Here’s todays email: “Hello, Pastor John. My name is Eli, I’m 21, and I’m from Philly. I have a question concerning God’s sovereignty. In the Bible, it seems like a couple times we read where God makes someone sin for the benefit of his chosen people — for example, in Exodus 7:1–5, where we see God telling Moses and Aaron, ‘I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.” And Romans 9:18 affirms it by saying, ‘So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.’
I’ve spoken to many Christian brothers, even ones who are far older than I am, who seem to disagree with me time and time again that God can, in fact, make someone sin, judge them for it, and still be a righteous, good God. What I get from those conversations is that they are ultimately questioning God just as Job did — that it’s not about whether God can do it or not; it’s whether they (created humans) feel like it’s right or not for God (our Creator) to do such things with us (his creation). So can God in fact make someone sin, judge them for it, and still be a righteous, just, and good God?”
The words that we use to describe God’s causality, his causing in relation to evil, make a really big difference in how people hear and respond to what the Bible teaches. Words don’t make the final difference, but they do matter. Other things can hinder people from agreeing with what the Bible teaches besides just words. But words matter. And the reason they matter is that they carry associations and connotations that may be different from person to person.
Why Words Matter
So we need to try to use words that carry as much truth of the Bible as possible and minimize the false connotations and associations that may rise in people’s minds when they hear the word. Now that is an impossible task, ultimately. You can’t make people hear what you intend if they have all kinds of associations with the necessary words that you don’t intend. You can’t make it happen. But we should at least try, which is why we are so dependent on the Holy Spirit in the communication of biblical truth — one of the reasons why.
Now when I say all of that, I am thinking about the phrase “Can God, in fact, make someone sin?” The word make probably for many people carries the connotation “force someone to act against his will” or “turn someone into a robot so that it is not really they who are sinning but God.” Now both of those associations or connotations to the word make sin are false. So if I say that God makes someone sin and those connotations are what they hear, they have to reject what I say. They have to. They would be right to. That is what they think I mean. Their rejection would mean that God does not force anyone to sin against his will. And they would be right. Or it would mean that God does not turn anyone into a robot so that their sinning is not theirs but God’s. And they would be right.
We need to find words that express the truth that Eli is seeing — he is really seeing something in the Bible — and avoid, if we can, words that carry those false connotations. Maybe we can’t; maybe we can. We should at least try. If people want to put meaning on our words or in our mouths that we don’t intend, we can’t stop them. But we can at least try to be as clear as possible.
So instead of “make people sin,” what if I said, “God governs all things in this world, and even sin is not outside his control”? Would I get the same response? Maybe; maybe not. Or what if I said, “God rules the world and everything that happens in it”? Or what if I said, “God foresees all that will come, and he can stop anything he pleases from happening, or he can permit it to happen. And if he stops it or permits it, he thus controls whether it happens” — what if I talked like that? I think I am saying what Eli wants to say, and I think if that is what he wants to say, he is right.
And clearly in all of this, human accountability in the Bible is affirmed and sustained, and therefore, God is righteous to judge all sin either in Christ or in hell.
Five Glimpses of God’s Sovereignty
Now what do I base that on? Let me just give a few texts.
1. God works all things according to his will.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11)
So God works all things according to the counsel of his will.
2. God governs Satan.
The Bible teaches that Satan is the cause of many sins. But Satan is not ultimately out of God’s control. He operates only by permission from God. Therefore, God can always restrain Satan, put limits on Satan, to any degree he pleases. And therefore, God governs what Satan does.
See Job 1:12 and 2:6. See Jesus’s prediction of Peter’s denials in Luke 22:31–32.
3. God superintends good through suffering.
When Joseph’s brothers in the Old Testament sold him into slavery, they sinned. Both Genesis and Psalms teach that this was planned and ordained and brought about by God. It says in Psalm 105:17, “[God] had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” God sent him. That was what happened when he was sold as a slave.
And Joseph himself describes the event in Genesis 50:20 when he says, “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” He doesn’t say, “God used it for good.” They had a meaning. It was an evil meaning. God had a meaning. It was a good meaning. And he brought about salvation for the people of God and the redemption that would one day come through the seed.
So, yes, God was in on, controlling, governing, bringing about what happened there.
4. God turns hearts.
When they were in Egypt, the psalmist says (this is, perhaps, the most blatant statement of all of what Eli is saying), “[God] turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants” (Psalm 105:25). This is a strong statement of God’s sovereignty. And we should receive it and assume that God can do that without removing the real willing and real responsibility of the Egyptians in sinning against Israel.
5. God executes predestined plans.
This is the most important, because it relates to the gospel. I don’t think it is possible, consistently, to believe in the gospel if you reject that God can bring about his will by sins of people that he governs, because it says in Acts 4:27–28, “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.”
So Herod’s mockery and purple cloak; Pilate’s expedient accession to the will of the mob; Israel’s plotting and envy and cry to crucify him; and the soldier’s crown of thorns, scoffing, and gambling — all of it was sin. And all of it was planned, ruled, ordained, and scripted ahead of time by God. “Whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” took place at Calvary.
So I agree with what Eli means. God governs all sins. And people are responsible for those sins that they commit. It is they who will them and commit them, and God is righteous to judge them. And at the heart of this truth is the gospel of Jesus bearing the sins of all who trust him. And there would be no glorious gospel of God without this glorious sovereignty of God.