Does God Permit Sin?

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on how to talk about God's sovereignty over 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.

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.1

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.2 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.3 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.

  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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?