his demons] knowing what they would become and how, in that very evil role, they would glorify Christ. Knowing everything they would become, God created them for the glory of Christ.”
- August 19: “God is sovereign over Satan, and therefore Satan’s will does not move without God’s permission. And therefore every move of Satan is part of God’s overall purpose and plan.”
- August 26: “[E]verything that exists—including evil—is ordained by an infinitely holy and all-wise God to make the glory of Christ shine more brightly. . . . Adam’s sin and the fall of the human race with him into sin and misery did not take God off guard and is part of his overarching plan to display the fullness of the glory of Jesus Christ.”
Desiring God has received a batch of emails in response—some more heated than others!—questioning (or outright disagreeing with) God’s sovereignty over sin.
We’ve found that John Frame provides some significant help on how to talk about God’s sovereignty over sin. Dr. Frame and P&R Publishing have graciously given us permission to quote his Doctrine of God at length. The excerpts below (and in the next 3 parts of this series) are not available elsewhere on the web. If you get some help here, we’d highly recommend purchasing The Doctrine of God.
* * *
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.
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.
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.